A. S. Byatt: Possession (review)


‘She held his time, she contained his past and his future, both now cramped together, with such ferocity and such gentleness /…/’. (p. 287)

It seems that my go-to theme when talking about A.S. Byatt is that I’m afraid that she is so much more clever and well-read than me that I will not be able to understand her books. I hope this will change now when I’ve not only read two of her books, one of these being Possession, her most well-known work which also won the 1990 Booker Prize – but actually really liked them both.
And there’s absolutely nothing to dislike about Possession. A young literary scholar, Roland Michell, discovers two hidden and unfinished love letters by the great Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. But there’s something different about these poems. They have a completely other feel to them than what Ash normally wrote and so, Roland is intrigued. He snatches the poems from London Library and starts investigating who they were written to.
This turns into quite the literary mystery hunt – during which he is joined by the Christabel LaMotte scholar Maud Bailey when it turns out that the poems were written to Christabel. But no one knew that Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash had a relationship – especially since Randolph Ash were (happily) married. As Roland and Maud dig deeper, they discover a beautiful, albeit very tragic, love story about two people who supplemented each other perfectly and fell in love through letters, yet could never be together.
Of course, Christabel and Randolph’s love story is somewhat paralleled by the contemporary story of Roland and Maud although the stories are vastly different even though Roland and Maud do their best to follow in the footsteps of Christabel and Randolph.
To make this novel even more impressive, Byatt has written the letters between Randolph and Christabel as well poems written by both poets. These poems and letters are convincing and have no contemporary feel to them. They felt so real, in fact, that I had to google to make sure that Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte were not in fact real people. It is such a convincing story that Byatt has written.
Now, of course no story is complete without a villain and in this book, it is a American Randolph Ash scholar who will stop at absolutely nothing to get what he wants. He wants everything that Ash ever owned to be in his or his university’s possession – and he does whatever it takes to achieve that. Academic life is definitely not always boring and predictable!
A character not to be forgotten in this novel, is Ellen Ash, Randolph Ash’s wife – although it seems easy to do, given you have two couples and two love stories, and she’s not a part in either. She shows herself fully towards the end and is just such a fascinating person, especially when we see what lengths she was willing to go to to protect her husband’s heritage and to protect him.
I absolutely loved this book. I was intrigued from beginning to end and just wanted to know what had happened between these two poets, what happened with their letters and why Christabel’s female roommate (or lesbian lover) committed suicide.
Add to this all the interesting thoughts on scholarship, especially the kind of scholarship that centers on just one person. What happens with a scholar who spends his entire life and career focused on the words and thoughts of one famous person? Does he just becomes a filter through which we experience another man’s life? Does his life loose all intrinsic worth and only gain importance through his scholarship? Does he become possessed by the poet in some ways, like Byatt at one point talks about Ash being possessed by Christabel as like a deamon? It’s fascinating to ponder – also the length scholars are willing to go to gain that piece of new knowledge that will not only ensure their career for life but also, maybe even more importantly, satisfy their curiosity.
This is definitely one of those books that shows you how good literature can be. Interesting and fascinating at the same time as it’s clever and intellectual. Extremely well-written and dealing with deep themes like feminism, Victorian poetry, academic scholarship, love. It was an absolute joy to read and I can only – again – regret that I didn’t read this one sooner. It is a book I can see myself rereading many times and because of the depths of it, enjoy it more and more with each reread.

First lines: The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or rather protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow.

  • Title: Possession
  • Author: A. S. Byatt
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • Year: 1991
  • Pages: 511 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

Related post:

Virginia Woolf: Orlando (review)

