I stumbled across Taran N. Khan’s Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul on my library app, and thought it sounded fascinating. Thankfully the ebook version was available for me to borrow, and I began it right away. First published in 2019, Indian author Khan arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2006, three years after the Taliban regime was overthrown.
On her arrival in Kabul, where she embarked on a new work project with her husband at a local television station, Khan was ‘cautioned never to walk [around the city]. Her instincts compelled her to do the opposite: to take that precarious first step and enter the life of the city with the unique, tactile intimacy that comes from being a walker.’ As a Muslim woman, she was able to access parts of the city which were closed to other travellers. She continued to walk around different regions of the city until she returned to India in 2013.
In her memoir, Khan ‘paints a lyrical, personal, and meditative portrait of a city we know primarily in terms of conflict and peace.’ Shadow City has accordingly been split up into seven different sections, and begins and ends with a chapter named ‘Returns’. Throughout, Khan gives a comprehensive history of Afghanistan, and of Kabul specifically. The city is one which kept drawing Khan back, and even after short absences, she always longed to return.
In her foreword, Khan writes: ‘Memory returns in fragments. I remember walking through the half-empty streets feeling the sun on my back. I heard snatches of song on a radio, passed a group of young men lounging on a broken sofa they had pulled onto the street. I saw walls with bullet marks, and barriers across gates… Under my feet was the slush of the spring.’ She later describes Kabul as a place of hidden scenes: ‘It deceives you with its high walls streaked with brown mud… It hides behind the fine mist of dust that hangs over its streets and homes, so that the city appears as though from the other side of a soft curtain. Like a mirage, a place that is both near and far away.’
Khan’s ability to walk around Kabul was a sharp contrast to her strict upbringing in the city of Aligarh, India. The few outings which she was allowed on were strictly regulated, and she was always chaperoned. Of her past and present, she reflects: ‘The carefully cloistered routines of my adolescence corresponded seamlessly with the rhythm of the city in 2006… the things other women from abroad found difficult about the city often seemed quite natural to me.’
Khan comments: ‘Being told not to walk was another way in which Kabul felt familiar. To map the city, I drew on the same knowledge and intuition that had helped me navigate the streets of my home town… These were routes of discovery – maps of being lost. To be lost is a way to see a place afresh… To be lost in Kabul is to find it – as a place of richness and possibility.’ I can understand Khan’s outlook, as a fellow walker; one of my favourite things to do is to wander, sometimes aimlessly, particularly when I am exploring new places. Walking also allows Khan some freedom; she allows herself to walk, as a woman, around a male-dominated space, which ultimately gives her a lot of agency. She becomes a flaneuse, an observer of her new place.
An element of Shadow City which I particularly enjoyed was the way in which Khan notices and interprets absences; for instance, of those who have passed away, and who now reside in various graveyards – a ‘web of memorials’ – around the city. She also describes, quite wonderfully, how the city alters over her repeated visits: ‘With each return, my paths turned inwards as well. I learned to see Kabul in fragments, to move through terrains of the imagination while remaining motionless. I wandered through myths and memories…’.
Shadow City is an impressive debut, which sings with the glory of being in charge of one’s own agency, even in a geographical location which is often threatened by external forces. Khan’s narrative is both rich and thorough, and gives a different, and worthy, perspective to the Kabul which many of us in the Western world are aware of. Shadow City is fascinating, and serves to open a window onto both geography and society, politics and remnants of war. Khan gives her readers an insider’s view of a city which most of us have largely seen in the wake of destruction. She writes about the wonderful people which she meets, a sometimes fruitless search for reading material, and the way in which Kabul is slowly regaining itself.
I had sampled the odd audiobook in the past, but it wasn’t until 2020 that I began to listen to them regularly. I am fortunate that my local library offers a great deal of titles for free on the BorrowBox app, and although this is the sole resource which I personally use for audiobooks, I know that many people pay for subscriptions to the likes of Audible and Scribd.
I haven’t reviewed any of the books which I came to on audio, but the following eight were standouts to me last year. I loved the narration and delivery for the mostpart, and also the way in which I was able to immerse myself in so many titles which I otherwise would not have been able to find very easily. I would highly recommend that if you are interested in the following books, you should try and find the audio version. However, I’m sure they would be just as good on the page too!
The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs ‘Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, the mother of two sons, ages seven and nine, and married sixteen years to her best friend, received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal. How does one live each day, “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty.
Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, even as she wrestles with the legacy of her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs’s breathtaking memoir continues the urgent conversation that Paul Kalanithi began in his gorgeous When Breath Becomes Air. She asks, what makes a meaningful life when one has limited time?
Brilliantly written, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving, The Bright Hour is about how to love all the days, even the bad ones, and it’s about the way literature, especially Emerson, and Nina’s other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer. It’s a book about looking death squarely in the face and saying “this is what will be.” Especially poignant in these uncertain times, The Bright Hour urges us to live well and not lose sight of what makes us human: love, art, music, words.’
Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore ‘With an abandoned degree behind her and a thirtieth birthday approaching, amateur writer Bonnie Falls moves out of her parents’ home into a nearby flat. Her landlady, Sylvia Slythe, takes an interest in Bonnie, encouraging her to finish one of her stories, in which a young woman moves to the seaside, where she comes under strange influences. As summer approaches, Sylvia suggests to Bonnie that, as neither of them has anyone else to go on holiday with, they should go away together – to the seaside, perhaps.
The new novel from the author of the Man Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse is a tense and moreish confection of semiotics, suggestibility and creative writing with real psychological depth and, in Bonnie Falls and Sylvia Slythe, two unforgettable characters.’
I Want You To Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir by Esther Safran-Foer ‘Esther Safran Foer grew up in a home where the past was too terrible to speak of. The child of parents who were each the sole survivors of their respective families, for Esther the Holocaust loomed in the backdrop of daily life, felt but never discussed. The result was a childhood marked by painful silences and continued tragedy. Even as she built a successful career, married, and raised three children, Esther always felt herself searching.
