‘Palace of the Drowned’ by Christine Mangan ****

I very much enjoyed Christine Mangan’s debut novel, Tangerine, and was looking forward to reading her second, Palace of the Drowned. As in her first book, Palace of the Drowned features a female character abroad in a modern historical setting, and an element of taut mystery.

Forty-two-year-old novelist Frances Croy, known as Frankie, is ‘working to leave the previous year behind’, and has escaped to Venice. Here, living in a crumbling but charming palazzo belonging to friends, who turn up some way into the narrative, Frankie ‘finds comfort in the emptiness of Venice in winter, in the absence of others.’ Set during the historic flood of 1966, the worst which was ever experienced in the city, she ‘struggles to make sense of what is and is not the truth, ultimately culminating in a tragedy that leaves her questioning her own role and responsibility – as well as her sanity.’

Palace of the Drowned opens in Rome in the November of 1966, where Frankie has found herself after the events in Venice: ‘She wondered what the guard might see if he were to return her gaze – an innocent tourist momentarily overcome by the beauty of Rome, or something closer to the truth.’ After this short chapter, the narrative shifts back to October in Venice. The sense of place which Mangan builds is striking: ‘It was hypnotic, the lapping of the green water up and over the cobbles, the smell of brine surrounding her, so that instead of taking a step back, she had moved forward, as if to welcome it. The spell was broken only when a local had appeared in one of the windows, calling out something to her in Venetian.’

I really enjoy the attention which the author pays to small details; for example: ‘Frankie felt suddenly prim, older than her years, with her short blonde wisps of hair pinned tightly back, kirby grips scraping against her scalp, her face bare except for some hastily applied eyeliner.’

Soon after she arrives, without her friend who was supposed to be travelling with her in tow, Frankie meets Gilly, who introduces herself as the daughter of a ‘publishing acquaintance’.

As in Tangerine, Mangan builds tension with a great deal of skill. Each sentence is taut and carefully crafted, particularly as the narrative builds to its climax: ‘It happened quickly then. The feeling of something around her throat, the grip tightening so that she could not breathe… She needed an exit – a chance to catch her breath, to let her skin cool, for already she could feel it, the sharp pinpricks of heat as they crept across her skin, first on the inside of her elbows and towards her wrists, and then on her back, her chest, crawling up, reaching for her throat.’

I believe that Mangan is quite an underrated writer. I hadn’t heard anything about this novel until I spotted it on my library’s website, and I remember next to no coverage of Tangerine upon its publication, either. Palace of the Drowned really drew me in, and I was keen to keep turning the pages and uncover the mysteries of this cleverly crafted novel. The characters Mangan has created are excellently developed, and the scenes their actions play out against are strongly imagined. A real strength of Palace of the Drowned is in its immaculate pacing, and it kept me guessing throughout.


‘Charlotte Mew and Her Friends’ by Penelope Fitzgerald ****

Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my favourite writers, and I am sadly reaching the end of her oeuvre. However, there are a couple of titles which have proven themselves rare enough that I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy in the past. Thank goodness that my library’s county store had a copy of the biographical Charlotte Mew and Her Friends!

I have not read a great deal of poet Charlotte Mew’s work – again, it has been rather difficult to find – but I have very much enjoyed what I have been able to find. Virginia Woolf called Mew ‘the greatest living poetess’, and she has been admired by writers as diverse as Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, Edith Sitwell, and Siegfried Sassoon.

Mew was born in 1869, and grew up in ‘genteel poverty’ in Bloomsbury, London. Fitzgerald focuses, in the opening chapter, on her father, Fred, who worked as an architect. As a child, Mew is described as ‘the tiny Lotti, curly, brilliant, irresistible and defiant’. Her life was quite difficult, in some respects; two of her siblings, Henry and Freda, were tormented by mental health struggles, and spent much of their lives in institutions.