18839 I have owned Orlando for years and been wanting to read it for even more years but Virginia Woolf is a bit intimidating to me. Even after having read – and really liked – To the Lighthouse, I still find her a difficult author to read. But since Orlando is so short, I thought it would be a rather quick read and decided to bring it and read it on our summer holiday. Well, I was wrong about it being a quick read but I was right to bring it with me on holiday because I have quite a bit of time to read when we’re on holiday and this book just needs that you give it some time. At least it does for me. It’s one of those books that forces you to read slower to grasp it all. Not only is it written in a way that makes you go more slowly, my edition also came with a lot of notes that I had to read because they – or at least most of them – actually added to my understanding of the novel. And add to this that I took quite a bit of notes while reading this, of course it will take several days to read these less than 300 pages.
Now who is this Orlando? Orlando is a young man born during the reign of Elisabeth 1. Or at least he is a young man for the first 200 years or so of his life because after that, he suddenly wakes up a woman. Already now, you should know that this is not a novel – or rather, a historical biography – to be read literally. This is in fact a long love letter to Virinia Woolf’s friend Vita Sackville West and at the same time, it’s a book about history and how it’s dominated by male figures. It’s about gender roles in general, about the genre of biography – and it’s absolutely wonderful. Yes, it’s difficult going and yes, this is one of those books that you really need to work at to really get – and I know that I didn’t get anything near to all that is to get in this novel.
One thing I really liked is, how Woolf plays with time in this book – and with how we perceive time and how we relate a life. Seemingly huge life events in Orlando’s life are only hinted at or maybe just mentioned in brackets and I like that, because it’s not always the so called big events that are the most important to us. But these events are the ones the biographer focus on because they are the documented ones and so, the biographed life gets a bit twisted when compared to the real life. And some people live lives filled with experiences while others are seemingly dead on their feet. ‘The true length of a person’s life /…/ is always a matter of dispute.’ (p. 211)
Oh, and Woolf’s funny too. I love how she got rid of an unwanted suitor by dropping a frog down his shirt! She had tried to get rid of him in a lot of other ways but he just kept on forgiving her because she was just a weak woman and they were alone so no one had to know that she cheated at games for instance. Or this quote: ‘/…/ of what nature is death and of what nature life? Having waited well over half an hour for an answer to these questions, and none coming, let us get on with the story.’ (p. 49) Or this one explaining why Orlando’s writing style has changed: ‘Also that the streets were better drained and the houses better lit had its effect upon the style, it cannot be doubted.’ (p. 77)
The best thing about this book is, that it really makes me want to study, to learn more about Virginia and Vita to be able to understand it more, to get more from it. It makes me want to read and read, to be an intellectual and a snob and go to fancy dinner parties with other people who cares about this book, who wants to spend hours talking about love, time, aging, biographies and how funny Woolf really is. It makes me want to take a class on this author, this book, and learn everything. And it makes me want to read her other books. It’s a sort of treasure map to the promised land, an unspoken guarantee that the more I know the more I will get from reading this – and this will go on forever. Few books makes me feel this way – although The Great Gatsby did recently – and it truly reminds me how diverse and wonderful literature is and how lucky I am to be a bibliophile.

  • Title: Orlando
  • Author: Virginia Woolf
  • Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
  • Year: 2000 (original 1928)
  • Pages: 273 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

Related posts (other books read for The Classics Club):

Oh and read this post too over at Délaissé:

I read this one for The Classics Club and for my attempt at reading the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

The Classics Club – Year One

imgpressSo it’s been a year since I joined the Classics Club. I had decided early on that I didn’t want to join the Classics Club since I had so much going on already and a lot of commitments, both connected to which books I wanted to read and the rest of life.
But people kept on writing about the Classics Club and they seemed to enjoy themselves so much that I started to feel left out. I also love making to-do lists (although not necessary doing what they say) so the whole idea of making a list of books I wanted to read, was very appealing to me.
So yeah, I caved and I joined and I made a list of 50 books that I want to read before September 2017.
And now, a year has gone by and where has it left me. I have read 8 books so far which is not quite as much as I would have liked to. But it has been wonderful books – see the list below.

