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The Book Trail: From Country Diaries to Trailblazing Women

I take as the starting point for this edition of The Book Trail my most recent review, of Edith Holden’s beautiful The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. As ever, I have used the ‘Readers also enjoyed’ tab on Goodreads to generate this list. Let me know if anything here piques your interest!

1. The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden

‘Edith Holden’s words, all carefully written by hand, include her favourite poems, personal thoughts and observations on the wildlife she saw surrounding her home in Warwickshire, and on her travels through England and Scotland. The exquisitely beautiful paintings on every page of birds, butterflies, bees and flowers, reflect her deep love of nature; they have been executed with a naturalist’s eye for detail, and the sensitivity of an artist.

For seventy years, this enchanting and unique book has lain undiscovered; it is now being published for the first time in a full-colour facsimile edition that recapture all the freshness, charm and beauty of the original.’

2. Floriography: An Illustrated Guide to the Victorian Language of Flowers by Jessica Roux

Floriography is a full-color guide to the historical uses and secret meanings behind an impressive array of flowers and herbs. The book explores the coded significances associated with various blooms, from flowers for a lover to flowers for an enemy.

The language of flowers was historically used as a means of secret communication. It soared in popularity during the 19th century, especially in Victorian England and the U.S., when proper etiquette discouraged open displays of emotion. Mysterious and playful, the language of flowers has roots in everything from the characteristics of the plant to its presence in folklore and history. Researched and illustrated by popular artist Jessica Roux, this book makes a stunning display piece, conversation-starter, or thoughtful gift.’

3. Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett by Marta McDowell

New York Times bestselling author Marta McDowell has revealed the way that plants have stirred some of our most cherished authors, including Beatrix Potter, Emily Dickinson, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. In her latest, she shares a moving account of how gardening deeply inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of the beloved children’s classic The Secret Garden.
 
In Unearthing The Secret Garden, best-selling author Marta McDowell delves into the professional and gardening life of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Complementing her fascinating account with charming period photographs and illustrations, McDowell paints an unforgettable portrait of a great artist and reminds us why The Secret Garden continues to touch readers after more than a century. This deeply moving and gift-worthy book is a must-read for fans of The Secret Garden and anyone who loves the story behind the story.’

4. Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds by Thomas Halliday

‘The past is past, but it does leave clues, and Thomas Halliday has used cutting-edge science to decipher them more completely than ever before. In Otherlands, Halliday makes sixteen fossil sites burst to life on the page.

This book is an exploration of the Earth as it used to exist, the changes that have occurred during its history, and the ways that life has found to adapt―or not. It takes us from the savannahs of Pliocene Kenya to watch a python chase a group of australopithecines into an acacia tree; to a cliff overlooking the salt pans of the empty basin of what will be the Mediterranean Sea just as water from the Miocene Atlantic Ocean spills in; into the tropical forests of Eocene Antarctica; and under the shallow pools of Ediacaran Australia, where we glimpse the first microbial life.

Otherlands also offers us a vast perspective on the current state of the planet. The thought that something as vast as the Great Barrier Reef, for example, with all its vibrant diversity, might one day soon be gone sounds improbable. But the fossil record shows us that this sort of wholesale change is not only possible but has repeatedly happened throughout Earth history.

Even as he operates on this broad canvas, Halliday brings us up close to the intricate relationships that defined these lost worlds. In novelistic prose that belies the breadth of his research, he illustrates how ecosystems are formed; how species die out and are replaced; and how species migrate, adapt, and collaborate. It is a breathtaking achievement: a surprisingly emotional narrative about the persistence of life, the fragility of seemingly permanent ecosystems, and the scope of deep time, all of which have something to tell us about our current crisis.’

5. The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth by Ben Rawlence

‘For the last fifty years, the trees of the boreal forest have been moving north. Ben Rawlence’s The Treeline takes us along this critical frontier of our warming planet from Norway to Siberia, Alaska to Greenland, to meet the scientists, residents and trees confronting huge geological changes. Only the hardest species survive at these latitudes including the ice-loving Dahurian larch of Siberia, the antiseptic Spruce that purifies our atmosphere, the Downy birch conquering Scandinavia, the healing Balsam poplar that Native Americans use as a cure-all and the noble Scots Pine that lives longer when surrounded by its family.

