The Fiction Faction - Archive - July-December 2004
Elizabeth Baines

July 2004
The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Anne suggested this book. As a textile conservator, she listens to a lot of novels on audiotape while she works, and has found that traditional narratives lend themselves far better to this medium than modern novels with non-linear structure and scant use of plot. Consequently, she had worked her way through all of Trollope’s Barchester novels except this one, another satire on the institutions of mid-nineteenth century English society - the Church of England, the Press and Parliament - and also, in particular, on the destructive potential of over-zealous reformers. It is the tale of a mild clergyman who becomes unwittingly embroiled in a public controversy over his wardenship of an almshouse for old men.
At our meeting in Anne’s flat she introduced the book and said that although - interestingly - she had found Trollope's prose tedious to read rather than listen to, she had nevertheless very much enjoyed the portrayal in this book of the life of the almshouse and of small-town clerical society.
Of the rest of us, who were generally unfamiliar with Trollope, most had similarly mixed reactions though were less positive than Anne towards the book, the exception being Martin who had found he liked it very much. Most found Trollope’s prolixity immensely tedious, the sections of satirical mock-heroic coming in for strong criticism (and many saying they’d skipped them), these sections recalling the much earlier Pope and Dryden and thus giving the book a particularly dated feel for a mid-nineteenth-century novel.
Don objected to Trollope’s narratorial intrusiveness and tendency to ‘tell rather than show’ and failure to allow the characters to breathe for themselves. Some of us felt that this technique was acceptable in a broad and even savage satire, as much of this book is, and others thought Don’s criticism applied inappropriate modernist and psychological standards to a novel written in a pre-Freudian context. Don insisted however that many nineteenth-century novels manage deep psychological insight.
Some pointed out that there was psychological exploration of the Warden in his dilemma, and we came round to the conclusion that the book foundered on a conflicting mixture of modes. Jeanne noted that the love situation between the Warden’s daughter and his reforming persecutor remained unaddressed in psychological and moral terms, and that a pivotal narrative opportunity was thus wasted by the author.
I said that the examination of the Warden’s moral crisis had however finally won me over and indeed moved me to tears, at which Don protested that the Warden had had no such thing as a moral crisis but was merely worried about his reputation, and for the first time that evening our discussion, which had been as genteelly suppressed as the world satirised in the novel, exploded into a proper argument, with everyone else against Don on this point.
After which, we talked of other things and ate the particularly tasty nibbles and dips which Anne had laid on.

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August 2004
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

We met at Trevor’s to discuss this book of his choosing, the famous and once infamous 1959 novel about the obsession of adult Humbert Humbert for twelve-year-old Dolores Haze (Lolita), his subsequent possession of her and ultimate loss.

Introducing the book, Trevor said that he had found it even more brilliant than he had remembered. Part of the brilliance, he said, was that the author avoided making this basically tawdry tale titillating, and that this was down to the integrity of Nabokov’s superb prose and especially to his humour - the fact that in every scene Humbert’s lustful obsession was distanced for the reader by being made funny. The rest of us agreed that there is savage humour throughout, and in particular we relished Nabokov’s inventive and ironic verbal punning, but we could not view the book as exactly funny. Jeanne and I had found the book, on the contrary, almost unbearably sad.

Our sadness was not just for Lolita but also, and indeed in particular, for Humbert. This last surprised me. Like Sarah I had first read the book as a teenager, and like Sarah I had come away then with a sense of Lolita’s surprising power over Humbert, but (while knowing that reading Nabokov then had strongly influenced my own writing) I expected now to have a different view and to see Lolita’s ‘power’ as an aspect of narratorial or authorial sexism - Humbert or Nabokov excusing the adult male seducer via the patriarchal stereotype of the wily woman-child. I discovered however on this years-later current reading that the portrayal of the relationship is far too subtle and complex for such easy feminist objections, and that both this and the earlier reading Sarah and I had given it were far too simplistic: the terrible poignancy of both Humbert and Lolita is their duality.