Richard Adams: Watership Down. (5 stars)

Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey (4 stars)

Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone (4 stars)

Alexander Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo (5 stars)

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby. (5 stars)

Victor Hugo: Les Misérables. (5 stars)

Toni Morrison: Beloved (5 stars)

Virginia Woolf: Orlando (5 stars)

So yeah, it has been amazing books. Only two of them got below 5 stars – and I’m thinking now that I might have been a bit harsh because I remember them both very fondly. It has just been such amazing reads so I’m really looking forth to the next 42 books on my list. I’ll try to get a lot read during this next year so I’ll be on target with my reading of this list.
So while that has been good, what hasn’t been as good is my general participation level in the club. I have participated in one of the monthly memes, just one. And that is a bit shabby. I’ve never really explored all the wonderful reviews I know has been written for the club by it’s members – and I hope to explore that more during the next year too.
So what I can conclude after this my first year is, that I have read some wonderful books but if I’m not participating more in the various club activities, I could just as well have made a list completely on my own and not be in a club. And that’s a shame. So my goal for the next year is to read many, many more wonderful books from my list and to try and be an active member of the club.

Oh and I promise I’ll write the last reviews soon – it’s a bit shameful that I have only written 4 reviews out of 8 when I loved all the books and really want to convince everyone else to read them!!

Related posts:

Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey (review)

Jane Austen is not on my list of favorite authors – or even on my list of potential favorite authors. And maybe that’s wrong. Jane Austen rocks! Yes, she died almost 200 years ago in 1817 but she is one cool lady. She is so sarcastic and irreverent and just such a good writer.
From page 1 of this book, I was in love. At that point it wasn’t with the characters or the story or anything but with the writing, with the sarcasm. Look at how she starts the novel: No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.’ And then this quote: ‘Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and what is more remarkable, with a good consitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bring the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on – lived to have six children more – to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads, and arms, and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the world, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any.’ These are both from the first page of the book and already, she had me smiling and thoroughly enjoying myself – and reaching for my phone to write down all of these great quotes.
Northanger Abbey is the story of young Catherine Morland who grows up in a loving but plain family. She loves to read, especially gothic literature like The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. So when she gets the chance of going on an adventure of her own, even if it is only to go with her parent’s friends to Bath, she immediately accepts.
However, Bath turns out to be rather dull at first. But soon, she not only means a very nice young man, Henry Tilney, but also makes a new friend in Isabella Thorpe. And when Isabella and Catherine’s brother falls in love, Catherine is ecstatic. That is, until she is introduced to Isabella’s brother and kind of expected to fall in love with him as well.
But Catherine is more interested in Henry Tilney and luckily, he also has a sister she can become friends with. And when Isabella starts acting strange towards Catherine’s brother – and starts flirting with Henry Tilney’s brother, Catherine is very unhappy.
Luckily, she is inviting to go with the Tilneys to their home, Northanger Abbey, a place Catherine is certain is exactly as the abbeys she read about in her favorite books. And if that’s not the case, luckily Catherine has a great imagination and can invent gothic events that might have taken place there…
I really enjoyed this novel. The story was pretty straightforward, young lovers who are twarted etc., but the way Austen wrote it, is exquisite. This one ranks very high on my list of favorite Austens – probably right below Pride and Prejudice. It was just so playful that I could imagine Austen writing it with a smile on her lips all the time. Humorous, ironic, sarcastic, witty, playful – just entertaining in that particular Austen way. Quotes like this ‘A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.’ makes me want to get to read more about Jane Austen, to get to know her better. She really shows herself in this novel – and I enjoyed that.
And it didn’t hurt that she also spent several pages defending the reading of novels. ‘Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom, so common with novel writers, of degrading, by their contemptuous censure, the very performances to the number of which they are themselves adding: joining wiht their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroines, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve it! and a bit later about novels ‘some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of with and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.\ Austen likes her novels and she lets her heroine have many talks about books and authors with the people around her, even makes a bit of fun about one who doesn’t know who the author of his favorite books are. And what also fascinated me was, how she at the same time defended novels and the reading of them while also showing what happens when a vivid imagination fed by books and not constrained by any grasp on what the world is really like, is let loose in a gothic setting. This is probably meant to be more of a critique of the limited options for young women to be acquainted with the world, the people in it and the games they play than it is a critique of books and reading. Or definitely so.
This novel does read as a bit less developed than the most popular Austen books (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma. But whether that’s because it’s one of her first novels or because she plays with the trope of the gothic novel, I’m not sure. What I do know is, that I really enjoyed it and I loved the playfulness of it. Even though the ending is quite as expected, she does write it with a bit of a twist in the writing, not the plot. It could be seen as taking the easy way out but to me, it just worked.
I love Jane Austen!

