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‘The Roundabout Man’ by Clare Morrall ****

The Roundabout Man is the first of Clare Morrall’s novels which I have read.  I have been interested in her work for quite some time now, and selected this novel as my first taste of it due to the wonderful quirkiness of its blurb.  The Roundabout Man is Morrall’s fifth book, and was first published in 2012.

Of Morrall’s main protagonist, the Literary Review writes ‘Quinn is quietly fascinating…  his fumblings toward an understanding that can only ever be partial are brilliantly achieved.’  The Sunday Times agrees, stating that: ‘Morrall writes with poise and delicacy, and her subjects are delightful offbeat.’ 9780340994306

Quinn Smith lives in an old caravan in the middle of an overgrown roundabout, somewhere in England.  He shares his name with a young boy in a ‘world-famous series of children’s books’, and people often think he is joking when he introduces himself.  However, he was the inspiration for the fictional Quinn, a series which was written by his mother, and featured his older, bossy triplet sisters, Zuleika, Fleur, and Hetty.  It is ‘this legacy which he has successfully run away from – until now.’  In the novel, Quinn is forced to face the ghosts of his past, and the ‘uncomfortable truths it holds about himself, his sisters and, most of all, his mother.’

The Roundabout Man opens in rather a beguiling manner.  Morrall writes using sixty-year-old Quinn’s voice, which I believed in immediately: ‘I exist in the eye of the storm, the calm in the centre of a perpetual hurricane of cars and lorries heading for the M6, the north and Scotland, or south to Penzance and Land’s End.  I sometimes wonder if they don’t go on the motorway at all, that I hear the same vehicles circling endlessly, a kind of multiple Flying Dutchman, doomed to travel for ever.  I don’t regret for one minute that I am no longer one of them.’  He goes on to state: ‘I’ve anchored myself in the middle of one of the few patches of land where no one goes, among well-established birches, ashes, sycamores, surrounded myself with rotten and claimed sanctuary.’

At the outset of the novel, Quinn is visited by a young journalist named Lorna, who is keen to interview him for a piece in the local newspaper.  She asks him if he minds living alone, and his answer, whilst guarded, is a resounding no.  He does sometimes let himself wonder why, at his age, he is living as he is, feeling ‘far too old for extended camping holidays’.  His way of life is particularly difficult when the weather becomes cold: ‘When the frost clutches everything around’, he allows himself to ‘consider the merits of carpets and central heating’.  However, Quinn is able to see ‘compensations’ in the beauty of the nature all around him.

Morrall’s prose is nicely wrought, and there is an almost unusual quality to its phrases and what it touches upon.  I really liked the structure of the novel; each relatively short chapter is made up of several sections, which either note the events of Quinn’s present, or regress back to the past.  He reveals little about himself in person, but the reader learns a lot about him due to Morrall’s arrangement of plot.  Of his childhood home, he says: ‘Our house, The Cedars, was an Arts and Crafts house, bought by my parents when they first married, paid for with the money they’d inherited from their parents, both sets of whom had died by then.  It was exactly the right setting for a famous writer.’

We learn of his mother, Larissa, who comes across as cold and lacking maternal instincts.  She reminded me somewhat of Enid Blyton, putting on the airs of a darling, beloved mother during photoshoots with prestigious newspapers and magazines, but showing little affection to her children, and the family’s string of foster children, in private.  Of these photography sessions, Quinn warmly reminisces that he loved them, allowing him ‘the rare opportunity to sit on my mother’s lap.’  The memories of all four siblings have become confused with certain scenes in their mother’s books, and they muse upon what is real, and what is fabricated, and how one can possibly tell when they all remember different things.

Quinn’s voice feels candid throughout, and one cannot help but feel for him, particularly in those sections where he writes about his often lonely childhood.  Their upbringing has had a knock-on effect into their present: ‘Zuleika, Fleur and I had kept in touch, but we were not a close family.  Our childhood had been so public that my sisters had leaped away from The Cedars with enthusiasm and reinvented themselves, coming back less and less often until they stopped altogether.’  Hetty is rarely in touch with her sisters, and never with her brother.  Of his sisters in adulthood, Quinn muses: ‘It was hard to believe the they were all the same age, that they used to impersonate each other, do everything together, think identical thoughts.  They had been a three-headed creature in my childhood, but at some point in the lat few years, a phantom surgeon had performed an operation, separated the organs, made them into three people.’

