Tag Archives: book review

The Magus

greek island viewAs this 1966 novel was chosen as the latest offering in our book club, one of our members exclaimed, “I’ll talk about it but I’m not reading that again!”. This didn’t bode well for the The Magus, by John Fowles. But I was willing to give it a go and to get to the end. It isn’t often I don’t finish books and this one was no exception, but 656 pages later I was more than a little frustrated.

It follows the story of Nicholas Urfe, an Oxford educated public school teacher in his early twenties. After a year teaching at an English public school and a short but intense affair with a young Australian air hostess in London, he decides to travel to Greece to take up the post of English Master at an exclusive boarding school on the tiny island of Phraxos. Initially bored, due to the lack of company of his own age, he soon finds himself in the company of a wealthy elderly gentleman, Conchis, one of the few English speaking people on the island. He is invited to visit most weekends, during which he begins to hear the story of Conchis’ own personal history. Soon though, he realises that he is caught in an intricate psychological, mythological, and emotionally perverse game – the godgame. Over the course of the year, he is introduced to a bizarre cast of characters, including beautiful English twins, also in their early twenties. He begins to fall for one of them. Questioning everything he is told and experiences, caught inside an ever increasingly bizarre situation, he is overcome with curiosity, anger and the search for truth and cannot bring himself simply to walk away and has to see this macabre game out until the end.

Immediately after finishing the book I tweeted this:

Some spoilers follow from this point

That is the level of frustration that this book left me with. Whilst it is undoubtedly well-written, and the description of the Greek island is beautiful and idyllic, at no point do we get a reason or explanation for the weird sequence of events that Urfe endures. There is a meanness to the game that his played. Urfe’s letters are intercepted. Things are made up and evidence fabricated to make him believe that certain things are happening outside of the island in order to guarantee his participation in the game on it. Conchis and his friends even, somehow, persuade the Australian ex-girlfriend to be a part of it (although we are never told how they persuade her) and they convince him that she has committed suicide, just at the moment that he realises his true and deep feelings for her. He is distraught but the effect of this is simply to entice him further into the trap.

The final straw for me was the ending. Urfe returns to London to try and piece together parts of the story he has been told, and finds even more people who are in on it. When he eventually discovers that his Australian friend is alive, he realises he simply has to wait. He will not find her until they allow him to. The last section is written very well and, in the spirit of a detective novel, leaves you wanting to turn to pages to find out the resolution. you want Urfe and the air hostess to get back together. Sadly you never find out. The book ends with them meeting and arguing, both quite justified in the hurt and confusion that has preceded. Both want answers, as does the reader, but Fowles doesn’t give them. He simple ends the book before it is really finished.

I imagine this is the type of book that lots of people start but never finish. One of those that looks intelligent but sits on lots of bookshelves unread. Six hundred pages, albeit of well-written prose, but culminating in no clear ending or message is severely disappointing. I can’t say I understood it, but it seems that Fowles doesn’t really want us to, and no other reviews I’ve seen can shed much more light than that.

I did come across this letter, reportedly from the author himself shortly after the novel was first published. It seems that he is being deliberately baffling, trying to deconstruct freedom which, he says, results in the rejection of everything except human reason.

fowles letter

Whilst I cannot disagree with the conclusion of the letter – acting humanely to all humans is simple a rephrasing of Jesus’ commandment to love others as we love ourselves – however, “reason alone” is an argument that the new atheists still try to peddle today, and it is flawed. I think that modernism has shown that reason alone cannot help us in everything, and leaves vast areas of life untouched. The Christian would argue that true freedom is only found in God – growing into the people that he has created us to be.

Credit to Fowles for his writing – The Magus certainly leaves plenty to ponder on, but I can’t say I recommend this. It is simple too random, unexplained, and frustrating. And it doesn’t have a proper ending.




photo 2Francis Spufford has succeeded in describing Christian faith from a practical angle.  As the title, Unapologetic, suggests, it is not an apologia of the Christian faith, as prominent writers have done in the past (CS Lewis and NT Wright to name but two). There is a place for these, but Spufford has decided not to counter the new atheists arguments on the same terms, but to set out an emotional response. There is so much more to living than what we can prove or intellectually argue, and this is the angle he attempts to make with this book. (There are some more traditional apologetic responses to certain questions, but these are mostly dealt with through the footnotes).

The centrepiece of the book is a wonderful, engaging prose on the life of Jesus, taking the essence of the gospels and attempting to help us to hear Jesus afresh in them. For many of us, the gospel accounts have become so familiar that it takes a bit of work to hear them as they would have at the time. Spufford’s chapter on Yeshua (Jesus) gets beneath this, and made me marvel at Jesus all over again.

