Saturday 29 November 2008

Twilight and New Moon, Stephenie Meyer

This time a break from L. M. Montgomery, although there is still a link as on Meyer's official website she gives a list of recommended reading, which includes the complete Anne of Green Gables series.

I first encountered Twilight a couple of years ago and was drawn to it by its cover, by which a book should never be, but frequently is, judged. Frequently I picked it up, as its black and red and white appealed to my darker side, and read the blurb on the back:

About three things I was absolutely positive :
First, Edward was a vampire.
Second, there was a part of him-and I didn't know how dominant that part may be-that thirsted for my blood.
And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.

"Puh-lease!" I thought, and put the book back again. I had this strange sense of deja vu. Once, years ago, I read a book about a girl meeting a vampire after moving to a new place - possibly living or working in a hotel, but I can't be sure of that. I think, but couldn't swear to it, that she was drawn to him, dangerously - I wouldn't say falls in love. I don't think I ever finished tht book, and there are few books about which I can say that. I just remember an image from my head of standing by a lake or a pond and all is dark blue. At twilight, it must be. I don't remember what that book was called, but I was very unimpressed by it. I was convinced, at first, that Twilight was that book, rereleased with a shiny new cover. But when I checked its publication date, it was too recent.

Several times I looked at the back of the book, but never got further than that. A sequel, two, three made their way onto the shelves, and I started to become aware, as I worked in a bookshop, that the books were very popular. Reading on the internet I discovered a little more. Edward, for example, was what Terry Pratchett would call "A black ribboner" - a vampire who has sworn off human blood. But Pratchett's characters work as his is a comic universe. In general, I felt that a vampire who didn't drink blood wasn't a vampire at all. After all - girls fantasise about vampires. At least two of my best friends have crushes on Lestat from Interview With the Vampire. But their attraction is their danger, surely. A vampire romance - with a vampire who didn't drink human blood - just sounded particularly insipid. Like fantasy fulfilment that backfires.

General consensus seemed to be that Twilight was bad, but enjoyable, a guilty pleasure, (apart from those teenage girls who were determined that it was the "best b00k evaah n edward is soooo h0ttt!!111") Despite myself, I found myself wanting to read it just to see what all the fuss was about... except that being in four books, one being rather a monster volume, I wasn't sure I could put myself through it. Rather like High School Musical, but with more fangs and less singing. Plus, the titles of the second and third books: New Moon and Eclipse made me think of a certain Jaffa Cakes advert that used to be on the TV.

In the end it was the film that decided me. I haven't been to the cinema in months and I was getting withdrawal symptoms, but there was absolutely nothing on that I wanted to see. So when I heard Twilight would be out soon I decided that it was the least of many evils when pitted against James Bond, unfunny comedies and unromantic romances. Still, that left me with a dilemma. I am, primarily, a book-lover. Films come secondary. I rarely watch a film that wasn't at one point based on a book, and I don't like to see adaptations before I have read the original. But could I do that to myself?

I could, and I did. I even read the second and am about to start the third.

The story goes that Isabella Swan, henceforth known as Bella, moves to the small, wet town (sounds like it's been lifted from England, or at least the weather has been) of Forks, WA. She starts high school and meets Edward Cullen, who is a vampire. They fall in love at first sight, as you do, though Edward's idea of love at first sight is like me falling in love with a box of Lindt Lindor at first sight. It takes all his effort not to swoop on her, and subsequently he acts as though he hates her.

Now, there's no mystery about Edward. He's a vampire, that is obvious to anyone who's read the blurb on the back, or seen the trailer for the film. It is Bella who is the enigma. I read her as rather an unreliable narrator. She tells us that she is plain, gawky and a misfit, but she has every boy she meets falling at her feet. Even Edward, though he tries to hide it. Also, in the very first book she shows traits of resembling a vampire. She is pale skinned. She is incredibly sensitive to the smell of blood. There is something about her that stops Edward, who has the ability to read minds, from reading hers. And, as before mentioned, he falls head over heels for her on first sight.

At the end of the first book, she is bitten by a vampire, but Edward saves her from turning into one. Or so it appears. In the second, Bella is often described as feeling very cold when no one else is. Now, later in the series, I will probably find that Mrs Meyer attributes this to the vampire bite, perhaps say that it had a slower effect on her but that at that moment she began to turn. However, the signs were there very early on. There is something that Bella is not telling us.