I found The Roundabout Man immersive, peopled with a cast of three-dimensional characters.  Morrall has struck a great balance between character focus and plot.  The family dynamics are fascinating, and filled with tiny, observant details.  This novel, full of heart, seems to be rather an underrated one, but its unusual story has a lot of depth, and is well worth a read.

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The Book Trail: From North to East

I am beginning this particular edition of The Book Trail with a travel book I read at the end of last year, and very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to collate this list.

 

97818469734201. Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home by Malachy Tallack
‘The sixtieth parallel marks a borderland between the northern and southern worlds. Wrapping itself around the lower reaches of Finland, Sweden and Norway, it crosses the tip of Greenland and the southern coast of Alaska, and slices the great expanses of Russia and Canada in half. The parallel also passes through Shetland, where Malachy Tallack has spent most of his life.  In Sixty Degrees North, Tallack travels westward, exploring the landscapes of the parallel and the ways that people have interacted with those landscapes, highlighting themes of wildness and community, isolation and engagement, exile and memory.  Sixty Degrees North is an intimate book, one that begins with the author’s loss of his father and his own troubled relationship with Shetland, and concludes with an acceptance of loss and an embrace — ultimately a love — of the place he calls home.’

 

2. Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides by Adam Nicolson
‘In 1937, Adam Nicolson’s father answered a newspaper ad—“Uninhabited islands for sale. Outer Hebrides, 600 acres . . . Puffins and seals. Apply . . . ”.  In this radiant and powerful book, Adam describes, and relives, his love affair with this enchantingly beautiful property, which he inherited when he was twenty-one. As the islands grew to become the most important thing in his life, they began to offer him more than escape, giving him “sea room”—a sailing term Nicolson uses to mean “the sense of enlargement that island life can give you.”  The Shiants—the name means holy or enchanted islands—lie east of the Isle of Lewis in a treacherous sea once known as the “stream of blue men,” after the legendary water spirits who menaced sailors there. Crowned with five-hundred-foot cliffs of black basalt and surrounded by tidal rips, teeming in the summer with thousands of sea birds, they are wild, dangerous, and dramatic—with a long, haunting past. For millennia the Shiants were a haven for those seeking solitude—an eighth-century hermit, the twentieth-century novelist Compton Mackenzie—but their rich, sometimes violent history of human habitation includes much more. Since the Stone Age, families have dwelled on the islands and sailors have perished on their shores. The landscape is soaked in centuries-old tales of restless ghosts and ancient treasure, cradling the heritage of a once productive world of farmers and fishermen.  In passionate, keenly precise prose, Nicolson evokes the paradoxes of island life: cut off from the mainland yet intricately bound to it, austere yet fertile, unforgiving yet bewitchingly beautiful.  Sea Room does more than celebrate and praise this extraordinary place. It shares with us the greatest gift an island can bestow: a deep, revelatory engagement with the natural world.’

 

3. A Writer’s House in Wales by Jan Morris 61044
‘Through an exploration of her country home in Wales, acclaimed travel writer Jan Morris discovers the heart of her fascinating country and what it means to be Welsh. Trefan Morys, Morris’s home between the sea and mountains of the remote northwest corner of Wales, is the 18th-century stable block of her former family house nearby. Surrounding it are the fields and outbuildings, the mud, sheep, and cattle of a working Welsh farm.  She regards this modest building not only as a reflection of herself and her life, but also as epitomizing the small and complex country of Wales, which has defied the world for centuries to preserve its own identity. Morris brilliantly meditates on the beams and stone walls of the house, its jumbled contents, its sounds and smells, its memories and inhabitants, and finally discovers the profoundest meanings of Welshes.’

