This month I’ve stayed with the European travel theme (always start the year the way you plan to continue). I particularly enjoyed C’est La Folie, not just because it has an endearing cat in it with the same name as my cat, and not just because I have visited the Limousin area of France and can picture the setting. Under its jolly, light-weight cover, this amusing account of a diffident Englishman’s conversion from town mouse to country mouse contains memorable descriptive passages and characters that are so well drawn that you care about them deeply – right down to Silent Mary, the hen.
C’est La Folie (Bantam) by Michael Wright
Peter Mayle hasn’t exhausted the market for books about rural France. This one proves that there’s room for yet another documentary about the French way of life, particularly in its heartland, where the villages retain their traditions and where stalwart characters abound.
Michael Wright, a London theatre critic and columnist, settles in a ramshackle farmhouse on the outskirts of a hamlet in the Limousin region. Unlike other fun- and sun-seeking Anglais, he comes with only a cat for company and the desire for a meaningful adventure.
He learns that it will take six months before the inhabitants of Jolibois warm to him, and a lot longer before the aptly-named La Folie is in an adequate state to receive his treasured grand piano. So he hunkers down, immersing himself in the local culture, playing the church organ as a contribution to community life and embracing the loneliness of his isolated, incomplete home. Little by little, he unravels the mysteries of working the land, the pleasures and frustrations of owning chickens and sheep, and (after the obligatory probation period has passed) the satisfaction of friendship.
Wright’s story is hilarious, honest and rich. His descriptive passages leap off the page and into your senses, so that you are right there, sharing his challenges and his triumphs. I loved this book – armchair travel at its best.
Vanilla Beans and Brodo (Simon & Schuster) by Isabella Dusi
This is a passionate, well researched and deeply observant book about the history and present-day life in the medieval Tuscan hilltop village of Montalcino. Isobel and Lou move to Italy from Australia and make their home here, among proud Montalcinesi whose reverence for ancient customs ensures their strong identity but also presents challenges to progress.
Isabella and Luigi, as they come to be known, tread carefully in their new environment, learning the social niceties and gradually integrating into village life. Isabella soaks up information and spills all her findings on to the page: the hardships of the past, the characters of the present; the structure of the four neighbourhoods or quartieri of Montalcino and their unique Sagra festival; the tradition of archery; the fame of the region’s fine Brunello wine. It’s all here – everything you could want to know about this little-understood but picturesque stop on the Tuscan tourist route.
It would have been an enchanting book if it had been better edited. It’s way too long, and suffers from the writer’s tendency to over-write every scene, with liberal sprinklings of exclamation marks to make her points. It’s such a shame; there are gems here that would gleam if only they had a simpler setting.
To Heaven by Water (Bloomsbury) by Justin Cartwright
The Guardian describes South African born Cartwright as on of the finest novelists currently at work. That may be true – his use of language is masterful – but I didn’t enjoy this miserable story about typically aimless, alienated people who aren’t sure what they want out of life, other than sex, that is. There’s sex as fun, sex as betrayal, sex as comfort, sex as power, sex as duty, sex as revenge, but none as love. And even when they aren’t actually going at it, there are too many tiresome references to breasts and cocks, which are constantly jiggling or popping up and getting in the way of the narrative.
The jacket blurb promises ‘an exploration of what we might hope for from this life, and, in particular, the possibility of transcendence’. Perhaps I missed the point, but all I found was a well-told stream of human confusion, neediness and unconsciousness. The main character, without pausing to reflect on the consequences, has sex with his son’s wife. She’s unhappy, childless, betrayed and drunk, but she suggests it, so why would he refuse? The resulting pregnancy is portrayed in an almost noble light: dad took one for the team and has made everyone happy. Yeah, right, until his son finds out. There’s always the possibility of transcendence, but in this case, there’s not a shred in sight.