‘Mrs Miniver’ by Jan Struther ****

Having wanted to read Jan Struther’s Mrs Miniver for such a long time, I was thrilled when I found a copy of it in the wonderful Oxfam Bookshop in St Albans just before Christmas.  First published in book form in 1939, Mrs Miniver is a collection of newspaper columns, originally published in The Times.  The columns, and then the book and Academy Award-winning film which followed, was ‘an enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic’.

hd_101302310_01In Mrs Miniver, Struther gives a ‘startlingly unsentimental view of the loss of England’s innocence in the early days of the war’.  Struther was asked to ‘create a character whose doings would enliven… an ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life’.  Thus, Mrs Caroline Miniver, married to a wealthy architect named Clem, and the mother of three children – Judy, Vin, and the ‘unfathomable’ Toby – who lives in a large house at a smart London address, was born.

The Virago edition which I read included an introduction by Valerie Grove.  She writes that Struther ‘was not a novelist; she was happier making keen and accurate observations from everyday life – on a character she had met in the park, on the mysterious fish served for lunch in trains, on how to charm a small child into going to a concert.’  She goes on to write about Struther’s protagonist, commenting ‘nobody would fail to be charmed by Mrs Miniver, who embraces domesticity, parenthood and social life alike with such positive enthusiasm.  Mundane things fill her with delight…’.

In Mrs Miniver, Struther is perceptive from the first.  She writes: ‘… Mrs. Miniver suddenly understood why she was enjoying the forties so much better than she had enjoyed the thirties; it was the difference between August and October, between the heaviness of late summer and the sparkle of early autumn, between the ending of an old phase and the beginning of a fresh one.’  Struther is highly understanding of her protagonist, and gives her all sorts of little quirks and foibles.  With regard to the days of the week, for instance, Mrs Miniver reflects: ‘Monday was definitely yellow, Thursday a dull indigo, Friday violet.  About the others she didn’t feel so strongly.’

In her columns, Struther does not tell the story of something from beginning to end.  Rather, she focuses upon snapshots and anecdotes; for instance, a weekend spent at the country house of rather more well-to-do friends, or a busy Christmas shopping trip in central London.  She writes about the grisly discussions about hunting around the dinner table during the first scenario, and the noise which Mrs Miniver’s windscreen wipers make when she is driving back from Oxford Street in the second.

The structure of Mrs Miniver is relatively linear, but in quite a loose manner; one thing does not necessarily lead to another.  Although not the main focus of the book at all, snippets of wartime life do creep in.  Speeches from both the Far Right and Far Left are overheard one Sunday afternoon on Hampstead Heath; we learn about the family’s experience of picking up their gas masks; and Mrs Miniver signs herself up as an ambulance driver, to name but three examples.

Mrs Miniver is far from ordinary.  Her family’s wealth means that as well as a main residence on a London square, they also have a large country residence named Starlings.  The war, although in its early stages during these columns, does not affect Mrs Miniver as it would have some.  Regardless, Mrs Miniver is amusing and to the point, often in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner.

Mrs Miniver feels like a fully-formed character very early on in the book; we get a real feel for who she is, what she thinks, and what she cares about.  Mrs Miniver has been so well written and considered.  In terms of plot, Mrs Miniver feels rather of its time, but the writing has quite a modern quality to it.  It is a wonderful entry on the Virago Modern Classics list, and one which I highly recommend.


‘Across the Common’ by Elizabeth Berridge ****

I received a delightful Abacus paperback copy of Elizabeth Berridge’s Across the Common as a birthday gift.  As I have been keen for quite some years now to try Berridge’s work, I began it within the week, and thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience.  Noel Coward described it perfectly when he wrote that the novel is ‘… entirely good and most beautifully written.  I love her subtlety and observation and impeccable characterisation…’.  Me too, Noel.  Me too.

54013540._sy475_Although she seems to have fallen into something akin to disregard in the twenty-first century, Berridge’s ‘crisp and distinctly English style of writing established her as one of the most significant novelists of the post-war years.’

