Book review: Five Quarters of the Orange

I discovered Joanne Harris through Blackberry Wine; a quirky, light-hearted story narrated by a bottle of wine, depicting beautiful and mysterious rural life in France. It was filled with comical anecdotes and left you feeling warm and filled with fermented grapes. Harris is a phenomenal story-teller, and paints the most intricate pictures in your mind, swiftly marking her as a new favourite. So when I picked up Five Quarters of the Orange I expected more of the same – idyllic countryside and slightly odd-ball neighbours. I don’t think I could have been more wrong about this book; not in terms of its quality, but its content. It is indeed set it rural France, but not with the romantic holiday setting as I’d previously read – instead, it depicts intrigue, conspiracy, deceit, and violence, revealing a darkness I had not expected.

Five Quarters of the Orange is the story of Framboise Dartigen, recollecting her childhood with an erratic mother, image-obsessed sister Reine-Claude, and know-it-all brother Cassis. At the cusp of the Second World War, when the threat of German invasion was prominent in Paris but not in the minds of those in Les Laveuses, the children befriend people they should best leave alone, and what transpires is an unravelling of their lives. Now an old woman returned to her childhood home under a new name and the guise of a crêperie, Framboise tries to remember her past whilst forever running away from her identity.

What Harris is able to do is encompass you in the world between the pages, so much so that you feel as though you can smell the bread, feel the rush of the murky Loire beneath your feet, taste the oranges that haunt Mirabelle so much. That is the true craft of this book; between the pages and the words, much like the album Framboise has of her mother’s, is the real thread of the tale, and the complexities within the people themselves. Amidst the fields and rustic dirt roads, flitting between the 1940s and present day, there lives a lie that darkens each corner, revealing horrific acts and concealed crimes, drawing you in deeper, further from the banks of safety.

This is a book to contend with – not to be read fleetingly, a page here and there, but one to hold on to, to disappear through, to forget time in. Perhaps you can tell that I’m being somewhat cagey, keen not to reveal too much or ruin the twists and meanders. As when fishing for that elusive, mythical pike, it takes patience, understanding, respect, and above all, deception.

A Degree of Difficulty

In January last year I wrote an article about my disappointment with my degree – being half way through I felt underwhelmed, and slightly let down by my university. Contact hours were incredibly low, and it wasn’t exactly the intellectual stimulation I had expected to get from a degree course, despite its 50% practical nature.

I am now nearly at the end of the degree. Yes, I stuck with it, pushed on through, and have come out the other side with what I hope will be a first class qualification and ample experience to place me in good stead for the next step. I cannot say, however, that I am now satisfied with my course – in fact, the opposite is again, sadly, the truth. That’s not to say my degree, for what it has turned out to be, isn’t a very good course – it would be unfair of me to imply that any disappointment is due to a fundamental failing within the faculty. My frustration comes from my expectations of what a degree course should be, and what was not matched from the one I inevitably chose. Changes are underway to improve the course every year, and comments I make here have been expressed (albeit slightly more sugar-coated) to my course director so things might begin to shift in the future. For the moment however, all I can do is express my experience, for better or for worse.

When entering into your final year of study at university, one could feasibly expect the work load to increase – suddenly, you’re working towards 65% of your final mark, have a dissertation to contend with, as well as the prospect of having to find a job come summer. This year has been no different to the last two, and in fact my work load dropped again in first semester. I’d begun some minimal dissertation research over the summer, so wasn’t too concerned or intimidated by the prospect, instead looking forward to three new modules in October. These modules were finally incredibly interesting, and I have found myself more engaged intellectually this year than the last – a Research class required reflection of the course, giving me a reason to look back positively, whilst studying one of the lecturer’s research areas provided me with more brain stimulation than I’d had in a long time. These all left me feeling slightly relieved, and keen to continue progressing for the rest of the year.