So when Esther’s mother casually mentions an astonishing revelation–that her father had a previous wife and daughter, both killed in the Holocaust–Esther resolves to find out who they were, and how her father survived. Armed with only a black-and-white photo and a hand-drawn map, she travels to Ukraine, determined to find the shtetl where her father hid during the war. What she finds reshapes her identity and gives her the opportunity to finally mourn.
I Want You to Know We’re Still Here is the poignant and deeply moving story not only of Esther’s journey but of four generations living in the shadow of the Holocaust. They are four generations of survivors, storytellers, and memory keepers, determined not just to keep the past alive but to imbue the present with life and more life.’
Salt Slow by Julia Armfield ‘This collection of stories is about women and their experiences in society, about bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of its characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession and love. Throughout the collection, women become insects, men turn to stone, a city becomes insomniac and bodies are picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sea side towns are invaded and transformed by the physical, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to the bodies of its inhabitants. Blending the mythic and the fantastic, the collection considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new.’
The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall ‘Rachel Caine is a zoologist working in Nez Perce, Idaho, as part of a wolf recovery project. She spends her days, and often nights, tracking the every move of a wild wolf pack—their size, their behavior, their howl patterns. It is a fairly solitary existence, but Rachel is content.
When she receives a call from the wealthy and mysterious Earl of Annerdale, who is interested in reintroducing the grey wolf to Northern England, Rachel agrees to a meeting. She is certain she wants no part of this project, but the Earl’s estate is close to the village where Rachel grew up, and where her aging mother now lives in a care facility. It has been far too long since Rachel has gone home, and so she returns to face the ghosts of her past.
The Wolf Border is a breathtaking story about the frontier of the human spirit, from one of the most celebrated young writers working today.’
The Glass House by Eve Chase ‘Outside a remote manor house in an idyllic wood, a baby girl is found. The Harrington family takes her in and disbelief quickly turns to joy. They’re grieving a terrible tragedy of their own and the beautiful baby fills them with hope, lighting up the house’s dark, dusty corners. Desperate not to lose her to the authorities, they keep her secret, suspended in a blissful summer world where normal rules of behaviour – and the law – don’t seem to apply.
But within days a body will lie dead in the grounds. And their dreams of a perfect family will shatter like glass. Years later, the truth will need to be put back together again, piece by piece . . .
From the author of Black Rabbit Hall, The Glass House is a emotional, thrilling book about family secrets and belonging – and how we find ourselves when we are most lost.’
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.’
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener ‘At twenty-five years old, Anna Wiener was beginning to tire of her assistant job in New York publishing. There was no room to grow, and the voyeuristic thrill of answering someone else’s phone had worn thin. Within a year she had moved to San Francisco to take up a job at a data analytics start-up in Silicon Valley. Leaving her business casual skirts and shirts in the wardrobe, she began working in company-branded T-shirts and hoodies. She had a healthy income for the first time in her life. She felt like part of the future.
But a tide was beginning to turn. People were speaking of tech start-ups as surveillance companies. Out of sixty employees, only eight of her colleagues were women. Casual sexism was rife. Sexual harassment cases were proliferating. And soon, like everyone else, she was addicted to the internet, refreshing the news, refreshing social media, scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. Slowly, she began to realise that her blind faith in ambitious, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs wasn’t just her own personal pathology. It had become a global affliction.
Uncanny Valley is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of our generation’s very own gold rush. It’s a story about the tension between old and new, between art and tech, between the quest for money and the quest for meaning – about how our world is changing for ever.’
Have you read, or listened to, any of these books? Are you a fan of audiobooks? Which is your favourite?
I recently came across this very interesting reading list, published by TED in 2018. It is wonderfully varied, and certainly contains quite a few niche genres which I certainly have not read before. Although the list specifies that these choices are aimed at summer reading, I thought that I would look through it and pick out ten titles which I would like to get to over the next year or two.
1. A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley ‘In the nine expansive, searching stories of A Lucky Man, fathers and sons attempt to salvage relationships with friends and family members and confront mistakes made in the past. An imaginative young boy from the Bronx goes swimming with his group from day camp at a backyard pool in the suburbs, and faces the effects of power and privilege in ways he can barely grasp. A teen intent on proving himself a man through the all-night revel of J’Ouvert can’t help but look out for his impressionable younger brother. A pair of college boys on the prowl follow two girls home from a party and have to own the uncomfortable truth of their desires. And at a capoeira conference, two brothers grapple with how to tell the story of their family, caught in the dance of their painful, fractured history. Jamel Brinkley’s stories, in a debut that announces the arrival of a significant new voice, reflect the tenderness and vulnerability of black men and boys whose hopes sometimes betray them, especially in a world shaped by race, gender, and class–where luck may be the greatest fiction of all.’
2. Sophie’s Misfortunes by Comtesse de Ségur ‘Les Malheur de Sophie (Sophie’s Misfortunes) describes the life of Sophie before the events of Les Petites Filles Modèles, when she still lives with her parents in the French countryside. She is a lively, adventurous child who keeps getting into mischief with the critical complicity of her cousin Paul. Each chapter, with a few exceptions, follow a similar pattern: Sophie does something bad or stupid; she is found out or confesses her mischief; and she gets punished –or not – by her mother Mme de Réan, who uses each incident to teach a moral lesson.’
3. Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Eileen McNamara ‘A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist examines the life and times of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, arguing she left behind the Kennedy family’s most profound political legacy. While Joe Kennedy was grooming his sons for the White House and the Senate, his Stanford-educated daughter Eunice was tapping her father’s fortune and her brothers’ political power to engineer one of the great civil rights movements of our time on behalf of millions of children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Now, in Eunice, Pulitzer Prize winner Eileen McNamara finally brings Eunice Kennedy Shriver out from her brothers’ shadow to show an officious, cigar-smoking, indefatigable woman of unladylike determination and deep compassion born of rage: at the medical establishment that had no answers for her sister Rosemary; at the revered but dismissive father whose vision for his family did not extend beyond his sons; and at the government that failed to deliver on America’s promise of equality. Granted access to never-before-seen private papers—from the scrapbooks Eunice kept as a schoolgirl in prewar London to her thoughts on motherhood and feminism—McNamara paints a vivid portrait of a woman both ahead of her time and out of step with it: the visionary founder of the Special Olympics, a devout Catholic in a secular age, and a formidable woman whose impact on American society was longer lasting than that of any of the Kennedy men.’
4. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs ‘Poet and essayist Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, she received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal. How does a dying person learn to live each day “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty? How does a young mother and wife prepare her two young children and adored husband for a loss that will shape the rest of their lives? How do we want to be remembered? Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, Nina asks: What makes a meaningful life when one has limited time? “Profound and poignant” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Bright Hour is about how to make the most of all the days, even the painful ones. It’s about the way literature, especially Nina’s direct ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer.’
5. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown ‘For readers of Unbroken, out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times–the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant. It was an unlikely quest from the start. With a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler. The emotional heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world. Drawing on the boys’ own journals and vivid memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, Brown has created an unforgettable portrait of an era, a celebration of a remarkable achievement, and a chronicle of one extraordinary young man’s personal quest.’
6. The Overstoryby Richard Powers
‘An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These four, and five other strangers-each summoned in different ways by trees-are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. In his twelfth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers delivers a sweeping, impassioned novel of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of-and paean to-the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, exploring the essential conflict on this planet: the one taking place between humans and nonhumans. There is a world alongside ours-vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe. The Overstory is a book for all readers who despair of humanity’s self-imposed separation from the rest of creation and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming. If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us? “Listen. There’s something you need to hear.”‘
7. No Pity by Joe Shapiro ‘In No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, Joe Shapiro of U.S. News & World Report tells of a political awakening few nondisabled Americans have even imagined. There are over 43 million disabled people in this country alone; for decades most of them have been thought incapable of working, caring for themselves, or contributing to society. But during the last twenty-live years, they, along with their parents and families, have begun to recognize that paraplegia, retardation, deafness, blindness, AIDS, autism, or any of the hundreds of other chronic illnesses and disabilities that differentiate them from the able-bodied are not tragic. The real tragedy is prejudice, our society’s and the medical establishment’s refusal to recognize that the disabled person is entitled to every right and privilege America can offer. No Pity‘s chronicle of disabled people’s struggle for inclusion, from the seventeenth-century deaf communities on Martha’s Vineyard to the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992, is only part of the story. Joe Shapiro’s five years of in-depth reporting have uncovered many personal stories as well. ‘
8. A Kind of Mirraculus Paradise by Sandra Allen
‘Writer Sandra Allen did not know their uncle Bob very well. As a child, Sandy had been told Bob was “crazy,” that he had spent time in mental hospitals while growing up in Berkeley in the 60s and 70s. But Bob had lived a hermetic life in a remote part of California for longer than Sandy had been alive, and what little Sandy knew of him came from rare family reunions or odd, infrequent phone calls. Then in 2009 Bob mailed Sandy his autobiography. Typewritten in all caps, a stream of error-riddled sentences over sixty, single-spaced pages, the often-incomprehensible manuscript proclaimed to be a “true story” about being “labeled a psychotic paranoid schizophrenic,” and arrived with a plea to help him get his story out to the world. In A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story about Schizophrenia, Sandy translates Bob’s autobiography, artfully creating a gripping coming-of-age story while sticking faithfully to the facts as he shared them. Lacing Bob’s narrative with chapters providing greater contextualization, Sandy also shares background information about their family, the culturally explosive time and place of their uncle’s formative years, and the vitally important questions surrounding schizophrenia and mental healthcare in America more broadly. The result is a heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious portrait of a young man striving for stability in his life as well as his mind, and an utterly unique lens into an experience that, to most people, remains unimaginable.’
9. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien ‘Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations–those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences. With maturity and sophistication, humor and beauty, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of life inside China yet transcendent in its universality.’
10. Sorry, Not Sorry by Haji Mohamed Dawjee ‘Why don’t white people understand that Converse tekkies are not just cool but a political statement to people of colour? Why is it that South Africans of colour don’t really ‘write what we like’? What’s the deal with people pretending to be ‘woke’? Is Islam really as antifeminist as is claimed? What does it feel like to be a brown woman in a white media corporation? And what life lessons can we learn from Bollywood movies? In Sorry, Not Sorry, Haji Mohamed Dawjee explores the often maddening experience of moving through post-apartheid South Africa as a woman of colour. In characteristically candid style, she pulls no punches when examining the social landscape: from arguing why she’d rather deal with an open racist than some liberal white people, to drawing on her own experience to convince readers that joining a cult is never a good idea. In the provocative voice that has made Mohamed Dawjee one of our country’s most talked-about columnists, she offers observations laced with acerbic wit. Sorry, Not Sorry will make readers laugh, wince, nod, introspect and argue.’
Which of these books take your fancy? Have you read any of them?
After Barbara Pym’s death, American author Anne Tyler wrote: ‘What do people turn to when they’ve finished Barbara Pym? The answer is easy: they turn back to Barbara Pym.’ Although I have not quite completed her oeuvre, I very much appreciate this perspective; Pym’s novels have so much to offer, and her strength of place and character, as well as her delicious wit, are worth revisiting over and over again.
I realised some months ago that there are many authors whose work I have greatly enjoyed, but whom I know very little about as individuals. Trying to remedy that, I requested a copy of Hazel Holt’s biography A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym from my local library, and settled down with it on a peaceful afternoon.
In this biography, says the blurb, ‘… we come to know a person whose humour and sharp observation were uniquely combined with a compassionate acceptance of human nature – qualities that made her such an outstanding novelist.’ It is promised that Pym ’emerges from these pages as an entertaining companion with an insatiable curiosity and an unquenchable delight in the eccentricities of her fellows.’
