The Magic City – Edith Nesbit ***
I have come to realise that there is nothing nicer in reading than to supplement the more serious works with children’s stories. The Magic City was not a book which I read when I was younger, but I was most looking forward to it. The novel tells of a young boy named Philip Haldane, who has been raised by his sister Helen, twenty years his senior. She was, says Nesbit, ‘all the mother he had ever known’. When Helen gets married to an old schoolfriend who is widowed with one daughter, Philip moves with her to a large country house, where he is desperately unhappy. To fill his days, in which only the servants of the house are with him, he collects objects from the many rooms he is able to enter, and builds a city from them in one of the rooms. He goes downstairs to view his city by moonlight, and finds that he is able to enter it. From hereon in, adventure ensues. It is beautifully written, and the images are vivid. I did not love the novel, and there were several places in which my attention slipped a little due to repetition or drawn out scenes, but it was amusing and interesting on the whole, and I would heartily recommend it to any child (or adult, for that matter!).
Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories – Mollie Panter-Downes ****
Mollie Panter-Downes is one of the Persephone authors whom I have been most looking forward to reading. The short stories in this volume have been collected chronologically, as they first appeared when they were published in The New Yorker. There are twenty one tales in all. I loved the wit and irony which were at play throughout. Panter-Downes crafts characters so deftly. Just one or two sentences detailing someone’s personality or appearance, and they seem to spring to life before your very eyes. Each story also holds a remarkable amount of detail. None of the tales here are related, but there is a marvellous sense of flow to the volume. Panter-Downes touches on a whole wealth of different characters and situations within the framework of World War Two, and lots of viewpoints have been considered. Good Evening, Mrs Craven is a book which I would heartily recommend.
The Ante-Room – Kate O’Brien ***
I really want to like Kate O’Brien’s writing, particularly after being as disappointed as I was with The Last of Summer when I read it last year. The novel started off marvellously, but the plot was soon too drawn out, and the characters were shadowed within it. The Ante-Room begins on ‘the eve of All Saints, 1880, and Teresa Mulqueen is dying’. Teresa is the mother of eight children, and has been fighting ‘a losing battle with life’ for two and a half years prior to the novel’s beginning. Her family gather around her, all dealing with the grief they feel in their own ways. The novel has been split into three separate parts: ‘The Eve of All Saints’, ‘The Feast of All Saints’ and ‘The Feast of All Souls’.
O’Brien’s descriptions work well, particularly those which deal with the bleaker aspects of life and the surroundings. She builds up scenes deftly and these, for me, were the definite strength of the novel. From a social perspective it is interesting, and the relationships between the siblings and their mother have been well drawn. As I did not very much enjoy it, however, I have decided not to read any more of Kate O’Brien’s books, and have removed them from the VMC list which I am working through.