Carefully selected quotes and stanzas of Mew’s have been placed throughout. Fitzgerald offers measured observations and clear-eyed assertions about particular poems, setting these against events which Mew experienced. She also masterfully uses wider social context to explore Mew’s choices and lifestyle, writing: ‘She never left home for long, never became – for example – a suffragette or even a suffragist, never made any attempt to claim political or sexual freedom or defend herself either against society or her own nature. On the contrary, with fierce self-suppression she inherited the fate of the world’s minorities and suffered as an outsider, an outsider, that is, even to herself.’ Fitzgerald goes on: ‘Though Charlotte never wanted to get rid of her responsibilities, she preferred not to be answerable to anyone. She needed, in fact, not independence but freedom.’

Charlotte Mew and Her Friends is filled with a wealth of such charming details: ‘Certain colours, particularly white and red, always obsessed Charlotte Mew. She was more sensitive to colour than she wanted to be. She “knew how jewels tasted”.’

On reading Charlotte Mew and Her Friends, I am completely certain that Fitzgerald could have turned her hand to any subject and made it incredibly compelling; she handles, marvellously, every character and genre she explored. It perhaps goes without saying for anyone at all familiar with Fitzgerald’s work that her research is thorough, and she weaves everything together so deftly. Fitzgerald was the perfect author to handle this biography, with her clever turns of phrase, and the power of her prose. It feels as though she has such an understanding of her subject throughout.

I read the entirety of this book with such interest. Mew is a fascinating subject for such a character study, struggling with her lesbianism, and turned down twice by women she was infatuated with. Fitzgerald explores these relationships, and others – her tumultuous friendship with author May Sinclair, and gaining an ‘elderly admirer’ from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, for example – with empathy and understanding.


One From the Archive: ‘Lavinia’ by George Sand ****

First published in 2017.


George Burnham Ives’ 1902 translation has been used in Michael Wallmer’s lovely edition of George Sand’s Lavinia.  Sand was an incredibly prolific author; her oeuvre is something which most writers can only dream of.  Her work spans four decades, being published as she was between 1831 and 1876.  Lavinia is one of her earliest books, in fact, and was first published in its original French in 1833.

After a young and rather well-to-do English traveller, Sir Lionel Bridgemont, abandons well-born Portuguese Lavinia Buenafe, he breaks her heart.  She consequently marries a nobleman, and is soon widowed.  Some time later, after asking Sir Lionel – himself just about to be married – to return the love letters which she sent him many moons ago, she finds that they are near one another in the Pyrenees.  They thus decide to meet, and along with their present-day story, elements of their past are revealed.

Lavinia’s cousin, Sir Henry, who has accompanied his friend Sir Lionel to the Pyrenees, adds some humour to the whole.  When Sir Lionel berates him for telling Lavinia that her letters were in his constant possession, he says: ‘”Good, Lionel, good!…  I like to see you in a fit of temper; it makes you poetic.  At such times, you are yourself a stream, a river of metaphors, a torrent of eloquence, a reservoir of allegories…”‘.  Sir Henry has rather an adoring, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, view of Lavinia, calling her: ‘”… as fresh as the flowers, lovely as the angels, lively as a bird, light-hearted, rosy, stylish, and coquettish…”‘.  Sir Lionel is really his antithesis, in speech at least, holding as he does a very conventional, if amusingly relayed, view of womankind: ‘”… In the opinion of every man of sense, a lawful wife should be a gentle and placid helpmeet, an Englishwoman to the very depths of her being, not very susceptible to love, incapable of jealousy, fond of sleep, and sufficiently addicted to the excessive use of black tea to keep her faculties in a conjugal state…”‘.

Lavinia is a slim novella at its modest 71 pages; perhaps deceptively so, as there is quite a lot of depth to it.  The descriptions are perhaps the real strength of the piece: ‘… the lovely valley, bathed in sparkling dew, floated in the light and formed a sheet of gold in a frame of black marble’.  Lavinia is beautifully written, and so well translated; it is a real treat to settle down for an hour or two with.  There are amusing asides which pepper the text, and make it feel far more contemporary than it is in actuality.  There is a wonderful pace to the novella, and the structure of one singular chapter works well with regard to its length.  Strong and thoughtful, Lavinia is perhaps most interesting when one looks at the shifting relationships and passing of time within it.


