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The Woman in White (1859) – Wilkie COLLINS

I think I may have already mentioned my love of the new Vintage Classics range, and this one has been sitting on my shelf since the beginning of the year, looking forlornly at me, waiting for me to pick it up. And I needed something big and brash to cheer me up from all those little books I have been reading lately. What better than a famous, wordy Victorian Gothic thriller?

After being saved from certain death by Walter Hartright, an art teacher, Professor Pesca decides to reward him by offering him a job at Limmeridge House – the ancestral home of the Fairlie family. There he meets Marian Halcombe and her beautiful half-sister, Laura Fairlie, with whom he promptly fall in love. Their love, however, is interrupted by Laura’s engagement to Sir Percival Glyde, who has a terrible secret. And what of the mysterious woman in white that seems to follow them around? And who is Count Fosco, really?

At over 600 pages, I was expecting this book to take forever to read. But somehow, I really raced through it – though I think that uni holidays helped with that. Even though Collins writes like every other Victorian novelist (slowly, with the need to explain every single thing that ever happens in great detail), the plot has enough drive to get past this, and power through. It tends to drag a little in the middle, when everyone is mysteriously falling ill, but really picks up in the last act, where everything becomes a desperate race to stop the true villain. Collins has created enough mystery and intrigue to keep even the most cynical readers interested.

I know that Laura Fairlie is supposed to be the woman that everyone wants, but really, she’s a bit of a wet blanket. She has the personality of a young child, and doesn’t seem to be able to make any decision of her own without either crying or fainting. Granted, she has a few moments, but it is really Marian that is the strong, independent woman that I really identified with. It is she who realises much of what is going on, and has the inteeligence and strength of mind to not scream at every opportunity. Both women do suffer, however, from the fact that they are female characters in a Victorian novel, and thus have the tendency to proclaim that they are “only a woman”, and therefore can’t possibly be as good as the men surrounding them. And considering that there are very few good men in this novel – even Walter is a bit boring, and tends to hysterics – it annoys even me.

This is apparently one of the first novels to consist of a collection of letters and recollections of each character – like in Dracula, called an epistolary novel, for those interested – and it works really well here. It helps that you never know who is going to make it and who isn’t – each of the narrators could just as easily be killed, because someone else can just tell the story. And Collins has enough in him to create unique styles for each of his characters – clearly a writer at the top of his game.

This book is a pretty clear explanation of why Collins was so popular during his time. It’s got almost everything you could want – thrilling plot, (fairly) interesting characters, intrigue, and a smattering of commentary on contemporary social issues to make yourself feel good while you read it. And, it’s stood the test of time, and is still a ripping good yarn.

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Rebecca (1938) – Daphne DU MAURIER

How do we define literature? What makes one book more important than the other, making it more ‘worthy’ of our time and effort? This question has plagued a lot of people since the dawn of time (well, at least the last hundred and fifty years or so), and no ‘classic’ novel more than Rebecca has had more debate surrounding it. Is this simply a ‘romance novel’, or is is something a little more?

Rebecca begins with a dream. A dream of a world that is no more. We flashback to the beginning of this trail of events, and discover that our heroine (who shall remain unnamed) is in the south of France, waiting on a really rather annoying American woman. Not for long, however, for she is swept off her feet by Maxim de Winter, who marries her and takes her back to England, to Manderley, his estate in the country. It is here, however, that the problems begin. For Maxim’s dead wife, Rebecca, is causing all sorts of problems for our heroine, helped by the imitable Mrs Danvers, head maid of Manderley.

I’m not sure if the label ‘women’s fiction’ has been attached to this novel simply because the main character is a woman, and romance is involved, but that certainly seems to be the general vibe I’m getting. This novel is not just a ridiculously good read, it is also very, very well written, and explores themes and concepts that I think a lot of ‘women’s fiction’ would not dare to go near.

Du Maurier really knows how to write a good story. Not only is the style fantastic, her structuring and the such make this book very difficult to put down. A literary page-turner, if you will. The characters are brilliantly realised, in particular, Rebecca, who never makes a flesh and blood appearance in the novel. Her influences and overshadowing of every event that our heroine must attend. The only niggle that I have is that, sometimes, at the beginning of the novel, the heroine can get a little (read: a lot) annoying. Her insecurities about whether or not Maxim really loves her can get grating, but she grows out of them quite quickly, which is a relief.

There’s not a lot more I really want to say about it. I was not expecting to enjoy it, so that was a pleasant surprise. I can certainly see now why it is the favourite book of so many people – men, as well as women. I think that the ‘romance novel’ label is really not very accurate. While romance is certainly involved (in an early 20th-century, sleeping in separate beds, kind of way), that is not the point of the novel. It is more about the Gothic horror style that du Maurier is trying to emulate, which she does brilliantly. So, basically, ,go out and find this novel, read it, love it, and make sure you don’t fall in love with someone who has a dead wife (or husband), and a scary head maid.

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A Night at the Pink Poodle (1995) – Matthew CONDON

Matthew Condon’s latest book, The Trout Opera, was recently not listed for this year’s Miles Franklin Award. Thinking this odd, since it had received good reviews, and I wanted very much to read it, I figured I would read one of his earlier books to start with, and move my way up to his epic. And since I can’t read, I ordered the wrong book in. Fortunately, the one I did order, A Night at the Pink Poodle, turned out to be a pretty good read.

Icarus (real name unknown) is a man who has made himself on the Gold Coast, selling houses and apartments to the filthy rich, in a place that is unique in Australia. We see him grow into his success, find love, lose love, and battle with the rich to try and keep himself within something that doesn’t resemble bankruptcy. For, despite his position, he is remarkably down to earth and not ostentatious, enjoying the simple things in life. Like visiting his ageing parents in the suburbs. And dining at expensive restaurants, to keep up appearances.

This is a very Australian novel. No, wait. This is a very Gold Coast novel. Not that I live there, so I can’t really comment, though I feel that I might now be able to. For a place that is concerned about looking bright and glitzy, there is a lot happening just underneath that is anything but happy. Take, for example, the shifty janitor of the building in which Icarus lives. Turns out, he beats his Vietnamese wife, because he fought in Vietnam. Or perhaps the Texan businessman looking to buy an apartment who also enjoys tormenting his wife. A lot. All of these tales (for that’s what this book is, really, a collection of stories about Ick’s life – novel is so hard to define these days) show that there really is a seedy side to the Gold Coast, and the people who inhabit it.

Condon spends a lot of time talking about the tension between the appearances and the real, in both the relationships of Ick, and the landscape itself – the juxtaposition of the built-up shore fronts, and the leafy outer suburbs, where more normal characters, like his parents, and Tin Head live. He is, I think, not attempting to criticise the inner city. He simply shows it for what it is, and the drain that it can place on Ick, who finds himself retreating into the bush more and more often, despite his initial distaste for it. Though, in the end, he finds true love on the beach, so perhaps he arrives at the perfect mix.

Despite having very little to do with its title, A Night at the Pink Poodle is a good read. Not particularly long, and a bit disjointed, Ick’s life is interesting enough. You want to know what happens and, at the end of the day, that’s about all we can ask for. Bring on The Trout Opera, I say. Though before that, perhaps a look at Condon’s short story collections would be an interesting idea…

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