‘How It All Began’ by Penelope Lively ****

‘How It All Began’ by Penelope Lively

I had been wanting to read this novel ever since it first came out.  Thankfully, my library had a copy, so I borrowed it as soon as I spotted its pretty spine upon the shelves.  Like many readers, I really do enjoy Lively’s writing.  I have read several of her novels thus far, and my favourite is certainly Consequences.  The cover design of her newest novel, pictured, is one of the loveliest which I’ve seen in a long while.  I love the fact that several copies of Lively’s other novels can be spotted if one looks closely enough.

How It All Began is a highly acclaimed work, and many lovely review fragments have been scattered across the back of the jacket.  As her inspiration for the novel, Lively has focused upon a series of (often unfortunate) events, one of which directly causes or triggers the next, and so on – a sort of multi-causal butterfly effect, if you like.  The first of these events – ‘how it all began’, one supposes – is when protagonist Charlotte is mugged and breaks her hip.  Lively’s use of short sentences when writing of her accident works so well:

‘Trolley ride.  On and on.  Corridors.  People passing.  Right turn.  Halt.  More lifting.’

Throughout How It All Began, Lively touches upon a number of themes – ageing, education, opportunities, affairs, relationships and how they both develop and sour, community, racial integration, the notion of ‘fitting in’, making the best of bad situations, pain, healing, and the progress of time amongst them.  As is also the case with Alice Hoffman’s books (another author whom I heartily recommend), Lively writes intelligently without making her work too saturated, or at all taxing to read.  She is incredibly skilled at her craft.  I found that the domino-effect structure in this novel very much suited the style of her prose, and she made the plot work tremendously well in consequence.  The way in which she follows different characters throughout also works very well.  Lively pulled me into her story from the start, and there is not a character in the novel who does not hold some degree of intrigue or interest.  The only criticism which I can make here is that her dialogue does sometimes feel too prim and proper – almost of another era, really – for those who are speaking it.  Regardless, I would happily recommend How It All Began to everyone.

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Flash Reviews (24th April 2014)

‘Sarrasine’ by Honore de Balzac (Hesperus Press)

Sarrasine by Honore de Balzac ***
This is another lovely Hesperus Press edition which I found in my local library.  I don’t recall having read any Balzac before, aside from a couple of his short stories.  I really liked the premise of the title tale, which was first published in 1830:

‘At a fashionable party in Paris, an appalled young lady hears the story of a mysterious figure that haunts the elegant de Lanty household…’

This volume also contains another of Balzac’s short stories, an ‘orientalist fable’ entitled ‘A Passion in the Desert’.  Kate Pullinger, the author of the foreword, writes that ‘the two stories here… are very different from the work for which Balzac is revered…  Both stories are lush and over-ripe, heavily scented and hugely sensual, and in both tales true love is ultimately – murderously – thwarted’.  An accompanying introduction has been penned by David Carter, which is most informative with regard to how Balzac’s work has been both translated and interpreted.

Sarrasine uses the first person perspective throughout.  From the start it is vivid, and its descriptions are lyrical and lovely.  The entire piece is beautifully written.  Balzac describes his protagonists in such lively terms that it would not feel unusual if they were to step from the very page.  The story, too, is an intelligent one – there are many references to philosophy, literature, and historical figures and events – and it is also most peculiar.  It reminded me at turns of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Operaas it had a similar feel to it, along with shared elements of the plot.  Oddly, I did not enjoy the title story quite as much as I thought I would, and ‘A Passion in the Desert’ felt a little disappointing too.  Despite this, Balzac’s descriptions are so lovely that I cannot contemplate giving the book anything less than three stars.

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Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell ***

An illustration from ‘Ottoline and the Yellow Cat’ by Chris Riddell

I hadn’t planned to check this book out from the library, but it looked so utterly adorable that I couldn’t resist.  The book itself is a thing of beauty, with its dark red covers and delightful illustrations, all of which have been drawn by the author.  I wasn’t sure before I began to read where this book came in terms of the Ottoline series, but rather luckily, I managed to pick up the first.  I had high hopes that I would really enjoy it and could then consequently borrow them all.

