‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ Made Awesome in Six Easy Steps

It isn’t difficult to imagine why Jane Austen would want to satirise a novel like The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is, despite its fine romantic imagery, the huge role it played in defining the Gothic novel and Mrs Radcliffe’s general awesomeness as a successful female novelist in nineteenth century England, a rather silly book. Its characters are tiresome cardboard cut-outs in the habit of spontaneously composing perfectly-structured poetry, which they sometimes recite (mercifully when alone); its plot is engaging, then thrilling, then utterly flat; and the author often doesn’t seem able to make up her mind as to whether she’s writing a novel, a treatise on the Sublime, or what Lady Bracknell would call ‘a three [four?] volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality.’

Her Ladyship has determined that the task of reviewing this valuable, important, harmlessly fun and unappealingly preposterous book is far too large and complicated an assignment. She shall therefore undertake to suggest a few changes that might have made it a more entertaining read. Most of these would probably be unacceptable in nineteenth century society, would no doubt have seen the author excommunicated and forced into hiding, and will not take into account that Udolpho’s ridiculousness is entirely deliberate and appropriate to the genre at that time, but what matter? Her Ladyship is simply amusing herself.

Let us begin with a brief introduction to the characters most relevant to this little project.

Emily St Aubert: the novel’s protagonist. A sugary sweet, good as gold, virtuous, righteous, honourable, helpless little princess (not literally) with the constitution of a butterfly; overly fond of fainting and of trying to be rational.  She does, mercifully, have a strong but not overpowering spunk about her that prevents her from being utterly unbearable and even leads us to admire her every now and again, particularly in her confrontations with Signor Montoni .

Artwork by Three Panel Book Review on tumblr.

Artwork by Three Panel Book Review on tumblr.

Monsieur St Aubert: Emily’s father. Jean-Jacques Rousseau without the sulking.

Valancourt: Emily’s fiancé; the stereotypical passionate young lover. Self-pitying, narcissistic, eminently punchable, spends most of his time making Emily lose consciousness and feel dreadful about herself. He’s also good, then bad, then good, then not-so-bad-after-all, then good, and is simply not worth the trouble of puzzling it all out.

Madame Montoni: Emily’s aunt. Mrs Reed from Jane Eyre, only inclined to greed instead of jealousy (not that she’s without that either).

Signor Montoni: Madame Montoni’s husband, the novel’s villain. The most bearable character in the entire book, he is only rendered so by not possessing a jot of the golden virtue that most of the other characters possess ad nauseum. Callous, cruel, amoral, dissolute, brooding and greedy: stereotypical gothic bad guy.

Count Morano: Montoni’s friend; the embodiment of every bad thing the English have ever thought about Italians (lustful, overly-passionate, can’t take no for an answer, blah blah blah).

Udolpho not being the most popular book in the universe, we shall now take a look at a bland and poorly-written introduction to plot points relevant to our purposes:

Emily lives happily in Gascony with her parents; Emily’s mother dies; Emily’s father takes her on a tour by coach to the Languedoc and the Pyrenees; they run into Valancourt on the road; Valancourt and Emily fall in love on the road; Emily’s father dies on the road; Emily is put into the care of her heinous aunt Madame Montoni, who says that she can’t marry Valancourt, then that she can, and then that she can’t; Emily is taken away to Italy by Madame Montoni and her creepy husband Signor Montoni, who has an equally-creepy castle in the Apennines called Udolpho; they settle in Venice, where Emily meets Montoni’s dishonourable friend Count Morano; Count Morano never stops trying to get into Emily’s pants; Montoni tries to marry Emily to Count Morano, Emily refuses, Emily is told she will be forced to marry Count Morano; on the morning of the wedding, Montoni unexpectedly takes Emily and Madame Montoni away to Udolpho.

Artwork by zen_parvez-d5trhut

Artwork by zen_parvez-d5trhut

Udolpho turns out to be a terrifying edifice where supernatural things go bump in the night; Montoni turns out to be a bit of a jerk who is trying to force Emily’s aunt to give her fortune to him instead of Emily when she dies; Madame Montoni refuses to sign over her fortune; Montoni finds time, between his commission of various grievous crimes including getting drunk with his friends, associating with bandits and carousing with ladies of the night, to employ a number of cruel and unpleasant means to get his wife to succumb; Emily spends most of her time crying, fainting, wishing Valancourt would rescue her, and interceding with Montoni on her aunt’s behalf when the old lady has been nothing but a bitch to her; and…well. Her Ladyship does not intend to summarise the entire book.