Originally published in 1964, Across the Common takes as its focus Louise, who has decided to leave her husband.  She opens by saying: ‘I know it was finished, as I finished it myself…  I cooked ahead for three days, took a purple pill and under its influence was able to write some sort of crazy note. He didn’t know I had those pills: he thought I was too stable to need them.’

Louise returns to her childhood home, The Hollies, a large rambling building which stands at the edge of a common in the fictional town of Pagham Green.  The Hollies is ‘tall and big and excelled in useless crenellations’.  The house has, over the years, become ‘a refuge for that vanishing species, the Great British Aunt’ – specifically, acidic and judgemental Seraphina, who steals cuttings of plants from royal parks to grow them in her own garden; Rosa, the eldest, and therefore the one who makes all of the decisions; and ‘tiny and malevolent’ Cissie.  When Louise arrives, without having notified anyone, she finds her ‘aunts stood at either side of the front door, without surprise, and embraced me in the intense, dry way of the elderly.’  The house has become a space exclusively devoted to women; the family has, over the years, ‘shed its men’.

Along with Louise’s present day story, and the turmoil which she feels to be back in her old home, run many memories of her early life.  These memories, all of which have been woven into the narrative, have a delightful flavour to them.  She is acutely aware of all of the differences, of all of the things which have changed since she began her independent life.  On her first morning, when she walks into the local high street, she observes: ‘I moved along the row of shops like a dreamer in a largely alien landscape.  Certain things were familiar, familiar enough to lull the dreamer into a sense of false security, so that she does not wake up screaming.’

I found Berridge’s acerbic humour both welcome and amusing, and felt that it suited the tone and the plot perfectly.  I very much enjoyed Louise’s witty asides and muttered comments.  She pronounces, for instance, that ‘Aunt Cissie had the same effect on me as a lemon was supposed to have if sucked in front of an unfortunate trombonist.  She dried up my juices.’

Louise comes to life on the page; she is complex, and feels thoroughly realistic.  Her narrative voice is lively and endearing.  I enjoyed the rather eccentric cast of characters, and found myself invested in their stories.  We as readers are given a lens into the life of a family, meeting both those who exist in Louise’s present, and those whom she never met, or knew only slightly.

Across the Common is essentially a domestic novel; in reality, it is so much more than that.  There are a lot of quite ordinary scenes at play within it – for example, when Louise is tended to by the ageing housekeeper, or the aunts looking through vast collections of family photographs which have been found in the attic – but Berridge makes each one into something compelling.  She manages, somehow, to give different perspectives on the most mundane of occurrences.  Berridge’s writing is exquisite, as is her attention to detail.

On the strength of Across the Common, I broke my longstanding book-buying ban to buy three more of Berridge’s novels, and I am wholly looking forward to reading them.  Already, I can see that she could easily become one of my favourite authors.


Two Collections: ‘Heads of the Colored People’ and ‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?’

My local library is a wonderful place to browse, and on one trip there earlier this year, I came across two short story collections which I had heard a lot of.  Both Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People and Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? explore black segregation, identity, and experience in the United States.

36562557._sy475_Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires ****

Published in 2018, Heads of the Colored People is Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection.  Reviews on the colourful hardback edition which I read call it, variously, ‘fresh-laundry-clean’, ‘superbly witty’, ‘wholly original’, and ‘one of the best short story debuts I’ve read in my whole life.’  I was therefore, understandably, looking forward to discovering Thompson-Spires’ work for myself.

In Heads of the Colored People, the author ‘interrogates our supposedly post-racial era.  To wicked and devastating effect she exposes the violence, both external and self-inflicted, that threatens black Americans, no matter their apparent success.’  Her collection of twelve stories, which comes in at just under 200 pages, ‘shows characters in crisis, both petty and catastrophic’, and ‘marks the arrival of a remarkable writer and an essential and urgent new voice.’

A lot of the stories within Thompson-Spires’ collection are immersed in popular culture, much of which, I must admit, went straight over my head.  She takes different approaches throughout the stories.  The title story, for instance, is made up of different interlinking character portraits.  Another, ‘Belles Lettres’, is told entirely using correspondence between two warring mothers, and is laugh-aloud funny.  There is a consistency to Heads of the Colored People, but the use of different formats and perspectives which Thompson-Spires has employed makes it more interesting.  There are recurring characters who appear throughout the collection, something which I personally enjoy.

