4

‘Paris’ by Julian Green ****

I received a Waterstone’s voucher for my birthday – surely the best kind of present there is? – and set about spending it immediately. When browsing in my local branch, a thin, pale green spine caught my eye, and before I knew it, I had added Julian Green’s Paris to the rather large stack of books which I was already balancing in my arms. Part of the reason that I picked it up was my love for Penguin Classics, but mostly it was due to the fact that a holiday in France – one of my favourite countries, and one in which I have been lucky enough to spend a large span of time in my life so far – sadly looks very much off the cards in 2021.

It is described in its blurb as an ‘extraordinary, lyrical love letter… taking the reader on an imaginative journey around its secret stairways, courtyards, alleys and hidden places.’ Further, the blurb declares, it is ‘a meditation on getting lost and wasting time, and on what it truly means to love a city.’ I was further intrigued when I read that the Observer calls Paris ‘the most bizarre and delicious of travel books’. Sold, to the girl with the voucher.

Julian Green was born in Paris in 1900, to American parents, and spent the majority of his life in the city. He was a prolific author whom I had never read before, publishing over sixty-five books in France, and a further five in the USA. He wrote mainly in French; indeed, Paris was originally penned in this Romantic language. The Penguin edition is interestingly a bilingual one, the first of the kind which I have read to date. I am just about proficient enough in French to read Green’s original text, but I appreciated being able to compare and contrast his own turns of phrase with those in the translation by J.A. Underwood.

Green opens his travelogue in rather a charming manner: ‘I have often dreamed of writing a book about Paris that would be like one of those long, aimless strolls on which you find none of the things you are looking for but many that you were not looking for.’ He goes on to explain why he wished to look at the more hidden corners of the city, commenting, perhaps a little controversially: ‘Possibly from having looked at them too much, I can no longer see the architectural glories of Paris with quite the open mind required… I make no secret of the fact that it is the old buildings that I prefer, and yet I should be bored to tears if I had to write a page about the Hôtel des Invalides… I should be similarly struck dumb by Notre-Dame… I prefer to remain silent; for me, Notre-Dame is simply Notre-Dame, full stop.’

When Green was forced to be away from his beloved city during the war years, the thought of his home sustained him, holding a great deal of comfort. He reflects: ‘Thinking about the capital all the time, I rebuilt it inside myself. I replaced its physical presence with something else, something supernatural…’. When he returns to Paris, one of the first things which he does is to climb the dome of the Sacre-Coeur: ‘It was as if the whole city hit me in the chest… Winter was drawing to a close; the dazzling March light already consumed everything, and as far as the eye could see there was Paris, wearing, like a cloak that kept slipping from its shoulders, the shadow of the great clouds that the wind was chasing across the breadth of the sky.’ He goes on to say: ‘Certainly the city’s smile is reserved for those who draw near and loaf in its streets; to them it speaks a familiar, reassuring language. The soul of Paris, however, can be apprehended fully from afar and from above, and it is in the silence of the sky that you hear the great and moving cry of pride and faith it upraises to the clouds.’

Green’s short chapters, which are more like a series of essays than anything, take us on a sweeping tour around the city. He speaks of Paris’ history at times, and writes at length about his favourite places to peruse. He is essentially a flâneur; on the Rue de Passy, for instance, he captures the following: ‘… the shoeshop where Lina, my nanny, used to buy those slippers with the sky-blue pompoms, and the stationer’s where flies basked in the sun on the covers of the exercise books, and the grim Nicolas shop, the wine merchant’s, and Mr Beaudichon’s pharmacy (he had such a beautiful beard), and the great gold letters high up on a balcony, proclaiming to all and sundry that a dental surgeon lived here… and the heavenly fragrance of the first sprays of lilac that the florist with the red hands kept in the shade beneath the archway of number 93…’.

Paris is a really beautiful, musing piece on what it means to be a Parisian. According to Green, ‘Every walk I have ever taken along its streets has seemed to create a fresh link, invisible yet tenacious, binding me to its very stones. I used to wonder as a child how the mere name of Paris could denote so many different things, so many streets and squares, so many gardens, houses, roofs, chimneys, and above it all the shifting, insubstantial sky that crowns our city…’. He goes on to tell us: ‘There is scarcely a corner of Paris that is not haunted with memories for me.’