Trevor did assert that Humbert is simply a monstrous sexual predator, but the rest of us had to strongly disagree: rather, we said, Humbert is caught not only on lustful obsession but also in a romantic love which idealises the love-object (Humbert’s ideal being a tragic combination of the innocent and the corrupt) and is thus inevitably doomed. I had expected this time round to find Humbert a self-deluding unreliable narrator, especially since, as John pointed out, his initial intention in writing his ‘memoir’ is to prepare a case for the court at his trial for murder. But this intention dissipates, and right from the beginning Humbert is painfully and explicitly aware of his own evil and indeed of both his own and Lolita’s duality. It is Humbert who finally and consciously reveals that Lolita sobs every night in the bleak No-Man’s Land of the motels they frequent on the run together; it is Humbert who suddenly openly admits: You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go. It is himself - the dirty old man in himself - he is trying to kill when he shoots the man who, it turns out, seduced and corrupted Lolita before Humbert ever got to her (and who with terrible black comedy just won’t die) - a man who, in this book full of images of repetition and mirrors, mirrors Humbert in looks and obsessive literary habits.

All three significant female characters in this book end up dying - Humbert’s first childhood sweetheart (thus arresting herself in her own pubertal image and trapping him in eternal pursuit of it), Lolita’s mother, whom he marries to get access to Lolita (most conveniently run over the moment she rumbles him), and Lolita herself (dying in childbirth once she has outgrown her usefulness as a ‘nymphet’). I was ready to see this as traditional sexist revenge on women on the part of the author, but I could not: as Don said, in the context of Humbert's psychology there seemed something right about their deaths, however contrived - an emotionally logical consequence of Humbert’s self-styled ‘satanic’ obsession, the deadly linkage in his mind of innocence and love with corruption and lust.

Though published in 1959, this novel, as Trevor said, is astonishingly modern in tone, atmosphere and subject-matter. What we found most achingly sad of all about its portrayal of arrested and damaging sexual obsession was that it touched a deep pulse in contemporary society, a pulse which we felt is throbbing right at the centre of our modern Cult of Youth.

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September 2004
Under the Skin by Michel Faber

We went to Don’s to discuss this book, chosen by him, about a mysterious woman who drives the roads of the Scottish Highlands picking up lone male hitch-hikers for a sinister purpose.
Don said he was blown away by the book, and Jeanne concurred: having previously disliked it, on this second reading she had been enthralled.

