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A Month of Favourites: ‘Someone at a Distance’ by Dorothy Whipple

First published in 2015.

After a few not very good and rather disappointing reads, I really felt in the mood for a Persephone.  I adore the books which they publish, and for me, they are one of the most important publishing houses which exists today.  Dorothy Whipple is an author who seems to be one of the most adored on the Persephone list, and I was eager to begin another of her novels.  Someone at a Distance was first published in 1953.

Someone at a Distance is introduced by Nina Bawden, an author whose work I very much enjoy.  She writes of how much she admires Whipple’s work, and says this about the novel: ‘[it] is, on the face of it, a fairly ordinary tale of a deceived wife and a foolish husband in rural suburbia not far from London and, perhaps because the author was nearing sixty when she wrote it, there is a slight pre-war flavour about the domestic expectations of the characters’.   Bawden goes on to say that ‘Whipple is a storyteller in the straightforward tradition of J.B. Priestley and Arnold Bennett rather than Virginia Woolf or Elizabeth Bowen’.

I was beguiled from the novel’s very beginning.  The opening chapter sets the tone of the whole wonderfully: ‘Widowed, in the house her husband had built with day and night nurseries and a music-room, as if the children would stay there for ever, instead of marrying and going off at the earliest possible moment, old Mrs. North yielded one day to a long-felt desire to provide herself with company.  She answered an advertisement in the personal column of The Times‘.  A young Frenchwoman, Louise Lanier, determined to spend the summer in England, is its author.  Of her newest venture, Mrs North says the following: ‘”At my age, I don’t expect fun…  But I hope it will be interesting.  I’m too old to go in search of change, so I’ll try to bring change into the house.  It’s too quiet as it is.”‘

As with a lot of the books on the Persephone list, Someone at a Distance is a familial novel.  Avery North, son of the formidable matriarch, is a publisher.  Ellen, his wife, is focused upon, and she is one of the most realistic constructs whom I have come across in fiction in such a long time: ‘Guiltily, pleasurably, she avoided the parties Bennett and North gave for authors, agents and the like…  everybody talked vociferously, and though here and there people moved aside, smiling, to let her pass, nobody interrupted conversation for her.  Slight, fair, with no idea at all of trying to make an impression, she didn’t look important and nobody wondered who she was’.

Whipple exemplifies the changing times within society marvellously: ‘Maids had disappeared from the domestic scene long ago…  Ellen now did as her neighbours did and employed day, or, more properly, half-day, women’.  We learn both about the North family, and headstrong Louise Lanier, as she finds her feet.  Whipple’s description of her is vivid from the very first: ‘Her lips were made up, even for breakfast, in a magenta colour, which nevertheless matched the varnish on the nails of her narrow hands…  What was remarkable about her, the offspring of two large, baggy parents, was her clear-cut, almost exquisite finish…  Yes, she could look after herself.  She was far from ordinary’.

‘Straightforward’ Whipple’s prose may be, but one is drawn in immediately.  Some of the turns of phrase which she crafts are beautiful: ‘Wisteria toppled over a high garden wall in dusty mauve cascades’.  This is, quite honestly, a stunning novel, and one of the best books which I have read in a long while.  As an author, Whipple has an incredible amount to offer; her books provide a marvellously restful solace in our hectic world.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Thalia’ by Frances Faviell

First published in 2016.

Like many bloggers and readers, I was immensely excited when I heard about Dean Street Press teaming up with Furrowed Middlebrow to release some little-known books written by women, and lost to the annals of time.  I was so looking forward to trying Frances Faviell’s work particularly, as I have heard a little about her over the last few years, and her storylines very much appeal to me.

The first of her novels which I decided to try was Thalia.  The novel is narrated by a young woman, eighteen-year-old Rachel, who is sent away from her aunt’s London home in something akin to disgrace.  She takes up a post in Dinard in Brittany, as a kind of companion to a young and decidedly awkward teen named Thalia.  There is a lot of family scandal within its pages, and characters as startlingly original as prickly Cynthia, Thalia and young brother Claude’s mother.  The storyline takes twists and turns here and there, and one can never quite guess where it will end up; one of the true delights of the novel, I felt. 9781911413837

One of the other strengths within the novel – and there are many – is the sense of place which Faviell details.  France springs to life immediately, and the minutiae which she displays, both in terms of the general region of Brittany, and within the home, are vivid.  One feels present in Rachel and Thalia’s colliding worlds through Faviell’s stunning use of colour and scent.  Rachel herself is startlingly three-dimensional; I would go as far as to say that she is one of the most realistic narrators whom I have ever come across.