Let us begin.

The Mysteries of Udolpho made awesome in six easy steps

Make Emily edgy.

Make her a more flawed version of Elizabeth Bennett; or make her someone who seems perfect, but is hiding something, or running from something; or if she absolutely has to be a stereotype, make her a tomboy. It’s a less annoying stereotype than that of the princess.

tree-climbing-woman-girl-Favim.com-474740

Cut down on the random poetry recitals.

Yes, making characters spontaneously write poems in their heads is a very original idea, but unless your characters are literary geniuses, oral poets, or from Middle Earth, it’s not realistic, and doesn’t even make us want it to be realistic.

Make Emily think about escaping Udolpho on her own steam.

Sure, it’s difficult to do any kind of spontaneous running when you’re trapped in a castle on a mountain. It’s not difficult to find out all you can about the surrounding country, or to know when the guard is changed, how many guards there are per watch, what routes they take, what weapons they carry, which ones are drunks, which ones are idiots, which ones fall asleep on duty (hey! I’m sounding like Arya Stark!). Even if it’s just the thought of bribing someone, stop all this waiting for Valancourt or Ludovico (the novel’s stereotypical Italian servant) bullshit and let the girl use her brain. Better still, let her try to run away. It’s a stupid idea without the aforementioned preparation, but at least she’d be rendered a little less pathetic.

Make Emily see Valancourt for the self-obsessed little creep he really is.

Valancourt’s strategy, both in a fight and out of it, is to blame Emily for absolutely everything and then to use a diabolical kind of reverse psychology and paint himself in the worst possible light. This inevitably makes Emily feel awful, start crying and not want to lose him, and while we can certainly give her the credit of not yielding to most of his entreaties, she kind of spoils things by making it clear that she wants to. Then there’s the way that he talks to her, expresses his love for her and woos her, which is so disgustingly sentimental that even your standard male participant in a medieval courtly love relationship would find it either hilarious or distasteful.

If you absolutely have to pair Emily with someone, pair her with Montoni.

Turn it into an ‘irresistible chemistry between cruel older man and innocent young girl’ thing. And, if you want to be really original, don’t make her reform him or discover that ‘deep down he’s vulnerable and just wants to be loved,’ or anything like that. Keep him bad, and keep her good and virtuous, but unable to help herself: the sort of thing that Angela Carter does in The Bloody Chamber. For one thing, the sheer raciness of the idea would make the entire novel a thousand times more entertaining, and would provide a lot more opportunity for character development in Emily, i.e. she’ll have a choice between staying in a destructive relationship, or taking charge and walking away.

Yes, she’s in a castle in the middle of nowhere, but can’t we just pretend?

Make the ghosts real.

living-with-ghosts

Or at least make us unsure that they’re not. A ghost story that provides rational explanations for every thrillingly creepy incident (albeit at the end, so it’s not that bad) is just plain disappointing. The triumph of reason is a very sensible and very noble literary theme, but in a gothic novel? It doesn’t really work unless it’s cathartic in some way, and though ghosts are laid to rest by the novel’s end, we aren’t seized by any kind of emotion or catharsis, because the author decides to devote a chapter to explaining everything. This would be fine if it was done through the mouths of the novel’s characters. What we get instead is an utterly-emotionless step-by-step provision of reasons why none of the shit going down is actually supernatural. It’s both yawnable and disappointing.

That being said, Her Ladyship has now adequately amused herself and is retiring for the night. I would say something to the tune of ‘Farewell, dear reader,’ but that would just be irritating.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: Book Review

Her Ladyship commits the not-uncommon indiscretion of reading Wolf Hall after Bring Up The Bodies, and begins to think, as she does sometimes.

Though Hilary Mantel’s publishers do her the great disservice of plastering the back cover and spine of her masterpiece with recommendations from two ludicrous sources who know less about literature than Sherlock Holmes on a good day (Kate Mosse and The Daily Mail); there is absolutely nothing else wrong with Wolf Hall. While Bring Up The Bodies resembles a hard, tightened fist, and a stunning, plummeting fall (or rise); Wolf Hall is like the hilly country of an open hand. It leads us on a merry chase across the years; racing ahead and occasionally doubling back on itself in its mercurial, yet impeccably-controlled portrayal of the rise to power of Henry VIII’s formidable First Minister, Thomas Cromwell.

