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A Month of Favourites: ‘Greenery Street’ by Denis Mackail

First published in October 2016.

Denis Mackail’s Greenery Street (1925) brings something a little different to the female-dominated Persephone list, in that is one of the few novels they have chosen to publish which was penned by a man.  I knew nothing about Mackail before I began to read – not even that he was the brother of celebrated author Angela Thirkell, whose works are currently being reprinted by Virago – but the introduction was fascinating, and I was left with the impression that he was a man I would have enjoyed spending time in the company of.  He sounds like an awfully humble fellow; of his writing, he said, ‘I was just trying to tell stories, to get bits of life on to paper, and, I suppose, to express myself.  Where does all that gaiety and kindness come from when in real life I am a cynic and frequently a wet blanket as well?’

9781903155257The Greenery Street of the novel’s title is based on Mackail’s Walpole Street, in which he lived; it ‘consists of thirty-six narrow little houses – all, at first glance, exactly the same’.  Mackail sets the scene immediately, and one feels utterly familiar with the street and its inhabitants, despite never setting foot in the locale: ‘For though every young married couple that comes to Greenery Street does so with the intention of staying there for life, there are few streets where in actual fact the population is more constantly changing.  And the first sign of this change is in almost every case the same.  It is seen in the arrival of a brand new perambulator’.  On this seemingly inevitable point of leaving the street – or, rather, of being ‘forced out’ of one’s five-storey home as it is simply not big enough to house a child – the house itself is personified: ‘For all the happy memories which the little house holds, it has already become his enemy.  He knows this, and yet he can never hate it in return.  Neither, though, can he allow it to see how much, how terribly, he minds.’

We are introduced to Felicity Hamilton and Ian Foster at the outset of the second chapter.  The pair have been officially engaged for ‘very nearly a fortnight’.  The difference between them is vast – Felicity is frivolous and naive, and Ian is far more level-headed and pragmatic – but this makes the relationship between the two, and the way in which they interact, all the more interesting.

Every single one of Mackail’s characters, whether protagonists or not, feel incredibly realistic.  One could be forgiven for holding the opinion that a novel written entirely about the day-to-day lives of a married couple in the 1920s could be rather dull.  Greenery Street does busy itself with such things as budgeting, ordering meals, and decorating, but it is rendered in such a way that mundane is one thing it is not.  The details which he picks out are surprising in both his descriptions and perceptiveness: ‘His heart melted to the consistence of a hard-boiled egg.  His principles and scruples trickled out of the heels of his shoes.  He loved this maddeningly unbusinesslike creature [of Felicity], more than anyone had loved anybody in the whole history of the world…  What did anything matter so long as she clung to him like this, so long as her eyelashes flickered against his cheeks, and her heart beat so comfortably against his own?’

With regard to the novel’s prose, Mackail is witty, presenting little wink-wink nudge-nudge asides to the reader at intervals.  These additions to the main story are refreshing, and it is almost as though the reader is taken into his confidence: ‘We haven’t had much space for descriptions of people in this record so far; we have rather had to take them as they come; but we must try and squeeze in a paragraph for Mr and Mrs Foster’s brother-in-law – if only because he was so shy that we should never get to know him if we waited for him to make the first move’.

As an author, Mackail is shrewd and acerbic; the Foster’s maid, Ellen, is referred to throughout as ‘the Murderess’, for instance.  Greenery Street is also filled with humorous details; when visiting the next-door neighbours for a dinner party of sorts, both Ian and Felicity are presented with drinks which they do not particularly want: ‘Felicity, afraid of provoking him [Mr Lambert] again, took the glass which he offered her and managed, a little later, to hide it behind a photograph-frame on the mantelpiece.  Ian – after a sip which came near choking him – found sanctuary for his on the floor under his chair.  Mr and Mrs Lambert emptied their beakers with appreciative relish’.

There are interesting elements to the prose at points; some of the dialogue is rendered in play format, for example.  The itemisation of Felicity’s small library, along with details pertaining to any damage on each particular tome, was both simple and clever: ‘Item.  Shakespeare’s plays in three volumes – one slightly damaged by water, the result of the owner’s attempt to read Romeo and Juliet while having a bath.  Damage occurred when owner was fifteen’.  We are shown many of Felicity’s inner thoughts too, which works wonderfully as it unfolds against her speech and actions.

