A Gritty World

A Review of Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole

It took me quite a while to finish this one. It’s probably the book I read in the longest without giving up. Well, excluding reference works naturally. I bought this in a Waterstones on my first trip to London in July 2018. And it’s always had a bookmark in it somewhere. However, for the longest time, it remained my secondary read. Only after I had finished Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, I picked it up again and found it to be an actually enjoyable read, even though I had long since forgotten the introductory pages. Nevertheless, after that long hiatus this book grabbed me, and enthralled me into a world I’ve never once before considered.

The Physical Book

This is definitely not an especially well-crafted physical book, but it’s also not sloppy. The most striking thing about this relatively sturdy paperback is the striking colour palette of its cover design. One with which I really enjoyed working with for the artwork accompanying this review.

The Setting

The Gallows Pole is set in the last years of the 1760s around Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire, mostly in Cragg Vale and Mytholmyord in the Upper Calder Valley. And Benjamin Myers manages to paint a thoroughly engulfing picture of the Yorkshire moors and the villages, farmsteads, and towns within it. Without ever having been there, my mind could form a picture of the surrounding landscape and feel myself into a striking description balancing between the broad strokes and the little details.

The world Myers paints is a gritty and unforgiving one, but also one filled with glorious detail and thoroughly enticing descriptions especially of food, but also of the seasonal changes rolling over the moor. It’s the writing of a writer who is fundamentally familiar with the landscape they are describing and has done their research to form a vivid picture of life in a long-ago time, right before the onset of the industrial revolution finding its way into the small valleys of northern England.

The Characters

The Book in my hands

In The Gallows Pole, Myers tells, as the epigraph reminds us, The True Story of King David Hartley and the Cragg Vale Coiners. The story told centres around two groups of people, one one hand the Coiners i.e. farmers and workers in the Upper Calder Valley, on the other hand, the exciseman William Deighton and the Solicitor Robert Parker of Halifax working to bring the coiners to justice for defacing the currency of the land.

These two groups are a great contrast, both morally questionable at times, both morally upright in other times. As a reader, my sympathy often changed sides. Sometimes fevering with the Coiners or Clippers and their families, sometimes with those coiners around James Broadbent, who chose to become turncoats, and sometimes with the exciseman William Deighton himself. Myers really did a great job of moving the narrative focus from one to the other.

The most striking downfall of the characters of this book is their lack of diversity. And yes I know, especially with writing based on historical sources, getting a picture of for example women’s lives is often a hard task, fraught with its own trappings, but I don’t think this book would really pass the Bechdel Test.

The Plot

Several years and seasons elapse during the unfolding of the story of the Turvin clippers, as the Cragg Vale Coiners are also called. As such the book is divided into seven parts each detailing the happenings within a season from spring 1767 to 1770, with the epilogue jumping forward to 1775. It’s a varied plot, with turns and climaxes, with sexual abuse and murder, but also with harvest feasts and drinking bouts. Detailed descriptions of food follow similarly detailed descriptions of death.

The book is slow to start and even with a year to forget the first few pages of this book, I didn’t really miss them, nor can I in hindsight really figure out how they fit into the general plot except possibly as setting the mood. After that slow start, however, I found the plot thoroughly captivating and felt the cold of the night giving me cover as I travelled through the moor in the hope of securing a better future for myself as James Broadbent did.

The Writing

I think the writing of The Gallows Pole is its most striking asset. Rarely, have I felt as drawn in into an environment, rarely have I felt my mouth watering as much at the descriptions of food and drink, and rarely have I felt the cold wind of the night so intensely on my skin as when I read this book. I could go on, but suffice it to say, the descriptions are just very enthralling.

Noteworthy is how the narration of the book is interspersed with King David Hartley’s own account of events, often disagreeing with the narration on details of his nefarious dealings. I don’t exactly know how much of these accounts is fiction. I presume most of them are, but they are held in a very different style to the rest of the narration, imitating the local dialect and sociolect of the Cragg Vale Coiners. Sometimes that makes them challenging to decipher, but especially if you’ve found your way into them, they offer a great contrast to the normal narration of this book.

Additionally, ever so often especially as the noose tightens around the neck of the Turvin Clippers, Myers adds a quotation or an excerpt of source material into his writing, even more so, breaking up the flow of narration with contrasts.

Summary

I don’t know to whom I should recommend this book. It’s definitely a captivating read, well at least after the first few pages, but it’s also a heavy read, and dark at times. If you’re interested, be warned. This book isn’t always easy to stomach, but it rewards the reader with a lush landscape of fascinating descriptions and at least I am a sucker for detail. I just love the power with which the details of this story enveloped me, but I understand that such a level of detail might not be for everyone, and is often a point of contention if I discuss books with other readers.

