The capacity to forgive- Railway Man

I’m not sure why I was moved to read this book after seeing a preview for the recently released movie of the same title (starring the dreamy Colin Firth) as I tend to shy away from WWII-related books and movies- especially if based on a real event or is a memoir. Historical events of the 20th century still feel a little too close to current times that I am often discomforted by the reading of such books and rarely force myself to watch war movies as I usually end up crying the entire time. I blame being forced to watch “All Quiet on the Western Front” as a precocious 7th grader. That movie has haunted me.

Cinematically traumatic memories aside, I was intrigued by the story line for Railway Man. Perhaps it was due to my being fairly ignorant to the horrors inflicted on British soldiers within the Asian theater during WWII as more of my history centers around the Holocaust and European theaters of that time. I was also pulled in by the wonders of fate that allowed a man who was so horribly tortured and survived events that most of us can’t even being to fathom, the opportunity to 50 years later meet the man who was the interpreter during his torture and the fixation of his hatred for what he experienced.

Railway Man is an autobiography written by Eric Lomax. Perhaps it is the span of time in between when these heinous events occurred and when he was able to finally write about the events, but the book read with a sense of distance to it. Understandable given the descriptions of torture the author lived through along with his time spent in the Changi prison. Lomax was captured by the Japanese when Singapore was surrendered in Feb. 1942 and eventually ended up with thousands of other POW’s building the Burma Railway (tens of 1000’s of people died in the building of this railway). Lomax was tortured under suspicion of anti-Japanese activities due to his suspected involvement in helping to build a radio while in the POW camp. He was found guilty of this charge and transferred to another Singapore prison where he spent the remainder of the war.

Lomax had a difficult time adjusting back to civilian life and he talks at length in his memoir on this topic as he is able to reflect on how his experiences in the war changed him. He became a patient of Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in the mid-1980’s where he received counseling to help him both deal with what he experienced and document his experiences as a POW.

The most powerful part of his story is when he is able to meet the interpreter, Nagase Takeshi**, and forgive him for his part in the torture Lomax experienced.

As I finished this memoir, I couldn’t help but cry a little at Lomax’s capacity to forgive a man who was fundamental to the pain and suffering he endured. While you could argue that even if Takeshi had wanted to protest the torture being inflicted on Lomax and others that were being interrogated, this likely would have been a death sentence for Takeshi and probably not changed the outcome of Lomax’s story. My own thoughts also ran along the lines of could I forgive something so great? I think of my daily life and those of people around me and what we choose to focus on, hold against each other and allow to be unforgiven but are they worthwhile things to fall into an “unforgivable” category? Perhaps it is all relative to what we do experience in our lives. I can only hope that I never live through such a brutal and life-altering experience where my capacity to forgive, heal and find peace at what I endured at the hands of my fellow man would be tested. I honestly don’t know what the outcome would be.

Railway Man also reminded me that WWII stories need to continue being present in our 21st century world. More so as fewer and fewer are left to share firsthand accounts, and sadly being replaced with others from different generations who have their own difficult memories to battle.

**Nagase Takeshi wrote his own memoir called Crosses and Tigers and spent much of his life post-war leading people back to the Burma railway to discover the mass burial graves of railway workers. He also financed the construction of a Buddhist temple at the River Kwai bridge as part of his atonement for his part in the war.

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Fingersmith- Cleverly Dickens-esque or sadly underwhelming?

The wonderful ladies of my book club and I decided to venture down a new literary path with a novel that was described as being “a hypnotic suspense novel…of Dickensian leitmotifs” and an engrossing tale of lesbian fiction set in the Victorian era. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is the story of an orphan named Sue who lives in gloomy, dirty London, circa 1862. Her adoptive “mother” is a thief and baby seller (yes, she literally runs an orphan baby mill in her house like a modern person would have a puppy mill) and everyone else in the “family” are also thieves. Sue’s life is destined for nothing until a handsome con man called Gentleman proposes that Sue help him in a scheme to trick a young, wealthy woman out of her fortune. All Sue needs to do is play lady’s maid to this woman, help Gentleman to marry her and then commit her to a madhouse so he can claim her fortune for himself and give Sue a portion. Sue agrees to this plan and off she to goes to the English countryside.

