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‘The Great Lover’ by Jill Dawson ***

The Great Lover is the first of Jill Dawson’s novels which I have read.  All of her stories interest me, but I plumped for The Great Lover is a starting point for two reasons; it is set close to where I grew up, and features poet Rupert Brooke, whose writing I admire, as a character.  It also takes place in a time period which I love to read about.

The Great Lover begins in the summer of 1909 in Grantchester, Cambridgeshire, a place much famed as a hangout spot for a lot of famous Cambridge-educated writers and artists.  Seventeen-year-old Nell Golightly, a fictional creation of Dawson’s, has just been employed to waitress at the Orchard Tea Gardens.  Soon after she begins her new job, Rupert Brooke arrives as a lodger, hoping that being away from his University halls at King’s College will enable him to complete a lot of projects without distractions. 9780340935668

Brooke is something of a talking point immediately.  He is ‘famed for his good looks and flouting of convention’, and ‘captures the hearts of men and women alike, yet his own seems to stay intact.’  Despite her ‘good sense’, Nell too begins to fall for Brooke, and he for her.  Told from two perspectives, the novel ‘gives voice to Rupert Brooke himself in a tale of mutual fascination and inner turmoil, set at a time of great social unrest.’  Dawson weaves together extracts from Brooke’s own letters with the imagined voice which she has created for him; she builds her narrative around his own.  The other voice we hear within the novel is Nell’s.

One gets a feel for Nell immediately.  She has been recently orphaned, losing her mother in girlhood, and her father quite recently.  She takes the job away from her Fenland home in order to support her younger siblings.  She describes herself as a ‘good, sensible girl’, with ‘many faults: I am feverishly curious, some would say nosy; I have no compunction about reading other people’s letters; I’m proud and full of vanity; I’ve a quick tempter although I forgive just as easily; I am not fond of horses and I am wont to be impatient with bees; and, worse of all, I am a girl who is incapable of being romanced because I don’t have a sentimental bone in my body.  Moons and Junes mean nothing to be, unless it is to signify good conditions for bees.’

When Nell first meets Brooke, ‘he appears at the door, tall and sunny, loose-limbed and lanky, with his high forehead and mane of hair…  he grins a glorious grin at me and the sun blazes through the floor, warming my face to scarlet.  He wears grey flannels and a soft collar with no tie, and his face is rather innocent and babyish and, at the same time, inspired with a fierce life.’  The narrative using Brooke’s voice, which uses flowery, poetic prose, provides much of the humour in the novel.  In the first of his entries, when he has moved into the Orchard Tea Rooms, he writes: ‘My bedroom looks as though it hasn’t been cleaned since Thomas Hardy was first weaned and the beam above my head sheds little flakes of rotting wood like a shower of chocolate on the sheets in the morning.’

A high level of description, and the engaging, rich prose in which it is written, threads through the entire novel, and helps to create a vivid sense of place.  The Great Lover has clearly been so well researched, and the atmosphere of the time really comes alive.  The social and cultural climate of the time is always there; socialism, suffragism, and the like beat on in the background, sometimes being discussed by the protagonists too.  Added to this is the way in which Dawson has introduced real-life figures, who interact mainly with Rupert.  We meet, amongst others, Bohemians like Augustus John and ‘peacock’-like Ottoline Morrell, and Virginia Woolf even makes a cameo.

In her acknowledgements-cum-afterword, Dawson notes: ‘Of course I made Rupert [as well as Nell] up… and he is ‘my’ Rupert Brooke, a figure from my imagination, fused from his poetry, his letters, his travel writing and essays, photographs, guesswork, the things I know about his life blended with my own dreams of him, and impressions.’  Brooke’s character adds a tongue in cheek, playful element to the novel.  I must say, however, that his voice did not always feel authentic to me, and I largely preferred Nell’s section of the narrative.

The element of Brooke’s inner turmoil has not been explored in as much detail here as I was expecting.  His nervous breakdown, which offered so much room for investigation, has been almost glossed over.  Whilst many of the reviews point to the depth which Dawson has given her characters in The Great Lover, I do not feel as though Brooke has quite been developed as well as he could have been.  The narrative voices, which switch between one another throughout, are not always as distinctive as they could have been; on a couple of occasions, it did feel a little confusing to differentiate between the speakers.  I was expecting a heady, sensual novel, and do not quite feel as though this element was realised.  There are some very well executed parts to The Great Lover, but Brooke unfortunately felt little more than a caricature at times.

