I picked up a lovely hardback edition of Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine in a charming little secondhand bookshop at the National Trust’s Cliveden Estate in Buckinghamshire. After reading Otsuka’s most recent novel, The Swimmers, I was keen to read the rest of her small oeuvre. I picked up this, her debut, with delight, and began it just days later.
First published in 2002, When the Emperor Was Divine begins in 1942 in Berkeley, California. At the outset of this slim novel, a Japanese-American woman learns from posters plastered all over the city that she and her family have been ‘reclassified, virtually overnight, as enemy aliens’, and face expulsion to the Utah desert. The novel opens: ‘The sign had appeared overnight. On billboards and trees and the backs of the bus-stop benches. It hung in the window of Woolworth’s. It hung by the entrance to the YMCA. It was stapled to the door of the municipal court and nailed, at eye level, to every telephone pole along University Avenue.’
Otsuka uses five different perspectives to tell her story, and has based the happenings on real events. All of these narrative voices are part of the same family, and include the daughter’s experience of the long train ride to the camp, to the family’s return to their Californian home. The first chapter follows the unnamed mother, as she spends all of her time packing up their lives: ‘Tomorrow she and the children would be leaving. She did not know where they were going or how long they would be gone or who would be living in their house while they were away. She knew only that tomorrow they had to go.’ At this point in time, Otsuka notes: ‘It was late April. It was the fourth week of the fifth month of the war and the women, who did not always follow the rules, followed the rules.’
Her husband has already been taken away, arrested some months previously, and taken to Texas: ‘Every few days he was allowed to write her a letter. Usually he told her about the weather.’ We learn a great deal about the father before he takes centre stage in the narrative: ‘He was extremely polite. Whenever he walked into a room he closed the door behind him softly. He was always on time. He wore beautiful suits and did not yell at waiters. He loved pistachio nuts. He believed that fruit juice was the ideal drink. He liked to doodle. He was especially fond of drawing a box and then making it into three dimensions.’ His presence loops in and out of the narrative, and is often the central thought of his son, particularly.
I have studied the Second World War extensively over the years, but my knowledge about the expulsion of Japanese-American citizens living in the USA is relatively poor. I went into When the Emperor Was Divine in the hope that it would both educate me, and immerse me within a compelling story. I can confirm that it absolutely did both of these things.
Otsuka’s writing is incredibly precise, and she captures so much in just one or two sentences. I really appreciated the amount of detail included, and the sharply observed scenes. Otsuka is highly skilled with regard to managing the time period, and assessing its impact on the central family: ‘Far away, on the other side of the ocean, there was fighting, and at night the boy lay awake on his straw mattress and listened to the bulletins on the radio. Sometimes, in the darkness, he heard noises drifting from other rooms. The heavy thud of footsteps. The shuffling of cards.’ Later, she writes: ‘Mostly, though, they waited. For the mail. For the news. For the bells. For breakfast and lunch and dinner. For one day to be over and the next day to begin.’
As displayed above, there is an incredible poignancy here. Another example is taken from the third chapter, which begins: ‘In the beginning the boy thought he saw his father everywhere. Underneath the showers. Leaning against barrack doorways. Playing go with the other men in their floppy straw hats on the narrow wooden benches after lunch. Above them blue skies. The hot midday sun. No trees. No shade. Birds.’
What made When the Emperor Was Divine even more compelling to me was a simple narrative device; all of the central characters remain unnamed throughout. As well as the story of just a few individuals, Otsuka encapsulates an experience which affected an entire community of people. There are moments of profound sadness scattered throughout this slim novel, and there is also exquisite beauty. When the Emperor Was Divine is an evocative blend of fiction and reality, well executed and skilfully written.
I really enjoyed Nell Stevens’ most recent novel, Briefly: A Delicious Life, which I listened to as a rather glorious audiobook at the tail end of 2022. I was keen to read more of her work, and settled on her debut, Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World. These two titles are polar opposites, in a way, but I was keen to see how Stevens’ flowery and sharp prose style translated into a work of non-fiction.
As part of an MFA Stevens undertook at Boston University, she was ‘given the opportunity to spend three months in a location of her choice in order to write her novel’. In Bleaker House, she sets out to ‘teach’ herself ‘the art of loneliness’, by moving temporarily to Bleaker Island, an outpost of the Falkland Islands. The book recounts her experiences, and her determination ‘to rid herself of all distractions’ in the quest of writing a novel.
Bleaker House is described as ‘part memoir, part travelogue, part story collection’. It presents an ‘exploration of the narrow spaces between real life and fiction and, in the end, a book about failing to write a novel, but finally becoming a writer.’ Bleaker Island has a population of just two people, and for a large part of Stevens’ stay, she is the only resident. She captures something of the stark loneliness almost immediately, opening the book as follows: ‘This is a landscape an art-therapy patient might paint to represent depression: grey sky and a sweep of featureless peat rising out of the sea. The water is the same colour as the clouds; it is flecked by white-capped waves, spikes of black rock, and, intermittently, the silvery spines of dolphins. I pace from room to room in the empty house, testing out the silence with occasional noises… My fingers are stiff with cold.’