I read this novel for The Classics Club and for Austen in August. Two birds with one stone!

  • Title: Northanger Abbey
  • Author: Jane Austen
  • Publisher: Penguin Popular Classics
  • Year: 1994 (original 1818)
  • Pages: 236 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

Related posts (other books read for The Classics Club):

Back from holiday (& Book Buying 2013 part 6)

So I’m back from holiday and we had a great time. We saw a lot of animals in various zoos, visited an amusement park, the beach, a glass museum and more. We enjoyed hanging out, just the four of us. The cottage we had rented, was beautiful and it was so peaceful to sit outside it and read. So all in all, a lovely holiday. And tomorrow – it’s back to work for me. The girls and my boyfriend have two weeks more so the next couple of weeks will be rather relaxing as well.

9780141184272As for reading, I did manage to finish Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. It is a magnificent piece of literature. I am impressed with how Virginia Woolf both manages to create a love letter to Vita Sackville-West and comment on the normal male-fixated Western history, on biography and how absurd it is in some ways, on time, gender and so much more – and still make it readable. Now, when I say readable, I mean that I enjoyed it s much – but even though the book is short of 300 pages, it does take rather a lot of time and effort to read it.

waste-landsMy next read, on the other hand, was the third volume in Stephen King’s magna opus The Dark Tower. The Waste Lands is my favorite so far in the series and I just flew through it. It was such a thrill to read and I couldn’t help sit and compare how different the reading experiences was in these two novels. I enjoyed them both and I love how you can get so many experiences, feelings, challenges and more from sitting quietly with a book.

Proper reviews will follow later – very positive reviews.

So two books read (almost) and … well … two books bought…


Yes, well. We went to my second favorite book store in Denmark and I had to buy two books. I bought Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles which is on my list of books for The Classics Club. I’ve read many positive reviews of it so I’m excited to read it. I’ve never read anything from Thomas Hardy so I’m curious to explore him and this book. And I love this Penguin English Library series with it’s beautiful covers!


And I bought a Hilary Mantel. I have only read Wolf Hall and was more impressed by it than loving it. I rated it 4 stars but I need to read it again to fully get it. I’m guilty of not knowing who Thomas Cromwell was before reading this book. I had a long talk with the woman behind the counter who was a huge Mantel fan. Don’t you just love it when you meet people in shops who actually know what they are talking about. I would love to live in the city where this store is…

So two great books brought home with me. And a great holiday spend with my boyfriend and our two beautiful girls. I love summer!

17026_413852478709121_1163712783_nOh and I might have bought another book earlier that I forgot to mention and I guess now is as good as time as any to mention it. Of course I bought Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane as soon as I spotted it in a book store. I have been so excited about this book ever since I first heard about it. It sounds amazing and the cover is gorgeous so I got it immediately. Only sorry that they didn’t have the hardcover.

Alexandre Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo (review)


‘Wait and hope!’

So one of the major things you learn if you read The Three Musketeers is, that whenever a musketeer is in trouble, there will be fencing. Lots of duels and all fought with rapiers. So I sort of thought I knew what would be happening in this one. People would fence their hearts out and it would be swashbuckling madness. But The Count of Monte Cristo is a very different book than that. And definitely not in a bad way.

Where the morale of The Musketeers is about friendship and loyalty and is shown mostly through the positive behavior of these musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo is in some ways a more sinister book with a focus on how man shall be careful with playing God although still with an emphasis on being truthful and loyal. It’s a novel filled with smugglers, murders, poisoners, illegitimate children, young lovers and cruel fates – and revenge.