Thompson-Spires’ writing is sharp and memorable.  Her characters are clear, and all have a depth to them.  She focuses upon all sorts of topics and issues: the obsession with social media, ‘fitting in’, trolling, bullying, race, police violence, rivalry, alternative lifestyles…  In ‘The Subject of Consumption’, for example, protagonist Lisbeth has become a ‘fruitarian’ after having tried a variety of different diets.  She makes her husband and daughter join her: ‘The groceries became more expensive and the lifestyle more time-consuming the closer they tried to get to earth, to original man, to whatever…’.  She also practices what she calls ‘detachment parenting’, largely leaving her young daughter to get on with it alone.

I felt absorbed by every single story in Heads of the Colored People, and appreciated the numerous flaws which each character had been given.  Thompson-Spires is incredibly perceptive, and each of her stories packs a punch.  Some build to a crescendo; others open in arresting ways.  ‘Suicide Watch’, as an example, has this as its opening sentence: ‘Jilly took her head out of the oven mainly because it was hot and the gas did not work independently of the pilot light.’

Ultimately, in Heads of the Colored People, Thompson-Spires examines what it means to be, for want of a better word, different.  I appreciated the dark humour which she uses, and the unexpected twists which come.  There is certainly a freshness to her writing, and whilst not a favourite collection of mine, I can imagine that I will return to it in future.  Heads of the Colored People has a lot to say, and Thompson-Spires does this well.  Her authorial voice is commanding and authoritative, particularly considering that this collection is a debut.  I very much look forward to reading whatever she publishes next.


Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins ***

Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is set in New York during the 51rythrc7gl._sx334_bo1204203200_summer of 1963, a city ‘full of lovers and dreamers’.  This was a tumultuous time in the history of the United States.  Collins’ stories take place ‘on university campuses and in run-down Manhattan apartments’, where ‘young women grow out their hair and discover the taste of new freedoms, praying for a world where love is colour-free.’

The edition which I read included a foreword by Elizabeth Alexander, who writes of the years which it took to track down Collins’ film, ‘Losing Ground’, and the great effect which it had upon her.  When Alexander found that Collins had also written short stories, and was able to ‘encounter with a start her singular, sophisticated black and white bohemians talking their way through complicated lives – is akin to discovering a treasure trove.’

Collins never saw her work published; it wasn’t until almost three decades after her death that her stories were collected together by her daughter in this collection.  They were all originally written during the 1960s.  A lot of the issues which she deals with are as important today as they were then; perhaps, most pivotally, depression, poverty, and issues of race which still sadly prevail in modern society.

The first story, ‘Interiors’, is a duologue; we first hear from a husband, and then a wife. This is an incredibly insightful work, where both characters address one another, and, in the process, lay themselves bare.  The husband comments: ‘I’m moody, damn it, and restless… and life has so many tuneless days…  I can’t apologize for loving you so little.’  In this manner, Collins’ writing is striking, and revealing.  ‘How Does One Say’ begins: ‘When she left home for the summer her hair was so short her father wouldn’t say good-bye.  He couldn’t bear to look at her.  She had it cut so short there wasn’t any use straightening it, so it frizzed tight around her head and made her look, in her father’s words, “just like any other colored girl”.’

Each of the stories in this collection is beautifully considered, and Collins’ characters are deftly introduced, with all of their feelings, their foibles, their flaws.  We do not often learn their names, but they feel wholly realistic.  I found Collins’ prose evocative, and quite sensual in places.  ‘Treatment for a Story’, for example, opens as follows: ‘A ground-floor room in the back, cluttered with trunks, boxes, books, magazines, newspapers, notebooks, and paintings, and smelling of Gauloises, burnt coffee, dirty sheets, couscous and peppers, and a mélange of female scents.’  Other stories contain descriptive writing in this vein, which wonderfully sets the scene.

