Monday, 23 April 2012

A Game of Thrones: Catelyn and Arya Stark

Warning: This post will contain spoilers for all five books, including A Dance With Dragons. If you are currently reading or plan to read A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, do not read this post. You have been warned!

Unlike most readers of A Song of Ice and Fire, and viewers of the HBO TV series Game of Thrones - or so the internet informs me - I have loved Catelyn Stark since the moment I began the series, and strongly disliked her daughter, Arya. As they are both narrating characters, we are privy to their thought processes, and unlike most of the other point-of-view characters in Ice and Fire, Arya struck me as dull and one-dimensional. In the first book, she appeared to me to be an example of the 'rebellious tomboy' stereotype that is so popular in fantasy fiction, and seemed to have little more to her than being 'gutsy', 'fierce' and 'loyal'. How much more interesting, I thought, to read about female characters such as Catelyn and her other daughter, Sansa, who more realistically negotiate a patriarchal medieval society by exploiting traditionally feminine roles and using political strategy and intelligence to achieve their goals (Sansa, of course, is still in training here) rather than a rather anachronistic little girl who prefers slashing up things with a sword.

Now, I can't say that my opinion of Arya has done a 100% U-turn (she is still one of the characters whose chapters I look forward to least) but my initial impression of her was wrong. And part of the reason I am finding her arc increasingly interesting is the parallels I've been noticing between her and her mother, Cat.

Fans of the series often seem to lump Catelyn and Sansa together, as the two most feminine narrators, the two characters they most dislike, and - on a surface level - through the obvious physical resemblance. It has been convincingly argued that Sansa is, in fact, much more like her father, Ned, although as I've said, I would argue that Catelyn and Sansa share a strategic political (as opposed to battle strategy) aptitude which Ned lacked (both he and Robb are clearly much more comfortable on a battlefield than in a board meeting). I would like to suggest that there are also two key similarities between Arya and Cat that illuminate both characters' arcs in the series thus far, especially after Cat's death and resurrection as 'Uncat':

1. Emotion and reason: Arya, unsurprisingly for a nine-year-old girl, is frequently governed by emotion. She is impulsive and tends to act on instinct, although it has also been shown that her instincts are often right. However, her impulses are often risky and dangerous, both for herself and for others; witness her attack on Joffrey in the tussle over Lion's Paw in book one (which was morally right but strategically ill-advised) or her escape from the Brotherhood without Banners in book three, which brought her into the hands of Sandor Clegane. Catelyn almost always
behaves in the opposite manner; her decisions are usually (although not always, as I will note) rational and calculated. However, as we are privy to Catelyn's thought processes, we know that her initial reaction is often emotional, and she has to consciously push it aside to make a better choice.
To an extent, this is, obviously, common to all the characters, but there is something about the vivid violence that is often displayed in Catelyn's thoughts that reminds me of Arya, rather than, for example, Sansa, who tends to be much more passive, even in extremely emotional situations when you might expect she would be imagining horrible fates for her tormentors.

The major (and possibly, only) example of Catelyn making a poor decision that is governed by emotion is her release of Jaime Lannister at the end of book two. I personally think that it would have been a good idea to broker an exchange of hostages - Jaime for Sansa - because (a) Jaime's value as a hostage was over-exaggerated; he's a fantastic swordsman, but not a key Lannister battle commander and (b) Sansa's value as a hostage was underplayed, as proven by her forced marriage to Tyrion, where Robb could have wed her to a Tyrell. However, even as a Cat fan, I have to admit that such strategic considerations were not in her mind at her time. She did what she did because of grief and frustration, because she thought Bran and Rickon were dead and because Robb was waging a pointless war that she thought was ill-advised in the first place. Like Arya hitting Crown Prince Joffrey, the action was morally right but otherwise wrong and foolish. When Catelyn makes emotional decisions like this, I believe we can see her similarities to her daughter, who regularly names Jaime's sister and lover in her list of those she wants dead, and chooses the wrong people to kill when she is given two free deaths, because she happens to hate them most at the time. [This is not intended to be a criticism of Arya; she is extremely young, and because of this, tends to let her emotions get the better of her more often than her mother.]

2. Justice and vengeance: But arguably, this is more
important. Both Arya and Catelyn are strongly concerned with justice; which is not the same thing as desiring vengeance. Arya protests about the sham trial in book one, which results in Lady's death, because 'it's not fair'; Lady was uninvolved and Joffrey was in the wrong. Catelyn wants justice for her murdered husband, Ned, but not to the extent of starting a war. She arrests Tyrion because she believes he is responsible for the attempt of Bran's life, but when trial by combat proves him innocent, she lets him go, rather than exacting vengeful retribution anyway. Both characters, are, I think, initially distinguished by their strong sense of just morality, which differs from Ned's characteristic honour, and Sansa's courtesy; and this is a good reason to like both of them.