Edmond Dantès is a happy young man. Much beloved by his old father, his betrothed as well as his master, he is on the brink of making it. He has been promised the position as Captain on the ship he sails on and he is about to marry Mercedes, the love of his life. However, jealousy abounds around him and he is betrayed by three men he views as friends and is arrested at his own wedding party. When he is brought in front of the magistrate, however, he is sure to be freed because the magistrate seems so kind to him and, of course, because he is innocent.

However, this takes place in France at the time when Napoleon Bonaparte and the royal family is battling over who is to rule France and Edmond Dantès is not only caught in this but also get caught up in the magistrate’s own ambitions and family secrets.

So instead of being freed, he is thrown into a prison at Chateau d’If without chance of parole and is left there to die or go mad. But Dantès is lucky and not only survives but manages to escape and become a rich man because of a strange friendship he formed in prison even though he was put in isolation.

And this enables him to seek revenge on the four men who has ruined his life and turned him into a hard and bitter man; a man willing to wait and plot for years to achieve his goals: to give back to the people who treated him kindly and tried to help him – and to destroy the ones who ruined him.

It’s a book which roughly said is split into three parts. The first part is where we are introduced to Edmond Dantès and his family, friends and foes and where he is wrongly sentenced and put in prison. The second part is where he is setting the stage, networking and preparing for the third part which is his revenge on everyone who ever wronged him. I felt that the second part was a bit slower than the other two. I wouldn’t say it dragged but it was less of a thrilling read. Whether this was actually caused by the novel or because I started a new job at this point and only read about 10-20 pages maybe every other day, I’m not sure. Suffice to say that whether the one or the other was the case, I still really enjoyed this novel and am a bit surprised by myself that I haven’t read it earlier.

My edition, Everyman’s Library, has a preface by an Italian translator and I found it so strange that an French book translated into English should be prefaced by the person who had translated the novel into Italian – but it was engaging and interesting so I kept reading. And I must admit I blushed a bit when I reached the end of the preface and read the name of the translator. Umberto Eco. Okay, I guess then it was fair enough to have him write the preface…!

Despite it’s many many pages (1188 to be exact) and despite the fact that it took me 33 days to read it, this is not a difficult read. It’s engaging with a fascinating main character who one initially gains an incredible amount of sympathy for – but who still is very flawed. Dumas manages to create an enigmatic protagonist whom you start out with nothing but positive feelings for but then his actions and his complete focus on getting his revenge even though innocents get caught in the middle, makes him a character whose actions you really have to question. Man is not supposed to play God!

  • Title: The Count of Monte Christo
  • Author: Alexandre Dumas
  • Publisher: Everyman’s Library #320 – Alfred A. Knopf
  • Year: 2009 (original 1844)
  • Pages: 1188 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

Related posts (other books read for The Classics Club):

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby (review)

$(KGrHqJ,!h!E-7S82Jb6BP0N1CdgO!~~60_35Years ago, when I was a young teenager, I remember watching The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford. I was not impressed. I don’t remember anything from the movie except an image of Redford in a white suit. An image, I’m not even completely sure is from that movie and not from some other Redford movie. I think I was too young to understand it and until now, this has been my only impression of The Great Gatsby.

But since Baz Luhrman decided to make a new Gatsby movie, The Great Gatsby has been everywhere. So I decided that not only did I want to read the book, I also wanted to watch both movies.

Of course I started with the book. I was slightly taken aback by it’s slow start. Being a novel of only 188 pages, it seemed odd at first how many pages went by without Gatsby appearing. But when he finally did step into the pages of the book, I was instantly intrigued.

The novel is told from the point of view of Nick Carraway, a young man who happens to live next door to the impressive mansion belonging to Jay Gatsby. From a distance, he watches the lavish parties thrown by Gatsby until finally he is invited and able to experience the extravaganza of Gatsby firsthand.

At this party, he meets Jordan Baker and is drawn into Gatsby’s inner circle and he finds out that Gatsby Is in love with a married woman living across the bay. Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby were sweethearts when they were younger but Gatsby had to leave for the war and when he returned, Daisy was married.

Gatsby has never forgotten his love for Daisy and both Jordan and Nick becomes involved, not only both with Gatsby’s quest to get Daisy back but with each other as well.