‘Cold Nights of Childhood’ by Tezer Özlü ****

I borrowed Turkish author Tezer Özlü’s classic novella, Cold Nights of Childhood, from the library. Originally published in 1980, and translated into English by Maureen Freely, the edition which I read also features an introduction by contemporary Turkish author Ayşegül Savas.

The unnamed narrator of Cold Nights of Childhood is a young woman ‘between lovers’, who has spent her recent life ‘in and out of psychiatric wards, where she is forced to undergo electroshock treatments.’ At first, she lives between Berlin and Paris, but decides to return to Istanbul ‘in search of freedom, happiness and new love’. Along with her present-day self, we see her childhood, spent largely in the Turkish provinces, ‘and the smoke-filled cafés of capital cities’.

On the opening page, the narrator tries to capture her place in time and space, recognising how much has changed for her since childhood: ‘We’re no longer in the provinces. We’ve abandoned these rambling orchards and large wooden houses to their silent towns. And we’ve abandoned those silent towns to the 1950s.’ From the outset, the sense of place is strong, as is the picture we are given of the narrator’s struggles with her mental health. She recalls that when she was young, ‘Thoughts of death chase after me. Day and night, I think about killing myself. My reasons unclear. To carry on with life, or to die – either will do. A vague disquiet, nothing more.’

Cold Nights of Childhood is filled with a cast of curious characters. Of the grandmother, who lives with the narrator and her family, our protagonist recalls: ‘Her eyes are blue-grey. It’s been seventy years since she last slept with a man. She loves life. Nothing interests her more than her own funeral.’

I appreciated the historical context including throughout, and the way in which the narrator interpreted pivotal events during her childhood. She tells us, for example, ‘I’m in the youngest class in middle school. Stalin’s death is celebrated like a holiday. We dance on maps. Plant tombstones for Stalin and the Soviet Union. Eisenhower is an angel.’

This story of Özlü’s is just over 70 pages in length, and was written over the span of a year. It was her first work of fiction, and the second of three books published during her short lifetime. What I most enjoyed about this novella are the blurred lines between the present-day narrator at the end of the 1970s, and her past selves. I also really admired the stream-of-consciousness quality of the writing: ‘This city never ends. I can go for kilometres without seeing anything to mark a beginning or an end. It has to sleep somewhere, somewhere beyond all these woodlands and lakes. I can almost see it. Nights here are like day. At night the sky goes grey, but never darker. Then it’s day again.’

The introduction discusses Savas’ wish to be a writer, and her subsequent exploration of Turkish literature: ‘The reading materials unravelled steadily, each writer connected to the next, building an impenetrable wall of influence and fraternity, in which I had to try and wedge myself…’. Of this novella, Savas writes: ‘… it confirmed for me that [Özlü’s] work didn’t belong to any school or style, that her voice was uniquely her own: consciousness distilled into narrative form.’ Savas gives a good amount of background information about the author, drawing parallels between this fictional story and Özlü’s own life: ‘… the interest of the book is not so much its autobiographical mirror but the way that life is endowed with an electric mutability. Madness, after all, disrupts the temporal narrative. Here, time is broken and reshuffled through the sharp edge of consciousness.’

Despite its brevity, Cold Nights of Childhood offers a rich reading experience. I found the style of the narrative, made up of a lot of interlinking fragments, rather beguiling. This is a novella which I would highly recommend.


‘Reconciliation’ by Naoya Shiga ***

Translated by Ted Goossen, Naoya Shiga’s Reconciliation is considered a classic of Japanese literature. First published in 1917, and written over the course of just 5 weeks, this novella is described as ‘an understated masterpiece of the Japanese “I novel” tradition (a confessional literary form).’ Shiga was the ‘most celebrated practitioner’ of autobiographical fiction in the country, and went by the ‘god of prose’.

