I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in France since I was a child, and have always been drawn to memoirs of those who have swapped their busy lives for a slower existence in the beautiful country. Lady Winifred Fortescue’s Perfume from Provence had been high on my rather large memoirs list for quite some time, before I caved and ordered a secondhand copy; reading it on a warm afternoon was bliss when I was unable to travel myself.
In the early 1930s, alongside her husband Sir John Fortescue, Winifred left her home in Hertfordshire, England, and ‘settled in Provence, in a small stone house amid olive groves’. Their new abode, named the Domaine, was very close to the world-famous perfume making town of Grasse. They made the large move partly for health reasons, but also because between the wars, France was a far more affordable country than England in which to live. As soon as the pair arrived, they were ‘bewitched, by the scenery, by their garden – an incredible terraced landscape of vines, wild flowers, roses and lavender – and above all by the charming, infuriating, warm-hearted and wily Provençals.’
When it was first published in 1935, Perfume from Provence was a bestseller. It rose to the top of the lists again when it was reissued by Black Swan in 1992. It is not difficult to see why. Although the book seems to be relatively forgotten nowadays, it presents a wonderfully slow, amusing, and warm slice of life, which transported me entirely from the crazed modern world. Fortescue’s prose is so vivid and sumptuous that I could almost feel the golden sun upon my skin, and hear the thousands of cicadas chirping in the fields. She writes: ‘Here there is a lovely leisure in all our doings. The sun shines so gloriously, the sky is so incredibly blue, and the scent of flowers, warmed by the sunshine, so drowsy and intoxicating that there is every inducement to be lazy and leisurely.’
From its very beginning, Fortescue writes with such ambiability, and a wonderful sense of humour. She tells us about the motley crew of workmen who are extending their small house: ‘Hardly a day passed without a visit from one or other of them: the electrician with a finger cut by wire; a mason with a smashed thumb; various blessés with casualties greater or less, all howling for “Madame” and tincture of iodine.’ The house also came with a rather beligerent gardener named Hilaire, who continuously ropes both Fortescues into helping him with garden tasks. To escape this, Sir John often feigns deafness. Many of the neighbours, too, shoehorn the Fortescues into assisting them – lending their car for a local wedding, or guilt-tripping them into buying up ‘several hundreds of logs’ in the heat of summer, as the seller insists that ‘wood was very scarce, and customers who were late with their commands would not get served at all.’
Perfume from Provence has been split into sections, all of which deal with one aspect of life in Provence, and range from ‘Building’ and ‘My Garden’, to ‘Marriage’ and ‘Housekeeping’. In each chapter, seemingly endless mishaps occur: a garden wall crumbling, and ruining a recently planted rose garden; a gentleman comically slipping on a banana skin on market day, and upending a ‘heap of oranges, some of which scatter under the stalls and are swiftly prigged by alert urchins, while other marketeers roller-skate on the remainder’; and the ‘gesticulating little creature’ of the local barber dropping all of his tools over the market square, and making ‘himself an amusing nuisance’ in the aftermath. There is so much evocative detail here about customs unique to Provence, and the lively book is full to the brim with memorable characters and encounters.
There are some lovely moments here too, many of which come from their rural neighbours. One of these, Monsieur Pierre, reflectively tells Fortescue: ‘He sweeps a brawny arm out towards the majesty of mountains rising above a sea of grey-green olive foliage, and asks me why people spend their lives striving to make money when Le Bon Dieu gives them all this beauty for nothing? Is not health, and the life of a peasant in the open air, better than riches and a dyspeptic stomach in a city? The world has grown too restless and discontented, and men have forgotten that peace and happiness can still be found in woods with birds and flowers and bees.’ One night, Fortescue relays that when went to be early one night, ‘… I lay luxuriously staring out of my windows at a mass of mountains gradually fading away into opalescent dusk…’.