 

4. Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (review here)
‘Novelist Sarah Moss had a childhood dream of moving to Iceland, sustained by a wild summer there when she was nineteen. In 2009, she saw an advertisement for a job at the University of Iceland and applied on a whim, despite having two young children and a comfortable life in an English cathedral city. The resulting adventure was shaped by Iceland’s economic collapse, which halved the value of her salary, by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull and by a collection of new friends, including a poet who saw the only bombs fall on Iceland in 1943, a woman who speaks to elves and a chef who guided Sarah’s family around the intricacies of Icelandic cuisine.  Sarah was drawn to the strangeness of Icelandic landscape, and explored hillsides of boiling mud, volcanic craters and fissures, and the unsurfaced roads that link remote farms and fishing villages in the far north. She walked the coast path every night after her children were in bed, watching the northern lights and the comings and goings of migratory birds. As the weeks and months went by, the children settled in local schools and Sarah got to know her students and colleagues, she and her family learned new ways to live.’

 

1121185. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Erlich
‘For the last decade, Gretel Ehrlich has been obsessed by an island, a terrain, a culture, and the treacherous beauty of a world that is defined by ice. In This Cold Heaven she combines the story of her travels with history and cultural anthropology to reveal a Greenland that few of us could otherwise imagine.  Ehrlich unlocks the secrets of this severe land and those who live there; a hardy people who still travel by dogsled and kayak and prefer the mystical four months a year of endless darkness to the gentler summers without night. She discovers the twenty-three words the Inuit have for ice, befriends a polar bear hunter, and comes to agree with the great Danish-Inuit explorer Knud Rasmussen that “all true wisdom is only to be found far from the dwellings of man, in great solitudes.”  This Cold Heaven is at once a thrilling adventure story and a meditation on the clarity of life at the extreme edge of the world.’

 

6. Hearing Birds Fly by Louisa Waugh
Hearing Birds Fly is Louisa Waugh’s passionately written account of her time in a remote Mongolian village. Frustrated by the increasingly bland character of the capital city of Ulan Bator, she yearned for the real Mongolia and got the chance when she was summoned by the village head to go to Tsengel far away in the west, near the Kazakh border. Her story completely transports the reader to feel the glacial cold and to see the wonders of the Seven Kings as they steadily emerge from the horizon.  Through her we sense their trials as well as their joys, rivalries and even hostilities, many of which the author shared or knew about. Her time in the village was marked by coming to terms with the harshness of climate and also by how she faced up to new feelings towards the treatment of animals, death, solitude and real loneliness, and the constant struggle to censor her reactions as an outsider. Above all, Louisa Waugh involves us with the locals’ lives in such a way that we come to know them and care for their fates.’

 

7. Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin 79793
‘Over the years the American writer Emma Larkin has spent traveling in Burma, also known as Myanmar, she’s come to know all too well the many ways this brutal police state can be described as “Orwellian.” The life of the mind exists in a state of siege in Burma, and it long has. But Burma’s connection to George Orwell is not merely metaphorical; it is much deeper and more real. Orwell’s mother was born in Burma, at the height of the British raj, and Orwell was fundamentally shaped by his experiences in Burma as a young man working for the British Imperial Police. When Orwell died, the novel-in-progress on his desk was set in Burma. It is the place George Orwell’s work holds in Burma today, however, that most struck Emma Larkin. She was frequently told by Burmese acquaintances that Orwell did not write one book about their country – his first novel, Burmese Days – but in fact he wrote three, the “trilogy” that included Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. When Larkin quietly asked one Burmese intellectual if he knew the work of George Orwell, he stared blankly for a moment and then said, “Ah, you mean the prophet!”  In one of the most intrepid political travelogues in recent memory, Emma Larkin tells of the year she spent traveling through Burma using the life and work of George Orwell as her compass. Going from Mandalay and Rangoon to poor delta backwaters and up to the old hill-station towns in the mountains of Burma’s far north, Larkin visits the places where Orwell worked and lived, and the places his books live still. She brings to vivid life a country and a people cut off from the rest of the world, and from one another, by the ruling military junta and its vast network of spies and informers. Using Orwell enables her to show, effortlessly, the weight of the colonial experience on Burma today, the ghosts of which are invisible and everywhere. More important, she finds that the path she charts leads her to the people who have found ways to somehow resist the soul-crushing effects of life in this most cruel police state. And George Orwell’s moral clarity, hatred of injustice, and keen powers of observation serve as the author’s compass in another sense too: they are qualities she shares and they suffuse her book – the keenest and finest reckoning with life in this police state that has yet been written.’