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‘Jezebel’ by Irène Némirovsky *****

Irène Némirovsky has long been a favourite author of mine.  Sadly, I am now coming to the stage in my reading of her oeuvre where I have only a handful of books outstanding.  I have been trying to ration myself by not buying and consuming them immediately, but sometimes hers is the only writing I feel like reading.  It was at one of these points that I purchased a copy of Jezebel, first published in 1940, and translated from its original French by Sandra Smith in 2010.

51i1txvvrml._sx324_bo1204203200_Jezebel focuses on the trial of a woman, Gladys Eysenach, in a French courtroom.  She is ‘no longer young, but she is still beautiful, elegant, cold.’  She is on trial for the murder of her lover, twenty-year-old Bernard Martin, a man far younger than she, who was killed in December 1934.  As the case begins to unfold, Gladys reflects on her life, which culminates in the ‘final irrevocable act.’  This novel, says its blurb, is suffused with ‘the depth of insight and pitiless compassion we have come to expect…  Némirovsky shows us the soul of a desperate woman obsessed with her lost youth.’

Translator Sandra Smith contributes a short introduction to the volume.  She says: ‘”Jezebel”… the very name immediately conjures up a host of impressions, all negative: seductress, traitor, whore.’  She then goes on to write about Gladys as a protagonist, and the way in which she worships her own beauty: ‘To her, beauty is power; it defines her life and her worth.  As Gladys ages and her fears turn to obsessions, Némirovsky explores the fine balance between victim and criminal, and the reader is torn between sympathy and horror.’

We first meet Gladys when she is on the stand during her trial.  We are therefore launched immediately into the story.  She admits, very early on, to shooting Bernard, as she feared that he was going to reveal their relationship to her other, more official lover, Count Monti.  The initial description given of her is as follows: ‘She was still beautiful, despite her paleness and her drained, distraught appearance.  Her sensual eyelashes were pale from crying and her mouth drooped, yet she still looked young.’  We learn that she is a woman of immense wealth, who has travelled extensively, and made her home in many countries.  She is widowed, and lost her only child during the First World War.

From the outset, Némirovsky captures Gladys’ fear and uncertainty of her situation: ‘The defendant slowly clasped her trembling hands together; her nails dug deep into her pale skin; her colourless lips opened slightly, with difficulty, but she uttered not a word, not a sound.’  Those in the public gallery ‘examined the trembling, pale, haggard face of the accused, like people looking at a wild animal, imprisoned behind the bars of its cage: savage but confined, its teeth and nails pulled out, panting, half-dead…’.  In the trial, ‘only the accused woman was exciting; the victim was no more than a vague ghost.’

We learn a great deal about Gladys not from her own account, but through the testimonies of others.  One of her friends, Jeannine Percier, for instance, tells the court: ‘I’m only telling you what everyone knows.  Gladys was excessively flirtatious.  She enjoyed nothing more than compliments, adoration, but that’s not a crime.’  Jeannine goes on to remark: ‘It always seemed to me that there was something deeply tragic within Gladys.’

There is such gorgeous prose within the novel.  When we are taken back to Gladys’ early adulthood, Némirovsky recounts a sumptuous ball which she attends.  Here, Gladys ‘knew that she would never ever forget that scent of roses in the warm ballroom, the feel of the night breeze on her shoulders, the brilliant lights, the waltz that lingered in her ears.  She was so very happy.  No, not happy, not yet, but it was the expectation of happiness, the heavenly desire and passionate thirst for happiness, that filled her heart.’ At this point for Gladys, ‘Everything was bewitching; everything looked beautiful to her, rare and enchanting; life took on a new flavour she had never tasted before: it was bittersweet.’

As she moves into adulthood, we learn a lot about her relationships with various husbands and lovers, as well as the unsettling way in which she and her young daughter, Thérèse, interacted: ‘She lived in the shadow of her beautiful mother and, like everyone else who knew Gladys, she strove only to please her, to serve her, to love her.’  She goes as far as pretending her daughter is far younger than she is, so that nobody can consider her old.