Holt was a good friend to Pym, and also acted as her literary executor, before passing away in 2015. In her introduction, Holt writes: ‘It seemed right… to try to put Barbara into her own setting, to define the manners and mores of the social scene around her (one day her novels will be a rich source for social historians), to describe her friends and colleagues, and to show how her books were moulded by her life, as well as the other way around.’ The book includes many entries from Pym’s private papers, as well as a lot of her correspondence; this is particularly true in the case of the friendship between herself and poet Philip Larkin. Even in the briefest correspondence, Pym writes beautifully and compassionately to her intended.
Rather than focus entirely on Pym, Holt gives some of the rather colourful history of her parents and grandparents. Pym’s own childhood, in a small market town in Shropshire, was ‘comfortable and conventional’, quite by contrast to the life of her illegitimate father, and filled with ‘a great deal of quiet affection’. When she moved to Oxford to study English Literature at University, however, Pym became somewhat more alive. She kept a diary, which she regularly filled with ‘sightings’ of men whom she liked, and certainly had a great deal of adventures with them. Whilst at University, Pym occasionally attended Labour Party meetings, but ‘more for the young men than for the politics’.
Holt continually asserts how important Pym’s imagination was to her; she often preferred her conjured fantasies and imagined relationships with others to whatever was happening in reality. Holt follows Pym through various love affairs; here, she observes, Pym often ‘made the mistake of expecting more than the other person was prepared to give, of building a great romantic castle on shifting sand.’
In some ways, Holt writes, Pym was rather naïve, and this was particularly true when it came to politics, or the problems of the wider world. When she moved to Poland to work as a governess in the tumultuous days of 1938, she largely ignored the threat of war: ‘Although she notes without comment that the Germans had entered Prague she gives equal space in her diary to the fact that she had been served fried potatoes with yoghurt.’ Holt captures, quite vividly, Pym’s travels around Europe, which become extensive following the Second World War, as well as the war work which she completed in Naples, Italy.
In A Lot to Ask there is, as one might expect, a lot of commentary about Pym’s books and her writing practices, which I found rather enlightening. Holt quotes at length from many of Pym’s books, in order to further illustrate points. It is clear that even as a teenager, Pym was already developing her signature prose style, capturing scenes and individuals in such vivid detail in just a sentence or two.
Pym wrote thirteen novels, four of which were published posthumously, after her untimely death from cancer in early 1980. There was, however, a painful fourteen-year period in which Pym could not find a publisher for her books, and which impacted her greatly. She is a novelist who has thankfully, and deservedly, risen to prominence once again in the twenty-first century, and I for one feel grateful that I still have several of her books yet to read.
First published in 1990, A Lot to Ask is a biography of the loveliest measure. One can tell how fond Holt was of Pym, yet the biography still feels as considered and far-reaching as it would be had the pair never known one another at all. Like her subject, Holt writes with a great deal of warmth and understanding. So absorbing, and highly readable, A Lot to Ask has so much depth to it, and feels entirely harmonious. Holt’s biography is a sheer delight, both charming and satisfying. I would dearly like to read more of her work, as well as the remainder of Pym’s correspondence in the near future.
Since I was a child, I have loved P.L. Travers’ original Mary Poppins stories. Like many of my generation, I am sure, my first introduction to Mary Poppins was in the incredibly saccharine Disney film adaptation, but I was absolutely thrilled to discover the original, sassy Mary not long afterwards. I know relatively little about the author, aside what I gleaned from the Saving Mr Banks film, and when I received a copy of journalist Valerie Lawson’s Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, I was eager to find out what else I would discover.
Helen Lyndon Goff, who later adopted the pen name Pamela Lyndon (P.L.) Travers, was born in Australia. Her father, an Irishman ‘nowhere near good enough’, died in his early forties, ‘his life unfulfilled, his family left destitute and forced onto the charity of rich but emotionally chilly relations.’ Travers was the eldest of three girls, and went to live with her maiden aunt for a time when her youngest sister was born, and again with her mother and siblings after her father died. Travers moved to London in 1924, in order to pursue her career in journalism. Here, she ‘became involved with theosophy, traveled in the literary circles of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, and became a disciple of the famed spiritual guru Gurdjieff.’ She published the first Mary Poppins book in 1934.
We learn about Travers’ ancestors very early on, as well as the ways in which their decisions affected her life, both as a young girl, and later as an adult. After the passing of her father, she went through life determined to find her own ‘Mr Banks’, a father figure who would look after her.
In her preface, Lawson writes: ‘[Mary] Poppins has lasted because she is as peculiar as she is kind, as threatening as she is comforting, as stern as she is sensual, as elusive as she is matter of fact.’ She goes on to acknowledge that P.L. Travers stipulated that she ‘did not want a biography written about her after her death’. As is clear from her biographical subject, she disregarded this, and began her five-year “Pamela Hunt” that took her down ‘unexpected paths, both geographically and emotionally… Her life was much more than I ever imagined. My life expanded in the writing of hers.’
Mary Poppins, She Wrote has been split into three separate sections, which correspond to the three stages of womanhood which Travers believed in: ‘The Nymph’ (1899-1934), ‘The Mother’ (1934-1965), and ‘The Crone’ (1965-1996). Some of the chapters open with an imagined narrative, which features Lyndon as a character. These are often short, and I would argue that, although they are nicely written, they do not add a great deal to proceedings.
Lawson ponders throughout the various inspiration for Mary Poppins. She writes of Travers’ fascination for fairytales when she was a child: ‘She liked the wickedest women most… She was fascinated by the evil forces of the stories, the black sheep, the wicked fairy.’ She then goes on to examine the quite traumatic elements of Travers’ childhood, and the effects of her ‘cool yet unconventional parents’, which culminated in her ‘thriving on what was difficult.’ Throughout, there is a lot of literary criticism of the Mary Poppins books, as one might expect. Whilst interesting, these sections are sometimes a little longwinded, and the details feel a little repetitive from time to time. The same can be said for the exploration of Travers’ forays into spirituality.
