This 1998 novel by Wayne Johnston is an epic exploration of the life of Joe Smallwood, the Prime Minister of Newfoundland who steered his country into confederation with Canada in the 40s. The story is told from his point of view and shows how he rose from difficult beginnings to a position where he could ‘do something great’. He is an outsider for most of his life so strives to make his mark and gain recognition and validation.
He crosses paths with Sheilagh Fielding at the private school from which he is unjustly expelled. Her career as a journalist means she is both ally and combatant in his life. In the novel she provides us with the external view of a complicated man.
In many ways, Smallwood and Newfoundland are similar. Both feel inferior to others and long to be accepted. The campaign to join Canada is a difficult one for many people but Smallwood sees this as Newfoundland’s opportunity to make a mark in the world. Fielding is an acerbic character providing the reader with the antidote to Smallwood’s determination and optimism. Her waspish contributions to journalism punctuate the book.
It is a long book that maintains interest over its 500 pages by always exploring the humanity behind the historical decisions. ‘The Colony of Unrequited Dreams’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This Spanish film from director Alberto Rodriguez is set as the country emerges from the Franco regime. The significance of this is seen through the background of one of the police officers investigating a murder in the marshlands of the title. A journalist following the story remembers his actions from the time of Franco and warns the officer’s partner about him. Both police officers have stories from their past that follow them around and they make every effort to keep them hidden as they follow the case.
The film itself follows the usual pattern of police officers sent to a backwater to solve a crime. The closed community, while distressed at the murders and abduction of young women, is not ready to welcome or trust outsiders. What emerges as the case is investigated is the unhappiness of families trying to make a living in the poor region of the Spanish south. Any chance to get away is seized upon, making young women, in particular, easy targets for preying men.
The strength of the film, apart from his moody quality, is its exploration of the moral ambiguity of police enforcers continuing in work having been on the payroll of oppressive regimes. The fact that it is a Franco enforcer who makes a breakthrough in the case poses difficult questions. The resolution of the case does not bring about a resolution between the two officers with the final scene leaving things open to viewer interpretation.
‘Marshland’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This autobiographical novel is from young French novelist Edouard Louis. It tells the hard hitting story of growing up as an outsider in poor circumstances in northern France. Young Edouard knows he is different; the signs are in the reactions to him from everyone else. Edouard is an effeminate ten year old boy when we first meet him. His persona annoys his peer group and worries his parents.
His childhood is a story of learning that survival will depend heavily on regulating how he comes across. What is surprising, and moving, is that the boy does not blame others for their reactions to him. He accepts as normal that his manner and his attitudes (and later his sexuality) place him very low on life’s hierarchy. At the top are the physically tough, his father and cousins among them. These are the men who dominate his village. Hard physical jobs just to survive turn out tough, physical men whose attitudes to, and treatment of, women are shocking. Their view of effeminate boys is equally as clear cut.
There is a sense of triumph to the book, if only because the relating of the childhood experiences suggest survival, if nothing else. Escape to the city must have provided the author with a second act where he was validated. How else would he have written a book that despite its grim subject is written with such beauty?
‘The End of Eddy’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This children’s novel by Jill Paton Walsh from 1988 is a wonderful evocation of what it is like to be dislocated as a child. James is new to the Fens, having moved with his parents because of their jobs. He finds himself as the outsider in a village where the children divide themselves neatly into ‘estate’ and ‘village’. As he belongs to neither group, James feels even more alone. It is a good job, then, that the old man next door is so interesting.
Mr Samson, the ‘gaffer’ of the title, is a widower who befriends the young boy providing him with someone to talk to. Such inter-generational friendships may now be threatened but in times past the wisdom of an older person could be passed on. Jill Paton Walsh captures well this friendship across the age gap.
James gets thrown together with Angey, another school outsider. The situation doesn’t help his case for being accepted but, when he goes on a mission for the gaffer, she is a useful ally.
Things come to a head when the gang mentality threatens James and Angey and he finds himself trying to help an ailing Mr Samson while standing up to bullies.