The love story, I'm sorry, does not convince me. It reads more like infatuation to me. Bella's attracted to Edward - we are told over and over that he is more beautiful than is humanly possible, like a Greek god, with perfect features and marble skin. I'm not sure that the "marble skin" image is as attractive as it is supposed to be. Not on a man. It makes me think of Othello's description of Desdemona:

"Yet I’ll not shed her blood
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow
And smooth as monumental alabaster."

Now, I've read that Robert Pattinson, who plays Edward in the film, is getting absolutely mobbed and rather scared by all the teenage fangirls who have fallen in love with Edward. Or rather, infatuation. I suppose it's the tortured hero idea, but to me he is irritable, temperamental and changeable. "Ah," you might say, "That is because he loves Bella and wants what is best for her, but wants to be with her, and the two needs are not compatable." That's true, that's accurate... but... there is something flat about their relationship. Trying to pinpoint what it is that doesn't quite work, but when I think I've got it I remember something that contradicts it. I think, what it is, is that Bella seems infatuated with how Edward looks and the exoticism of him being a vampire, but I don't see much of what makes her love him. She is obsessed with him, certainly, to an unhealthy degree, to the point of abandoning interest in everything else.

Even more unhealthily, Bella demands again and again that she wants to be a vampire too, and Edward refuses, again and again, to bite her. Bella shows a shockingly selfish disregard for her humanity, ignores Edward's telling her that immortality is not all fun and games. She seems like she's got this pretty, daydreaming, unrealistic idea that she clings to about being a vampire, without giving any thought to the torture the Cullens (especially Edward) suffer as a result of their lifestyle. She also pays no thought to how her parents will react. In short, she is a heedless teenager who lives in a world of her own. The sad thing is, I'm sure she will get her wish before the end of the series. I wonder whether she will live to regret it. I think of that awful journalist at the end of Interview who after Louis has told this story about how terrible it is to be a vampire, thinks, "Oh, go on, it can't be that bad, make me a vampire and I'll do a better job of it than you did." To which Louis thinks, "Have you not listened to a word I said?" Bella, too, thinks she knows better than those who know what they're talking about because they've lived the undead "life."

Bella and Edward's relationship all happens so quickly I don't quite believe it. And he seems to love her as though she were a box of Lindt Lindor that he knows he mustn't eat. It seems to be her blood he loves more than anything else, but he resists going in for the swoop. At the same time, though he's always saying he's dangerous, I'm not sure I quite believe it. There are moments when you see it, but usually not.

In the sequel, New Moon, Bella gives herself a paper-cut in the presence of Edward and his family, after which Edward jumps at her to protect her from his brother Jasper, who struggles with the black ribboners' non-human diet. That causes her to injure herself more seriously by, if I got this right, falling onto a load of glass at the dinner table. Edward and the Cullens leave Forks to protect Bella, which causes her to sink into a more severe case of moping than I gave a main character after killing off her fiancé - and I thought I was overdoing it.

After this, the Cullens also disappear from the story for about, oh, the middle third or half of the book, and at this point, despite Bella's moping, the story becomes more interesting (ie there is more story and less description of Edward's marble statue beauty. Bella spends a lot of time with her friend Jacob, and this relationship with the blurred edges of whether they should count count themselves boyfriend and girlfriend or just friends is one of the more realistic relationships in the book. Jacob, too, is a more rounded character than Edward.

Not that this section of the book will escape analysis or criticism. Jacob becomes worried about his friends, who seem to be falling under the spell of one Sam Uley, looking as though they are being drawn into a cult and acting strangely. Then Jacob is next. Bella is exceedingly thick at this point. For someone who dated a vampire for six months or so, she takes a long time to realise that Jacob is a werewolf, even though, at the same time he told her the old Quileute legends about vampires which led her to realise the truth about Edward, he told her that he was supposedly descended from werewolves.

Second issue - this being a writing criticism - when it finally does click with Bella, it is in a dream where she sees him turning into a wolf. This is a weak narrative device - though one I have been guilty of myself as a teenager. It must be another clue to Bella being an undiagnosed vampire, as the vampires all have supernatural skills. Edward's sister Alice can see the future. Perhaps Bella too has this ability.

Criticism 3: Werewolves vs. vampires. Either/or, please. Both in a fantasy set in the real world is too much - too many mythical creatures running around. And the two species being at war makes me think "Underworld" and Montagues and Capulets. (Having said that, there are a lot of Romeo and Juliet references in this book.)

