Monday, 26 September 2011

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Miss Jean Brodie is a short book, which - the group members agreed - seemed a lot longer. That's meant in a good sense - there just seemed to be so much in it, so much to discuss, and so much more to discover for the many of us who'd gone back and re-read it. This is in happy contrast to many a book we read, where often things could have been much improved by editting out at least 20% of a work.

This book was selected by Morag, who explained that it had made a big impact on her in her youth. One formidable teacher had actually used the phrase 'Creme de la Creme' to her and her A-stream classmates, and she suspected the teacher identified with the book. Morag said, interestingly, that she was more shocked now at the things Jean Brodie said to her pupils than she had been on reading it in the sixties. This perhaps illustrates a change in our culture - the Sixties was about experiment, rebellion and the pushing of moral boundaries. In the 2010s we are steeped in caution and procedure to the point of paranoia about what kind of behaviour is appropriate towards children.

What struck all the members was the interesting way Muriel Spark's narrative jumped back and forth in time. Another writer may have kept the revelation of which girl betrayed Jean Brodie as a climax, but we thought the curious structure was because she wanted to concentrate on the characters more than the plot.

My favourite bits of Jean Brodie are always her imperious, deliciously snooty, put-downs and remarks. I think there are a few similarities with Notes on a Scandal, one of my all-time favourite books. As the story progesses she becomes a less and less likeable character, manipulative and living life vicariously through her girls, but you still rather admire her, up until she starts to show her weaknesses and becomes rather an object of pity. Her treatment of Mary is cruel - its seems she picked her as one of the set merely as she thought it useful to have a 'whipping b0y' in the group.

We admired Jean Brodie's individualism, and her encouragement of her girls to dare to be different, but this was in marked contrast to her admiration of fascism. Frances pointed out that she admired merely the shallow glamour of fascism, and that in many ways she was all about style over substance.

There were many themes and characters to discuss: the excellent protrayal of Edinburgh, the love affairs, jealousies and subterfuge and the varied paths of all the girls. It did indeed seem like a much longer story. Finely honed writing at it's best, packing a fascinating and enduring story into 100 pages.

Monday, 19 September 2011


The group's read for August was Islanders by Margaret Elphinstone who visited the Shetland's book festival Word Play this year. The book is set in the Shetland islands during the medieval period although no date is stated. The community depicted in the story is on what is now Fair Isle. A girl arrives on the island as the only survivor of a ship wreck. The story revolves around her integration into a tight knit group of islanders over the course of a year.

While some of us found the book slow we felt the sense of history was good. As islanders ourselves, although not so cut off as those in the book, we enjoyed identifying places that were depicted in the book. The journey to Papa Stour and then back to Fair Island crossing the main island of Shetland by foot was very evocative. (I still look at the mountians to the west of Cunningsburgh as I drive by and wonder if there are "wild tribes" living up there.)

Some of us felt that certain issues and narative threads were introduced and then never really really went anywhere. For instance one of our group spent time investigating homosexuality in Shetland at the time of the books. She felt that it would not have been stigmatized as was depicted in the book. Others felt the priest was interesting as a character and lent another "outsider" perspective to the community but was introduced and then dropped out of the narrative. The group felt the characters were "flat" and hard to get to know.

We also read John Boyne's first novel The Thief of Time and found if to be a relatively good read although some found the bouncing back and forth across time in the narrative an annoying device. Mathieu, the 256 year old narrator was criticized for being an aloof and not particularly sympathetic character. The book has been described as a "picaresque hopscotch through time" by it's reviewer in Publisher's Weekly - a phrase I believe the group would endorse. As one of our group also said "it's a daft idea but does make you think about how people learn (or do not learn) through living." The book was published in the lead up to the turn of the millennium so perhpas gained some narrative traction from being read during that time period.