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One From the Archive: ‘Andree’s War: How One Young Woman Outwitted the Nazis’ by Francelle Bradford White ****

After the German invasion of Paris in June 1940, Andree Griotteray ‘found herself living in an occupied city, forced to work alongside the invaders…  Her younger brother Alain set up his own resistance network to do whatever he could to defy the Nazis.  Andree risked her life to help him’.  Based on diaries written during the 1930s and 1940s and conversations which she held, and written largely as a response to the Alzheimer’s which now holds her in its grip, Andree’s War: How One Young Woman Outwitted the Nazis has been lovingly penned by Andree’s daughter, Francelle Bradford White.  Here, White aims to tell us ‘her mother’s incredible story: the narrow escapes and moments of terror alongside a typical teenager’s concerns about food, fashion and boys’.

White’s account of her mother’s life begins with her being granted the Legion d’honneur in 1995, as a measure of her bravery during the Second World War.  She was also accordingly awarded the Medaille de la Resistance and the Croix de Guerre.  White then goes on to set out the history of her family, and the factors which she believes led her mother and uncle Alain to become leading figures in the realm of the French Resistance movement.  She discusses what life was like for a comfortable and relatively well-off family such as the Griotterays in France’s capital, placing particular emphasis upon the alterations which came ‘as tensions in the run-up to the Second World War’ manifested themselves: ‘Shopping, a choice of reasonably elegant clothes, a choice of books, non-censored press, attending university, things which today are taken for granted and which should have been theirs, were no longer possible’.  Andree’s own perceptions, along with interest in and experiences of certain elements of wartime life, can be seen throughout, from theatre and patriotism, to her colleagues at the Police Headquarters, refugees, and deportations.

Many of the diary entries are copied out exactly as they were written, and White speaks of the care which she has taken in  preserving her mother’s use of idioms and certain patterns in her speech during her own efforts at translation.  For instance, Andree’s entry for the 5th of August 1940 reads simply, ‘It is unbearably hot at the moment.  We are leading the most awful life’.

Throughout, footnotes add often vital historical background to the whole; they are both succinct and well penned.  Some also contain the author’s memories of particular items or incidences – of a marble bust passed down through the family from Andree’s father, for example.  Further background to her mother’s diary entries is given too; White sets the scene and continually asserts her mother’s life and decisions made against the backdrop of war.  Andree’s War is packed with such emotional depth.  On the 23rd of August 1940, for example, Andree writes the following: ‘Life is so sad.  It is impossible for a young French girl to be carefree and happy because the Germans are occupying most of my country.  Maybe it does not upset everyone in the same way, but for me to walk around Paris, my home town, to see Germans travelling around in cars and admiring the sights, is heart-breaking.  I do understand the government’s position in allowing them to march in, not wanting Paris to be bombed and destroyed, but it is very hard’.

Andree’s War holds interest throughout; the whole has been so well written, and the primary sources have been handled with such care.  The book is absolutely fascinating, particularly with regard to the extent as to which the eldest Griotteray siblings aided the Resistance.  Incredible feats of heroics show themselves, and the way in which the past story has been interspersed with more recent events, in which Andree’s efforts were both recognised and rewarded, works marvellously.  Andree’s War is a memorable read, and is certainly a wonderful addition to the canon of World War Two diaries, respectfully written about a young woman who ultimately believed in sacrificing herself and her own safety for the greater good.

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‘The Pumpkin Eater’ by Penelope Mortimer ****

I reread Penelope Mortimer’s 1962 novella, The Pumpkin Eater, for my Goodreads book club.  It is a wonderfully vivid and harrowing novella in equal measure, which charts an emotional breakdown, and was published a year before Sylvia Plath’s seminal The Bell JarThe Pumpkin Eater is heavily autobiographical, with its markedly realistic scenes and character development throughout.