Mary Poppins, She Wrote has a rather low average rating on Goodreads. Other reviewers have written about some of the qualms they had with Lawson’s book; these almost always mention her exemplary research, but also her ‘sloppy’ writing, and a feeling of general disinterest in Travers’ own work. However, as the only comprehensive biography of the rather mysterious P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins, She Wrote is the tome which curious readers will inevitably pick up.
I found the prose of Mary Poppins, She Wrote fitting given the subject matter, and was compelled to read the entirety of the book, but I must admit that after finishing it, I do not feel as though I know a great deal more about P.L. Travers. Some elements of her life were glossed over, and I would have appreciated more depth of information throughout. In consequence, Travers still comes across as a figure shrouded in mystery.
Whilst interesting enough, Mary Poppins, She Wrote had an approach which was perhaps a little too detached. It did not feel, at any point aside from what she stresses in her preface, that Lawson was really connected with Travers. The construction of Mary Poppins, She Wrote is just a little too choppy. I would not discourage anyone from reading it, as Travers was a fascinating woman by all accounts, but it is definitely not the most thorough work of biography which I have picked up this year.
I remember seeing an interview on television with Lulah Ellender, the author of Elisabeth’s Lists: A Life Between the Lines. This biography of her grandmother, which she pieced together after being given a book of the varied lists which she had made during her lifetime, really piqued my interest, and I subsequently borrowed a copy from my local library. I thought that the book would be surrounded by quite a lot of buzz; rather, I was surprised to find that when I looked on the Goodreads page to mark it as ‘currently reading’, the book had just 30 ratings, and 8 reviews.
This Granta publication has been described by the Guardian as ‘a hauntingly beautiful meditation on life and death’, and by the London Review of Books as ‘a perceptive and original book… as much a meditation on the meaning of lists as it is a biography.’ The Spectator says that ‘Ellender researches, uncovers, interprets, comments and responds to the life of her grandmother with uninhibited insight.’
The inspiration for Elisabeth’s Lists came when Ellender’s mother gave her ‘a curious object – a book of handwritten lists’. From these, all of which were, on the surface, quite ordinary, she began to ‘weave together the extraordinary life of the grandmother she never knew, from Elisabeth’s early years as an ambassador’s daughter in 1930s China to her marriage to a British diplomat and postings in Franco’s Madrid, post-war Beirut, Rio de Janeiro and Paris.’ The lists in Elisabeth’s notebook were written between 1939 and 1957, the year in which she died. They encompass many things; from ‘an inventory of household linen to a record of the number of eggs her chickens laid over the course of a year, Elisabeth itemised her days, page after page…’.
Ellender, facing the impending death of her mother from cancer, finds solace in these lists. The ‘small red-brown marbled hardback journal’ was passed to her, she says, as her mother was ‘not sure what to do with it and thinks I might like it. But there is a spark in her eyes. She knows it is no ordinary book; she is giving it to me so that I can find things, dig down into my family’s past and show her the treasures I uncover. She is entrusting me with her mother’s story.’
Ellender goes on to note in her prologue the rules which she made for herself whilst writing Elisabeth’s Lists: ‘It is important to me that Elisabeth’s story is told as faithfully as possible, but I am also acutely aware that this is my reading of her, and that other people may have constructed a different version of this same person.’
I am a prolific list-maker myself, and read with interest the historic practices of list-making which Ellender covers, and which span as far back as writing itself. She writes of the power which making a simple list gives us: ‘We formulate endless lists of our top films, books or music, of things to do and places to see before we die, as though they might provide both proof of our existence and a legacy for future generations. We believe that a list can make us immortal.’
One of Elisabeth’s lists
The chapters within Elisabeth’s Lists are split into geographical places in which Elisabeth either lived, or spent time. Born in 1915, Elisabeth’s ‘short life was characterised by movement and displacement. The book of lists mirrors this constant shifting, with numerous lists for various diplomatic postings and items to be put into storage.’ Many of these postings, and the subsequent instability of her life, were bound up with the mental illness which Elisabeth suffered from for a long time. When living in Peking (now Beijing) in her early twenties, for instance, Ellender writes: ‘Some days her world is blanketed in a crepuscular shroud, people and objects are dim and far away and she feels as if she is standing alone in a vast, empty expanse. Sometimes she just wants to go home.’
This concept of home, too, is an interesting one, which I feel deserved more space in the book. When the family move back to London from Peking, Elisabeth is initially excited, but negativity soon begins to creep in: ‘She knows that she “ought” to be feeling happy to be back but she is, in fact, lost and desperate… She also describes times of feeling unbearably restless, her mind in turmoil, of being violently antisocial and staying in bed for two days of depression.’ There is much historical content included in Elisabeth’s Lists, and for the most part this has been well handled. Ellender particularly excels at writing about wartime, and how her grandmother, stationed in Madrid, dealt with it.
When Elisabeth gets married, her book of lists ‘becomes a reference point from which she will run her household, and to which she will turn in times of anxiety and bustle and joy.’ She records inventories of wedding presents, of property; lists of guests for the many parties which she threw; menus for entertaining… Photocopies of some of Elisabeth’s lists have been included in the book; unfortunately, these are often blurred, faint, and not at all easy to read. This is a real shame, given that the entire biography was inspired by, and is based around, them.
I prefer reading biographies of ordinary people to famous ones; they tend to offer so much more with regard to the real world. Nothing about Elisabeth can really be considered ordinary; she travelled so much more than many people of her time, and lived with a lot of privilege. As Ellender notes, ‘Elisabeth’s was an extraordinary existence: a curious mixture of maintaining a British way of life, and discovering the authentic essence of a place. Looking back over the places she lived we see an existence built on impermanence and marked by contrasts.’
