I read a lot of books published by Virago (something which I’m sure will not be news to many people), and I thought it would be nice to group together three of them in one review. Only one of these books is on the Virago Modern Classics list which I am working through (Love by Elizabeth von Arnim), and the other two are a great novel (The Clothes on Our Backs by Linda Grant) and a volume of short stories by an author whom I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while (Cliffs of Fall by Shirley Hazzard).
Love by Elizabeth von Arnim ****
Love is the 297th book on the Virago Modern Classics list, and it was written by one of my favourite Virago authors. I thought that it would be the perfect choice of novel to read on a very sunny Sunday in early March, which I spent almost entirely in the garden. I must admit that I didn’t read Terence de Vere White’s introduction in the Virago volume pictured – even though I am sure that it would have been most insightful – because I find a lot of introductions actually give away far more of the plot than they really should.
As seems rather obvious from the novel’s title, von Arnim presents a relationship of love, from its earliest beginnings. Her protagonists meet at a mutually adored play in London – the rather enigmatic Catherine Cumfrit, the mother of a grown-up daughter, and Christopher Monckton, who is far younger than she. The book’s blurb describes the way in which, ‘Beneath the humour of this engaging novel, originally published in 1925, lies a sharper note, as Elizabeth von Arnim uncovers the hypocrisy of society and the codes it forces women to ascribe to in the name of love’.
As can be said for all of von Arnim’s work, Love is beautifully written. It is interesting that she has chosen that Christopher succumbs to being in love far before Catherine does, and the way in which she consequently presents gender and need is fascinating. The story which von Arnim has crafted is eminently believable. Love is a darling book, which is just the thing for langorous springtime reading.
The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant ****
I had wanted to read this novel for such a long time, and was so pleased to find a copy in my library. Grant was a new author for me, and from reading the blurb, I was expecting a hybrid of the work of Andrea Ashworth and Natasha Solomons; dry, funny, shrewd, and intelligently written. I was thrilled to discover that The Clothes on Their Backs was all of these things, and more. It says in the blurb that it is ‘a wise and tender novel about the clothes we choose to wear, the personalities we dress ourselves in, and about how they define us all.’ I love the book’s premise too:
‘In a red-brick mansion block near the Marylebone Road, Vivien, a sensitive, bookish girl, grows up sealed off from both past and present by her timid refugee parents. Then a glamorous uncle appears, in a mohair suit, with a diamond watch on his wrist and a girl in a leopard-skin hat on his arm. Why is Uncle Sandor so violently unwelcome in her parents’ home? Vivien wants to know.’
The majority of the novel is set in London in the 1970s, and it begins when Vivien is an adult, recently widowed. She has returned to the city following the death of her Hungarian father. Her story is absorbing from the very start. The narrative voice which Grant has crafted is reminiscent of Kate Atkinson’s skill at seeming to effortlessly create believable protagonists with the very first stroke of a pen. Each scene has clearly been given a lot of thought, and the novel is so vivid in consequence. The Clothes on Their Backs is an incredibly enjoyable book, and I for one will certainly be reading more of Grant’s books in future.
Cliffs of Fall by Shirley Hazzard ****
I had not read any of Hazzard’s books before, so I thought that this short story collection which I found in my library would give me a great feel for her writing style. Ten tales in all make up Cliffs of Fall, and from the very first page, it is clear that Hazzard is an extremely perceptive writer. She brings little details to the forefront of each scene, thus allowing her readers to focus on the elements which they may have otherwise overlooked.
Each of the stories in Cliffs of Fall deals with human condition against a wealth of different, relatively ordinary settings and scenes – a party at a friend’s house, a couple sorting out a bookcase, an Italian man deciding to rent out rooms in his house, and so on. Throughout, I was reminded of Alice Munro’s short stories. Hazzard too is talented at presenting rather a quotidian occurrence and making it somehow immensely interesting. Her characters are set against very distinct backgrounds, and the relationships which they have with one another play out accordingly. Her descriptions, though sometimes a little few and far between, are sumptuous.
Hazzard is great at not stating the obvious; rather, she leaves some details up to the reader’s interpretation, and some of the stories are deliberately left ambiguous. As is often the case with short story collections, some of the tales here are more interesting than others, but I enjoyed them all. I am now very much looking forward to reading her novels to see how they compare.