Don kicked off the discussion by noting that some critics had commented that the book was difficult to pin down with regard to genre. His own feeling was that while the book does indeed break the confines of the science fiction genre it borrows, this doesn’t matter: the mode the author sets up is carried through rigidly and entirely logically and the result is a profoundly moral book.
I agreed that it’s perfectly possible for a book to leap the boundaries of genre and indeed play with them, but I didn’t agree that the terms this book sets up are unproblematic.
It’s hard to report our discussion of this book without giving away the mystery at the heart of the narrative and thus spoiling its main point for any new reader, and this is linked to my problems with the book’s terms.
The book is located essentially in the viewpoint of the woman driver, Isserley, and begins in this way, but it very quickly becomes clear to the reader that there is much about her that is distinctly strange and that the truth about her is being withheld from us authorially. This seemed to me, as I read the beginning, merely tricksy, and I felt that my attention was being played with on a non-serious level and squandered.
Don said that this wasn’t just tricksiness: withholding the truth about Isserley while giving us her viewpoint was essential strategy in the author’s aim of making us identify with a person we would otherwise have seen as Other. John compared it to the authorial strategy of Lolita (discussed last time): there too, he said, you are forced to identify with a basically unpleasant character.
I said, But it works in Lolita because we are given intimate insight into Humbert’s psychology, whereas here, for a good section of this novel, we are denied even the basic facts about Isserley - and not only that, we are forced to be aware that facts are being deliberately withheld from us (or rather only gradually revealed to us), indeed titillated with this, which militates against total identification.
Indeed, it’s clear by the end of the first chapter that we have been initially deliberately misled about the nature of Isserley’s motives towards the hikers, and once I had adjusted I felt that I must have missed essential clues and had to read the first chapter a second time in order to see things in their new light before I could go on. This deepened my sense that the book was not making an honest contract with the reader and, in spite of my interest in the mystery surrounding Isserley, left me unengaged on that level where your deep emotional attention is committed to a book.
The book is clearly allegorical, but most usually in an allegory the terms of the alternative world portrayed are made clear in order to focus attention on the moral order of the real world being allegorised. The thrust of a good proportion of this novel, however, and the consequent focus of the reader’s attention, is the unravelling of the mystery of the nature of the alternative world being presented - the puzzle of who Isserley is, the society she comes from and the sinister industry of which she is the outrider. Narrative tension is created by only gradual revelations - which Jeanne said she thoroughly enjoyed - and many of the narrative choices and much of the diction are thus geared to put us off the track about the nature of this world. Although I pride myself on being an attentive reader, I was so put off track (and fundamentally unengaged) that I missed the crucial clue indicating that Isserley and her kind are indeed aliens in a very traditional science-fiction sense, and was much taxed trying to work out inconsistencies which dissolve once this is understood!
Inconsistencies remain for me, though, and they are an aspect of the genre uncertainty. The contemporary (Scottish) world in which the novel is set is presented for the most part in scrupulously naturalistic terms, a common technique in science fiction about aliens: the hitch-hikers speak and think in specific contemporary registers, revealing lives grounded in the accurately contemporary. But this then raises the question of the conviction of masses of lone hitch-hikers being whisked off the face of the earth, as happens in the book, in a rural environment without anyone noticing, leave alone a huge national scandal occurring.
Trevor and Don said, But it’s a fantasy!
There is indeed much in the novel fantastic enough to have caused me to take it mistakenly as an allegory of the same kind as Animal Farm or Gulliver’s Travels (and thus to miss the science-fiction tropes). But the naturalistic treatment of Scotland and the hitch-hikers doesn’t seem to me to bear the eruption within it of the non-realist (the unremarked nature of the hitch-hikers' mass disappearance), which seems then simply unrealistic. It’s no accident that allegories are traditionally set in worlds unequivocally removed from our own: the strangeness not only gives us detached insight into our own world but solves the problem of conviction.
Sarah, arriving late because she hadn’t been able to get her new baby off to bed, said she thought of the book as a fairy story (and that she’d thought it great). It’s true that the traditional fairy story negotiates a border between quotidian society and Other Beings (traditionally fairies) (and thus between our social and subconscious selves), and that the now traditional science-fiction aliens story is an extension of it. But since the book breaks the boundaries of that genre, I felt that labelling it in this way didn’t get it off my hook.
I also said that I found that the thematic focus of the book - the question of how we regard and treat other species - was somewhat narrow, or rather was made somehow narrow by the book.
Don and others protested strongly that its thematic scope was much wider than that - there was the wider issue of environmental plunder as evidenced in the ruination of the world of Isserley and her kind.
However, I felt that the book did not successfully sustain this as a theme. One can perceive on an intellectual level that Isserley’s hostile and ruined home world serves as a warning to ours and indeed Isserley notes the pollution on the Scottish beach. But the message is weakened emotionally by Isserley’s overriding attitude to our world as pure and beautiful in contrast to her own. Again, one can intellectually extrapolate and conclude that this purity is indeed what is threatened, but in a novel it’s the emotional impact which counts and, as Don had pointed out earlier, the descriptions of our world, seen through Isserley’s eyes as pure, are the most emotively convincing in the book.
Few in the group agreed that this detracted from the environmental message. Don said he also saw links with Nazism, and others mentioned the present-day treatment of Iraqi prisoners. I did concede that, prior to the meeting, John and I had noted the similarities of this book with Magnus Mills’ The Restraint of Beasts (discussed in June 2004), and also that we had all made a link between that book and the Nazi death camps.
I did agree, too, that Under the Skin is based on a wonderfully striking idea which kept me reading in spite of my dissatisfactions, and that it was written in brilliantly spare yet descriptive prose. And, though not as bowled over as Don was by Isserley’s emotional disintegration as she comes to understand the moral reality of her activities, or the class issue between Isserley and her kind, I did find these moral struggles engaging.
Doug, on the other hand, said that while he had very much enjoyed the start of the book, he had soon become bored with it. In particular he found the scenes in which Isserley picks up hitch-hikers tediously repetitive, and Trevor agreed.
And then it was time to go, and as we stepped out of Don and Jeanne’s house it started raining very suddenly and hard, and the three of us who had decided to walk struggled back through sheets of flying water which really did seem to indicate the ominous changing for the worse of our world.

