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‘Treveryan’ by Angela du Maurier ****

It perhaps goes without saying that Angela du Maurier was the elder sister of the far more successful novelist Daphne.  Angela was, however, rather a prolific author in her own right; she simply did not enjoy a similar level of fame.  Sadly, the majority of her novels appear to be out of print, and I have found them quite difficult to get hold of in the past.

715js5yk3ulOf Treveryan, a novel which one can compare at length to Daphne’s sweepingly Gothic masterpiece Rebecca, Sally Beauman writes that it is a ‘strange and fascinating novel’, with a ‘sure’ narrative grasp.  First published in 1942, and dedicated to Daphne, it is perhaps the novel which Angela is best known for.  Here, ‘we enter a house and landscape familiar to any reader who has dreamed of Manderley.  But Angela du Maurier… explores this territory with candour and sensitivity all her own.’  This novel is one of ‘strong women and weak men, of an abiding love that breaks taboos and dare not be declared.’

Treveryan begins in rather an enticing manner: ‘Unlike the ghost of Hamlet there is no prison-house to forbid me.  A tale – queer, old-fashioned, unsatisfactory little word for what may be bleak tragedy.’  This character, an unnamed woman who recounts the relationship with her godfather, continues in similar fashion, bringing herself into the narrative as she goes.  She describes her situation, and its effects upon her, as follows: ‘I was an only child living in the depths of the country, with few companions of my own age.  Therefore very early in life books became my friends, and perhaps for that reason led me to weave romances where none existed, and visualize drama into often enough drab lives.  Probably most children have some character, culled from legend, fiction, or real life whom they admire or, at any rate, in whom they are interested above others.  Oswald Martineau, my godfather, was such to me.’

Martineau tells his goddaughter stories about the Treveryan family, which he was intimately connected with.  In this manner, du Maurier focuses on the generation who grew up during the 1860s and 1870s or thereabouts, siblings Veryan, Bethel, and Lerryn.  It is possible on some levels to read Daphne into the character of Bethel; she is headstrong, wishes she were a boy as Daphne famously did, and is the third and middle child of three.

Not all is at it seems at the big house, however.  At a coming out ball held for Bethel, a guest remarks: “You know there always has been a mystery about the place [Treveryan].  And about the family.  Something rather horrible I believe.”  The children’s mother seems ultimately repulsed by them, and their father has passed away in mysterious circumstances, of a disease which they are not aware for many years.  This family secret prevents the three from living their own lives in the way they wish to.

Treveryan is set in rural Cornwall, just like Rebecca is.  Treveryan is a stately home which has been owned by the Treveryan family from the ‘early days of the Reformation’.  Du Maurier describes the house and its generations of inhabitants with such beautiful imagery: ‘For generations and centuries their own people had breathed the air they now breathed, walked through the grounds, climbed the giant oaks in the park, fed deer, watched the wild swans yearly come, rest beside the shores of the lake, and depart.  Their ancestors had been born, had lived and died in the rooms which they had known completely and intimately since their own births.’

Treveryan entranced and entrapped me.  The novel is a beguiling one, and whilst it has a lot of elements in common with Daphne du Maurier’s fiction, Angela has a way of telling a story which is all her own.  The control which she has over the plot is not quite as taut, and there are a couple of points at which there is little storyline; the novel feels meandering as a result.  Treveryan is a little slow in places, but after feeling largely indifferent to the first quarter of the book, it picked up greatly.  There are a couple of surprises along the way, and I felt entertained, particularly as the story reached its end.

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‘Eden’s Garden’ by Juliet Greenwood ****

I adored the first novel of Juliet Greenwood’s which I read a few months ago, We That Were Left, and was most keen to read the rest of her oeuvre.  I ordered a copy of her debut novel, Eden’s Garden, because I am so drawn to books which contain two distinct stories within them, and which overlap towards the end.  The stories here are set in 2011 and 1898.