The Translator’s Note, written by Goossen, adds a great deal of context, and information about the author himself. Goossen comments that the novella is ‘highly factual, at least on the surface.’ It was written ‘immediately after the culmination of the drama it describes’: the author’s firstborn daughter dying when she was just a baby, the birth of his second child, and the illness of his beloved grandmother.

For Goossen, the novella ‘is charged with an elemental force that renders the distinction between so-called fact and fiction quite irrelevant.’ One of the ‘most striking features’ of this story for its translator is ‘the close relationship between life and art… [It is] a novella about being unable to write, strewn with references to failed or abandoned works.’ He then goes on to speak about the difficulties of translating such deceptively simple prose.

At just 137 pages long, Reconciliation manages to pack in a great deal. It unfolds with the following opening sentence: ‘This July 31st marked the first anniversary of the death of my eldest child – she had lived just fifty-six days.’ At this point in the narrative, his second child is just 9 days old, and he is going to visit his daughter’s grave.

We learn from the outset that the narrator, Junkichi, has a difficult relationship with his father: ‘I personally disliked father. This was more than the inescapable tangle of emotion that binds most parents and children, I felt: at the root of our mutual animosity was a basic disharmony. But although I found it relatively easy to talk about these feelings, I found I couldn’t express them on paper. I didn’t want to use my writing to emotionally purge myself.’

I found the protagonist unlikeable, prone as he is to cruel outbursts, most of which are directed toward his wife. He shouts things like: ‘“If I were the kind of man who meekly gave in to whatever his father said, I’d never have married you!”’

The prose style is easy to read, as is the first person perspective. There are some distressing scenes here; there is a lot of detail, for instance, about his daughter’s illness and passing, and later his grandmother’s illness. Reconciliation is filled with rumination, but there is far less emotion on display than I would have expected. There are moments of care and sorrow, as displayed here, but these are few and far between in the narrative: ‘After the baby died, our house suddenly became very lonely. When we took our chairs out to the garden to enjoy the cool night air, the distant cries of forest birds drifted across the lake to us… Moments like this were unbearable.’ After this, however, the narrator recalls the following: ‘… what my wife had feared most was seeing a baby about the age of our dead child. I myself was quite unmoved by such a prospect. Sometimes when we were out together she would slip away without telling me. I would usually find someone there was holding a baby.’

In this translation, the narrator is very matter-of-fact. This is something I often find with literature translated from the Japanese; it is often stoic, in my experience, and not at all effusive. Whilst I found it interesting to read something from this period, and I did find the family dynamic an interesting element, I lacked a lot of sympathy for our protagonist, and was somewhat glad to see the back of him.


One From the Archive: ‘If This is a Woman: Inside Ravensbruck’ by Sarah Helm *****

First published in 2017.

In If This is a Woman, Sarah Helm has written utterly phenomenal study. She tells of the atrocities of Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp during the Second World War, and the only one of its kind exclusively for women prisoners. It is the first book to write extensively about Ravensbruck, one of the final camps to be liberated by the Russians.


Only ten percent of Ravensbruck’s prisoners were Jewish, contrary to a lot of other camps; the rest were arrested due to opposition to the Nazi Party, and were drawn from such groups as communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Resistance in various European countries. There were also others deemed ‘asocials’, who ranged from lesbians to Gypsies. Among the prisoners were ‘the cream of Europe’s women’, including various countesses, a former British golfing champion, and the niece of General de Gaulle.

Helm draws upon the published testimonies of Ravensbruck’s prisoners, as well as seeking out those who survived the brutal conditions, and studying records of the court case which followed, aiming as it did to punish those who were in charge. Her research has been carried out impeccably, particularly considering that the majority of the papers relating to prisoners and conditions were burnt before liberation. Helm has aimed to create ‘a biography of Ravensbruck beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could’. The death toll from the camp is unknown, but is estimated to be somewhere between 30,000 and 90,000.