Paris is not merely a romantic musing on the city. Green is remarkably realist in places about aspects of the city’s history, or areas which were perhaps less salubrious than others as he wandered. He comments that in his Paris, ‘Ceaselessly, day and night, poverty and sickness prowl the dreary Montmartre streets that in the tourist’s eyes glitter like a paradise of carefree pleasure…’. He captures such a great deal throughout, often in just one or two sentences which are loaded with detail. He writes, for instance: ‘If the night is a clear one, and if the shadows are sharp and the moonlight good and white, there comes a moment when the best-informed stroller, as for all of the mystery of his city is concerned, stops and stars in silence. Paris, as I have said, is loath to surrender itself to people who are in a hurry; it belongs to the dreamers, to those capable of amusing themselves in its streets without regard to time… consequently their reward is to see what others will never see.’

At just 119 pages, Green captures such a great deal in Paris. It was a delight to peruse the photographs included on some of the pages, all of which were taken by Green himself. He was an excellent chronicler of a city which holds such a dear place in my heart, and which I hope to return to as soon as I can. I found Paris to be a very thoughtful and evocative account of what it means to make one’s home in a single place, and to know it almost as well as one knows oneself. What a wonder, and what a privilege, to travel its streets with one who knew it so well.

0

‘The Merry Spinster’ by Daniel Mallory Ortberg ****

I had not heard of The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror before I plucked it from a library shelf, but I had read snippets about its author, Mallory Ortberg, around the Internet. I really enjoy magical realism, and hadn’t read much of it during 2020, so I very much looked forward to beginning this short story collection.

The Merry Spinster reminded me – after reading its blurb, and a host of comments which point to its originality – of something by Kirsty Logan, an author whose work I always find clever and imaginative. A review by John Scalzi particularly caught my eye; he writes that ‘the sloe gin wit of Dorothy Parker and the soul of a Classics nerd’ have been combined in Ortberg’s work.

The Merry Spinster is comprised of eleven ‘darkly mischievous stories based on classic fairy tales. Sinister and inviting, familiar and alien’, Ortberg ‘updates traditional children’s stories… with elements of psychological horror, emotional clarity and a keen sense of feminist mischief.’ The author has also included a short note on the sources and inspirations used in this collection – the Brothers Grimm feature heavily, but authors famous for tales about anthropomorphic animals, such as Kenneth Grahame and Arnold Lobel, also make an appearance. There is even a biblical tale, based on Genesis.

I very much liked the frank, cool matter-of-fact prose in these tales. In the first, ‘Daughter Cells’, Ortberg writes: ‘There once was a king who owned a great deal of what lay under the surface of the sea, and he happened to fill it with his daughters. Another man might have filled it with something else – potato farmers or pop-eyed scholars or merchant marines – but this one filled it with daughters, so there’s no use arguing about it now.’

I loved the unusual descriptions which Ortberg often creates, in which the monstrous is made a thing of beauty, and vice versa. For instance, in ‘The Daughter Cells’: ‘Now here is what the sea witch looked like: she was hinged neatly in the middle; she could jump very high by bending and straightening her great-foot; she could whistle water through her teeth and hit a swimming fish one hundred yards away; and she had no head at all. She was lovely to look at.’

Ortberg somehow makes the lewd and ridiculous feel quite realistic, and writes throughout with a practiced hand. A lot of societal conventions, particularly those regarding sexuality and gender, are turned on their head. There is something both whimsically old-fashioned and searingly modern to be found within The Merry Spinster, particularly with regard to its dialogue patterns.

Clues are given in each story regarding their original source material, but there is certainly something which feels fresh and new within The Merry Spinster. Much of Ortberg’s prose holds the sinister, unsettling feeling which, of course, exists in the vast majority of fairytales. Ortberg’s stories, which often move in surprising directions, are rather beguiling, and highly memorable. They provoke much consideration in the mind of the reader with their clever subversion of events. The Merry Spinster is strange and unsettling, but it also hums with a true beauty.

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‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong ****

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was a highly anticipated novel for me. I very much enjoyed his lyrical and fraught debut poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, upon reading it back in 2018, and Vuong has been on my author radar ever since. This, his first novel, has been declared a ‘marvel’ by Marlon James, and Celeste Ng calls it ‘luminous, shattering, urgent, necessary.’