Oddly, then, the sixteen short stories were not quite as memorable as I had hoped.  There were a few stories which did not capture my attention at all.  From the outset, I imagined that Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? would be a four-star read for me, but from around the halfway point, this had changed to more like a three.  The collection was not quite consistent enough for my taste, although I can see why people love Collins’ prose, and admire her stories.


‘The Choice’ by Edith Eger ****

I have wanted to read Edith Eger’s Holocaust memoir, The Choice, since it was first published in 2017, and picked up a cheap secondhand copy in a local branch of Oxfam before Christmas.  Eger’s memoir has been so highly reviewed, with many pointing to the courage which she showed even at her bleakest moments.  The New York Times Book Review goes one step further, urging everyone who cares ‘about both their inner freedom and the future of humanity’ to read it.

In 1944, sixteen-year-old ballerina, Edith Eger, was sent to Auschwitz.  She was immediately separated from her parents, and was later made to dance before notorious camp doctor, Josef Mengele.  Despite everything she went through, the book’s blurb insists that ‘the horrors of the Holocaust didn’t break Edith.  In fact, they helped her learn to live again with a life-affirming strength and a truly remarkable resilience.’

The Choice has been split into four distinct sections – ‘Prison’, ‘Escape’, ‘Freedom’, and 9781846045127‘Healing’.  She gives her account chronologically, and makes clear in her introduction that she only began to write her memoir in 1980, whilst working as a psychologist.  Of her troubled patient Jason, whom she also introduces here, she finds so much wholly applicable to her own past: ‘… despite our obvious differences, there was much we shared.  We both knew violence.  And we both knew what it was like to become frozen.  I also carried a wound within me, a sorrow so deep that for many years I hadn’t been able to speak of it at all, to anyone.’

Eger goes on to write about time and its healing process: ‘What happened can never be forgotten and can never be changed.  But over time I learned that I can choose how to respond to the past.  I can be miserable, or I can be hopeful – I can be depressed, or I can be happy.  We always have that choice, that opportunity for control.’

Eger was born in the town of Kassa, Hungary, which was renamed Košice and became part of Czechoslovakia.  At this point, Eger writes that ‘my family became double minorities.  We were ethnic Hungarians living in a predominantly Czech country, and we were Jewish.’  The town became part of Hungary again in 1938.  Throughout The Choice, she speaks about her childhood, her memories, and the relationship which she had with her parents and siblings.  Her father is taken to a work camp, and is only released eight months afterwards.  After this, Eger is captured and taken to Auschwitz, along with her mother and sister, Magda.  Her mother is taken immediately to the gas chambers.  Here, Eger touchingly reflects on the state which this left her in: ‘I am numb.  I can’t think about the incomprehensible things that are happening, that have already happened.  I can’t picture my mother consumed by flames.  I can’t fully grasp that she is gone.’

Throughout, Eger speaks so honestly about her own experiences.  There is, understandably, a lot of horror within her past, and she does not shy away from describing this to the reader.  She writes of the way in which she was able to hold onto her humanity, and the bravery which this took is quite astounding.  Eger says: ‘The words I heard inside my head made a tremendous difference in my ability to maintain hope.  This was true for other inmates as well.  We were able to discover an inner strength we could draw on – a way to talk to ourselves that helped us feel free inside, that kept us grounded in our own morality, that gave us foundation and assurance even when the external forces sought to control and obliterate us.’

The imagery which Eger relays is often haunting.  On their liberation, she reflects: ‘What are we now?  Our bones look obscene, our eyes are caverns, blank, dark, empty.  Hollow faces.  Blue-black fingernails.  We are trauma in motion.  We are a slow moving parade of ghouls.’  She tends not to write only about her experiences in the camps, and directly afterwards; rather, she focuses upon the ways in which she came to terms with it after her liberation.  Like the vast majority of survivors, she was left with major issues with her health, and had to come to terms with what it meant to live back in the world.  She was also forced to cope with the absence of her parents, and her boyfriend, Eric.

The second half of Eger’s memoir is focused upon her marriage, the career which she works so hard to have, and the patients whom she meets, all of whom seem able to teach her something about her own life and perspectives.  Occasionally, these recollections of patients do feel a little preachy, and overall, I feel as though I personally got a lot more out of the first half of the book than the second.