The novel explores themes of belonging, bullying, age and facing death all within a story of a boy in a village in the East of England. The book won the prestigious Smarties Prize and should, by now, qualify for classic status. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This film with the title ‘Apres le Sud’ in the original French is an interesting study of four people each facing a personal crisis. The setting is the South of France in what seems to be a heatwave. Directed by Jean- Jacques Jauffret, the 2011 film plays with time so that when things unfold we pass moments that we have already witnessed. What makes it all the more interesting is the way the characters cross paths with each other as their personal stories unfold.
Amelie is a young woman with a holiday job at the supermarket. She urgently needs to speak to her boyfriend, Luigi, but tracking him down is hard and when he appears, she cannot be released from her work. He has his own issues as his father is harsh with him and he wants to return to his mother in Italy. He is unaware that the news Amelie has for him could change his decision about leaving.
Amelie’s mother has her own concerns and leaves for another city telling her daughter she is visiting a relative overnight. Instead, she goes to a clinic that could help with her weight problem. Georges is the fourth character we follow. He is a retired man who relies on public transport to go to the local supermarket. Quite lonely, but not without reason, he listens to classical music and fights off the irritation of teenagers playing football against his garage door.
As you would expect on such a hot day, everyone moves slowly and the camera lingers over small details so that there is a documentary feel at times.
When the paths cross in a final tragic scene, earlier scenes fall into place and the layers built up by the director come together. It is an accomplished film. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I loved this novel by Francis Spufford. I knew of the author because of his non- fiction work, especially ‘The Boy That Books Built’. I was not sure what to expect from his first work of fiction but I was bowled over by the balance of fun and seriousness. The book had a lot of exposure on publication and it has done well on the literary prize front but, best of all, it was a book that made me smile… many times.
A young man from London called Mr Smith arrives in the New York of 1746 with a letter or a ‘bill of exchange’ entitling him to a large sum of money. There are 60 days for the Manhattan bank to honour the bill, written by a banking house in London. The owners of the bank are suspicious and demand assurances before they will pay out, especially as the young man in front of them does not fit their idea of what a rich young nobleman should look like.
The story follows the ups and downs of Mr Smith as he waits for the 60 days to pass and for the assurances the bank seeks to arrive from London. In the manner of an 18th Century novel the young man goes through many adventures, telling us many things about the society of New York at that time. Slavery, sexuality, politics and class prejudices are all themes explored by following the immigrant from London make his way on Manhattan island. The title refers to the location of the banking house in New York.
The best thing about the book is that the author keeps us guessing, right up to the end. We are not privy to the reasons for Mr Smith’s arrival or answers to the question of what he will do with the money when, or if, it is granted. There are clues, I realised once I had finished, but the impetus to keep reading is strong. The ‘answer’ when it comes is both serious and satisfying and places the comedy in sharp relief.
‘Golden Hill’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This terrific novel by Helen Dunmore reminded me so much of ‘The Railway Children’ although it is adults who take centre stage in this story of the fall- out from espionage in 50s Britain. It is an ‘ordinary’ family that suffers when things go wrong for the husband; his wife and three children have to pick up the pieces and live with the consequences of public exposure.
Simon Callington is a man trying to escape his past but whose friendships threaten his new life with his wife and children in a comfortable corner of London. In particular, his past association with Giles causes him trouble. They were lovers when Simon was a student with Giles, as the older man, enjoying the patronage he can bestow. They have moved on but the friendship continues… and when Giles presumes on this friendship it starts a chain of events that lead to disgrace.
Lily, Simon’s wife, has already made a new start in life when her mother brought her from Germany to England and safety in an earlier era. Lily knows what it is like to start again with nothing. She did not think this would be her fate twice in her life.
Simon, Lily and Giles all feature prominently in a novel which reminds us of 50s attitudes to outsiders. The paranoia around cold war spying adds another dimension to the suffering of one family. As the novel moves towards its end, I was reminded again of the connection with ‘The Railway Children’ and I hoped for that dramatic moment (from the film at least) of a father being reunited with his children. Life is rarely so neat and tidy, though.
Acting with integrity and honour is an important theme in the book. Simon’s past has not been shared with his wife and the effect on her and his children is central in his thinking as he faces disgrace. Lily is the most impressive figure here, her determination to survive and to shield her son and daughters from the shame. 1950s Britain fares less well; the sense of who can and should belong in our society is one of the less admirable features of that era.
‘Exposure’ by Helen Dunmore is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?