When deciding where to travel to during her ‘global fellowship’, Stevens recalls: ‘The absorbing vision of “effortless concentration” appears before me again, and I find myself pining for empty, remote places: snow plains, broad lakes, oceans, wherever there is more nothing than there is something and where, I imagine, I will finally do the thing I have spent my adult life hankering after, attempting, and interrupting: write a novel.’ She started her journey in Darwin on the Falklands, before moving to the capital, Stanley, and then on to Bleaker Island. Stevens reflects on the drastic moments of self-discovery she regularly experiences: ‘If my days in Darwin were a brief introduction to myself, to the self I am when everything else is stripped away, life in Stanley is a lesson in self-consciousness. Wherever I go, I am acutely aware of my strangeness… I am an oddity. I am not, immediately, to be trusted.’
I immediately enjoyed the tone of the narrative; it blends more serious happenings with warmth and the odd snippet of humour. Stevens makes us continually aware of the conflicting emotions she feels, at once pleased to have the peace and quiet in which to write, but battling with loneliness amongst the lack of communication she can have with others. She has no phone signal, and an Internet connection is markedly difficult to come by.
Stevens intersperses her own experiences with the fragments of a novel she started to write whilst living on Bleaker Island, as well as reflective thoughts about her sometimes tricky writing process. She notes: ‘My writing sessions at the dressing table become fitful and disjointed in this mood. I take run-ups at the beginning, trying it from several different angles. I cast my line, over and over, into the water, waiting for something to bite.’ She scolds herself for the pressure she puts on, in attempting to write 2,500 words every day: ‘It’s just a story. Just words in one order or another. It’s supposed to be fun.’
Whilst I enjoyed the realistic elements of Bleaker House, I would have enjoyed it far more had the small sections of fiction not been included. To me, they felt disconnected, and incomplete, even though the narrative was a relatively straightforward one which carried through. They detracted, for me, from Stevens’ lived experience, which was my main interest. I really did enjoy the elements of memoir, and the travel experience; Stevens’ recollections were honest, raw, and level-headed. She is remarkably open in revealing that her time on Bleaker Island was not really what she had imagined, and that having little to no company on a day-to-day basis was a real battle. Although Bleaker House was not quite the book I imagined, I still took a great deal from it as a reader.
I absolutely adore reading about nature, and have found such solace when reading detailed accounts about avian residents and visitors in our skies. I wanted to collect together six of my favourite books about birds, in the hope that you too, dear reader, enjoy true stories of our feathered friends as much as I do.
1. Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
‘Helen Macdonald’s bestselling debut H is for Hawk brought the astonishing story of her relationship with goshawk Mabel to global critical acclaim and announced Macdonald as one of this century’s most important and insightful nature writers. H is for Hawk won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction and the Costa Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, launching poet and falconer Macdonald as our preeminent nature essayist, with a semi-regular column in the New York Times Magazine.
In Vesper Flights Helen Macdonald brings together a collection of her best loved essays, along with new pieces on topics ranging from nostalgia for a vanishing countryside to the tribulations of farming ostriches to her own private vespers while trying to fall asleep. Meditating on notions of captivity and freedom, immigration and flight, Helen invites us into her most intimate experiences: observing songbirds from the Empire State Building as they migrate through the Tribute of Light, watching tens of thousands of cranes in Hungary, seeking the last golden orioles in Suffolk’s poplar forests. She writes with heart-tugging clarity about wild boar, swifts, mushroom hunting, migraines, the strangeness of birds’ nests, and the unexpected guidance and comfort we find when watching wildlife. By one of this century’s most important and insightful nature writers, Vesper Flights is a captivating and foundational book about observation, fascination, time, memory, love and loss and how we make sense of the world around us.’
2. The Swallow: A Biography by Stephen Moss
‘With around 5.3 million breeding pairs, the swallow is one of the most common birds in Britain. Known for living close to human settlements, including rural and urban areas, it is also one of the most-sighted. But how much do we really know about this bird?
In The Swallow Stephen Moss documents a year of observing the swallow close to home and in the field to shed light on the secret life of these extraordinary birds. We trace the swallow’s lifecycle and journey, from its arrival in the UK in Spring to its epic winter migration to warmer climes, and how the swallow takes its place in popular culture and literature across the centuries.
With beautiful illustrations throughout, this captivating year-in-the-life biography reveals the hidden secrets of this iconic bird that lives right on our doorstep.’
3. My Robin by Frances Hodgson Burnett
‘Fans of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden will relish this charming anecdote that further expands upon the robin that features in that book. In response to a reader’s letter, Burnett reminisces about her love of English robins — and one in particular that changed her life forever.’
4. Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer
Taken from my own review; you can read all of my thoughts here
‘Bird Cottage is a fictionalised account of the life of Gwendolen Howard, known as Len. Dissatisfied with her life in London, she decided to retire to the English countryside at the age of forty. In 1938, she purchased a secluded cottage in Sussex, from which she would be able to observe birds. From her new home, she found the peace, and the avian subjects, which she needed to author two bestselling bird books. With these, she managed to captivate a large audience ‘with her observations on the tits, robins, sparrows and other birds who lived nearby, flew freely in and out of her windows, and would even perch on her shoulder as she typed.’
The prologue of Bird Cottage is set in 1965, when Len is alarmed to find a ‘stocky man’ using an electric hedge-cutter in her garden. When she tells him that the hedge is filled with birds’ nests, her voice becomes ‘shriller than usual. It feels as if someone is strangling me.’ We then move back and forth through time; Len in the present day attempts to stop the birds’ habitat from being destroyed, and remembers many instances from her past which include her two greatest passions – birds, and music. As a child, living with her parents and siblings in a large house in Wales, Len used to write stories about the birds she came across, and kept lists of the many species which visited her garden each spring and summer.’