Gladys’ vanity is at the forefront of her mind at all times; her first act each morning is to reach for a mirror and study her face.  She sees the world as her playground, and the men within it hers to do with as she pleases.  Whilst her wealth allows her to be a lady of leisure, Gladys is not as content with this as one might expect: ‘She would visit one friend after another.  With them, time would pass more quickly, but eventually she had to go home and still it was daytime.  There was nothing left to do but buy a dress and visit the jewellers…  Finally, night would come and she would feel as if she had been reborn.  She would go home to Sans-Souci, get dressed, admire how she looked.  How she loved doing that.  Was there anything better in life, was there anything more sensual than being attractive?’

Jezebel is a rich and fascinating psychological study, taut and tightly written.  Némirovsky achieves a great deal in less than 200 pages.  She demonstrates such depth, and one of the real strengths in this novel is the way in which the conversations between characters feel so realistic.  The novel is atmospheric from beginning to end, with striking scenes, and flesh-and-blood characters.  Jezebel is richly evocative, as all of Némirovsky’s books are.  Gladys’ story has been vividly realised.  She is not at all a likeable character, but the astute and perceptive insights which Némirovsky gives into her imagined life are fascinating.  One cannot help but feel sorry for her at points, particularly when the extent to which her own self-absorption has harmed her is revealed.  Jezebel is a captivating novel, which has a rather sad quality to it, and it offers far more in terms of plot than I was expecting.

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Highly Anticipated Books

I made a blog post quite some time ago, stating that I was going to stop adding books to my ridiculously long TBR list.  As is perhaps predictable, this didn’t last that long, particularly when the ‘best of’ lists started to emerge last year.  I thought, therefore, that I would make a list of books which I am particularly looking forward to, and which I hope to get to sooner rather than later.  Not all of them were published in 2018; indeed, some of them are much earlier.  I have collected together ten titles here, in no particular order, and have included their official blurbs alongside them.

 

1. Census by Jesse Ball 35068746
‘A powerful and moving new novel from an award-winning, acclaimed author: in the wake of a devastating revelation, a father and son journey north across a tapestry of town.  When a widower receives notice from a doctor that he doesn’t have long left to live, he is struck by the question of who will care for his adult son–a son whom he fiercely loves, a boy with Down syndrome. With no recourse in mind, and with a desire to see the country on one last trip, the man signs up as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and leaves town with his son.  Traveling into the country, through towns named only by ascending letters of the alphabet, the man and his son encounter a wide range of human experience. While some townspeople welcome them into their homes, others who bear the physical brand of past censuses on their ribs are wary of their presence. When they press toward the edges of civilization, the landscape grows wilder, and the towns grow farther apart and more blighted by industrial decay. As they approach “Z,” the man must confront a series of questions: What is the purpose of the census? Is he complicit in its mission? And just how will he learn to say good-bye to his son?  Mysterious and evocative, Census is a novel about free will, grief, the power of memory, and the ferocity of parental love, from one of our most captivating young writers.’

 

367110262. The Wildlands by Abby Geni
‘Mercy, Oklahoma became infamous when a Category Five tornado ravaged the small town. No family was more devastated than the McClouds: four siblings left orphaned, their home and farm gone. Darlene, Jane, and Cora became the media focus of the tornado’s aftermath, causing great tension with Tucker, who soon abandoned his sisters to their grief and disappeared.  On the three-year anniversary of the tornado, a cosmetics factory outside of Mercy is bombed, and the lab animals trapped within are released. This violent act appears at first to have nothing to do with “the saddest family in Mercy.” Then Tucker reappears, injured in the blast, and seeks the help of nine-year-old Cora. Caught up in the thrall of her brilliant, charismatic brother, whom she has desperately missed, Cora agrees to accompany Tucker on his cross-country mission to save animals and make war on human civilisation.  Soon Cora is not just Tucker’s companion but his accomplice. Learning at his knee, she takes on a new identity, engaging in escalating acts of violence and testing the limits of her humanity. Darlene works with Mercy police to find her siblings, leading to an unexpected showdown at the San Diego Zoo, as Tucker erases the boundaries between the human and animal world.’