Ottoline Brown, our child protagonist, lives in Big City, on the twenty fourth floor of the Pepperpot Building.  She likes solving crime and ‘working out clever plans even more than she liked splashing in puddles’.  She is such a likeable little thing, though from an adult perspective, I did find it weird that she lives solely with an indeterminate hairy creature named Mr Munroe, who supposedly came from a bog somewhere in Norway.  She is an only child, and her parents are invariably travelling to far-flung locations to collect odd things, like four-spouted teapots and portable fishbowls.  As you do. Ottoline is left with just Mr Munroe and many tradespeople for company.

In Ottoline and the Yellow Cat, ‘a string of daring burglaries have taken place in Big City and precious lapdogs are disappearing all over town.  Something must be done.’  Whilst the storyline itself wasn’t overly captivating for a non-dog lover, the format, with its illustrations on every single page, was darling, and I will certainly be reading more of the books which feature little Ottoline in future.

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‘Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns’ by Lauren Weisberger (Harper)

Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns by Lauren Weisberger ***
I really enjoyed The Devil Wears Prada book when I read it in my teens, and I also very much liked its subsequent film.  I had a feeling that I would be rather disappointed with its sequel, Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns, but I couldn’t resist checking it out of the library.  It is meant to occur ten years after The Devil Wears Prada, when protagonist Andy is running her own magazine and is about to get married.  At first glance, the premise works quite well:

‘… the night before her wedding, she can’t sleep.  Is it just normal nerves, or is she having serious second thoughts?  And why can’t she stop thinking about her ex-boss, Miranda – aka, the Devil?  It seems that Andy’s efforts to build herself a bright new life have led her directly into the path of the Devil herself, bent on revenge…’

Now, it is worth mentioning that whilst the title of this book is ‘The Devil Returns’, the aforementioned Miranda Priestley actually doesn’t appear in the novel very often.  When she does, her behaviour does not really follow what I remember of her from the first book either.  The story was rather easy to get into from the start, and although it was quite superficial and shallow throughout, as I expected it to be, it was definitely entertaining.  It is not the most literary of books, but as an easy, comforting read, it is relatively good.  Well, it is for the first half of the novel or so, anyway.

I remembered The Devil Wears Prada as a far more funny and amusing novel.  It also seemed to have been far more cleverly crafted than Revenge Wears Prada is.  I found the sequel a little too long, particularly when the second half was reached.  It wasn’t as engaging in terms of the storyline, and it almost felt a bit of a slog to get through.  When the first and second halves of the book are considered together, it is difficult to see that they are part of the same novel.  It is as though Weisberger has tacked together two rather different manuscripts, and it does not quite work.  It becomes a bit soulless, really, and to say that it is unlikely in terms of its plot and character development is an understatement.  It is rather predictable; one cannot help but feel that Weisberger penned the sequel just for the sake of doing so, rather than to add anything to Andy’s story.  Her male characters are far too gushing to be believed, and nothing new or surprising is brought to the table.  I feel that overall, I’m being rather generous with my three star rating, as it is really more of a two and a half star read.

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‘Devoted Ladies’ by Molly Keane ***

‘Devoted Ladies’ by Molly Keane (Virago)

Molly Keane’s Devoted Ladies, first published in 1934, is the third of her books which I have read to date.  As I enjoyed both Treasure Hunt and Good Behaviour, I had rather high hopes for this one.  Firstly, it must be said that I adore the Art Deco cover designs which Keane’s books have been reprinted with, and this is certainly one of my favourites.  The great reviews written on the cover definitely enticed me too.

Keane is so skilled at crafting characters, and her protagonists even seem to come to life in the blurb:

‘Jessica and Jane have been living together for six months and are devoted friends – or are they?  Jessica loves her friend with the cruelty of total possessiveness; Jane is rich and silly, and drinks rather too many brandy-and-sodas.’