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous takes the form of a letter, written to an illiterate mother by her son. Its speaker, known throughout as Little Dog, is in his late twenties; the letter which he pours his heart and soul into ‘unearths a family’s history that began before he was born.’ The novel ‘serves as a doorway’ into elements of his life which he has never revealed to his mother, including his sexuality and bewilderment at life.

Little Dog’s letter begins: ‘I am writing to reach you – even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.’ He goes on to explain something of himself: ‘I am twenty-eight years old, 5ft 4in tall, 112 lbs. I am handsome at exactly three angles and deadly from everywhere else. I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son.’ Later, he reveals the following: ‘… the very impossibility of you reading this is all that makes my telling it possible.’

As in Vuong’s poetry, central themes here are the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and the difficulties which can come with resettling in a new and different culture – Hartford in the US state of Connecticut, in this case. Much social commentary upon the present day is offered, intertwined with memories of when Little Dog was small, and dependent. He reveals what he learnt about the struggles which his mother had as a young woman in Vietnam, and the terror which she had to live with for years. He reconciles the way in which he was shielded from most of this, but how the decision also profoundly affected him.

Little Dog writes, very early on, about a time when he was five or six years old, and leapt out at his mother during a game, shouting ‘Boom!’. The reaction which his mother gave is strong, and vivid: ‘You screamed, face raked and twisted, then burst into sobs, clutched your chest as you leaned against the door, gasping. I stood bewildered, my toy army helmet tilted on my head. I was an American boy parroting what I saw on TV. I didn’t know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves – but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son.’

There is so much pain here, and an incredible amount of rawness. The trauma is often difficult to read, and certain scenes were almost too graphic for this sensitive reader. There is a great deal of violence within On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and much of this takes place within domestic settings. Little Dog writes, for instance, ‘The first time you hit me, I must have been four. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My mouth a blaze of touch.’

Vuong writes this novel as a poet; his prose is melodic, even when describing times of trauma, and not a single word is wasted. Vuong’s language is rich, creative, sensual, and unusual. The structure which has been chosen – the main form of a letter, comprised of many vignettes which denote a particular place, time, or situation – works wonderfully. It allows Vuong to explore Little Dog coming to terms with his identity, and his place in America, and away from Vietnam. The letter itself, written to a mother who will not be able to access it, is something of a cathartic exercise, revealing Little Dog and all of his vulnerabilities, but also offering him a shade of protection from the person whom he is most afraid of showing himself to.

Vuong’s prose is both beautiful and searching. When describing a poignant moment in which Little Dog looks in the mirror, hoping to discover something of himself, he writes the following: ‘Who was he? I touched the face, its sallow cheeks. I felt my back, the braid of muscles sloped to collarbones that jutted into stark ridges. The scraped-out ribs sunken as the skin tried to fill its irregular gaps, the sad little heart rippling underneath like a trapped fish. The eyes that wouldn’t match, one too open, the other closed, slightly lidded, cautious of whatever light was given it. It was everything I hid from, everything that made me want to be a sun, the only thing I knew that had no shadow. And yet, I stayed. I let the mirror hold those flaws – because for once, drying, they were not wrong to me but something that was wanted, that was sought and found among a landscape as enormous as the one I had been lost in all this time.’

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is tender and heartfelt. There is so much emotion suffused within its pages; it is a triumph. Vuong’s narrative holds a great deal of wisdom, and many of his carefully crafted sentences make one stop and think. The novel is a memorable one; I am sure that I will be thinking about it for months to come.

5

The Book Trail: From Short Stories to Questions

I am beginning this particular episode of The Book Trail with a thoughtful and complex short story collection which I would highly recommend. As usual, I have made use of the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads, in order to generate this list.

1. To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss
‘In this dazzling collection of short fiction, the National Book Award Finalist and New York Times bestselling author of The History of Love—“one of America’s most important novelists and an international literary sensation” (New York Times)—explores what it means to be in a couple, and to be a man and a woman in that perplexing relationship and beyond.

In one of her strongest works of fiction yet, Nicole Krauss plunges fearlessly into the struggle to understand what it is to be a man and what it is to be a woman, and the arising tensions that have existed from the very beginning of time. Set in our contemporary moment, and moving across the globe from Switzerland, Japan, and New York City to Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, and South America, the stories in To Be a Man feature male characters as fathers, lovers, friends, children, seducers, and even a lost husband who may never have been a husband at all. 