 

8. The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong by Edward Gargan
‘Along the Mekong, from northern Tibet to Lijiang, from Luang Prabang to Phnom Penh to Can Lo, I moved from one world to another, among cultural islands often ignorant of each other’s presence. Yet each island, as if built on shifting sands and eroded and reshaped by a universal sea, was re-forming itself, or was being remolded, was expanding its horizons or sinking under the rising waters of a cultural global warming. It was a journey between worlds, worlds fragiley conjoined by a river both ominous and luminescent, muscular and bosomy, harsh and sensuous.  From windswept plateaus to the South China Sea, the Mekong flows for three thousand miles, snaking its way through Southeast Asia. Long fascinated with this part of the world, former New York Times correspondent Edward Gargan embarked on an ambitious exploration of the Mekong and those living within its watershed. The River’s Tale is a rare and profound book that delivers more than a correspondent’s account of a place. It is a seminal examination of the Mekong and its people, a testament to the their struggles, their defeats and their victories.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are you planning to add to your TBR list?

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‘The Emperor’s Children’ by Claire Messud *****

After adoring Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and very much enjoying her latest novel, The Burning Girl, which I read in Florida last year, I was keen to pick up another of her books.  I chose a gorgeous Picador Classics edition of The Emperor’s Children, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  The novel is set in New York in 2001, when ‘the whole world shifts’.  In it, Messud explores ‘how utterly we are defined by the times in which we live.’

The Independent on Sunday calls Messud’s 2006 novel ‘a masterpiece’, and The Times deems it ‘thrillingly real, alive and utterly convincing… [an] intensely pleasurable reminder of the possibilities of the English language’.  The New York Times concurs, writing that ‘Messud does a nimble, quicksilver job of portraying her central characters from within and without – showing us their pretensions, frailties and self-delusions, even as she delineates their secret yearnings and fears.’  It is, promises its blurb, a novel which ‘brings us face to face with the enduring gap between who we are and who we long to be.’

9781447289418The Emperor’s Children focuses on four characters, three of whom – Danielle Minkoff, Marina Thwaite, and Julius Clarke – became firm friends whilst studying at Brown University during the 1990s.  They are ‘young, bright New Yorkers living at America’s beating heart in the early years of the twenty-first century’, and are joined.  The fourth character is Marina’s socially awkward cousin, Frederick Tubb, who is known as Bootie.  He is ‘fresh from the provinces and keen to make his mark’ on the world.  His arrival causes the three other protagonists to ‘confront their desires and leaves them dangerously exposed.’  Also examined in part are the parents of Danielle, Marina, and Bootie.

Danielle is working as a television producer, Julius makes his living by taking temporary secretarial job, and moneyed Marina has been procrastinating by halfheartedly working on a book for several years.  In his introduction to the volume, Neel Mukherjee describes Marina as the ‘aimless daughter of the Thwaites, casting about for something to do and using her ongoing project of writing a book about Americans dress their children… as a kind of displacement activity’.  He calls Julius a ‘gay, sharp, bitchy, and… self-invented man’.  Danielle is perhaps, in this way, the only one of the three friends who is making a success of her life, but her story is fraught with problems too.  Bootie has been used as ‘one of the oldest tropes in storytelling’, as ‘a stranger who turns everyone’s life upside down’.

Messud’s character descriptions are wonderful.  When introducing Bootie’s mother, for instance, she writes: ‘she felt she walked into the light: the two large windows cast a shadowless opalescence onto the sprigged wallpaper, the family photos on top of the bureau.  Even her discarded stockings, still carrying from yesterday the shape of her solid limbs, appeared outlined in light, luminous.  Her hands and her hair, a grayed cloud, had carried up from the kitchen the smell of coffee, and the vents at her ankles pushed a warm wind around the floor.  In spite of Bootie, in spite, in spite, in this moment at least, she felt happy: she was not too old to love even the snow.’

Messud is so involved with her characters and their quirks of personality throughout, that one comes to know them intimately.  Throughout the novel, she places very in depth portrayals and explorations of self.  Of Marina, she writes: ‘She sometimes felt as though she were a changeling, as hough someone completely new had taken on the identity of Marina Thwaite  – or rather, as if someone who was seen from the outside to be completely new had done so, while beneath the surface she remained unchanged.’  When discussing Julius, Messud notes: ‘He was aware that at thirty he stretched the limits of the charming wastrel, that some actual sustained endeavor might be in order were he not to fade, wisplike, away: from charming wastrel to needy, boring failure was but a few, too few, short steps.’  Her characters are not entirely likeable, and some are almost odious in their privilege and behaviour. In consequence, I found all of Messud’s protagonists, and indeed the secondary figures who orbit around them, wholly believable.

