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One From the Archive: ‘Tea by the Nursery Fire: A Children’s Nanny at the Turn of the Century’ by Noel Streatfeild ****

First published in October 2012.

Tea by the Nursery Fire tells the story of real-life figure Emily Huckwell, who went into domestic service when she was just eleven years old. Emily began her work as ‘a maid to wait on the nursery’, and soon had her position elevated to under nurse when her competency was realised by those she worked with and for. In this volume, Streatfeild tells Emily’s story, pieced together both from fact and family history.

The book is split into five different sections, beginning with ‘The Child’ and progressing to ‘Nursery Maid’ and ‘Gran-Nannie’. Born into ‘grinding’ poverty in Sussex in the 1870s, ‘near enough to the sea to smell it when the wind was right’, Emily was the eldest daughter of the Huckwell family. The Huckwells were, Emily told those in her charge, ‘a little better brought up than the other children in the hamlet, for her mother… knew what was what’. It was known from her birth that she would go to work in a grand house – ‘up would go her hair and off she would be sent to work’ – as her mother and grandmother had done before her.

We do not learn just about Emily, but of her family and those in her care. The third person perspective used throughout allows her memoirs to be read as something akin to a comforting story, which is a lovely touch. The sense of time and place in the book is evoked beautifully from the outset, and it is clear that Streatfeild has great compassion for Emily, who looked after her own father when he was young. Indeed, we as readers feel such sympathy for her, sent away at such a young age when she was ‘no bigger’n a gnat’.

This is not merely an important book from a social point of view. It also has regional information pertaining to Sussex in the period in which Emily lived there, and a wealth of historical details. We learn about the food commonly eaten in Victorian and Edwardian times and the standard of schooling in her small village – ‘there was provision for a clever boy or girl to stay on until they were eighteen, but this had never happened. Money was too badly needed in the cottages for such fancy nonsense’.

In fact, the book is wonderfully Victorian, both in its style and in terms of the language and dialogue used throughout. We enter a world of ‘gobbits’, the ‘tallyman’, ‘Pilgrim baskets’ and annual ‘gleaning’ in the cornfields. The divide between rich and poor is shown almost immediately, both above and below stairs. We learn what the staff thought about this great chasm between the standings of them and their masters, and the differences between the classes: ‘Funny gentry are, never seem to want their own children’.

With regard to Streatfeild’s writing style, Tea by the Nursery Fire is not always the easiest of books to read due to the lack of punctuation, and several sentences have to be read more than once. Still, the information which these sentences include is lovely in itself, both anecdotal and heartwarming. Small interwoven stories are included throughout, which has created a charming and interesting little book. Tea by the Nursery Fire is a must-read for anyone interested in Victorian and Edwardian history or the role of nannies, or for those looking to read a lovingly realised history of a marvellous woman.

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One From the Archive: ‘John Saturnall’s Feast’ by Lawrence Norfolk **

First published in October 2012.

John Saturnall’s Feast is the newest novel by acclaimed author Lawrence Norfolk. His three previous novels have been translated into twenty four languages in all, and fans of his work have waited for over a decade for this new literary offering.

The novel begins in 1625 where, in the remote English village of Buckland, John Sandall and his mother Susan are fleeing from a vicious mob, who taunt the pair with cries of witchcraft: ‘John, John, the Witch’s Son!/Duck him and prick him and make him run’. Their escape is fraught with danger and rather frightening for eleven-year-old John, particularly with elements such as ‘the long grass whipping their legs as they scrambled for the safety of the slopes’.

His mother, Susan, is a Goodwoman, a midwife who concocts remedies for pregnant women and delivers the village’s ‘wailing infant’ population. She knows that her son is targeted because of her profession, and treats this matter-of-factly at first, asking John ‘They beat you again, didn’t they?’, and dismissing their actions as ‘just their sport’. Susan is not a likeable character, and whilst we feel sympathy for John having to live and work alongside her, the reader feels a great relief on behalf of the protagonist when she passes away.

The main theme running through John Saturnall’s Feast is an ancient book, ‘The Book of John Saturnall’, which John’s mother treasures. This book, she explains to her son, has ‘a garden’ on every page, and ‘every fruit [grows] there’. With the aid of this book, John is taught how to read and takes many of the ancient recipes which it includes to heart, memorising their ingredients and methods. Susan tells him on her deathbed that ‘every true cook carries a feast inside him’, and John promises her that he will keep the family’s age old tradition of ‘the Feast’ alive. In his newly-orphaned state, he is sent to stay at Buckland Manor with Lord William Fremantle, where he is employed as a kitchen hand.