 

3. Heat Wave by Penelope Lively 40655312
‘Pauline is spending the summer at World’s End, a cottage somewhere in the middle of England. This year the adjoining cottage is occupied by her daughter Teresa and baby grandson Luke; and, of course, Maurice, the man Teresa married. As the hot months unfold, Maurice grows ever more involved in the book he is writing – and with his female copy editor – and Pauline can only watch in dismay and anger as her daughter repeats her own mistakes in love. The heat and tension will lead to a violent, startling climax.  In Heat Wave, Penelope Lively gives us a moving portrayal of a fragile family damaged and defined by adultery, and the lengths to which a mother will go to protect the ones she loves.’

 

320766784. The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
‘Before Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich begins a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working to help defend men accused of murder, she thinks her position is clear. The child of two lawyers, she is staunchly anti-death penalty. But the moment convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes–the moment she hears him speak of his crimes — she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case. Despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar.  Crime, even the darkest and most unsayable acts, can happen to any one of us. As Alexandria pores over the facts of the murder, she finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining the details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, and reckon with a past that colors her view of Ricky’s crime.  But another surprise awaits: She wasn’t the only one who saw her life in Ricky’s.  An intellectual and emotional thriller that is also a different kind of murder mystery, The Fact of a Body is a book not only about how the story of one crime was constructed — but about how we grapple with our own personal histories. Along the way it tackles questions about the nature of forgiveness, and if a single narrative can ever really contain something as definitive as the truth. This groundbreaking, heart-stopping work, ten years in the making, shows how the law is more personal than we would like to believe — and the truth more complicated, and powerful, than we could ever imagine.’

 

5. All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky 9568575
‘In haunting ways, this gorgeous novel prefigures Irène Némirovsky’s masterpiece Suite Française. Set in France between 1910 and 1940 and first published in France in 1947, five years after the author’s death, All Our Worldly Goods is a gripping story of war, family life and star-crossed lovers. Pierre and Agnes marry for love against the wishes of his parents and his grandfather, the tyrannical family patriarch. Their marriage provokes a family feud that cascades down the generations. This brilliant novel is full of drama, heartbreak, and the telling observations that have made Némirovsky’s work so beloved and admired.’

 

5995506. Death in Summer by William Trevor
There were three deaths that summer. The first was Letitia’s, sudden and quite unexpected, leaving her husband, Thaddeus, haunted by the details of her last afternoon. 
The next death came some weeks later, after Thaddeus’s mother-in-law helped him to interview for a nanny to bring up their baby. None of the applicants were suitable–least of all the last one, with her sharp features, her shabby clothes that reeked of cigarettes, her badly typed references–so Letitia’s mother moved herself in. But then, just as the household was beginning to settle down, the last of the nannies surprisingly returned, her unwelcome arrival heralding the third of the summer tragedies.

 

7. The Shrimp and the Anemone by L.P. Hartley 39358010
‘An evocative account of a childhood summer spent beside the sea in Norfolk by brother and sister, Eustace and Hilda.’

 

8. After the Eclipse: A Mother’s Murder, a Daughter’s Search by Sarah Perry
‘When Sarah Perry was twelve, she saw a partial eclipse of the sun, an event she took as a sign of good fortune for her and her mother, Crystal. But that brief moment of darkness ultimately foreshadowed a much 33413878larger one: two days later, Crystal was murdered in their home in rural Maine, just a few feet from Sarah’s bedroom.  The killer escaped unseen; it would take the police twelve years to find him, time in which Sarah grew into adulthood, struggling with abandonment, police interrogations, and the effort of rebuilding her life when so much had been lost. Through it all she would dream of the eventual trial, a conviction—all her questions finally answered. But after the trial, Sarah’s questions only grew. She wanted to understand her mother’s life, not just her final hours, and so she began a personal investigation, one that drew her back to Maine, taking her deep into the abiding darkness of a small American town.  Told in searing prose, After the Eclipse is a luminous memoir of uncomfortable truth and terrible beauty, an exquisite memorial for a mother stolen from her daughter, and a blazingly successful attempt to cast light on her life once more.’

 

9. The Gipsy’s Baby by Rosamond Lehmann 6106404
‘In these captivating short stories, we find perfect miniatures of Rosamond Lehmann’s fictional world. The themes that permeate her novels are echoed here—delicate portrayals of the world of adults as seen through the eyes of childhood, and fascination with other families—their otherness and the romance of their separate worlds. These beautifully crafted stories wonderfully demonstrate the genius of Rosamond Lehmann.’

