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One From the Archive: ‘Have the Men Had Enough?’ by Margaret Forster *****

First published in 2018.

Margaret Forster’s 1989 novel, Have the Men Had Enough?, is an incredibly astute familial saga with an ageing matriarch, Grandma, as its central focus.  At the outset of the novel, Grandma is clearly beginning to lose her focus, believing that her father and brothers will be coming home shortly, and that she needs to cook their dinner.

Have the Men Had Enough? is told from two perspectives, those of Grandma’s daughter-9780099455646in-law, Jenny McKay, and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Hannah.  Of Grandma’s diagnosis, the family are told ‘the long-term memory remains after the short-term has gone.  Grandma cannot remember what she had for dinner an hour ago but she can remember every detail of what she ate on the train journeys to the Highlands in the 1920s.  And it makes her happy.  It does not seem to worry her in the least that she cannot remember her husband’s first name or the colour of his eyes or what he liked and did not like.  He remains in her memory as the subject of a few unflattering anecdotes and, if she had to sum him up, she is content to say he was “a man’s man”.’  Despite these two perspectives, and their sometimes conflicting views, Grandma is always the focus of the narrative; we learn about the other characters largely with regard to their actions toward, and feelings about, her.

It was fascinating, and often saddening, to see such a story unfold from the perspective of a family who have different beliefs as to what would be the best course of action for Grandma’s ongoing care.  Her daughter Bridget, a nurse, lives next door, and is determined to keep caring for her at home for as long as she can manage.  One of her sons, Stuart, keeps away, saying that he does not want the hassle of involvement.  Her son Charlie, Jenny’s husband, funds Grandma’s flat and nursing expenses.  Whilst they live nearby, and Jenny does a lot to help from time to time, both find the process exhausting.  Jenny expresses her fears about caring for Grandma: ‘I want to act now, to protect us all.  And yes, I am afraid, afraid of what it will do to us all if we keep Grandma in our midst to the bitter end.’  Granddaughter Hannah is incredibly observant, continually questioning what would be best for Grandma; at first, she asks, ‘Haven’t the women had enough too?’, before veering back and forth on the idea of Grandma being cared for in their family home, something which her brother Adrian wants dearly.  Hannah is concerned throughout with Grandma’s happiness, and treats her with tenderness and understanding at all times.

Certainly poignant, Have the Men Had Enough? raises a wealth of important questions about ageing, and who will care for us when we reach a stage at which we are no longer able to care for ourselves.  Each of the characters is forced, at points, to reflect upon their opinions of what would be best for themselves and for Grandma.  This thought-provoking reflection makes the novel feel eminently human, and so well balanced; we recognise the discomfort of each of the characters in turn.

Others have written that Have the Men Had Enough? is a difficult book to read, both in terms of prose and content, one which takes time and concentration.  Certainly, Forster’s writing is intelligent, but from the very beginning, I found it immersive.  The story itself was a little draining at times, and one feels terribly for the McKays, in having to make such a difficult decision which will ultimately impact upon and affect them all.  There is a wonderful variation to the novel, given the range of characters, opinions, and voices.

Whilst a devoted fan of Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier, and devouring one of her more recent efforts, The Unknown Bridesmaid, a few years ago, I am baffled as to why it has taken me so long to read more of her work.  Forster is an author who has published a wealth of books which appeal to me, and I will certainly try my best to read more of them over the coming months.  I shall conclude this review with a wonderful quote by Hilary Mantel, which sums up my thoughts on the novel: ‘It is close to life in a way we hardly expect a novel to be, and finally very moving.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Escapist Reading: Recommendations

The world feels like a very strange and unsettling place to be right now, and like many others, I have been using long stretches of my time indoors to read.  I have been increasingly drawn to historical fiction, and thought that it would be a good idea to put together a list of books which I have really enjoyed of late.  These stories encompass many different time periods, and whilst largely novels aimed at adults, there are a couple of children’s reads here too.  I hope you find something here to divert your attention, and that you find these differing worlds as absorbing as I have.