5. Wintering: A Season with Geese by Stephen Rutt
Taken from my own review; you can read my thoughts on the book here
‘In the autumn, Rutt swapped his life in Essex for a house near the Solway Firth in Dumfries, ‘a little town tucked away in the corner of Scotland, barely beyond the English border’. As he and his partner were settling in their new home, and their new country, thousands of pink-footed geese were also arriving from the Arctic Circle, to winter in Scotland. Their arrival is heralded each year as ‘one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of the season.’
In his new surroundings, Rutt cannot help but notice geese; they seem to be everywhere around him. Although he had little curiosity regarding them before – he notes in his introduction that, in mid-September during his move, ‘I am not interested in geese yet’ – he embarks on an ‘extraordinary odyssey’, in which he ‘traces the lives and habits of the most common species of goose in the British Isles and explores the place they have in our culture and our history.”
6. Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington
Taken from my own review; you can read my thoughts about Owl Sensehere
‘The book’s blurb sets out our fascination with the often elusive creatures, who have roamed the earth for over 60 million years: ‘Owls have captivated the human imagination for millennia. We have fixated on this night hunter as predator, messenger, emblem of wisdom or portent of doom.’ Here, Darlington ‘sets out to tell a new story’, by going on ‘wild encounters’ throughout the British Isles, actively looking for different native owl species. In her prologue, she further explores this enchantment which owls have had upon humans; they have ‘been part of our landscape, psychological context and emotional ecology from the moment Homo sapiens became self-aware.’ She then sets out the differing ways in which owls have been viewed in different cultures and historical periods, from the ‘guardianship of the underworld’ in Egyptian, Celtic, and Hindu cultures, to the wisdom and courage imbued upon the owl by the Ancient Greeks.
Darlington takes the decision to extend her project, seeking to ‘identify every European species of this charismatic’ bird, and travelling to Spain, France, Serbia, and Finland to see them in the wild. In order to undertake her research, Darlington set out to ‘scour the twilit woods, fields and valleys of my home archipelago and then reach further afield, learning about the ecology and conservation of these night-roaming raptors, about their presence as well as their absence. What was their place in our ecosystem; how and why have we made them into stories, given them meanings, wrapped them with all the folklore and superstition that we could muster?”
I have been lucky enough to travel quite extensively in Italy, but Florence is a city I’ve not yet visited (at least at the time of writing). I adore travel writing, and whilst it was one of the things which got me through one lockdown after another when real-life travel was banned, I had not encountered much of it in my 2022 reading life. That changed, however, when I found a slim copy of Diana Athill’s A Florence Diary in my local library.
These 64 pages are filled with ‘a charming and vivacious’ account of Athill’s trip to Florence during the late 1940s, alongside photographs taken in Florence during this period. At the time of its publication in 2016, the book was a ‘recently discovered gem’. It provides, says its blurb, ‘a vibrant portrait of one of the most beautiful and beloved cities in the world.’
In her retrospective introduction, Athill notes that this is the only diary she ever wrote, when asked to by her mother, who subsequently ‘preserved’ it: ‘My mother didn’t just read it, but even edited it a little: tiny corrections in her handwriting occur here and there.’ Of the city, she comments: ‘Florence didn’t feel like home. Its great charm lay in its unlikeliness to home – in its being enchantingly “elsewhere”. And I am forever grateful that it was my very first “elsewhere”.’
During the summer of 1947, Athill and her cousin, Pen, took the Golden Arrow train to Florence for a fortnight. The holiday was paid for by their aunt, as a celebration of the end of the Second World War, and marked the first time Athill had been out of Britain. Of herself and Pen, she comments: ‘We could hardly have been more different from one another but we travelled together as comfortably as a pair of old bedroom slippers.’
There are many comical scenes here, particularly with regard to the girls’ long train journey from central London. When their journey begins, ‘Pen didn’t register any luggage, and although her stuff was small it was very numerous, and largely tied together with insecure pieces of string. It included a smart white straw hat with blue veil, a collection of canvases, and a vicious easel which poked people in the eye at every move and kept on losing legs.’
Alongside the humour are some wonderful reminiscences too. Athill notes, breathily: ‘Everything is so beautiful that even not “doing” anything special is marvellous.’ What I particularly enjoyed here were the glimpses Athill gives into a very specific and particular period in time, when Europe was rebuilding following years of war. Of a trip to the Accademia di Belle Arti, for instance, the cousins see ‘a special exhibition of pictures that were wrecked in the war and which they are restoring… They are working miracles on them. Things that were blistered fragments are made almost whole again.’ I also appreciated the almost self-deprecating way in which Athill spoke of their actions. On Wednesday the 28th of August, for example, she wrote: ‘We left the Hotel Bonciani this morning, in a shower of gold. From our enormous popularity at the end, we deduce that we must, as usual, have over-tipped like mad.’ She comments on everything she sees, flattering or otherwise: ‘Everyone seems to adore their babies, and they spoil them and pet them and dress them up beautifully, but the minute one of the poor little things begins to go to sleep, they sweep on it and poke it and jog it and throw it in the air and bandy it about from hand to hand and coo and chuck and sing, until it is a wonder that any Italian child survives infancy.’
