Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Independent on Sunday 23rd August

Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook (Profile Books, £9.99) *****
The way that Brook teases out trade routes, struggles for power and the delicate dance that is international relations from a hat, or a china bowl, in this accessible but authoritative study, is truly mesmerising. He relies on five paintings by Vermeer (and Girl with a Pearl Ear-ring isn’t one of them) for his history of the Dutch reach for global power and shows, better than anyone I’ve read so far, the truly subversive power of detail, especially when it’s foregrounded, instead of filling in the background.
For example, both Officer and Laughing Girl and Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window foreground a hat and a china bowl respectively. Both are in shade, but they’re in front of the women in both pictures. Brook alights on the hat that the officer is wearing to tell us that this piece of headwear is the latest in Dutch male fashion, made from beaver fur not wool. Beaver pelt came from Canada, made available to Europe from the many incursions into Mohawk and Huron territory by the French, British and the Dutch. And the reason that they were all in Canada was the same reason Christopher Columbus discovered America – they were actually trying to get to China.
China was the big goal, the fabled land of riches, and at the beginning of the seventeenth century, it was believed that sailing west would get you there. Brook shows the transition from the bloody conflicts of the sixteenth century to the negotiations of the seventeenth, the age, he calls it, “of improvisation”, a “century of second contacts”. In Vermeer’s paintings we can see the evidence of this reach to other lands and what was brought back, what became part of our own lifestyles. And details that we probably didn’t think told us very much, suddenly tell us everything.

The Crowning Glory of Call Lily Ponder by Rebecca Wells (Harper, £7.99) **
There’s a bit of a vogue for these six/seven word titles in upmarket commercial women’s fiction right now, a fashion which Wells may have begun: her novel The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood was the one that really made her name internationally. They offer a kind of clue to the fare on offer: targeted at intelligent women who nevertheless want something relaxing to read without feeling they’re being patronised, Wells’s novels have the right mix of love and pain, told in a sparky yet sympathetic voice. Young Calla Lily Ponder is the adoring daughter of M’Dear, the idealised mother figure who teaches her everything she knows, which here turns out to be hairdressing. This is no ordinary hairdressing, though: Calla knows how important it is for women to feel good about themselves and when her beloved mother dies, the women in her life marshall themselves around her to make her feel better, especially after her boyfriend lets her down. Set largely in 60s Louisiana, the civil rights movement makes an appearance, just to give the upbeat message a sense of realism, but overall there are just too many exclamation marks and too much New Age angel-therapy to win me over.

The Seven Lives of John Murray: The Story of a Publishing Dynasty by Humphrey Carpenter (John Murray, £12.99) ****
This biography of the seven John Murrays who have headed up the famous publishing house since its inception in 1782 was, alas, unable to be completed by Carpenter, who died at the beginning of 2005, aged only fifty-eight. An editor, Candida Brazil, and another biographer, James Hamilton, helped bring the material together but kept a couple of dramatic scenes Carpenter had written to an appendix at the end. I’m not sure this was necessary: the second James Murray is the one everyone wants to know about, as he was the one responsible for ‘signing’ Byron, taking on ‘Childe Harolde’, and his relationship with the poet is a fascinating one, full of power-play and grandstanding, leading finally, of course, to the famous burning of Byron’s memoirs after his death. But subsequent Murrays don’t have quite the same glitter about them, even though the publishing of Darwin’s work was certainly a daring move by the next Murray, and the selling of the publishing house to Hachette in 2002, a truly historic event for the company. Some of this material can be a little dry, and Carpenter’s imaginings of various encounters brings things to life. It’s a revealing history though, not just of a family but also of an industry.

The Bellini Madonna by Elizabeth Lowry (Quercus, £7.99) ***
Lowry’s debut novel has one of creepiest narrators since Humbert Humbert, and perhaps, not surprisingly, he also falls for a young girl, although one slightly older than Lolita. Thomas Lynch is an acquisitive art historian who has already been sacked from his New England college for sexual misdemeanours, when he arrives at Mawle House in Oxford, on the hunt for a missing Bellini masterpiece that he believes might be concealed in its grounds. Young Anna is the owner of the house, and she and her mother are well aware why Lynch has come to see them: whether they will let him get what he wants is another matter. Lowry weaves in a late nineteenth-century diary as well as Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess to produce an effectively chilly tale about desire, greed and amorality. Yet, perhaps because of those elements, it somehow fails to feel remotely contemporary, or remotely real: from the very beginning, with all its painterly and literary references, this novel feels like exactly what it is, without that postmodern, self-conscious nod to its own artifice. I wasn’t convinced for a minute that this was anything more than a made-up story. But I did enjoy it.

Love and War in the Pyrenees: A Story of Courage, Fear and Hope 1939-1944 by Rosemary Bailey (Phoenix, £8.99) ***
When Rosemary Bailey and her husband fell in love with Corbiac abbey in the Pyrenees, they bought it and decided to settle there. They also found a set of love letters written by a French couple who’d lived there fifty years before, and this cache set Bailey off on an investigation of the area’s recent history. What she uncovered was the effect of that precursor to the second world war, the Spanish Civil war, as the Pyrenees saw hundreds of Republicans flee Franco’s troops over the mountains and into France, only a few years later to be driven back over the mountains chased by those acting under Petain’s orders once the Vichy government was set up in the wake of France’s defeat by Hitler. It’s a region packed full, then, of treachery, heroism, death and new life: all the extremes, and in the middle of it, a newly married couple, Pierre and Amelie, trying to make their new life work. Bailey squirrels out of reluctant locals the kind of history France doesn’t like, about the lack of help offered to Spanish refugees and the quiet acceptance of German rule, to show a lack of national unity that she compares unfavourably to Britain’s attitude during the war.

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