Monday, 2 July 2012

Ella Minnow Pea and The Woman in Black

The group took a trip out for their June meeting, to the stately surroundings of Busta House. Over a meal followed by coffee in the Library, discussion flowed as we'd read two books this month.

The first was Andy's choice, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. He explained that it first attracted him as he's keen on cryptic crosswords and word games. The story: a strange island society worships Nollop, the man who created the pangram 'The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog'. Their shrine to him includes the phrase picked out in tiles, but after a hundred or so years the letters start to drop off, one by one. The island Council sees this as a divine sign and bans use of the letters that fall off. First of all it's not a big deal, but as more letters go, the affect on the language and the draconian powers used to enforce the rules lead to a gradual breakdown of society. 

The book is told as a series of letters, which are lipograms, avoiding use of more and more letters as the story proceeds. It's fascinating to see how the characters cope with the new limits on their expression. It gets to a point where the Council has to allow very inventive phonetic spellings, and they are great fun - Andy as a teacher particularly enjoyed them. By the time that the only letters still allowed are LMNOP, though, things are getting really desperate.

Although the book is clever, quirky and funny, group members agreed that it was surprisingly dark, and a strong depiction of totalitarianism. Janet said she felt angry at language being taken away: if you love language you will find it very oppressive. Marghie pointed out that it was published not long after 9/11, to a background of concerns about freedom of speech in the USA. Interestingly, Diana observed, as the language gets harder the story gets more gripping. A good read, highly recommended by the group.

For our second book we returned to a story the group first read in 2006 - the ultimate ghost story, Susan Hill's The Woman in Black. The reason for this choice: Busta House is famously haunted, plus we'd recently seen the new film of the book and wanted to go back to the far superior book.

There were many new members of the group so most people hadn't read it before and loved the 'gothic trappings laid on with a trowel'. The description was highly atmospheric - Hill really is a splendid writer - and, as our newest member observed, every chapter is perfectly-turned and draws you in. Me, I was both satisfied and desperately frustrated that, as in every good horror story, a character chooses to spend the night in an obviously unwise place, letting us scream 'No, you fool!' at the screen/page.

Andy chose to criticize it because on the journey to the dreaded Eel Marsh 'they would never have changed at Crewe to go to the East coast' - but the generally-female membership of our group were not impressed by such train-spotterly remarks. We still don't recommend the film, but we do the stage play, and certainly the book.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Even worse news for authenticity of The Woman in Black is that the train taken at the start of chapter 3 is pulled by 'Sir Bedivere':

Only built for Southern Railway in 1925 (which jars with the Edwardian feel of the novel) it unsurprisingly didn't go north of London, never mind up to Crewe!

Once the illusion is shattered...