I think if I had to finish this review with a sentence, I would just repeat the advice of the bookseller I bought this book from almost two years ago in London, “It’s a good choice.”

For my other book reviews, feel free to browse the book category. My last review was of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Next up, probably a review of Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower.

A Dance through Minds and London

A Review of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway

It’s not common that I get enthralled by a book, especially not these days. Most often this is not about plot, not about story, but about feelings, feelings and descriptions. This book took me on a very different journey than the last one I reviewed, which was The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf certainly didn’t take me as long to read, and I am willing to extend it a much more favourable review. But I think I need to make some clarifications at first.

Well, you, dear reader, might come to this and ask, why the everloving fuck I’m writing a review of what is commonly considered to be among the canon of the so-called “Classics”. I can almost hear you scream: “Well, of course, it’s good; it’s a classic!”. And on some level, I’d have to agree with that yell of despair, but let me tell you why I chose to write this as a review when there would be so many reasons to make this a discussion:

  • I think it’s funnier this way.
  • I don’t think I possess the necessary qualification, the useful background knowledge on early 20th century English writing.
  • I don’t want to make this a spoiler-heavy discussion of a book, I think is very much worth being read on its own merits.
  • I don’t want to be forced to make this about anything but my own opinion. There’s a many good discussion of this book, citing sources, taking actual discourse into account, but I just want to have fun with this.

It’s weird that I come to read this book only now. My then-girlfriend gave me this little book for Christmas 2017 after all, almost exactly 2 years ago to this day. It was a wonderful gift, but as I am with books it usually takes a while till I get around to one even if I look forward to reading it.

The Physical Book

Hiding under the dust-cover …

Its physical appearance is probably what intrigued me most about this little book when I unwrapped it on that Boxing Day in 2017. It was a small gift, and an impactful one even if its impact was delayed by two years. It’s a beautiful book, even if not a unique one in its styling. The edition I got is the one issued by the Macmillan Collector’s Library: a collection of small, little, truly pocket-sized editions of the classics of literature. Their dust-covers all held in a light pastel-blue and golden colour scheme, they hide even lighter blue thread-bound books, embossed with a floral pattern and Macmillan’s M in a square. The edges of the pages are covered in gold paint and a light blue ribbon cuts through the thin and narrowly printed pages full of text.

This book as a physical object feels like a treasure to me from appearance and feel alone. Its design is beautiful and every time I look at it there’s some little detail of mass.produced craftsmanship I failed to notice before. But what about its content?

The World & The Story Behind It

Mrs Dalloway is not set in an alternate reality, not in a different world. It’s very much grounded in real life. Characters walk and drive and wander through 1923, post-war London as they could have in real life. But London is not the setting as much as it is the backdrop for the real setting. The story of Mrs Dalloway unfolds entirely within the minds of its characters. In a way, it’s a dance through minds and London. London’s cityscape sets the beats of the characters’ minds. Big Ben signals the passing of time. The omnibus takes them through a journey in their mind.

The story of this book unfolds all within a single hot summers day, only interrupted by flashbacks through the memories of its characters. A relentless march of time set with Big Ben’s chimes at the midday mark of this novel.

The CharacterS

Our view on the story unfolding is filtered and enriched through us gliding into the mind of this and that character, seamlessly slipping between them. Under this assumption, it might not surprise you to find, a pretty diverse set of characters for a novel essentially set in London’s upper society of the 1920s. Foremost, Virginia Woolf remains occupied with the fate of women in this society. Our main character Clarissa Dalloway is the knot that keeps all threads of the plot together and lends her name to the book itself.

Our main point of view characters are Clarissa Dalloway, Peter Walsh and to an extent Septimus Warren, a shellshocked veteran and his Italian wife Rezia. Clarissa’s point of view is marked by a ton of wit and nevertheless, her stability seems frail at points, she herself is plagued by emptiness and the dread of her greying years. She reminisces about her youth, love, and her age. Peter Walsh, her former suitor, is himself just back from India as he pays Clarissa a visit. He is reminded of the rejection he had experienced at her hand, while Clarissa had a lesbian love affair with their mutual friend Sally …

To love makes one solitary, she thought.

Mrs Dalloway

I could talk much more about every single character, but I don’t think this would get to an end. The more striking fact is that Virginia Woolf managed to fit so many detailed characters into such a small book. In no small part, this is helped by her stream of consciousness style, that allows us to fly into the inner workings of so many characters.