Athill’s writing is splendid, and she knows just the right tone to strike at every point. She beautifully notes the following partway into her stay: ‘Nobody seems to use the loggia much, we can’t think why. When I came up this evening after dinner, I almost gasped at the beauty of it. There is a moon and the sky is velvet blue, and the lights on the hill opposite are reflected in long wavering streaks in the velvet blue Arno…’.
Perhaps shamefully, I had only read a single one of Athill’s books prior to A Florence Diary, Persephone-published Midsummer Night at the Workhouse. A Florence Diary has cemented that I really need to get to more of her oeuvre, and soon. A Florence Diary is a rather charming piece of important social history, which transported me right to Italy. The joy of travelling, and of exploring somewhere new, is expressed so lovingly, and with such gratitude. I only wish it had been three times as long!
I spotted Sarah Manguso’s Very Cold People when wandering a little aimlessly around my local library. I had heard of the author, but had never read any of her work before. As soon as I spotted the quote from Jhumpa Lahiri, one of my favourite writers, on the cover, I picked it up immediately; she notes that ‘Manguso is one of the most original and exciting writers working in English today. Every word feels necessary, and she’s redefining genre as she goes.’ Lauren Groff, another of my favourite contemporary authors, comments that the novel ‘knocked me to my knees’.
Our young protagonist, Ruth, ‘watches everyone and everything, and waits… She doesn’t necessarily understand what she is seeing, but she records faithfully and with absolute clarity the unfurling of her awkward youth under even more awkward parenting.’ Her parents ‘alternately mock, ignore, undermine and discount’ her.
Ruth lives on the outskirts of ‘an affluent but threadbare New England township’. The novel, in fact, opens: ‘My parents didn’t belong in Waitsfield, but they moved there anyway.’ She goes on, revealing that her mother ‘referred to Western Massachusetts as out west, and I was mostly ignorant of the geography beyond our neighborhood. Three-quarters of the town stayed unknown to me…’. Her family has little money, and is always looking to cut corners. Money is stretched as far as it will go. Creditors often phone, and Ruth is made to pick up the phone and say that she is home alone. Of her parents, she relays: ‘They couldn’t conceive of buying a gift; a gift was something you gave away when you didn’t want it anymore.’
Throughout, I really enjoyed the imagery which Manguso presented, from an ‘old Irish cable-knit cardigan with leather buttons’ which was known as the family’s ‘warming sweater’, to passages such as this: ‘Autumn brought with it the slap-clatter of crows, fire smells, leafy sweet-rot. New corduroys, cold air, brown paper grocery bags folded over schoolbooks. Writing on the first pages of notebooks… never sure how my handwriting should look.’
I also loved the approach Manguso took. The entirety of Very Cold People is made up of short vignettes, an element which I love in fiction. We learn an awful lot about Ruth, and her family’s dynamics, in this manner; for instance, when Manguso writes: ‘In the tiny den, my parents and I sat and watched television… My father seemed capable of being transported to Victorian London or outer space, but my mother was always just a woman sitting on an upholstered sofa in 1985. She was the protagonist of everything.’
It is evident that Very Cold People has been very carefully written. Ruth sees so many things, which she dutifully reports in her vignettes, but her naïvety is always evident: ‘Amber’s parents didn’t notice when she came home late or when her older brother tickled her until she dropped her towel’, for instance. Of another friend, she comments: ‘And I didn’t think she was lying when she told me that she and her father still took showers together.’
Ruth’s phrasing is memorable, in that her unusual turns of phrase and unforeseen reminiscences add such a visceral element to the novel: ‘One of her [mother’s] swollen feet, squeezed into its little shoe, rested next to me like a cat curling up next to another cat. Yet these touches felt violent.’
Ruth herself has been so well fleshed out: ‘That day I held my chin up, my nose pointed skyward, as I crossed Weeks Road. I’d gotten the idea from a storybook. Fairy-tale people, before their comeuppance, walked with their chins up, proud and prim. I wanted to be the proud, bad girl who trod on a loaf. I wanted to challenge the world to break me. I wanted to explain that I was not yet broken.’ She goes on: ‘I had no character to speak of, no loyalty to anything. I made fun of anyone, given the chance, just as my parents did at home, talking about me, talking about their closest friends.’ In her naïvety, she invents kindnesses; she spins things around, making out that the cruel acts both directed toward her and around her are for good reason.
Manguso continually adds to the difficult relationship Ruth has with her parents, their cruelty clashing with her naïve outlook on the world: ‘For a while I’d have to suffer, out in the open, the only girl without extra sneakers for gym class, but it was only because my mother’s love was so much greater than all the other loves. It was that much more dangerous, so she had to love me in secret, absolutely unobserved by anyone, especially me.’ Ruth often talks herself out of things, or chooses not to participate, because the importance of keeping up a pretence has been constantly drummed into her: ‘I’d wanted to take Latin but I couldn’t. In school I needed to stay approximate. No one could know what I cared about.’
Very Cold People is Manguso’s debut novel, something which I feel makes it even more impressive. The author has previously published several works of creative non-fiction, but her first foray into making up an original story has left me hoping for her next novel, and soon. Very Cold People is not a happy novel by any means, but it shows the work of an excellent and thoughtful writer. Manguso builds tension quite quickly, and I had the feeling throughout that something awful was going to happen. I cared deeply for Ruth as the end of the novel approached. There is a lot here which unsettled me, and the novel is definitely saturated in a great deal of sadness. I read the entirety with a sense of heightened discomfort, but at no point did I find it too bleak to read. However, I must mention that there are trigger warnings throughout, for topics such as sexual abuse, violence, and bullying, so this certainly will not be a book for everybody.
