“Consequences” by Penelope Lively

It is 20 years – and more than 20 books of fiction and non-fiction later – since the English writer Penelope Lively won the Booker Prize for “Moon Tiger”. Her new book,”Consequences” has all the charm and elegant understatement for which she is renowned.It is set in England and follows the love stories of three generations of one family. She concentrates on the women and shows how in each case they follow their heart, even when they are breaking conventional, society-based traditions.

The first pair leave London for a very rough, though beautiful, cottage in Somerset. There are truly lovely descriptions of the countryside, as well as their life together as Matt Faraday succeeds in making a living as artist-engraver. World War ll brings tragedy, and he is killed in action. By a series of extraordinary, but quite believable circumstances, the grand-daughter of this pair eventually follows her own passion for art and publishing and winds up at the original Somerset cottage – with an ending that even Penelope Lively doesn’t quite disclose.

Lively writes of the periods she knows so of course the book is dated – as shown by the touching photograph of Victoria Station in war-time London on the cover of the book. It only adds to the beauty of “Consequences”.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“The Good Husband of Zebra Drive” by Alexander McCall Smith

goodhusbandofzebradrive.jpg There is another Africa behind the headlines in the daily news, and Alexander McCall Smith takes us there every time he writes about Precious Ramotswe and her No. l Ladies’ Detective Agency. The first book in the series was a runaway bestseller, and this one has just as much charm, as it follows the adventures of Mrs. Ramotswe’s husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, as he takes on a case and tries to track down an errant husband.

The story is set in a small village in Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland).. McCall Smith was born in Botswana, and taught law at the university there, before returning to live in Edinburgh, which is now his home. He captures the big sky, the dirt roads that run beside the Notwane river, where crocodile lurk at the water’s edge. He also draws us into the compassion of the society, as well as the sharpness of Mrs.Ramotswe as she goes about in her tiny white van, picking up clues from neighbours who trust her. Although tactful about her husband’s temporary switch from running a big garage to trying his hand as detective, you feel a certain relief on her part as he concludes his “case” and slips happily back to mechanics , where he is a pro.

McCall Smith has a number of series running out of his Edinburgh office; the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series and the 44 Scotland Street series. Readers who love them all will welcome this new one

Reviewed by Anne McDougall.

“The Ladies Lending Library” by Janice Kulyk Keefer

ladies-lending-library.jpg This is summer cottage time in the Georgian Bay – but with a difference. The novel takes place in l963, and the families it describes came to Canada from the Ukraine, or Poland and are finding their way in a new life which challenges many of the old values and dearest memories. Not only have they just got settled in Toronto, or Hamilton, but now the problems of ill-equipped shabby cottages, endless chores of cooking and washing, as well as watching their l2-year olds as they rush down zig-zag paths to the beach almost overwhelm the mothers, as they wait all week for husbands to take the long drive up for the weekend.

Janice Kulyk Keefer concentrates on these women, waiting in Kalyna Bay, and forming a reading circle of what they considered daring titles to be kept hidden under their beds. Apart from a little gin and gossip, however, they are most excited by the new “Cleopatra” movie and the affairs, on and off the screen, of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

As the summer wears on we get a distinct impression of these newcomers trying above all to keep their group intact and conventional. The book’s ending therefore comes as a shocking surprise with the behaviour of the wife of the millionaire, and the strictest mother.

Janice Kulyk Keefer has won many prizes in Canada for her novels, short story collections, poetry and non-fiction. With this story she shows her skill and story-telling flair,as well as considerable sensitivity for a particular group of Canadians.

Review by Anne McDougall

“Two Innocents in Red China” by Pierre Trudeau and Jacques Hebert

twoinnocentsinredchina.jpg The subject is China – huge, baffling – but “Two Innocents in Red China” is a good book to tackle it.

We have the writing of not one but two Trudeaus: the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who wrote the original manuscript with a close friend, Jacques Hebert in l960, and also Trudeau’s son Alexandre, himself a ranking film-maker and journalist, who has reissued the book 47 years later with an up-to-date introduction of his own.

Trudeau and Hebert were left-wing intellectuals living in Montreal at the time Quebec was emerging from the dark days of Duplessis domination. They had both travelled considerably by the time the Red Chinese government’s “Cultural Association” was issuing invitations . Trudeau had in fact been in Shanghai in l949 just before the Communists routed Chiang Kai Chek. In l960 five Montrealers accepted China’s invitation and set off for a trip of 5 weeks that would cover 5000 miles.

At that time the West was in the throes of the Cold War and did not recognize Red China, which was very poor and feared by Westerners. The Two Innocents were to discover what was really going on – or at least what their hosts wanted them to see. Between them, Trudeau and Hebert describe quite frankly, and often amusingly, what it’s like to visit factory after factory, nurseries, hospitals, prisons, under the always-polite care of an interpreter and a guide who never leave them alone to talk privately to a Chinese citizen.

What they see is a total emphasis on work – which Mao had realized would give the down-trodden peasant class a sense of pride, as well as build prosperity for the Great Leap Forward. Even the political leaders were required to work one month a year in a workshop or in the fields.The result, the Canadians report, is a sea of smiling healthy children who today of course have built the new China, host to the Olympics and leading the world in economic expansion.

Margaret MacMillan, herself the author of “Nixon in China”,calls “Two Innocents” a charming period piece that gives a memorable picture of a China that has largely vanished. Even in l960 Trudeau and Hebert looked in vain for much of spiritual value. They longed to dream beside a Buddhist temple, or emperor’s tomb, but were whisked off to yet another film on the Red Army,or endless cups of tea before visiting a commune. Trudeau does slip off one evening and wanders the streets alone, without finding a single night-club – no jazz, no Scotch. He was gently reprimanded for the rest of the trip.

Still, you feel considerable sympathy on Trudeau’s part for a country which he points out had been invaded 40 times in the last century and a quarter, and which was struggling to improve conditions which meant 94% of the population lived in only 2/5th of the country. When he became Prime Minister ,of course,. he was the first Westerner to recognize Red China, in l970.

His son, Alexandre, writes a 33-page Introduction with some thoughtful insights into his father’s life and interest in China. He had planned to take his whole family to China when Tiananmen Square forced them to cancel. Alexandre also updates developments in China, based on his own travels there.

Altogether this is a fascinating look at the enormous country that has been so successful it may stifle in its own environmental excesses – something Mao did not consider.

Review by Anne McDougall