The way these stories mirror one other and resonate is beautiful, with a balance so finely tuned that the book almost feels like a novel. Echoes ring through stages of life: aging parents and new-born babies; young women’s coming of age and the newfound, somewhat bewildering sexual power that accompanies it; generational gaps and unexpected deliveries of strange new leases on life; mystery and wonder at a life lived or a future waiting to unfold. To Be a Man illuminates with a fierce, unwavering light the forces driving human existence: sex, power, violence, passion, self-discovery, growing older. Profound, poignant, and brilliant, Krauss’s stories are at once startling and deeply moving, but always revealing of all-too-human weakness and strength.’

2. What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
‘A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life: an ex she runs into by chance at a public forum, an Airbnb owner unsure how to interact with her guests, a stranger who seeks help comforting his elderly mother, a friend of her youth now hospitalized with terminal cancer. In each of these people the woman finds a common need: the urge to talk about themselves and to have an audience to their experiences. The narrator orchestrates this chorus of voices for the most part as a passive listener, until one of them makes an extraordinary request, drawing her into an intense and transformative experience of her own.

In What Are You Going Through, Nunez brings wisdom, humor, and insight to a novel about human connection and the changing nature of relationships in our times. A surprising story about empathy and the unusual ways one person can help another through hardship, her book offers a moving and provocative portrait of the way we live now.’

3. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
‘Amanda and Clay head out to a remote corner of Long Island expecting a vacation: a quiet reprieve from life in New York City, quality time with their teenage son and daughter, and a taste of the good life in the luxurious home they’ve rented for the week. But a late-night knock on the door breaks the spell. Ruth and G. H. are an older black couple—it’s their house, and they’ve arrived in a panic. They bring the news that a sudden blackout has swept the city. But in this rural area—with the TV and internet now down, and no cell phone service—it’s hard to know what to believe.

Should Amanda and Clay trust this couple—and vice versa? What happened back in New York? Is the vacation home, isolated from civilization, a truly safe place for their families? And are they safe from one another? 

Suspenseful and provocative, Rumaan Alam’s third novel is keenly attuned to the complexities of parenthood, race, and class. Leave the World Behind explores how our closest bonds are reshaped—and unexpected new ones are forged—in moments of crisis.’

4. Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
‘Micah Mortimer is a creature of habit. A self-employed tech expert, superintendent of his Baltimore apartment building seems content leading a steady, circumscribed life. But one day his routines are blown apart when his woman friend tells him she’s facing eviction, and a teenager shows up at Micah’s door claiming to be his son. These surprises, and the ways they throw Micah’s meticulously organized life off-kilter, risk changing him forever.’

5. Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent
‘This story begins with a funeral. One of three brothers is dead, mourned by his siblings. But which one? And how? And, most importantly: why?

William, Brian, and Luke are each born a year apart in a lower middle class Catholic family in 1960s Dublin. William, the eldest, rises to the top of the heap in the film industry as a successful movie producer. Luke, the baby of the family, surprises everyone by morphing into a worldwide pop star. Brian, the compliant middle son, is the eternal adult in the room: the helpful, steady one, the manager of finances and careers.

But none of them is actually quite what he seems. Wounded by childhood, they have betrayed one another in myriad ways, hiding behind little lies that have developed into full blown treachery. With an unnerving eye for the complexities of families, Nugent delves into the secret life of a deeply troubled household and provides stunning insights into the many forces that shape us from childhood.’

6. Violet by S.J.I. Holliday
‘When two strangers end up sharing a cabin on the Trans-Siberian Express, an intense friendship develops, one that can only have one ending… Carrie’s best friend has an accident and can no longer make the round-the-world trip they’d planned together, so Carrie decides to go it alone. Violet is also travelling alone, after splitting up with her boyfriend in Thailand. She is also desperate for a ticket on the Trans-Siberian Express, but there is nothing available. When the two women meet in a Beijing Hotel, Carrie makes the impulsive decision to invite Violet to take her best friend’s place.