I am always delighted when I pick up books of this kind, and am thrilled that I have discovered a new author to enjoy in Lady Winifred Fortescue. Her account of life in France is delightful, as ‘warm and witty’ as the book’s blurb promises. Fortescue lived in Provence until her death in 1951, and released more reflections of her beloved life there, which I am most looking forward to reading. Next for me will be Sunset House: More Perfume from Provence. There is so much to like in Perfume from Provence, and I have high hopes for the rest of Fortescue’s oeuvre. Of course, this volume has made me want to book a very long holiday in France, but until I can get there again, I will read the rest of her books with joy.
First published in July 2018.
I very much enjoy Eudora Welty’s fiction, but know comparatively little about her childhood. I read the wonderful What There Is To Say We Have Said a couple of years ago, which features much of the correspondence between Welty and another favourite author of mine, William Maxwell. This autobiographical work, which is composed of a wealth of memories largely from Welty’s Mississippi childhood, works as a wonderful companion volume.
Of One Writer’s Beginnings, William Maxwell writes, ‘It is all wonderful… The parts of the book that are about her family… are by turns hilarious and affecting. They are a kind of present… from Miss Welty to her audience.’ Penelope Lively believes it to be a piece of ‘entrancing reading’, and Paul Binding writes in the New Statesman: ‘A writer for whom “genius” is for once a not inappropriate word… A book of great sensitivity – as controlled and yet aspiring as a lyric poem.’
In One Writer’s Beginnings, which was first published in 1984, Welty decided to tell her story in one ‘continuous thread of revelation’. The book provides, says its blurb, ‘… an exploration of memory by one of America’s finest writers, whose many honours include the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award for Fiction, and the Gold Medal for the novel.’ This book consists of three essays – ‘Listening’, ‘Learning to See’, and ‘Finding a Voice’ – which have been transcribed from a set of three lectures which Welty gave at Harvard University in April 1983.
When ‘Listening’ begins, Welty’s words set the scene immediately: ‘In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.’ Throughout, Welty’s voice is lyrical, candid, and often quite moving. She reveals her deep love of books, which was present even when she was a tiny child. ‘I learned,’ she writes, ‘from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or be read to.’ Welty’s writing is particularly beautiful when she discusses her love of stories: ‘It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them.’
In a series of vignettes, Welty talks about stargazing, singing, childhood illness, learning the alphabet, religion, schooling, and the quirks of her in some ways unconventional parents, amongst other things. The imagery which she conjures up is often lovely; for instance: ‘All children in those small-town, unhurried days had a vast inner life going on in the movies. Whole families attended together in the evenings, at least once a week, and children were allowed to go without chaperone in the long summer afternoons – schoolmates with their best friends, pairs of little girls trotting on foot the short distance through the park to town under their Japanese parasols.’ When she discusses the travels which she went on with her family each summer, she writes of their positive effect upon her later writing: ‘I think now, in looking back on these summer trips – this one and a number later, made in the car and on the train – that another element in them must have been influencing my mind. The trips were wholes unto themselves. They were stories. Not only in form, but their taking on direction, movement, development, change. They changed something in my life: each trip made its particular revelation, though I could not have found words for it. But with the passage of time, I could look back on them and see them bringing me news, discoveries, premonitions, promises – I still can; they still do.’
One Writer’s Beginnings spans Welty’s childhood, and includes comparatively brief reflections about her time at college, and the early days of her writing career. She is insightful about the creation of her characters, and the knowledge which one must have as an author to create enough depth. ‘Characters take on a life sometimes by luck,’ writes Welty, ‘but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.’
One Writer’s Beginnings is a beautifully written celebration of stories, of Welty’s own, and of those which filled her girlhood. I was pulled in immediately, transported to the Deep South in the early twentieth century. This is a joyous account, filled with depth and insight. Welty’s voice is utterly charming, and sometimes quite profound. I shall close this review with one of the most wonderful quotes from the book: ‘The memory is a living thing – it too is in transit. But during the moment, all that is remembered joins and lives – the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.’
I am beginning the first episode of The Book Trail in 2022 with a memoir which I greatly enjoyed listening to last year. As ever, I have chosen to use the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature on Goodreads in order to generate this list. Please let me know if you’ve read any of these books, and which you would recommend!
