Yesterday I finished Joy Cowley's book, Navigation: a memoir. Today it was Ruth Rendell's Kissing the Gunner's Daughter. I'd been reading the Cowley on and off for a couple of weeks; the Rendell I started yesterday and finished this afternoon, amongst other things that I've been doing. So just a few comments about that book first.
I haven't read a lot of Rendell's books, though I've listened to abridged versions of a couple of them on tape when we've been travelling. I read one called Going Wrong in 2008 and seem to remember it was rather odd, and another, which she wrote under the pseudonym, Barbara Vine, The Chimney Sweeper's Boy, which was absorbing but terribly gloomy (here are some comments I made about it at the time).
What struck me about Gunner's Daughter is the stylish writing, writing that expects the reader to keep up and to enjoy the prose; writing that's perceptive and occasionally witty, with characters who have plenty of life and variety. These elements on their own made it an enjoyable read, quite apart from the intricate plot. I kind of guessed what the trick was, but had to wait to the end to be sure and find out how it had been worked out.
It concerns a young girl who's the only survivor of a mass attack on a family in their own (somewhat palatial) home: three other members are shot and killed outright. Wexford is the inspector in charge of the case, (along with his faithful ally, Mike Burdon), so there is an ongoing background story relating to Wexford's own daughter as well. There is no immediate connection between the two parts of his life, but the two branches reflect each other considerably, it turns out. There are some wonderful red herrings, and a gradual uncovering of all manner of intriguing elements. I found it very readable.
Navigation isn't an autobiography, though there's plenty of autobiographical material in it. It's subtitled a memoir, and I guess this is how it works. It gives Cowley the chance to look at her life in a more topical way - she discusses her three husbands within the same part of the book, her children in another, her faith right towards the end, her adult fiction in a different section to her children's writing.
It begins a little too 'mystically' (for me) and occasionally wanders off into this vein at other points, but once I got past the first few pages I began to enjoy it thoroughly. I've extracted three sections on another blog: one on her method of bringing up children (not at all formally, and not at all PC); one on the bleakness of New Zealand adult fiction; and the third on the surprising literacy of New Zealanders. I could have easily quoted other sections as well.
Cowley appears to have packed an enormous amount into her life - innumerable trips abroad, vast numbers of books written, appearances at a host of conferences, ongoing engagement with the retreats she and her third husband hold, and of course, her family, with whom she's continually involved. I guess when anyone sits down to write about their life it seems more action-packed to a reader than to the person themselves; we don't tend to note down all the breathing spaces that we've also experienced.