 

258610941. Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett (review forthcoming)
‘An impassioned, charming, and hilarious debut novel about a young woman’s coming-of-age, during one of the harshest whaling seasons in the history of New South Wales, Australia.  1908: It’s the year that proves to be life-changing for our teenage narrator, Mary Davidson, tasked with providing support to her father’s boisterous whaling crews while caring for five brothers and sisters in the wake of their mother’s death. But when the handsome John Beck-a former Methodist preacher turned novice whaler with a mysterious past-arrives at the Davidson’s door pleading to join her father’s crews, suddenly Mary’s world is upended.  As her family struggles to survive the scarcity of whales and the vagaries of weather, and as she navigates sibling rivalries and an all-consuming first love for the newcomer John, nineteen-year-old Mary will soon discover a darker side to these men who hunt the seas, and the truth of her place among them.   Swinging from Mary’s own hopes and disappointments to the challenges that have beset her family’s whaling operation, RUSH OH! is an enchanting blend of fact and fiction that’s as much the story of its gutsy narrator’s coming-of-age as it is the celebration of an extraordinary episode in history.’

 

2. Annelies: A Novel of Anne Frank by David Gillham (review forthcoming) 45161414._sy475_
‘A breathtaking new novel that asks the question: what if Anne Frank survived the Holocaust?  In 1945, aged sixteen, Anne Frank walks out of the liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and into a new life as a survivor of the Holocaust. Returning to Amsterdam, she is reunited with her beloved father. Yet Anne feels like a ghost. In the city where she and her family were betrayed, Anne struggles to let go of the horrors she witnessed, to forget the cruel death of her mother and her sister Margot. She dreams of being a writer, but how do you carry on when you’ve lost everything you once were?  To create a new life for herself, a life of freedom as a woman and a writer, she knows she must transform her story of trauma into a story of redemption and hope.’

 

41473945._sy475_3. Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange
‘Growing up in a lighthouse, 11-year-old Pet’s world has been one of storms, secret tunnels, and stories about sea monsters. But now the country is at war and the clifftops are a terrifying battleground. Pet will need to muster all her bravery to uncover why her family is being torn apart.  This is the story of a girl who is afraid and unnoticed. A girl who freezes with fear at the enemy planes ripping through the skies overheard. A girl who is somehow destined to become part of the strange, ancient legend of the Daughters of Stone.’

 

4. The Holiday Friend by Pamela Hansford Johnson (review forthcoming) 41160614
‘Gavin and Hannah Eastwood are a happy couple, holidaying with their overprotected eleven-year-old son Giles in a beautiful village on the coast of Belgium.  Melissa is a student of Gavin’s, also in the village, having followed Gavin there. A hopeless romantic living in a fantasy, she obsessively follows the family, going out of her way to bump into the couple repeatedly – soon becoming inescapable.  While Gavin pities her, Hannah finds her presence alarming; and while they’re distracted by her appearances, they miss Giles secretly pursuing his own sinister friendship…’

 

12757335. Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther (review forthcoming)
‘Shortly before the Second World War, a column by ‘Mrs Miniver’ appeared in The Times, the first of many recounting the everyday events of a middle=class London family: Mrs Miniver’s thrill at the sight of October chrysanthemums, her sense of doom when the faithful but rackety car is replaced, the escapades of her unpredictable young children, and, as war becomes a reality, the strange experience of acquiring gas masks and the camaraderie of those early days.  Published in book form in 1939, and later an enormously successful film, Mrs Miniver became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, with Churchill exclaiming that it had done more for the Allied cause than a flotilla of battleships.’

 

6. The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor 35663223._sy475_
‘1917: When two young cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright from Cottingley, England, announce they have photographed fairies at the bottom of the garden, their parents are astonished. But when the great novelist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, endorses the photographs’ authenticity, the girls become a sensation; their discovery offering something to believe in amid a world ravaged by war.  One hundred years later… When Olivia Kavanagh finds an old manuscript and a photograph in her late grandfather’s bookshop she becomes fascinated by the story of the two young girls who mystified the world. As Olivia is drawn into events a century ago, she becomes aware of the past and the present intertwining, blurring her understanding of what is real and what is imagined. As she begins to understand why a nation once believed in fairies, will Olivia find a way to believe in herself?’

 

28430665._sy475_7. The Lark by E. Nesbit (review forthcoming)
‘It’s 1919 and Jane and her cousin Lucilla leave school to find that their guardian has gambled away their money, leaving them with only a small cottage in the English countryside. In an attempt to earn their living, the orphaned cousins embark on a series of misadventures – cutting flowers from their front garden and selling them to passers-by, inviting paying guests who disappear without paying – all the while endeavouring to stave off the attentions of male admirers, in a bid to secure their independence.’