1. Hungry by Grace Dent
‘From an early age, Grace Dent was hungry. As a little girl growing up in Currock, Carlisle, she yearned to be something bigger, to go somewhere better. Hungry traces Grace’s story from growing up eating beige food to becoming one of the much-loved voices on the British food scene. It’s also everyone’s story – from treats with your nan, to cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, to the exquisite joy of cheaply-made apple crumble with custard. It’s the high-point of a chip butty covered in vinegar and too much salt in the school canteen, on an otherwise grey day of double-Maths and cross country running. It’s the real story of how we have all lived, laughed, and eaten over the past 40 years.’
2. Holiday Heart by Margarita García Robayo
‘From internationally acclaimed Colombian author Margarita García Robayo, and following the success of Fish Soup (selected by the TLS as one of the Best Books of the Year, 2018), comes her latest novel Holiday Heart.
Lucía and Pablo are a couple, they are also school teachers who left Colombia to make a living in the US. While Pablo keeps fond memories of his motherland and a close relationship with his family, Lucía rejects all notions of patriotism, nostalgia and sense of belonging. After struggling to conceive for a long time, Lucía finally gets pregnant with twins. Zealously looking after them, she excludes her husband from this new family life. Hurt and frustrated, Pablo attempts to boost his ego through dispassionate affairs with underage students. While he works on his novel, Lucía writes a feminist column for a magazine picking apart marriage, motherhood and all things related to being a middle-class woman. After one of his affairs comes to light, Lucía takes the kids to Florida while Pablo remains in their empty home thinking about all the time they’ve shared: petty fights, selfish decisions, unkind words. While being apart, they both begin to wonder whether perhaps their love has come to an irreparable end.’
3. The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili
‘In post-soviet Georgia, on the outskirts of Tbilisi, on the corner of Kerch St., is an orphanage. Its teachers offer pupils lessons in violence, abuse and neglect. Lela is old enough to leave but has nowhere else to go. She stays and plans for the children’s escape, for the future she hopes to give to Irakli, a young boy in the home. When an American couple visits, offering the prospect of a new life, Lela decides she must do everything she can to give Irakli this chance.’
4. The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez
‘Following the “propulsive and mesmerizing” (New York Times Book Review ) Things We Lost in the Fire comes a new collection of singularly unsettling stories, by an Argentine author who has earned comparisons to Shirley Jackson and Jorge Luis Borges.
Mariana Enriquez has been critically lauded for her unconventional and sociopolitical stories of the macabre: populated by unruly teenagers, crooked witches, homeless ghosts, and hungry women, they walk the uneasy line between urban realism and horror. The stories in her next collection are as terrifying as they are socially conscious, and press into being the unspoken — fetish, illness, the female body, the darkness of human history — with unsettling urgency. A woman is sexually obsessed with the human heart; a lost, rotting baby crawls out of a backyard and into a bedroom; a pair of teenage girls can’t let go of their idol; an entire neighborhood is cursed to death by a question of morality they fail to answer correctly.
Written against the backdrop of contemporary Argentina, and with resounding tenderness towards those in pain, in fear, and in limbo, this new collection from one of Argentina’s most exciting writers finds Enriquez at her most sophisticated, and most chilling.’
5. Eartheater by Dolores Reyes
‘Electrifying and provocative, visceral and profound, a powerful literary debut novel about a young woman whose compulsion to eat earth gives her visions of murdered and missing people—an imaginative synthesis of mystery and magical realism that explores the dark tragedies of ordinary lives.
Set in an unnamed slum in contemporary Argentina, Earth-eater is the story of a young woman who finds herself drawn to eating the earth—a compulsion that gives her visions of broken and lost lives. With her first taste of dirt, she learns the horrifying truth of her mother’s death. Disturbed by what she witnesses, the woman keeps her visions to herself. But when Earth-eater begins an unlikely relationship with a withdrawn police officer, word of her ability begins to spread, and soon desperate members of her community beg for her help, anxious to uncover the truth about their own loved ones.
Surreal and haunting, spare yet complex, Earth-eater is a dark, emotionally resonant tale told from a feminist perspective that brilliantly explores the stories of those left behind—the women enduring the pain of uncertainty, whose lives have been shaped by violence and loss.’