Gatsby struck me as such a forceful character. I was immediately intrigued by him. His desperate longing for Daisy and for the status in life, a marriage with her will mean, is apparent on every page and his plight is just so real. I remember walking past the house where the boy I had a crush on lived – over and over and over, just wishing for him to look out the window and notice me. Gatsby, having way more money than teenage me, moves in across the bay from his crush, stares longingly at the green light on her pier, throws huge glamorous parties in order to entice everyone to participate in the hope that one day, Daisy will show up and step back into his life.

Alas, such all-consuming love is rarely rewarded but maybe Gatsby’s love, devotion and ambition will be enough to ensure a happy ending?

It’s a heart breaking novel. A man who struggles so, who does everything in his power to become the man he thinks his one true love wants him to be. A man who is the loneliest man in the world when he stands on his own front lawn, bidding the last of his guests farewell, another night wasted, another night without Daisy.

This is a book and a character that will stay with me. I’m already looking forward to rereading it after watching the movies and getting their perspectives on the story, nay, the life of Jay Gatsby, billionaire and star-crossed lover extraordinaire.

For anyone who has ever loved and lost and longed for that lost love, this is the perfect novel.

‘So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.’ (p. 142)

  • Title: The Great Gatsby
  • Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • Year: 1994 (original 1926)
  • Pages: 188 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

The Classics Club: April Meme – Question #9


So I’ve been a member of The Classics Club for a while now and I’ve been a very bad member. I haven’t participated in any memes and I’m not sure I’m on track with my reading either. I’ve read two books from my list since I joined in September 2012: Victor Hugo: Les Misérables and Toni Morrison: BelovedBoth were extremely good.

Anyway, back to the case in point. This month’s meme:

“Who is hands-down the best literary hero, in your opinion? Likewise, who is the best heroine?”

When I first read the question, nothing really popped into my head. But after reading this post on the BookerTalk blog, I got inspired and suddenly knew who I wanted to showcase as a hero.

None other than Jean Valjean from Les Misérables. Jean Valjean starts out as a nice man trying to help out his family by providing for them. But when he has to steal bread for them, he is put in the gallows and ends up staying there for so long, that he forgets his family and is a changed man when he eventually gets out. He is a broken man, a man with no good in his soul anymore.

But then he meets a man. An old bishop who is a giver. When he has the chance to put Jean Valjean back in the gallows, he doesn’t. This changes something in Valjean and even though he performs one more crime, the bishop’s good deed has put him on a new path.

When we next meet him, he is a mayor doing everything in his power to do good. And even when he again becomes down on his luck, he continues on this path of doing good and helping – particularly in the case of the young daughter of Fantine.

Valjean is very much a hero. He does everything to do good and even though he’s viewed as the lowest of all, he continues striving to improve himself – and succeeds.

A heroine from classic literature can be found in the same book. Fantine. Fantine is a woman who goes from being the belle of the ball to being very much down on her luck. It does seem that I like my heroic characters to be the type who face adversity with dignity and strength, doesn’t it?

What makes Fantine a heroine in my book, is that she is willing to do everything to take care of her child. And not just do everything in the sense that she feeds or clothes her. No, Fantine knows that she is not able herself to take care of her daughter so she finds her what she thinks is the best possible foster home and does everything to pay for it – including selling her hair and teeth. Fantine is an amazing mother even though she doesn’t mother her child herself.

The book was wonderful and amazing. I haven’t watched the recent movie yet but Anne Hathaway’s performance of I Dreamed a Dream makes me cry every time.

Related post:

Toni Morrison: Beloved (review)


‘Nothing was in that shed, he knew, having been there early that morning. Nothing but sunlight. Sunlight, shavings, a shovel. The ax he himself took out. Nothing else was in there except the shovel – and of course the saw.’ (p. 185)

Even though Sethe has lived eighteen years in freedom, she is still haunted by her past. She is haunted by what happened on the farm where she was a slave, what happened with her children, what happened to her husband and her fellow slaves at Sweet Home. And most of all, she is haunted by the ghost of her baby girl, the dead baby who is living in the house with Sethe and her daughter Denver. The dead baby on whose grave only one word is written: Beloved.