Thrown together in a strange country, and the cramped cabin of the train, the women soon form a bond. But as the journey continues, through Mongolia and into Russia, things start to unravel – because one of these women is not who she claims to be… A tense and twisted psychological thriller about obsession, manipulation and toxic friendships, Violet also reminds us that there’s a reason why mother told us not to talk to strangers…’

7. The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey
‘Selina Lennox is a Bright Young Thing. Her life is a whirl of parties and drinking, pursued by the press and staying on just the right side of scandal, all while running from the life her parents would choose for her.

Lawrence Weston is a penniless painter who stumbles into Selina’s orbit one night and can never let her go even while knowing someone of her stature could never end up with someone of his. Except Selina falls hard for Lawrence, envisioning a life of true happiness. But when tragedy strikes, Selina finds herself choosing what’s safe over what’s right.

Spanning two decades and a seismic shift in British history as World War II approaches, Iona Grey’s The Glittering Hour is an epic novel of passion, heartache and loss.’

8. If You Were Here by Alice Peterson
‘When her daughter Beth dies suddenly, Peggy Andrews is left to pick up the pieces and take care of her granddaughter Flo. But sorting through Beth’s things reveals a secret never told: Beth was sick, with the same genetic condition that claimed her father’s life, and now Peggy must decide whether to keep the secret or risk destroying her granddaughter’s world.
 
Five years later, Flo is engaged and ready to pack up her life and move to New York with her high-flying fiancé. Peggy never told Flo what she discovered, but with Flo looking towards her future, Peggy realises it’s time to come clean and reveal that her granddaughter’s life might also be at risk.
 
As Flo struggles to decide her own path, she is faced with the same life-altering questions her mother asked herself years before: If a test could decide your future, would you take it?’

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

4

‘Miss Jane’ by Brad Watson ****

Brad Watson’s novel, Miss Jane, has been on my to-read list for years, and at last, I spotted a beautifully designed hardback copy in my local library. I am always drawn to female-focused novels, particularly those which follow the protagonist throughout her life. Miss Jane, which is set in Mississippi during the twentieth century, and based on the true story of Watson’s own great aunt, does just this.

The Independent calls the novel ‘superb’, The Guardian ‘subtle and moving’, and author A.M. Homes compares Watson to Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor – an interesting mix indeed. Safe to say, I was suitably intrigued, and looking forward to forming my own thoughts about the novel.

Miss Jane is Jane Chisholm, born in rural east-central Mississippi in 1915. The urological disorder which the doctor discovers when she is just moments old, is seen as a ‘birth defect’, and ‘will come to stand in the way of the central “uses” for a woman in that time and place – namely, sex and marriage.’ There are, of course, no medical treatments which Jane is able to benefit from, until very late in her life. The novel ‘brings to life a hard, unromantic past in a story tinged with the sadness of unattainable loves, yet shot through with a transcendent beauty’.

The opening scene immediately gives one a feel for Watson’s precise writing, and his understanding of what it must be like to deal with such a condition without medical intervention: ‘You would not think someone so conflicted could or would be cheerful, not prone to melancholy or the miseries. Early on she acquired ways of dealing with her life, with life in general. And as she grew older it became evident that she feared almost nothing – perhaps only horses and something she couldn’t quite name, a strange presence of danger not quite – not really a part of the world.’

We then move back in time, to Jane’s birth. Watson writes rather matter-of-factly about the discovery of Jane’s condition: ‘[The doctor] snipped the cord, and took a good look at the child, who’d come around to crying a bit. He didn’t say anything. He looked at the midwife. She stared through narrowed eyes but kept her lips pressed thin.’ The doctor then tells Jane’s father: ‘”… she’s just a girl who did not fully develop. Something stopped that in the womb… It’s rare, but at this point I do not think it’s life-threatening.”‘

We see, from very early on, that Jane has a real strength of character, and that she does not let anything hold her back. Watson comments: ‘She determined that she would live like any other girl as best she could, and when she could no longer do that, she would adjust her life to its terms accordingly.’ On the face of it, her surroundings seem idyllic, but Watson does not shy away from the fact that such a rural life is hard, and fraught with problems – with accidents, with violence, with alcoholism. Her family life can be difficult; her mother is very strict, her father rather dependent on alcohol, her elder sister Grace is difficult, and two siblings died before she was born. She is intelligent, but only attends school for a very short time.