6. The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8 by Amy Fusselman
‘Amy Fusselman’s first two books, The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8, weave surprising beauty out of diverse strands of personal reflection. Half memoir and half philosophical improvisation, each focuses loosely on a relationship with a man in the author’s life: The Pharmacist’s Mate with her recently deceased father, and 8 with “my pedophile” (as Fusselman painfully refers to her childhood assailant). Along the way, Fusselman covers sea shanties and artificial insemination, World War II and AC/DC, alternative healers and monster-truck videos. Fusselman’s “wholly original epigrammatic style” (Vogue) “makes the world strange again, a place where dying and making life are equally mysterious and miraculous activities” (Time Out New York).’
7. The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman
‘Following on her wonderfully received first novel, Another Place You’ve Never Been, called “mesmerizing,” “powerful,” and “gorgeous,” by critics all over the country, Rebecca Kauffman returns with Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old who is suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration. He struggles to establish human connections—even his emotional life is a blur.
As the novel begins, he is reconnecting with “The Gunners,” his group of childhood friends, after one of their members has committed suicide. Sally had distanced herself from all of them before ending her life, and she died harboring secrets about the group and its individuals. Mikey especially needs to confront dark secrets about his own past and his father. How much of this darkness accounts for the emotional stupor Mikey is suffering from as he reaches his maturity? And can The Gunners, prompted by Sally’s death, find their way to a new day? The core of this adventure, made by Mikey, Alice, Lynn, Jimmy, and Sam, becomes a search for the core of truth, friendship, and forgiveness.
A quietly startling, beautiful book, The Gunners engages us with vividly unforgettable characters, and advances Rebecca Kauffman’s place as one of the most important young writers of her generation.’
8. Nives by Sacha Naspini
‘One of the most exciting new voices in Italian literature brings to life a hauntingly beautiful story of undying love, loss, and resilience, and a fierce, unforgettable new heroine
Nives can’t seem to be able to shed a tear for her husband’s death. She didn’t cry when she found the body, she didn’t cry at the funeral. Even the fog of her loneliness evaporates quickly when she decides to keep her favorite chicken Giacomina with her in the bedroom. She suddenly feels relieved, almost happy, but also guilty: how can the company of a chicken replace her dead husband?
Then one day, Giacomina becomes paralyzed in front of the tv. Unable to wake her up, Nives has no choice but to call the town’s veterinarian, Loriano Bottai, an old acquaintance of hers. What follows is a phone call that seems to last a lifetime. The conversation veers from the chicken to the past—to the life they once shared, the secrets they never had the courage to reveal, wounds that never healed.
Nives echoes the stories we tell ourselves at night, when we can’t sleep: stories of love lost, of abandonment, of silent and heart-breaking nostalgia. With delicate yet sharp prose and raw, astonishing honesty, Sacha Naspini bravely explores the core of our shared humanity.’
I had wanted to get my hands on a copy of Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford since its reissue by Handheld Press. At a time when bookshops were closed during the long lockdown at the outset of 2021, and I was trying my utmost not to purchase anything online to add to my TBR, my library very kindly purchased a copy on my behalf, and I was the first to read it. Business as Usual was one of my most anticipated books of the year, and I am thrilled to impart that it lived up to my high expectations.
Published in 1933, Business as Usual is a ‘delightful illustrated novel in letters’. Its protagonist is twenty seven-year-old Edinburgh woman named Hilary Fane, who has a degree from the University of Oxford, and was recently employed as a teacher at a girls’ school outside Glasgow. Newly engaged, she insists on achieving her dream of moving to London for a year before her marriage, and is ‘determined to support herself by her own earnings’. Despite the ‘resentment of her surgeon fiancé’, she makes her way to the capital, finding a room in a boarding house – named the Minerva Hotel, the many notices pasted around her bedroom have a ‘cumulative effect [which] is shattering’ – and spending much of her time searching for a job.
