Tag-Archive for ◊ nature ◊

• Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Helen Simonson was born in Slough, Berkshire in 1964 and spent her teenage years in a small village near Rye in East Sussex, England. She graduated from the London School of Economics where she met her future American husband. She worked as a travel advertising executive and completed a masters degree in creative writing from Stony Brook Southampton, New York.

She has lived in the Washington D.C. Area and Brooklyn, New York, for over twenty years with her husband and two sons.

Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, published in 2010, became a New York Times bestseller and was translated and published in several countries. Her second novel, The Summer Before The War, will be published in 2016.

Edgecombe St Mary is a small village in the English countryside in East Sussex where the two main characters live. Major Ernest Pettigrew, the sixty-eight year old widower, who lost his wife six years earlier, leads a peaceful life in his rural rose-covered cottage called Rose Lodge with a beautiful climbing clematis, the envy of his neighbours. And the good-looking Pakistani widow, ten years his junior, Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the village shopkeeper who runs the business with her nephew, Abdul Wahid. Jasmina was born in Cambridge and has been bred by her learned, Anglophile father.

The story starts with the Major still in a daze after the shock following a phone call at dawn from his sister-in-law, announcing his younger brother Bertie’s death from a massive heart attack. Soon after, he answers the door-bell to find Mrs Ali who has come for the newspaper money because the paper-boy is sick. Still feeling the loss of his brother deeply, the major’s knees give way and he is about to faint but Mrs Ali props him up, takes him indoors and sits him down before fetching some water and making him tea.

Major Pettigrew is a conservative, sardonic, well-mannered gentleman who likes to live by his principles. He was born in Lahore and lived in colonial India as a child and is now a retired British Army officer who lives alone. He was happily married to his wife, Nancy, and late in life they had their only son, Roger, who was spoilt by his mother to his father’s discontent. Roger, now in his thirties, works in finance and lives in London. Throughout the novel, the author underlines the major’s disapproval of his insufferably brash son’s lack of respect, tact and bad behaviour.

There is a great cultural divide between the major and his son. The major likes to read classical English authors like Joseph Kipling, John Keats and William Wordsworth. He is a pragmatic person, values traditions, correctness and righteousness. Unlike his father, Roger is an uncultured, manipulative, superficial person, ruthlessly self-seeking, a social-climber who is always attracted to novelties and fashion in all domains. He wants his father to get rid of his beloved books in order to make room for an up-to-date wide-screen television.

The major is sentimental about what he considers his heritage, the valuable pair of heirloom antique guns which were given to his father by a maharajah as a reward for an act of bravery for saving the maharajah’s latest and youngest wife from a train full of murdering thugs. The major’s father, on his death bed, divided the prized Churchill guns between his two sons on the understanding that the two guns were to be reunited when one of the sons died. When Bertie passes away, the major is faced with the greed of his sister-in-law, Marjorie, his niece, Jemima, and his son Roger all wanting to sell the pair of guns and enjoy the money regardless of what the major feels or thinks.

Solid friendship between the major and Mrs Ali flourishes through sharing the same things, like the loss of their respective beloved spouses, their disobliging, bigoted families despite different ethnicity, their love of nature, their passion for literature, especially the works of Samuel Johnson, Joseph Kipling and others. They also have in common a sense of duty as well as being proud, polite and courteous.

The major and Mrs Ali surprise themselves by discovering that their hearts have no wrinkles, they can still feel passion and fall in love again regardless of their advanced age, different experiences in life, different cultural backgrounds and religion. All these elements constitute no barrier to common shared interests, mutual attraction and love.

Helen Simonson undertook a fair amount of research into the Pakistani community in England, the Indian Mughal Empire, shot guns and duck shooting. As for the fictitious towns of Edgecombe St. Mary and Hazelbourne-on-the-Sea, they are a combination of places that the author “knows and loves”.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a well written novel with well depicted, realistic, rich characters where women are portrayed as emancipated, strong, determined characters such as Mrs Jasmina Ali, Mrs Rasool, and Roger’s American fiancée, Sandy.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an endearingly captivating story underlining the differences between the old and the new generation. Despite the humour one cannot help noticing the blatant fanaticism, veiled racism and the insidious link between money and corruption and how money can deteriorate, divide and destroy families. There is also the romantic story between the two protagonists with the assertion that authentic love transcends all obstacles and all ages so long as one is being true to oneself and because as long as there is life, there is hope.

