5

Books I Wish More People Would Read

I have just come across a Goodreads list entitled ‘Books I Wish More People Would Read’, and have stolen its title for my own purposes here at The Literary Sisters.  A lot of the books which I read seem to slip under the radar, and there are several which I have adored, or very much admired, of late, which I rarely see others reviewing, or even reading.  I thought that I would therefore make a list of six books that I would happily thrust into the hands of every reader whom I meet.  (Please note, it is entirely a coincidence that all of these books were written by women!)

 

185908911. Don’t Go To Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories by Celia Fremlin
Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark (1972) was the first gathering of Celia Fremlin’s short fiction, a form in which she had published prolifically – for the likes of She, Playmen, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine – while building her reputation as a novelist of psychological suspense.  Female characters predominate in these tales, as does the doom-filled atmosphere that was Fremlin’s metier. She explores her familiar theme of strained mother-child relations, but she also delves into the supernatural realm as well as the psychological. As ever, her capacities for making the everyday unnerving and keeping the reader guessing are richly in evidence.

 

2. May We Shed These Human Bodies by Amber Sparks (review here) 15701573
May We Shed These Human Bodies peers through vast spaces and skies with the world’s most powerful telescope to find humanity: wild and bright and hard as diamonds.

 

321449223. A House on the Rhine by Frances Faviell
Having made her publishing debut with The Dancing Bear, a superb memoir of life in Berlin immediately after World War II, Frances Faviell applied first-hand knowledge to fiction, telling the riveting, harrowing tale of one large, troubled family in Germany nearly a decade after the war’s end.  In a town near Cologne, rebuilding is proceeding at a frantic pace, factory work is plentiful and well-paid, and the dark days of near-starvation have ended. But Joseph, a former Allied prisoner of war, and his enormous brood–his wife having received a medal under the Nazis for bearing more than 10 children–face new problems ranging from the mother’s infidelity, the oldest child’s involvement with a brutal youth gang leader, and a beloved adopted daughter’s plans to marry an American soldier.  Vividly portraying the love and conflict of a large family and the dramatic, sometimes tragic social change of Germany’s postwar recovery, A House on the Rhine is a powerful, heartbreaking tale from the author of the London Blitz memoir A Chelsea Concerto.’

 

4. We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood 18760917
A privileged young wife on a large Cornwall estate gains responsibility and confidence when her husband leaves to fight overseas. This English home front saga then becomes something more when she leaves for France herself to rescue a friend from danger.

 

9773745. Daughters of the House by Michele Roberts
Booker Prize Finalist, Daughters of the House is Michèle Roberts’ acclaimed novel of secrets and lies revealed in the aftermath of World War II. Thérèse and Leonie, French and English cousins of the same age, grow up together in Normandy. Intrigued by parents’ and servants’ guilty silences and the broken shrine they find in the woods, the girls weave their own elaborate fantasies, unwittingly revealing the village secret and a deep shame that will haunt them in their adult lives.

 

6. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna 17237713
Aminatta Forna has established herself as one of our most perceptive and uncompromising chroniclers of war and the way it reverberates, sometimes imperceptibly, in the daily lives of those touched by it. With The Hired Man, she has delivered a tale of a Croatian village after the War of Independence, and a family of newcomers who expose its secrets.  Duro is off on a morning’s hunt when he sees something one rarely does in Gost: a strange car. Later that day, he overhears its occupants, a British woman, Laura, and her two children, who have taken up residence in a house Duro knows well. He offers his assistance getting their water working again, and soon he is at the house every day, helping get it ready as their summer cottage, and serving as Laura’s trusted confidant.  But the other residents of Gost are not as pleased to have the interlopers, and as Duro and Laura’s daughter Grace uncover and begin to restore a mosaic in the front that has been plastered over, Duro must be increasingly creative to shield the family from the town’s hostility, and his own past with the house’s former occupants. As the inhabitants of Gost go about their days, working, striving to better themselves and their town, and arguing, the town’s volatile truths whisper ever louder.

 

 

Have I convinced you to pick up any of these unfairly neglected novels?

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2

Very Good Second Novels

I have seen it said on many an occasion that authors suffer from the curse of the second novel, in which they try their best to write something as good as their first, but invariably fail.  I have come several examples where this is true (Diane Setterfield unfortunately springs to mind, as I absolutely adored The Thirteenth Tale, and very much disliked her second novel, Bellman and Black), but actually, have often found myself enjoying an author’s second novel even more than their first.  I felt that it might make a nice post to group together some thoughts on – and in the case that I have not written reviews and read the book some years ago, the blurb of – five second novels which I have very much admired, or been pleasantly surprised by.  I have tried to choose a diverse range of novels from different time periods to vary the post a little.