Helm’s writing style is immensely readable, and her research meticulous. If This is a Woman is such a well paced account, and the author never shies away from demonstrating how harrowing the conditions were, and how horrific the injuries and deaths which many within Ravensbruck faced. In trying to tell the individual stories of as many women as she possibly could, both prisoners and those who guarded them, she has added an invaluable biography to the field of Holocaust and Second World War studies.

If This is a Woman won the Longman-History Today Prize, which was incredibly well deserved. One can only hope that further accolades follow. <i>If This is a Woman</i> is, without a doubt, one of my favourite historical studies in terms of its far-reaching material and the sensitivity which has been continually demonstrated, as well as one of my books of the year.


‘The Hero of This Book’ by Elizabeth McCracken ****

McCracken has been one of my absolute favourite authors since I first read The Giant’s House back in 2009. She is sadly not an author whom I hear much, if anything, about from other readers. However, I was thrilled when I heard that she was releasing her newest work, The Hero of This Book.

This short novel takes place 10 months after the death of the unnamed narrator’s mother, at a time when she decides to walk ‘across London on a quiet Sunday’. Set in August 2019, the book opens: ‘This was the summer before the world stopped. We thought it was pretty bad, though in retrospect there was joy to be found.’ The woman, a writer, ‘recalls all that made her complicated mother extraordinary.’

The narrator, a teacher of creative writing, has travelled from her home in Texas to London, one of the places she had previously visited with her mother. In August, ‘a heat wave had bent train rails and shut down art exhibitions and turned the English into pink, panting mammals.’ Her mother’s house, in Massachusetts, is in the process of being sold: ‘Let it disappear without me noticing,’ the narrator pleads. ‘It wasn’t a haunted house but a haunting one. It had haunted me a long time.’

Her mother, although not physically present, peppers the narrative. Our protagonist comments: ‘My mother had achieved a lot in her life, mostly by ignoring the muttering people who suggested that she might be incapable of things because of her body or gender or religion. She was proudly aware of the things she couldn’t do: spell, navigate.’ She goes on to reminisce about the somewhat difficult relationship they shared, particularly with regard to scenes which unfolded in hospital, and her mother’s lack of mobility: ‘Only her wit and her laugh were quick.’

The Hero of This Book is incredibly introspective, frequently exposing the narrator’s deepest feelings: ‘There are certain emotions available to me only when I am alone, minor longings and notions, a wish to filch and misbehave. This is either my truest self or my most artificial, constructed as it is without a fear of contradiction.’ Later: ‘Like many people, I felt most conspicuous when most invisible; the terror of suddenly springing into view.’ I warmed so much to our protagonist, particularly when McCracken gave this considered description of her: ‘I am a short person, like my mother before me, and old, and stout, too short to ride most bicycles meant for adults, too short to reach things off the top shelves in grocery stores, and too short to throw a flank onto a barstool and sit upon it. My mother raised me to be proud of my height in the way other parents raise children to be proud of their heritage.’

The observations which McCracken makes of place particularly are poetic, and London is treated as a character in its own right: ‘All the London visits of my life were layered over one another like posters pasted up on a city wall. As I went through the city, I experienced all of these trips at one time, sometimes worn away so I could clearly see the earliest one, sometimes quite thick so I could feel the buildup of travel, a kind of blurred, accumulated familiarity.’

I sank into The Hero of This Book, savouring every word. This is an incredibly thoughtful character study, and of the somewhat tumultuous relationship between both characters. McCracken’s writing renders her narrative both present and immediate. There is also an interesting exploration of author and character, too, as the book progresses: ‘Why do I write?’ a fictional McCracken asks. ‘To try to get human beings on a page without the use of vivisection or preservatives or a spiritualist’s props, to make them seem lively still.’ If you can, read this in as few sittings as possible; you will not regret being so immersed in this pensive novel.