The last part of the book shows Bella jetting off to Italy, as you do, to stop Edward committing suicide by angering the Volturi, or Vampire royal family, into killing him (as suicide for the undead is a bit difficult.) For a while it stops being fantasy in high school and changes genre to epic fantasy. I think, overall, I prefer the local, small-town stories. I think I always do. I'm rather a home-girl at heart, and when reading - or writing - a book, I like it to be set mostly near to home. When you change settings you change the tone of the book, and despite the corniness of the Twilight books, I do have to admit to enjoying the local, high-school, small-town setting of them. Though some of the characters are very two-dimensional, I like the human (and once-human and part-human) stories, in a guilty pleasure sort of way. I just have to ignore the swooning and the moping and the constant descriptions of Edward's unearthly beauty.

In conclusion, the Twilight series so far is bad, really bad, and yet... fun. I certainly will be reading on.

Watch this space for reviews of the other books, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn.

Monday 17 November 2008

Rilla of Ingleside, L M Montgomery

Contains spoilers!

Again, I'm writing about a book by L M Montgomery that isn't the obvious one, though getting closer each time, working backwards.

Rilla of Ingleside is the final book in the Anne of Green Gables sequence, but it is very different in tone from the first. I would go as far as to say that, contrary to popular belief, and the way it is now marketed, this is not a children's book at all, but a young adult novel. Clearly when the books were first published, there were not the distinctions we now have of a book being for "children" or "adults."

It is also a book that is sadly overlooked. If not exactly out of print in this country, certainly you can't buy it in the shops any more. As far as Puffin Classics are concerned, the series ends with Anne of Ingleside, with an unsettling foreboding of what is to come. Probably the casual fan, who's read the first book or two and seen the films would not know that Rilla or her prequel, Rainbow Valley even exist, and might well be shocked to read it. I'm currently losing myself in the book as I am trying to adapt it for a screenplay. I think it would work as a stand-alone drama, and, knowing I'd love to see it brought to life and not trusting anyone else to do it well - especially Kevin Sullivan who made the perfect first film of Anne, imperfect Sequel and travesty of a continuing story, realised the job is for me.

As a child I read all of the books, borrowing them from the library, but took in little. Reading Rilla, I think I got as far as finding out all the names of the Blythe children - being horrified that Anne would call her son Shirley! - and that Marilla had died off-stage, but only really cared about Anne. I'd taken the time to get to know her from her child but was still at the stage where grown ups were "boring" and their troubles far from my understanding. I don't know whether I skimmed the book without taking anything else in, not understanding the politics, caring for the gossip or understanding the historical context, or gave up after a few chapters.

I rediscovered the book when I was no younger than twenty, read it from dusk til dawn, and howled pretty much from start to finish.

Rilla is a coming-of-age story. It is a war story - the only Canadian account of World War 1 from the women's perspective (correct me if I'm wrong.) To me, it hits hard as a tragedy.

Bertha Marilla Blythe is Anne and Gilbert's youngest daughter. She is fifteen, empty-headed, vain but lovable. Her novel shows her growing in maturity, bringing up an orphaned war-baby, battling joys and sorrows, friendships, parties and love. She is the last child left living at home through the turbulance of war, and it is through her eyes that we see the effect of war on those who are left behind.

For my A-Levels I studied for a year poetry, novels, diaries and non-fiction all written during or about the First World War, until it was coming out of my ears. My impression of that literature is that almost all the things we read were one of two extremes: Naive, idealistic patriotism, which in retrospect seemed hideously and tragically outdated when compared with the tales of horror and madness and incompetence - two views that seemed irreconcilable. There were those who knew - Wilfred Owen with "Dulce et Decorum Est" - and those who never did - Rupert Brooke with "The Soldier."

I would put Rilla onto the syllabus. Montgomery's view of war is not quite either of these. Certainly she was no pacifist. The only pacifist in the story is a stubborn, contrary, ranting church elder who makes himself ridiculous, and is often accused of being on the side of the Germans. (When adapting Whiskers-on-the-Moon I have to make it clear that it is he who is objectionable, not the fact of being a pacifist. My views are not the same as Susan's, for example, though I can no longer call myself an absolute pacifist I don't want to cause offence by implying what I don't mean. At the same time, I don't want to change the characters or the views from the author's intention. I've always pictured Whiskers as rather a Mr Collins-type figure, as portrayed in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice.)