Introduce Maud Lilly to the novel, the above aforementioned wealthy, young woman about to be duped into marriage. She lives a secluded life with her Uncle who is obsessed with writing a “dictionary” and is forced to wear gloves at all times to protect the precious books in the Uncle’s library. Maud is presented to the reader as being timid, delicate and in love with Gentleman, who has been posing as an art instructor to Miss Lilly. As Sue interacts with Maud in her role of lady’s maid and attempts to do her part to encourage Maud to elope with Gentleman, she begins to establish a friendship with Maud beyond that of lady and servant and eventually admits to herself that she has fallen in love with Maud. This causes her to start questioning her role in Gentleman’s scheme but in the end, she assists Maud in her elopement, is present when Maud and Gentleman marry and make the journey to the madhouse to have Maud unknowingly committed.

At this point in the novel, the conclusion of part one comes with a very Dickens-esque twist and the novel continues with Maud as the narrator. For all that I struggled to find a rhythm to this novel and did not devour it with my usually voracious appetite for an engagingly written tale, there were some plot twists and points that made this novel an interesting read:

1) At the end of part one, Sue ends up being the one committed to the madhouse under the name Mrs. Rivers

2) We learn that Maud was aware of the scheme to marry her to Gentleman and have her committed the entire time but her own deal with Gentleman was to have the innocent maid he would bring back with him from London committed in her place so she would be free of her Uncle.

3) Part two is told from Maud’s point of view and we learn that she was born in the same madhouse that Sue is committed to and her mother died there.

4) The “dictionary” her uncle is working on is actually a reference book for all known literary pornography of that time and she is forced to read passages from books of this nature to gentleman guest who have a similar interest in that genre

5) Maud also falls in love with Sue but still goes through with the plan to have Sue committed in her place so she can be free of her Uncle.

Part two ends with Gentleman taking Maud back to London and forcing her to stay with Mrs S., Sue’s adoptive mother. It is at this time that we learn Mrs. S. was the true mastermind of this plan for over 17 years. There is a convoluted storyline where we learn that Sue is really Maud and Maud is Sue meaning that Sue’s real mother was a wealthy lady that had escaped her abusive father and brother  and gave birth at Mrs. S. place. Her family found her and she begged Mrs. S to keep her baby safe with the promise that her daughter and the switched baby would each split her fortune on their 18th birthdays. Mrs. S agrees and gives one of the orphan babies, Maud, to the father and brother who take her and her mother to the madhouse where she is raised by the nurses until her Uncle claims her at a later time. Maud then turns out to be Mrs. S. child and not an orphan child at random. Mrs. S wanted to have Maud brought home so she could see her again and also claim all of the fortune that had been promised by Sue’s mother, the wealthy lady.

Still following? Congrats, because this piece of the novel was an absolutely bear to get through! Felt like I needed to draw it out with crayon so I didn’t lose who was who. The quick summation for the rest of the novel is that Sue manages to escape the madhouse, makes her way to London, perceives that Maud has replaced her in Mrs. S. life, attempts to exact revenge, learns the awful truth about plot and her birth, Gentleman is killed, Mrs. S. is hanged for the crime, Maud disappears, Sue comes into her fortune, returns to the country house, finds Maud living there and supporting herself by writing her own literary erotica and they insipidly declare their feelings for each other.

For a novel that is toted as pushing lesbian fiction to be more mainstream, I found this part of the book to be very lacking in development and not as central to the overall story line as I had thought it would be. My book club members and I picked this novel as we were intrigued by how a suspense novel involving a lesbian couple set in an era where relationships of that nature were kept in secret could be presented and were drawn in by the multitude of praise given to this title. I can praise the author’s historical accurate and chilling description of Sue’s time in the madhouse, but overall, I was underwhelmed by a book that I had high hopes for and that just sucks. At our book club discussion, my friends and I had too many questions that we would love to pose to the author: Why was the literary pornography piece included and written about so much? It didn’t seem to explain anything other than her husband’s depravity and then later give Maud a source a income. Why wasn’t there more development of Maud and Lilly’s relationship? Are our expectations to high in this modern age to appreciate the more subtle shadings of development the author employed to progress their relationship? Why in the hell was the last part so damn long?? 100+ seemingly endless pages on Sue’s escape from the madhouse, her travel to London, stalking Maud for days and then about 12 pages surrounding the culmination of all the cross plots and Gentleman death.