However, Martin shows us how a desire for justice can be distorted into a desire for vengeance, when life becomes too cruel for mercy. This is most evident in Cat's arc. Put me in the camp that believe that Lady Stoneheart, or Uncat, is crucially different from Catelyn Stark. The mockery of her resurrection is that she becomes a character that is in many ways the negative of her former self; the emotional desire for violent revenge that she carefully repressed in life becomes her raison d'etre in death. However, a similar thing seems to be happening with Arya. As she trains with the Faceless Men to become an assassin, she is allowing her desire to exact penance for the dreadful things that have happened to her family to override some of the best things about her character; her ability to stand up for the poor and dispossessed, her sense of social and moral justice.

Ironically, again, both characters exact their revenges through a mockery of justice. Uncat puts her victims through trials that are ostensibly just but inherently unfair, leading to her attempt to hang the innocent Brienne and Pod. Arya claims to be acting on her father's authority, as the last remaining Stark (she believes) when she murders a Night's Watch deserter in Braavos, and steals his boots. These actions echo legality but are in reality far distant from a proper trial or a judicial execution, and indicate how far Cat and Arya have been warped by their experiences. Neither of them can really be blamed for their current states of minds; three days dead, Cat is clearly not the person that she once was, and Arya is an emotionally damaged child. The tragedy lies in what has happened to these two characters, who were once voices of reason and sanity.

3. Their fates: It seems evident that Uncat will be 'laid to rest' by the time the series is done. A positive outcome for both her and Arya would be to discover that fate has not been as cruel as they think it has. Uncat could discover that all her children save Robb still live, and Arya could be reunited with her siblings and Jon. In this way, Uncat could rest in peace and Arya could begin to heal. Another possible outcome is that they both perish - Uncat still in pursuit of vengeance, and Arya having lost her Stark identity and all that she once was, to become nothing more than a tool of the assassins. This is unlikely, as I believe Arya will survive the series, but I believe that thematically, it would be effective. Either way, I believe that these two characters will continue to mirror each other as the series progresses. Sansa cannot take her mother's name when she goes into hiding, but when Arya needs yet another alias for selling fish in Braavos, that is exactly the name she chooses - Cat.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The best and worst of Sebastian Faulks

Just a note to say that I wrote a guest post on the best and worst of Sebastian Faulks' novels as part of the Best and Worst Series on Alyce's blog, At Home With Books. If you're interested in what I chose, you can find the link here.

(Hint: Birdsong doesn't feature at all, and the image is of Faulks's old college at Cambridge, Emmanuel, which does!)

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

'Part of that rough tribe of the mortal'

I'm a great fan of the increasingly popular genre of ‘nature writing’, with recent favourites including Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places and Philip Connors’ Fire Season. However, although it is not a genre that tends to produce terrible books, it can tend towards mediocrity; good descriptive writing abounds but truly exceptional work is rare. That’s why I was delighted to discover this marvellous book of essays – and sad that I hadn’t come across Kathleen Jamie’s work earlier. (Findings, her first collection, has shot right to the top of my to-read list).

These essays are an eclectic mix, spanning place, subject, and length – some are only a few pages long, others much longer. But nearly all are outstanding in one way or another. Jamie opens the collection with ‘Aurora’, a description of a journey towards the northern lights that is possibly the best piece she presents here, and certainly my favourite. What Joanna Kavenna struggled to do in hundreds of pages in her turgid The Ice Museum, Jamie manages in less than twenty, moving evocatively from a description of the ‘colossal, witless indifference’ of the surrounding icebergs themselves, to the radar screen that marks them out as a ‘rash of green dots’. She is also not above humour, which conveys a vital sense of herself and avoids the overly-stylised journalistic tone that sometimes afflicts travel writing. Reporting that some suggest that you can hear your own nerves working in the Arctic silence, she goes on to say that ‘Some people say you can smell icebergs, that they smell like cucumbers. You can smell icebergs and hear your own nervous system. I don’t know.’

I have reviewed this first essay in such depth because its strengths are, largely, the strengths of the other essays in this collection. As well as being a wonderful writer, Jamie is also superb at structure. This is demonstrates most strongly in a later piece, ‘The Gannetry’. Her sighting of the fin of a killer whale and race to follow the animal’s path around the island is infused with tension; you don’t expect nature writing to be page-turning, but this is. However, a structural choice that is, in my opinion, even more effective, is her juxtaposition of the description of the gannetry with reflections on her relationship with her son. This is initially frustrating when a seemingly irrelevant description of a text conversation between them interrupts the description of the killer whale chase, but is brought full circle when she reflects at the end of the essay that killer whale packs are matriarchal, meaning that grown sons remain with their mothers. There’s no need to spell out her own feelings about her son growing up and moving away from her, as she's done it all already.