As she begins to come to terms with the way in which she is different to other children, in her sixth year, she ‘had moments where she felt like a secret, silent creation, invisible, more the ghost of something unknowable than a person, a child, a little girl.’ She continually asks questions about what she can expect from life, and her natural curiosity shines throughout. Her main confidante is Ed, the doctor who delivered her; he becomes a sort of mentor to her, and corresponds with other colleagues about her condition, and how it can be managed.

Miss Jane is a rich and complex character portrait, of a woman who learns to live with her condition, and all of the challenges which it brings. I liked the emphasis of Jane’s many character quirks; for instance, Watson writes that ‘Between the ages of four and five, she began to make sure she was the last to sleep. It made her feel safer to be the last one awake, watching and listening to the world settle into the evening quiet and dark. The steady breathing, snoring, sleep-mumbling of the others made her feel more awake and alive, and that was a kind of safeness, too.’ As she grows older, Watson has crafted many scenes which deal with Jane discovering sex, and sensuality; she is an observer, first of the animals around the farm, and then becoming something of a voyeur.

The omniscient perspective in Miss Jane has been really well crafted, and I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience of this novel. One really gets a feel for the family dynamics, and for Jane’s independence, very early on. Whilst the focus is on Jane, we do learn about those around her too, not just those close to her, but also sharecroppers on the family’s land, for instance. The historical detail does not overwhelm, but does enough to situate the whole. I found it particularly fascinating to read about medical options changing across Jane’s lifetime, and the way in which others viewed her disability.

Miss Jane is a sensitive novel, but at no point does it become sentimental. Watson has the capacity to be unflinching, but a sense of real understanding suffuses the whole. Jane feels realistic, and is a character I will not be forgetting in a hurry.

4

‘The Ghost of Frédéric Chopin’ by Éric Faye (20 Books of Summer #1)

Written by Éric Faye and translated from the French by Sam Taylor, The Ghost of Frédéric Chopin is the third book in the ‘Walter Presents’ series published by Pushkin Press. Every book in the series is a standalone (so far), so there is no need to have read the others before delving into this one, although I would highly recommend you do if you’re a fan of mysteries from various corners of the world.

The novel is set in Prague in 1995, where Věra Foltýnova, a middle-aged woman claims to be able to see the ghost of Frédéric Chopin, the famed composer, who dictates some new music to her that he didn’t have time to compose himself before his untimely death. What makes Věra’s story even more intriguing is the fact that she has doesn’t have any particular musical education, apart from some piano lessons she used to take as a very young girl, and yet experts claim the music she produces (upon Chopin’s ghost’s dictation) perfectly fits with the rest of the composer’s oeuvre.

This story grabs the attention of everyone in Prague, and so the journalist Ludvík Slaný is commissioned to create a documentary about Věra and her story, although he doesn’t believe her at all. Set to uncover Věra’s purported fraud, the journalist enlists the help of Pavel Černý, a former secret police agent, who secretly follows the middle-aged woman and investigates her and her past. Is this all a very well thought out plot to deceive everyone, or is Věra truly capable of seeing Chopin’s ghost?

The novel is narrated through the point of view of both Ludvík Slaný, the journalist, and Pavel Černý, the police agent, each one of whom recounts their encounters and experience with Věra. Although it sounds completely fantastical, the plot is actually inspired by the true story of Rosemary Brown (1916-2001), an English composer who claimed that the spirits of several composers dictated their new music to her. It is a very atmospheric story, with the author transporting us to picturesque Prague, with its scenic views and mysterious stories, as we learn more about Věra and are led towards the solution of the mystery that surrounds her.

Delving deeper into Věra’s past, the author very eloquently blends her personal story with the history of Czech Republic itself, as the dissolution of the former nation of Czechoslovakia happened only a couple of years prior to the current events of the novel.

“We were all still in shock, I think, caught between euphoria and bafflement, astounded to wake up one fine morning in two countries when we had gone to sleep the night before in one.

Location 905 (Kindle version)

Faye’s prose is beautifully woven and I especially loved his descriptions, as I truly felt like I was strolling down the cobblestoned streets of Prague along with Černý, all while Chopin’s new musical scores resounded in my ears.