A masterful quality in the novel is the way in which Messud focuses upon the nuances and tiny shifts in relationships, which still have the power to alter them irrevocably.  The Emperor’s Children is not overly plot heavy; whilst things happen, particularly toward the final third of the novel, Messud is more interested in the reactions which her characters have to sudden, or brooding, changes in their situations.

There is, as anyone familiar with Messud’s writing might expect, an awful lot about morality and politics woven into The Emperor’s Children.  Of this, Mukherjee writes: ‘Messud’s novel is political in the most inclusive, most intelligent understanding of that notion – it looks at the private sphere, at how individuals live in the world, how they conduct their lives, what their moral codes are, to give an indication of the bigger, wider world and the matrix of history in which these private lives are necessarily situated, the private and the public at once shaping and being shaped by each other.’  He goes on to say: ‘The questions it poses are enormous and profound.  What is a person’s true, authentic self?  Does a life need to be lived in continuous connection with that?  What if the truest idea we have of our true selves is a false one, or one held in bad faith?  Are our notions of authenticity confected, too?’  Whilst Mukherjee’s introduction is insightful, and certainly complements the novel, I would recommend that one reads it after finishing the novel, as it is rather revealing, and contains a lot of detailed commentary upon Messud’s characters and plot points.

Before beginning The Emperor’s Children, I was surprised to see so many negative reviews of it smattered on its Goodreads page.  I am so pleased that I ignored these and read it regardless, as I ended up absolutely loving it, and found something to admire on every page.  Messud’s writing provides a breath of fresh air, and gives one the ability to see characters and events, such as 9/11, from different angles.  She is a unique author in many ways, but her prose style at times reminded me of Donna Tartt and Zoe Heller, merely due to the weight which it holds within its words.  I can see why some might think that Messud’s prose is overwritten, but I found it both rich and sumptuous, as well as entirely absorbing.  There is so much which can be unpicked within its pages, and I am sure that I will be thinking about it for months to come.

The Emperor’s Children is a phenomenal, searching novel, filled with profound meditations on life.  Everything within it has been wonderfully handled, and it provokes thought at every turn.  She also writes with poignant and moving language of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, which profoundly affect every character.  As with her other books, I was absolutely blown away with this novel.  Messud is an interesting, original writer, and I very much look forward to exploring the rest of her oeuvre in the near future.

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‘The Early Stories of Truman Capote’ ****

I spotted a gorgeous US edition of The Early Stories of Truman Capote in Fopp, and could not resist picking it up.  As one of my favourite authors, I have been wanting this collection since I first learnt of its publication, which followed the rediscovery of a lot of Capote’s juvenilia in the New York Public Library’s archives.  It collects together ‘the early fiction of one of the nation’s most celebrated writers… as he takes his first bold steps into the canon of American literature.’  They ‘provide an unparalleled look at Truman Capote writing in his teens and early twenties’.  Many of the stories were published for the first time between 1940 and 1941.

718oijyWWSLThe edition which I read featured a foreword by Hilton Als, a writer at the New Yorker magazine.  He begins by focusing upon a moment in 1963, in which Truman Capote was in Kansas, conducting his research for In Cold Blood.  Als writes: ‘He’s almost forty and he’s been a writer for nearly as long as he’s been alive.  Words, stories, tales – he’s been at it since he was a child, growing up in Louisiana and rural Alabama and then Connecticut and New York – a citizen formed by a divided world and opposing cultures: in his native South there was segregation, and, up north, at least talk of assimilation.  In both places there was his intractable queerness.  And the queerness of being a writer.’  He goes on to note that ‘Capote’s cinematic eye – the movies influenced him as much as books and conversation did – was sharpened as he produced these apprentice works.’  Als also remarks upon Capote’s fascination with outsiders, believing himself to be one too.

The collection is short, spanning less than 170 pages, but over a dozen relatively brief pieces have been included.  Throughout, Capote is more focused on people than plot, but things do happen in each of the stories.  Indeed, the blurb writes that in his early work, it is evident that ‘Capote’s powers of empathy [are] developing as he depicts his characters struggling at the margins of their known worlds.’    For the most part, his early efforts have a tremendously effective pace to them.

