Archive for the Category ◊ Book Reviews ◊

• Friday, March 23rd, 2018

Maria Duenas was born in Puertollano, Spain in 1964. She is a doctor of English philology, a professor at the University of Murcia, has worked at various universities in North America and has published several academic articles. Duenas has also taken part in numerous educational, cultural and editorial projects. She lives in Cartagena, Spain.

After twenty years of being an academic, Duenas decided to do something else. She says: “’I’ve always been a good reader, I’ve always been involved in the world of language, how it works and I have always had a very vivid imagination, so I decided to put those three things together”.

She became well-known in 2009 in her native Spain because of her first spy book, The Time In Between, which has won numerous literary awards. Maria Duenas has published three novels to date. Her first novel: The Time In Between, was published in 2009. Her second successful book: The Heart Has Its Reasons was published in Spanish in 2012 and in English in 2014 and has won the Madrid Culture Award for Literature. Both her novels have been best sellers and have been translated into several languages. Her third novel: La Templanza was published in 2015.

The story of The Heart Has Its Reasons starts in September 1999 with the bewildered, heartbroken, Blanca Perea, a forty-five-year-old accomplished professor, who has worked for fourteen years at a Madrid university. She has been happily married for twenty-five years to Alberto and has two independent grown-up sons from him. Suddenly her life seems to come to an end when her husband abandons her for a younger woman who is carrying his child.

Distressed and overwhelmed by her husband’s perfidy, it takes Blanca two months to try to attune to her harsh reality. She now has one thing in mind, to escape her troubled life as well as everything around her and anything that reminds her of her previous settled marital life. Somewhere where she doesn’t know a soul and no one knows her.

Hastily, Blanca accepts a temporary research grant, financed by a mysterious private foundation called SAPAM at the small California University of Santa Cecilia, a small town north of San Francisco. It is an ungratifying job, poorly paid, for people with lower professional status than her PhD degree. Blanca’s new post consists of the compilation and classification of the archives belonging to the eminent, exiled Spanish professor, Andrés Fontana, who died thirty years back in 1969 in a car accident at the age of fifty-seven.

After introducing her story, the author takes the reader through two interconnected stories involving three characters; the story of Blanca Perea and the charismatic professor, Daniel Carter, in the present and the story of Andrés Fontana and his bright pupil, Daniel Carter, through flashbacks from the past.

The protagonist, Blanca Perea, is living a hard time trying to recover from the shock of her divorce while attempting to rebuild a new life for herself. Daniel Carter is a successful university scholar who wants to revive the legacy of his late Spanish professor and mentor, Andrés Fontana, by having all his work about the Spanish Franciscan monks classified and updated by Perea and by helping her with his valuable knowledge about Fontana.

As for professor Andrés Fontana, his character, as well as his ventures are revealed, owing to the notes he left behind and to the several analepses revealing his particular interest in the last of these missions, which he called Mission Olvido and whose track seems to have been lost.
In her novel, the author pays tribute to all the teachers who suffered exile because of the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorial, military regime of General Franco. The exiled Spaniards were welcomed by the USA and were allowed to pursue their careers in their adopted country. Duenas also pays tribute to the Franciscan missionaries and in particular to the Spanish Franciscan friar, José Altimira from Mission San Francisco de Assisi, who founded the Mission San Francisco de Solano in Sonoma in 1823. There is also a mention about El Camino Real – the royal road – the historical trail that linked California’s Spanish missions.

The Heart Has Its Reasons is a composite, rich story with several plot twists. It is well documented, with historical events from the nineteenth century about the Spanish Christian missions. Then it moves to the twentieth century with General Franco’s autocratic regime, along with life in Spain in the fifties and sixties, including the exiled, little-known, Spanish writer, Ramon J. Sender, the subject of Daniel Carter’s thesis.

While digging into the distant past through her work, Blanca Perea discovers the imagined Spain by her exiled and migrant compatriots. By searching into Andrés Fontana’s papers, helped by Daniel Carter and going through all the past and present secrets, intrigues and deceits around her, Blanca surprisingly finds herself more able to face her insurmountable problems with more clarity.

The story underlines the cultural differences between Spain (the old continent) and the USA (the new world). The author depicts a subtle, endearing Blanca Perea as a modern woman who refuses apathy and fights to conquer the adversities that life inflicts on her. Maria Duenas emphasises the tenacity of human nature which is capable of a new start after a significant loss by reinventing itself by moving forward. This idea is expressed in Carter’s speech at the Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Carter and Perea’s friend, the university’s secretary, Rebecca Cullen, another bruised soul by a deceitful former husband.

Carter uses as a reference to his speech, Rebecca’s favourite song, Gracias A La Vida sung by Joan Baez. He says the lyrics, “give thanks to everything that helps us be happy on a daily basis. The eyes to see the stars, the alphabet to compose beautiful words, the feet to roam through cities and puddles and all those daily activities that some no longer have, and those of us who do should feel immensely grateful for. Because sometimes, even if the going gets tough, in the end, we always have those small things.”.