My chosen starting point for this edition of The Book Trail is Kate Atkinson’s most recent, and of course excellent, novel, Shrines of Gaiety. As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate what I hope will be another interesting and varied list. Have you read any of these, and which titles take your fancy?
1. Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson
‘In a country still recovering from the Great War, London is the focus for a delirious nightlife. In Soho clubs, peers of the realm rub shoulders with starlets, foreign dignitaries with gangsters, and girls sell dances for a shilling a time. There, Nellie Coker is a ruthless ruler, ambitious for her six children. Niven is the eldest, his enigmatic character forged in the harsh Somme. But success breeds enemies. Nellie faces threats from without and within. Beneath the gaiety lies a dark underbelly, where one may be all too easily lost.’
2. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
‘Set in the mountains of southern Appalachia, this is the story of a boy born to a teenaged single mother in a single-wide trailer, with no assets beyond his dead father’s good looks and copper-colored hair, a caustic wit, and a fierce talent for survival. In a plot that never pauses for breath, relayed in his own unsparing voice, he braves the modern perils of foster care, child labor, derelict schools, athletic success, addiction, disastrous loves, and crushing losses. Through all of it, he reckons with his own invisibility in a popular culture where even the superheroes have abandoned rural people in favor of cities.
Many generations ago, Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield from his experience as a survivor of institutional poverty and its damages to children in his society. Those problems have yet to be solved in ours. Dickens is not a prerequisite for readers of this novel, but he provided its inspiration. In transposing a Victorian epic novel to the contemporary American South, Barbara Kingsolver enlists Dickens’ anger and compassion, and above all, his faith in the transformative powers of a good story. Demon Copperhead speaks for a new generation of lost boys, and all those born into beautiful, cursed places they can’t imagine leaving behind.’
3. Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng
‘Twelve-year-old Bird Gardner lives a quiet existence with his loving but broken father, a former linguist who now shelves books in a university library. Bird knows to not ask too many questions, stand out too much, or stray too far. For a decade, their lives have been governed by laws written to preserve “American culture” in the wake of years of economic instability and violence. To keep the peace and restore prosperity, the authorities are now allowed to relocate children of dissidents, especially those of Asian origin, and libraries have been forced to remove books seen as unpatriotic—including the work of Bird’s mother, Margaret, a Chinese American poet who left the family when he was nine years old.
Bird has grown up disavowing his mother and her poems; he doesn’t know her work or what happened to her, and he knows he shouldn’t wonder. But when he receives a mysterious letter containing only a cryptic drawing, he is pulled into a quest to find her. His journey will take him back to the many folktales she poured into his head as a child, through the ranks of an underground network of librarians, into the lives of the children who have been taken, and finally to New York City, where a new act of defiance may be the beginning of much-needed change.
Our Missing Hearts is an old story made new, of the ways supposedly civilized communities can ignore the most searing injustice. It’s a story about the power—and limitations—of art to create change, the lessons and legacies we pass on to our children, and how any of us can survive a broken world with our hearts intact.’
4. The Many Daughters of Afong Moy by Jamie Ford
‘Dorothy Moy breaks her own heart for a living. As Washington’s former poet laureate, that’s how she describes channeling her dissociative episodes and mental health struggles into her art. But when her five-year-old daughter exhibits similar behavior and begins remembering things from the lives of their ancestors, Dorothy believes the past has truly come to haunt her. Fearing that her child is predestined to endure the same debilitating depression that has marked her own life, Dorothy seeks radical help.
Through an experimental treatment designed to mitigate inherited trauma, Dorothy intimately connects with past generations of women in her family: Faye Moy, a nurse in China serving with the Flying Tigers; Zoe Moy, a student in England at a famous school with no rules; Lai King Moy, a girl quarantined in San Francisco during a plague epidemic; Greta Moy, a tech executive with a unique dating app; and Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to set foot in America.
As painful recollections affect her present life, Dorothy discovers that trauma isn’t the only thing she’s inherited. A stranger is searching for her in each time period. A stranger who’s loved her through all of her genetic memories. Dorothy endeavors to break the cycle of pain and abandonment, to finally find peace for her daughter, and gain the love that has long been waiting, knowing she may pay the ultimate price.’
5. The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn
‘One blustery night in 1928, a whale washes up on the shores of the English Channel. By law, it belongs to the King, but twelve-year-old orphan Cristabel Seagrave has other plans. She and the rest of the household—her sister, Flossie; her brother, Digby, long-awaited heir to Chilcombe manor; Maudie Kitcat, kitchen maid; Taras, visiting artist—build a theatre from the beast’s skeletal rib cage. Within the Whalebone Theatre, Cristabel can escape her feckless stepparents and brisk governesses, and her imagination comes to life.
As Cristabel grows into a headstrong young woman, World War II rears its head. She and Digby become British secret agents on separate missions in Nazi-occupied France—a more dangerous kind of playacting, it turns out, and one that threatens to tear the family apart.’
6. Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese
‘Isobel Gamble is a young seamstress carrying generations of secrets when she sets sail from Scotland in the early 1800s with her husband, Edward. An apothecary who has fallen under the spell of opium, his pile of debts have forced them to flee Edinburgh for a fresh start in the New World. But only days after they’ve arrived in Salem, Edward abruptly joins a departing ship as a medic––leaving Isobel penniless and alone in a strange country, forced to make her way by any means possible.
When she meets a young Nathaniel Hawthorne, the two are instantly drawn to each other: he is a man haunted by his ancestors, who sent innocent women to the gallows––while she is an unusually gifted needleworker, troubled by her own strange talents. As the weeks pass and Edward’s safe return grows increasingly unlikely, Nathaniel and Isobel grow closer and closer. Together, they are a muse and a dark storyteller; the enchanter and the enchanted. But which is which?
In this sensuous and hypnotizing tale, a young immigrant woman grapples with our country’s complicated past, and learns that America’s ideas of freedom and liberty often fall short of their promise. Interwoven with Isobel and Nathaniel’s story is a vivid interrogation of who gets to be a “real” American in the first half of the 19th century, a depiction of the early days of the Underground Railroad in New England, and atmospheric interstitials that capture the long history of “unusual” women being accused of witchcraft. Meticulously researched yet evocatively imagined, Hester is a timeless tale of art, ambition, and desire that examines the roots of female creative power and the men who try to shut it down.’
7. Jacqueline in Paris by Ann Mah
‘In August 1949 Jacqueline Bouvier arrives in postwar Paris to begin her junior year abroad. She’s twenty years old, socially poised but financially precarious, and all too aware of her mother’s expectations that she make a brilliant match. Before relenting to family pressure, she has one year to herself far away from sleepy Vassar College and the rigid social circles of New York, a year to explore and absorb the luminous beauty of the City of Light. Jacqueline is immediately catapulted into an intoxicating new world of champagne and châteaux, art and avant-garde theater, cafés and jazz clubs. She strikes up a romance with a talented young writer who shares her love of literature and passion for culture – even though her mother would think him most unsuitable.
But beneath the glitter and rush, France is a fragile place still haunted by the Occupation. Jacqueline lives in a rambling apartment with a widowed countess and her daughters, all of whom suffered as part of the French Resistance just a few years before. In the aftermath of World War II, Paris has become a nest of spies, and suspicion, deception, and betrayal lurk around every corner. Jacqueline is stunned to watch the rise of communism – anathema in America, but an active movement in France – never guessing she is witnessing the beginning of the political environment that will shape the rest of her life—and that of her future husband.
Evocative, sensitive, and rich in historic detail, Jacqueline in Paris portrays the origin story of an American icon. Ann Mah brilliantly imagines the intellectual and aesthetic awakening of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, and illuminates how France would prove to be her one true love, and one of the greatest influences on her life.’
8. The Last Party by Clare Mackintosh
‘At midnight, one of them is dead. By morning, all of them are suspects.
On New Year’s Eve, Rhys Lloyd has a house full of guests. His vacation homes on Mirror Lake are a success, and he’s generously invited the village to drink champagne with their wealthy new neighbors. But by midnight, Rhys will be floating dead in the freezing waters of the lake.
On New Year’s Day, Ffion Morgan has a village full of suspects. The tiny community is her home, so the suspects are her neighbors, friends and family—and Ffion has her own secrets to protect. With a lie uncovered at every turn, soon the question isn’t who wanted Rhys dead…but who finally killed him. In a village with this many secrets, murder is just the beginning.’
I have been working my way through Penelope Lively’s oeuvre, rather slowly, over the last few years. My interest in her 1975 novella, Going Back, was piqued after I saw a brief but glittering review whilst scrolling through my Goodreads feed. Clearly easily influenced, I requested it from my library just moments afterward.
At just 125 pages long, with relatively large font, Going Back can be picked up and read in an afternoon. The entirety follows our protagonist, Jane, who reflects upon her wartime childhood spent at a farmhouse in a village named Medleycott, with her brother, Edward. She remembers days full of bliss, of ‘joyful indulgence’. Regardless, something seems to cast a ‘dark, chilling shadow over Jane’s remembrance, for the idyll came to an abrupt and painful end.’
In the first chapter, Jane tells us, with nostalgia: ‘It seems smaller, going back: the garden, the house, everything. But the garden, especially. When I was a small child it was infinite: lawns, paths, high hedges, the rose garden, the long reach of the kitchen garden, the spinney with the silver birches. It was a completed world; beyond lay nothingness. Space. Limbo.’ Jane goes on: ‘Remembering it like that. There’s what you know happened, and what you think happened… Things are fudged by time; years fuse together. The things that should matter – the stepping-stones that marked the way, the decisions that made one thing happen rather than another – they get forgotten. You are left with islands in a confused and layered landscape, like the random protrusions after a heavy snowfall… There is time past, and time to come, and time that is continuous, in the head for ever.’
Despite the brevity of Going Back, we learn a great deal about the siblings and their family life. The children’s mother passed away when they were toddlers; their father was largely absent. They are looked after largely by Betty, a woman ‘tethered to her kitchen.’ Jane and Edward spent a lot of time outdoors, amusing themselves: ‘The garden was our territory – the space within which we knew the arrangement of every leaf and stone and branch… and the world had stretched and stretched like elastic.’ Indeed, the outside world is alien to them, cocooned as they are within the vast garden: ‘There was a war on, people said… There was a war on, so you couldn’t have lots of sweets any more… and no more oranges or bananas. There was a war on, so we mustn’t waste things because there won’t be any more where that came from.’