Like its illustrious successor, Wolf Hall is sparse, but sprawling; sparse in its descriptions of externals, and sprawling in its characterisation; relying on reader imagination to drape the appropriate characters in silks, velvets, gold and jewels and only taking to the descriptions of such things when they reflect something about the character’s internal state. It is in the vivid representation of this internal state that Mantel’s true genius lies, as she takes us right into the heart of a man largely considered to be one of the cut-glass villains of Henry VIII’s reign and gives him his own voice. It is an extraordinary voice.

A powerful, distinctive and almost compulsively interesting protagonist, Mantel’s Cromwell is one of those characters that you constantly wish you could plonk down somewhere and talk to for hours. He is a man with a string of faces and identities that stem from the multiple countries, languages and cultures he has known from adolescence, yet he is also, firmly, himself; the beautiful, resounding ‘he, Cromwell’: a man in a perpetual state of learning and observing, but with a natural gift for applying that learning to intrigue, organised thought and getting his hands dirty that cannot be taught. He is fiercely well-educated and ruthless, but is just as fiercely human; his humanity not only extending to his family life, but to the way he constantly talks to people as he has had to do all his life; how he takes in, trains and raises up young men from nowhere in every part of his household that can be imagined; taking the time to identify each one’s particular gifts and to prepare them for the day that they may be called out of the kitchen and into the counting house; as he was as a young man. One of the best things about him, especially upon entering Henry VIII’s service, is his refusal to make pretensions at nobility or to claim to be from any other part of society than the one he stems from. He’s used to his descent being constantly ridiculed, but one nevertheless gets the feeling that he’s got a little black book somewhere up his sleeve, along with the knowledge that being a blacksmith’s son doesn’t stop you from ruling the world; even if everyone else is intent on thinking so.

As an author, Mantel has the rare ability to convey great passion, sadness and complexity through minimal, yet beautiful prose; stripping Tudor England down to the raw, violent blackness of its inherent self without accoutrements and without excessive romanticism; dispensing with appearances and leaving us with the truth; the insides; the organs; the blood of its characters and its era. The high quality of the prose works together with the glorious experience of seeing Tudor England through the eyes of such a fascinating and utterly unusual man to create a mesmerising read that draws you in from the very first page and makes it difficult to put Wolf Hall down until you’ve finished it.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Review)

‘Statements, indictments, bills are circulated, shuffled between judges, prosecutors, the Attorney General, the Lord Chancellor’s office; each step in the process clear, logical, and designed to create corpses by due process of law. George Rochford will be tried apart, as a peer; the commoners will be tried first. The order goes to the Tower, ‘Bring Up the bodies.’ Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial.’

Hilary Mantel is one of those rare writers with such an exquisite ability to tell a story in the present tense that you spend most of her narrative blissfully unaware that she’s doing it at all. It is through this remarkable gift that Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall and the second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, achieves everything that present tense writing is supposed to achieve, without all that tedious mucking-about in the suspense-driven, overly-staccato and pointlessly exhausting drivel that usually results when an author tries to do this without having the slightest idea how to do it properly. Mantel makes us live Thomas Cromwell, our extraordinary protagonist, and see things not just from his perspective but from within his consciousness – constantly on our toes, constantly watching, constantly questioning, and constantly doing whatever we must, hour to hour, minute to minute, to cement our position as Henry VIII’s new chief minister during the fall of Anne Boleyn, and to always serve our country well. Our lives often come to resemble an out-of-body experience as we twist and turn and adapt to the characteristics of each person we plot with or against. We are helped along by steering clear of strong emotion; doing this helps us to think clearly; but regrettably, like everyone else, we’re human, and sometimes; not often, but sometimes; cracks start to appear; and disappear just as quickly. And in the midst of all this there is England; a country reeling under the uncertainty of a new faith that is also the uncertainty of an old identity; England that is threatened and England that must be governed. And there is always Henry. He needs to be governed too.

Mantel’s Cromwell has the strongest and most distinctive narrative voice since Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day; a charisma so powerful that it seems to rise off the page, but that is also unassuming and incredibly subtle; the charisma of a listener, not a talker; the charisma of a man observing his world from the inside, but also from the outside; an intelligent, cosmopolitan and multilingual blacksmith’s son in the midst of the aristocracy, who understands his surroundings, but will never succeed in getting his surroundings to understand him.