Elisabeth’s Lists is certainly readable, but I did feel as though some portions of it were quite overwritten. The prose feels a little too flowery, and too overdone at times. There is an imagined narrative from Elisabeth’s perspective, which uses the present tense; for instance: ‘It is morning. Elisabeth crouches on a patch of dusty soil, draping some clothes on a rock to dry. A canvas tent flaps behind her, and nearby, a kettle splutters over a fire.’ Similar sections have been placed randomly throughout the narrative, and seem like something of a creative writing exercise, really; they add very little to the main body of text. Throughout, Ellender asks a lot of questions which she never then proposes an answer to; this practice became annoying quite quickly. The assumptions which she makes, too, are unnecessary.
I liked the central idea behind this biography, but overall, it did not feel entirely satisfying. Elisabeth’s Lists really appealed to me as a reader, but some sections felt overworked. The assumptions and imagination of Ellender feel repetitive very quickly, and the tone is overwhelmingly simpering in places.
In honour of Anne Frank’s birthday on the 12th of June, I thought it would be fitting to repost a review of one of the best biographies I feel I have ever read.
I purchased a revised and expanded edition of Melissa Muller’s Anne Frank: The Biography on an affecting trip to the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam last year. I have been so looking forward to reading it, but for some reason – emotional turmoil over Anne’s story, I expect, which never fails to bring me to tears – it took me some time to pick it up. The Sunday Telegraph deems Muller’s biography ‘sensitive, serious and scrupulous’, and the Independent believes it to be an ‘accurate and honest portrait’. The New York Times writes that Anne Frank: The Biography ‘acts as a supplement to the diary, filling in Anne’s fragmentary view of her own life’.
I have read Anne’s own diary – which has sold more than thirty million copies in over seventy languages to date – countless times, as well as rather a few books about her, but Anne Frank: The Biography has become one of my absolute favourites. It has been translated from its original German by Rita and Robert Kimber. In this updated edition, Muller ‘details new theories surrounding the family’s betrayal, revelations about the pressure put on their helpers by the Nazi party and the startling discovery that the Franks had applied for a visa to the US.’
In her foreword, Muller writes of Anne’s importance: ‘Over the past sixty years, Anne Frank has become a universal symbol of the oppressed in a world of violence and tyranny. Her name invokes humanity, tolerance, human rights, and democracy; her image is the epitome of optimism and the will to live.’ Upon her initial reading of Anne’s diary, Muller had many questions which were left unanswered; this inspired her to research and write Anne Frank: The Biography. At this point, she says, ‘my search began – initially in the 1990s – to search for the person behind the legend, a search for the incidents and events that shaped the life and personality of Annelies Marie Frank.’ Her aim, she goes on, ‘was to gather as many fragments of the mosaic as possible and create as authentic a picture of Anne’s brief life as I could, illuminating the familial and social circumstances that provided the foundation of her life and left their mark on it.’
Anne Frank: The Biography opens with a copy of the Frank and Hollander family trees, which become useful to refer to when grandparents and great-grandparents are introduced into the narrative. The initial chapter of the book opens on a scene in August 1944. This, at first, seems like an ordinary day in the annexe in which Anne and her family, along with others, are hiding, but it proves to be the day on which they are discovered by the Dutch Nazis. After they have been taken away, Muller describes how Miep and Bep, office workers who helped them to hide, retrieve Anne’s diary, not reading a single page so as to protect her privacy. They hoped to be able to give it back to her after the war.
The second chapter then begins with Anne’s birth in Frankfurt, where her family lived on the outskirts of the city. Of their new arrival, the Franks ‘had worried that Margot might be jealous of the baby, but Margot laughed with delight when she saw her. Anne’s ears stuck out comically, and her wild black hair was silky and soft.’ A chronological timeline is followed from this chapter onward, and we are able to chart Anne’s progress as she grows, and becomes more independent. Particular attention is paid to the craft of Anne’s writing, wishing as she did to become a novelist when she grew up. ‘Her style,’ Muller writes, ‘improved rapidly, with astonishing speed considering her age… The more she wrote, the sharper her observations became and the clearer her expression of those observations; the keener, too, her understanding of others and – as if she could step outside herself and look back in – of herself as well. What she had begun in adolescent dreaminess ultimately achieved, in many passages, a maturity that was as convincing as it was astonishing.’
Political and social occurrences, particularly those which relate to the restrictions placed upon Jewish people, run alongside the lives of the Frank family. This social context has been provided throughout, and adds depth and understanding. Upon the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, for instance, Muller states: ‘In one day the social structure of Holland had been transformed. Where once there had been rich and poor, an upper and a lower class, a right wing and a left wing, and various religious blocs, now only one criterion distinguished good from bad, friend from enemy: was a person anti-German or pro-German?’ Along with historical facts, Muller weaves in the interested and intelligent Anne’s own opinions. Upon the surrender of the Netherlands, ‘Anne was outraged… Surrender was a concept she was hearing about for the first time, and she didn’t like the sound of it. It didn’t suit her character.’
Counter to its title, Anne Frank: The Biography is not simply a biographical account of Anne; it includes details of both her immediate and extended family members on both sides, as well as accounts of family friends, and her schoolmates. Photographs have been dotted throughout, which adds to the narrative, and shows those around Anne, first in Germany, and then in Amsterdam, where her family moved when she was small. Perhaps most moving in terms of these portraits is the impression we receive of her doting father, Otto. When writing about Anne and Margot’s friends in Amsterdam, Muller says: ‘The greatest delight of all was Mr. Frank. His wife was always there and always friendly, but the children hardly noticed her; they took such things for granted in mothers. But Otto Frank, at almost six feet a tall man for those days, was special. With Mr. Frank you could talk and joke about anything. He made up games, told stories, always had a comforting word, and seemed to forgive Anne everything… Otto’s high spirits were truly infectious. And when he was at home he spent more time with his children than most other fathers did.’ Of course, Anne is always the central focus here, but more of an understanding of her character can be gained from seeing those around her.