The stories here take into account many different themes: ‘crime and violence; of racism and injustice; of poverty and despair.  And there are tales of generosity and tenderness; compassion and connection; wit and wonder.’  There are moments of comedy in some of these stories, and shades of tragedy in others.  Whilst there was less about race in the book than I was expecting, it is possible to identify Capote’s later influences and interests in this collection.

The stories here are not overly simplistic, but they perhaps err a little, on the whole, on the matter-of-fact, and are less descriptive than his later work tends to be.  As in the books of Capote’s written when he was more mature, however, I found that he has an uncanny ability to evoke both place and character by mentioning just a few details.  In ‘Parting of the Way’, for instance, he describe his protagonist like so: ‘Jake’s flaming red hair framed his head, his eyebrows looked like hors, his muscles bulged and were threatening; his overalls were faded and ragged, and his toes stuck out through pieces of shoes.’  Of Jake’s companion Tim, very much the antithesis, Capote writes: ‘His thin shoulders drooped from the strain, and his gaunt features stood out with protruding bones.  His eyes were weak but sympathetic; his rose-bud mouth puckered slightly as he went about his labor.’ Although many of the stories did not mention the specific geographic location in which they were set, each holds certain allusions to Capote’s Deep South.

In his tales, Capote’s characters have a lot of variance to them, hailing as they do from different walks of life – from the aforementioned downtrodden Tim in ‘Parting of the Ways’, to the privileged protagonist of ‘Hilda’, who is troubled in an entirely different way.  He is adept throughout at setting scenes, particularly when they involve impoverishment. As in his later work, Capote has a real knack here for capturing his characters.  In ‘This is for Jamie’, Capote describes the typical Sunday morning for his young protagonist: ‘Teddy ran along the paved paths of the park with a wild exuberance.  He was an Indian, a detective, a robber-baron, a fairy-tale Prince, he was an angel, he was going to escape from the thieves through the bush – and most of ask he was happy and he had two whole hours to himself.’

The authorial voice here is recognisably Capote’s, but I did find it possible to identify echoes of other works and influences as I was reading.  The opening of ‘Miss Belle Rankin’ reminded me somewhat of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, beginning as it does: ‘I was eight the first time I saw Miss Belle Rankin.  It was a hot August day.  The sun was waning in the scarlet-streaked day, and the heat was rising dry and vibrant from the earth.’  I did find it atmospheric at times, particularly within this story.  Capote writes: ‘The room was cold when she awoke and long tears of ice hung on the eaves of the roof.  She shuddered a little as she looked about at the drabness.  With an effort she slipped from beneath the gay colored scrap quilt.’  Later in the story, Capote’s descriptions become darker and more tense: ‘It was quite dark when Miss Belle started climbing up the hill towards home.  Dark came quickly on these winter days.  It came so suddenly today that it frightened her at first.  There was no glaring sunset, only the pearl grayness of the sky deepening into rich black.’  There are other beautiful, evocative touches to be found within The Early Stories of Truman Capote.  In ‘If I Forget You’, for example, he writes: ‘She wanted to stay out here in the night where she could breathe and smell and touch it.  It seemed so palpable to her that she could feel its texture like fine blue satin.’

I found it fascinating, having read all of Capote’s other fiction, and a large chunk of his non-fiction, to see his growth as an author from these earliest efforts.  Some of the stories in this collection perhaps end a little abruptly, but actually, I did not mind this.  I found that the majority of the tales tended to finish at just the right time, leaving a sense of intrigue in their wake.  The Early Stories of Truman Capote is rather a quick read, but it offers much to mull over.  For juvenilia, some of it certainly feels quite accomplished.  There perhaps is not the polish to the majority of the pieces here, but they are certainly interesting precursors.  Regardless, Capote manages to capture a great deal in this collection, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys his later work.

