Sometimes a clever and intriguing story line makes a novel great. Sometimes, it is the interaction of a number of interesting characters. And other times, a novel is great because because of the carefully developed setting that gives life to the situations and characters. In One Came Home (January 2013, Knopf Books for Young Readers), Amy Timberlake manages to win in all three ways. Continue Reading
Note: this post contains “spoilers” for the first 60% of Bleak House.
I have a book club discussion on this book next Wednesday night, so I have been pushing myself to read quickly: this has been my main reading material this week (after I finished 2 Henry VI, that is — more on that tomorrow, maybe). At any rate, reading Bleak House in long one-hour stretches in the evening has been very helpful to get me accustomed to the confusion that is Chancery (I’m not worrying about it, as many of suggested I shouldn’t) and the multitude of characters. I’m now about 60% finished.
There are two things that are making Bleak House one of the great novels I’ve read. One is the writing: I love the frequent metaphors that bring the setting to life. The second aspect is the characters. There are so many of them, but they are rather memorable in their own ways, and I enjoy disliking the villains, like Mr Smallwood and Mrs Jellyby (what an awful lady!), and cheering for the wonderful “heros” of the book: John Jarndyce who is so very good, Esther who likewise deserves a great end, and even poor Caddy Jellyby (now Turveydrop) who seems so sincere in her desire to have a happy life despite her mother. These characters that I love have really let me sink in to the story.
I must admit: I did reference a character list in the past week. As some cautioned, this provided very detailed spoilers, so I knew the Lady Dedlock connection to Esther before it was revealed. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t “believe” in spoilers, but I do somewhat wish it could have mysteriously unfolded to me, much as the secrets in The Woman in White were enjoyed on my first read. Nevertheless, I liked seeing how it was going to come: the discussions between that man named Guppy (great name) and Lady Dedlock made complete sense to me, while if I hadn’t known what the underlying secret was I may have been confused as I’d felt in the beginning. So it was a nice experience to read it, knowing the secret, but it may been nice the other way too. I still stand by the “no such thing as a spoiler” philosophy. The story is great regardless.
And yet, last night, Mr Dickens just about lost me. In the last chapters I read of the novel, Mr Krook’s death by spontaneous combustion just about did me in. It was so ridiculous and “out there” that I wondered if Dickens was trying to turn this novel into science fiction. I referred to the footnotes in my Penguin copy of the book (I’ve been reading on my nook) and found a explanation in an appendix that explains the inclusion of the phenomenon in this novel.
For the purposes of the novel, however, perhaps the signal point is in the narrator’s observation: “The less the court understands of all this, the more the court likes it’ (Chapter 33). Not only does Krook’s grisly end give a narrative and symbolic parallel to the theme of self-destruction also played out by Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Chancery, but it is equally surrounded by enticing mystery.
I can really appreciate the symbolic irony of the mysterious death. I must also admit that this portion of the novel sent me on a hunt for more information about spontaneous human combustion. See the Wikipedia page about it, as well as a post about a 2010 and a 2011 possible death.
Personally, I think there must be an alternative explanation for these deaths (as well as those throughout history). I hope Bones does an episode about it (I’m currently watching season 4 with my husband; will it come up at some point?)
At any rate, despite the supernatural science in the novel, I’m enjoying watching the scenes unfold. I’m looking forward to a resolution! And I suspect already that this may be a novel to revisit.
What do you think about spontaneous human combustion? I’m very curious about it, although I’m kind of with one of the scientists quoted in Wikipedia: if it’s so reasonable an explanation, how come it doesn’t happen more often than 200 times in 300 years?
It has been a little while since I’ve read a Charles Dickens novel, but beginning Bleak House (first published 1853) was a delightful reminder of why I enjoy this author so much: he’s so good at writing. The scene as it is established in the early passages of the novel is simply marvelous. I was delighted at how Charles Dickens breaks all the “rules” (I’m thinking Strunk and White here).
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
I love the setting as it is described here. And while Bleak House the residence does not (at least so far) seem to be a bleak place, London’s pervasive fogginess (and by symbolic extension, the never-ending Chancery case at the center of the novel) provides a wonderful contrast that got me excited to be reading the novel from the beginning.
Because I’m only 15% into the book, I have a few problems. First, I don’t know who is who. There are so many new characters – all with fantastic Dickensian names – that I can’t remember who I’ve already met and which character did what. A second and related problem is that I have no idea where the book is going. This is a good thing, right? As I do get in to the book, the suspense of the unknown will grow and it will end up rather satisfying. I’m a read-the-end first kind of reader, though, so not knowing what to expect leaves me feeling lost in an unsatisfying way as I do read. What should I be looking for? Which of the many characters will be most important as the novel progresses?
Finally, I am a bit lost about the Chancery situation. As in, I don’t know why the families are at legal battle with each other. They’ve tried to explain it a few times, but I’m just not getting it. I suspect this is an important aspect of the novel, so I’m hoping I get a better grip on it soon. In fact, before I posted this, I went back and skimmed the Chancery bits in the first 15% of the novel to try and get a better understanding for the rest of the novel.
But, despite my concerns, I am happy to say that I’m very impressed with what I’ve read so far. I look forward to delving in to it a bit more this week.
Have you read Bleak House? Do you have any suggestions for how I should continue reading it (especially concerning keeping the characters straight)?
This is post one of my Charles Dickens Month project!
Although the RIP challenge technically ended last week with Halloween, I had one more week of ghostly short stories to enjoy. As with past weeks, I enjoyed how each of the stories I read had a different feel. Walter de La Mare’s story was probably my least favorite of the week, but I enjoyed each story (also including stories by Penelope Lively, Alison Lurie, and Ray Bradbury) to some degree. (None of these stories are in the public domain, so I cannot link to them for you.)Continue Reading