Through Cromwell’s steady and penetrating gaze, the gorgeous furnishings, costumes and pomp and circumstance of the traditional costume drama are stripped right down to the bone, and we understand, while watching the Boleyns’ fall through Cromwell’s eyes, that this period in history was never really about magnificent houses or beautiful costumes at all; but about the people who lived inside them, and what the landscapes beneath their skin actually looked like. The prose is perfect, the characterisation a work of genius, and the enormous cast of characters prodigiously juggled in a way that makes each pawn in its game distinctive and recognisable. A gorgeous, absorbing novel that fully deserves its Booker Prize, it makes those of us who have not read Wolf Hall want to go out and buy it immediately, and those of us who have to wish fervently that The Mirror and the Light was here already.

A Tribute to David and Leigh Eddings

 

‘On a quiet hillside some distance from the struggle taking place on the north bank, the simpleminded serf boy from the Arendish forest was playing his flute. His melody was mournful, but even in its sadness, it soared to the sky. The boy did not understand the fighting and he had wandered away unnoticed. Now he sat alone on the grassy hillside in the warm, midmorning sunlight with his entire soul pouring out of his flute.

The Malloreon soldier who was creeping up behind him with drawn sword had no ear for music. He did not know – or care – that the song the boy played was the most beautiful song any man had ever heard.

The song ended very suddenly, never to begin again.’

                                                                                                           – David and Leigh Eddings, Enchanter’s Endgame.

It is now almost four years and six years respectively since the deaths of David and Leigh Eddings, the formidably imaginative, articulate and talented husband and wife team (though they preferred the term ‘co-conspirators’) that brought us such great fantasy epics as The Belgariad; The Malloreon; their two prequels; The Tamuli, The Elenium and The Redemption of Althalus. Through a discussion of The Belgariad and The Malloreon, the two works with which she is the most familiar, Her Ladyship pays tribute to the Eddingses’ inestimable contribution to the world of fantasy literature and mourns the gaping hole they have left behind.

Reading The Belgariad and its sequel The Malloreon is an unforgettable imaginative experience; the descriptive style of the writing appealing so vividly to the senses that when crossing the perfectly flat, never-ending grass plains of Algaria, you feel the wind as it hits your face from the force of travelling across all that open space. In the Vale of Aldur, you listen to the silence broken only by the sound of trees, and feel peace wash over your entire being as you comprehend Aldur’s presence in this place. In Riva, you smell rock, the sea and salt; in Cthol Murgos you feel your retinas popping out at the garishness and just plain ugliness of the architecture, and in the swamps of Nyissa, you curse at the humidity and swat at the insects before realising that the whole world is beautiful: ‘you just need to know how to look at it.’

David and Leigh Eddings were the best world builders since Tolkien, and no contemporary fantasy writer has equaled them yet. While their world is every bit as complex as those of Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin, for example, there is none of the exhausting and often exasperating voluminousness of these last two: the Eddingses are capable of expressing what they wish to express in a quarter of the page space that Jordan or GRRM would take, and on top of this, they do it better. National traits, tendencies, industries, likes and dislikes are so well integrated into the story through plot and especially through character that even the most casual Eddings fan will be able to tell you, when asked, that Alorns would chop an enemy in half without blinking an eye but would never dream of poisoning him; that Arends are not to be trusted with anything and I mean anything that would require even a sparkle of brainpower; that one should never ask a Tolnedran for a favour unless you’re willing to pay (a lot); and that trying to keep a secret in Drasnia is completely and utterly impossible. You’re very likely being spied on by spies who are being spied on by other spies. The Eddingses spread this gorgeous complexity across northern and southern hemispheres and an entire world map; each separate kingdom, culture and people completely unique. Who could forget the marble majesty of Mal Zeth, spreading as it does across an entire valley, or the opulent, artificial beauty of Melcena, where even the mountains are manicured? Think of the gorgeous, impossibly huge natural mountain loveliness of Kell, the mournful ruins of Vo Wacune and the towering castle walls of Vo Mimbre. Think of the immense subterranean labyrinth of caves where the Ulgos sing a constant hymn to their God UL, their song reverberating off the walls forever, travelling from one network of caves to the other. These are the Kingdoms of the Alorns and the Angaraks, and their intricacies and subtleties are infinite.

eddings_rivan_codex_2009

It takes impressive characterisation to accomplish such a melting pot of cultures in such a short space of time (well – if you can call twelve books a short space of time), and the Eddingses’ characters are unique in that almost all of them are traditional fantasy types that have been transformed into thinking, feeling, three-dimensional human beings.