It is a journey of wonder and awe at the incredible creativity and resilience of these species and the mysterious workings of the forest upon which we rely for the air we breathe. Blending reportage with the latest science, The Treeline is a story of what might soon be the last forest left and what that means for the future of all life on earth.’

6. Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser

‘A sweeping and captivatingly told history of clothing and the stuff it’s made of–an unparalleled deep dive into how we’ve made what we wear, and how our garments have transformed our societies, our planet, and our lives.

In this ambitious, panoramic social history, Sofi Thanhauser brilliantly tells five stories–Linen, Cotton, Silk, Synthetics, Wool–about the clothes we wear and where they come from, illuminating our world in unexpected ways. She takes us from the opulent court of Louis Quatorze to the labor camps in modern-day Chinese-occupied Xinjiang. We see how textiles were once dyed from lichen, shells, bark, saffron, and beetles, displaying distinctive regional weaves and knits, and how the modern Western garment industry has refashioned our attire into the homogenous and disposable uniforms popularized by fast fashion brands. Thanhauser makes clear how the clothing industry has become one of the planet’s worst polluters, relying on chronically underpaid and exploited laborers. But she also shows us how micro-communities and companies of textile and clothing makers in every corner of the world are rediscovering ancestral and ethical methods for making what we wear.

Drawn from years of intensive research and reporting from around the world, and brimming with fascinating anecdotal material, Worn reveals to us that our clothing comes not just from the countries listed on the tags or ready-made from our factories–it comes, as well, from deep in our histories.’

7. Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi

‘For precocious 11-year-old Lea Ypi, Albania’s Soviet-style socialism held the promise of a preordained future, a guarantee of security among enthusiastic comrades. That is, until she found herself clinging to a stone statue of Joseph Stalin, newly beheaded by student protests.

Communism had failed to deliver the promised utopia. One’s “biography”—class status and other associations long in the past—put strict boundaries around one’s individual future. When Lea’s parents spoke of relatives going to “university” or “graduating,” they were speaking of grave secrets Lea struggled to unveil. And when the early ’90s saw Albania and other Balkan countries exuberantly begin a transition to the “free market,” Western ideals of freedom delivered chaos: a dystopia of pyramid schemes, organized crime, and sex trafficking.

With her elegant, intellectual, French-speaking grandmother; her radical-chic father; and her staunchly anti-socialist, Thatcherite mother to guide her through these disorienting times, Lea had a political education of the most colorful sort—here recounted with outstanding literary talent. Now one of the world’s most dynamic young political thinkers and a prominent leftist voice in the United Kingdom, Lea offers a fresh and invigorating perspective on the relation between the personal and the political, between values and identity, posing urgent questions about the cost of freedom.’

8. Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women by Annabel Abbs

‘Annabel Abbs’s Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women is a beautifully written meditation on connecting with the outdoors through the simple act of walking. In captivating and elegant prose, Abbs follows in the footsteps of women who boldly reclaimed wild landscapes for themselves, including Georgia O’Keeffe in the empty plains of Texas and New Mexico, Nan Shepherd in the mountains of Scotland, Gwen John following the French River Garonne, Daphne du Maurier along the River Rhône, and Simone de Beauvoir—who walked as much as twenty-five miles a day in a dress and espadrilles—through the mountains and forests of France.

Part historical inquiry and part memoir, the stories of these writers and artists are laced together by moments in Abb’s own life, beginning with her poet father who raised her in the Welsh countryside as an “experiment,” according to the principles of Rousseau. Abbs explores a forgotten legacy of moving on foot and discovers how it has helped women throughout history to find their voices, to reimagine their lives, and to break free from convention.

As Abbs traces the paths of exceptional women, she realizes that she, too, is walking away from her past and into a radically different future. Windswept crosses continents and centuries in a provocative and poignant account of the power of walking in nature.’