 

185367310. Alberta and Jacob by Cora Sandel
‘Imaginative and intelligent, Alberta is a misfit trapped in a stiflingly provincial town in the far north of Norway whose only affinity is for her extrovert brother Jacob.’

 

 

 

Which books are on your highly anticipated list?  Have you read any of these?

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‘So Long a Letter’ by Mariama Ba ***

I have wanted to read Mariama Ba’s debut novella, So Long a Letter, for such a long time.  It was a title which appeared in my first to-read notebook, which I began around 2006; needless to say, it has taken me an awfully long time to track down a copy and sit down to read it.  Set in Senegal, where the author was from, So Long a Letter was first published in French in 1980, and in English translation by Marlupé Bodé-Thomas in 1981.  It has long been considered a modern classic.

200px-mariamaba_solongaletterBa chose to write her novella due to ‘her commitment for eradicating inequalities between men and women in Africa’.  Filling only 90 pages of narrative, So Long a Letter is a ‘sequence of reminiscences, some wistful, some bitter, recounted by Senegalese schoolteacher Ramatoulaye, who has recently been widowed.’  It is written as a letter to her oldest friend, Aissatou, and gives a ‘record of her emotional struggle for survival after her husband’s abrupt decision to take a second wife.  Although sanctioned by Islam, his action is a calculated betrayal of her trust and a brutal rejection of their life together.’

Ramatoulaye’s husband, Madou, dies following a heart attack.  When she sees his body, she remarks: ‘I listen to the words that create around me a new atmosphere in which I move, a stranger and tormented.  Death, the tenuous passage between two opposite worlds, one tumultuous, the other still.’  Culturally, this element of the novella, in which Ramatoulaye sets out the burial customs of Islam, is fascinating.

The couple had been married for thirty years, and had twelve children.  The decision of Madou’s to take a second wife is all the more heartbreaking in this respect, and neither Ramatoulaye or her children can believe or support his decision.  Following Madou’s death, she reflects: ‘The presence of my co-wife beside me irritates me.  She has been installed in my house for the funeral, in accordance with tradition.’  The relationship between the two is never explored in as much detail as I would have expected; rather, it is mentioned from time to time, but the finer details are glossed over.

I found the prose of So Long a Letter textured and rich; there is a sensual quality to it.  At the outset, Ramatoulaye writes: ‘I conjure you up.  The past is reborn, along with its procession of emotions.  I close my eyes.  Ebb and tide of feeling: heat and dazzlement, the wood fires, the sharp green mango, bitten into in turns, a delicacy in our greedy mouths.  I close my eyes.  Ebb and tide of images: drops of sweat beading your mother’s ochre-coloured face as she emerges from the kitchen, the procession of young wet girls chattering on their way back from the springs.’

The society in which Ramatoulaye lived as a young woman is reflected and commented upon.  She writes: ‘Because, being the first pioneers of the promotion of African women, there were very few of us.  Men would call us scatter-brained.  Others labelled us devils.  But many wanted to possess us.  How many dreams did we nourish hopelessly that could have been fulfilled on lasting happiness and that we abandoned to embrace others, those that have burst miserably like soap bubbles, leaving us empty handed?’  In this manner, Ramatoulaye’s history is intertwined with the social and political climate of the entire nation of Senegal.  One of the real strengths of the book for me was the way in which Ramatoulaye writes about the experiences of women in a suppressed society, and the way in which she has lived through ‘the birth of a republic, the birth of an anthem and the implementation of a flag.’

Whilst there are certainly some positive and admirable elements to So Long a Letter, I did not feel as though the quality of its prose was sustained throughout.  It soon became quite repetitive, and I did not feel as engaged with the story after around the first quarter had passed.  Something about the prose felt detached; perhaps this is a consequence of its translation, but there was definitely a stilted quality to it, which became more apparent as the story went on.