Hilary’s first foray into employment in the capital is as a typist at a London department store named Everyman’s on Oxford Street – ‘a very thin disguise for Selfridges’. Through ‘luck and an inability to type well’, she is transferred first to the book department – where she is initially refused employment because she is ‘too tall’ – and then into the library. She loves the environment in which she finds herself, and receives a rapid promotion. We learn about her, and her new London life, through a series of letters, which she writes to both her parents and her fiancé, Basil. Other elements have been included when an overview is needed, such as memos between senior colleagues of Hilary’s, and a letter from her mother to her sister-in-law; here, she writes: ‘They’re not to be married for a year. I don’t approve of long engagements, but in this case Basil’s work makes one necessary, and Hilary is determined not to spend the time at home doing nothing.’
Almost as soon as she moves to London, Hilary meets some wonderfully eccentric characters, including an aunt of hers, who insists on taking her out for long lunches despite the fact that Hilary should be working. Her second interview before securing employment is, for example, ‘with a purveyor of Psycho-therapy. He had a perfectly normal (female) secretary, so that I wasn’t prepared to find him in a Biblical bath-robe, contemplating eternity in front of a Grecian vase with one lovely flower in it. I can’t think what my duties would have been, but the word “salary” shocked him…’.
From the first, Hilary is a highly positive young woman; she comments: ‘Almost any interesting job would do for a year. At about four pounds a week, I thought. After all, I’m not preparing to make a life’s work of it.’ I loved her enduring eagerness, and the way in which she presented herself. When she begins work at Everyman’s, and she is describing her new morning routine to Basil, she writes: ‘Half-way along the Lane I usually begin to run, hypnotised by that clock over the Staff Entrance. After that come the million stairs to the Cloakroom (Women Staff) so that I inevitably arrive on the Book Floor without a breath in my body.’
Business as Usual was the first joint literary venture between Helen Rees and Anne Pedler – the real names of Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford respectively – and I very much hope that it isn’t too difficult to find other books which they worked on together. There are almost one hundred of them, published either jointly or separately by Rees and Pedler, after all. I must admit that I will be avoiding their many Mills and Boon publications, though!
Notes on the novel have been provided by Handheld Press’ director, Kate Macdonald, herself a social historian. She writes that Rees and Pedler, who founded the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for young Commonwealth authors, ‘recreate with relish the working lives of single women in 1930s London, and the struggle to find work that was interesting, amenable and paid enough to live on.’ Of the structure of Business as Usual, she comments: ‘The letters are actively enhanced rather than merely illustrated by Ann Stafford’s line drawings, and by the original layout (reproduced in this edition) that simulates telegrams, in-house memoranda and private letters.’
Business as Usual is marvellously amusing, and quite charming. It is exactly the kind of book I enjoy – rooted so well in its historical and social context, but with a highly realistic protagonist, and infused with a great deal of warmth and humour. I thoroughly enjoyed this lively, and lovely, novel. I loved its tongue-in-cheek asides, and its memorable characters. Business as Usual would not be out of place on the Virago or Persephone lists, and surely holds a great deal of appeal for their readers.
The instances in which I read a really enjoyable book, but don’t have time to write a comprehensive review of it seem to be increasing in frequency. I read so many works worthy of more comment, but unless I take comprehensive notes as I am going along, I rarely get around to writing about them in any detail.
With that in mind, I thought I would gather together ten books which I have read of late, and really enjoyed, and which I just haven’t had the time to review. I am loath to forget anything, so rather than leave you with a few hashed together thoughts from my reading journal, I have decided to copy across the blurb of each book. I hope that at least one of them tempts you, and that you find something of interest to add to your TBR
Summerwater by Sarah Moss
‘On the longest day of the summer, twelve people sit cooped up with their families in a faded Scottish cabin park. The endless rain leaves them with little to do but watch the other residents. A woman goes running up the Ben as if fleeing; a retired couple reminisce about neighbours long since moved on; a teenage boy braves the dark waters of the loch in his red kayak. Each person is wrapped in their own cares but increasingly alert to the makeshift community around them. One particular family, a mother and daughter without the right clothes or the right manners, starts to draw the attention of the others. Tensions rise and all watch on, unaware of the tragedy that lies ahead as night finally falls.’