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October 2004
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
by Mark Haddon

Doug said he chose this best-selling winner of last year’s Whitbread Award partly because he thought it would cause a lively discussion in a group with a member (Mark) who feels so strongly that most hyped novels, and many winners of literary prizes, are anything but great literature.
In fact, Mark wasn’t present for the major part of the discussion, as he was putting his children to bed.
Doug briefly described the book: a ‘cross-over’ novel for adults and children, the first-person narration of Christopher, a fifteen-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome and the story of his self-appointed task of unravelling the mystery of the murder of a neighbour’s dog.
Doug said he had found the book thoroughly enjoyable and everyone agreed: we had all been entirely engaged by it and most of us had consumed it in one sitting. We had found it touching and funny, and on the whole thought it rang very true, including those who had professional knowledge of the syndrome, Sarah as a doctor and John as a child psychologist.
Doug said that there were however one or two moments that didn’t ring quite true for him: there is an episode, for instance, when Christopher is embarking on a (for him, very frightening) train journey, and the police, alerted by his father, mistakenly allow him to give them the slip (which he does more or less inadvertently). The rest of us agreed that this seemed a little unbelievable and therefore narratorially manipulative. Other moments, however, such as those revealing Christopher’s relationship with his teacher Siobhan seemed utterly true and both funny and moving.
Some people commented that it was great that the book has done so much to draw public attention and understanding to Asperger’s Syndrome, though both John and Sarah pointed out that there is a danger of the book and other works such as the film The Rain Man sentimentalising the condition by concentrating on those individuals who, unlike the majority of people diagnosed as Asperger’s, have a specific genius talent (in both of these cases for mathematics).
Doubt was then expressed about the believability of a special school being able to lay on the A-level Maths teaching which Christopher has clearly had.
Doug’s main criticism was that, because the novel was located within the viewpoint of a narrator to whom the emotions of others are much of a mystery, we are denied insight into the motives behind the actions of Christopher’s parents which - in his father’s case especially - seem on the surface outside the bounds of normality.
However, both John and I thought that giving us this insight would have been technically/artistically possible: Christopher is, after all, a classic unreliable narrator; the author leads us to understand things Christopher doesn’t - this is how, in a book with a narrator with a self-confessed lack of sense of humour, much of the humour arises. The parents’ psychology could have been revealed by developing a technique already used in the book, the discovery by Christopher of letters written by his mother.
There was generally too much agreement for the lively debate Doug had hoped for, and we couldn’t find much more to say about the novel itself.
I reported that I'd recently met a couple in a neighbouring reading group, and that they had told me that the women in their group hadn’t like this book nearly as much the men had, and the man had said quite cheerfully that he thought this was because men, on the whole, were more Aspergic in personality than women.
Everyone laughed, but Sarah said wickedly that she agreed: men are obsessive and more emotionally cut off than women and more interested in numbers and facts than human relations.
None of the men rose to her bait, Don saying that they were all far too much in touch with their feminine sides to do so.
Mark, who had arrived by then, said that doctors were rather Aspergic, but Sarah refused to rise to the bait in turn and agreed: how could doctors do their jobs without being obsessive and cutting off emotionally for a lot of the time?!
I then happened to say that it bugged me that I still didn’t get one of the mathematical puzzles Christopher presents in the book, and John told me not to be so Aspergically obsessive. Then Doug’s wife Helen came through from working on her statistical reports in the next room and said that she had read the book too, and loved it because she totally identified with Christopher, which made everyone laugh again, but whether such an act of empathy makes her Aspergic is of course a moot point…
After which Mark finally got the chance to address his continuing area of concern and wanted to know how on earth such a tiny if competent and enjoyable book could have won a major literary award over everything else in the field that year.
John said, Well, how can we expect every book that wins an award to be great: how can we expect more than two or three great books every decade?
Anne said she felt it didn’t matter if less than great books are lauded or popular, because it’s time that weeds out the bad from the good. And in illustration she told us that the major art gallery for which she works had conducted a study of their past projects to discover which of them had had lasting impact, specifically comparing those that were popular (and geared to the ‘market’) with those of which they had been most artistically proud. It had turned out that those with lasting impact were those of which they were most proud.

