Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Wanting by Richard Flanagan

Was this going to be another one of those books about the aboriginies of Tasmania? We've read Secret River and The English Passenger and didn't need more of the same. Wanting was promoted as something quite different: a novel to "show how the colonized and the home territories are inextricably linked."

The two strands run side by side in the novel. Mathina, a young orphaned aboriginal girl, is adopted by Lady Jane Franklin who seeks to experiment with civilizing the natives. She never gets close to the child but appears to be achieving her aim of civilising – but not educating – her when unexpectedly the child's natural desires break out. Unfortunately so do those of her husband, Sir John Franklin.

Sir John had been the governor of Tasmania, still living on his reputation as an arctic explorer. Finally expelled from his post he journeyed once more into the arctic where he disappeared. Back in England Lady Jane tries her best to rescue his reputation – and her own – by exonerating him from the slur of cannibalism. And to do this she employs the help of Charles Dickens.

Mathina was cast out before the Franklins left Tasmania and let us just say that her life thereafter was all downhill. Her story mirrors the plight of the natives and the dramatic irony of the tale – and the true story - was that the savages were more humane and civilized that the Westerners that chose to subjugate and civilize them.

This aspect is personified in the character of Dickens far away in civilized England. He champions family life in his books and in his outward persona but is not happy with his lot. He has fame, he has family. The first he relishes, the second he finds disappointing and eventually betrays.

It seems to me that Flanagan said to himself: I can't write yet another one of those books about the aboriginies of Tasmania. What can I do to give it a new twist? I know, think of a well known character and link them in some way. And up he came with Dickens and desire. But the result feels contrived. The two stories do not sit comfortably together; although the form is cleverly constructed it is a clumsy concept.

Flanagan is quite obviously a good writer and it is an easy book to read because it is deceptively well written. Like the curate's egg, it is good in parts. When Mathina's desire finally gets the better of her and she dances as she feels, the writing is as passionate as the act. The same could be said of the desire that Dickens finally succumbs to. In fact the groupies found the part about Dickens so interesting they thought it deserved to be enlarged as a stand-alone book.

Those who had read Flanagan's other books and loved them were perhaps disappointed and this coloured their criticism. But none of us enjoyed the novel for various reasons. No-one was drawn to any of the characters in the book. None would recommend it. And yes, the part concerning Mathina was yet another one of those books about the aboriginies of Tasmania. And a pretty depressing one at that.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Garden in Spring

The snowdrops have faded and the daffodils about to burst. Both of them late this year owing to the snow. And in between times aconites, hellebores in all their glory, iris and crocus have flowered. Violets and pulmonaria have sneaked in between them and now the tiniest little blue gentian has flowered in the gravel drive under the oak tree. A glorious abundance of colour.

The shrubs have not been quite so quick off the mark: walking up on the wooded hills at Emmetts, the National Trust garden in Kent, rhododendron and azaleas are in wonderful colour and I can only imagine in such gardens at Exbury in Hampshire, or Stourhead in Wiltshire, the display of these dramatic shrubs must be coming into their peak.

In my garden, less acidic, the wonderfully scented pink flowered viburnum bodnantense and the winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima, are in bloom. The first flowers on the bare wood and, although leaf is a wonderful clothier, one can really appreciate the flowers when they are not disguised with green. The honeysuckle is actually an evergreen – but it is such a straggling, poorly leafed bush in the winter that you could be forgiven for thinking it deciduous. But the scent! And both are hardy – they have to be in my frost pocket.

This is the time of year that I look at my borders and think they are empty. Some sign of life is there: the odd shoot, the occasional leaf, the first inkling of a mound of something. I must mulch and quick. Keep down the weeds now and warm up the soil with a blanket of compost and, you never know, the plants might be the victors. Leave it another few weeks and I'll have a fight on my hands; the weeds will win.

Lately, on a freezing day, I spent a happy couple of hours online planning my vegetables. What a list I've ordered! I can see them now all growing in glorious technicolour, looking like all those beautiful potagers we see in magazines. Oh yes, I'm good at the planning. Great at imagining. It’s the growing and the looking after I'm not so hot on.

So it's only the foolproof I grow – the ones that don't take too much TLC. Nothing too precious. Courgettes of course. Perpetual spinach with the addition of ruby chard this year - I fancy a bit of colour; cut and come again lettuce; beans; tomatoes - preferably the bush variety that needs no care and attention - herbs; pumpkin and squash. Best Beloved has cracked leeks, so they are on the list. And I have heard the golden beetroot is delicious so I'm having a go at that.

And, yes, I am still struggling on with my asparagus bed. Every year it is threatened with annihilation but every year it gets a reprieve. How come everyone else has asparagus coming out of their ears and I am still only producing enough for a monk on a diet? Mind you, Freddie was caught in the act - eating the spears just as they surfaced. Thought he had found the perfect grass (for medical purposes of course) for a quick nibble. Chicken wire over the top should put paid to that little trick. Any tips (excuse the pun) gratefully received.

Now I only have to make sure that I plant them in time, rotate as I should, remember to water and hope the summer brings forth fruit or, in this case, veg. Vegetable gardening for me really is a case of hope over experience.