Belgarath, the saga’s mighty wizard, is a case in point. Though portrayed in much Eddings cover art to be a cardboard cutout of Gandalf, right down to the white robe, he’s actually a superbly original departure from stereotype. At approximately 7000 years old, he’s past caring about a lot of things. This is exemplified by his continual sporting of an ancient tunic spotted with last century’s grease, which he ties with a bit of rope, and, having been unable to find a single pair of shoes that is adequate to his needs, mismatched boots. He is also partial to large quantities of ale at all hours of the day and night, and to ladies seeking to provide recreation in exchange for money. He’s crotchety, cheeky to kings and peasants alike, and a ruthless, sometimes cruel enemy. On the surface, he’s comical, rude and extremely useful in a tight spot. Only those close to him know of the suicidal depression he suffered after the death of his beloved wife Poledra and how it caused him to initially neglect his twin daughters Polgara and Beldaran, causing him suffering and guilt that persist to this day and that he hopelessly attempts to ignore. The great wizard is thus a human being who suffers like other human beings and loves like them too: he doesn’t waste time hanging around attempting to look wise.

Another feature of the fantasy epic is the light-footed master of humour and sarcasm. Function: comic relief, thievery and fighting. When inserted into one end of the Eddings imaginative machine, this stereotype is spit out at the other end as Silk, whose name should appear on every ‘greatest fantasy character ever’ poll in existence. A Drasnian prince who discovered an early affinity with his kingdom’s national industry (spying), as well as the emptiness of titles and honours, Silk is arguably the greatest spy alive. Capable of changing identity as well as his facial features and voice at a moment’s notice, he can talk himself in and out of any situation and place, cannot be held by any prison for a great length of time (well, there was that one time when we started to get worried); is a master observer (and consequently a great cheat at dice), a deadly fighter, a financial genius (from street level to corporate level) and can blend into any crowd or group of people like a ghost. He also enjoys irritating his friends to distraction (and his enemies to worse) with his biting wit and relentless sarcasm, and has become so confused by the vast number of identities he’s assumed over the years that he often doubts who he actually is. All of this is fairly standard fantasy, and indeed fairly standard fiction, stuff. But like Belgarath, a significant portion of his life has been dominated and marked by tragedies and disasters. Not only is he under the obligation to lie constantly to his mother about the extent of the horrific disfigurement and blindness she suffered during a plague, he also (in The Belgariad) has the misfortune to fall deeply in love with his uncle the King’s young wife Porenn, a fact that is so awfully obvious in his consistently sarcastic behavior towards her that none of his friends can bear to mention it. The scene in which Silk, dead drunk and alone following one of his dreaded visits to his mother, cries like a child in Porenn’s arms, is possibly one of the saddest things ever written. So while Silk may have grown out of a fantasy type, his character is far from stereotypical.

Ce'Nedra artwork by moonstruckmusings on tumblr

Ce’Nedra artwork by moonstruckmusings on tumblr

The sagas’ female characters are also portrayed with great subtlety and allure, the Eddingses poking continual fun at the subservient position they occupy in Alorn and Angarak society by providing us with a stream of powerful women that make some of their male ‘superiors’ (notably the otherwise enlightened King Anheg of Cherek) froth at the mouth at the use of ‘powerful’ and ‘woman’ in the same sentence. There is, of course, the eternally resilient and beloved Aunt Pol, whose renown and power transcends her gender; there’s Porenn, the Queen Mother and Regent of Drasnia, a political genius and of appropriate shrewdness for the ruler of a nation of spies; there’s Cyradis, the fragile young Seeress whose choice will determine the fate of the universe; and of course, Liselle, who possesses equal skills in combat and espionage to Silk and rather charmingly specialises in strangulation. One notices that Liselle is the only one of these formidable ladies who knows her way around a sword, and though others like her exist (like Garion’s cousin Adara), the vast majority of Eddings women find a way to transcend gender roles that do not involve sword play, and stay ordinary women for most of the time. Aunt Pol has lived large sections of her life in a state of permanent domesticity as she guards the bloodline of the Rivan king in obscurity, something that she has come to cherish just as much as the ideals that motivate her in the fight against Torak. Lady Tamazin, one of the wives of the psychopathic Murgo King Taur Urgas, overcame her terror of her husband for one night to be with a person she felt a profound connection with: Silk’s father. And let’s not forget about Ce’Nedra, who liked to scream, cry, go shopping and count money, activities which she briefly suspended to raise an army, wear armour and win a war without fighting in it, before going back to screaming, crying, shopping and counting money. Notwithstanding this rather original approach to feminism in fantasy, which advocates the importance of ordinary people during extraordinary times, Eddings women are also portrayed with astonishing realism and insight as to how women really think and feel, a quality that is considerably lacking in conventional fiction, both at the time The Belgariad and The Malloreon were written, and today. Wikipedia assures us that we have Leigh Eddings to thank for this aspect of the sagas’ narrative strength, which makes me only too happy that her considerable contribution to David Eddings’ work is now being recognised by printing both their names on new editions of their work (though getting photographs of her online is apparently impossible).