At first, it seemed to me that the narrator’s voice had such a presence, but this somehow waned after a while; it became more formal, and I felt less connected to it.  I was pulled in at the outset, but found myself becoming increasingly indifferent to the rather stubborn narrator.  It felt as though she was being both open and secretive about elements of her life.  I admire the agency which she gave herself, but for me this was not realised strongly enough, or early enough, to make a difference in my feelings for the protagonist.  Whilst I loved the use of cultural details within So Long a Letter, I must admit that it was not as absorbing as I had expected it would be.  Although I was interested in the wider story, I felt that Ba’s characters could have been more realistically drawn, and this would have made for a far more memorable story.

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The Book Trail: From ‘Fair Play’ to ‘The Queen of Persia’

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with a short novel by one of my favourite authors of all time.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Fair Play by Tove Jansson 8915857
Fair Play is the type of love story that is rarely told, a revelatory depiction of contentment, hard-won and exhilarating.  Mari is a writer and Jonna is an artist, and they live at opposite ends of a big apartment building, their studios connected by a long attic passageway. They have argued, worked, and laughed together for decades. Yet they’ve never really stopped taking each other by surprise. Fair Play shows us Mari and Jona’s intertwined lives as they watch Fassbinder films and Westerns, critique each other’s work, spend time on a solitary island (recognizable to readers of Jansson’s The Summer Book), travel through the American Southwest, and turn life into nothing less than art. ‘

 

2. Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘Sophia Willoughby, a young Englishwoman from an aristocratic family and a person of strong opinions and even stronger will, has packed her cheating husband off to Paris. He can have his tawdry mistress. She intends to devote herself to the serious business of raising her two children in proper Tory fashion.  Then tragedy strikes: the children die, and Sophia, in despair, finds her way to Paris, arriving just in time for the revolution of 1848. Before long she has formed the unlikeliest of close relations with Minna, her husband’s sometime mistress, whose dramatic recitations, based on her hair-raising childhood in czarist Russia, electrify audiences in drawing rooms and on the street alike. Minna, “magnanimous and unscrupulous, fickle, ardent, and interfering,” leads Sophia on a wild adventure through bohemian and revolutionary Paris, in a story that reaches an unforgettable conclusion amidst the bullets, bloodshed, and hope of the barricades.  Sylvia Townsend Warner was one of the most original and inventive of twentieth-century English novelists. At once an adventure story, a love story, and a novel of ideas, Summer Will Show is a brilliant reimagining of the possibilities of historical fiction.’

 

899153. Eustace and Hilda by L.P. Hartley
‘The three books gathered together as Eustace and Hilda explore a brother and sister’s lifelong relationship. Hilda, the older child, is both self-sacrificing and domineering, as puritanical as she is gorgeous; Eustace is a gentle, dreamy, pleasure-loving boy: the two siblings could hardly be more different, but they are also deeply devoted. And yet as Eustace and Hilda grow up and seek to go their separate ways in a world of power and position, money and love, their relationship is marked by increasing pain.  L. P. Hartley’s much-loved novel, the magnum opus of one of twentieth-century England’s best writers, is a complex and spellbinding work: a comedy of upper-class manners; a study in the subtlest nuances of feeling; a poignant reckoning with the ironies of character and fate. Above all, it is about two people who cannot live together or apart, about the ties that bind—and break.’

 

4. The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter by Elisabeth Gille
‘Élisabeth Gille was only five when the Gestapo arrested her mother, and she grew up remembering next to nothing of her. Her mother was a figure, a name, Irène Némirovsky, a once popular novelist, a Russian émigré from an immensely rich family, a Jew who didn’t consider herself one and who even contributed to collaborationist periodicals, and a woman who died in Auschwitz because she was a Jew. To her daughter she was a tragic enigma and a stranger.  It was to come to terms with that stranger that Gille wrote, in The Mirador, her mother’s memoirs. The first part of the book, dated 1929, the year David Golder made Némirovsky famous, takes us back to her difficult childhood in Kiev and St. Petersburg. Her father is doting, her mother a beautiful monster, while Irene herself is bookish and self-absorbed. There are pogroms and riots, parties and excursions, then revolution, from which the family flees to France, a country of “moderation, freedom, and generosity,” where at last she is happy.  Some thirteen years later Irène picks up her pen again. Everything has changed. Abandoned by friends and colleagues, she lives in the countryside and waits for the knock on the door. Written a decade before the publication of Suite Française made Irène Némirovsky famous once more (something Gille did not live to see), The Mirador is a haunted and a haunting book, an unflinching reckoning with the tragic past, and a triumph not only of the imagination but of love.’