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Archive discussions - index


November 2004
The Tortilla Curtain by T Coraghessan Boyle

Sarah had chosen this book which, beginning with a car accident in California, brings into literal collision two diametrically opposed protagonists: prosperous white American Delaney and illegal immigrant Candido, whose destinies thereafter are intertwined.
She had read and loved it some years ago, as had Mark. This time round she hadn't changed her mind (Mark was unlikely to, as he never reads a book twice), and most of the rest of us concurred, Jeanne and I indeed saying that we had been overwhelmed by the book, by its muscular vivid prose propelling a pell-mell narrative and its brilliant satire woven into a tragedy which had moved us in a way that books rarely do nowadays.

Interestingly, Don and Neil didn't agree with us. Neil had found the gradual descent of Candido and his young wife America too unremittingly grim - and that was before he got more than half-way through, at which point he gave up. Don felt, similarly, that Candido's misfortunes were too drearily repetitive and found himself skipping pages with the feeling that he'd read the incidents already, and that the book is thus structurally flawed.
I could hardly believe that he could skip pages of such emotive and precise prose, which I would read simply for its own sake, and I protested that what he saw as repetition I saw as development. What the book deals with, brilliantly, in my opinion, is the notion of consequence (most specifically, the consequences of liberal blindness), and part of the book's brilliance is precisely that the structure embodies this notion. Many if not most of the episodes are related retrospectively (via the characters' restrospective thoughts), even the opening car-crash scene being presented in this way. This is a very difficult thing to do without loss of vividness and narrative tension, but the dynamic prose and the plotting - which makes us aware of the actions of other characters bearing down on the thinker - make the scenes utterly vivid and explosive with narrative tension and a doomed sense of consequence.
Don didn't buy this and insisted that Candido's story was artificially doom-laden.
Although we thought that it was in fact a fairly realistic portrayal of the plight of many immigrants, Jeanne and I objected that it was a novel, for goodness' sake, and the novelist was making narrative choices to make a point.
Don said, Exactly, that was his own precise point: the narrative was manipulative
to the point of grand-guignol sensationalism.
In particular he objected to the ending, in which the final, possibly fatal confrontation between the protagonists is thwarted by a much huger catastrophe, and thus the issues ultimately ducked. Doug thoroughly agreed on this, and even I was briefly persuaded, but then Anne pointed out that the catastrophe is the inevitable and final consequence of the actions of both parties.
John and Doug and others of us did concede that there was a touch of manipulativeness about the plot - John said that there seemed an over-reliance on coincidence and his problem with the ending was not so much that the catastrophe occurred but that it occurred just then - but as Doug said, we found the book otherwise so great that we could live with that.
Don said that he found the characters caricatured, in particular the white Americans and especially Kyrie, Delaney's wife, who as a dealer in real estate is the most materialistic - as a result of which, he said (to our disbelief), he was not in any way moved by the novel.
I tried without making much impression to say that this was an acceptable feature of the satire (applied in particular to the white Americans), and Sarah and I both tried without impact to give examples which, far from being dreary, had made us laugh out loud: a coyote climbing the high garden fence built specifically to keep it out, as if it were a ladder erected specially to enable it, and snaffling Kyrie's two dogs effetely named after the Sitwells; the line in a passage explaining that Kyrie likes sex when she's upset: 'she'd been especially passionate around the time her mother was hospitalized for her gallbladder operation'; above all the hypocritical and deluded nature pieces Delaney writes and publishes, full of self-inflation and inflated prose, which Don considered only a minor part of the novel but which I found central to the portrayal of Delaney's flawed liberalism.
Don said that he felt that other writers - Dos Passos, Steinbeck - had dealt with the plight of immigrants more succesfully and economically, but he agreed with Trevor when he pointed out that this book is the first to link the theme with environmental issues, and that this was one level on which the book was successful.

The above discussion had taken very little time, but the focus now shifted away from the book itself, and for the rest of the evening Don and
Trevor led a discussion about the issues instead. I found this frustrating, but afterwards reflected that the book had thus had an impact after all on even those who had professed to be little touched by it.

December 2004
The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer

We had high expectations of this novel by Nobel-prizewinner Nadine Gordimer. Similar in theme to our last, generally admired book, The Tortilla Curtain by T Coraghessan Boyle, it concerns the relationship between a young white woman and a male Arab illegal immigrant to South Africa.