One is immediately pulled in to this important book.  The unnamed protagonist, who is identified only through her married surname as Mrs. Armitage, is ‘Everywoman’, really; she has a husband and children, and a large house, with another being built in the countryside.  Her fourth husband makes a great deal of money, but she is not at all fulfilled in her life.  All she sees herself to be fit for is to give birth to one child after another; they, indeed, are not rendered as individuals within26021671 the novella, but are distinguished only by their birth order and fathers – there are the ‘older children’ and ‘Jake’s children’.  Only the eldest of these, a daughter, is given a name – Dinah – and her own singular identity.  Her current husband, too, is Jake, rather a childish moniker for what he is supposed to represent; whilst he has personal freedom afforded both by his profession as a filmmaker and the money this makes them, and by his gender, he is also the main force behind which our narrator feels trapped.

When our narrator tells Jake how much she cares about him, he verbally explodes: ‘”You don’t care about me, all you care about is the bills being paid and the bloody children, that great fucking army of children that I’m supposed to support and work my guts out for, so I can’t even take a bath in peace, I can’t eat a bloody meal without them whining and slobbering all over the table, I can’t even go to bed with you without one of them comes barging in in the middle’.  Her reaction to this is rather interesting; she seems to thrive on being confronted and scolded: ‘He was shouting as though I were a mile away.  His shouts delighted me.’  Jake makes her feel like a burden, essentially, and the affair which he conducts with a much younger woman only serves to exacerbate the crisis which she feels.

The entirety of The Pumpkin Eater is told from the sometimes unbridled perspective of our narrator.  She is at a loss to see her worth, and when we meet her father, we can see why this is perhaps the case.  He has been squashing her emotionally since she was a small child, and the fact that she has established herself as a wife and mother does nothing to alter his opinion of her; he patronises her along with Jake, and makes decisions about sending her children to boarding school, and where the family should live.  She is utterly sidelined, and one can certainly see the reasoning for her deep-set insecurities.  Jake is arguably more like the narrator’s father than she is herself; both are self-obsessed and utterly selfish.

Our narrator first realises that something is wrong with her when she gets into bed beside Jake, who is sleeping: ‘I thought of waking him up, but for the first time I could not touch him.  Thus paralysis, this failure of my will to make my body move, revived all my fear, and I lay there sweating, shaken by great beats of my heart, ignorant as in a first labour but with no instinct, or memory to help me.  It must have been then, I think, that Jake and life became confused in my ind, and inseparable.  The sleeping man was no longer accessible, no longer lovable.  He increased monstrously, became the sky, the earth, the enemy, the unknown.  It was Jake I was frightened of; Jake who terrified me; Jake who in the end would survive.’  Her subsequent breakdown is harrowingly evoked.  Jake, of course, is unsympathetic, asking her: ‘Do you think you’re going to get over this period of your life, because I find it awfully depressing?’.  Jake undoubtedly has a lot of issues too, but as he is a male, he remains unscrutinised by psychologists.

The children occupy an interesting space within the novel; they both hold the narrator together and pull her apart.  They ensure that she has very little time for herself, or to spend with Jake, and demand so much that she is constantly exhausted.  She recognises, however, that she exists for them.

The Pumpkin Eater has been incredibly well handled, and there is an awful lot of depth to it.  The autobiographical elements, which can be found in any of Mortimer’s biographies, make it all the more harrowing.  It also raises an awful lot of questions, particularly in its final paragraph.  The Pumpkin Eater is a wonderful and memorable novella, which feels incredibly modern over fifty years after its initial publication.

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One From the Archive: ‘Landline’ by Rainbow Rowell ***

Rainbow Rowell is best known for her incredibly popular young adult novel Eleanor and Park.  Rather than choose to write about a teenage couple once again in her newest book, Landline, however, Rowell has chosen a middle-aged married couple as her focus.