 

5. The World As I Found It by Bruce Duffy 776609
‘This novel centers around Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most powerfully magnetic philosophers of our time–brilliant, tortured, mercurial, forging his own solitary path while leaving a permanent mark on all around him.’

 

6. Indian Summer by William Dean Howells
‘One of the most charming and memorable romantic comedies in American literature, William Dean Howells’s Indian Summer tells of a season in the life of Theodore Colville. Colville, just turned forty, has spent years as a successful midwestern newspaper publisher. Now he sells his business and heads for Italy, where as a young man he had dreamed of a career as an architect and fallen hopelessly in love. In Florence, Colville runs into Lina Bowen, sometime best friend of the woman who jilted him and the vivacious survivor of an unhappy marriage. He also meets her young visitor, twenty-year-old Imogene Graham—lovely, earnest to a fault, and brimming with the excitement of her first encounter with the great world.  The drama that plays out among these three gifted and well-meaning people against the backdrop of Florence, the brilliance of their repartee, and the accumulating burden of their mutual misunderstandings make for a comedy of errors that is as winning as it is wise.’

 

18508567. Testing the Current by William McPherson
‘Growing up in a small upper Midwestern town in the late 1930s, young Tommy MacAllister is scarcely aware of the Depression, much less the rumblings of war in Europe. For his parents and their set, life seems to revolve around dinners and dancing at the country club, tennis dates and rounds of golf, holiday parties, summers on The Island, and the many sparkling occasions full of people and drinks and food and laughter. With his curiosity and impatience to grow up, however, Tommy will soon come to glimpse something darker beneath the genteel complacency: the embarrassment of poor relations; the subtle (and not so subtle) slighting of the black or American Indian “help”; the discovery that not everybody in the club was Episcopalian; the mockery of President Roosevelt; the messy mechanics of sex and death; and “the commandment they talked least about in Sunday school,” adultery.  In this remarkable 1984 debut novel, the Pulitzer Prize–winning book critic William McPherson subtly leavens his wide-eyed protagonist’s perspective with mature reflection and wry humor and surrounds him with a sizable cast of vibrant characters, creating a scrupulously observed, kaleidoscopic portrait that will shimmer in readers’ minds long after the final page is turned.’

 

8. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase
‘A story of 20th-century womanhood, of Gram, the Queen of Persia herself, who rules a house where five daughters and four granddaughters spin out the tragedies and triumphs of rural life in the 1950s.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have piqued your interest?

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Upcoming Reviews

I have been busy scheduling posts for the next few months, as I’m getting quite busy (upcoming holidays, Christmas preparation, general life!), and wanted to ensure that the blog stays on track.  These are the posts which you can expect to see in the next few months.

Novels:

  • So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba
  • Jezebel by Irène Némirovsky
  • The Great Lover by Jill Dawson 9781911579458
  • How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall
  • The Bone People by Keri Hulme
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  • Clara by Janice Galloway
  • When the Night Comes by Favel Parrett
  • Everyman by Philip Roth
  • Improvement by Joan Silber
  • In Love by Alfred Hayes
  • The Lark by E. Nesbit
  • The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
  • Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

 

Short Stories:

  • Minnie’s Room: The Peacetime Stories by Mollie Panter-Downes 9780571313501
  • Last Stories by William Trevor
  • Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell
  • Tenth of December by George Saunders
  • Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill

 

Non-Fiction:

  • Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis
  • The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young
  • Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education by Sybille Bedford
  • The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink 9780140280395
  • The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City by Laura Tillman
  • Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence by Nick Hunt
  • The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester
  • Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers by Valerie Lawson
  • Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People by Julia Boyd

 

Which of these are you most looking forward to reading?  Have you reviewed any of these books?

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‘Winter Sonata’ by Dorothy Edwards *****

Dorothy Edwards’ only novel, Winter Sonata, is the 205th book on the Virago Modern Classics list, and I was happy to be able to get my hands on one of the lovely green-spined copies.  First published in 1928, it tells of Arnold Nettle, a ‘shy young telegraph clerk, [who] arrives in a secluded English village as summer ends.’  Upon his arrival, he glimpses a beautiful woman named Olivia, and her ‘appearance seems to herald a new hope for his life.’  Spanning a single winter, ‘with the slow approach of spring we see Mr Nettle’s fragile hopes, just as gently, fade away.’