The blurb goes on to speak about their friend Sylvester, a writer, who ‘regrets that Jane should be “loved and bullied and perhaps even murdered by Jessica”, but decides it’s none of his business’.  The book’s introduction has been written by Polly Devlin, who sets the scene of the author’s life and the effects which Devoted Ladies had within society upon its publication.  Devlin says that Keane’s writing is both ‘insouciant and stylish’, and that she presents ‘an impeccable picture of what is to us a vanished world, but still full of relevance and revelation’.

Devoted Ladies begins with a scene in which Sylvester throws a party in his ‘expensive’-smelling rooms.  Jane is only attending – and, indeed, has only formed a friendship with Sylvester – because ‘she hoped on and on and on in the face of constant disappointment that Sylvester would put her in a book or in a play’.  Jane is a fantasist to all intents and purposes, thinking of the most peculiar things which she can possibly do merely so that Sylvester takes notice of her and immortalises her with words.  Sylvester is friends with Jane merely because she has an awful lot of money, and ‘the moment might yet arrive when he would require to borrow money from Jane, or at any rate make use of her cars or her houses or any of the benefits which providence spends on very rich young women that very poor young men may thereby profit a little’.  This comic vein continues when Keane is describing Jessica: ‘Jessica was an intellectual snob.  She seldom condescended to be gay, although she would take endless pains to be rude’.

Throughout, Keane builds her characters realistically, and she always injects surprising little details about them into her prose.  The relationships which she portrays – and inevitably alters as the novels goes on – are quite complex, particularly with regard to that between Jane and Jessica.  Jane, for example, says, ‘I’m very dedicated to Jessica, I love having her around, but I’m scared to death she’ll kill me’.

As with all of Keane’s books, Devoted Ladies is very character driven.  The plot is relatively sparse, but she has such a way of writing that it doesn’t really seem to matter in the grand scheme of things.  Whilst she is unwell, a parcel of books is sent to Jane, which provides the catalyst for her sudden need to visit Ireland to convalesce.  Keane’s writing from this point moves from describing the rather comic happenings of her characters, to much talk about horses, food and gardening, and not much else.  This sudden change in focus certainly changes the feel of the book, and the few supposedly humorous episodes which come after the setting has switched to Ireland fall rather flat, which is a real shame.  To conclude, it must be said that whilst I did very much enjoy the writing and characterisation for the most part, Devoted Ladies is my least favourite Keane novel to date.

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‘Wilfred and Eileen’ by Jonathan Smith ****

Jonathan Smith’s first novel, Wilfred and Eileen, is quite a rarity among Persephone reprints, for two reasons; the first is that the novel was written by a man, and the second is that that man is still living.  Wilfred and Eileen was first published in 1976, and is the 107th book on the Persephone list.  It was made into a television mini-series in 1980, and the Persephone reprint contains an afterword written by Smith himself.  The book’s endpapers are from a design by Vanessa Bell.

Endpapers from ‘Wilfred and Eileen’ by Jonathan Smith

Wilfred and Eileen is based upon true events, telling the story as it does of the grandparents of one of Smith’s former pupils.  The novel begins in Cambridge in 1913, and describes the life of protagonist and Trinity College student Wilfred Willett and his fiancee Eileen, who met at the University’s annual May Ball.  Their consequent clandestine marriage is well set out, as is the way in which they hid it from their disapproving parents, neither of which thought that their child’s choice of partner was quite good enough.  We are told that ‘it is Wilfred’s survival after being wounded in battle that is at the heart of the book’.