As is probably obvious, I could quote endlessly from these essays, especially my other favourites, ‘The Woman in the Field’, ‘Pathologies’, ‘On Rona’, and ‘Three Ways of Looking at St Kilda’, but this review is already long. The only pieces that didn’t quite work, for me, were the shorter ones, but I think this was because Jamie did not give herself space for the full development of ideas that she manages in the longer essays, and not because they were in any way badly-written. I recommend this collection wholeheartedly, and can’t wait to read more of Jamie’s work.

In other news: I was thrilled to see Ann Patchett's State of Wonder on the Orange shortlist, as it was the best book I'd read on the longlist, and one of my top ten books for 2011. Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles has also been on my to-read list for some time, so this is an extra nudge to actually read it! I was less thrilled to see The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (because I hated The Gathering, and not sure I want to try any more of her work!) and Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (because after trying and failing to read it for the Booker shortlist, I've concluded it's Just Not My Thing). As for the other two titles, I can take them or leave them, but I've ordered both from the library. A good shortlist on the whole, I thought, with the only notable omission for me being Jane Harris's Gillespie and I - this novel really hasn't had the attention it deserves.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Uninvited cliches (& general reading round-up)

Apologies once again for a long gap between posts. I've been on holiday for a week and managed to finally catch up on some non-PhD related reading. I started off with The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones, which is reviewed below, then went on to Look at Me by Jennifer Egan. I very much enjoyed her universally-acclaimed A Visit From the Goon Squad, and this earlier novel didn't disappoint. Its exploration of the ways we create, wear and alter our social and personal identities felt incredibly current for a novel which was written more than ten years ago, and in many ways anticipates phenomenons such as Facebook and Big Brother. I'm now looking forward to reading more of her work, probably starting with The Keep.

After a glut of fiction, I turned to three works of non-fiction, which are equally brilliant in very different ways; Kathleen Jamie's Sightlines,
Edmund de Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes and Diarmaid MacCulloch's A History of Christianity. The former is so fantastic, I can't stop raving about it and will be reviewing it shortly on the blog (and probably even more shortly, going out to grab a copy of her earlier work, Findings). Nature writing seems to be an increasingly popular genre, and almost everything I've read in this broad category has been good; however, a book as outstanding as this is rare. Edmund de Waal's book on the history of one group of his family heirlooms, Japanese netsuke, and their journey over a hundred years from Vienna to Tokyo (via Tunbridge Wells), is also highly recommended; I avoided it for some time because it seemed to be so hyped, but this was a mistake.

As for the MacCulloch, I'm still proceeding through it at a stately pace (at 1000+ pages of tiny type it's not a light read) but I've been impressed by how I've found the periods and people that I know something about already as well-handled as the ones I'm totally ignorant about, a difficult feat for a historian (and especially difficult for the historian who is attempting a broad-brush approach and stepping outside his specialism, as MacCulloch does here - I haven't read anything on the Reformation yet, so he's not simply riding his earlier success!)

Proceeding to my review of The Uninvited Guests:

I enjoyed Sadie Jones' first two novels, The Outcast and Small Wars, but with reservations; I thought the quality of her writing was consistently let down by curiously old-fashioned tendencies in her exploration of her characters, so the novels seemed fresh and cliched by turns. The Uninvited Guests is a very different beast, and didn't work, for me, for different reasons.

The opening of this book was a pleasure to read, and convinced me of Jones' ability to handle a very different type of storytelling. Sterne, the stately home in which the novel is set, appears quirky and slightly surreal by turns as we are introduced to the Torrington family, Emerald, Clovis, and Smudge, their mother Charlotte, and their kindly stepfather who represents a
link to prosaic reality. When he departs in an attempt to take out a last-ditch loan to secure Sterne for the family, reality begins to feel increasingly flexible as the Torringtons' invited guests - old friends Patience and Ernest, and upstart, new-moneyed John - arrive.

Initially, Jones manages to handle this sense of unreality in a light and playful way, allowing the reader to continue to engage with the characters; Emerald and Smudge were particularly vividly drawn. However, when a group of largely working-class survivors from a train crash turn up at the house, the story swiftly lost its attraction for me. Blurring into heavy-handed symbolism (the unfortunate passengers moaning 'Hungry' at their privileged hosts? Really?) the supernatural element here invited unfavourable comparison with another recent country-house novel of class and ghosts, Sarah Waters' wonderful The Little Stranger. I felt completely distanced from the narrative, and from the characters I had begun to appreciate, and unable to care what happened next, except perhaps in the amusing side-plot of Smudge's 'Great Undertaking'. When Jones falls back onto a hackneyed climax of 'family secrets revealed' near to the end, I felt that this novel's initial spark had completely gone - and perhaps, ultimately, this cliched feel is what The Uninvited Guests has in common with her earlier novels.

Jones is definitely a gifted writer, and there's much to admire in all of her work so far. I hope that in her next novel, she manages to discard some of the traditional trappings of plot and motivation she favours and fulfils the promise she clearly has. For now, I can only recommend this book as interesting, but flawed.