Certainly at first, the young men of Glen St. Mary show excitement at the prospect of going to war, having a boys' own adventure. Jem, Anne Blythe's eldest son, even says "Hurrah!" That is at the beginning of the war. When he returns, at the end of the novel, he is changed. But the courage and sacrifice of the boys and men who fought in the war is never thrown into doubt.

Walter, the middle son, counters this jolly, naive excitement. He is the sensitive one, the dreamer of the family. He sees further than the other boys, past the glamour of the uniforms and the marching, to the blood, the pain and the heartbreak the four years of war are to bring.

It is Walter's journey that makes me call this book a tragedy, though that may be a misleading term. I'm not talking tragic antiheroes with their fatal flaw. All I'm saying is that this book makes me cry, and more, that it makes me hurt.

Walter Blythe does not join the army immediately. More: he resists. He despises himself because he cannot shake off the feeling that he must go - personified in his visions of the Pied Piper which make their first appearance in Rainbow Valley - but is afraid to. It is Walter's battles with his conscience that, for me, are at the heart of this book, the struggle for courage pitted against his love of the beauty of life and hatred of ugliness. When at last he enlists in the army, it is the book's great triumph, stronger (to me) than Rilla's commitment to bringing up baby Jims, or falling in love, or any growth in maturity.

Even if it were not foreboded as early on as in Anne of Ingleside, it is inevitable that Walter would be the one who is killed in battle. That, in itself is not what is so painful - favourite characters die in lots of books. It adds poignancy, regret, but the sorrow for the death of, say, Sirius Black, is clean. And Walter's story has closure. The chapter, "And so, goodnight," where Rilla - and we - read his final letter, written on the last night of his life, after "The Piper" appears in a premonition of his death, provides that.

"Rilla, the Piper will pipe me 'west' tomorrow. I feel sure of this. And Rilla, I'm not afraid. When you hear the news, remember that. I've won my own freedom here -- freedom from all fear. I shall never be afraid of anything again -- not of death -- nor of life, if after all I am to go on living."

The worst thing, the reason Rilla has such a painful effect to read is because of Anne. I first met her when I was seven or eight, and she was eleven. I write this as though she is a friend. Yes, I had imaginary friends as a kid. Yes, I cared about characters in books as though they were real. But Anne was more even than that. Anne was a part of me. I identified with her so closely I can't disconnect myself from her. I read that book dozens of times in my childhood. I knew it inside out. I knew her story, right up to her "happily ever after" at the end of Anne of the Island where she realised she loved Gilbert Blythe, had always loved him.

I didn't realise there was more.

Of course I knew there were other books. I'd even read some, if not taken in much detail. But the first three books were the ones in our house. They were the ones that were always there, constant friends. They were the books I grew up with.

Then, at seventeen I was fed a diet of World War 1. Spending a year in the company of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon et al does funny things to you. It could desensitise you after a while. But it didn't me.

Like Anne, like Walter, I've a vivid imagination. I feel things. And to come back to Anne's world; safe, timeless little Avonlea, and find it drawn into time, (the introduction of a telephone in the fourth or fifth book in the series being the first clue to that) and more - to a time I grew to know so well, in so much horror and heartbreak - I hated Montgomery for wishing that onto Anne, my Anne.

And yet, it happened. Sweet, precocious, slightly annoying infants in the middle of the nineteenth century did grow up, have families, and have their families torn apart by war. They didn't deserve it. And no, they never would be the same again. No one who lived through those four years could possibly come through unchanged. Watching the BBC's recent My Family at War demonstrates that.

Rilla is a bittersweet book. It should find its way into the World War 1 canon, because it is such a detailed, poignant depiction of the effect of war on those who stayed behind. And for that I love it. But if I read it as the end of the story that began with a chapter entitled "Mrs Rachel Lynde is Surprised," I can barely recognise it. I can barely recognise myself. Reading Anne of Green Gables, I am an innocent little girl again, with a pigtail and, yes, even the straw hat, possibly not yet much troubled even by the bullies that were to sap my confidence for ten, twelve or more years. Reading Rilla, I am a literature student who has studied that module at A-Level. The A Level student devours Rilla. She always did have a bit of a dark side. The child is bewildered by it. I have yet to find a way to reconcile the two Katies, though I am the same person. I am yet to reconcile Anne of Green Gables to being the same series as Rilla of Ingleside.
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