9781409152125The protagonist of Landline is Georgie McCool, a television writer and Los Angeles native.  The crux of her story arrives when she decides that a heavy workload and an exciting new project
making it big does not fit with her family’s
pre-arranged Christmas trip to Omaha, Nebraska, to visit her widowed mother-in-law.  Her husband Neal’s response is to take their two daughters, seven-year-old Alice and four-year-old Noomi, ‘home’ to Omaha with him, leaving Georgie behind. We are immediately launched straight into Georgie’s domestic life as she returns from work and breaks her news.

The most interesting aspect of the plot comes at the point at which Georgie discovers that she is able to communicate with her husband in the past via an old telephone she finds in a closet, and subsequently ‘feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts’ – after believing herself to be suffering a mental breakdown, of course.  This plot device works well, and throws up a lot of questions for Georgie and her life with Neal and their daughters.

Whilst Rowell is perceptive of her characters – freshly cut hair feels ‘like velvet one way and needles the other’, and Neal is said to have ‘dimples like parentheses’, for example – the majority of her creations feel rather flat.  Only Neal and Georgie are far more realistic when shown as their young selves, and even the couple’s children are largely lacklustre.  The entirety feels as though it has been written by a wholly different author to the one who penned Eleanor and Park, in which even the minor characters linger in the mind for some time.

The novel takes place over a week in December 2013, and the third person perspective has been used throughout.  Rowell seems to have taken her contemporary setting a little too seriously, and throughout there are frequent and quite unnecessary references to a lot of ‘modern’ things – the endless hunts for iPhone chargers, for example.  A certain mundanity is added to the novel in consequence.

Landline lacks the sparkle of Eleanor and Park, and it is easy to imagine that a lot of readers may be a little disappointed by the novel.  The slow pace does improve as it goes on, however, and the real strength of Landline lies in the way in which Rowell demonstrates how people can alter so dramatically over time.

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Reading the World: ‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

I had read two of Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s books before making my foray into Hotel Iris: The Housekeeper and the Professor (review), and Revenge (review). The Times Literary Supplement writes that in this particular novel, ‘Image by perfect image, we are led down into a mysterious and gripping universe, simultaneously beautiful and terrifying’.  The Independent goes on to say: ‘This is a brave territory for Ogawa, and she manages it with sharp focus; she creates moments of breathtaking ugliness, often when least expected… but also sometimes a longing that is touching and tender’.  Hotel Iris was first published in Japan in 1996, and in its English translation in 2010.

Hotel Iris, the third of Ogawa’s books to be translated into English, centres upon Mari, a seventeen-year-old who works on the front desk in a ‘crumbling, seaside hotel on the coast of Japan’.  One night, a middle-aged man and a prostitute are ‘ejected from his room’.  Mari finds herself infatuated with the man’s voice.  Just so you, dear reader, are warned, what follows is rather harrowing.  After several clandestine meetings, Mari is drawn to his home, where he ‘initiates her into a dark realm of both pain and pleasure’.9780099548997

Mari is as perceptive a narrator as Ogawa is a writer; of the prostitute, she observes: ‘Frizzy hair hung at her wrinkled neck, and thick, shiny lipstick had smeared onto her cheeks.  Her mascara had run, and her left breast hung out of her blouse where the buttons had come undone.  Pale pink thighs protruded from a short skirt, marked in places with red scratches.  She had lost one of her cheap plastic high heels’.  When her male companion first appears, the following is described rather lyrically: ‘The voice seemed to pass through us, silencing the whole hotel.  It was powerful and deep, but with no trace of anger.  Instead, it was almost serene, like a hypnotic note from a cello or a horn’.