 

8. A Lost Lady by Willa Cather 48200
Marian Forrester is the symbolic flower of the Old American West. She draws her strength from that solid foundation, bringing delight and beauty to her elderly husband, to the small town of Sweet Water where they live, to the prairie land itself, and to the young narrator of her story, Neil Herbert. All are bewitched by her brilliance and grace, and all are ultimately betrayed. For Marian longs for “life on any terms,” and in fulfilling herself, she loses all she loved and all who loved her. This, Willa Cather’s most perfect novel, is not only a portrait of a troubling beauty, but also a haunting evocation of a noble age slipping irrevocably into the past.’

 

What have you been reading lately?  I hope you’re all staying safe, and managing to fill your days with things that you make you feel a little better.

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The Book Trail: From ‘The Lark’ to ‘Reuben Sachs’

I am using E. Nesbit’s quite charming novel, The Lark, which I recently reviewed on the blog, as my starting point for this edition of The Book Trail.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list.  Do let me know which of these books you have read, and if you are interested in reading any of them!

 

1. The Lark by E. Nesbit (1922) 9781911579458
‘It’s 1919 and Jane and her cousin Lucilla leave school to find that their guardian has gambled away their money, leaving them with only a small cottage in the English countryside. In an attempt to earn their living, the orphaned cousins embark on a series of misadventures – cutting flowers from their front garden and selling them to passers-by, inviting paying guests who disappear without paying – all the while endeavouring to stave off the attentions of male admirers, in a bid to secure their independence.’

 

17769932. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes (1947)
‘It’s a summer’s day in 1946. The English village of Wealding is no longer troubled by distant sirens, yet the rustling coils of barbed wire are a reminder that something, some quality of life, has evaporated. Together again after years of separation, Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria are forced to manage without “those anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and pulled the strings.” Their rambling garden refuses to be tamed, the house seems perceptibly to crumble. But alone on a hillside, as evening falls, Laura comes to see what it would have meant if the war had been lost, and looks to the future with a new hope and optimism. First published in 1947, this subtle, finely wrought novel presents a memorable portrait of the aftermath of war, its effect upon a marriage, and the gradual but significant change in the nature of English middle-class life.’

 

3. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim (1907) 1140708
‘This enchanting novel tells the story of the love affair between Rose-Marie Schmidt and Roger Anstruther. A determined young woman of twenty-five, Rose-Marie is considered a spinster by the inhabitants of the small German town of Jena where she lives with her father, the Professor. To their homes comes Roger, an impoverished but well-born young Englishman who wishes to learn German: Rose-Marie and Roger fall in love. But the course of true love never did run smooth: distance, temperament and fortune divide them. We watch the ebb and flow of love between two very different people and see the witty and wonderful Rose-Marie get exactly what she wants.’

 

71337934. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge (1935)
Even though she is a renowned painter Lady Kilmichael is diffident and sad. her remote, brilliant husband has no time for her and she feels she only exasperates her delightful, headstrong daughter. So, telling no one where she is going. she embarks on a painting trip to the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia – in the Thirties a remote and exotic place. There she takes under her wing Nicholas, a bitterly unhappy young man, forbidden by his family to pursue the painting he loves and which Grace recognises as being of rare quality. Their adventures and searching discussions lead to something much deeper than simple friendship…  This beautiful novel, gloriously evoking the countryside and people of Illyria, has been a favourite since its publication in 1935, both as a sensitive travel book and as [an] unusual and touching love story.’

 

5. Miss Mole by E.H. Young (1930) 1983763
‘When Miss Mole returns to Radstowe, she wins the affection of Ethel and of her nervous sister Ruth and transforms the life of the vicarage. This book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1930.’

 

29218749._sx318_6. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple (1932)
‘Persephone Books’ bestselling author Dorothy Whipple’s third novel (1932) was the choice of the Book Society in the summer of that year. Hugh Walpole wrote: ‘To put it plainly, in Dorothy Whipple’s picture of a quite ordinary family before and after the war there is some of the best creation of living men and women that we have had for a number of years in the English novel. She is a novelist of true importance.”