The Plot

In turn, it’s not easy to summarise the plot of Mrs Dalloway. With its many point-of-view characters and the recurrent shifting between them, it’s definitely not an easy task to find a short description or to even follow its storyline. Even calling it a storyline feels slightly inadequate.

As such this book is almost certainly one that benefits from a re-read. I would bet it is one that grows upon me with every subsequent read through, giving me only more opportunity to get swallowed in its depth and details.

If I had to try to summarise it I would probably flail my arms around and then settle on:

  • On a hot summers day, Clarissa Dalloway is caught up in the preparations of a party she’s hosting that evening, as she gets visited by her former friend and suitor Peter Walsh just back from India and starts to reminisce about her youthful passions.
  • At the same time, Septimus Warren falls deeper and deeper into the pit of his shellshocked mind, and through inadequate (to the point of absurdity) treatment by the renowned Sir William Bradshaw and Dr Holmes, Warren is pushed towards his suicide.

In itself the plot is short, but what this book accomplishes, is less the narration of a riveting story, but an impressionistic view of British society, and especially the life women can lead within it.

The Writing & Style

Virginia Woolf’s writing seems masterful. Her sleight of hand when switching from point of view to point of view, in between so starkly contrasted characters is often almost imperceptible. The wit she imbues Clarissa with and the poignant observation of subtleties she shows, speak of a great writer and mind.

Her stream of consciousness writing reminds of her contemporary James Joyce, but in its dancing lightness I found, this prose way more accessible to my distractible mind, than I ever thought, for example, Ulysses to be.

Woolf’s prose is imbued with lightness and an uncanny ability to convey the passing of time and the emptiness, so many of these characters feel. It’s hard to not get drawn in by the often fitting and sometimes humourous observations this book makes, and it’s very hard to not feel strong emotions with it. Of course, the elaborate style also takes its toll on the reader. At least for me, this book was not at all a quick read despite its size and relatively small length.

The Themes

There’s more than one theme hiding within this dancing prose. I talked about many of them in my revue of characters already, but I don’t think it would be amiss, to point these themes out again. Mrs Dalloway is not an easy book at all. It’s ram-packed with heavy themes, hiding in so beautiful a prose.

There’s the theme of a troubled state of mental health. Almost certainly something Virginia Woolf felt very acutely herself. After all, she herself had a long history with depression. Mixed in is the trauma World War I left behind, most obviously manifest in the character of Septimus Warren. And at last, there’s Woolf’s unique perspective on women in early 20th-century society, with their lives and success, their relationship to their husbands, age, and not to forget outside of heterosexual love.

Summary

This book is, without question, worth reading. However, I do think it’s appropriate to warn any potential reader. First, on a mostly practical point, this book talks about mental health and suicide, not everyone will be able to stomach such topics. Second, I do think to enjoy this book, you have to like or at least be fine with stream-of-consciousness writing. It’s a masterful example, but nevertheless, it takes some getting used to stream-of-consciousness writing, and this book is definitely not an easy read.

I love the impressions this book has left behind and I loved the experience of bouncing from mind to mind from character to character. Its perspective gives a very unique look into British society. It’s definitely a book on my “Read-this-again!”-list.

My last book review was about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. Next up: The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers. You can check out my reviews of 1956 Eurovision here or read my serial fiction: Touching a Tree

Incidental History

A Review of Micheal Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

This is a special book for me. It’s a book that accompanied me for some troubled months of hardship, turmoil, and uncertainty. It’s a record holder. It is the book that took me the longest to finish. I have laboured longer on certain books. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen comes to my mind, but I’ve never laboured this long on a book and not put it away unfinished. Putting a book away is not a failure, but there’s a difference to having to put a book back in its place with the knowledge that I won’t come back to it for a long time or potentially even forever. This book was different.

It never managed to excite me enough to finish it quickly, but it also never bored me enough to not want to read further along. In a way that was torturous, but in a meta way it was also a very interesting experience. Of course, that experience was contingent on my shaken up mental health, but we don’t need to get too far into that right now.

Life's Library Book Club

I got to this book through John Green‘s internet bookclub Life’s Library. It was read and talked about there throughout June and July 2019 and it was at a point where I could jump in after Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost had made me miss two reading periods. (Maybe that too is a book I could talk about in future.) Anyhow, I started reading it about 10 days into the reading period, and it took me on a now 5-month ride, I want to tell you about.

The Physical Book

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Gallows Pole

To my shame, I have never been a paying member of Life’s Library but had always worked to find the book in question through other means, sometimes in a German translation. To my further shame, my lingering depression made it seem the easiest to ignore my intentions to patronise the local bookstores and to order it on Amazon.