The Choice is a wonderful memoir, filled with sadness but also an unbreakable sense of hope, which carried Eger through into her present.  One cannot help but be moved by Eger’s words, and the attitude which she takes toward her past.  Her prose is engaging, and filled to the brim with emotion and compassion.  The Choice leans toward the philosophical at times, and certainly gives a lot of food for thought.


The Book Trail: From the Unit to California

This edition of The Book Trail begins with a dystopian novel which I received for my birthday, and very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.


1. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist 71wd5kifoul
‘Ninni Holmqvist’s uncanny dystopian novel envisions a society in the not-so-distant future, where women over fifty and men over sixty who are unmarried and childless are sent to a retirement community called the Unit. They’re given lavish apartments set amongst beautiful gardens and state-of-the-art facilities; they’re fed elaborate gourmet meals, surrounded by others just like them. It’s an idyllic place, but there’s a catch: the residents–known as dispensables–must donate their organs, one by one, until the final donation. When Dorrit Weger arrives at the Unit, she resigns herself to this fate, seeking only peace in her final days. But she soon falls in love, and this unexpected, improbable happiness throws the future into doubt.  Clinical and haunting, The Unit is a modern-day classic and a chilling cautionary tale about the value of human life.’


2744237._sy475_2. Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
‘In her stunning novel, Hall imagines a new dystopia set in the not-too-distant future.   England is in a state of environmental crisis and economic collapse. There has been a census, and all citizens have been herded into urban centers. Reproduction has become a lottery, with contraceptive coils fitted to every female of childbearing age. A girl who will become known only as “Sister” escapes the confines of her repressive marriage to find an isolated group of women living as “un-officials” in Carhullan, a remote northern farm, where she must find out whether she has it in herself to become a rebel fighter. Provocative and timely, Daughters of the North poses questions about the lengths women will go to resist their oppressors, and under what circumstances might an ordinary person become a terrorist.’


3. Distant View of a Minaret and Other Stories by Alifa Rifaat 206228
‘”More convincingly than any other woman writing in Arabic today, Alifa Rifaat lifts the vil on what it means to be a women living within a traditional Muslim society.” So states the translator’s foreword to this collection of the Egyptian author’s best short stories. Rifaat (1930-1996) did not go to university, spoke only Arabic, and seldom traveled abroad. This virtual immunity from Western influence lends a special authenticity to her direct yet sincere accounts of death, sexual fulfillment, the lives of women in purdah, and the frustrations of everyday life in a male-dominated Islamic environment.  Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, the collection admits the reader into a hidden private world, regulated by the call of the mosque, but often full of profound anguish and personal isolation. Badriyya’s despariting anger at her deceitful husband, for example, or the hauntingly melancholy of “At the Time of the Jasmine,” are treated with a sensitivity to the discipline and order of Islam.’


11392114. The Tiller of Waters by Hoda Barakat
‘This spellbinding novel narrates the many-layered recollections of a hallucinating man in devastated Beirut. The desolate, almost surreal, urban landscape is enriched by the unfolding of the family sagas of Niqula Mitri and his beloved Shamsa, the Kurdish maid. Mitri reminisces about his Egyptian mother and his father who came back to settle in Beirut after a long stay in Egypt. Both Mitri and his father are textile merchants and see the world through the code of cloth, from the intimacy of linen, velvet, and silk to the most impersonal of synthetics. Shamsa in turn relates her story, the myriad adventures of her parents and grandparents who moved from Iraqi Kurdistan to Beirut. Haunting scenes of pastoral Kurds are juxtaposed against the sedentary decadence of metropolitan residents. Barakat weaves into her sophisticated narrative shreds of scientific discourse about herbal plants and textile crafts, customs and manners of Arabs, Armenians, and Kurds, mythological figures from ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, and Arabia, the theosophy of the African Dogons and the medieval Byzantines, and historical accounts of the Crusades in the Holy Land and the silk route to China.’