 

7. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell (1915) 933516
‘Set in Iowa in 1900 and in 1913, this dramatic and deeply moral novel uses complex but subtle use of flashback to describe a girl named Ruth Holland, bored with her life at home, falling in love with a married man and running off with him; when she comes back more than a decade later we are shown how her actions have affected those around her. Ruth had taken another woman’s husband and as such ‘Freeport’ society thinks she is ‘a human being who selfishly – basely – took her own happiness, leaving misery for others. She outraged society as completely as a woman could outrage it… One who defies it – deceives it – must be shut out from it.’  But, like Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier in ‘The Awakening’ and Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ Ruth has ‘a diffused longing for an enlarged experience… Her energies having been shut off from the way they had wanted to go, she was all the more zestful for new things from life…’ It is these that are explored in Fidelity.’

 

27022868. Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy (1888)
‘Oscar Wilde wrote of this novel, “Its directness, its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make Reuben Sachs, in some sort, a classic.” Reuben Sachs, the story of an extended Anglo-Jewish family in London, focuses on the relationship between two cousins, Reuben Sachs and Judith Quixano, and the tensions between their Jewish identities and English society. The novel’s complex and sometimes satirical portrait of Anglo-Jewish life, which was in part a reaction to George Eliot’s romanticized view of Victorian Jews in Daniel Deronda, caused controversy on its first publication.’

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One From the Archive: ‘Cold Spring Harbor’ by Richard Yates ****

First published in March 2015.

I absolutely love what I have read of Yates’ work so far, and could not wait to begin Cold Spring Harbor, the 54th book on my Classics Club list.  Cold Spring Harbor is one of his much later books, first published in 1986, and dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut.

Cold Spring Harbor is the small Long Island village in which much of the novel takes place.  The story’s beginning felt fresh and almost F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque: ‘All the sorrows of Evan Shepard’s loutish adolescence were redeemed at seventeen, in 1935, when he fell in love with automobiles.  His persistent bullying of weaker boys, his thick-witted ways of offending girls, his inept and embarrassing ventures into petty crime – none of those things mattered any more, except as bad memories’.  Yates goes on to set out Evan’s character immediately, as well as the ways in which he is perceived by those around him: ‘And it was always a pleasure for his father, Charles Shepard, just to stand at a window and watch him working alone out there in the sun.  Nobody could have guessed a year ago that this particular boy would ever learn to organize and focus his mind on a useful job of work; and wasn’t that the beginning of maturity?  Wasn’t it what helped a man develop will and purpose in his life?’

Yates does not just focus upon Evan (of whom he writes ‘it didn’t seem right for anyone so splendid-looking to have so little going on in his head’); rather, he gives us the history of the Shepard family in a thorough yet succinct manner.  He strikes a wonderful balance between Evan’s parents; his father’s stint in the army and his mother Grace’s nerves giving way prevail.  One gets the impression immediately that Yates knows everything about his characters, and the things which matter to them the most: ‘At certain moments, if the light and the alcohol worked to her advantage, Grace could still be the prettiest girl at the Officers’ Club dance’.  Charles’ perception of his wife is as follows: ‘Most of the time – this afternoon, for example – he found he would rather not look at her at all because she would only look ruined: heavy, dissatisfied, apparently grieving in silence for the loss of herself’.

A hurried marriage soon ensues for Evan with a girl from school, Mary Donovan, who had ‘the kind of pretty gace that other girls called “saucy”‘.  Yates describes the way in which ‘it was a marriage that might have occurred much later, when they were both a few years older, if Mary hadn’t found she was pregnant in the very early months of their romance’.  Both are unhappy almost from the word go: ‘Oh, if it weren’t for the burden of knowing Evan adored her, that he’d be terribly lost without her – if it weren’t for that, she knew she would now be putting her mind to finding some way out of all this’.

When the Shepard’s car breaks down in an unfamiliar part of New York, they call upon a woman named Gloria Drake, who lives in a nearby house, in order to use her telephone.  It is here that Evan meets her daughter, Rachel, whom he swiftly falls in love with: ‘She was herself: a little thin and soft, but with a wonderful look of having nearly come to life…  this was a girl you could cherish and protect’.

Cold Spring Harbor is incredibly well crafted, and deals, above all, with human emotion and the relationships which we forge with one another.  Yates also demonstrates the way in which circumstances can alter people almost unrecognisably.  He is startlingly perceptive throughout, and one of the main strengths of the novel is the way in which he views the same event from so many different angles.