9781906784355In the contemporary story, we follow a protagonist named Carys, whose ‘dreams for the future are falling apart as she returns to the Snowdonia village where she was born, to look after her mother.’  Greenwood describes the way in which ‘Carys’ past was here, amongst the mountains rising up behind the shabby little seaside town.  And in the smaller – and even shabbier – time-passed-by village in the hills, where every road and path led towards the rambling grounds of Plas Eden.’

Whilst in Wales once more, Carys is drawn back to this ‘ramshackle country house’, where she bade her childhood sweetheart farewell.  This episode is related in the prologue, which is set in 1996, and which marks the tone and sumptuous descriptions of the story that follows.  In the prologue, Greenwood writes: ‘It was strange, seeing the house from this unfamiliar angle.  Close to, Plas Eden was slightly shabby, in a homely, comforting sort of way.  Between the ivy, white paint peeled away from the masonry.  Moss collected where slates had slipped or broken, and the skinny beginnings of a tree sprouted from a broken edge of guttering on one side.’

The late Victorian story in Eden’s Garden intrigued me most: ‘The last time Ann was in London she was a spoilt, aristocratic bride.  Now she stands destitute on London Bridge, with the Meredith Charity Hospital her only lifeline.  But who can she trust, and will she ever escape her past?’  Both Ann and Carys ‘struggle with love, family duty, long-buried secrets and their own creative ambitions’, and are mysteriously connected to one another.

I was more interested in the Victorian story at first, but became far more drawn into the contemporary part of the novel once the mystery element was introduced.  The female characters almost sprang to life upon the page, but I found the males more problematic; some of them felt as though they had not quite been drawn realistically enough.  Regardless, the novel is still a highly atmospheric one, which takes place in both the Welsh and Cornish countryside, and is all the richer for having more than one setting.  The layering effect of story upon story here works wonderfully too.

Eden’s Garden is a wholly transporting novel, which I found immediately absorbing.  It is, like We That Were Left, a novel which entirely sweeps one away.  For a debut, this novel is highly polished, and its mystery carefully and cleverly pieced together.  I did find a couple of elements which Greenwood had dreamed up a little unbelievable, and others rather twee, but I thoroughly enjoyed the novel overall.  Greenwood is an author who certainly deserves to be read more widely; I would recommend her work for fans of the likes of Kate Morton.

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‘Zennor in Darkness’ by Helen Dunmore *****

Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness proved the perfect tome to pick up over a relaxed and warm bank holiday weekend.  I first read the novel some years ago, but did not remember much about it, save for D.H. Lawrence featuring as one of the protagonists, and the sweeping Cornish setting.  First published in 1993, John le Carre calls this ‘a beautiful and inspired novel’, and the Sunday Telegraph deems it ‘highly original and beautifully written’.

9780141033600Zennor in Darkness opens in May 1917, when war has come to haunt ‘the coastal village of Zennor; ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion, and newspapers are full of spy stories.’  It is into this environment that D.H. Lawrence and his German wife, Frieda, move, seeking a cheaper existence away from the controversy which his writing has caused in London.  Also resident in the village, and living with her widowed father, is a young woman named Clare Coyne.  She is a young artist, whom Lawrence and Frieda soon befriend.

When Lawrence arrives in Cornwall, it is almost directly after the publication and scandal of his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  In Zennor, he is ‘growing vegetables to eke out his tiny income.  He earns his living by his writing, and it has shrunk close to nothing since his novel was seized by the police in November 1915 and prosecuted for obscenity.  The book is shameful, say reviewers and prosecution.  It is a thing which creeps and crawls…  He does not know when he will be able to publish another novel.  But with a remote cottage rented at five pounds a year, and cheap rural living, he hopes that he and his wife may get through the war.’  Controversy follows the Lawrences wherever they go, however; local residents are highly suspicious of Frieda’s German accent, and the couples’ penchant for singing Hibernian lullabies to one another.  ‘This brazen couple,’ writes Dunmore, ‘ignores the crossed, tight webs, the drystone walls, the small signals of kinship, the spider-fine apprehensions of those who’ve lived there for ever once they feel a fly strumming somewhere on their web.’