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‘Fenny’ by Lettice Cooper ****

In a writing career which spanned over sixty years, it is a real shame that the majority of Lettice Cooper’s books are out of print, and that most prove quite difficult, or at least rather expensive, to procure.  She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1968, and had much praise bestowed on her for her services to literature.  Of her work, I had read only The New House, which I very much enjoyed, before finding an inexpensive copy of Fenny – the 264th title on the Virago Modern Classics list – online.  The green-spined edition features an introduction by Cooper’s peer, Francis King.  He notes the high quality of Cooper’s writing, which has ‘a consistency of style, of moral outlook’.

2330502First published in 1953, Fenny is a much later novel than 1937’s The New House.  As its predecessor, it enticed me from the very beginning.  It focuses on a young woman named Ellen Fenwick, who has worked at a school in her native Yorkshire for several years.  She is offered a summer post in Tuscany, in a secluded setting quite near to Florence, as the governess to an eight-year-old girl named Juliet Rivers, the granddaughter of a famous actress whom Ellen very much admires.  The entire situation thus presents a ‘dazzling prospect’ for her.  It seems ‘far removed from the fireside teas and prize-givings’ which her current job includes, and Italy promises a ‘dreamlike setting for the new life she anticipates’.

Accepting the post, Ellen soon finds herself journeying to Italy.  When she arrives at the Villa Meridiana, she finds freedom of a sort: ‘she tastes her first cocktail, cuts her hair, becomes “Fenny” – and falls in love.’  However, set as the novel is against rather a tumultuous period in history, she is ‘forced to come to terms with both emotional and political realities.’  The novel spans the period between 1933 and 1949, in which Ellen forges a new life for herself.  Throughout, Cooper charts her growth into a woman of middle age, and the circumstances which surround her, causing her to examine herself and adapt accordingly.  Ellen, throughout this, remains a believable character, constantly putting her own wellbeing behind that of those who surround her.  Of Ellen, King writes in his introduction: ‘That, in the years ahead, she should suffer so many disappointments and yet never become embittered, never lose her faith in life, never (most important of all) lose her faith in herself, is what makes her such an admirable and appealing character.’  Indeed, I liked Ellen from the first, and was so interested in the new life which she forged for herself, as well as learning about what she had left behind.

Through Ellen’s movement to mainland Europe, Cooper was able to explore one of her favourite tropes – the differences between North and South.  The North is mentioned only briefly in the novel, but it is Ellen’s assimilation into an entirely new culture and way of life which is interesting.  Added to this is the fact that before travelling to the Villa Meridiana, Ellen has never been abroad.  Far before she reaches the final stop on the train, her excitement is palpable; Cooper writes: ‘… she had been sitting on the edge of the seat, a starter poised for a race…’.  Upon arrival, Ellen is transfixed on her surroundings: ‘The strange city through which they drove was the scenery of a dream.  She saw tall, flat-fronted houses with shuttered windows, stone facades lit by street lamps.’  Throughout, Cooper’s observations of character, and descriptions of place, are perceptive and sumptuous respectively.  Italy has been used as a character in its own right here, its presence feeding into the relationships and decisions of each character within the novel.  Soon after Ellen’s arrival, Cooper describes one of the endless lovely scenes which unfold over her surroundings: ‘Every evening the sun set in splendour over the town of Florence, and as the red faded to rose and the last stain of rose died from a sky the colour of old turquoise, the sombre green cypresses became hard black shapes against the deepening blue and the appearing stars.’

Fellow Virago author Storm Jameson called this ‘certainly Lettice Cooper’s finest novel’, and it is easy to see why.  Fenny is both introspective and evocative.  It believably charts the life of a single woman in circumstances which change, and cause her to change in consequence.  Cooper has such an understanding and an awareness of her protagonist, and the things which others around her cause her to feel.  In this manner, Fenny is a fascinating and insightful character study.    Whilst, of course, the focus is upon Ellen, we do learn about the Rivers family, their friends who live not too far away, and another tutor, amongst others who are introduced later on.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout works well, and Cooper’s prose is pitch perfect.  

I found the extended timeframe in which Ellen’s story is told to be effective, and so much of Cooper’s commentary pertinent and applicable to today: ‘Of course I am interested in politics,’ a lecturer tells Ellen.  ‘Life, it seems to me, is not divisible.  One cannot disassociate oneself, especially in these days, even if one does not take an active part in them.’  I very much enjoyed reading Fenny, and whilst I did not find the final section as transporting, nor as realistic, as the previous ones, it is still a Virago publication which I treasure.