The Belgariad, The Malloreon and their two prequels Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress are magnificent and awe-inspiring testaments to the heights to which imagination can soar, to the detail it can acquire and to the way in which great writing can bring a reader into that vision, so that they don’t just see it: they touch it and feel it as well. The many kingdoms of the fantasy genre are somehow smaller without David and Leigh, veering like some huge pendulum between the mythological and the modern. The Eddingses’ works are unique in that they strike a perfect balance between the two. They’re consequently epic beyond description, moving, eccentric, despondent and very, very striking, as much a cinematic experience as a literary one.

god Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens (Book Review)

‘I have been writing this book all my life, and intend to keep writing it,’ says the late great Mr. Hitchens in his afterword, and so defines all that is extraordinary in god Is Not Great’s anti-theism. It’s a book that feels tremendously personal, but that makes a gorgeously passionate and aggressive testimony to our shared humanity. It is also intolerant, and I mean that as a prodigious compliment: intolerant of religion; intolerant of prejudice; intolerant of bullshit in all its forms. It doesn’t take refuge in the constant back-and-forth-and-utterly-boring croquet game of ‘this is just my personal opinion, but –’ that one so often hears among people seeking to avoid a good fight. There is none of the mincing of words and tiptoeing that one can normally hear clattering about in hallways when religious matters are being discussed somewhere nearby. Hitchens’ command of the English language is exquisite, and his demonstrable devotion to knowledge and to truth rivals that of the Enlightenment philosophers that he so deeply respects.

god Is Not Great is subtitled ‘How Religion Poisons Everything,’ and Hitchens goes about proving this in a variety of ways. Following the extraordinary but perfectly logical assertion that religion is man-made and not particularly divine, the first order of business is to utterly destroy the credibility of religions through their Holy Books, as well as through their origins. Hitchens refreshingly refuses to confine himself to the usual deserving suspects (The Old and New Testaments), but also takes on the contents and histories of The Koran (which he professes to be a plagiarised mess) and The Book of Mormon (apparently a complete fabrication by a petty criminal). Using a variety of sacred texts in this way gives the book’s central argument immense strength and succeeds in simultaneously frightening the life out of the reader and making him collapse laughing on multiple occasions at the sheer ineptitude and cobbling-together of nonsense that is now considered divine by billions of people worldwide. The sacred texts act as a kind of epicenter to Hitchens’ argument, which then ripples outwards into a monstrous circle of horrors: the untold misery that religion has caused when the sick and the dying have been indoctrinated to refuse treatment in its name, the blind, often fatal hatred that it causes and the way it has turned potentially decent men and women into guilt-ridden, intellectually-stunted, child-abusing, wife-beating, sexually-repressed, Armageddon-desiring megalomaniacs who believe the entire universe revolves around them and who cheerfully promise eternal hellfire and suffering to people, even young children, who so much as question this preposterous worldview. We learn of the (large) role played by Catholicism in the denouncing and rounding-up of Jews in France during the Second World War, and of the active role played by priests and nuns in ensuring the extermination of Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide. The notion that religion teaches morality is firmly and eloquently thrown out of the window through a masterful and moving discussion of the lives of Martin Luther King Jnr and Abraham Lincoln, and the notion that atheism corrupts receives the same treatment. Hitchens also demonstrates the boundlessness and originality of his magnificent brain in extending the argument that ‘religion poisons everything’ to Eastern religions and philosophies such as Hinduism and Buddhism, which are shown to possess just as many crooks, sadists and murderers as the unpleasant Western counterparts that they’re almost universally believed to be a refuge from.

