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‘The Holiday Friend’ by Pamela Hansford Johnson ****

Having read two of her novels now, I am almost certain that Pamela Hansford Johnson could fast become a favourite author of mine.  I adored An Impossible Marriage, which I found to be gripping and utterly believable, and keenly sought out The Holiday Friend, which my local library had a copy of.  This is sadly the only one of her novels available in my county library’s service, and I am trying to work out how I can read more of her oeuvre without purchasing them during my no-buy year.

I digress.  The Independent calls The Holiday Friend ‘a powerful tragedy’, and Kirkus writes that the novel ‘teases your curiosity and plays on your sympathy’.  It sounded rather different to An Impossible Marriage, but I was very much looking forward to reading it.  I am pleased to announce that I was gripped from the very first page. 41gtohholxl._sx324_bo1204203200_

The Holiday Friend takes place over a fortnight in late July and early August, and is set entirely in the fictional seaside resort of Les Roseaux (Het Riet) in Belgium.  Happily married couple Gavin and Hannah Eastwood have returned to the region for their summer holiday, with their eleven-year-old son Giles in tow.  They are staying in the same guesthouse as the previous summer, content in the knowledge that they know so many people in the small town.  Les Roseaux is a town entirely shaped by the holiday season; ‘after the peak months,’ Hansford Johnson explains, ‘trade drops off rapidly’.

However, this summer’s holiday is destined not to run anywhere near as smoothly.  One of lecturer Gavin’s students, Melissa Hirst, has steadily become obsessed with him, and has followed him to Belgium.  She then proceeds to go out of her way to ‘bump into the couple repeatedly – soon becoming inescapable.’

When she writes about characters, Hansford Johnson reminds me somewhat of the wonderful Dorothy Whipple.  Here, there is the same sharpness of eye, slightly acerbic humour and commentary, and a great understanding of just how complex humans are.  One gets a feel for each of the characters as soon as they are introduced.  In the first snapshots which she gives of her protagonists, Hansford Johnson describes Gavin as ‘tall and graceful, a dressy man with an inclination to identify with youth; but he went no further in this than to wear his hair rather long over his forehead, though short at back and side, and to indulge in a broad orange tie, bought specially for this holiday.’  Hannah is ‘humble and thought little of herself’, and young Giles ‘dreamy and bad at school’.

Melissa, the antagonist of the piece, is described as ‘a fairly tall girl’ of twenty-one, an English student who has attended Gavin’s History of Art lectures.  Hansford Johnson shows Melissa’s all-consuming love for Gavin immediately, writing: ‘She lived when she was near him and at other times she merely existed.’  Melissa bumps into the family almost as soon as she arrives, and passes it off as a huge coincidence.  Reflecting upon meeting Gavin’s wife and child, ‘it appeared to her, despite herself, that they were a very united family.  But the marriage had been a long one, and she felt that there were times when he might be tired of it.’

Hansford Johnson’s descriptions of scenery are evocative, and they certainly hold appeal.  She writes, for instance, of the way in which ‘… the sun flushed the sand and glittered on the sea.  To the left, the dunes were white as ivory, and the reeds, from which the town got its name, shivered and whistled.’  It was lovely to read something set in Belgium; it is a place which I love to visit, but rarely see in fiction.  Hansford Johnson really brought the quiet beauty of the country for life for me.

The Holiday Friend was first published in 1972, and reprinted by Hodder and Stoughton in 2019, along with several of her other novels.  There are elements of the novel which feel entirely modern, but it is also wonderfully steeped in an era of afternoon tea and supper, of very specific fashions, and of the middle classes now being able to expand their horizons with a yearly holiday abroad.  There are some cliches at play here; the young, bossy German boy named Hans, for example, who is never happier than when others are running around at his beck and call.

Fans of both Dorothy Whipple and Celia Fremlin will, I feel, wholeheartedly enjoy the work of Hansford Johnson.  There are a lot of similarities which one could draw between her work and that of Whipple’s and Fremlin’s, but there is also something entirely original at play here.  The mounting, unsettling feeling which she has built so well perfectly suits the elements of the story, and the touch of domestic noir at play only adds to this.  The chilling elements which are threaded throughout The Holiday Friend have been handled expertly.  There is something quite claustrophobic about Melissa’s obsession with Gavin, and disdain for his wife and son.

The Holiday Friend is a really thorough study of several quite different characters, and what motivates and moves them.  Whilst I did not find it quite as gripping as An Impossible Marriage, it is still an excellent novel, and one which will stay with me for a long time to come.

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Reading the World: Belgium

My Reading the World series brings us to the lovely country Belgium.  I first visited whilst still rather a small child, for the purposes of visiting Centre Parcs, and have been back many times since.  Despite this, whilst scouring my shelves, I realised that I haven’t actually read much fiction or non-fiction set there.  Despite this, I have four books to recommend to you, and will happily take any of your recommendations to the library catalogue with me!