At the start of the story, Wilfred is just finishing his degree: ‘Wilfred’s rooms would in a few months’ time be someone else’s.  Other pictures would be on the wall, a different Pater and Mater on the mantelpiece…  The basketwork armchair, the central throne of the castle, would belong to some insignificant young fellow’.  He is determined to become a great surgeon: ‘Despite being tied to his family by the allowance [which they gave him], he hoped Hospital would be a new context, a wider passage.  In his blood, in his stomach, he felt the steadiness of the past giving ground to an unsure, vigorous future’.  He is a much revered member of Trinity College, and is looked to by other students for both approval and assurance.

Eileen Stenhouse, on the other hand, is said to live ‘a life of ease and abundance’.  The two first get to know each other on a walk whilst they are sitting out the thirteenth dance of the evening, an event ‘made possible by a curious set of circumstances – the drink, a strange ethereal light and her superstition’. Eileen is a very determined character – ‘This most adaptable and sensitive girl was revealing the firmness which perhaps had attracted Wilfred that night in Cambridge’ – and she and Wilfred are both portrayed as strong and passionate beings.  The second chapter of the novel moves from Cambridge to London, where Wilfred and Eileen both live, and where Wilfred has begun to work at the London Hospital.

The novel has been intelligently written throughout, and Smith has a knack for deftly building scenes.  At the May Ball, for example, ‘soon all was bewitching music, tilted heads, glancing eyes and gliding feet’.  The third person perspective which the author has made use of works well, and allows the reader to see both Wilfred and Eileen, along with the development of their relationship: ‘She wanted him to go on talking in this lively way, for hours…  But she must not keep him from his work, she had no right to do that.  As she glanced at him a dark cloud of possession passed over her.  No, she must not think of him like that’.  Details of the period have been worked in well, from medical advances which were new at the time to the pressure which one felt to join up when war was declared, and from Suffragettes to the writing of wartime letters.

The entirety of Wilfred and Eileen has been very sensitively and believably wrought, and the story is well paced.  The novel is a deserving addition to the Persephone list, and it is certainly fascinating at times, and eminently readable throughout.  Smith has brilliantly exemplified courage in the face of wartime, and there is not a fan of Persephone’s prints who will not enjoy this novel.

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‘Into the Whirlwind’ by Eugenia Ginzburg ****

‘Journey Into the Whirlwind’ by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg

Eugenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind is a ‘highly detailed first-hand account of one woman’s life and imprisonment in the Soviet Union during the rule of Stalin in the 1930s’.  It is the first of her two volumes of memoirs, which was smuggled out of Russia, and was ‘later sold in many different languages’.  It was not published in Ginzburg’s native Russia until 1990, and is about to be reprinted by Persephone, with a translation by Paul Stevenson and Manya Hararit.

Ginzburg was a history teacher, and belonged to the Communist Party. However, she was expelled from its membership in 1937, and was sent to a gulag in the far east of Russia, where she consequently lived as a prisoner for eighteen years.  In writing her memoirs, she felt that ‘it was her duty to bear witness and trained her extraordinary memory to record everything…  What comes across in reading Into the Whirlwind is not merely the senseless brutality and waste of the regime, but the overwhelming strength of the human spirit’.

Into the Whirlwind has been split into two parts and fifty seven chapters in all.  Ginzburg has opened her account with the murder of early Bolshevik leader Kirov.  She is summoned, along with around forty other workers, to go to factories around Russia and inform them of what has happened.  She is told that ‘the murderer was a communist’, which filled her with a ‘presentiment of terrible misfortune’.  It provides a foreshadowing of awful events to come for Ginzburg.  When a man whom she worked with, Elvov, is arrested by the party, a whirlwind of events begins to spiral for her: ‘I had not denounced Elvov as a purveyor of Trotskyist contraband…  I had not, even once, attacked him at a public meeting’.  She says: ’1935 was a frightful year for me.  My nerves were at breaking point, and I was obsessed with thoughts of suicide’.  As their investigations into her progressed, Ginzburg writes: ‘The snowball was rolling downhill, growing disastrously and threatening to smother me’.