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
‘Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem only a distant echo. An only child, he lives alone with Emilie, the mother he adores but who treats him with bitter severity. He begins an intense friendship with a Jewish boy his age, talented and mercurial Anton Zweibel, a budding concert pianist. The novel follows Gustav’s family, tracing the roots of his mother’s anti-Semitism and its impact on her son and his beloved friend.
Moving backward to the war years and the painful repercussions of an act of conscience, and forward through the lives and careers of Gustav and Anton, The Gustav Sonata explores the passionate love of childhood friendship as it’s lost, transformed, and regained over a lifetime. It’s a powerful and deeply moving addition to the beloved oeuvre of one of our greatest contemporary novelists.’
Say Say Say by Lila Savage
‘Ella is nearing thirty, and not yet living the life she imagined. Her artistic ambitions as a student have given way to an unintended career as a care worker. One spring, Bryn – a retired carpenter – hires her to help him care for Jill, his wife of many years. A car accident caused a brain injury that has left Jill verbally diminished; she moves about the house like a ghost of her former self.
As Ella is drawn ever deeper into the couple’s household, she is profoundly moved by the tenderness Bryn shows toward the wife he still fiercely loves. Ella is startled by the yearning this awakens in her, one that complicates her feelings for her girlfriend, Alix, and causes her to look at relationships of all kinds – between partners, between employer and employee, and above all between men and women – in new ways.
Tightly woven, humane and insightful, tracing the most intimate reaches of a young woman’s heart and mind, Say Say Say is a riveting story about what it means to love, in a world where time is always running out.’
The Fogging by Luke Horton
‘Tom and Clara are two struggling academics in their mid-thirties, who decide to take their first holiday in ten years. On the flight over to Indonesia, Tom experiences a debilitating panic attack, something he hasn’t had in a long time, which he keeps hidden from Clara. At the resort, they meet Madeleine, a charismatic French woman, her Australian partner, Jeremy, and five-year-old son, Ollie, and the two couples strike up an easy friendship. The holiday starts to look up, even to Tom, who is struggling to get out of his own head. But when Clara and Madeleine become trapped in the maze-like grounds of the hotel during ‘the fogging’ — a routine spraying of pesticide — the dynamics suddenly shift between Tom and Clara, and the atmosphere of the holiday darkens.
Told with equal parts compassion and irony, and brimming with observations that charm, illuminate, and devastate, The Fogging dives deep into what it means to be strong when your foundation is built on sand.’
Blueprint by Theresia Enzensberger
‘At the beginning of the turbulent 1920s, she leaves her father’s conservative household in Berlin for Weimar’s Bauhaus university, with dreams of studying architecture. But when she arrives and encounters a fractured social world of mystics and formalists, communists and fascists, the dichotomy between the rigid past and a hopeful future turns out to be a lot more muddled than she thought.
She gets involved with a cult-like spiritual group, looking for community and falling in love with elusive art student Jakob. Luise has ambitions of achieving a lot in life – but little of it has to do with paying homage to great men. Surrounded by luminaries of the period, like Gropius and Kandinsky, she throws herself into the dreams and ideas of her epoch.
While her art school friends retreat into a world of self-improvement and jargon, her home city of Berlin is embroiled in street fights. Amid the social upheaval, she has to decide where she stands. From technology to art, romanticism to the avant-garde, populism to the youth movement, Luise encounters themes, utopias and ideas that still sahep us to the present day. Blueprint is a young woman’s dispatch from a past culture war that rings all too familiar.’
The Glass House by Eve Chase
‘Outside a remote manor house in an idyllic wood, a baby girl is found.
The Harrington family takes her in and disbelief quickly turns to joy. They’re grieving a terrible tragedy of their own and the beautiful baby fills them with hope, lighting up the house’s dark, dusty corners. Desperate not to lose her to the authorities, they keep her secret, suspended in a blissful summer world where normal rules of behaviour – and the law – don’t seem to apply.