5. Without a Name and Under the Tongue by Yvonne Vera 420461
‘Yvonne Vera’s novels chronicle the lives of Zimbabwean women with extraordinary power and beauty. Without a Name and Under the Tongue, her two earliest novels, are set in the seventies during the guerrilla war against the white government.  In Without a Name (1994), Mazvita, a young woman from the country, travels to Harare to escape the war and begin a new life. But her dreams of independence are short-lived. She begins a relationship of convenience and becomes pregnant.  In Under the Tongue (1996), the adolescent Zhizha has lost the will to speak. In lyrical fragments, Vera relates the story of Zhizha’s parents, and the horrifying events that led to her mother’s imprisonment and her father’s death. With this novel Vera became the first Zimbabwean writer ever to deal frankly with incest. With these surprising, at times shocking novels Vera shows herself to be a writer of great potential.’


18061536. Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon by Nicole Brossard
‘Carla Carlson is at the Hotel Clarendon in Quebec City trying to finish a novel. Nearby, a woman, preoccupied with sadness and infatuated with her boss, catalogues antiquities at the Museum of Civilization. Every night, the two women meet at the hotel bar and talk – about childhood and parents and landscapes, about time and art, about Descartes and Francis Bacon and writing.  When Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon appeared in French (as Hier), the media called it the pinnacle of Brossard’s remarkable forty-year literary career. From its intersection of four women emerges a kind of art installation, a lively read in which life and death and the vertigo of ruins tangle themselves together to say something about history and desire and art.’


7. Defiance by Carole Maso 153596
‘Bernadette O’Brien: misfit…child prodigy…professor of mathematics at Harvard…sentenced to die in the electric chair for the shocking murder of two male students. In her journal, her death book Bernadette takes a dark look back at the unfolding events that led to the extraordinary crime for which she was convicted.In the incandescent, erotically charged prose for which she is known, Maso probes the depths of a female psyche inextricably embedded in a uniquely American matrix of sexuality, violence, and the clash of class difference. A raw and fearless performance by an author of fierce vision, Defiance stays with readers long after they put the book down.’


97044818. Lola, California by Edie Meidav
‘The year is 2008, the place California. Vic Mahler, famous for having inspired cult followers in the seventies, serves time on death row, now facing a countdown of ten days. For years, his daughter, Lana, has been in hiding. Meanwhile, her friend Rose, a lawyer, is determined to bring the two together.  When Rose succeeds in tracking down Lana at a California health spa, the two friends must negotiate land mines of memory in order to find their future. In sharp episodes infused with pathos and wit, Edie Meidav brings her acclaimed insight and poetry to friendship, parenthood, dystopia, and the legacy of the seventies.   Lola, California speaks to our contemporary crisis of faith, asking: can we survive too much choice?’


Have you read any of these books?  Which pique your interest?


One From the Archive: ‘The Poetic Edda’, translated by Carolyne Larrington ****

First published in 2014.

The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse-Icelandic mythological and heroic poetry, which has inspired so much of the literature and media which we in the modern world know and love.  Many of the poems in this collection – which has been both translated and edited by Carolyne Larrington – were penned by an unknown writer around the year 1270, and can be found in a medieval Icelandic document, the Codex Regius.  It has not been possible to prove whether these poems came from Iceland or Norway, as experts on the poems have noted that elements of importance are often included from both countries.  It is worth noting that many of the poems within The Poetic Edda were written before the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity.

9780199675340In her introduction, Larrington sets out the importance of the poems within The Poetic Edda.  She believes that the collection is ‘comic, tragic, instructive, grandiose, witty and profound’, and that it contains scenes which have been ‘vividly staged’.  Larrington goes on to write that the Edda, incorporating as it does ‘comedy, satire, didactic verse, tragedy, high drama and profoundly moving lament’, is one of the greatest masterpieces in world literature.  Larrington’s introduction is well written and informative, and is split up into useful sections which deal with such different elements as the Old Norse cosmos and mythological history.

The Poetic Edda ‘contains the great narratives of the creation of the world and the coming of Ragnarok, the doom of the Gods’.  It traces the exploits of many characters from Icelandic and Norse mythology, from Thor to Sigurd and Brynhild, and their doomed love affair.  In their style, the poems are relatively simple, but they are often profound and always striking in the scenes and imagery which they present.