Dunmore’s descriptions throughout are highly sensual.  At the outset of the novel, when Clare decides to swim with her cousins with nothing on, she writes: ‘Second in, she must be second out.  And she wants the sea to herself for a minute, the noise and swell of it, her bare flesh rocking in salt water.’  The rural scenery, as well as the current crisis and its effects, are set with such grace.  Dunmore is very understanding of the location against which the action of the novel plays out, as well as the wider political climate, and the links between the two.  When Clare and Lawrence survey the sea, for instance, she writes: ‘It is wonderful to have your back to the land, to the whole of England: to have your back to the darkness of it, its frenzy of bureaucratic bloodshed, its cries in the night…  To have your back to this madness which finds a reason for everything: a madness of telegrams, medical examinations and popular songs; a madness of girls making shells and ferocious sentimentality.’

Dunmore’s depictions of people, too, are vivid and memorable.  When Clare meets Lawrence for the first time, for instance, she finds that ‘his beard is astonishing.  It juts from his face, wiry and bright red, and then the sunlight catches it and it’s all the colours she’d never have thought human hair could be: threads of orange and purple like slim flames lapping at coals.’

Whilst the majority of the novel is told using the third person omniscient perspective, the use of diary entries written in Clare’s voice are effective.  Using this technique, Dunmore shows a more tender side of her, and it is also, of course, far more revealing than she is able to be in her public life.  Snippets of first person perspective, and thoughts of individual characters, have been woven throughout.  Sometimes asides are given, or reflections between snatches of dialogue.  Separate characters are focused upon in individual chapters, and we are thus able to see the rich tapestry of those who live within Zennor, some of whom are real historical figures, and others of which have been imagined by Dunmore.

Everything within Zennor in Darkness has been beautifully placed into what is a taut and tightly executed novel.  Throughout, Dunmore’s writing is measured and careful; she is understanding of her characters, and never resorts to melodrama.  Zennor in Darkness is a novel to really admire; it is slow, sensuous, incredibly human, and highly beautiful.

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‘Diving Belles’ by Lucy Wood ****

I first read Lucy Wood’s debut short story collection, Diving Belles a couple of years ago, and very much enjoyed it.  Whilst recently tidying up my bookcase, I came across my lovely hardback copy, and decided to reread it.  Jon McGregor writes that Wood’s stories ‘are brilliantly uncanny: not because of the ghosts and giants and talking birds which haunt their margins, but because of what those unsettling presences mean for the very human characters at their centre.’  Ali Shaw calls these ‘stories from the places where magic and reality meet.  It is as if the Cornish moors and coasts have whispered secrets into Lucy Wood’s ears…’.

Magical realism is at play in almost all of Wood’s stories, all of which are set along her home county of Cornwall’s ‘ancient coast’.  Here, ‘the flotsam and jetsam of the past becomes caught in cross-currents of the present and, from time to time, a certain kind of magic can float to the surface’.  The setting is what connects the stories on the face of it, but so too does an unsettling sense one gets that darker things are just about to happen.  In ‘Diving Belles’, for instance, Wood writes: ‘The bell swayed.  Iris sat very still and tried not to imagine the weight of the water pressing in.  She took a couple of rattling breaths.  It was like those moments when she woke up in the middle of the night, breathless and alone, reaching across the bed and finding nothing but a heap of night-chilled pillows.’9781408830437

The titular story has stayed with me particularly since I first read it.  Everything about it – and, indeed, this is the case with every single one of Wood’s tales here – is gloriously vivid.  There are also fascinating undercurrents throughout which pull one in.  Wood’s descriptions have an unusual element to them; they are ethereal, almost, particularly with regard to the similes which she employs.  She shows, and never tells.  For example, ‘cuttlefish mooned about like lost old men’, ‘small icicles hung off the branches like the ghosts of leaves’, and ‘his right eye got slightly lazy, the iris edging outwards like an orbiting planet’.  In a story titled ‘Beachcombing’, Wood writes about the sea: ‘It was ugly a lot of the time, the sea, if you really looked at it.  Ugly and beautiful too, with its muscles and its shadows and its deep mutterings, as if it was constantly arguing with itself.’