1. Marcel by Erwin Mortier 9781782270188
‘The debut novel by the great Flemish writer Erwin Mortier, Marcel vividly describes the history of a family in a Flemish village, bowed by the weight of history. Written from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy, Marcel is a striking debut novel describing the vivid history of a family in a Flemish village. The mysterious death of Marcel, the family favourite, has always haunted the young boy. With the help of his schoolteacher, he starts to discover the secrets of Marcel’s ‘black’ past. The story of his death on the Eastern Front, fighting with the SS for the sake of Flanders, and the shame this brought upon his family gradually become clear. Erwin Mortier unravels this shameful family tale in wonderfully sensitive and evocative manner.’

2. The Book of Proper Names by Amelie Nothomb
‘From France’s ‘literary lioness’ (Elle), The Book of Proper Names is the story of the hapless orphan girl, Plectrude. Raised by her aunt, and unaware of the dark secret behind her past, she is a troubled but dreamy child who is both blessed and cursed by her intoxicating eyes. Discovered to have enormous gifts as a dancer, she is accepted at Paris’s most prestigious ballet school where she devotes herself to artistic perfection, until her body can take no more. In a brilliantly succinct story of haunted adolescence and lost mothers, Nothomb propels the narrative forward until Plectrude is forced to take command of her own fate.’

97803072682113. The Professor by Charlotte Bronte
The Professor is Charlotte Brontes first novel, in which she audaciously inhabits the voice and consciousness of a man, William Crimsworth. Like Jane Eyre he is parentless; like Lucy Snowe in Villette he leaves the certainties of England to forge a life in Brussels. But as a man, William has freedom of action, and as a writer Bronte is correspondingly liberated, exploring the relationship between power and sexual desire. William’s first person narration reveals his attraction to the dominating directress of the girls’ school where he teaches, played out in the school’s ‘secret garden’. Balanced against this is his more temperate relationship with one of his pupils, Frances Henri, in which mastery and submission interplay. The Professor was published only after Charlotte Bronte’s death; today it gives us a fascinating insight into the first stirrings of her supreme creative imagination.’

4. Villette by Charlotte Bronte
‘Based on Charlotte Bronte’s personal experience as a teacher in Brussels, Villette is a moving tale of repressed feelings and subjection to cruel circumstance and position, borne with heroic fortitude. Rising above the frustrations of confinement within a rigid social order, it is also the story of a woman’s right to love and be loved.’

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Flash Reviews: Non-Fiction (24th May 2014)

Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in the Second World War by Virginia Nicholson **** (2011)

‘Millions Like Us’ by Virginia Nicholson (Penguin)

1. I adore history, particularly that which deals with women, and Nicholson has presented her information so well in this book.  She states that she ‘wanted to find out not only what the did in the war, but what the war did to them and how it changed their subsequent lives and relationships’.
2. Nicholson has focused upon a wealth of women from so many different walks of life, merging history with biography, and bringing some fascinating characters to the forefront of her work.  We meet, through her words, famous diarists like Nella Last and Mollie Panter-Downes, the privileged in society, and novelists such as Nina Bawden and Barbara Cartland.
3. The chronological structure which Nicholson has adopted works so well, as did the sectioning of information into short chapters, all of which dealt with a different element of wartime life for women – from rationing to conscription.

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In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, His Poem and The Poppy by Herwig Verleyen **** (1995)

‘In Flanders Fields’ by Herwig Verleyen (de Klaproos)

1. My Dad visited Ypres recently with my uncle, and purchased this lovely little book for me.  It was originally written in Flemish, and has been translated so carefully.
2. I am fascinated by John McCrae – he has been one of my favourite poets since I was about twelve – and I oddly knew very little about him.  Verleyen, as well as writing of his subject, sets out McCrae’s fascinating family history, and how the family came to settle in Canada, where John was born.
3. Verleyen writes with such clarity about McCrae’s use of poetry as an outlet for the horrors which he witnessed during the First World War, whilst he was stationed between Boezinge and Ypres.

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Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling by David Crystal **** (2013)

‘Spell It Out’ by David Crystal (Profile Books)

1. I have never read a David Crystal book in its entirety, but I have read many passages and partial essays of his as part of my English Language module at University.  I thought that it was high time to purchase one of his books at the start of the year, and couldn’t resist this lovely hardback edition.  As I am something of a Grammar Nazi (yes, I have been called this many a time), Spell It Out looked right up my street.
2. Crystal has set out to show the peculiarities of spelling in the English language, and has written about how each came about over time.  The structure which he has adopted is chronological, starting with the Anglo Saxon monks who tasked themselves with writing down the English language, and how the flaws in their system were rectified over time.
3. The whole is very succinctly and skilfully written, and Crystal is such an engaging author.  I presume that this book would make spelling of interest to even the most reluctant learners.

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