Norfolk has used the third person narrative perspective throughout. At first, he captures the sense of place wonderfully, as well as the torment which John undergoes from his peers. Norfolk creates such sympathy for his protagonist in the first section of the novel, and his portrayal of the bullying actions carried out by his peers has been incredibly well executed. The simplistic phrases which the author uses are often the most harrowing – ‘today the gibbet was bare’ creating rather a sinister image, for example. The importance of the world around John is where the best descriptions are found, ranging from ‘clover petals yielded honey bees’ and ‘sweet blackberries swelled behind palisades of finger-pricking thorns’, to ‘a great house seemed to break through the verdure and stretch two wings like a vast stone bird struggling free of the earth. Tiers of windows rose to a bristling plateau… [and] little towers jostled with cupolas and spires or dropped to invisible courtyards’. A wealth of imagery is built up with such phrases and John’s world becomes real on the page, if only for a little while.

The novel is split into different sections, each of which features an intriguing and old fashioned title pertaining to the recipe featured at the beginning of every new part: ‘A Foam of Forcemeats’, ‘A Broth of Lampreys’ and ‘A Dish of Candied Baubles’, for example. The first section is excellent – well paced, with wonderful descriptions and a good evocation of the historical setting – but this changes as soon as the second section of the book is reached. Too many characters fill the novel’s pages, and it is often a little difficult to keep track of who is who, what is happening and why. Some of the character names used also do not seem to fit with the period – Gemma and Maggie, for example; a small niggle, but an important one when writing an historical piece of fiction.

The book itself has been wonderfully presented, with beautiful woodcuts and the inclusion of several old recipes dating from the time in which the book is set. John Saturnall’s Feast has been well researched and a good list of sources has been mentioned in the novel’s acknowledgements. Whilst the novel is rather rich in its scope and multi-layered storyline, it is in the first 65 pages of the book where the strengths lie. The reader is drawn into John’s world and feels so much for the protagonist, and this is then cruelly wrenched away when the second part of the novel begins. There is no real sense of consistency throughout, and whilst the pace of the book is wonderful at first, this has not been realised in the novel’s remainder. All sense of the novel’s flow disappears, the characterisation becomes rather slack at points, and John becomes rather a stolid character, whom less and less compassion is felt for as the novel reaches its end.

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One From the Archive: ‘Things We Left Unsaid’ by Zoya Pirzad **

First published in October 2012.

Zoya Pirzad is a renowned Iranian-Armenian writer and novelist, who has published two novels and three short story collections. Things We Left Unsaid, first published in Iran in 2002, has recently been translated into English by Franklin Lewis.

The novel uses the first person perspective of middle-aged housewife Clarice Ayvazian, who lives in the city of Abadan in Iran. We are launched into her suburban life from the book’s first sentence: ‘The sound of the school bus braking… the squeaking of the metal gate swinging open… the footsteps running up the narrow path across the front yard’.

Clarice is a stay-at-home mother to teenage son Armen, who is forever getting into ‘scuffles’ with his peers and who worries his parents when he begins to bathe on a regular basis, and younger twin girls named Armineh and Arsineh, both of whom have ‘chubby pink and white faces’. The rather happy monotony of Clarice’s life is broken with the sudden arrival of an Armenian family who move into the house across the street. This house is notorious for having a succession of different residents, all of whom have children that make friends with the twins and then leave without much warning. The new family consists of a father named Emile who has a job at the same engineering works as Clarice’s husband Artoush, his daughter Emily and her grandmother, Elmira Simonian.

The narrative style of Things We Left Unsaid has been written in rather a chatty manner which launches straight into the finer points of Clarice’s life, mundane details which she alone seems to have any thought for. Parts of her narrative voice present mantra-like sentences in which she schools herself to be as accepted as possible by her family and neighbours: ‘So even if your mother and sister laugh, or your friends and acquaintances make remarks about how Clarice’s kitchen reminds them of the witch’s hut in Hansel and Gretel, you shouldn’t change your taste to accommodate theirs’.