This is the centrepiece, but there are many other notable parts. His description of human brokenness (sin), which he calls HPtFtU – the Human Propensity to F*ck things Up – is so cutting that anyone can identify with it. It is a human experience after all. And he succeeds in getting away from the contemporary understanding of sin as ‘just a little bit excitingly naughty’. (I’ve already been influenced by some parts of it here, and there will be a couple more quotes to come).  The section on communion is so beautiful too.

If you can cope with his writing style, which is rather like stream of consciousness, then this is an excellent book. But then the style adds to the emotional angle he is writing from. It is one that is sure to annoy new atheists as it argues in a way that many are not used to engaging with. For those who are open to the idea of faith, or who are already believers, Unapologetic is sure to assure you that it is ok, it is ‘reasonable’ to believe the Christian story. And it works.

The Secret Life of Bees

Having just finished the novel, The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd in advance of our book group meeting tonight, it just leaves me enough time to write a quick review of it. I have actually read this book before, about five years ago after coming back from a long summer of work experience and holiday in South Carolina, where the book is based and where the novel is set.

It is also, following Generation A by Douglas Coupland, the second book running that our group has read where some of the major developments rely on bees.

Set in the deep south the 1964 , the year the civil rights act was passed, it follows a young teenage girl called Lily Owens who lost her mum when she was four. Her father was a bitter and angry man who ran a peach farm. Since her mother died she was being brought up by Rosaleen, one of her father’s black workers who he plucked out of the fields to work as a nanny. Lily misses her mother and misses real love and affection from anyone except Rosaleen and she treasures the few trinkets she has as a memory of her mother – including an icon of the black Madonna which bears a handwritten inscription, Tiburon, SC.

One day when Lily was about 14, she was accompanying Rosaleen into the nearby town to register to vote. Many of the white men didn’t want blacks registering and Rosaleen gets herself into a scrape which results in her being charged, beaten up and jailed. That night, afraid of the fury from her father, Lily breaks Rosaleen out of the hospital where she is being held and they run away  – towards Tiburon.

There, they stumble into the place which was the origin of her mother’s Black Madonna icon, a pink house of middle-aged black sisters, August, June and May, who keep bees and make Black Madonna honey.  Lily lies about who she is but it later transpires that they knew from the outset – as her mother had been there ten years earlier. She is welcomed and is slowly healed of her hurts and pain, and gradually learns the truth about her mother and the accident that killed her.

It is beautifully written, with deep characters and rich descriptions of the pink house, the process of keeping the bees, and the rather odd rituals of the sisterhood of women. There are also two scenes of racial tension which transport you into the mood of the time. The novel speaks of out need to be loved and accepted right from early on in our lives. When this isn’t there it pervades and colours everything else and one cannot really move on until it is dealt with. In the house, Lily is loved and accepted. There is no pressure for her to tell the truth about who she is but the sisters allow that to come out in her own good time, only after she knows she is safe. Lily had to learn how to trust, receive love without feeling undeserving, and ultimately, to forgive herself for her unwitting part in her mother’s death.

There are many phrases and quotes of the book which I liked. For example, when Lily first enters Tiburon and finds herself staring face-to-face with the same picture of the Black Madonna which is adorning a honey jar in the general store, Lily muses:

I realized it for the first time in my life: there is nothing but mystery in the world, how it hides behind the fabric of our poor, browbeat days, shining brightly, and we don’t even know it.

Some of this mystery comes alive in the author’s description of keeping the bees.

She was also looking for herself. As August was telling the story of a statue of the Black Mary whilst they were both preparing the honey jars, Lily reflects:

I was so caught up with what August was saying I had stopped wetting labels. I was wishing I had a story like that one to live inside me with so much loudness you could pick it up on a stethoscope, and not the story I did have about ending my mother’s life and sort of ending my own at the same time.

Everyone needs a story greater than themselves: this is, I believe, a universal truth of human nature. However, so often, the stories we do construct for ourselves are uninspiring or unhelpful and merely obscure the person we were created to be. Lily learned that she had to own parts of her true story and come to terms with it, as the same time as realising that this story didn’t define her. There was another story of who she was and what she could become.

Ultimately, the novel is about healing, redemption, self-awareness, forgiveness and love. Not romantic love, but the everyday love and stability of a close-knit community that does wonders for an individual’s self-worth and self-perception – the simple act of living life alongside each other. Lily needed to love herself and know that she was loved.

Score 4.5/5. I wonder what the group will think this evening!

There is also a rather fine movie of the book starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifa, Alicia Keys, and Sophie Okenedo