Faviell’s writing is taut and beautiful; she is an extremely perceptive author.  I was completely entranced by Thalia, and was loath to put it down.  Thalia is brilliant; a cracking read, which definitely put me in mind of Daphne du Maurier in terms of its character development, and the use of settings as characters in themselves.  Faviell’s Brittany comes to life in just the same way as du Maurier’s evocation of Cornwall; it is clear that she adores the place, and has her own experiences there have informed this novel.

In a loose way, one can see Thalia as a coming-of-age novel, but it is so much more.  The social history evokes a period both gone and still present; there is simply so much here to love and admire.  Thalia is breathtaking and captivating, and I am now going to happily read my way through all of the Furrowed Middlebrow/Dean Street Press titles.  I imagine that, based upon the strength of Thalia, each one is going to be an absolute gem.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Giant’s House’ by Elizabeth McCracken

First published in 2012

The Giant’s House is told in retrospect from the first person perspective of librarian Peggy Cort. Thirty-five years after her story begins, Peggy is looking back on her life. From the outset, Peggy’s narrative voice is original and startling in places. She is such a charismatic, likeable narrator. Her narrative voice certainly has a distinctive style and is simultaneously chatty and eloquent, allowing the reader to be absorbed into her world from the outset. The novel addresses the audience as ‘you’ throughout which really makes the reader feel part of her story. We are consequently able to identify and empathise with Peggy completely.

9780099739913The Giant’s House does primarily deal with a love story, but it goes far deeper than that. The story begins in the autumn of 1950, when James Carlson Sweatt, the ‘giant’ of the novel, walks into the library in which Peggy works, joined by his teachers and classmates. Peggy is twenty-five years old when this happens, and James only eleven. By this point, James is already six foot four. The plot of The Giant’s House is original in that it transcends so many boundaries. In the 1950s, particularly in small-town America, many would not be aware of James’ medical condition which causes him to continually grow at an alarming rate. His classmates and other members of society treat him as an outsider. They are aware of his height towering above them but they do not really notice him as a human being. As the novel progresses, James becomes somewhat famed for his height and people begin to make special trips to Brewsterville in order to spot him.

Peggy’s sheer sense of loneliness is apparent from the outset. She has moved to Brewsterville, an unremarkable town in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, after finishing her course at library school in Philadephia. It seems that she is striving for something new – a fresh start away from everything she has ever known. Peggy, a self-confessed ‘spinster’ who has never before fallen in love, soon cares incredibly deeply for James. She does not just see him as someone too tall to fit in, but as a beautiful young boy who deserves to be loved and respected by his peers and elders. She begins a series of good deeds which eventually allow her to infiltrate James’ life, soon becoming a clear part of it. She begins by finding him different books on his weekly library trips and helping him to research other ‘giants’. The love which Peggy feels for James blossoms slowly at first. The prose is compelling, really making the reader believe in Peggy’s plight.

The Giant’s House transcends different stages in the lives of James and Peggy – stages both lived together and apart. The essence of the novel is about being different, being an outsider, trying so desperately to fit in even though you know your battle will ultimately be fruitless. The story itself builds to an incredibly sad crescendo and really jolts the reader’s heart.

Other characters feature in the novel but James features most heavily of all. He is the most pivotal character of The Giant’s House. The other characters, including Peggy, orbit around James and his wellbeing. He is their common link, an intrinsic fibre of the story and the bond which ties everything together. He really begins to come out of his shell as the story unfolds. The other characters who form different kinds of relationships with Peggy are Astoria Peck, a colleague at the library in which Peggy works, Mrs Sweatt, and Caroline and Oscar Strickland. James’ mother, Mrs Sweatt, seems a little troubled from the outset of the novel. Nobody knows her first name and she is consequently just known as ‘Missus’. She is described as being rather a heavy drinker. Caroline Strickland is the tomboyish aunt of James. She is friendly and humorous in the way in which she says things so matter-of-factly – for example, ‘Well Peggy Cort… You’re not an unpleasant woman’. Oscar Strickland is Caroline’s husband and James’ kindly uncle. At the start, James’ father does not feature in the story. He is being brought up by his mother, Aunt Caroline and Uncle Oscar in a white house painted with flowers.