But within days a body will lie dead in the grounds. And their dreams of a perfect family will shatter like glass. Years later, the truth will need to be put back together again, piece by piece…
From the author of Black Rabbit Hall, The Glass House is a emotional, thrilling book about family secrets and belonging – and how we find ourselves when we are most lost.’
The Push by Ashley Audrain
‘A tense, page-turning psychological drama about the making and breaking of a family, told through the eyes of a woman whose experience of motherhood is nothing at all what she hoped for–and everything she feared.
Blythe Connor is determined that she will be the warm, supportive mother she never had to her new baby Violet.
But in the thick of motherhood’s exhausting early days, Blythe doesn’t find the connection with her daughter she expected. She’s convinced that something is wrong with Violet–the little girl is distant, rejects affection, and becomes increasingly disruptive at preschool.
Or is it all in Blythe’s head? Her husband, Fox, says she is imagining things. Fox doesn’t see what Blythe sees; he sees a wife who is struggling to cope with the day-to-day challenges of being a mother. And the more Fox dismisses her fears, the more Blythe begins to question her own sanity…
Then their son Sam is born–and with him, Blythe has the natural maternal connection she’d always dreamed of. Even Violet seems to love her little brother. But when life as they know it is changed in an instant, the devastating fall-out forces Blythe to face the truth about herself, her past, and her daughter.
The Push is a rare and extraordinary gift to readers: a novel about the expectations of motherhood we’re taught not to challenge and what really happens behind the closed doors of even the most perfect-looking families. It’s impossible to put down and impossible to forget.’
After Midnight by Irmgard Keun
‘Nineteen-year-old Sanna just wants to drink her beer in peace, but that’s difficult when Hitler has come to town and his motorcade is blocking the streets of Frankfurt. What’s more, her best friend Gerti is in love with a Jewish boy, her brother writes books that have been blacklisted and her own aunt may denounce her to the authorities at any moment, as Germany teeters on the edge of the abyss. Written after she had fled the Nazi regime, Irmgard Keun’s masterly novel captures the feverish hysteria and horror of the era with devastating perceptiveness and humour.’
The Glass House by Beatrice Colin
‘Scotland, 1912. Antonia McCulloch’s life hasn’t gone the way she planned. She and her husband, Malcolm, have drifted apart; her burgeoning art career came to nothing; and when she looks in the mirror, she sees disappointment. But at least she will always have Balmarra, her family’s grand Scottish estate, and its exquisite glass house, filled with exotic plants that can take her far away.
When her estranged brother’s wife, Cicely Pick, arrives unannounced, with her young daughter and enough trunks to last the summer, Antonia is instantly suspicious. What besides an inheritance dispute could have brought her glamorous sister-in-law all the way from India? Still, Cicely introduces excitement and intrigue into Antonia’s life, and, as they get to know one another, Antonia realizes that Cicely has her own burdens to bear. Slowly, a fragile friendship grows between them. But when the secrets each are keeping become too explosive to conceal, the truth threatens their uneasy balance and the course of their entire lives.’
Salt Slow by Julia Armfield
‘This collection of stories is about women and their experiences in society, about bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of its characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession and love. Throughout the collection, women become insects, men turn to stone, a city becomes insomniac and bodies are picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sea side towns are invaded and transformed by the physical, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to the bodies of its inhabitants. Blending the mythic and the fantastic, the collection considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new.’
Featuring lots of cosy festive content, a lot of chilly walks, and the usual mixture of books and knitting.
Music: Various tunes from The Nutcracker.
Penelope Fitzgerald has been one of my favourite authors since I discovered her and read three of her novels in quick succession in 2011. This collection of her letters, So I Have Thought of You, had been on my wishlist for an age before I picked up a copy from my local library. It has been described as ‘an unparalleled record of the life of this greatly admired writer’, which ‘give now the same pleasure they gave to those who first opened them’, and I cannot agree more.
So I Have Thought of You has been edited by Fitzgerald’s son-in-law, Terence Dooley, and also features a preface by A.S. Byatt. Byatt worked with Fitzgerald during the 1960s, at Westminster Tutors in London, which prepared students for the Oxbridge examinations. Byatt admits: ‘I didn’t know her very well. She was interesting to know, but not easy to get to know well.’ She describes Fitzgerald as ‘vague and self-effacing’ and ‘exacting’, and writes that her novels are ‘works of art’.