Now, I am half way through my dissertation – around 5,000 words written of a possible 8,000 – tackling more material that completely baffles me, although this all of my own choosing due to the nature of my study topic, and am looking forward to my final acting performance coming up in June. That class in particular, staging Caryl Churchill’s Fen, has proved to be the most obvious progression in my  learning that I’ve had during this degree. In one rehearsal, I finally managed to break out of my intellectual acting mode, which has admittedly got me through with good marks thus far, and instead related emotionally to my character, much to the joy and relief of my stoic director. Despite not being an academic class, I did enter into a Theatre degree due to a passion for performing, and to see myself visibly improve in such a way has given me a great deal of satisfaction. Continue reading

A Tribute To My Mother

I’ll admit it straight away – I was, and always will be, a Daddy’s girl. When I was little, I had him wrapped around my little finger; when Mum said no sweets, I’d turn my hazel eyes and dimpled face to Dad, and wait for that inevitable “oh alright then”. My first word was “Dad”, and I resolutely refused to say “Mum” for a little too long. It’s just one of those things, but luckily one that doesn’t always last forever.

My relationship with my father was always relatively easy – we have the same temperament, happy to sit in silence at the dinner table in each other’s company, whilst Mum says again and again “why aren’t you talking to each other?!”. It’s a quiet, strong, and secure relationship that I treasure incredibly highly; my Dad is an incredible man whom I trust and love beyond all else, and gave me a protected and wholesome childhood.

My relationship with my mother has always been slightly different. Our personalities are dissimilar, I always saw her and my sister as getting on better, and I think we often found each other frustrating. Whether or not that’s just down to the mother-daughter conflict, I’m not sure. But it’s just one of those things – a different way of interacting that takes time to mature and relax.

Now, I see my mother as an inspiration, a truly remarkable woman, whom I am only now beginning to fully appreciate both as an incredible parent, and a growing friend.

I’ve always known that Mum’s own childhood wasn’t all rainbows and lollypops – the youngest of four, growing up in 1960s South Africa, divorcing parents, and not the best economical circumstances. But I think all this made her the fiercely strong woman she is today, and I wouldn’t for a minute think any of these factors put her at any disadvantage. My parents had a whirlwind romance, marrying just 6 weeks after their first date (which was 1 week after they’d been properly introduced), and within three months Mum was pregnant with my sister. Surrounded by family, it was a surprise but they got on with it, and within months of my sister being born Dad was transferred to America with work. They packed and left everyone they knew, heading to Brooklyn, NY, with little money, and only a tentative work contract. Which fell through. And thus a year-long adventure in America began, my sister sleeping in a drawer, Dad getting a little work, and Mum getting to grips with raising a child in a country, culture, and community she didn’t know.

Returning to South Africa, it was another 5 ½ years before I came along – a bit of a change to my boisterous sister – and my parents made the decision to leave for England, again with Dad’s work. But this was for the benefit of mine and my sister’s futures, with more prospects and security in the UK than South Africa could ever offer. So Mum packed up again, leaving her family to travel far away, this time permanently.

When I think about it too much, I don’t quite know how she did it. Left with a 6 year old and a brand new baby whilst Dad went to work – often commuting for an hour or more each way – Mum set up house, found a school, and a work-from-home data analysis job. And thus went 15 years of my life.

Continue reading

Book review: S.

It’s a popup book for adults. A write-your-own, multi-faceted, not quite chronological book that will definitely require more than one reading. Ultimately, S. is unlike any book I have ever read. The collaboration between filmmaker J J Abrams and academic and author Doug Dorst is what gives such remarkable attention to detail and sophistication.

At its core, it is a mysterious conspiracy book, with a mix of murder and romance, as two strangers discover each other’s lives through the margins of a library book and uncover secrets and hidden mementos within the pages of a shared passion. S. follows Jenny and Eric as they delve deeper into The Ship of Theseus, the last book written by the elusive and unknown V. M. Straka, which is in itself an incredibly unusual tale of memory loss, new identities, corruption, and violence, mixed in with possible magic and elastic time.

What I instantly found intriguing was the question of authority that surrounds The Ship of Theseus which is discussed by the two main pen pals – it is a question that is constantly discussed with Shakespeare, and one that here begins to unravel a secret society that might just still be around today. The story within The Ship of Theseus is one of equal complexity, in a bizarre mix of fantasy, time travel, and historical references that almost pass you by.