Although she is the novel’s protagonist and we learn more about her than anyone else, Clarice is not a likeable character. She comes across as rather selfish and perceives that her children take up the time which she would like to keep to herself. She does not seem to take into account that she is alone all day whilst her family is elsewhere, and some sympathy is created for the children as a result.

The names of the characters are too similar at times – Emile, Emily and Elmira, and Armen, Artoush, Armineh and Arsineh, for example – and it would have been far better if these had been varied somewhat. At first, it is a little confusing as to which character is which and, although the twins are the most interesting individuals in the book – indeed, they are the only ones who seem to come to life – it is often difficult to tell them apart.

Throughout, there is a definite sense that the book has not been translated perhaps as well as it could have been, and many Americanisms are reverted to which seem to alienate the reader from the cultural aspect of the novel. Examples of this are that the twins wear ‘white collar strings’, a phrase which is never elaborated upon, and various references are made to the girls being ‘Xeroxed copies of one another’, school ‘recess’ breaks, ‘blocks’ of residence and ‘a zillion insects’. Such translations do not really work, especially with regard to the book’s setting.

Things We Left Unsaid includes a glossary which is made up of places and the proper names of characters and real people referred to throughout, as well as foodstuffs which ‘Anglophone readers would not generally find familiar’. Rather than just listing translations for each of the more unfamiliar words, a small paragraph has been included alongside each entry, which explains the history of a particular place, person or point in history.

Whilst the setting of the book and the period of history which is its focus – just before the Islamic Revolution – are incredibly interesting, there is nothing which really serves to get the reader interested in the story. Things We Left Unsaid is essentially a slim portrait of family life which never really goes any deeper than its surface. It feels dull and repetitive at times, and the entire novel feels as though it has been comprised of the more lulling episodes of a soap opera, where the characters merely meander along and where nothing of any substance occurs.

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The novel uses the first person perspective of middle-aged housewife Clarice Ayvazian, who lives in the city of Abadan in Iran. We are launched into her suburban life from the book’s first sentence: ‘The sound of the school bus braking… the squeaking of the metal gate swinging open… the footsteps running up the narrow path across the front yard’.

Clarice is a stay-at-home mother to teenage son Armen, who is forever getting into ‘scuffles’ with his peers and who worries his parents when he begins to bathe on a regular basis, and younger twin girls named Armineh and Arsineh, both of whom have ‘chubby pink and white faces’. The rather happy monotony of Clarice’s life is broken with the sudden arrival of an Armenian family who move into the house across the street. This house is notorious for having a succession of different residents, all of whom have children that make friends with the twins and then leave without much warning. The new family consists of a father named Emile who has a job at the same engineering works as Clarice’s husband Artoush, his daughter Emily and her grandmother, Elmira Simonian.

The narrative style of Things We Left Unsaid has been written in rather a chatty manner which launches straight into the finer points of Clarice’s life, mundane details which she alone seems to have any thought for. Parts of her narrative voice present mantra-like sentences in which she schools herself to be as accepted as possible by her family and neighbours: ‘So even if your mother and sister laugh, or your friends and acquaintances make remarks about how Clarice’s kitchen reminds them of the witch’s hut in Hansel and Gretel, you shouldn’t change your taste to accommodate theirs’.

Although she is the novel’s protagonist and we learn more about her than anyone else, Clarice is not a likeable character. She comes across as rather selfish and perceives that her children take up the time which she would like to keep to herself. She does not seem to take into account that she is alone all day whilst her family is elsewhere, and some sympathy is created for the children as a result.

The names of the characters are too similar at times – Emile, Emily and Elmira, and Armen, Artoush, Armineh and Arsineh, for example – and it would have been far better if these had been varied somewhat. At first, it is a little confusing as to which character is which and, although the twins are the most interesting individuals in the book – indeed, they are the only ones who seem to come to life – it is often difficult to tell them apart.

Throughout, there is a definite sense that the book has not been translated perhaps as well as it could have been, and many Americanisms are reverted to which seem to alienate the reader from the cultural aspect of the novel. Examples of this are that the twins wear ‘white collar strings’, a phrase which is never elaborated upon, and various references are made to the girls being ‘Xeroxed copies of one another’, school ‘recess’ breaks, ‘blocks’ of residence and ‘a zillion insects’. Such translations do not really work, especially with regard to the book’s setting.