In Dooley’s own thorough introduction to the volume, he comments: ‘In letters she could say all she wanted to say, and couldn’t quite face to face. She did so in a way that was truthful, witty and persuasive, but above all focused on the person she was writing to. She intended to be entertaining, to offer consolation or to celebrate. She is vividly alive in these letters… Though she writes eloquently, she is unselfconscious and unguarded.’ He makes clear that this book is as comprehensive as was possible, but that Fitzgerald’s ‘fame came so late in life that there was no reason for anyone to keep her letters’. He also lets us know that many of Fitzgerald’s correspondents proved difficult to trace. There is ‘therefore a hole in the middle of this collection’, which omits large parts of her career, marriage, and children: ‘The years when, as Cervantes said to explain his own long silence, she was living her life: the years before she began to write.’ Fitzgerald’s output must have been astonishing, given that with all of these omissions, the collection is over 500 pages long!
The collection is split into two sections – ‘Family and Friends’, and ‘Writing’. Both of these are then organised by recipient. The letters featured begin in 1939, and stretch almost to Fitzgerald’s death in April 2000. Much of the correspondence is addressed to her daughters, Tina and Maria. Some of the letters fit neatly upon the back of a postcard, and others are far more lengthy. She writes about her friends and acquaintances, of writers she knows, a little of politics and domestic issues, and her own writing. She also gently chastises herself – and others – when she feels it is necessary. These letters are filled with humour, which is often rather dark and deprecating.
Of particular interest to me were the letters penned during the Second World War, when Fitzgerald was living in London. In September 1940, she tells her friend Hugh: ‘We have had a large oil-canister bomb which came through my bedroom window, so that I have a twisted piece of metal as a souvenir, but I was not there at the time and so although the window in the flat collapsed I did not.’ There are other, quite startling, occurrences which she recounts, too.
The whole is a delight to read, although I must admit that I preferred the section with warm letters penned to her family and friends, to those written to more professional contacts. Reading firsthand of the ways in which publishing changed over her lifetime, though, is nothing short of fascinating. These correspondences are, as one might expect, rather shorter than those to most of her family members and friends, but she writes to many people who work in a great deal of different roles – editors, publishers, other authors, researchers, those whom she called upon for various assistance, fellow members of the William Morris society, and even a letter to a fan who asked a question about The Gate of Angels.
Throughout, Fitzgerald is witty and intelligent. She captures so many amusing moments, and candidly mentions the many faux pas which she makes. In April 1965, she writes the following to her daughter Tina, who is on a French exchange: ‘I think you are facing up very bravely to the horrors of staying in a large French family – so much more efficiently than I did for instance – I was always in tears and then I got hungry in the middle of the night and went and got some cold potatoes out of the kitchen and the Italian cook was accused of stealing them.’
So I Have Thought of You does give much more of an understanding of what Fitzgerald was like, and how she lived; what mattered to her, and what did not. There are so many glimpses of her wonderful personality; for instance, she tells Tina in 1997: ‘The Guardian rang me up (they never ring me up usually) to ask for Five Wishes for the World for 1998. I couldn’t think of anything, except to abolish off-road motoring, and have those little packets of salt in crisps again. Of course they meant serious thoughts about world affairs, but the truth is, my horizons are shrinking.’
It is immediately obvious that Fitzgerald placed such care into her correspondence. There are heartfelt moments throughout, and concerns are both voiced and responded to. I very much enjoyed the way in which we only get to see Fitzgerald’s letters, and none of the replies; although some of the people and scenes she mentions are not given a wider context, it gives a more authentic picture of her, somehow.
Fitzgerald was a wonderful woman, and a generous correspondent, with a wicked sense of humour, who was game for anything; in 1995, her daughter purchases a farmhouse in rural Wales, and she looks forward to tramping up the hills ‘when spring comes’. This is a collection which I would highly recommend, but I would encourage everyone to pick up at least a couple of her novels before starting with this tome.