The entire host of characters in The Giant’s House is incredibly believable. They fit together like people in a real twentieth century society. All of the characters are intriguing in their own ways. Despite the fact that they all live in the same small town, they are remarkably different from one another. This is another reason why they interact so well within the story. None of their dialogue, speech patterns, turns of phrase or elements which build their three-dimensional characters overlap in any way. Their interactions are always fresh and surprising, and nothing mundane is relayed in McCracken’s writing. Her dialogue is wonderful. She adds an extra depth to her characters by making them speak so realistically. Her dialogue becomes intrinsically linked with the bare bones of each character until they are suddenly fully fleshed out individuals walking around the town of Brewsterville as though they have always been there.

With regard to the writing style of the novel, McCracken is unlike many of the contemporary novelists publishing today. The first sentence of The Giant’s House – ‘I do not love mankind’ – immediately places a barrage of questions into the mind of the reader and makes us empathise with Peggy immediately.

The novel is split into three separate parts and the prose itself is haunting in places. The novel is set in the unfolding 1950s but McCracken writes in such a way that the setting and plot are vivid and alive. The reader feels that they are part of the action rather than wholly removed from it.

With each reading of The Giant’s House, new details seem to glow from the page. It is one of those novels that deepens and affects the reader more each time it is read. Something new is taken away with each consecutive reading of the novel. The Giant’s House is a story which seems to grow with the reader, and is a novel which deserves to be recognised as one of the highest peaks of modern literature.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote

The Spectator describes the book as ‘The American dream turning into the American nightmare…  a remarkable book’, and its blurb heralds it ‘a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative’.

Published in 1966 and dedicated to Jack Dunphy and Harper Lee with Capote’s ‘love and gratitude’, In Cold Blood is ‘controversial and compelling’.  It ‘reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and children.  Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime, as well as the effects which it had on those involved.  At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickok, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible, yet entirely and frighteningly human’.  All of the material which Capote says is ‘not derived from my own observation’ is taken from official records and interviews ‘conducted over a considerable period of time’.9780141182575

Capote masterfully sets the scene and tone of the whole from the outset: ‘The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there”.  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clean air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.  The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang…  and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes’.  Holcomb itself is described as ‘an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the centre by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad…  After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the driest mud’.

As in his fiction, his depiction and control of every single scene is gripping and vivid.  This is particularly true when he describes the event which was to shake the entire community: ‘But then, in the earliest hours of the morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises – on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles.  At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.  But afterwards the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy recreating them over and again – those sombre explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbours viewed each other strangely, and as strangers’.

The Clutter family – Herbert and Bonnie, and the youngest of their four children, sixteen-year-old Nancy and fourteen-year-old Kenyon – are the victims, all of whom were tied up and shot at close range in their home in 1959.  Descended from German immigrants who moved to Kansas in 1880, they were a prominent and well-respected family in the area, and all were profoundly shocked at their murder: ‘Feeling wouldn’t run half so high if this had happened to anyone except the Clutters.  Anyone less admired.  Prosperous.  Secure.  But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it’s like being told there is no God.  It makes life seem pointless.  I don’t think people are so much frightened as they are deeply depressed’.  The peripheral characters which Capote makes use of, both in terms of testimony and as part of his beautifully prosaic telling of the murders, are wonderfully and strikingly described.  Local postmistress Myrtle Clare, for example, is ‘a gaunt trouser-wearing, woollen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-coloured, gingery-tempered woman of unrevealed age… but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration’.

The rendering of the Clutters’ story is incredibly powerful and resonant, and has been so well sculpted.  Capote has been incredibly clever in that he follows both the victims and the perpetrators, explaining their pasts and the motives of the killers.  He is almost compassionate towards Perry Smith, and this gives an interesting and memorable slant to the whole.  In Cold Blood is distinctly Capote’s work; it rings with such understanding of those involved, without exception.  Real depth has been given to the whole, and it feels as though the reader is watching events unfold when they happen, rather from the position of retrospect.  In Cold Blood is a compelling and important piece of non-fiction, and it has made its way straight onto my favourites list.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Stoner’ by John Williams

Many of you, I am sure, will remember the enormous hype which surrounded the republication of John Williams’ forgotten classic Stoner in 2013.  (If not, I refer you to this Guardian article.)  I, of course – as a self-confessed fan of American literature, and with the dream of becoming a lecturer myself – wanted to read the novel as soon as I heard about it.  I decided, though, to let the hype die down a little, so that I could get to it in my own time and make up my own mind – hopefully untinged by Times Literary Supplement reviews and the like – about it.