After reading this novel, I had a conversation with my boyfriend about whether any of us could ever seriously hurt or even kill our daughters to prevent them from suffering a worse fate. It’s difficult to imagine a situation where we would have to make that choice – and even if it ever happened, I think we would both always hope that something would happen that would save them and that by killing them, we would take away any chance, however remote, of them ever leading a happy life.

Not so for Sethe. After living in slavery for years and finally escaping with her baby, after having sent her three oldest children to safety earlier, she will do anything to ensure that none of her children will ever have to suffer through what she suffered as a slave – even though she had it easy for much of that time. But of course, that’s not the point. What is the point is that when you are a slave, someone else is so much in charge of you that they can take everything from you, not just the few possessions you have or your family, but yourself too. ‘That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.’ (p. 295). And as a mother, you can’t let that happen to your children, can you? So instead, you choose safety by handsaw… and you protect your children best way you can. Even if it’s a gruesome way.

So what makes this book such an outstanding novel is not the story itself even though it is inspired by real events. It’s not the characters even though they stand out from the pages. It’s the writing. The way Morrison uses words is the true star of this book and the skillful way she tells much, but not all. You are not always sure what’s going on, sometimes you have to go back and reread a passage several times, but it’s always devastatingly beautiful. You have to use your imagination to piece it all together – and somehow, that makes it worse. The narrative is not told in a straight and linear way, you jump back and forth as Sethe remembers more and more of what she has hidden away but which the arrival of another slave from Sweet Home awakens in her again. I was confused several times while reading this book and then, towards the end, when she uses different POVs, different voices and even wrote parts in prose poem style, I was even more confused. But it’s a good confusion. It’s the kind of confusion that shows you that there is something here that’s worth coming back for, that you need to read carefully and concentrated and definitely more than once.

Toni Morrison is a Pulitzer winner and a Nobel Prize recipient – and rightly so, if I am to judge by this book. If the rest of her books live up to this standard, I’m impressed! I am not sure if she will become a new favorite author because I think her books might be too devastating – on the other hand, it was such a joy to read a book where an author was so much in command of her abilities and everything was just right. This is a novel you just have to read – there’s no way around it.


You are my sister

You are my daughter

You are my face; you are me

I have you found you again; you have come back to me

You are my Beloved

You are mine

You are mine

You are mine (p. 255-256)

  • Title: Beloved
  • Author: Toni Morrison
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • Year: 1987
  • Pages: 324 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

Victor Hugo: Les Misérables (review)


‘To love or to have loved, that is enough. Ask nothing further. There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life.’ (p. 1354)

We all know the story. Jean Valjean is sent to prison because he steals a lump of bread to ensure his and his family’s survival. But this is no ordinary prison. This is the gallows where men are worked and worked and where the smallest offense just gets them locked up some more. And Valjean is locked up for nineteen years because he tries to escape this hell hole.

When he’s finally released, he is an angry bitter man, not the least because no inn will let him stay the night because of his yellow convict passport: ‘A convict may leave the galleys behind, but not his condemnation.’ (p. 103).

But Valjean is lucky. He meets Bishop Myriel who kindly gives him shelter for the night. And just as kindly – or not – Valjean repays the favor by making off with Myriel’s silverware, the only luxury the old Bishop allows himself. Of course he’s caught – but when he is brought in front of the Bishop against, the Bishop claims that he gave the silverware to Valjean and forgot to give him the silver candlesticks. Valjean is then sent on his way with this extra loot and an awakened conscience. Unlucky for him – but lucky for the reader since it gets to be of vital significance later on – Valjean hasn’t quite quit his criminal ways yet and so he steals a coin from a 12-year-old boy.

After a couple of year has passed, we are back with Valjean who is now living under an alias as a wealthy factory owner who does good wherever he goes. One of these good deeds is helping a young woman, Fantine, who after having been a young and beautiful woman living the good life in Paris, has a child. She tries what she can to protect the little girl names Cosette by leaving her with a couple owing an inn whom she thinks she can trust. Fantine never runs out of bad luck and she sells whatever she has – her hair, her teeth – to pay for her daughter’s upkeep.