But god Is Not Great isn’t just a well-written piling-up of the awfulness of religion; and, with rather diderotian logic, Hitchens doesn’t criticise without proposing an alternative. This alternative is secular humanism, the ‘New Enlightenment’ for which he calls in the book’s final chapter. It is the desire for the freedom to inquire and the freedom to be curious; for the freedom to learn, to acquire knowledge and to shake off superstition, to love and to make love to whom we choose and to entertain the possibility of being good people without the influence of a sinister dictator who expects us both to fear him and to love him unconditionally.

The book is beautifully written: scathingly vehement; fiery; passionate; incandescently eloquent; witty; flawlessly reasoned and well-researched, and while a lot of it is motivated by deep, livid anger, hatred and exasperation, all of which are visible in Hitchens’ style and choice of words, it is also motivated by love. This is what makes it all the more extraordinary, and all the more invaluable.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (Book Review)

One of the major criticisms/compliments that reviewers the world over level at The God Delusion is that it’s almost impossible to read it without becoming exasperated at some point. I find this rather baffling. To have one’s views challenged, proven to be wrong, or in my case, supported (for once!) with such eloquence, such zeal, such passion and indeed such compassion is an enlightening and exhilarating experience. While Richard Dawkins makes no bones about his work being both an attack on religion and a concerted effort to make religious people change their minds, one must not forget that there is a considerable slice of the human population who will also benefit enormously by it: the atheist on the street. Who is he? He is not a philosopher or a scientist, and has thought his way into atheism pretty much on his own steam. He has seen the atrocities committed in the name of the God and is incapable of believing in a God that demands such things from his followers. Alternately he has trouble believing that God can exist in a world that’s such a horrible place. He has enough common sense and knows enough about evolution to know that creationism is bullshit, but doesn’t really understand the huge heights that evolution and natural selection can soar to and what they can tell us about humanity; about ourselves. This is the kind of person that will benefit most from this book, because it gives his ideas a true raison d’être. The God Delusion is a glorious hymn to the beauty of our world and of our universe, and a pitiless unmasking of the cronyism, brainwashing, abuse, narrow-mindedness and alarming, pointless cruelty that lies at the very heart of religion and that has a devastatingly negative impact on those who practise it.

The God Delusion is a meticulously well-argued, well-researched and fiercely well-written book that addresses the hugely complex question of whether or not God exists in a rational, objective, crystal clear-cut and mercifully unconfused way. In Dawkins’ long-time experience as an academic, writer and atheist, he has had every possible angle of the opposite side’s case patiently argued with him, obligingly sent to him, screamed at him, thrown at him and scorched onto his retinas in the most awful hate mail one could imagine; and he uses all this to structure a book that covers every aspect one could possibly think of in defence of the Almighty’s existence, debunking every argument from mankind’s need to derive comfort from a higher power, to the absurd belief that religion is linked to morality, curving round to the pettier squabbles of the creationist playground (‘Stalin and Hitler were atheists! What have you got to say about that?’). All of this is accomplished by science, science that pulls off blindfolds, opens windows and lets in the light, science that is responsible for more aspects of human life and behaviour than most of us could imagine in the whole course of our existence. It is also especially important that Dawkins puts forth his astonishingly complex and convincing argument as to the scientific invalidity of God’s existence in the book’s central chapter ‘Why there is almost certainly no God,’ before he proceeds to tear the Bible and then religion in general to shreds; this because the reader is not first blinded by a long discussion of the horrors once perpetrated and that are still perpetrated in religion’s name, of the poisoning of minds, of the ruining of innocence and of the architecture of intolerance. We start with lucid, if impassioned analysis and discussion. We get indignant, horrified and just plain pissed off later on. This way, we first understand why God does not exist. We then understand why the notion should not even be countenanced in any civilised society.

This doesn’t mean that the book constitutes a lot of crazed anti-religious rambling. On the contrary, while Dawkins’ blood does boil at the treatment of women and children in the Bible (as well as all the genocide, infanticide and rape that are par for the course), he expresses great admiration for its more beautiful passages, such as the Song of Songs, declaring that the Bible should not be completely obliterated: we should just read it like the mythology it is. He is also ridiculously well-read in creationist literature and cites such works at length and in context, thus increasing both the strength of his argument as well as its objectivity.