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‘The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady’ by Edith Holden *****

I have wanted to read Edith Holden’s The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady for many years now, after seeing some effusive reviews before I had even entered the world of blogging about literature. I had found it difficult to find an affordable copy which was in good condition, but luckily I thought to search for it on my local library’s catalogue, and found a lovely facsimile reproduction housed in the county store.

Holden was born in Kings Norton in Worcestershire in 1871, and grew up in a small Warwickshire village with her family. Here, she wrote and illustrated ‘Nature Notes for 1906’; however, the book was not published under its current title, The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, until 1977. Holden tragically drowned in the Thames in 1920, whilst collecting buds from chestnut trees at Kew.

In this beautiful book, Holden ‘recorded in words and paintings the flora and fauna of the British countryside through the changing seasons of the year’. She wrote everything by hand, and this has touchingly been reproduced, along with several original spelling errors. Alongside darling watercolours of the nature which she observed in her local area, Holden recorded fragments of her favourite poems by the likes of Burns, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Barrett Browning, and personal observations. Included in this volume are recollections from extended family holidays in Scotland and Devon.

As one would expect from a diary, The Country Diary… has been split into separate months. Each begins with a memorandum-style page or two, which collect together facts about the month, and titbits which Holden felt were relevant, such as rhymes and old wives’ tales. In January, for instance, she records that the month was ‘named from the Roman god Janus, who is represented with his faces looking in opposite directions – as retrospective to the past, and prospective to the coming year.’ She has also noted special dates and bank holidays throughout, some of which she calls ‘Feast Days etc’. Some of the entries for separate days contain weather conditions, or things of note which she saw on that given day.

The detail here is absolutely charming. On January 23rd, she records: ‘Went for a country walk. Every thing on every tree and bush was outlined in silver tracery against the sky; some of the dead grasses and seed-vessels growing by the road-side were specially beautiful; every detail of them sparkling with frost crystals in the sunshine.’ Her entry three days later begins: ‘The last few weeks, our own and our neighbours’ gardens have been haunted by a very curious Robin.’ On June 7th, she observes: ‘There is a fine show of wild roses… In many places the hedges are festooned with wreathes of Black Bryony and Honeysuckle. The pale pink Blackberry blossom and the large, white masses of Elder blossom are everywhere conspicuous. Climbing up the banks to meet them are tall purple fox-gloves and nodding heads of grasses heavy with pollen, mingled with Purple and Yellow Hatches and Clover blossom.’

Holden was an incredibly talented woman, particularly with regard to her artwork. On every single page, it is clear that she gave such consideration to everything she put down on paper. Every double page spread in The Country Diary… contains at least one gorgeous watercolour. Holden’s drawings of flowers and foliage are perfectly precise, as are her depictions of different bird species, and their eggs. I also really admired that she gave the Latinate names for everything included.

One sad thing to note here is that Holden’s book was written over a century ago. I noticed that some of the species which she talks about as being common – birds, butterflies, and flowers – are things which I have never seen anywhere in Britain.

The Country Diary… is a wonderful almanac, which I thoroughly appreciated. It is wonderful both to read from cover to cover, or to dip in and out of. It is an incredibly lovely homage to the natural world, and keen naturalists will surely find of interest how much has changed in the intervening eleven decades. I very much look forward to revisiting it in future, and hopefully getting my hands on a copy which I can add to my collection, and treasure.

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One From the Archive: ‘A Wreath of Roses’ by Elizabeth Taylor *****

First published in January 2019.

I originally purchased Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses in order to participate in a group read, but was unable to wait, and started it almost as soon as I received a copy.  I adore Elizabeth Taylor; she is one of my favourite authors, and without Virago’s republication of her novels and short stories, it may well have taken me far longer to discover her.  A Wreath of Roses is number 392 on the Virago Modern Classics list, and was first published in 1949.

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Of her writing, fellow Virago-published author Rosamond Lehmann said it is ‘sophisticated, sensitive and brilliantly amusing, with a kind of stripped, piercing feminine wit.’  The Daily Telegraph calls her a ‘fearsome writer, ruthless in her examination of solitude, and a sparkling chronicler of ordinary lives.’  Kingsley Amis regarded her as ‘one of the best English novelists born in this century.