Fantine comes to live in the same town as Valjean and is eventually fired from his factory because of her having a child. Valjean meets her when Inspector Javert arrests her for attacking a man. Javert is Valjean’s evil spirit. He has been working in the gallows too but as an inspector and he knows Valjean from then. When Valjean one day lifts a cart off a man, Javert recognizes him – but Valjean escapes, together with Cosette.

Now, Valjean takes care of Cosette and is as close to being her father as it’s possible without it actually being so. But again and again, he crosses paths with Javert and of course, we will get a final showdown because Hugo is the master of chance meetings.

When reading about Fantine, I can’t help but wonder if Victor Hugo read Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Story of a Mother and became inspired by that to write Les Misérables. I know that a mother giving up everything to save her child, is a common theme but still. Fantine gives up her teeth and her hair to help her child, the unnamed mother in the fairytale gives up her eyes, her hair and her warmth to find her child and rescue it from the cold hand of death. It is possible – especially since Andersen and Hugo met each other in 1833 so at least Hugo has been aware of Andersen’s existence. The Story of a Mother was published 1845 so it was published before Les Misérables. I can’t find any confirmation but it’s an interesting connection, I think!

Hugo’s writing style is so impressive. He writes pages and pages about something and you just can’t see the connection to the rest of the novel, and suddenly there it is, and everything becomes so clear. He starts the novel writes pages and pages about the Bishop Myriel and I just kept wondering why he wrote about him when Jean Valjean is the main character of the book. But of course, it made sense. And he did that throughout the novel and even though it surprised me, even irritated me at some points, it works. He just has a way with language (or I assume that it’s him and not just the translator) – even (especially) when he’s writing about the sewers: ‘These heaps of garbage at the corners of the stone blocks, these tumbrils of mire jolting through the streets at night, these horrid scavengers carts, these fetid streams of subterranean slime which the pavement hides from you, do you know what all this is? It’s the flowering meadow, it is the green grass, it is marjoram and thyme and sage, it is game, it is cattle, it is the satisfied low of huge oxen at evening, it is perfumed hay, it is golden corn, it is bread on your table, it is warm blood in your veins, it is healthy, it is joy, it is life. Thus wills that mysterious creating which is transformation upon earth and transfiguration in heaven.’ (p. 1234-1235). At another point, he writes about what it would be like to drawn in a pit of quicksand at the bottom of the sewer – magnificently written!

It also surprised me that he was funny. Especially in the beginning, he made me smile several times and I definitely hadn’t expected that from this book. See this way of characterizing a man: ‘The senator /…/ was an intelligent man, who had made his way in life with a directness of purpose which paid no attention to all those stumbling-blocks which constitute obstacles in men’s path, known as conscience, sworn faith, justice, and duty; he had advanced straight to his object without once swerving in the line of his advancement and his interest.’ (p. 35). I love this – it’s spot on and just nails (a lot of) politicians!

Throughout the book, you can see Hugo advocating for education among other things. ‘The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.’ (p. 21). According to the introduction in my edition (Everyman’s Library), Hugo saw himself as a politician and therefore, from time to time, inserts himself into the text to talk about how he feels about Waterloo, the state of France, Napoleon, convents and gallows, and how a just society ought to be. In the end, I think he tried to write a truthful account of France as he saw her. And it’s beautiful and well worth taking one’s time with.

‘/…/ truth is a nourishment as well as wheat. A reason, by fasting from knowledge and wisdom, becomes puny. Let us lament as over stomachs, over minds which do not eat. If there is anything more poignant than a body agonising for want of bread, it is a soul which is dying of hunger for light.’ (p. 984)

  • Title: Les Misérables
  • Author: Victor Hugo
  • Publisher: Everyman’s Library #239 – Alfred A. Knopf
  • Year: 1998 (original 1862)
  • Pages: 1432 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5