Thursday, 24 September 2009

Notwithstanding : stories from an English village (Louis De Bernieres)

I sometimes feel that I am the only person left in the world who still hasn't got around to reading Captain Corelli's Mandolin. However, I have heard such good things about Louis De Bernieres that when I was offered a copy of his latest book by Harvill Secker (to be released on the 1st October), I had to say yes, to find out more about this writer, even though it is a book of short stories and I am not a great short stories fan.

Before I go any further, let me just say that saying "yes" proved to be a good decision, and may even have changed my feelings about books of short stories. These are not discrete short stories, but connected by the village of Notwithstanding in which they are set and characters reappear throughout the stories which builds up a picture of the whole community. Many of these stories have previously been published in various newspapers and magazines, but some have been written for the volume, and one would not guess that it had not been writen as a whole.

The tales from the village of Notwithstanding draw upon the experiences of Louis De Bernieres childhood in the south of Surrey in the 1960s and 1970s. According to the afterword, he chose the name because he felt that the rural idyll that he remembered had "notwithstood". But actually, the more he thought about it, some elements of the village were still there. I grew up in a small Devon village in the 1990s, and the book was strongly reminiscent of life there.

The coincidences of every day life are brought out in a most amusing fashion. This is particularly apparent in my favourite stories: The auspicious meeting of the first two members of the famous Notwithstanding wind quartet, The auspicious meeting of the third member of the famous Notwithstanding wind quartet with the first two and The auspicious meeting of the first member of the famous Notwithstanding wind quartet with the fourth, which describe the happy circumstances whereby two musicians eventually find a bassonist and flautist to join them in forming a wind quartet.

The book also makes reference to changes in the village, for example the influx of newcomers who aren't wholly at one with the country life: "They moved here in search of picture postcard Englandand are uncomfortable with a real countryman who knows how to wring the neck of a chicken and has no compunction about drowning kittens in a bucket"

I loved the story about The Girt Pike, in which young Robert is promised peanut butter sandwiches by Mrs Rendall if he can catch the pike from her pond which is eating all her baby chickens and ducklings.
""Please do come up and catch it. I'll bring you cups of tea and as many sandwiches as you can eat, I promise."
"Peanut butter?" asked Robert, aware that posh people sometimes put truly revolting pastes made of rotten anchovies into their sandwiches.
"Peanut butter, or jam or anything," said Mrs Rendall, much amused.

Other stories include Broken Heart, in which an elderly gentleman is persuaded to move away from the village by his daughter to raise some capital and sadly dies because he cannot bear no longer living there and Obadiah Oak, Mrs Griffith and the carol singers which describes a lonely woman who for once decides to be hospitable to carolling children, only to find herself not visited this year as she has not been welcoming in the past.

I thought this book was truly wonderful, and the stories are definitely ones that will stay with you for sometime. It's a book to dip into or to read in a longer session, and I certainly hope that this book will be as popular as his other works. I am now very keen to try one of his novels. The obvious one is Captain Corelli, but I wonder if anyone else would recommend any of the others?


  1. I found Captain Corelli a big fat yawn fest not helped by the terrible performance of Nicholas 'my accent is laughable!' Cage in the film!

    I have repeatedly tried to read Louis de Bernieres but I just find him boring. I can't put my finger on why, I just don't engage with his writing. However these short stories sound lovely and perhaps in smaller doses he will be more my cup of tea.

  2. I've seen this book pop up here and there lately and it does sound very charming doesn't it. Glad you liked it, that means I will most likely like it. There's going to be a steady stream of books appearing in my mailbox beginning in a day or two, I've been extremely naughty lately. But once my guilt has assuaged a bit...

  3. I am definitely looking forward to reading my copy of this after reading your thoughts (although I'm not faring so well with my current book of interconnecting short stories...)

    I loved Captain Corelli's Mandolin although I read it at least a decade ago and my opinion may have changed (I found the writing and ideas original and particularly enjoyed the Il Duce chapters and those of l'omosessuale). I have yet to read anything else of his.

  4. Rachel - Captain Corelli never really appealed to me, so I'm wondering about reading one of his books set in England. I think these stories are really lovely.

    Darlene - I think you would like these - I sense you are moving away from London-themed books into the countryside perhaps...

    Claire - I can't believe it's so long since CCM came out! I remember my Mum reading it on holiday. I'm determined to give something else a try, but probably not CCM.

  5. Perhaps a reflection on daily living. It's been a long summer of loud lawnmowers, leaf blowers and whipper snippers. I'm ready for some peace and quiet and would love a house in a more rural location, sigh. Living vicariously through books will have to do.

  6. It is a coincidence that we both posted about short stories today! I haven't read Corelli, but I did enjoy the film. I normally like interconnected stories, so I may give this one a try if I spot a copy.

  7. Oh I have to disagree with Jackie (and agree with Rachel) - I couldn't watch more than 15 minutes of the movie version of CCM because of Nicholas Cage's accent but I did enjoy the book - we read it for book club and we all liked it. My book club then went on to read, a few years later, Birds Without Wings and we all liked this but not as much as CCM. If you ever want to read CCM I would stay well clear of the movie version (sorry Jackie!)

    I like the sound of this current book and it would be a lot different to any of his previous books with it being set in England.

  8. Corelli's Mandolin is one of my all-time favorite books (although it's been ages since I read it), but my book group was so divided on it that it's become something of a standing joke in, "but then again, you were a fan of Corelli's Mandolin"!

    I read another of his shorter novels, and keep meaning to try Birds Without Wings. This one is definitely going on my list! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  9. I was put off from reading Captain Corelli's Mandolin by seeing the film, repeatedly, while on a transatlantic flight. But I like the sound of this one. Must keep an eye out for it when browsing the stores!

  10. I'm so interested by what people have said about the film and CCM in general! I'm going to start with a non CCM book, perhaps The partisan's daughter or Sunday Morning...

  11. Our posts on this book almost start in exactly the same fashion how mad and random is that... and we both loved it, maybe we could support each other through Captain Corelli's Mandolin when we both get around to it ha!


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