The strains of magical realism, and a series of odd occurrences, are present in almost all of these stories, but each is written in such a way that one never stops to question them; they are rendered entirely realistic in the context of the stories, and are never overdone, exaggerated, or made farcical.  Realism and magical realism have been blended seamlessly.  In these stories, there is an invisible man, whom only the protagonist and her mother can see after using a particular eye cream; a drowned wrecker who inhabits a couples’ house; a giant boy who is just waiting for his growth spurt; a disgruntled grandmother who lives in a beachside cave; and a story told using the collective voice of house spirits.  Wood’s characters all have mysterious qualities to them.  In the story ‘Countless Stones’, its protagonist’s body undergoes a drastic change upon occasion: ‘She brushed her hair and tried not to think about it changing to stone, how heavy it would get, how it would drag on her neck and then clog up like it was full of grit, knitting together and drying and splitting and matting.’

There is a kind of quiet glory to Diving Belles.  It feels like such an effortless, and well tied together collection.  Wood is a very talented author.  These stories, all of which are imaginative and unusual, really strike a chord.  Such a sense of place is evoked here, and each story is incredibly immersive.  There is a darkness and a mysteriousness to Wood’s Cornwall; it is gritty, almost.  Diving Belles is a wonderful collection, which I am so pleased I chose to reconnect with.

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Reviews: ‘The Wonder’, ‘Merlin Bay’, and ‘The Upstairs Room’

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue *** 9781509818402
‘An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story. Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder – inspired by numerous European and North American cases of ‘fasting girls’ between the sixteenth century and the twentieth – is a psychological thriller about a child’s murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.’

The Wonder started off well, particularly with regard to its vivid sense of place, and its sense of intrigue. Donoghue weaves in Irish history and superstition very well, and the novel has clearly been well structured. The slow pace takes a little while to get into, but undoubtedly suited the story which unfolded. Regardless, I found the twists rather obvious (and I am no supersleuth), and the whole ended on rather a flat note, which rendered the whole far less impressive than I was expecting. I would have preferred some sense of ambiguity at the end of the novel; what was included felt far too twee for my liking. Whilst well researched and relatively interesting, The Wonder is certainly not my favourite Donoghue book.

 

Merlin Bay by Richmal Crompton ****
9781509810208‘So begins Mrs. Paget’s month-long holiday as she journeys with the rest of her family to visit her grown-up daughter Pen and her grandchildren, who have moved to Cornwall to reap the benefits of the fresh Cornish air. But teeming beneath the calm surface of seaside life lies a whole world of secrets, infatuations, hopes and dreams. Over the course of their stay, visitors and residents of Merlin Bay become entangled in each other’s lives, disrupting the stability of Pen’s seemingly calm domestic life. From the elderly Mrs. Paget, who visited the bay on her honeymoon nearly fifty years ago but who has never returned, to Pen’s teenage daughter Stella, struggling to find her place in the world and feeling her first pangs of desire whilst her younger siblings play innocent childhood games on the beach, Crompton skilfully depicts the trials and tribulations of British domestic life. Will the hopes and desires of each family member be realized by the end of their stay? And what secret will Mrs. Paget unearth? Richmal Crompton’s adult novels are an absolute delight and every bit as charming as her beloved Just William series. A nostalgic treat for fans of the gentler brand of interwar fiction, Merlin Bay is the perfect heritage read for fans of 1930s fiction at its best.’

Merlin Bay is a beautifully wrought, engaging, and rather underrated novel. I did not enjoy it quite as much as Richmal Crompton’s 1933 novel The Holiday, but it was filled with a cast of fascinating characters, and did throw up a couple of surprises along the way.  Merlin Bay is a charming, quaint, and rather funny read, which proved a perfect choice for a beautifully warm summer’s day.