The novel is told from Mari’s perspective, and we learn an awful lot about her.  At first, she comes across as a little naive, but she is soon cast under the translator’s spell, and allows him to do whatever he wants to her: ‘Indeed, the more he shamed me, the more refined he became – like a perfumer plucking the petals from a rose, a jeweler prying open an oyster for its pearl’.  Like the Professor in Ogawa’s aforementioned novel, we are never given the man’s first name; rather, he is identified only by his profession, and known therefore as ‘the translator’.  The passages which include him tend to be rather sinister at times: ‘The translator’s hand was soft.  So soft it seemed my hand would sink completely into his.  This hand had done so many things to me – stroked my hair, made my tea, stripped me, bound me – and with each new act it had been reborn as something different’.  He is a peculiar and rather complex character, who made me feel uncomfortable throughout.  Ogawa has included an interesting contradiction when writing about him; whilst he revels in violent acts with her, his correspondence to Mari expresses a real tenderness.

As in her other books, some of Ogawa’s prose in Hotel Iris is deceptively simple.  The novel feels markedly different from The Housekeeper and the Professor, which has a wonderful, quiet beauty.  There is violence in Hotel Iris, and I found a couple of the scenes incredibly disturbing, something which I was not expecting.  Perhaps it just asserts what a diverse and skilled writer Ogawa is that she can write two very different novels in so confident a manner.  Hotel Iris is, I would say, far closer in its themes and occurrences to Ogawa’s short story collection, Revenge.

Hotel Iris is a continually interesting and unsettling novella, which becomes rather disturbing in places.  I tend to shy away from such novels, and whilst I did enjoy this overall, and have rated it highly, I cannot help but be glad that my usual reading fare is unlike this.  I found the reading process rather exhausting, despite the fact that I easily read it over a single afternoon.  Well plotted and multilayered, with a cleverly rendered ending, Hotel Iris is well worth seeking out, but it’s not something which I would recommend for the faint of heart!

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One From The Archive: ‘John Diamond’ by Leon Garfield ***

Leon Garfield’s John Diamond, which was first published in 1980, has been reissued in a lovely new edition as part of the Vintage Children’s Classics range.  Peter Williamson’s cover design is marvellous, and it fits wonderfully with the darkness of the story.  Vintage have recommended that the book is suitable for everyone over the age of nine, and upon reading it from an adult stance, it is difficult to envision that anybody – indeed, of any age – would dislike it.

9780099583271The novel opens in a manner which immediately piques the interest: ‘I ought to begin with the footsteps, but first of all I must tell you that my name is William Jones and that I was twelve years old when I began to hear them’.  His father tells him whilst on his deathbed that he ‘swindled’ Mr Diamond out of a great fortune, and thus, the main thread of the story concerns William’s travels to London to ‘make amends’ with his late father’s old business partner.  The ‘murky big city, with its sinister characters and treacherous back streets’ is clearly no place for him.

William tells us that ‘This story is about my father, chiefly.  He was a tall, handsome man, with his own hair, his own teeth, and, in fact, with nothing false about him’. After his father’s death, he goes on to say, ‘I knew that, until I found Mr Diamond, neither my father nor I would ever have peace.  Night after night he would shuffle and drag across the floor, amd night after night I would hear him; unless I left the house and set out on the journey that would lay his ghost’.

John Diamond is rather atmospheric at times, and it is filled with childish and rather amusing caricatures of those around William.  His Uncle Turner, for example, with his ‘bullying face’ and ‘strong smell of peppermint’, was ‘a stern, God-fearing man, and I think the feeling must have been mutual – God, I mean, being frightened of him’.  William himself is brave and likeable, and much care and compassion is built up for him as the novel progresses.

Garfield’s novel is cleverly crafted, the first person narration works marvellously, and plot details are dripped in at intervals throughout to keep the interest of the reader.  Vintage have lovingly overseen the production of John Diamond, adding rather a fun section called ‘The Backstory’ at the end of the book, which invited readers to learn how to speak in Cockney rhyming slang, as well as providing a quiz, an author biography, and facts about London in the time in which the novel is set.  John Diamond is certainly deserving of this reprinting, and it is sure to be a wonderful addition to any bookshelf.

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