Throughout, Ginzburg presents herself as such a strong woman, writing that ‘in those days no power on earth could have made me join in the orgy of ‘confessions’ and ‘penitence’ which was just beginning’.  She writes, quite matter-of-factly, that ‘human beings can get used to anything, even the most frightful evils’.  From the very first page, her account is fascinating.  It is astonishing to think that this entire book was memorised, which is such an incredible feat.  Into the Whirlwind is such a brave book to have written, and reliving some of the things within it must have been nothing short of horrific – leaving her family for the last time, for example, after being arrested under the guise of the party wanting to question her about Elvov.  The entirety has such an honest feel to it, and it is certainly another fitting addition to the Persephone list.

Quite an extensive section of notes which explain who some of those affiliated with the party were, as well as political terms and party details, has been included, along with an informative afterword written by Sir Rodric Braithwaite.  Into the Whirlwind is such an important book, and one which should be read by everyone.

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One From the Archive: ‘Shelter’ by Frances Greenslade ****

First published in July 2012.

Shelter takes place in Duchess Creek in British Columbia, Canada’s most westerly province. It begins during the 1960s and spans a period of several years. Shelter is told from the first person perspective of Margaret Dillon, known throughout as Maggie. The narrative is retrospective and the more sinister events of the novel are foreshadowed as it progresses.

The novel opens with Maggie stating that it was her older sister Jenny who urged her to document their story. The heartbreak of both sisters with regard to their abandonment by their mother, Irene, is clear from the start. Maggie tells us ‘we did not try to look for out mother. She was gone, like a cat who goes out the back door one night and doesn’t return… We let time pass, we waited, trusting her…’. She goes on to say that as her mother ‘was the constant in our lives, the certainty and the comfort’, neither she nor Jenny felt any reason to worry.

The girls’ father, Patrick, works at a local sawmill. His nickname is ‘Mr Safety’, and he is called it not just by his family but by his friends, who are ‘irritated by his careful checking and rechecking’. Patrick’s character is unsettled at times. He is plagued by what the Dillon family term ‘terrors… seizures of fear which took possession of his whole body when he was on the edge of sleep’. Seeing her almost as a ‘son’, Patrick teaches Maggie about survival in the wilderness. He teaches her how to construct a lean-to shelter whilst telling her ‘If you ever get lost, this is what you do first. You build yourself a little shelter’.

To the surprise and shock of the Dillons, Patrick is killed whilst at work and the family is forced to cope without him. Following his death, a chasm opens within the family. Maggie begins to see her mother as a distant figure: ‘she was not really my mother, but some beautiful woman with flushed skin going to have a nap in my mother’s bedroom’. Irene’s previously spirited character begins to unravel in consequence. She leaves the girls with the Edwards family in Williams Lake whilst she begins a job relatively far away. Unlike her popular sister, Maggie feels as though she never really fits with the Edwards, despite the warmth of wheelchair-bound Ted. When payments for the girls’ billet suddenly stop, nobody is able to discover where Irene has vanished to. Undeterred, Maggie sets out to find her and unravel the mystery of her sudden disappearance.

Shelter is rather an uncomfortable read at times. The entire novel is filled with dark incidents. These include shooting accidents, widespread alcoholism, the widespread isolation during the harsh Canadian winters, disability, coping with grief and loss and the wider concept of abandonment.

Greenslade’s descriptions are rich and are balanced well with the unfolding story. Jenny is described as a ‘powder blue beacon’ whose grief at the loss of their mother is ‘majestic and furious’. The natural environment which has prominence in the life of Maggie particularly, has been written about with true care on part of the author. Almost fairytale-esque elements are woven throughout the novel, particularly with regard to Maggie’s daydreams. Maggie’s narrative voice is consistently strong and she is a vivid character from the outset.

Greenslade has a real way with words and Shelter is certainly an accomplished novel. The abandonment of their girls and their gradual realisation of their mother’s whereabouts are realised sensitively and touchingly, and every single loose thread which appears in the novel is tied up well at the story’s end.

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