1758967Winter Sonata weaves in a major theme which was important to Edwards – ‘the loneliness of the human condition – with a subtle look at its consequences.’  David Garnett, one of Edwards’ contemporaries, calls the novel ‘a precise and perfect work of art’.  It was also acclaimed by the likes of Leonard Woolf and Raymond Mortimer, both highly influential in their day.  In her introduction to Winter Sonata, Elaine Morgan compares Edwards’ work to Chekhov’s, stating that ‘the events take place in a social backwater, the central characters have no specific tasks to occupy them, and they are thrown back on one another’s company.  There is a sense that they are waiting for something to happen, even if it is only the return of spring.’

Winter Sonata opens with an introduction to Arnold: ‘He had a long thin neck and looked rather delicate, and he was in fact ill and had come to work here so as to escape winter in the town.  He had arrived only the night before.  It had been cold and rainy and depressing, but now on the first day here it was beautiful, as if to welcome him.’  He is painfully shy, preferring to listen to a conversation than to participate directly in it.  I found him such an endearing protagonist, his quirks and peculiarities: ‘Sometimes, of course, he sat simply looking into the fire, and it seems that he was a little nervous even in his own society, because often he would begin to blush and smile shyly to himself.’

Sisters Olivia and Eleanor Neran live in one of the village’s grander houses with their ‘terse and literal-minded aunt and their cousin George’.  When the novel begins, Olivia ‘came down the hill in a white woollen dress.  As she came down between the bare grey trees and along the hard grey road it was difficult to tell whether the white figure was more like summer going sadly away from the earth or like winter stealing quietly upon it.’  At this moment, Arnold ‘turned his long thin neck to look at her, and when she had gone out of sight he sat down at his table again and blushed a little to himself.’  Edwards has such an awareness of Arnold, and the reticent way in which he inhabits the world.

Along with Eleanor and Olivia, we meet a cast of characters who live around Arnold in the village.  They feel highly realistic, and each has their own memorable mannerisms.  Of Pauline, the young woman who lives in the house Arnold rooms in, Edwards writes: ‘When she had cleared the ashes she began almost without knowing it to read the serial story in the newspaper with which she was supposed to be laying the new fire, and gradually she became more awake.  When her mother came in to lay Mr Nettle’s breakfast she was still reading.  She suddenly felt the paper snatched out of her hand and knocked against her head.  She looked up a little dazed and astonished, and then sulkily shrugged her shoulders.’

There is an unusual quality, both to the characters and prose, throughout Winter Sonata, and its tone is suffused with melancholy.  It is a short novel, but one which I could hardly bear to finish.  On the novel’s blurb, Edwards’ prose is called ‘atmospheric and delicate’.  I could not find wording more perfect to apply to this beautiful novel.  Edwards’ descriptions, particularly of the natural world, are glorious.  She writes, for example, ‘everywhere the trees were nearly bare, but a few golden leaves still clung to the black branches.  The black curving lines and the gold leaves looked as if they were painted on the pale grey sky.’  Edwards also deftly captures the passing of time: ‘Everything stood immovable; nothing could break the hard winter stillness.  The clock on the church tower struck off the hours, but the night seemed to stand still.  Then suddenly there were scraps of the red in the lighter sky, the sun came up behind grey clouds, and it was morning already.’

As an aside, Edwards herself sounds like a wonderful woman; she was brought up to be an ardent socialist, and was educated at the boys’ school her father taught at.  Some remember her as a ‘schoolgirl at left-wing rallies in Cardiff, thrillingly declaiming poems from William Morris.’ She tragically committed suicide at the age of 31.  Morgan writes much more about Edwards and her life’s experiences in her introduction, which I found both insightful and heartbreakingly sad.  Following her beloved father’s death, Edwards ‘was left to adjust to a world in which class distinctions and sexual divisions were as rigid as ever; and in adolescence it is rather late to learn to be a woman as womanhood was then understood.’  It is a great shame that Edwards only published one other book, a collection of short stories, for which she was acclaimed as ‘one of the three great writers of the year’.  Edwards had so much worth as a writer, and I will certainly be visiting this gloriously enchanting and perfectly pitched novel again.

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