Almost every book which gets Persephone’s stamp of approval is a firm favourite of mine.  Greenery Street is no exception.  It is a perfectly compelling read, and one which I am going to be recommending as highly as I possibly can.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Iceberg’ by Marion Coutts

The Iceberg by Marion Coutts was my book of the year in 2015.  Never have I read an illness narrative which is so poignant, nor a reflection on life which sings with such beauty and sadness.  A recent presentation which I had to give on the book is below.

Winner_-_The_Icebe_3285478fMarion Coutts’ The Iceberg presents not just one story – that of her husband Tom Lubbock’s gradual decline after being diagnosed with a brain tumour in September 2008 – but three; her own, Tom’s, and their young son Ev’s.  She writes, ‘We will all be changed by this.  He [Ev] the most’.

Tom’s trip to the hospital, which led to his diagnosis, was brought on by a seizure suffered whilst at a friend’s; this was the trigger, the catalyst, for the next two and a bit years, dying, as he did, on the 9th of January 2011.  The way in which Tom relays the news of his cancer to Coutts is incredibly matter of fact: ‘Tom stops me.  He says he has had a phone call.  He has a brain tumour.  It is very likely malignant’.  This discovery comes on an already momentous day for the couple – that of Ev’s first day away from them at the childminder’s.  Initially, she is distraught, breaking down in tears, but she does show strength of character from the outset, acting in what she sees as her familial duty.  She realises that she has to adopt the position of proverbial rock for both her husband and son: ‘Right from the start see how I set myself up.  Let us see how this thing goes’.

The book was a pre-planned project of sorts.  As soon as Coutts realises that something is drastically wrong with her husband, and is faced with his mortality – and, indirectly, her own – she consciously thinks about documenting the process.  She opens The Iceberg with the following: ‘A book about the future must be written in advance.  Later I won’t have the energy to speak.  So I will do it now’.  There is no doubt that Tom’s decline will be draining for all involved, and she is already steeling herself for the rocky road ahead.  The Iceberg is as much a historical document for she and her son to gain solace from, as it is a manual for those who are watching the suffering of a loved one to live by.

Throughout, the loss of speech and endless rounds of chemotherapy are not happening directly to Coutts; she is a bystander in proceedings – Tom’s crutch, as it were.  Throughout, she is remarkably understanding and empathetic, continually thinking of the ways in which certain daily processes will affect Tom, and how she can better his quality of life.  This applies both to the daily routine at home, and Tom’s medical care: ‘Normality is gifted in the form of steroids, 2mg daily, and immediately he tightens his grip on language and on the connection of meaning to word’.  She tries to maintain a manageable balance between their old, ordinary family life, and the situation which they have been forced into; they still see friends, and go on walks, for instance, which perpetuates a sense of normalcy in the face of the unknown.  She is essentially a mediator in a time of what could easily descend into panic.  ‘On hearing the news, our instinct is to tell it’, she says.  There is rarely any deception here, and the need to be honest – both with one another, and with others who matter to the couple – is paramount.

coutts-tom-and-ev-011

Coutts’ is a diachronic account; there is historical reach, and a chronological structure.  The form which she has chosen to use is not so much a diary format, as an almost academic way of breaking up separate scenes.  She deals with one day at a time, but the ‘1.1’ and ‘1.2’ structure does take an element of reality away from the whole.  Whilst we do not know the exact dates in which the written accounts took place, the whole is still achingly personal.  There is hope here; very early on in the book, she writes: ‘… we carry on in many ways as before but crosswise to what might be expected, we are not plunged into night’.

The couple do, however, become less able to discuss what the future – or lack thereof – holds for them, and for Ev.  On page 163, Coutts explains that ‘… there is the Talking Issue, meaning talking about what is going on, articulating the disaster that coagulates around us.  Tom promised a while back to begin a conversation with Ev and he has not done this’.  How does one communicate to a toddler that soon his beloved father will no longer be in his life?  Words, however, still have the power to carry them through their ordeal.  Whilst undergoing chemotherapy, Coutts describes the way in which she tenderly whispers poetry ‘with my mouth close to Tom’s ear’ (p168).