The Virago edition which I read included a warm introduction written by Helen Dunmore.  She writes that A Wreath of Roses has been ‘called Elizabeth Taylor’s darkest novel, dealing as it does with murder, loneliness, terror and suicide.’  She goes on to make a comparison between Taylor and Virginia Woolf.  She writes: ‘Like Woolf, Taylor is fearless in her handling of tragedy and mental suffering’.

The protagonist of A Wreath of Roses is a young woman named Camilla Hill.  Each year, she spends the summer in the countryside with two women who are very dear to her.  ‘But this year,’ notes the novel’s blurb, ‘their private absorptions – Frances with her painting and Liz with her baby – seem to exclude her from the gossipy intimacies of previous holidays.  Feeling lonely, and that life and love are passing her by, Camilla steps into an unlikely liaison with Richard Elton, handsome, assured – and a dangerous liar.’  The novel is set in the aftermath of the Second World War, and takes place in a small village named Abingford somewhere in England, within ‘the blazing heart of an English summer.’  This village, writes Dunmore, is ‘hypnotically beautiful, but never idyllic.’  She deems this an ‘unflinching novel, which probes deep into the self-deceptions that grow up in order to soften life, and end up by choking it like so many weeds.’

A Wreath of Roses begins at the train station of this small English village, where Camilla spots a man on the platform.  Taylor’s description of their staunch British behaviour is demonstrated thus:  ‘Once the train which had left them on the platform had drawn out,’ writes Taylor, ‘the man and woman trod separately up and down, read time-tables in turn, were conscious of one another in the way that strangers are, when thrown together without a reason for conversation.  A word or two would have put them at ease, but there were no words to say.  The heat of the afternoon was beyond comment and could not draw them together as hailstones might have done.’

It is not long afterwards that Camilla sees a ‘shabby man’ throw himself from the train bridge, and Taylor comments upon how this event drastically impacts upon Camilla: ‘This happening broke the afternoon in two.  The feeling of eternity had vanished.  What had been timeless and silent became chaotic and disorganised, with feet running along the echoing boards, voices staccato, and the afternoon darkening with the vultures of disaster, who felt the presence of death and arrived from the village to savour it and to explain the happening to one another.’

Taylor’s novels are beautiful, and full of depth.  She is an author who is so perceptive of the tiny things which make up a life.  A Wreath of Roses is no different in this respect.  Dunmore believes that ‘she writes with a sensuous richness of language that draws the reader down the most shadowy paths.’  She goes on to further describe Taylor’s writing style, pointing out that she ‘has a way of seeming to be one kind of writer, and then revealing herself to be quite another, or, perhaps, to be a writer who is capable of inhabiting many selves at the same time.’  Dunmore beautifully comments upon the essence of her art, when she writes that ‘Taylor makes the living moment present, touchable, disturbing, enchanting.’  The imagery which she creates is rich, and often quite lovely.  For instance, Taylor writes of an English summer night in the following way: ‘Trees and the hedgerows were as dark as blackberries against the starry sky; a little owl took off from a telegraph-post, floating down noiselessly across a field of stubble.’

Taylor seems to effortlessly capture real, human feelings, and the way in which relationships can shift and change so quickly.  She is perhaps most understanding of protagonist Camilla’s altered position, both in life and in Abingford: she ‘felt as if the day had been a dream, that she would come out of it soon, lifting fold after fold of muffling web; for this could not be real – meeting Liz again after eleven months and finding herself so alienated from her that she would show off to her about a man.’  Throughout, the reader is given hints about Richard’s sinister edge, but these are hidden from Camilla.  In this way, we are forced to watch the somewhat dark consequences of the relationship which she embarks upon with him.  Through these characters, Taylor explores in great deal how the expectations which we have of someone, and the effects which they have upon us, can be so terribly damaging.  The tenseness within the novel builds, and is masterfully put in place until it feels almost claustrophobic.