Things We Left Unsaid includes a glossary which is made up of places and the proper names of characters and real people referred to throughout, as well as foodstuffs which ‘Anglophone readers would not generally find familiar’. Rather than just listing translations for each of the more unfamiliar words, a small paragraph has been included alongside each entry, which explains the history of a particular place, person or point in history.

Whilst the setting of the book and the period of history which is its focus – just before the Islamic Revolution – are incredibly interesting, there is nothing which really serves to get the reader interested in the story. Things We Left Unsaid is essentially a slim portrait of family life which never really goes any deeper than its surface. It feels dull and repetitive at times, and the entire novel feels as though it has been comprised of the more lulling episodes of a soap opera, where the characters merely meander along and where nothing of any substance occurs.

- See more at: http://www.nudgemenow.com/article/things-we-left-unsaid-by-zoya-pirzad/#sthash.KJWfHCRA.dpuf

The novel uses the first person perspective of middle-aged housewife Clarice Ayvazian, who lives in the city of Abadan in Iran. We are launched into her suburban life from the book’s first sentence: ‘The sound of the school bus braking… the squeaking of the metal gate swinging open… the footsteps running up the narrow path across the front yard’.

Clarice is a stay-at-home mother to teenage son Armen, who is forever getting into ‘scuffles’ with his peers and who worries his parents when he begins to bathe on a regular basis, and younger twin girls named Armineh and Arsineh, both of whom have ‘chubby pink and white faces’. The rather happy monotony of Clarice’s life is broken with the sudden arrival of an Armenian family who move into the house across the street. This house is notorious for having a succession of different residents, all of whom have children that make friends with the twins and then leave without much warning. The new family consists of a father named Emile who has a job at the same engineering works as Clarice’s husband Artoush, his daughter Emily and her grandmother, Elmira Simonian.

The narrative style of Things We Left Unsaid has been written in rather a chatty manner which launches straight into the finer points of Clarice’s life, mundane details which she alone seems to have any thought for. Parts of her narrative voice present mantra-like sentences in which she schools herself to be as accepted as possible by her family and neighbours: ‘So even if your mother and sister laugh, or your friends and acquaintances make remarks about how Clarice’s kitchen reminds them of the witch’s hut in Hansel and Gretel, you shouldn’t change your taste to accommodate theirs’.

Although she is the novel’s protagonist and we learn more about her than anyone else, Clarice is not a likeable character. She comes across as rather selfish and perceives that her children take up the time which she would like to keep to herself. She does not seem to take into account that she is alone all day whilst her family is elsewhere, and some sympathy is created for the children as a result.

The names of the characters are too similar at times – Emile, Emily and Elmira, and Armen, Artoush, Armineh and Arsineh, for example – and it would have been far better if these had been varied somewhat. At first, it is a little confusing as to which character is which and, although the twins are the most interesting individuals in the book – indeed, they are the only ones who seem to come to life – it is often difficult to tell them apart.

Throughout, there is a definite sense that the book has not been translated perhaps as well as it could have been, and many Americanisms are reverted to which seem to alienate the reader from the cultural aspect of the novel. Examples of this are that the twins wear ‘white collar strings’, a phrase which is never elaborated upon, and various references are made to the girls being ‘Xeroxed copies of one another’, school ‘recess’ breaks, ‘blocks’ of residence and ‘a zillion insects’. Such translations do not really work, especially with regard to the book’s setting.

Things We Left Unsaid includes a glossary which is made up of places and the proper names of characters and real people referred to throughout, as well as foodstuffs which ‘Anglophone readers would not generally find familiar’. Rather than just listing translations for each of the more unfamiliar words, a small paragraph has been included alongside each entry, which explains the history of a particular place, person or point in history.

Whilst the setting of the book and the period of history which is its focus – just before the Islamic Revolution – are incredibly interesting, there is nothing which really serves to get the reader interested in the story. Things We Left Unsaid is essentially a slim portrait of family life which never really goes any deeper than its surface. It feels dull and repetitive at times, and the entire novel feels as though it has been comprised of the more lulling episodes of a soap opera, where the characters merely meander along and where nothing of any substance occurs.

- See more at: http://www.nudgemenow.com/article/things-we-left-unsaid-by-zoya-pirzad/#sthash.KJWfHCRA.dpuf

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One From the Archive: ‘Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland’ by Sarah Moss ****

First published in October 2014.

