Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Speaking British

The London Train by Tessa Hadley is the story of the aftermath of an affair, told in an unusual order.  We start with the story of Paul, post affair, then learn about the affair, and then learn about Cora, post affair. 

Paul is a pretty unlikeable fellow, who seems to be interested in reliving his youth by leaving his family and moving in with his adult daughter.  He neglects to tell his wife where he is going, and in fact lies to her about his whereabouts so that she is left to wonder.  She, in turn, sees a new side to a friend of Paul's who she has always disliked.

Cora is a woman living in Cardiff, and trying to start a new life for herself as a librarian.  Though she claims to be trying to grow roots, something about her life seems transient and unsettled.

Most of the action in this story takes place in London and Cardiff.  Hadley is a British author through and through, and her choice of words is charming.  An American trying to write like a Brit would not have done it right.  Hadley uses British words on almost ever page, such as crockery (dishes), wind cheater (wind breaker), and flats (apartments), all through the normal course of conversation, making the American reader feel a little smug about being able to understand a "foreign" language. 

An interesting scene has Paul and his friend Gerald discussing emotions for which there are no words in English, such as the "reaction to a violation of a community norm", and "how one feels when one wants some things to happen and knows they cannot happen".  On the superficial level, I couldn't think of any words for these emotions, but can't think of why we wouldn't have them.  The closest that I came up with for the first was "schadenfreude",  but that word is (1) not quite right and (2) not quite English.  On the deeper level, Paul and Gerald were obviously not really discussing problems with the English language.

Hadley's use of British English gives me the opportunity to bring up something that has been annoying me.  Remember a while back when I wrote about The Lost City of Z by David Grann?  It was the story of a British explorer, Percy Fawcett, and his trips to the Amazon to find a city which he named "Z".  I listened to that book on CD, and the reader pronounced the name of the city as "Zee".  Wouldn't Fawcett have said "Zed"?  And if he didn't, if he truly did refer to it as "Zee", wouldn't he have spelled it that way?  Random meaningless thoughts.

One more down for the "Off the Shelf Challenge".  21 to go.

Next up:  The Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker

Still listening to:  The Dyslexic Advantage by Brock Eide

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