I could hardly bear to put A Wreath of Roses down.  Taylor has a style all of her own, and whilst this novel is in some ways quite different to the rest of her oeuvre, it is characteristically hers.  I was surprised by the twists which this story takes, and the ending completely surprised me.  A Wreath of Roses is a masterful novel, which shows an author at the peak of her power.

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Six Recommendations

1. The Gaps by Leanne Hall

Leanne Hall’s The Gaps really caught my attention, and when I began to read, I struggled to put it down. Centred around a school in Australia, and dealing with some incredibly pertinent issues, such as poverty and homelessness, with both sensitivity and realism, I found The Gaps to be very far indeed from a typical young adult novel. The characters are incredibly realistic, and each has a distinct voice. I very much look forward to reading whatever Hall turns her attention to next.

2. A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

A Nail, A Rose is a fascinating collection of short stories, collected from across Belgian author Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s writing life. I thoroughly enjoyed the prose style, and found that the translation has been handled wonderfully. I particularly admired the focus upon women, their inner lives, and outer mundanity of the day-to-day (something which I have been interested in for many years). Some of the stories here are truly excellent. I just wish this had been a lot longer!

3. Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You by Kate Gross

I seem to be reviewing a lot of books of late which I have never heard of, but which catch my eye in my local library. Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You by Kate Gross is one such tome. At the age of 34, Gross, who worked for both Labour Party Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. She passed away on Christmas morning, 2014, leaving behind her husband and young twin sons. Late Fragments is her searingly honest memoir, which deals with so many elements of her disease, as well as recapturing something of her earlier life. Gross’ writing is beautiful, and highly reflective, as one might expect.

4. With Teeth by Kristen Arnett

Kristen Arnett’s second novel is smart, acerbic, and witty. The story centres around two married women, who live in Florida with their terror of a son. In With Teeth, Arnett focuses on the breakdown of relationships. Her observations are sharp and realistic, and she deals with several deep topics throughout. If you are looking to pick up a very focused character study, I would highly recommend seeking out this novel.

5. Fry’s Ties: The Life and Times of a Tie Collection by Stephen Fry

If you are going to pick up this rather niche book, all about British hero Stephen Fry’s extensive tie collection, I highly recommend listening to the audiobook, narrated throughout in the author’s velvety tones. Before coming to this, I had no idea that anyone could make ties something akin to fascinating to a woman who has never worn one. Fry managed this feat, however. There is a lot about fashion history here, which I very much appreciated, and I found it entertaining from start to finish. Fry is excellent company for both hobbies and chores around the house, and I truly wish this book had been a longer listen!

6. Letter to My Rage: An Evolution by Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch’s Letter to My Rage is an incredibly short essay, which sings with both amusement and sardonic comments. I found Yuknavitch’s commentary incredibly current and to the point. She is also incredibly anti-Trump, which is always welcome to this reader. Highly pertinent, dark, and visceral, Letter to My Rage is revealing of its author. I also enjoyed it far more than her fiction.

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‘Under Storm’s Wing’ by Helen Thomas *****

Helen Thomas’ Under Storm’s Wing is one of those books which I have wanted to read for years, but which has proved difficult to get hold of; in this case, copies were unaffordable. I finally managed to find a secondhand edition of the Carcanet publication for less than £10, which may well be my bargain of the year.

Under Storm’s Wing is a veritable treasure trove. It brings together two volumes of memoir – As It Was, and World Without End – Helen’s letters, written between 1896 and 1917, A Remembered Harvest, and a selection of recollections of her youngest daughter Myfanwy. Helen’s husband, Edward Thomas, is one of my favourite poets, and whilst I knew a little about Helen before I picked this up, I was gratified that it was highly illuminating.

As It Was (1926) takes as its focus Helen and Edward’s early relationship and marriage, and was written soon after he was killed during the First World War at the Battle of Arras, France, in 1917. The first of her memoirs ends with the birth of their first son, Merfyn. World Without End was written several years afterwards, in 1931. Helen’s second memoir covers a wider span of time than her first.

