Friday, February 10, 2012

'The Painted Veil' - William Somerset Maugham 1925

'The Painted Veil' is both a critical social commentary and deeply personal tale of self realisation. Somerset Maugham's novel was deeply controversial at the time of publication, at the last minute the setting was altered from 'Hong Kong' to a fictional colony of 'Tching-Yen' to avoid accusations of slander.

The plot centres around beautiful Englishwoman Kitty and her marriage to a bacteriologist in Colonial Hong Kong, Walter Fane. Underpinning the entire plot is Kitty's manipulative, social-climbing mother, who is essential despite occupying relatively little of the novel. Kitty marries Walter, who she does not love, but who is in love with her, in order to escape England, her mother's meddling, and to avoid the shame of attending her younger sister's more 'prestigious' wedding.

To escape her unsatisfying marriage Kitty begins an affair with the suave Charles Townsend who she falls deeply in love with. When the affair is discovered she finds he does not feel the same, though her own denial and his manipulation make this realisation a long time in coming.

My favourite element of 'The Painted Veil' was the wonderful female characters, particularly the shallow, selfish protagonist Kitty. I was first introduced to W. Somerset Maugham's complex women in 'Cakes and Ale' and although Kitty shares few characteristics with the vivacious Rosie I came to like her just as much. Throughout the novel Kitty was developed significantly and she experienced a 'spiritual awakening' (to quote the blurb) of-sorts without the novel feeling forced or clich├ęd. 

On the whole I found this novel very rewarding, despite some of the social conventions and technicalities around divorce being quite confusing.

In the introduction Somerset Maugham mentions that the idea for the novel came from some lines of poetry by Dante, and the interpretation of them told to him by an Italian woman while he was on vacation as a young man: "...she told me that Pia was a gentlewoman of Siena whose husband, suspecting her of adultery and afraid on account of her family to put her to death, took her down to his castle in the Maremma the noxious vapour of which he was confident would do the trick; but she took so long to die that he grew impatient and had her thrown out of a window". While the specifics of 'The Painted Veil' are different, the themes are clearly present. In this way the novel is driven by the story, the unfolding dynamic between husband and wife, rather than by particular characters. This makes for a fascinating and, as I already mentioned, very rewarding read.

Love it, Read it,
LR

Sunday, February 5, 2012

'The House of Silk: The New Sherlock Holmes Novel' - Anthony Horowitz 2011.

The House of Silk is a novel with three parts; a fast-paced beginning, which gives way to a section of inaction, followed by an ending which feels almost 'tacked on'.  

I have not read anything by Anthony Horowitz before, but he has accurately replicated Doyle's writing style and Watson's voice remains consistent throughout. This initially drew me in and held my attention, but as the novel progressed the weakness of the plot could not be sustained on that alone.

There are really two mysteries in this novel, and the attempt to write two novellas in one is where the main weaknesses lie. The first mystery is that of the Flat Capped Gang, brought to the attention of Holmes by  Edmund Carstairs, a partner in an art gallery who believes he is being stalked. The art dealer had recently become caught up in gang activity in Boston, after some paintings he had sold were destroyed in a train robbery carried out by the twin brothers who lead the 'Flat Capped Gang'. Carstairs believes he is being stalked by the surviving leader because of his role in the other brother's killing by police during a raid.

The second mystery gives the book its title 'The House of Silk'. This mystery is introduced when someone  involved in the 'Flat Capped Gang' investigation is murdered and found with a single piece of silk tied around their wrist. Investigations into the House of Silk are thwarted at every turn. Holmes takes a great many risks throughout the investigation, and uncharacteristically makes a number of grave miscalculations.

There was something missing from this novel that I can't quite put my finger on. Perhaps it was just different in 'theme' to the other Holmes stories I have read, which made this particular story feel it was not as wonderful as it could have been. In the end I'm not sure that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have approved of the plot. That might sound a little mysterious, but I don't want to give away too much. If you have not read any of the Sherlock Holmes novels I would recommend you start elsewhere, but fans of Holmes will find something here to enjoy.

Love it, Read it,
LR