The plot of Stoner put me in mind of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which I read earlier this year and very much enjoyed.  Stoner – as one inevitably comes to expect with such a popular book – has been incredibly well reviewed over the last couple of years; Colum McCann writes that it ‘deserves the status of a classic’, and The New Yorker believes that it is a ‘perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving that it takes your breath away’.

The novel focuses upon William Stoner, who enters the University of Missouri in order to study agriculture and improve his father’s farm.  Rather than return to the family homestead once he has finished his degree, Stoner decides to remain in academia, studying first for a Master’s, and then for a PhD.  He marries the ‘wrong woman’, and has a relatively quiet life, to the extent that ‘after his death his colleagues remember him rarely’.  The blurb of the beautiful Vintage edition pictured writes, ‘Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value.  Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life’.

Stoner begins in the following manner, in which Williams gently sets the tone for the whole: ‘William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen.  Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same university, where he taught until his death in 1956.  He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses…  Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers’.

The introduction to this particular edition has been written by John McGahern.  Whilst I did read the majority of it, McGahern’s introspective does give away several major plot points, and is perhaps best left until last.  I personally found those elements which included deeper analysis about the work far more useful than his recounting of the plot.  McGahern does, however, reference the following statement which Williams made about Stoner, in a rare interview which he gave towards the end of his life: ‘I think he’s a real hero.  A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life.  I think he had a very good life.  He had a better life than most people do, certainly.  He was doing what he wanted to do…  His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was…  It’s the love of the thing that’s essential.  And if you love something, you’re going to understand it.  And if you understand it, you’re going to learn a lot’.

Williams won the National Book Award for his novel Augustus in 1973; it is shameful that he is neither more widely read, nor better known.  Of his four novels, McGahern believes that ‘Stoner is the most personal, in that it is closely linked to John Williams’s own life and career, without in any way being autobiographical’.  He goes on to say that, ‘The small world of the university opens out to war and politics, to the years of the Depression and the millions who once walked erect in their own identities; and then to the whole of life’.

I was reminded of Richard Yates’ novels in places, particularly due to the control which Williams holds over his vocabulary and characters.  The psychology which he perceptively depicts here is often startling, and the entire novel is incredibly profound.  The historical and social contexts which have been drawn as backdrops for Stoner to live his life against are well wrought, and used to good effect.

Before I began to read Stoner, I must admit that I was expecting it to be incredible, and thought that I would more than likely adore it.  I am so pleased to be able to report that in this instance, my expectations were not set too high; the novel astounded me throughout, and was even better than I had been led to believe it would be.  I found myself reading at a far slower pace than usual in order to savour every single word.

Go now, readers; run to your local bookshop, pick up a copy of Stoner, clutch it to your body like a precious child, and read it from cover to cover without stopping.  It is a decision which you will not regret.  Stoner is admirable, stunning, beautiful, and rather perfect to boot.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Saplings’ by Noel Streatfeild

As with most of the books which I blog about, it seems, I have wanted to read Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings for a very long time indeed.  I have heard only excellent things about it, and the fact that it is published by Persephone was another huge selling point as far as I was concerned.  I rather adored Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes when I read it a couple of years ago, and thought that Saplings would be the perfect summertime read.  (I can only apologise, therefore, that this post is going out in wintertime.)

Saplings, originally published in 1945, tells of the Wiltshires, a middle class London family whom, at the outset, are taking their annual summer holiday in Eastbourne.  As a unit, they are largely incredibly contented, and war seems like a proposition which is very far away.  Streatfeild thrusts us right into the heart of the family.  We meet the six almost simultaneously; parents Alex and Lena, and the four children – Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Thursday.  Streatfeild’s aim, says Dr Jeremy Holmes, the author of the book’s introduction, was to take a happy pre-war familial unit, and then track, ‘in miserable detail the disintegration and devastation which war brought to thousands of such families’.