As It Was begins with Helen speaking expansively about her childhood: ‘Our life was very happy, very social, very united. We were unconventional, though in no startling way – just informal and unselfconscious.’ She then reveals when she first met Edward, after her literary reviewer father is asked to read some of his work, and invites him to the house. Helen describes her first meeting with the ‘shy and constrained’ Edward, noticing that his ‘eyes were grey and dreamy and meditative, but fearless and steady, and as if trying to pierce the truth itself. It was a most striking face, recalling a portrait of Shelley in its sensitive, melancholy beauty.’

Helen captures similarly lovely moments throughout. She writes, for instance: ‘I remember in that first walk how we scrambled about in a little roadside copse. It must have been winter or early spring, for the trees were bare, and Edward showed me many old nests, telling me the names of the birds which had made them, and pointing out to me their special characteristics. Later on he brought me as a present a most beautifully compact, moss-covered nest of a chaffinch, which I could hardly believe was the work of a bird, and all my wonder pleased and amused him in his grave way.’ She goes on: ‘And all his knowledge of everything we saw, and all his intimacy – everything lifted me at once into a new world.’

Throughout, I admired Helen’s honesty. She shows herself as a bold and daring young woman. She is revealing about her innermost self, about the intimacies she shared with Edward, and her naïve ideas regarding sex and desire. She recalls, with vivid clarity: ‘I had often cried bitterly in the thought that no man could ever love me, and that my longing for children would never be satisfied. I had so persuaded myself of this that it never entered my mind as a possibility until that moment when Edward took my hand; and even then I did not consciously think of love; all I felt was an unrest, a fear, a thrill, perhaps also a hope.’

The depictions here regarding Edward’s ever-present struggles with mental health are revealing. Helen tells us: ‘There were many dark periods when we were here [living on a farm in the Weald of Kent], many days of silence and wretchedness and separation, for sometimes in these moods Edward would stride away, perhaps for days, wrestling with the devil that tormented his spirit.’

Helen’s writing is beautiful, filled with glorious and expansive descriptions. On their honeymoon spent in Wiltshire, she reflects: ‘We washed in rain-water… Outside the owls hooted about the cottage, and bats twittered, and starlings stirred in the thatch. No other sound was to be heard, no trams, no people, no traffic, nothing but the sounds that do not spoil silence, but rather deepen it, and a little breeze wandering through the wood, and a leaf flapping against our window.’

Myfanwy’s contribution is an excerpt from her longer memoir, One of These Fine Days. Myfanwy also contributed the preface to this volume, which was first collected together in 1988. She recollects that her mother wrote both volumes of her memoir ‘as therapy, to try to rouse [her] from the terrible lethargy and desolation which followed Edward’s death…’.

Under Storm’s Wing is a wonderful anthology, and I found it to be far more open than I would expect of a book written during this period. There is much written about the natural world, and Helen’s discovery of the countryside after spending her entire childhood in towns and cities. Under Storm’s Wing is a touching, moving, and thoughtful collection, and is a book to really linger over.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Shutter of Snow’ by Emily Holmes Coleman *****

First published in June 2019.

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I have wanted to read Emily Holmes Coleman’s The Shutter of Snow for years, but had never got around to doing so, as copies proved difficult to find, and rather expensive. Only the selection of the novel for my online book club pushed me to source a (thankfully free) copy from OpenLibrary, and I began it way ahead of time.

This novella, the only work published by American author Emily Holmes Coleman, is semi-autobiographical.  It focuses on a period of her life in which she was institutionalised due to contracting puerperal fever following the birth of her son in 1924, and suffering a nervous breakdown as a result.  Our protagonist, Marthe Gail, has postpartum psychosis, and is forced to spend her time away from her baby son in a mental hospital in New York.  Here, she tries, with varying levels of success, to persuade others that she is well.