We have since been told that this is not the best of Sarah Water’s novels and while I am intrigued by the summations for her other works- Affinity and Twisting the Velvet- I find myself shying away from attempting a second title after being burned so disappointingly by Fingersmith. Guess I’ll soak my figurative fingers in icewater and see how I feel in a few weeks.

 

2 for 1 book plots

Over my long 5-day holiday weekend, I unabashedly indulged in two of my favorite activities: napping and reading. I think I made it through 4 or 5 books and as many hours curled up on the couch or bed napping. Ahh…glorious staycation.

I had an interesting observation with two of the books I picked up over the weekend and that was the plots seemed to be combination of at least two plots from other books/movies. For instance, Twisted by Andrew Kaufman seemed to be a blend of “Silence of the Lambs” and “Shutter Island.” Take one psychologist working with a serial killer in the wing of a asylum reserved for the top level crazies (the description of some of the other patients instantly reminded me of SotL; the scene where Clarice first meets Dr. Lector….walking down a long hallway because of course the person of interest is located at the end…having to pass by the other “crazies” including the sex fiend jacking off…that chilling first look at the patient/inmate in the cell…key camera zoom in), said psychologist starts to have strange things happening to him at work and at home, starts to believe that the patient/co-workers are plotting against him, goes on destruction mode to prevent patient from accomplishing sinister plot and final twist of the book is the psychologist wakes up in a mental hospital to realize his mind had created an entire fantasy world for a year to avoid dealing with the death of his son and the crazy serial killer in his fantasy was a twisted projection of his own psychologist who was pushing him to come out of his shell and thus became the fantasy villain. AKA- Shutter Island- detective and his partner investigate a missing person on an island that houses a mental asylum, detective suspects there is some crazy, sinister plot afoot between the doctors at the hospital, that they are out to get him so he can’t expose the truth of what happens at the hospital, goes on the, you guessed it, destructive rampage, only for the plot twist to also be that he is a patient of the hospital, his partner is his therapist letting him act out the investigation in an attempt to help him come to terms with killing his wife who had drowned their children. (Side note- at the end of the move, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character ends up being lobotomized.)

I hate to use the word cliché as I feel that has some negative connotation to it but I also think it is fitting. Twisted was an enjoyable read and I wasn’t sure where exactly the storyline was going to go but overall, I was glad that it was one of the $3.99 or less deals for Kindle. Somewhat re-worked plot aside, I would be curious to give one of the author’s other novels a try. My biggest beef with Twisted was at the end when the main character wakes up out of the fantasy and is ready to start living in the real world again, his wife basically says ‘oh honey, it’s ok that you retreated into yourself for an entire year, leaving me alone to deal with my own grief and reality but I don’t have a single iota of resentment against you so now we can just go back to our puppies and sunshine life again.” Ugh. Now before anyone starts posting comments that I’m being insensitive to the effects grief can have a person and that people don’t necessarily consciously choose to retreat from life in such a fashion, I’m more irritated that the author wrote an entire novel dealing with some very serious, deep issues and then tied the book up with a pretty, pink bow at the end in about 3 pages. I’m an absolute hopeless romantic and, generally speaking, love a happy ending but something about this one just bothered me. Anyone else read this story and feel the same?

The other novel, the Einstein Prophecy, well, I think you could argue that it’s a mish-mash of several similar plots- Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy, and Monument Men. If you have seen all three movies, then you can essentially weave together the plot of this book. If you haven’t, honestly, watching each movie will be more entertaining and feel more original than reading this book. Again…thank you Amazon for the $1.99 pre-lease kindle deals. I might have cried if I had paid more