 

363750491. Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey (2018)
I really enjoyed Emma Healey’s debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing, and was thus rather keen to begin her second, Whistle in the Dark. What I found within its pages was an intriguing mystery, a cast of multilayered characters, and a very tight and controlled plot. Healey explores a fascinating family dynamic, which is threatened by various factors – namely the disappearance of teenage daughter Lana, which is the focus of the plot. I enjoyed the way in which Healey builds the novel, with longer chapters and smaller fragments, all of which reveal something.  Whistle in the Dark is so well pieced together, and I found it incredibly absorbing; it kept me up reading when I really should have been sleeping. I can’t wait to see what Healey comes up with next.

 

2. Uncle Paul by Celia Fremlin (1959)
Uncle Paul was the last remaining novel by Celia Fremlin which I had on my Kindle. I decided to start reading it on the way to Munich, and was gripped all the way through. I loved the opening of this, Fremlin’s second novel, and found the plot intriguing. The humour here worked well, and I found the dialogue to be both sharp and wonderfully controlled. I guessed the denouement from quite a way off, although it did not seem as though it had been well hidden. A great novel which certainly kept me guessing.

 

3. The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (2015) 17824793
Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is an urgent, momentous novel about the experience of three young men who immigrate from India to the United Kingdom in hope of finding work. From the very beginning, Sahota’s study of his characters is incredibly detailed. I loved the inclusion of so much cultural minutiae, and found that the use of words in different Indian dialects without their translations being given adds yet another layer to the whole. The story is incredibly evocative of place and space, and every single strand of story has been well pulled together. The way in which the different characters’ stories intertwined was clever.  The Year of the Runaways is a relatively slow novel, in the very best way. The backstories of each of Sahota’s characters are eminently believable, as are their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The novel is so immersive that it becomes difficult to put down. The Year of the Runaways is an eye-opening book, and I felt so empathetic toward all of the protagonists, as well as their wider families. I read this important book with rapt attention, and cannot recommend it enough.

 

4. The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922)
The heir to his grandfather’s considerable fortune, Anthony Patch is led astray from the path to gainful employment by the temptations and distractions of the 1920s Jazz Age. His descent into dissolution and profligacy is accelerated by his marriage to the attractive but turbulent Gloria, and the couple soon discover the dangerous flip side of a life of glamour and debauchery. Containing obvious parallels with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s own lives, the novel is a tragic examination of the pitfalls of greed and materialism and the transience of youth and beauty.

 

342732365. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017)
I very much enjoyed Celeste Ng’s thoughtful and thought-provoking debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, and looked forward to her newest publication, Little Fires Everywhere. Firstly, I very much liked Ng’s dedication, which reads: ‘To those who are on their own paths, setting little fires.’ With regard to the novel itself, the characters in their entirety have such depth to them, and interact so realistically. Ng held my interest throughout, dropping small clues and questions in as she went, and tying up the loose ends masterfully. She demonstrates a wonderful grasp of history and society, and her writing is always controlled.  Little Fires Everywhere tackles a whole host of important themes, and I could barely put it down.

 

Of course, there are so many more great novels which I could have included here!  Which are your favourite – and least favourite – second novels?  Have you read any of these, or the debut books by the authors mentioned?

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1

‘Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories’ by Celia Fremlin *****

Having read two of Celia Fremlin’s books now, The Hours Before Dawn, and this rather wonderful and chilling short story collection, I feel that I can say with some compunction that she is an undeservedly neglected writer.  I have plans to read all of her books – and she was rather prolific, it must be said – over the next couple of years on the strength of just these two tomes, as what I have seen within both has impressed me no end.

Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories, which has recently been reissued, along with the rest of Fremlin’s work, by Faber Finds, includes a fascinating and insightful introduction by Chris Simmons, which tells of the author’s life and inspiration: ‘Here was a middle-class woman who seemed to delight in re-inventing herself; and while all writers draw upon their own experiences to some existent, “reinvention” is the key to any artist’s longevity.’  He goes on to praise her writing, saying that Fremlin ‘succeeded in chilling and thrilling her readers without spilling so much as a drop of blood.’ 9780571312719

Simmons also states that Fremlin’s work in its entirety offers ‘authentic snapshots of how people lived at the time of her writing: how they interacted, what values they held…  Every interaction between her characters has a core of truth and should strike a resonant note.’  Indeed, that is very much the case with this collection of short fiction.  The tales here are variously described as ‘eclectic, delectable, perfectly formed nibbles’.

The overarching feeling one gets from Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark is an unsettling one, with something sinister waiting just around the corner.  The first piece in the collection, ‘The Quiet Game’, for instance, has a second paragraph which begins thus: ‘But madness has a rhythm of its own up there so near to the clouds; a rhythm that at first you would not recognize, so near is it, in the beginning, to the rhythms of ordinary, cheerful life…’.