Marthe’s condition, and its manifestation, is startling.  She believes herself to be a sort of amalgamation of God and Jesus Christ.  From the outset, The Shutter of Snow is unsettling, and quickly establishes a sense of the place in which Marthe is trapped: ‘The voice on the other side of her wall was shouting for someone.  It never stopped all night.  It became entangled in the blankets and whistled the ice prongs on the wind.  The rest of the voices were not so distinct.  It was very still out in the hall when the voices stopped.’ There is a sense, for Marthe, of being completely alone and adrift, whilst also being surrounded by many other people.

The imagery which Holmes Coleman creates often has a shock value to it: ‘She had been a foetus and had knitted herself together in the bed’, and ‘Clean cheeks and a little river in her teeth.  Pine needles dripping in the Caucasus’, stood out particularly to me.  I also found the following nightmarish scene incredibly chilling: ‘How could they expect her to sleep when she was going through all of it?  They didnt [sic] know.  She had swung about the room from the ceiling and it was a swinging from the cross.  There had been the burial.  She was lying quietly in the bed and being covered over her face.  She was carried quietly out and put in the casket.  Down, down she went in the rectangle that had been made for her.  Down and the dirt fell in above.  Down and the worms began to tremble in and out.  Always she had kept telling of it, not one word of it must be forgotten.  It must all be recorded in sound and after that she could sleep.’

As well as the horror which permeates it, there are moments of strange beauty in Holmes Coleman’s descriptions; for example, when she writes: ‘The only thing to do is to put hammers in the porridge and when there are enough hammers we shall break down the windows and all of us shall dance in the snow.’  The use of recurring motifs within the novella was highly effective – for instance, Marthe’s dancing, and the unusual imagery of orange peel in the snow.

The Shutter of Snow presents a striking character study of a woman in the depths of mania.  Holmes Coleman’s prose is effective; she uses a stream-of-consciousness-esque style, with the subconscious and unconscious embedded within its omniscient perspective.  I’m not sure that I would categorise this as a stream-of-consciousness work, per se, but it certainly can be recognised as a Modernist work.  There is a real urgency to her writing.  I can see why her style, with its omission of speech marks and no clear delineation between what is real and imagined, might be off-putting to many readers, but as a huge fan of Modernist writing, I found it immediately immersive.  The mixture of reality and psychiatric episodes are chilling, and blend into one another seamlessly.

Given that The Shutter of Snow was published in 1930, it feels startlingly modern.  I agree entirely with the two reviews I read prior to beginning the novella.  Fay Weldon remarked that is an ‘extraordinary and visionary book, written out of those edges where madness and poetry meet’, and The Nation commented that ‘The Shutter of Snow is a profoundly moving book, supplying as it does a glimpse of what a temporary derangement and its consequences mean to the sufferer.’  I found the entirety of this book to be poignant and affecting, and it has become a firm favourite of mine.  I expected that it might be difficult to read, and whilst there are some shocking incidents at work in the novella, the constantly shifting prose works perfectly to demonstrate the fog in Marthe’s brain.

There are relatively few novellas that say so much as Holmes Coleman does so fluidly and fluently in The Shutter of Snow.  She speaks volumes about the human condition, and the frailty and fragility which go hand in hand with it.  The Shutter of Snow is a literary whirlwind, a completely absorbing and often quite frightening story.  An obvious comparison to give is its similarities to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, which deals with similar themes in that the narrator is forced to undertake a rest cure following childbirth.  There are flashes here of a similar beguiling style as Djuna Barnes’, and some of Virginia Woolf’s more complicated scenes – in Orlando, for example.  In some ways, however, The Shutter of Snow is quite unlike anything which I have ever read, and it is all the stronger for this unusual quality.  There is so much within it which is all its own, and it is a real shame that Holmes Coleman never again put her pen to paper following the publication of this staggeringly powerful and phenomenal novella.

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‘The Pear Field’ by Nana Ekvtimishvili ***

Peirene Press are one of my all-time favourite publishing houses. I love that they champion European novellas which would not otherwise be translated into English, and will always support what they do. I had not read any of their titles for quite some time, sadly, but was so intrigued by Georgian author Nana Ekvtimishvili’s The Pear Field that I got my hands on a copy as soon as I possibly could.