The Iceberg is a beautiful, brave, and heartfelt account of a newly-discovered mortality, which shows how one can make every single second in life count for something.  Love is at the forefront of every entry, and every decision which the couple make.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern

Before I begin to speak about The Night Circus, I must say that the book itself (I am lucky enough to have the first edition hardback) is a thing of beauty.  Its pages are edged in black, the endpapers and illustrated pages are extremely pretty, and there is even a lovely red ribbon bookmark attached.  It pleases me when so much thought has been put into the aesthetic elements of the book, and this is one of my favourites in terms of design.

The blurb is incredibly enticing:

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night. 

“But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.”

I first read The Night Circus last year, and very much enjoyed it.  I love the way in which the novel begins, and Morgenstern sets the scene beautifully.  The way in which she describes the circus is enchanting, and this element strengthens as the novel goes on.  I adore the descriptions of the enchantments which can be found within each tent; they drip with beauty, and Morgenstern has a way of making everything she writes about incredibly vivid.  The Night Circus is an incredibly absorbing book.  It has been plotted in such a way that as soon as one begins to read, a spell of sorts is cast upon them, which makes them want to do nothing but read on.

‘The Night Circus’ sculpture by Rabarama at deviantART

The use of different narrative techniques throughout is done in a skilful manner.  The main thread of the story is written using the third person perspective, and small sections of it use the second person, addressing the reader directly and making them a part of the story.  So many tales have been wondrously woven together, and many characters who are intrinsically linked within the circus come to light as the novel weaves its magic.  The characterisation is sublime.

I found, on my second reading, that I enjoyed it even more than the first.  It has joined my list of treasures, and is a novel which I will come back to again and again.  The Night Circus is beautiful, enchanting and incredibly clever, and the images which it creates will never leave me.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy

‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy

I was so excited when I opened this most beautiful of books on Christmas morning.  The entirety is so well presented, from its beautiful silver-foiled cover, to the fact that it comes complete with a contents page.

The blurb of The World’s Wife is so enticing: ‘That saying?  “Behind every famous man…?”  From Mrs Midas to Queen Kong, from Elvis’ twin sister to Pygmalion’s bride, they’re all here, in The World’s Wife.  Witty and thought-provoking, this tongue-in-cheek, no-holds-barred look at the real movers and shakers across history, myth and legend…  the wives of the great, the good, the not so good, and the legendary are given a voice in Carol Ann Duffy’s sparkling and inventive collection’.

Each and every poem within the book’s pages is so clever.  Duffy tells tales which we all know, and which form great parts of our human consciousness, from the perspectives of the women who appear within them.  ‘Little Red Cap’ is narrated by Red Riding Hood, and ‘Queen Herod’ from the viewpoint of Herod’s wife, who states that it was her idea to ‘kill each mother’s son’ so that no man would be able to make her baby daughter cry, for example.

The World’s Wife is absolutely beautiful in terms of the writing within each poem, and each syllable has clearly been so carefully thought out.  Duffy has a marvellous way with words, able to craft such vivid images in just a single line or two.

(From ‘Thetis):
‘I was wind, I was gas,
I was all hot air, trailed
clouds for hair.
I scrawled my name with a hurricane
when out of the blue
roared a fighter plane’

I love the different techniques which have been used throughout.  This causes each and every poem to stand out within the collection.  Each voice which has been crafted is distinctive.  In The World’s Wife, Duffy has demonstrated that she is the creme de la creme of contemporary poetry.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

Since first encountering the delightful Oskar and Safran Foer’s stunning way of writing, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been a firm favourite of mine.  The protagonist, Oskar Schell, is a nine-year old boy who lives in New York City with his mother.  Oskar’s father was killed during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.     The main thread of the story comes when grieving Oskar unearths a key, and believes that it holds the answer to a mystery which only he can solve.  There are, Oskar works out, 162 million locks in New York, but he has no idea as to which of these his father’s key will open.  He consequently goes on a quest of sorts through his city, piecing things together as he goes. 9780141025186

Picking up clues along the way, he is soon put onto the trail of someone with the surname of Black: ‘That was my great plan.  I would spend my Saturdays and Sundays finding all of the people named Black and learning what they knew about the key in the vase in Dad’s closet.  In a year and a half I would know everything.  Or at least know that I had to come up with a new plan’.