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• Sunday, November 01st, 2015

Gerbrand Bakker was born in 1962 in Wieringerwaard, Holland. He studied Dutch language and worked as a subtitler for nature films on Dutch television for several years as well as a skating instructor during the winter before becoming an accredited gardener in 2006. Bakker says that writing and gardening complement each other.

Bakker’s first novel, The Twin, was published in 2006 and won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His second novel, June, was published in 2009. The Detour, Bakker’s third novel, won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and was published in Dutch in 2010 and in English in 2012.

The Detour is the story of a middle-aged Dutch woman who calls herself Emilie. On what seems a sudden impulse, she rents a farmhouse in a remote area of North Wales, leaving everything behind in Amsterdam – all her worries, her husband and both her parents without telling anybody about her whereabouts.

Emilie, who only took the farmhouse on rental and is not likely to remain in it for long nor had the intention to and despite been given short notice from the agency to leave in a matter of a few days, is nevertheless working hard to embellish the wild and desolate garden and surroundings. She also purchases a Christmas tree as well as a television set. In her endeavour, she is trying to bury her past by finding peace and comfort physically and mentally as a therapeutic pass time.

Emilie spends her days gardening, walking, admiring the far away sea and nature around her, observing an aggressive badger who sneaks out of his den and bites her foot. She puzzles about the flock of white geese in her yard which were ten when she arrived but keep on disappearing one after another, she tries to save them from what she thinks might be a fox, but fails. Their curious disappearance will never be solved like other inexplicable mysteries in the story.

Emilie’s solitary confinement comes to an end when Bradwen, a young Welsh man from the area, who is mapping a walking trail across the country and across Emilie’s farm yard, gets injured near Emilie’s farm. She offers him shelter but he ends up staying with her longer than the expected one night. Bradwen will prove to be a good companion, being taciturn like her. He will also prove to be a good help around the house and the garden. A certain understanding combined with a tender relationship creates a bond between them.

The story moves back and forth between Emilie’s new life in Wales and her husband Rutger’s life in Amsterdam. Rutger is baffled by his wife’s unexpected disappearance and seeks the help of a detective to trace her whereabouts. Once located, the husband with the help of a policeman who arrested him earlier for setting Emilie’s university office on fire out of anger and who meantime became his friend, both set sail and go on Emilie’s trail.

The reader unravels Emilie’s enigmatic world slowly, but not fully, in little strokes by half-said words, through meditations and several reminiscences. We discover that Emilie is a lecturer at the university and that she is preparing a thesis on the nineteenth century reclusive American poet Emily Dickinson. We also assume that she has an unhappy marriage.

Seeking anonymity in her escape and wanting to put an end to any past connection and create a vacuum by keeping her distance with everybody, she borrows the name of Emilie from the poet Emily Dickinson that she had a sort of love hate feeling towards and looked upon in disdain in spite of being aware of similarities in character between the poet and herself. The author throughout the novel draws the similitude between the two Emilies.

The reader also discovers that the story’s main protagonist fled Holland after the university scandal as a result of having an affair with a student which ended her academic career. Additionally, she seems to be suffering from an undisclosed, incurable disease. After receiving a card from her husband telling her he is on his way to fetch her, the message hastens her final, inevitable decision before her husband’s arrival. At the abrupt end of this haunting story we learn, for the first time, from Rutger that his wife’s real name is Agnes.

The detour is also a tribute to nature which is a prominent character in this well written, slow-paced and yet gripping novel. The author, being a gardener by profession, features the beauty of nature in what remains an overall gloomy atmosphere. He describes the part of North Wales – he said he visited a number of times – in great detail. The idyllic Welsh wildlife, the surrounding trees, the plants, the green hills, Mount Snowdon and the varying climate, not forgetting the animals, being part of nature.

Emilie who is clearly grieving over her past life and over her deteriorating state of health, is a tormented soul seeking an impossible, unattainable peace within herself, forgetting that it’s impossible to escape from oneself by fleeing. Instead of confronting her problems with some pragmatism, she stages an inevitable, abrupt, harsh ending to her life. The sombre atmospheric setting of The Detour is like Emily Dickinson’s poems – it’s about Life, Love, Nature. Time and Eternity as well as Death.

The title of the novel implies that Emilie is taking a detour maybe in order to be isolated among the beautifully remote Welsh nature or perhaps to enjoy her own company away from everything and before her final and ineluctable destination or perhaps destiny. Bakker has definitely left his reader to draw his/her own conclusion.