 

The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne ****
‘Eleanor, Richard and their two young daughters recently stretched themselves to the limit 9781509837588to buy their dream home, a four-bedroom Victorian townhouse in East London. But the cracks are already starting to show. Eleanor is unnerved by the eerie atmosphere in the house and becomes convinced it is making her ill. Whilst Richard remains preoccupied with Zoe, their mercurial twenty-seven-year-old lodger, Eleanor becomes determined to unravel the mystery of the house’s previous owners – including Emily, whose name is written hundreds of times on the walls of the upstairs room.’

The Upstairs Room felt like rather a good book to read when I felt unwell, pulling me in as it did from the beginning. It was not as dark as I had anticipated, but is undoubtedly well structured. The character studies which Murray-Browne writes are subtle at first, and then deepen and become more complex as the novel progresses. The Upstairs Room was not quite the book which I was expecting, but it is a compelling page turner nonetheless.

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‘Monsters’ by Emerald Fennell ****

I don’t tend to read much children’s fiction nowadays, cultivating the image, as I am, of a sensible PhD student.  Regardless, I really do enjoy it, and every now and then, something aimed at younger readers really catches my eye.  Monsters by Emerald Fennell was such a book.  The sparsity of its blurb made it sound deliciously creepy, and I have seen favourable reviews from a lot of fellow adults who have succumbed to it.

9781471404627From the outset, I was reminded of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks; yes, it is aimed at a different audience entirely, but there are rather a lot of similarities with regard to the narrative voice and the uneasiness which sets in almost immediately.  The matter-of-fact way in which it opens, too, contributed to the comparison for me: ‘My parents got smashed to death in a boating accident when I was nine.  Don’t worry – I’m not that sad about it’.  When her parents are killed, the narrator goes to live with her grandmother: ‘The good thing about living with Granny is that she has no idea about twelve-year-old girls and what they should be reading or watching on the television, so she lets me sit up with her and watch gory films while she picks the polish off her nails and feeds it to her dog, John.  John is permanently at death’s door but never actually hobbles through it’.

Monsters is filled with dark humour, such as the above.  The voice of our unnamed narrator was engaging as much as it was detached from things going on around her: ‘Mummy was obsessed with being thin – it was the thing she was most proud of.  At meal times she only ate peas, one at a time, with her fingers’.  There is a grasp of reality here, but whilst in charge of her own thoughts and feelings, the narrator is very much led.  When she meets fellow twelve-year-old Miles Giffard, who is holidaying in the Cornish town of Fowey where she is staying with her aunt and uncle, another darkness entirely enters the novel.

Our narrator has a vivid, and often rather frightening, imagination: ‘I really like my school but, honestly, sometimes I think it would be better if someone just burned the place to the ground’.  With Miles in tow, she soon has a fascination with murder, which is piqued when female bodies begin to wash up upon the beach.  She and Miles decide to investigate, and churn up horrors from which most twelve-year-olds would run away screaming.

The narrative voice feels natural after the first few pages, but some of the comments which the protagonist makes either startled me, or caught me so by surprise that I ended up snorting with laughter, such as with the following: ‘Sometimes I’m so tired I can barely move or think straight.  But it gets better after I’ve had a couple of strong coffees from the buffet.  Jean doesn’t approve of twelve-year-old girls drinking coffee, but truly, Jean can get fucked’.

Fennell is a talented writer, whose characters – young and old – felt immediately realistic.  She has such an awareness of her narrator, and has crafted a book which is really chilling at times, even to those who fall several (ahem) years outside of her target demographic.  The plot and pace within Monsters are faultless, and the reader is always aware that something sinister is on the horizon.  Monsters is a real page turner, for audiences young and old(er).  I could never quite guess where it would end up, and it kept me surprised throughout, particularly with its clever twists and its fantastic ending.

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‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’ by Sarah Winman ****

I very much enjoyed Sarah Winman’s debut novel, When God Was a Rabbit, so when an unsolicited copy of her second book, A Year of Marvellous Ways, was delivered by the postman, I found myself rather eager to read it immediately.