Oskar is one of the most original child characters whom I have come across in fiction, and he is a sheer joy to become acquainted with.  He is a headstrong and creative child; at the beginning of the book, for example, he talks about a host of inventions which he has thought up, clearly placing the reader inside his mind and giving an insight into his thought patterns: ‘What about a teakettle?  What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me?…  What about little microphones?  What if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls?’

The novel is at once beautiful, heartwarming and achingly sad.  Safran Foer has such a gorgeous and rather original way of writing; he immediately captures vivid scenes through Oskar’s eyes, and makes every single one of his characters both quirky and utterly believable.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a creative novel.  Whilst the majority of the story is told from Oskar’s perspective, there are also letters and photographs which, at first, add to the overall mystery.  The incredibly well-plotted whole has been so thoughtfully crafted and put together, and the reader is able to play the part of detective alongside our adorable, naive narrator, who becomes more worldly-wise as he follows the trail.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of contemporary fiction around.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of William Maxwell and Eudora Welty’, edited by Suzanne Mars

First published in December 2016.

What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell is one of my most anticipated books – well, ever.  Maxwell is one of my favourite writers (and it pains me that he is so little known), and I very much admire Welty.  Regardless, I knew little about them as individuals, so when I spotted this volume, I immediately put it at the top of my birthday list. 97805477503231

Marrs’ introduction is wonderful.  She writes with such passion, and compassion, for her subjects.  From the very beginning, I knew that I would have loved to meet both of those whom Marrs clearly deeply admires.  Welty was an incredibly sassy, shrewd woman; of Jane Austen’s house, she wrote that it ‘looks big, but is really small.  The opposite of her novels.’  Bill, who struck up a wondrous friendship with her, was an incredibly humble, humane man, filled with a myriad of thoughts, and devoted to all of those around him.

It goes without saying that both are incredible writers.  Learning about the process of their craft was fascinating enough, but getting to know the pair as individuals was far more rewarding.  That rare thing is so evident here; that enduring friendship, built upon mutual respect, which was all the more cherished as the two lived far from one another (Maxwell in New York, and Welty in Mississippi).  They could see one another only at long intervals, but in some ways, both found this beneficial; the therapeutic motion of penning (semi-) regular letters to one another lasted for decades, and much was learnt about the other in consequence.

What There Is To Say We Have Said is a stunning read, and I was a little sad when I came to its end.  Throughout, one is nudged to remember just how important communication is (and just how much the majority of us in the modern world almost instantaneous communication for granted), and how beautiful the art of letter writing.  There is not a single dull sentence in this 450-page long volume, and if it had been twice as long, I would have been thrilled.

I could type out quotes at length here, but I shall leave you, dear reader, with the ones which really touched me:
– Maxwell to Welty: ‘There are enough similarities in our two childhoods to make me feel […] that they grew up on a tandem bicycle.’
– Maxwell to Welty, on the publication of one of her works: ‘But I wanted to write to you now, because when a book first comes out, it is really like a party, and when I am invited to a party, I like to come early.’

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December: A Month of Favourites

I truly love all of the months of the year and the diversities which they have to offer, but December is something special.  Christmas comes our way, of course, but I also love the hygge atmosphere, seeing friends and family, all of the wonderful food, and things like Christmas markets and snow.

This year has been a particularly busy one, what with progressing to the second year of my PhD, and so I’ve decided that I want to take as much of a break as is possible during December.  I hope you, dear readers, can understand that with my studies, I haven’t had as much time as previously to write and schedule posts, and although I’ve still been reading a lot, many of my reviews have tended to be only a paragraph or two long this year.

I have therefore decided that during December, I will be scheduling a month of reviews of favourite books of mine.  A couple of them will be new, but others will be taken from my (somehow surprisingly vast) review archives.  I hope you enjoy reading – or rereading – them, and that your interest is piqued in a tome or two!