The key to this book is the level of detail that has gone into its narrative and presentation – not only do you have the fully-written Straka text, but also a hugely complicated dialogue between the two readers over the course of months and years, their handwriting becoming increasingly familiar as you move further through the pages, time indicated by different colour ink and subtle changes in mood within the notes and annotations. That, coupled with photographs, newspaper cuttings, and letters that make a fat and incredibly satisfying hardback, make this unlike any adult fiction I have ever had the pleasure of picking up. It reminds me of the fairy handbooks I used to love as a child, uncovering tiny letters and packets of fairydust from cleverly illustrated pockets. But S. provides so much more than just novelty pull outs – it has something that intrigues you at every page, and the chance to read it in an entirely different way every time you open its cover. Continue reading

Finding That Foothold

I do enjoy a good climbing pun, but actually this post isn’t really all about climbing. In fact, it’s barely about climbing at all. It’s about swimming.

I’ve not swum properly (eg. lengths, rather than paddling on holiday) for at least 5 years – definitely not since I started wearing contact lenses when I was 16. So when I braved my local pool, the first thing I noticed with great joy was I could actually see underwater wearing goggles – a small feat, but a novelty nevertheless, which made the whole re-entering the water a slightly less intimidating prospect. The second thing I noticed was how difficult it was to breathe, and how obviously long it had been since I’d even attempted to swim correctly. It took 20 lengths – stopping every 2 for a breather and a back-stretch – to get my breathing right, which then made the last 10 lengths much more straight forward. So after a 5 year minimum break, I managed 750m in the pool, 90% breaststroke, 10% front crawl.

And remarkably, my back was not sore. I didn’t ache, I didn’t twinge, and I felt like I’d been supported throughout the 45 minutes of exercise. Now I realise that water does literally support your bodyweight, but I’d never needed to fully appreciate it until now. Last week my back completely regressed, my pain scale going from 2/10 to 8/10 in the space of 24 hours of very minimal movement. Such a relapse after an apparently awesome recovery was a big blow to both my confidence and motivation. Despite this, I managed to work the crux (ie. hardest) moves of a 7a down at the Cuttings, and as I’d mentioned before the injury is slowing my climbing down and making my moves more conscious. Which I can already see is going to benefit me immensely.

But it is the rediscovery of swimming that I think is going to save me. Yesterday I upped the lengths to 40 – a good solid 1k swim. And it felt so good. I’ve never been one to run, having a tendency to develop a stitch 1/2 mile in regardless of whatever tricks I try. Cycling bores me at the gym, and anything else I’m too unfit to really feel able to give it a go. A vicious circle of complacency -> laziness -> lack of fitness -> lack of motivation. But I think this might have been broken. With another swim session planned for a few days’ time, with a friend who’s army-trained and always keen to push me, I think I might have just found the exercise I need to keep motivate, regain my strength and fitness, and maybe aid in the recovery of my back. I’ve found that next foothold to keep me going.

Review: Ice Tea

I always find it exciting when people I know take on big projects, and make steps towards achieving goals that I would probably never set for myself. Therefore when four of my course mates (Aaron Douglas, Luke Pierre, Henry Jones, and Tom Thirkell) set up the Inventive Sabotage Theatre (IST) Company last year, at the start of our final year at university, I was intrigued to see how they’d go forward. I’ve worked with them all before in various forms – and have directed Douglas and Pierre in my own production of Look Back in Anger – but I know them all to be passionate, and determined people when they set their sights on something.

I was sad to miss their first production, Waiting for Godot, which I heard endless praise for. However, I got in quick for tickets to their first original piece – Ice Tea – which promised to be bold and exciting. With five more course mates performing, I couldn’t miss another chance to support them in their new journey, and I am very glad I went along.

Ice Tea is set around an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting – we arrive and are given name badges, people come up and chat, asking if we’re nervous on our first day, and quickly as audience members we realise that actually, we are sitting in on a meeting and are bound to hear some interesting stories. And I must admit, the lure of free ice tea (in peach or lemon of course), is always a good thing!