Whilst I was (somehow) entirely unaware of its publication, I was pleased to see that A Year of Marvellous Ways has been incredibly well received.  Patrick Gale says that the book is ‘like Dylan Thomas given a sexy rewrite by Angela Carter’, and Emylia Hall writes: ‘Folkloric, poetic, gorgeous.  All I needed was a campfire and a bottle of moonshine’.  The novel’s blurb heralds it ‘a glorious, life-affirming story about the magic in everyday life and the pull of the sea, the healing powers of storytelling and sloe gin, love and death and how we carry on when grief comes snapping at our heels’.

In terms of the storyline, A Year of Marvellous Ways is rather different to that of When God Was a Rabbit, but Winman has still placed her focus entirely upon her characters and their relationships, something which I feel that she does incredibly well.  The novel is set ‘in the wilds of Cornwall’ following the Second World War, and tells of a relatively unusual friendship, ‘between an old woman coming to the end of her life and a young soldier who sees little point in going on with his’.

Marvellous Ways is the main protagonist of the piece.  She has just begun her ninetieth year, and still lives beside the remote Cornish creek close to the hamlet of St Ophere, where she has spent the majority of her days: ‘It had been a destination village on account of its bread.  Now, in 1947, it was nothing more than a desolate reminder of the cruel passing of time’.  When Francis Drake, a young soldier, comes to the creek, intent upon an important task, ‘broken in body and spirit’, she comes to his aid without any hesitation: ‘Marvellous Ways spent a good part of her day waiting, and not for death, as you might assume, given her age.  She wasn’t sure what she was waiting for because the image was incomplete.  It was a sense, that’s all, something that had come to her on the tail feather of a dream’.

Marvellous’ world comes to life immediately; the places which she knows and loves are so well evoked.  When placed against them, she herself becomes more of a realistic character, and one can easily imagine her bumbling down to the creek and swimming, or gathering her supper.  Winman’s writing is strong, and her descriptions are gorgeous; Marvellous, for example, has eyes, ‘as blue and fickle as the sea’.  Startling occurrences and imagery come almost out of nowhere, and immediately capture the attention.  Winman’s initial descriptions conjure vivid images in the mind’s eye: ‘She had watched him go into the church as a shadow, and when he had emerged he was still a shadow with deep hues of mauve emanating from his dark skin, and from his mouth the glowing tip of a cigarette pulsed like the heart of a night insect’.  She has a marvellous way, too, of using all of the senses to add both realism and a dreamlike feel to the whole: ‘at the solid crunch of earth’, ‘a thick crust of hoar frost’ and ‘the brittle light’, for example.  The tranquillity of Cornwall also provides a sharp and much-needed contrast to the mud-filled battlefields of the Second World War.

As well as learning about Marvellous’ 1947 present, details about her past are also woven in.  Her life has been a sad one, filled with heartbreak. Of a past relationship, Winman writes, ‘… and they kissed and she wished they hadn’t because she could taste his sadness on his breath.  Could taste his other life and his other women too, and that’s why she knew he wouldn’t stay’.  The element of relationship building, which is an intrinsic portion of the plot, is both realistic and rather beguiling: ‘And that was the night they began to share dreams because that’s what happens when you both know the weight of another’s soul’.

The third person perspective has been used to good effect, and it certainly allows Winman to follow each of her protagonists here.  Personally, however, I found Marvellous’ story far more intriguing than Drake’s.  Those portions of Drake’s story which should have been packed with emotion felt a little detached.  Whilst Winman has a good grasp of her omniscient voice within A Year of Marvellous Ways, it is nowhere near as captivating as the voice which so vividly comes to life within When God Was a Rabbit.

Despite this, A Year of Marvellous Ways is a strong novel, which demonstrates the extent of how enduring friendships and promises can be.  The structure which Winman has made use of does work to her advantage, incorporating as it does both the present and the past, along with elements of magical realism.  Her characters are, for the most part, memorable constructions, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

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