Sarah Moss, currently lecturing at Exeter University, has previously written two novels, Cold Earth and Night Waking. In 2009, she applied for a position as ‘an expert in nineteenth-century British literature’ at the University of Iceland on something of a ‘whim’, and consequently moved there with her young family.

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland collects together Moss’ memories of living in Iceland during a turbulent period in the country’s history, which brought with it economic collapse and the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokul volcano, which caused problems on a global scale.

The prologue of the volume sets the vastly different vista of Iceland immediately: ‘the typography of the city’s night… There are perhaps half a dozen independent food shops left in Reykjavik and only chain bookshops, but every pool is distinctive’. She goes on to describe the way in which she views her new, albeit relatively temporary, home: ‘Here, just below the Earth’s summit, there are towns and villages, a tangle of human lives, in the shadow of Arctic eschatology’.

From the outset, the author’s fascination with the north is outlined. The first chapter describes her first trip to the country whilst still in her teens with one of her university friends, ‘camping rough because we couldn’t afford campsites and living on an increasingly sparse and eccentric diet because we couldn’t, really, afford food either’. The book is by turns heartwarming, sensual in terms of its perception of place, and rather amusing: ‘I am going to Iceland,’ Moss says, ‘but not because I have a secret desire to wear a horned helmet or drink mead out of a skull’.

Even before Moss, her husband and her two young sons move to Iceland, the problems of uprooting an entire family are made apparent. There is the problem of schooling for her oldest son Max who has become used to the English system of education, and how to decide which belongings to take: ‘my book-buying becomes more extravagant as I try to anticipate a year’s purchases, for myself and also for Max, who has a two-a-day fiction habit’. She describes in an incredibly honest manner what it is like to move away from everything you have ever known and to settle in a relatively alien place.

Throughout, Moss’ descriptions are wonderfully vivid and really bring her varied perceptions of the country to life. They are all enticing and rich in detail, and bring the landscape in which she lived to life. We are able to see the scenes for ourselves without moving from our comfortable reading nooks. During the Aurora borealis, she writes that ‘the northern sky, dark over the sea, is mottled with green that spreads like spilt paint… The green and white reach towards each other and then lunge away like opposing magnets forced together. I tread water, and watch’. When describing why she made the decision to uproot her family from comfortable Kent, she states: ‘We’d come for the landscape, for the pale nights and dark shores, rain sweeping over birch scrub, the whole circle of a flat world empty but for ourselves’.

Whilst Moss and her family are settling in, Iceland is hit hard by its failing economy. Other lecturers at the University of Iceland are resigned to the fact that the importation of books from overseas will ‘halt’, and the author’s own salary drops by a third in just a week. Rather than view this with a glum sadness, she takes it in her stride: ‘I don’t know why the collapse of the Icelandic economy… doesn’t put us off… I think it seems likely to be interesting’.

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland is filled with a wealth of details about the country, from the wonderful to the unsettling. Almost everything about the day-to-day life of its citizens has been included, from the difficulty of renting a property when over ninety percent of the market is ‘owner occupied’, to the kindnesses of virtual strangers as they invite Moss and her family to learn about the culture and customs of their land. The battle between tradition and modernisation is ever-present and an interesting slice of social history has been thoughtfully provided throughout.

‘I am fascinated by this place,’ Moss tells us, ‘but I do not understand it, and all I think I have learnt so far is that understanding it won’t be easy’. As readers, we are her confidantes, those she does not mind sharing her secrets with. As a result, the book comes across as an incredibly friendly and honest piece of writing, which cannot fail but to entice the most resigned armchair reader to wish to explore the country. Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland is an incredibly engaging, insightful and rather marvellous piece of travel literature.

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Saturday Poem: ‘Dreams’ by Nikolay Gumilev

By the hut, left by people and heaven, 
Where the fence’s black remnants are steeping,  
The ragged beggar and black old raven, 
Were discussing the dreams of the sleeping.

The old bird, with commotion’s moans,  
Was repeating in hot indecision,                        
That he had on the tower’s stones
The unusual, fabulous visions; 

That in flight, full of valor and air,
He, who lost their usual sadness,
Was a swan, snow white, sweet and fair, 
And the beggar – a prince of the greatness!

The ugly pauper was helplessly wailing.
Heavy night was descending and reigning.
The old woman, while passing the dwelling, 
Was unceasingly crossing and praying.