Overall, I really enjoyed this atmospheric mystery which transported me to autumnal Prague in a period where I can’t travel there myself. It’s definitely not a fast-paced mystery, but rather a mellower one, in which the journey of investigating takes the reigns and guides the reader through the characters’ lives and secrets.

This book combines a lovely writing style, an intriguing mystery and an encompassing atmosphere, so if you are a fan of any of those in your books, then you should definitely grab a copy as soon as possible.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

2

‘Call of the Curlew’ by Elizabeth Brooks ****

Elizabeth Brooks’ novel, Call of the Curlew (also published as The Orphan of Salt Winds), caught my eye whilst browsing in the library. I don’t think I had heard of it before, but after reading the blurb and the various reviews dotted over its cover – Eowyn Ivey calling it ‘bewitching’ was enough for me – I was suitably intrigued, and took it home with me.

On New Year’s Eve in 1939, Virginia is ten years old. She is an orphan, whose parents passed away when she was just an infant. At this point in time, she is being taken to the ‘mysterious’ grand house, Salt Winds, to begin a new life with her adoptive parents, Clem and Lorna Wrathmell. The house borders a salt flat named Tollbury Marsh in the East of England, a ‘beautiful but dangerous place’.

At first, the Second World War, which has just begun, feels far away from the Wrathmells’ secluded home. However, whispers in the nearby town regarding the local knife grinder, a Jewish German man, begin to spread, and something sinister simmers below the idyllic surroundings. The German plane crashing into the marsh is a real turning point for Virginia; her adoptive father goes to rescue the pilot and does not return. As she first waits hopefully for his return, and then begins to grieve Clem, she realises that she is as embroiled in war as anyone else.

When the plane comes down, Brooks writes, rather beautifully: ‘It was the grace of the thing that astonished her in retrospect. You’d expect a burning fighter plane to make a great hullabaloo: howling engines, roaring flames, a great boom as it hit the ground, nose first. But if this one made any noise at all, Virginia didn’t notice. All she recalled, later on, was the slow arc it traced through the sky on its way down, like a spark floating from a bonfire. Even the explosion was gentle from their vantage point: a little orange flower that budded, bloomed and withered, all in a moment, far away on the edge of the marsh.’

I found the narrative within Call of the Curlew wonderfully beguiling. The opening paragraph, which is set at the end of 2015, really sets the scene: ‘Virginia Wrathmell knows she will walk on to the marsh one New Year’s Eve, and meet her end there. She’s known it for years. Through adolescence and adulthood she’s spent the last days of December on edge, waiting for a sign. So when one finally arrives, in her eighty-sixth year, there’s no good reason to feel dismayed.’ This sign turns out to be the skull of a curlew, which she finds on her doorstep. ‘All these years,’ Brooks writes, ‘she’s been wondering what the sign will turn out to be, and she’s come up with the strangest ideas. Words forming on a misted window. An anonymous note. A ghost. She’s never imagined anything as perfect as a curlew’s skull.’

Despite the air of mystery about it, there is a really comforting warmth to be found within Brooks’ prose. The descriptions, of which there are many, are wonderfully vivid: ‘Virginia glanced at the flatness to her left, where the silence lay. It was too dark to see the silhouette-bird now. The deep, arctic blue of the sky was reflected, here and there, in streaks of water, and there was a single star in the sky, but everything was black.’

Brooks has such control when she shifts Virginia’s story from the present day to the past, and then back again. Given this structure, we learn a lot about the two Virginias rather quickly; the sometimes crotchety, headstrong old lady, and the curious young girl. Although Virginia is the author’s focus, other characters become clear too, as do their relationships with one another. It is obvious from the outset, for instance, that Clem and Lorna’s marriage contains a great deal of upset, and is fraught with issues.

I found Call of the Curlew wholly absorbing; it is the best kind of historical novel, in that you sink into it. Its landscape is so clear, and its characters hold a great deal of interest. I enjoyed the omniscient perspective, which allowed Brooks to shift from one individual to another, whilst never losing sight of Virginia and her thoughts and feelings. I loved the air of mystery, and the many things left unspoken until far later in the novel. I was caught up in Virginia’s story from the outset. The threads of story which weave throughout have been beautifully layered, and it put me in mind of other authors which I have always enjoyed, namely Kate Morton and Helen Humphreys. I would highly recommend Call of the Curlew to anyone looking for a historical fiction fix.