• Saturday, February 24th, 2018

The British writer, Penelope Lively, was born, Penelope Low in Cairo, Egypt in 1933. Her father, Roger Low, worked as a bank manager at the National Bank of Egypt and her mother was a housewife. At the age of twelve, when her parents divorced in 1945, Lively was sent to a boarding school in Sussex.

After obtaining her school certificate, Lively’s father moved her to a crammer followed by St. Anne’s College, Oxford to study modern history, where she graduated in 1954. Lively met her future husband, Jack Lively, at Oxford and in less than a year they were wed. Their marriage produced two children, lasted forty-one years and ended with the death of the academician, Jack Lively, in 1998.

Penelope Lively is a prolific writer; she has written children’s fiction, adult novels, three autobiographical books and a collection of short stories. She also writes frequently for several British national newspapers: The Sunday Times, The Observer and the Times Educational Supplement. She has also written radio and television scripts and has been the presenter of a BBC Radio Four children’s literature programme.

She has won the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread Children’s Book Award, the Booker Prize for fiction and the Southern Arts Literature Prize. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a member of PEN and the Society of Authors. Penelope Lively was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1989, was made a Commander of the British Empire in 2001 and Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2012. She lives in North London.

How It All Began, published in 2011, is Lively’s twenty-second novel, it is narrated by the central character, Charlotte Rainsford, an old-age pensioner in her late seventies, a widow and a former English literature teacher. After her retirement, she becomes an adult literacy educator on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“It all began” with a flying start on the fourteenth of April when Charlotte was mugged in London. Her banker cards, sixty pounds in cash and her house-keys were in her handbag which was snatched from her arm. It all happened very fast while Charlotte was walking down the street, causing her to fall and leaving her with a broken hip. This event triggers many others in a crescendo, thwarting seven people’s lives.

It affects the middle-aged Rose, who has to temporarily accommodate her mother and look after her until she recovers from her accident and becomes autonomous again. Consequently, Rose won’t be able to travel to Manchester with her employer, the seventy-six-year-old historian academic, Lord Henry Peters, who has to give a speech about eighteenth-century politics at a Manchester University annual event. Having a lecture by a visitor of distinction is an event much anticipated by the university.

Rose is replaced by Lord Peters’ niece, Marion, an interior designer, who will accompany her uncle to Manchester. Marion sends a message to inform her lover, Jeremy Dalton, about her unexpected trip. Jeremy’s wife, the emotionally unstable Stella, will by chance see the text message on her husband’s mobile phone, realises his adultery and asks for a divorce.

Lord Peters who, through the years, has been relying entirely on Rose, forgets to take his lecture notes to Manchester or ask his niece to bring them and when called to the lectern, finds that his memory fails him. He is unable to remember any of the notes he had prepared so meticulously for this event about eighteenth-century politics, which is his speciality. An embarrassingly catastrophic situation for such an egocentric, self-admiring academic in front of the distinguished university audience.

During the university lunch, Marion makes the acquaintance of George Harrington, who works in a financial institution and invests his money in properties which he buys to let. He entrusts Marion to decorate one of his apartments. Victim of the recession added to the bankruptcy and imprisonment of her client, George Harrington, Marion is broke. She has to sell her house and move out of London to pay her debts to the bank.

Charlotte who is recovering in her daughter Rose’s and her son-in-law, Gerry Donovan’s house, is receiving one of her students, the East European economic migrant, Anton, every week. Anton works on a building site and comes for private lessons to improve his English reading and speaking skills in the hope of finding an accountancy job – his profession back home.

Rose and Anton, who are introduced by Charlotte, develop a secret warm-hearted relationship that contrasts with Rose’s dull life with her husband, Gerry. The outings with Anton don’t go beyond coffees at Starbucks, helping him find the right presents for his mother or having walks in London parks.

Due to her accident, Charlotte is reluctantly house-bound, which allows her to reflect upon her past life as well as her present one with wisdom on hindsight, acknowledging her current frailty and wretchedness due to her old age. The twilight years bring with them aches and pains, nonetheless carry some pleasurable little compensations in the way of a reward.

Charlotte is most probably the embodiment of the aged author who also, similar to her protagonist, considers reading as an essential part of her daily routine and no doubt has to put-up with the unpleasantness that old age inflicts.

An engaging story deftly written, sardonically witty and without frills, portraying a lively array of different contrasting, colourful, perfectly woven characters and their reaction to the happenstance primarily created by one occurrence; a completely unknown person to them, namely: Charlotte’s mugger.

The novel is humorous in parts, warm-hearted and reflective in others with a befittingly well wrapped-up ending despite the author saying: “An ending is an artificial device; we like endings – they are satisfying, convenient (…) But time does not end, and stories march in step with time (…) These stories do not end, but they spin away from one another, each on its own course”. Lives that fleetingly barge into each other before moving apart from one another.