I was lucky enough to travel to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city, in January 2020, and have been keen to seek out literature from the country ever since. It has, however, proven rather difficult to get hold of books in translation, particularly which are still in print. I am therefore very grateful to Peirene for publishing this novella, and to Elizabeth Heighway for her flawless translation. Part of Peirene’s ‘Closed Universe’ series, The Pear Field was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021, and has also been longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

The Pear Field is set in a ‘newly independent’ Georgia, free on the surface from Soviet influence, and takes place on the outskirts of the capital, Tbilisi. Here, a young woman named Lela lives at the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children; the locals cruelly refer to it as the ‘School for Idiots’. Lela is eighteen, and old enough to leave the school, but she has nowhere to go. She decides, early on in the narrative, ‘both for her own escape and for the future she hopes to give Irakli, a young boy at the school’ whom she has formed a close bond with. When a couple from the United States decided that they want to adopt a Georgian child, Lela is ‘determined to do everything she can to help Irakli make the most of this chance.’

Around the residential school, ‘… most of the streets have no names and… whole neighbourhoods consist of nothing but Soviet high-rises grouped into blocks, grouped in turn into microdistricts…’. We first meet Lela on ‘a sunny day in late spring, in the wash block of the School for Idiots’, which can be found at the end of a ‘forgotten, sun-scorched street’. The pear field of the novella’s title is on the same campus; it is permanently waterlogged, and the fruit inedible. It proves to be a point of horror for the children, who dream of crossing it to escape, but are fearful of what it may hold. Of Lela, the author writes: ‘… running onto the pear field fills her with terror, the fear that she might not make it across, as she imagines the branches taking hold, throwing her onto the ground, pulling her body into the soft boggy soil, the roots snaking around her and swallowing her up for ever.’

Lela ‘dresses like a boy and at first glance she looks like one too, especially when she’s running flat out. Up close, though, you can see her fine, fair eyebrows, her dark eyes, slim face and cracked red lips…’. She knows nothing of her background, or why she came to be placed in the home. For her, the future looks difficult. She has a tendency to be cruel, and her moods are quicksilver; I did not much warm to her at all. Ekvtimishivili tells us: ‘There’s no hope of her getting a job. After all, as Tiniko points out, if normal people can’t find work, what chance is there for a girl fresh out of a school for the intellectually disabled?’ Soon afterwards, however, Lela finds employment monitoring a local garage, which allows her to move from the school into a gatehouse.

In just 163 translated pages, Ekvtimishivili gives a sweeping and vivid view of twentieth century Georgian history. This was the element of the story which I found by far the most interesting. The wider social and cultural details really drew my attention. There is a lot of poverty, and much brutality and exploitation within the school system, and outside it, is exposed. Many dark, and sometimes shocking, themes are touched upon, although in some places it does not feel as if they have quite been explored in enough detail. The school building itself is dilapidated; the roof leaks, windows are broken; a balcony completely breaks off, and miraculously does not injure any of the children playing below it. There is the ever-pervading ‘smell of dirty children, or sometimes of clothes scrubbed clean with laundry soap; the smell of musty linen and hand-me-down bedding; the smell of paraffin lamps and, in winter, wood stoves; the smell of old armchairs and sticky tape covering cracks in the windows and Chinese mallow plants lined up on the sill.’

I felt a little detached from the characters throughout, and did not always feel as though they were presented in as much detail as I would personally have liked. This detachment is perhaps a consequence of the translation, as the matter-of-fact prose could well be, too. There are a lot of characters introduced in a very short span of time; many of them just appear, without explanation, and it often takes a while to work out the relationships between individuals.

The Pear Tree is Ekvtimishvili’s debut novel, and was first published in 2015. It was awarded a prestigious prize for best Georgian novel, and two others for the best debut soon afterwards. The novella had previously been translated into Dutch and German ‘to much critical acclaim’. It is not one of my favourite Peirene publications, not by a long way, but I do feel grateful to have finally been able to read a piece of Georgian literature without having to learn the language. Ekvtimishvili captures the essence of the school, and the wider surroundings rather well, but whilst this was certainly a readable book, I found it a little underwhelming.