The God Delusion is a great read that resembles waking up: powerful, brave, enlightening, the equivalent of a strong light piercing a general state of fogginess. It’s a brilliant academic work, but the language is clear, concise and moving, making it accessible and enjoyable both to the scientifically challenged and to just plain ordinary people. It’s the kind of book that everyone should read, and that would change the world completely if everybody did.

The Small Hand by Susan Hill (Book Review)

Much like its illustrious predecessor The Woman in Black, Susan Hill’s The Small Hand gives us a rational, mildly religious narrator whose initial spine-chilling experience takes an age to develop into something more horrible as his everyday life and his own reason delay him in delving into what he has experienced. ‘Something more horrible’ then ends in an abrupt sort of deus ex machina that restores calm and normality, before Hill rolls out her horrifying pièce de résistance and we end the novella in a complete panic with our hands over our mouths. Most of these qualities, however effective they were in making The Woman in Black so iconic, tend to turn The Small Hand into a small incidental more admirable for the technical mastery of its narrative than for its ability to shock, the latter being something we can, not unnecessarily, consider indispensable in a novella subtitled A Ghost Story.

It is on his way to pay a visit to a rich client in the country that antique book dealer Adam Snow first encounters the White House, a derelict mansion with an enormous, overgrown garden that bears signs of a glorious past. Drawn to the place by some inexplicable force, Adam soon jumps out of his skin at the feeling of a child’s small, cool hand taking his; a ghostly gesture that seems to have no intention but a benign one; perhaps the greeting of another human being by a spirit long left to itself. Adam recalls the incident with fondness and determines to go back to the White House and to explore its past. That’s before the small hand begins to pull him towards cliff edges and pools, demonstrating an apparently malevolent urge to ensure Adam’s departure from this world through suicide. Add some ghastly nightmares and hallucinations, a brother incarcerated in an asylum for a year and a grand old house that was once the toast of the kingdom, and you have classic Susan Hill dynamite in a little package that can be read in two hours.

Hill is especially good at writing convincingly about ordinary, unexceptional people, and much of this is to do with her highly developed command of narrative voice. In The Small Hand, we’re consequently perfectly convinced that we’re dealing with plain old upper English middle class Adam Snow, antique book dealer. Adam’s attitude to most things is one of habitual restraint, and he doesn’t seem to talk about anything with unabashed enthusiasm except books and libraries, though even these instances are not as marked as they would be in a more extroverted person. He is a man firmly grounded in reason and rather lacking in imagination. This shows itself in controlled, well-expressed, matter-of-fact prose, even at moments of high emotion and accounts for much of Adam’s conduct: his rather calm initial acceptance of the small hand as a thing whose real existence he does not doubt, his delayed rather than immediate supposition that his experience is the result of insanity, and the constant, infuriating way that his acting on this experience is continually delayed and shoved into a corner of his unconscious mind by the most mundane distractions imaginable. A consequence of this is that the novella’s plot takes the length of The Kalevala to develop without there being much in the way of character to fascinate us in between, Adam himself being rather boring, but not so boring that we don’t care what happens to him.

'Deciding to Sink' by Pete B on deviantart.com

‘Deciding to Sink’ by Pete B on deviantart.com

When the plot does finally manage to get going, The Small Hand is shocking and mesmerising, with seemingly unimportant details suddenly assuming great significance. The last part of the novella is like a horserace against the pages themselves, all the suspense that has been building up (and sometimes lacking) exploding in one small, psychological place that could lead to a great variety of paper cuts on the reader’s part. The inevitable final twist is thrilling and brilliant, with Hill never losing control of the narrative poise that she has so often demonstrated.

The Small Hand’s great qualities do not quite succeed in overshadowing the duller sheen of its earlier pages; in making the wait worthwhile. One often feels that Hill requires a lesson from Bram Stoker, or indeed from her earlier self, in the correct way to gradually build up suspense and hold the reader’s interest: it’s not enough to disjointedly imply here and there before dumping a tidal wave on our heads. A more interesting protagonist may have greatly assisted a plot that takes such a long time to unfold; nevertheless, it’s an exquisitely well-written book that is very well characterised and in many ways, particularly its last part, shows a consummate knowledge of how to portray a classic ghost novel plot that fools a reader into believing they’re reading it for the first time.