I really admire Lively’s prose, and my experience with Going Back was no different. Lively consistently conjures up such specific imagery, seeing the beauty in almost everything. I particularly enjoy the way in which Lively captures the natural world, and the changing of the seasons in her writing: ‘Autumn. The hedge outside the gate has blossomed with spider-webs. All over, they are, from top to bottom, multi-faceted, strung between blackberry sprays or tacked to the dried heads of cow-parsley… We squat on our haunches, absorbed…’. Later, she writes: ‘And the year slid, somehow, into winter. The hot, harvest, blackberry days were gone and we were into November: white skies, dark spiny trees, hot toast for tea, cold hands, feet, noses. Darkness as we fed the chickens, the stable drive pale-fringed with grasses, the landscape huddled under a violet sky, the fields peppered with snow that fell this morning and melted too soon to be any use to us.’
I love the way in which the author views everything through the lens of a child, in a world at once enormous and tiny. Lively delivers complex topics filtered through the eyes of her young protagonist; when their father goes off to fight in the war, for instance, Jane and Edward are content, as they were able to make as much noise as they wanted in the garden, something not tolerated when their father was in residence. Instead, their farmhouse hosts land girls, and then evacuees from London, a period detail which works well, but which the children do not quite understand the reasoning behind.
Interestingly, Going Back was initially published as a children’s book. On reflection, Lively writes in her foreword of August 1990, ‘it is only tenuously so; the pitch, the voice, the focus are not really those of a true children’s book.’ Retrospect helped her to see this book differently. She calls it ‘a trial run for preoccupations with the nature of memory, with a certain kind of writing, with economy and allusion. I was flexing muscles… and it was only by accident that the result seemed to me and to others to be a book primarily for children.’
Despite being set during the Second World War, I found Going Back to be a very gentle, almost comforting, read. Lively has, yet again, managed to create a story which is at once brief, yet moving.
I have been highly intrigued by A. Kendra Greene’s non-fiction book, The Museum of Whales You will Never See: Travels Among the Collectors of Iceland, since I first spotted it on Goodreads. I love quirky non-fiction, and I’m (borderline-) obsessed with Iceland, so I thought this would be something I would thoroughly enjoy.
Iceland boasts almost 300 independent museums, ‘mostly very small’, and the majority of which have sprung up since the 1990s. Some of them are set up in people’s gardens; some came into existence on the back of ‘jokes and bets’. Amongst other places, Greene visits ‘a house filled with stones’, and a ‘museum of whales that proves impossible to find’. Her exploration of Iceland’s museums takes her all over the country, from the far more populous south, to barren regions of the north. In her introductory chapter, Greene sets out that she has decided to focus her book on Iceland because she has ‘never known a place where the boundaries between private collection and public museum are so profoundly permeable, so permissive, so easily transgressed and so transparent as if almost not to exist.’
I was lucky enough to go to Iceland with my boyfriend in 2016, and visited one of the museums which Greene talks about – the Phallological Museum in the capital Reykjavík. Whilst there, I was mildly embarrassed about being surrounded by phalluses, and there exists a very awkward photograph of me standing beside an enormous whale penis, which my boyfriend insisted upon. Regardless, it was certainly an experience. Greene writes that this is ‘probably’ the only penis museum in the world.
I really enjoyed the structure of The Museums of Whales You Will Never See. The longer chapters, all of which focus on one individual museum, is either entitled ‘Gallery’ or ‘Cabinet’, and provides a small fragment of a meeting, or a curiosity discovered by the author. Each of these shorter sections refers to a separate museum, from ‘Gallery 3: Vagrants and Uncommon Visitors’, which relates to Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum, to ‘Gallery 5: The End of the World’, which details Iceland’s Herring Era Museum. The museums which she chooses here could be said to be more obscure, with unusual collections; these particular ones tend to largely be found outside of the capital city.
Throughout, Greene writes not just about how important museums are to society, but about the process of collecting itself: ‘We do not just keep and collect things, amass and restore them. We trouble ourselves to repurpose, create, and invent things just to carry, a little easier, those stories we cannot live without.’ Written specifically about the bird museum, but surely applicable to all, Greene states: ‘And surely every museum is a museum of selection, a museum of choices made, but here the how of collecting seems not to matter. The source of a thing does not matter. It is the thing that matters in its own right. And that shouldn’t shock me, surely it shouldn’t, but when was collecting ever just about things?’ Of another museum, she goes on to write: ‘Never mind all the stuff that isn’t here, the things never made or never replaced for lack of resources, the things used and reused and repaired and repurposed and chipped and cracked and tattered and frayed and splintered and bruised and torn and scuffed and scrubbed and shattered and worn until gone. These are just the things we have that weren’t consumed or obliterated, a subset of the things we could possibly have, a subset of the things there were.’
The collections written about in The Museum of Whales You Will Never See are, of course, vast in their differences, and I appreciated this. She visits very niche collections, such as the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in Hólmavík, and the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum in Bíldudalur. Greene also includes the somewhat curious detail in that the majority of Icelandic museums displaying a polar bear specimen, despite the fact that polar bears have never roamed the country. Greene also writes – although sadly not at that much length – about the collections in all of the museums across Iceland which have helped to keep Icelandic history alive in the modern age.