The copy I ordered, is the UK paperback edition of the book published by 4th Estate, London in 2010. And its cover struck me with its noirish tones and imagery. Two detectives facing each other, cigarettes stuck in each face, framed by a fedora and an opened collar. I quite enjoy that kind of punchy design, though I don’t think it’s my favourite book cover I could find in my collection of mismatched books.

The Story & The World Behind IT

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a strange book that in its own way defies categorisation. It is a mystery thriller, maybe with a dollop of the political set in a world that deviated from our current political world sometime around 1948. It hits on everpresent Jewish themes like life in the diaspora, blatant antisemitism, but also on finding and building a new home and personal trauma.

The plot unfolds in cyclic circles, expanding into the world, gaining greater reach, and then folding in on themselves hitting closer to home again. Though for the first part the book reads to me like a frankly crawling and cliched police procedural just with the odd flair thrown in here and there. The world-building gains more importance in the second part where the plot picks up on speed and twists. Frankly, that is where my reading speed picked up considerably too.

The Characters & The Writing

The Protagonist Meyer Landsmann is fleshed out to be a broken man. He’s the divorced and alcoholic police detective who doesn’t care for the rules too much. Through unfortunate circumstances, he came to work with his ex-wife as his boss and she very much enjoys the rules Landsmann doesn’t care for. But here the biggest problem of Chabon’s writing looms. He doesn’t write female characters that well. Throughout this book. Female characters even more so than male ones fall onto trodden tropes, become at times even just golden calves to drive the action, but they don’t feel lifelike. Their decisions feel at times unmotivated or ill-conceived.

I don’t think Chabon’s male characters in this book are amazing, but they are considerably more well-rounded than the women that surround them. There’s some room for a favourable interpretation of some of the flaws around female characters. Certainly, the story’s point of view character Landsmann doesn’t have favourable views of women. In a sense, the narrator’s bias against women fits in with the noirish tropes of a brooding and hurting detective. A question remains: are Chabon’s female characters in other books any better?

As much as the female characters in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union are flawed, that doesn’t detract much from the story, Chabon tries to tell, largely through the regrettable fact that the women in this story, for the most part, play a role on the sidelines of the action. They are witnesses, judges hovering above the action but they aren’t directly and emotionally involved until the book hits its finale.

There’s a fool of a devil in him that wants to feel the thrum of current, there’s a current in him that wants to feel the devil in the wire.

Page 293

What fascinated me most about Chabon’s writing is his command of similes and rhythm. His descriptions of the world enthralled me at times, they showed his research and they showed an inventiveness that was very enjoyable to me. Though this talent of style doesn’t necessarily extend to talent in crafting suspenseful arcs. Especially the first half of the book felt like a slow drag. Like an investment needed to get to the faster-paced and tighter written second part, when the circles widen from a pure provincial crime procedural to a wider and wider conspiracy.

Another uniqueness of this book is its slang. Chabon took it upon him to at least develop a rudimentary form of local slang for the colony of Jews in Alaska. It is heavily influenced by Yiddish as the title would suggest. Switching languages, especially between English and Yiddish, remains a constant occurrence in relationships to the outside world. The reader doesn’t have to follow these switches, they are fleshed out only in the dropping of certain slang words, the reader can either pick up on or look up in the glossary some editions provide. To me, the allusions to Yiddish didn’t assume the role of a big obstacle, as Yiddish is more closely related to my native German than to many other languages, but it certainly makes reading a bit harder. Especially in interaction with a full list of names and their variants, it can at times get confusing.

Summary

I am conflicted about this book. On the one hand, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union casts its feathers and becomes a suspenseful read somewhere around the midpoint; on the other hand, the first half is a bit of a drag. On one side, the book offers a rich world and an interesting conundrum, on the other side, the writing and characters are hard to get through at times. I don’t think I would recommend it to anyone who isn’t super interested in alt-history and crime, but then I don’t think this is the best these genres have to offer.

Mrs Dalloway and The Gallows Pole

On to other books, my next projects in this department are Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers. The first of which has been waiting in my to-be-read-pile for about 2 years now. It was a Christmas present made by my then-girlfriend. And The Gallows Pole has been started and unfinished since a trip to London in the summer of 2018. Buried behind work and more exciting or pressing books to read. Maybe I can finally make a dent in it.

This is my first book review on this site, many more might follow, but they aren’t here yet. If you enjoy my reviews, I’d like to direct you to my reviews of 1956’s Eurovision Song Contest entries: for example: Speaking like a German Melancholist.