Tag-Archive for ◊ Red ◊

• Saturday, January 30th, 2016

Joanne Michèle Sylvie Harris was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire in 1964 to an English father and a French mother. Both her parents taught modern languages and literature at a local grammar school. Harris was educated at Wakefield Girls’ High School, Barnsley Sixth Form College and St Catharine’s College, Cambridge where she studied modern and medieval languages.

After training as a teacher at Sheffield University, she taught modern languages at Leeds Grammar School, an independent boy’s school in Yorkshire, for fifteen years and at Sheffield University. She was awarded honorary doctorates in literature from the University of Huddersfield and the University of Sheffield and was also made an Honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.

Joanne Harris is an acclaimed writer. She has written several books among which some were dedicated to gastronomical pleasure. She has received numerous awards and her books have been translated into several languages and published in many countries. In 2013 she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List and she is a patron of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation.

Joanne Harris lives with her husband in a little wood in Yorkshire and dedicates her time to writing books as a means of living. In an interview she says that she has always written since she was a child.

Harris’s French relatives live in Brittany. Her grandfather had a beach house on an island off southern Brittany which looked just like the island of Le Devin in Coastliners. Coastliners was published in 2002 in English and in 2005 in French.

The narrator of Coastliners is called Madeleine but everybody calls her by her nickname, Mado. She is a Parisian painter specialised in seascapes due to her attachment to her native island. She is always trying to recapture the images that remain in her mind from the past and to appease her longing to return home to les Salants. Les Salants is a small island off Noirmoutier near Le Devin. It’s an imaginery island close to the coast of France. Mado goes back in order to care for her aging father, GrosJean Prasteau, a former boat-builder and a silent, depressed and withdrawn man who is haunted and psychologically blocked by an old guilt concerning the accidental death of his beloved brother. Mado returns with the will to reconcile with him after so many years of estrangement. She wants to start a new relationship with her father in the hope of gaining his approval and love.

After ten years spent with her now deceased mother in Paris, Mado, now a young woman, discovers upon her return home that nothing has changed on the island since her absence. The two rival clans, the Houssins and the Salannais still hold ancestral hatreds against each other. She takes upon herself to improve the life of the poverty-striken Salanais by saving les Salants from the destructive sea, caused in part by natural causes and in part by the Houssins.

The Houssins live at the other end of the island. The powerfully rich local entrepreneur Houssin, Claude Brismand, owns the ferry that transports tourists from the mainland to Le Devin. He erected the costly breakwater in order to shelter la Houssinière from sea erosion and to control the lucrative tourism through the island’s only beach, thus allowing the tides to flood Les Salants and leave the fatalist as well as superstitious Salanais to fight for their own survival.

Mado sets a secret plan to help the fishing community in her village with the help of the young attractive, enigmatic Irishman, Richard Flynn, by building a rudimentary barrier with sand bags and old tyres to redirect the tides away from Les Salants. Mado has in mind to make Les Salants a touristic, prosperous holiday resort and fight the ruthless manipulator and machiavellian Claude Brismand, who has a hidden, evil plan to dispossess the land and properties of the poor Salanais and own Les Salants himself.

Richard Flynn is an outsider who has been accepted by the Salanais as one of them and who everybody in the village calls, Rouget, because of his red hair. He presents himself to Mado “with an ironic flourish” as a “philosopher, builder, sculptor, welder, fisherman, handyman, weatherman…”

The story of Coastliners underlines how small villages are forgotten by bigger communities and have to fight for themselves and unite in times of adversity. To achieve their goal, they were missing the help of an energetic tenacious leader, like the persuasive Mado. She comes to their rescue and never loses hope despite hardships to carry her people through tough times. She endeavours to pull the villagers out of their lethargy, passiveness, in-grained superstitious and ancient rituals toward their patron, St. Marine-de-la-mer. One of their beliefs is that if you kiss the feet of St. Marine-de-la-mer and spit three times, something that you have lost will come back to you. Their maxim is:“everything returns”.

The story also portrays the rivalries, jealousy and betrayal between Mado and her older married sister, Adrienne, as well as the great deceit when Mado by chance discovers the secret relationship between Flynn and Brismand who were plotting against her father’s interests on one side and her sister and her husband Marin Brismand, the nephew and heir of the same Claude Brismand, on the other side. In her novel the author emphasizes how the yearning for material possessions prevails over family ties, love and values.

Coastliners is the battle of good versus evil. The story is slow paced but the plot picks up and mysteries and twists are revealed at the end of the novel. Despite the numerous characters and their complicated relationships, the story is uncomplicated. The author describes charmingly and with her flowing prose an accurate and lively portrayal of the islanders who are still living as in the old days, oblivious to the passage of time, modern life and what’s happening in the world. Reading Coastliners is like embarking on a voyage out of time.

• Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

Maggie O’Farrell was born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland in 1972 but grew up in Wales and Scotland. She worked as a teacher, art administrator, as a journalist in Hong Kong and a Deputy Literary Editor of The Independent On Sunday newspaper. Presently she works as a full time novelist.

O’Farrell has written six novels thus far. Her first: After You’d Gone, published in 2000, won her the Betty Trask Award in 2001. For her third: The Distance Between Us, published in 2004, she won the 2005 Somerset Maugham Award. As for her fifth novel: The Hand That First Held Mine, published in 2010, she won the Costa Book Awards. O’Farrell’s latest novel: Instructions For A Heatwave, was published in 2013. She lives in Edinburgh with her novelist husband, William Sutcliffe and their two children.

The Hand That First Held Mine is the story of two women, two destinies at two different epochs which are skilfully intertwined by the author. In the fifties, the rebellious, twenty-one-year graduate, Alexandra Sinclair, leaves home in Devon, England to experience a new life in central London, following a chance meeting with Innes Kent, the ebulliently charming thirty-four-year old art dealer, journalist, critic and self-confessed hedonist.

Under Innes Kent’s love and guidance, the young, impetuous Alexandra becomes the newly emancipated, Lexie and experiences for the first time working with Innes and other journalists in the offices of “Elsewhere”, the avant-garde magazine, as well as having an early taste of bohemian life in Soho. The clever, motivated, Lexie will quickly learn to appreciate art and to become a successful art critic and reporter.

Lexie is in love with Innes and decides to live with him in his apartment following his insistence. They are happy together, the only blemish being Innes’s estranged wife, the opportunist, Gloria and her submissive young daughter, Margot. Later in the story, after Kent’s untimely death, mother and daughter in unison take their revenge on Lexie and her son Theo. Margot will marry Felix, the journalist, who is Lexie’s colleague as well as occasional lover and Theo’s father.

Margot’s revenge continues after Lexie’s premature death, when little Theo comes to live with his father, Felix and herself. Margot – who was unable to have children – changes the child’s name from Theo to Ted and pretends to be his real mother. Margot and her mother Gloria keep the family’s secret tightly hidden from him. Felix, being a weak character accepts to go along with their wicked deceit. This will create Ted’s instability and torment as an adult, especially when he himself becomes a father.

A generation later, the thirty-one-year-old Elina Vilkuna, a Finnish painter, is recovering from a traumatic first childbirth by cesarian which nearly killed her and is about to destroy her relationship with her thirty-five-year old boyfriend – and father of her newly born Jonah – the film editor, Ted, who has been behaving oddly ever since.

Following her release from hospital with her newly born son, Jonah, Elina feels bewildered. She appears to have lost all memory of her dreadful delivery and seems to be living in a world of make believe. She makes the effort of trying to recall what happened and can remember in little strokes, like when her red scarf falls, it reminds her of the “jets of blood…in the scrubbed white of the room”.

As Elina is starting to emerge slowly from her amnesia and state of lethargy, Ted’s childhood is returning to him frequently now, in a blurred, handicapping form. He is having an awakening of his long-buried subconscious and is desperately looking for a guiding hand as a beacon to shed some light on all these inexplicably shadowy areas from his infancy which don’t correspond to the stories that “his mother”, Margot, told him.

Being predisposed to hypnotic periods, there are gaps in Ted’s memory. There are many old memories that contradict his other childhood and he is under the impression of having lived two childhoods. There are things he wants to remember but is unable to. He recalls some scenes from the past, a few puzzling flashbacks, like the first outlines on a canvas, he needs to complete the painting, which is difficult with lots of mysteries left unanswered by his parents.

Feeling guilty after his son’s deep depression and collapse, Felix reveals the whole secret story to Elina. He confesses his culpability and remorse and asks her to mediate between him and his son in order for his son to forgive him for concealing the truth from him for all these years.

The two stories run in alternating chapters between Lexie and Elina, without being connected at first, but towards the end the author, with a twist, thanks to her skilful magic wand, makes them converge into one without any exertion but with extreme intensity, compassion and sensitivity.

The Hand That First Held Mine is about the destructive power of the unspoken among members of the same family and the impact on people’s life due to the loss of a family member. The power of the past in re-modelling the present and transcending it, as well as the gratification and richness that parenthood brings to a mother and a father but also how the birth of a first child can change everything in one’s life. It is also about a mother’s deep love and sacrifices – Lexie and Elina are two ambitious career women who try to re-adapt after being jolted to so many responsibilities with their first new-born.

In one of her interviews, Maggie O’Farrell says: “I was interested in writing about new motherhood … the shock and the emotion and exhaustion of it … which I haven’t read much about in fiction”. She also says she couldn’t have written this novel had she not experienced motherhood herself. This exact feeling is described in the novel at the time Lexie knew she was drowning: “She didn’t think in that moment of herself, of her parents, her siblings, of Innes, the life she left behind when she stepped into the waves … As the waves thrust her under, she could think only of Theo” her beloved son that she won’t experience the pleasure of seeing growing up.

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