Fremlin’s writing throughout is strong.  In ‘The New House’, for example, she writes: ‘The hatred seemed to thicken round her – I could feel giant waves of it converging on her, mounting silently, silkily, till they hung poised above her head in ghostly, silent strength.’  The stories here come from a more mature point in Fremlin’s life, written as they were whilst the author was in her fifties.  There is, perhaps unsurprisingly with that in mind, an emphasis upon ageing, and the stories which deal with senility are the most chilling of all.

Each of the stories within Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark is vivid and perfectly paced.  Some of them have otherworldly and fantastical elements to them, but the way in which they and their characters have been built and presented smacks of realism, which serves to make the whole even more unsettling.  Each story is filled to the brim with tension, suspense and intrigue, but at no point is anything overdone.  Rather, Fremlin’s writing is incredibly controlled, and every single one of her characters is startlingly realistic.  The tales veer off in unexpected directions, making Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark both surprising and compelling.  Fremlin demonstrates on every page that she truly is a marvellous writer, one which deserves to be read far more widely.

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1

‘The Hours Before Dawn’ by Celia Fremlin ****

Celia Fremlin’s 1958 debut novel, The Hours Before Dawn, which has been recently reissued by Faber & Faber, sounded utterly splendid.  The novel, which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1960, marked the beginning of Fremlin’s prolific career, in which she went on to publish sixteen novels in all.  Fremlin’s metier, says Laura Wilson’s intelligent and informative introduction, ‘was psychological suspense in a domestic setting; no grand guignol or melodrama, but something a thousand times creeper and more insidious in its small-scale, suburban gentility.’   A forgotten period novel, lost to the annals of time, which contains an awful lot of psychological tension, was wholly appealing to me.

9780571338122The novel, which focuses upon a young mother named Louise Henderson, and details her troubles of sleepless nights following the birth of her youngest child, is based upon the experiences which Fremlin herself had.  It opens with just this issue: ‘I’d give anything – anything – for a night’s sleep…’.  Louise has two school-age daughters, and a new baby named Michael.  She ‘struggles to service the needs of her family, keep things on an even keel with husband Mark, keep the noise down for the neighbours and keep up appearances in middle-class London.’  Her life is stagnant, and stuck in a rut; she continually has to perform the same tasks day after day, and the majority of these revolve around her children: ‘The dull, relentless daylight of a wet spring evening was still undiminished; it seemed to go on – and on – and on.  Would it never be time to switch on the lights, draw the curtains, and let it slip back into firelit winter again?’  Louise does not have a great support network around her; or, arguably, much of one at all.  Mark is very much of the view that it is a mother’s, rather than a father’s, prerogative to look after the children; he implores Louise to make his life easier without making any efforts of his own: ‘”You’ve got to see that Michael stops crying at night.  You can’t expect anyone else to put up with it.  I’ve had just about all I can stand myself.”‘

Following Michael’s birth, the Hendersons find that they have to take in a lodger to make ends meet; Miss Vera Brandon comes along, and Louise soon feels a growing uncertainty about her: ‘Miss Brandon, in both voice and appearance, gave the impression of being a successful woman of the world, both critical and self-assured; not at all the sort of person whom one would expect to choose for her house an inconvenient, ill-equipped attic in someone else’s house.’

The Hours Before Dawn begins in an Infant Weighing Clinic; Louise tells the nurse that Michael cries all the way through the night, and will not settle.  Her discomfort with her son, and his with her, is made immediately apparent: ‘As she spoke, she jiggled Michael with mounting violence, feeling through her palms, through her thighs, the tide of boredom rising within him.  Harder – harder – it was like baling out a boat when you know without any doubt that the water will win in the end…’.

Louise is constantly surprised by rather awkward situations that occur.  When Vera comes into the family’s lounge when she is breastfeeding Michael, for instance, Louise is at first embarrassed, and then unsettled, talking quickly in order to divert attention from her bodily exposure: ‘Louise stopped, uneasily conscious that she was beginning to run on about her children in just the kind of way that up-to-date mothers must be so careful to avoid.  To talk shop if you are a mother is not socially permissible as it is if you are a typist or a bus conductor.’

Fremlin realistically draws her characters with just a few deft strokes of her pen.  Of Louise’s youngest daughter, she writes: ‘Harriet, smaller, darker, carrying nothing, free as air, flew past her woebegone sister, skimming like a dryad across the crowded pavement and into Louise’s arms’.  Louise certainly has an easier relationship with her daughters than with her son, but her lack of sleep and constant worry certainly affects every member of her family, sooner or later.

Written in, and of, a period in which ‘gender-demarcation was well-night absolute and motherhood fetishised as woman’s highest calling’, The Hours Before Dawn still holds much relevance for the modern woman.  Its prose is nuanced and modern in its feel.  The novel is immersive, and has none of the telltale signs which one might associate with a debut.  Fremlin has found her voice in The Hours Before Dawn, and her writing appears to be more practised than practising.  Fremlin’s pace is spot on, and she builds tension and terror admirably.  The denouement is both surprising and clever, and I for one cannot wait to discover the rest of her work.

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