Friday, 1 July 2022

Forgotten Book - The Honey Harlot (and The Vanishing - 2018 film)

Today, something slightly different. It's fair to describe The Honey Harlot as a forgotten book. Even though it was written by a well-known author, Christianna Brand, I've never come across any significant discussion of the story, but when Catherine Aird kindly passed me her copy, I was glad to give it a go. And having done so, I want to connect my comments with my thoughts on a recent film, The Vanishing.

The Honey Harlot was first published in 1978 and I don't think there was a paperback edition, though it did appear in large print and there was a kindle edition nine years ago. It appeared towards the end of her career and I imagine Brand must have been very disappointed by its evident lack of impact. Part of the reason for this is, perhaps, that it's not an easy novel to classify. Although murder is committed, it's above all a historical novel of a rather unusual kind. Really, it's a curiosity and worth reading on that basis.

Brand aims to provide a fictional solution to one of the great mysteries of all time - that of the Mary Celeste. She does so in the form of a first-person narrative; the story is told (many years after the event) by the widow of the captain of the ship. The driving force for the story is a prostitute, the 'honey harlot' of the title, who - as imagined by Brand - is smuggled on board, with disastrous consequences.

This is a well-written novel with some interesting characters and above all a fascinating basic situation. Yet somehow I didn't warm to the story. A key reason for this is that I didn't care too much for the narrator, despite the sympathy I had with her predicament. Come to that, I didn't warm to Briggs or even the glamorous stowaway, either. And this meant I felt a certain lack of engagement throughout; this wasn't fatal to my enjoyment, but it was a pity. 

The Vanishing, like the even more recent The Lighthouse, is a dark historical movie, focused on a tiny group of lighthouse keepers on a remote island. What it is has in common with The Honey Harlot is that it's a fictional attempt to explain a classic mystery about missing people, this time the disappearance in 1900 of the Flannan Isle lighthouse crew. As with The Honey Harlot, the aim is not to provide an explanation that is likely to be true, but simply one that is, taken on its own terms, believable and compelling. The film succeeds in that aim in a way that the book doesn't really manage, mainly due to the atmospheric camera work and the sturdy performances of Gerard Butler, Peter Mullan, and Connor Swindells which bring the characters to life and encourages an empathy that I didn't feel towards Mrs Briggs and the crew of the Mary Celeste in Brand's novel. 

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