Larrington’s version of The Poetic Edda has been beautifully translated, and the flow of each poem is perfect.  The narrative voices and structure used in each is coherent and well wrought, and the collection as a whole is absolutely fascinating.  Each poem is different from the next, and every single one is filled with many memorable characters and scenes.  Violence abounds in The Poetic Edda, as do history, passion and emotions.

Oxford World’s Classics’ revised edition of the poems includes a select bibliography and a section on the genealogies of giants, gods and heroes.  Larrington has also chosen to place two new poems within the collection – ‘The Lay of Svipdag’ and ‘The Waking of Angatyr’.  There is also an invaluable section with notes on the meter and style of the poems, which is essential for any student of the work.  Each poem is prefaced by a useful contextual introduction, making The Poetic Edda accessible to all.

Purchase from The Book Depository


‘Bilgewater’ by Jane Gardam *****

I picked up Jane Gardam’s Bilgewater in a charity shop, keen to get started with her work.  The unusual title and blurb both really appealed to me, and I was further intrigued by the reviews spattered over the cover, which call it variously ‘funny’, ‘deeply moving’, and ‘lively’.

Our protagonist is the wonderfully named Marigold Green, a young girl growing up in the boys’ school where her father is housemaster.  Marigold calls herself ‘hideous, quaint and barmy’, and is ‘convinced of her own plainness and peculiarity’.  Others call her ‘Bilgewater’.  Marigold explains: ‘My father… is known to the boys as Bill.  My name is Marigold, but to one and all because my father is very memorable and eccentric and had been around at the school for a very long time before I was born – I was only Bill’s Daughter.  Hence Bilgewater.  Oh, hilarity, hilarity!  Bilgewater Green.’9780349114026

At the outset of the novel, the young narrator says, quite matter-of-factly, ‘My mother died when I was born which makes me sound princess-like and rather quaint.’  Marigold often feels quite alone in the male-dominated world in which she lives.  She spends much of her time with her father, in complete silence: ‘Except when he is teaching,’ she reflects, ‘he is utterly quiet…  He never rustles, coughs or hums.  He never snuffles (thank goodness) and he never, ever, calls out or demands anything.’  She has one ally, a woman named Paula, who is the closest thing she has to a mother.  The blurb suggests that Marigold is ‘ripe for seduction by entirely the wrong sort of boy’, and comments that she ‘suffers extravagantly and comically in her pilgrimage through the turbulent, twilight world of alarming adolescence.’

Some way into Bilgewater, the mysterious Grace comes into her orbit; the two girls were best friends as small children, but time apart has made them almost complete strangers to one another.  Marigold comments: ‘Grace I saw as a figure far, far above coarseness or sloppiness – a figure of real Romance, a creature of turrets, moats and lonely vigils, gauntlets and chargers, long fields of barley and of rye.’

The novel opens in Cambridge during December, where the almost eighteen-year-old Marigold has been granted an interview at the University, and has travelled down from Yorkshire to attend.  We meet her awkwardness head on at this point; she feels like a fish out of water.  I warmed to her immediately.

Marigold’s narrative voice is entirely engaging, and wholly convincing.  It resembles an almost stream-of-consciousness style.  I was pulled right in to her story, keen to learn more about her and her world.  She is a witty and amusing character.  Marigold is very conscious of her own self; she frankly reflects, at one point: ‘I have a very good balance of hormones all distributed in the right places.  The only thing that ever worried [Paula] was that I started brewing them so early…’.  The novel is a coming-of-age story, in which our protagonist tries to find her feet; she repeatedly pushes herself outside of her comfort zone in various ways.  In short, I do not think that I will ever be able to forget her.

First published in 1976, Bilgewater was devoured eagerly by this reader at the end of 2019.  I found myself absolutely adoring everything about the novel, and wanted to read far more about the charming and unusual Marigold than Gardam allowed me.

A short novel at just 200 pages, Bilgewater is quite perfect; whilst I yearned for more of Gardam’s writing, and her fascinatingly flawed and realistic cast of characters, I know that I thankfully have a lot of the prolific author’s stories yet to read.  Bilgewater is a real gem, and a book which I will be recommending to every reader in my life.