Although undoubtedly interesting, I must admit that it did take me quite a while to get into some of these chapters, and Greene’s writing on the whole. The author tends to launch in at very random points, and everything unfolds quite slowly. A better approach for such a book, I think, would be to begin with details of her own visit, and then unfold the story of each individual collector. At the moment, this feels quite muddled, and a lot of important details which the reader needs to make sense of certain scenes are not revealed until a long way into the chapter. The Museum of Whales You Will Never See does feel a little piecemeal at times, as the author uses short vignettes to jump between quite a number of topics.
I did feel as though an opportunity had been missed here, with the brevity of some of Greene’s writing. She mentions a few museums in passing, sometimes not even detailing their names or locations. A list of everything mentioned has been included at the back of the book, but I feel as though anyone trying to use this as a guidebook of sorts, as Greene intends, would have to be comfortable doing quite a lot of legwork beforehand.
Although I did not love this as I hoped I would, I found The Museums of Whales You Will Never See quite fascinating. I really appreciated the concentration on just one country, and hope that Greene – or another author – replicates this idea in another locale. The book does have some shortcomings, where I did not feel that certain museums were given enough space, or detail, but I understand that an author of such a book would have to be more selective than they would perhaps like.
When I saw that Salley Vickers’ eleventh novel, The Gardener, had been released, I looked out for it on my next library trip. Vickers is an author whose work I tend to enjoy, and whom I feel is rather underrated in the sea of contemporary British authors. The novel which she released before The Gardener, entitled Grandmothers, was really quite beautiful, and I couldn’t put The Librarian down.
In The Gardener, protagonist Halcyon Days, known as Hassie to all around her, buys a run-down Jacobean house named Knight’s Fee with her sister, located in a fictional village named Hope Wenlock on the Welsh Marches. Her sister, Margot, who works in finance, is present in the narrative only sporadically; she spends much of her life still in London. Of Margot, Hassie reveals: ‘I was never quite sure what it was that Margot did do but it appeared to pay.’ Hassie herself works as an illustrator on something of a freelance basis; she makes enough to scrape by on ‘a rather dismal series of children’s books’, but has only been able to invest in the house due to an inheritance.
In the ‘sprawling’ house, Hassie is left alone to tend the ‘large, long-neglected garden’. Finding it rather a large task, she asks for the help of Murat, an Albanian refugee, who has largely been ‘made to feel out of place amongst the locals’.
Alongside Hassie’s present day existence, we learn very early on that she is still locked into her childhood, and the pains which have filled her past. The house offers her healing, in a way, allowing her to pour some of her energy into discovering the history of Much Wenlock, and the nature which now surrounds her.
In the few books of Vickers’ which I have read to date, I have always felt that the author has an unwavering sense of empathy toward her characters. The Gardener is no different in this respect. Hassie feels realistic and fully-formed, and part of this is due to the sense of humour which Vickers sculpts for her. Scenes which Hassie relays, and comments which she makes are infused with an often dark humour. Of Knight’s Fee, for instance: ‘What I found, when Margot having eroded my resistance I agreed to view it, was a redbrick half-timbered building covered in creeper with what the agent assured us were Elizabethan antecedents. He was wrong about that, but I suppose it’s foolish to expect accuracy from an estate agent.’ She goes on: ‘But this very different house was certainly appealing. In its decayed grandeur it stood for a way of life I could never before have entertained.’
Another realism here is the prickly relationship between the sisters. Hassie recounts that she is expected to do the majority of the work around the house and garden: ‘… I was now ruminating, already prickling at the prospect, was that I would be the bloody toiler in the vineyard while Margot would sit in the garden, drinking and sunning herself, enjoying the results of my labours.’
One of my favourite elements of Vickers’ writing is the way in which her descriptions give a gently haunting feel to the whole. She is also excellent at capturing feelings of nostalgia. Here, she writes: ‘The stairway was vast, with an anachronistic curving mahogany banister, the kind a child would slide down. In my mind’s eye, my infant self went whizzing past the sober middle-aged person padding down the dusty stairs to the hall. The latter person followed the ghost of my young self through to the beamed kitchen and into a cold scullery.’ Her prose is gentle and graceful: ‘A kind of ritual established itself: early each morning, I would go outside in my nightdress and stand barefoot in the dew-drenched grass and the tremulous dawn light, letting the silvery birdsong rinse my ears and the clean morning air fill my lungs and the sun or wind or rain bless my skin. It was at this time of day when I felt as if I were in touch with some larger, stronger reality, which lay behind the appearance of things, the hidden faces at work beneath nature’s surface…’.
Vickers is an interesting writer; the tone of her books is rather gentle on the whole, but there are some serious topics explored; here, we are exposed to chronic loneliness, sibling rivalry, and trying to fit in within a new community, but not being accepted. Vickers flits between time periods, sometimes without clear delineation. It does take a little while to become oriented in The Gardener, but I found the process was worth it. The Gardener is a very thoughtful novel, and whilst it isn’t my favourite of Vickers’ books, it does give one rather a lot to consider. Taken as a character study, it is perhaps most successful. Those who enjoy a faster pace in their reading, and do not care for many descriptions of place, would do well not to pick this one up. However, for me, it offered a diverting and rather absorbing story, which took my attention away from current world events. I was sure at around the halfway point that my rating for The Gardener would be higher, but I personally found the ending extremely unsatisfactory; in my opinion, it did not tally with the characters’ behaviour up to that point, and it felt rather rushed.