The novel’s beginning captivated me entirely: ‘As the outgoing tide uncovered the little stretch of sand amongst the pebbles, the children took possession of it, marking it as their own with their spades, pails, shrimping nets and their mother’s camp stool’.  Throughout, one of Streatfeild’s many strengths is the way in which she captures emotions so deftly: ‘The cool air, the fresh smell of the sea, the knowledge that it was another lovely day and there were no lessons and few restrictions, filled the children with that sort of happiness that starts in the solar plexus and rises to the throat, and then, before it can reach the top of the head, has to be given an outlet: anything will do, violent action, shouting or just silliness’.  She is an incredibly perceptive author, particularly with regard to the portrayal of her younger protagonists: ‘Laurel, back on the raft, attempted some more backward dives.  Each month or two she tried to be first-class at something.  She had discovered that if you were admittedly good at something, it seemed to allow you to be just ordinary about everything else’.

To continue with this theme, Streatfeild views many of her scenes from every possible angle, taking into account the thoughts and feelings of all involved at any given time.  Of Laurel, for example, her father thinks the following: ‘It was in his mind to tell her how proud he was.  How he loved her comic small face and her fair pig-tails, and her earnestness, and her elder sister ways which were such an endearing part of the family set-up; but he held back his thoughts.  No good going in for a lot of chat, making her self-conscious’.  Turning to Lena, the matriarch, Streatfeild writes the following: ‘Lena could see herself, fair and slim, little Tuesday lolling against her and exquisite Kim playing around, and she knew what a picture she must look, and the thought amused rather than pleased her.  There was nothing she liked better than to be envied and admired…  The children were darlings, but she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on being just these things’.

Everything changes for the Wiltshires as soon as they return to their London home.  The children are split up, some going off to school, and others being sent to live with relatives in the country: ‘Laurel had alternated between tears and a kind of hectic pseudo-gaiety ever since the move to Gran’s and Grandfather’s was certain and her school uniform purchased.  She was scared. At eleven she understood what was going on around her. She had watched the hasty evacuation of other children.  She had heard scraps of conversation…  As a shield she made loud fun of all war precautions’.

Streatfeild’s descriptions are gorgeous, particularly in those instances where she takes the hopes, thoughts and feelings of her characters into account.  A particularly striking example of this is as follows: ‘Now and again, when the sky was blue, and the trees glittered, incredibly green, and the scent of young bracken filled his nostrils, he forgot everything except the glory of the day and the fun of being alive’.  Incredibly well crafted, and utterly beautiful, Saplings is a novel which really gets into the psychology of wartime, and demonstrates just how much of a knock-on effect it had from the beginning.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Sculptor’s Daughter’ by Tove Jansson

“Tove Jansson’s first book for adults drew on her childhood memories to capture afresh the enchantments and fears of growing up in Helsinki in the nineteen tens and twenties. Described as both a memoir and ‘a book of superb stories’ by Ali Smith, her startlingly evocative prose offers a glimpse of the mysteries of winter ice, the bonhomie of balalaika parties, and the vastness of Christmas viewed from beneath the tree.”

I have wanted to read Sculptor’s Daughter ever since I first learnt of its existence around eight years ago.  Despite fruitless Internet searches, I could never locate a copy of the book which fell beneath £300.  When I found out that the marvellous people at Sort Of Books, who are responsible for publishing a lot of Jansson’s fiction, were reissuing it in a gorgeous hardback edition, I was incredibly excited.  I never preorder books, but this was the one exception to my rule.

Jansson, as many of the readers of this blog probably already know, is one of the authors whom I adore the most.  Her fiction never fails to astonish me with both its beauty and clarity, and it goes without saying that I absolutely love the creation which she is most famous for – the Moomins.

Author Ali Smith’s introduction to Sculptor’s Daughter is wonderful.  It is clear that she very much admires Jansson’s work.  Sculptor’s Daughter is essentially a childhood memoir of sorts, told through a series of short stories.  When opening the book, a lot of the titles seemed familiar to me, and that is because thirteen of the nineteen tales published within its pages can be found within Jansson’s A Winter Book.  If I had known this beforehand, I still would have preordered the volume, as it does contain six stories which were new to me.  Each of these is exquisite, like a tiny treasure in itself.

Sculptor’s Daughter has been beautifully produced, and the photographs throughout are lovely.  My only qualm is that a couple of these were printed more than once, which was a little bit of a shame.  It will come as no surprise, however, to say that I absolutely loved this book, and will be reading it many more times in years to come.

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