Unfortunately no one present at the meeting enjoyed it, and only Don had any word of defence for it. Sarah had given up after 70 pages, which is pretty unusual for her, Doug said he wished he’d done the same, I said I would have done so too if I hadn’t had to introduce it, and Trevor, who has never before been known to dislike a book, said he’d come to the conclusion that it was a load of old rubbish.
I said that in fact I’d been quite taken with the beginning in which Gordimer as narrator looks on detachedly at the scene which brings the two characters together, and states openly that she as the author is going to imagine where it will lead.
This seemed postmodern and interesting, but the narrative henceforth remained detached to an uninteresting degree, and it seemed to me that the novel failed in precisely the matter of fully imagining the characters and situation.
There was general agreement that a fundamental problem was the prose style: strangely uncertain and ungrounded, with modern slang and elisions mixed with coyly formal diction and clunking verbosity, often all within the same sentence, as well as seemingly irrational switches of tense, sometimes mid-sentence. Above all, sentences had lengthy subordinate clauses which you needed to skip in order to get the gist of the whole but in which the more vivid details were often embedded and thus lost.
All of us consequently found that sentences often required more than one reading to be understood, and sometimes we’d give up on a sentence before understanding it. Sometimes on these occasions I had the suspicion of malapropisms and incorrect and misleading use of dashes and semi-colons, but couldn’t be bothered to examine the prose to check if this were really so.
Although most people said that eventually they got used to the sentence constructions, everyone felt that the prose failed to provide a grip on the characters and situation.
I said that I found the language particularly coy, indeed sentimental in the last part of the novel and thus its subject particularly unconvincing: the acceptance of white South-African Julie as Abdu’s wife in his African home village. Anne, who has personal knowledge of such situations, said that she had indeed found the depiction very unrealistic.
Partway through the novel narrator Gordimer admits that there has been yet no physical description of Julie, and makes the point that there is never any definitive description of anyone: each person is always perceived in any number of ways by others. This is a valid enough and indeed interesting political point, but it cuts across the essential concern of a novel: to imagine, if not to visualise.
Similarly, there are moments when Gordimer only speculates on a character's thoughts and motives, at least once even making alternative suggestions, which seemed merely frustrating and an abdication of the novelist’s role. 'You're not there; I'm not there: to see' Gordimer tells the reader of the couple's situation at one point, but seeing - in terms of insight - is precisely what a reader has the right to expect of a novel.
One indication of the novel’s failure of imagination was the apparently lazy repetition of the original wording each time the moment of the characters’ meeting was revisited, Abdu continually described as ‘a grease-monkey’ emerging ‘from under the belly of a car’. Thus the moment was never imagined anew, and however ironical the description had started out, its apparently unthinking repetition began to seem patronising and even racist, and to undermine Gordimer’s evident political aims.

The net result of all of this was that, as Sarah said, the novel seemed cold, and none of us could care about the characters or what happened.
Only Don stood up for the book in any way. He said that before getting fed up with it he had really liked the beginning (although Jeanne - not present - had hated it), and he argued the case for some of the strangely dissonant diction being satirical. The rest of us acknowledged that this may well have been the intention, but didn’t think it remotely worked.
There was then some attempt to discuss the characters’ motives and the book’s theme – whether Abdu was a manipulator or had really fallen in love with Julie; John suggesting that the book was more about the difference between what women want and what men want than about cultural differences - but Doug and I and others felt that it was a waste of time discussing things which couldn’t be substantiated since they just weren’t there in the prose. Don said that you could substantiate some things: Julie’s feelings for Abdu, for instance, could be deduced by the way she strokes him. I disagreed, saying that since the prose fails to give any real sense of the emotional tenor of the relationship, the precise implications of the gesture can't be deduced.

We felt we had been unanimous in damning the book, but next day Jeanne rang me to say that after balking at the beginning – speech without speech marks being her pet hate – and also needing to adjust to the sentence constructions, she had very much enjoyed the book, had found the characters well rounded and their psychological dilemmas acutely delineated, and in spite of Anne’s view as reported to her by Don, had found the dramatic tension of the situation in the Arab village particularly well done.




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