Tag Archives: Harriet Beecher Stowe

An offbeat mix in my New Year book review round-up

img_0837Having just read two most unlikely companions in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Pamela Crane’s The Scream of Silence, I stumbled across two reads from earlier in the year – Jenny Diski’s The Sixties and C.S. Lewis’s autobiographical Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.

Diski, who died in 2016 tweeting to her last days, describes in her 2009 book a decade much more colourful that mine. Her sixties was the real thing, not the toned-down version of the outlying suburbs of London where I grew up. But then, who’s to say what was and wasn’t real? Written more than three decades after the events with the hindsight of a dazzling literary mind, The Sixties is the sixties that I wish I’d had, but perhaps nobody had.

I don’t have much to say about Surprised by Joy. I gulped Lewis’s fiction as a teenager, but decades later he comes across as finicky and laboured. I found this book worthy but not especially convincing in the writer’s explanation of the discovery of his faith. The account of his sadistic boarding school was the high point. I learnt recently that the school, carefully disguised as ‘Belsen’, was located in my home town in England on a road I have walked hundreds of times, probably more than once with one of his novels in my pocket.

Now when it comes to worthy, it takes a lot to beat Harriet Beecher Stowe. Somehow, I’d missed Uncle Tom’s Cabin in my reading career, so I downloaded a free copy and braced myself. I won’t comment on the theme of the book, other than to say that Stowe was a fierce critic of slavery, and that her novel sold many thousands of copies when it was published in 1852. What interested me as a writer was the difference in literary technique in the ensuing one and half centuries. Three aspects stood out: One was the manner in which the author intersperses the narrative with her own critique of slavery, addressing the reader directly before hopping back into the action; the second was the unfashionable treatment of point of view, with Stowe directing proceedings from on high and dropping into the consciousnesses of her characters at will; the third was the sometimes impenetrable rendition of slave speech, which fogs the page and invites the eye to skip down. Nevertheless, I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin greatly moving, even though I suspect that Stowe would have got a C-minus in a modern creative writing ┬ácourse.

Let me finish with something quite different in Pamela Crane’s short story The Scream of Silence. Crane writes psychological thrillers of terrific quality, and this short story – a taster of a longer work that is under way -is no exception. I loved the sense of place – the grittier side of Raleigh and Durham in North Carolina, as well as the desperate whackiness of the first-person narrator. I also admire Crane’s professional and entrepreneurial approach to the difficult business of being a writer. Look her up.

 

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