Muller is so understanding of Anne’s character and qualities, and notes how great an effect being in the annexe had for her: ‘At a time when a young person is recalcitrant and restless, defiant and temperamental, full of questions and searching for answers, baffled, helpless, and often irritable, Anne had no outlets for her feelings, no way to let off steam… Anne herself described the period from 1942 until well into 1943 as a difficult time. In the long days of loneliness and despair and of conflict not only with her housemates but also and primarily with herself, Kitty and the diary became her closest confidants.’
Muller’s prose style makes Anne Frank: The Biography a very easy book to read; it is intelligent and measured, not to mention packed with detail, but it still feels readily accessible. The biography is considerate and meticulously researched and, as one would expect, is both touching and harrowing throughout. Anne Frank: The Biography is a moving and detailed tribute to a remarkable young woman, and works as the perfect companion to The Diary of a Young Girl.
As readers of my reviews will already know, books which focus on a very particular part of history – a short and defined time period, a distinct group of people, or a specific geographic location – are ones which I continue to seek out. Anne Sebba’s Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s contains all three elements, and I therefore eagerly picked it up.
In June 1940, German troops occupied Paris, changing the lives of all of the capital city’s citizens in many ways, dramatically or otherwise. Rather than look at a specific group of women – either those who collaborated with the Nazis, or those who chose too defy them – Sebba examines the ‘moral grey area which all Parisiennes had to navigate in order to survive.’
In order to learn about her subjects, and what they went through during the Occupation, as well as afterwards, Sebba conducted ‘scores’ of interviews and read many firsthand accounts. She successfully draws together testimonies of native Parisiennes and those visiting the city, for whatever reason, on a temporary basis: ‘American women and Nazi wives; spies, mothers, mistresses, artists, fashion designers and aristocrats.’
The Times Literary Supplement hails her achievement ‘richly intelligent… Voices, belonging to women of all classes, ages and educational backgrounds, weep and sing through this extraordinary book.’ Author Edmund White notes that Sebba ‘understands everything about the chic, loathsome collaborators and the Holocaust victims, and their stories are told in an irresistible narrative flood.’ Sarah Helm (whose wonderful book If This is a Woman I reviewed here) praises Sebba for not offering ‘an explanation as to why some women chose one course, others another, rightly letting their actions and compelling life stories speak for themselves.’
In her prologue, Sebba recognises: ‘Echoes of the past continually resonate in modern-day France, because what happened here during the 1940s has left scars of such depth that many have not yet healed. There is still a fear among some that touching the scars may reopen them.’ She writes that her aim is to ‘examine in these pages what factors weighed most heavily on women, causing them to respond in a particular way to the harsh and difficult circumstances in which they found themselves.’ Sebba goes on to say: ‘I want the pages that follow to avoid black and white, good and evil, but instead to reveal constant moral ambiguity, like a kaleidoscope that can be turned in any number of ways to produce a different image.’
Les Parisiennes is incredibly detailed, and impeccably researched. A great deal of social history has been included, along with tiny details which have perhaps been overlooked by other researchers. Along with the many women Sebba has chosen to include, she also writes about such things as the very exclusive air raid shelter set up at the Ritz in Paris, which was ‘soon famous for its fur rugs and Hermès sleeping bags.’ Sebba transports her readers to the city, which, despite the dire lack of fresh food, and the scary presence of soldiers, is still largely recognisable in the twenty-first century.
Sebba has included a very helpful ‘cast’ list of all of the women whom she writes about in Les Parisiennes. These women are variously actresses, the wives of diplomats, students, secret agents, writers, models, and those in the resistance movement, amongst others. She has assembled a huge range of voices, which enable her to build up a full and varied picture of what life in Occupied Paris was like. Rather than simply end her account when the German troops leave, Sebba has chosen to write about two further periods: ‘Liberation (1944-1946)’, and ‘Reconstruction (1947-1949)’. Les Parisiennes is, in consequence of a great deal of research, a very personal collective history.
Les Parisiennes has been incredibly well considered from start to finish. The impartiality which Sebba gives each account works very well, and allows her to write about so many courageous, inspiring, and formidable women, all of whom did something to shape the city in the war years, and beyond. The original evidence has been well pieced together, and the chronological structure, which seems perhaps obvious in such a book, serves it well. Les Parisiennes is thorough and exact, whilst still remaining highly readable. It is a triumph.
I have carried out a great deal of research on Virginia Woolf over the last few years, but had not read anything about her for quite a while. When I spotted the gorgeous National Trust published hardback of Sarah Gristwood’s Vita & Virginia: A Double Life in my local library, then, I picked it up and borrowed it immediately.
The premise of the book is an examination of the brief love affair which Virginia Woolf and fellow author Vita Sackville-West embarked upon in the ‘heady days of the 1920s’, and their friendship which endured until Woolf’s tragic death in 1941. Gristwood presents quite extensive biographies of both women, particularly given that her biography is a relatively slim volume. Vita & Virginia has been split into three distinct sections – ‘1882-1922 Moments of Being’, ‘1922-1930 Orlando’, and ‘All Passion Spent’. These sections are sandwiched between an introduction and a short piece entitled ‘Afterlife’, in which Gristwood examines the legacy left by both women.
In her introduction, Gristwood writes: ‘… Virginia told a friend, just months before her death, that apart from her husband Leonard and her sister Vanessa, Vita was the only person she really loved.’ She goes on to note: ‘The bond that endured between those two women was predominantly, though not exclusively, one of the heart, and of the mind.’ The two found solace in having similar professions, and also in how much admiration they held for one another.
Firstly, Gristwood details Vita’s rather unconventional childhood, before moving onto Woolf’s, which was shaken with many tragedies. She examines the writing careers of both women, and the personal struggles which they faced at various points. Also mentioned are Woolf and Sackville-West’s other affairs and infatuations. The detail which has been included is rich, and there is certainly no lack of amusement. Gristwood writes, for example, that ‘When Leonard was away, a playful contract required Virginia… that she would rest for a full half hour after lunch, be in bed by 10.25 every night, have her breakfast in bed and drink a whole glass of milk in the mornings.’