The concept is relatively simple – engage with the audience by introducing characters at intervals, with confrontations, arguments, emotional monologues, and the odd well-developed flashbacks. But it is in its simplicity that Ice Tea has its genius as the characters are remarkably complex; from Elle (Abigail Oscroft) the abused girlfriend, to Jerry (Josh Howell) the hysterically funny ‘businessman’ who has a secret, or Neil (Michael Tumbiolo) the angry young man in devastating turmoil from his past. It was Tumbiolo who stole the show for me, and all in the last twenty minutes. Remaining relatively silent throughout the majority of the production, the character of Neil appeared brooding, discontent, and frustrated – one could easily assume this is due to him being forced to an AA meeting. But it is in the final few scenes that his story comes out, and it is one that had me holding back tears. The amount of emotion and expression that Tumbiolo had held throughout the previous hour and a half exploded in a raw, human, visceral way which left me chilled and breathless.

However this production is pretty non-stop – ranging from the depths of despair to the heights of comedy, the cast had their work cut out for them with minimal off-stage time, and a need to remain in character throughout, even in the ‘ice tea’ breaks. The skills and concentration required for this are not to be sniffed at.

The four founders of IST all took a collaborative part in directing the show, and achieved a cohesiveness that can be tricky when working with so many people. This is testament to their cooperation and the way in which each director compliments the other – there were no odd scenes that didn’t fit, or styles that pointed towards inharmonious collaboration. Instead, what Ice Tea proved was these are guys to look out for, and they have most definitely hit the ground running. Even with just a few months left at university with them, I know I’ll be following their every step closely from now on.

Find them at:

Anniversary of Injury – and Injury #2

So, the first follow-up to The Journey Begins, and it’s a slightly frustrating one. On the 10th February 2013, my back went into spasm just four months after getting into rowing. It was a huge blow as I’d found a sport (aside from climbing) that I absolutely adored and was passionate to get involved in, and then discovered that my very skeleton was at odds with the movement. Scoliosis and an over-rotated pelvis meant the pivot motion of rowing overstrained my lower back, and thus followed 2 months of physio. It was a frustration, I gave up rowing, and decided to get better and focus again on climbing. Things improved and this year I set myself a climbing goal.

9th February 2014 – a Sunday morning climb at a local wall, psyched to start the training and begin to make an impression on my little plan. During my third climb of the day I reached through and something went in my back – a twist and crunch assured me that all was not well. By the evening, I couldn’t get off the sofa, pain radiated across my lower back and seared down my leg. Within 48 hours I was walking (slowly), and managing the pain with ibuprofen, but an emergency doctor’s appointment on Friday confirmed that I had slipped a disc. At 21, that is an even greater blow than mere muscle spasm, and 2 weeks later, whilst I’m no longer on prescribed pain killers, I’m still very stiff and starting physio (again) tomorrow.

The first week was a bad one. I think I was lower than I realised, and behind closed doors was close to tears thinking about what such an injury early on could mean. Stretching hurt, walking hurt, sitting hurt, and I have no idea if this is going to impact me permanently or become a recurring part of my life.

However, this weekend I went to Portland for the first outdoor trip of 2014. For better or for worse, I decided I was going to get on the rock – I can’t sit around waiting to get better, and movement I have read will help the recovery and mobility of the back. So with over-cautious movements, I got myself up a warm-up grade 5, sitting on the rope every few moves, calculating where to go. For the first time, I was concentrating on the movement of the climb, not the exposure, state of the rock, or the top. I slowed down immensely, trying out body positions and making the moves in a way that wouldn’t strain anything further. A greater sense of body-awareness meant that whilst I probably could have climbed it clean in one go, I climbed it well with no ill-effects. It was a beautiful day, feeling like spring after all that rain and greyness. Trying a 6b was a little ambitious and I called it quits half way up, the awkward bridging moves unwise as they’d cause me to twist. But a second 5+ was a calculated and calm ascent, completely clean with only a little bit of ledge fever faff. Continue reading