Of course, Gristwood devotes a whole chapter to how the two women met, and how their relationship went on to develop: ‘Vita would encourage her to be a little more adventurous on even the most practical levels – to dress more smartly and spend money. Later in her friendship with Vita, Virginia would acknowledge how Vita opened new horizons for her.’ The start of their relationship appears to have been a real period of growth for them both.
Throughout, Gristwood quotes extensively from Virginia’s diary, and from the correspondence between the two women. Contextually, too, Vita & Virginia is very well placed; Gristwood writes about the political climate, the growing fear of war, and the preparations made for this by both families.
Vita & Virginia is essentially part biography, part guidebook to the National Trust protected properties which both Woolf and Sackville-West inhabited throughout their lifetimes. Of Knole in Kent, passed down through the male generations of the Sackville-West family, for instance, Gristwood understands that the property ‘was a whole world, a small village in itself’ to the young Vita. Vita & Virginia is filled to the brim with beautiful photographs and illustrations, many of their various dwellings and glorious gardens, which are lovely to linger over.
Vita & Virginia is fascinating. As something of a Woolf scholar, I did already know a lot of the information which Gristwood relays, but there were elements here that proved to be refreshingly new to me. I found the biography a delight to read. Vita & Virginia provides a wonderful introduction to the lives of both Woolf and Sackville-West, and the way in which their relationship evolved over time. Despite running to less than 200 pages, Gristwood’s well written book feels thorough. Her omniscient, almost neutral tone suits the book so well, and she gives so much for the reader to consider.
Edward Thomas is one of my favourite poets, and when I spotted a copy of Matthew Hollis’ Costa Award-winning biography, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas in a secondhand bookshop in Ypres last year, I could not resist picking it up. I had originally planned to read it over Remembrance Day but, as with a lot of my reading plans, this did not pan out.
Thomas was killed close to Arras, France, on the Easter Monday of 1917. The book’s very short preface touchingly ends in the following manner: ‘Edward Thomas left the dugout behind his post and leaned into the opening to take a moment to fill his pipe. A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on his body.’
In Now All Roads Lead to France, Hollis takes into account Thomas’ final five years, and ‘follows him from his beloved English countryside to the battlefield in France where he lost his life.’ Thomas’ friendship with American poet Robert Frost, who encouraged his writing, takes prevalence here, but we also learn about his upbringing, and strained, often absent, relationship with his three children and wife, Helen. We hear about their relationship from its earliest days.
Now All Roads Lead to France has been split into four distinct sections, all of which correspond to the places in which Thomas found himself – ‘Steep, 1913’, ‘Dymock, 1914’, ‘High Beech, 1915-16’, and ‘Arras, 1917’. Each also includes a map of the corresponding place.
Hollis begins by outlining the changing face of poetry, from its stuffy, conservative Victorianism, to something new and bold, culminating in the Georgians and the Imagists. The Georgians, writes Hollis, ‘looked to the local, the commonplace and the day-to-day, mistrusting grandiosity, philosophical enquiry or spiritual cant. Many held an attachment to the traditions of English Romantic verse… The style was innocent, intimate and direct; lyric in form, rhythmic in drive, it detailed short sketches of the natural world with larger meditations on the condition of the human heart… It employed whimsy in the place of calculation… its subject matter would be as everyday as a country lane or a village fence post.’ Imagism provided the rivalry to this Georgian movement. The Imagists employed ‘direct treatment, a pared language a relatively free verse… No sing-song rhythms or cloying subject matter, no abstractions, no ornament, no superfluous word; this was language stripped down to the bone…’. Hollis, a poet himself, is of course adept in discussing these poetic movements, and commenting upon their importance in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War.
Hollis then goes on to introduce Thomas at a real point of crisis in his life. In 1913, he is thirty-four, with ‘desperately low’ spirits. A father of three, and married, his depressive episodes caused him to treat his family badly: ‘The only way he knew to break the cycle was to leave; sometimes his absences lasted days, at other times he could be gone for months. At these moments, even to drag himself home for a weekend was more than he could manage… [and] he convinced himself that they could be happy without him.’ At this point in time, Thomas was an influential critic of verse, ‘and his brilliant, uncompromising articles were the making of many young reputations and the breaking of others’. Although he had not yet embarked on his own poetic career, he had published over twenty works of prose, and ‘edited or introduced a dozen more’. Throughout, the author has woven in excerpts from correspondence and diaries – not just Thomas’, but Helen’s too.
Hollis paints a fascinating and detailed portrait of Thomas. I was particularly taken with the physical description which he crafts of the poet: ‘His expression was grave and detached, but his smile, when it came, could be coy, whimsical or proud. He rarely laughed… He spoke in a clear baritone, though often he kept his own counsel, and preferred the company of an individual to a group… He dressed in a suit of tawny tweed, which was old, sunned and slightly loose, and which, he liked to say, smelt of dog whenever it was damp. His jacket pockets were impossibly deep, and from these he would pull maps, apples and clay pipes in a procession as apparently endless as the scarves from a magician’s hand.’
Carol Ann Duffy writes that Now All Roads Lead to France ‘entranced’ and ‘inspired’ her, and moved her to tears. I certainly did not feel that emotional whilst reading Hollis’ biography, but there are scenes which strike such empathy and sympathy from the reader. Now All Roads Lead to France is the author’s first work of prose, but it feels so well-established, and reads as though it has been penned by a master. This biography is incredibly accessible, and brings together a wealth of research in a readable, measured prose style.
Throughout, Hollis is perceptive and aware of his subject, and charts both his writing process and his bouts of depression. The cultural detail woven through the book has been clearly set out, and adds another, often important, dimension to the narrative. Although Now All Roads Lead to France is not a strictly chronological biography, the structure works wonderfully, and the entirety feels well rounded. Illuminating and exemplary, Now All Roads Lead to France is one of the best biographies which I have read in a long time.