‘No Way of Telling’ by Emma Smith ****

I had previously read, and very much enjoyed, Emma Smith’s The Far Cry, which was reprinted by Persephone in 2002.  I was keen to read more of Smith’s work, and ordered a gorgeous old paperback version of No Way of Telling, a novel which she wrote for children.  It stood out to me as a seasonal choice which I could read over the winter season.

6111016The protagonist of No Way of Telling is a young, and highly likeable, girl named Amy Bowen, who lives with her grandmother in rural Radnorshire in Wales, two miles away from the nearest village, and five from her school.  When the novel begins, it is wintertime, and a terrible snowstorm is on its way.  Once Amy returns from school, she and her grandmother stay inside, ‘safely-happy in the warmth of their mountain cottage while the blizzard raged outside.’  All of a sudden, ‘the door broke open, and there stood a shape so big that to Amy it was more of a monster than a man.  He said nothing, only grabbed some food and disappeared again into the stormy darkness.’  He is like something from ‘a bad dream, except that Amy and Mrs Bowen knew they were both awake.’  Grandmother and granddaughter are fearful; they wonder who he is, if he will return, and whether he is ‘hunter or hunted’.  They have, at this point, ‘no way of telling’.

So much attention has been paid to the rural surroundings throughout the novel.  Smith’s descriptions, particularly of the snowy landscape, are glorious.  When the blizzard begins, and Amy is walking home, she writes: ‘The flakes were big and loose, soft white lumps of snow blowing across sideways on the wind as though they too were in haste to get home.’  She goes on to describe the effects which such weather has on her young protagonist: ‘Snow, she thought, was a marvel – it was indeed!  Snow was like nothing else: it changed the world, the whole of life, in a matter of moments.  Not only the shapes of trees and grasses were changed but daily habits – even laws lost their power and had no meaning when snow fell.’  Throughout, Smith explores the weather, and the nuances in the way it changes, fantastically.  As Amy walks on, she captures the fear and disorientation which such a blizzard can bring with it: ‘There was nothing to see; nothing but a white swarming nothingness.  The hill that rose up in front of her was invisible and the snow itself had altered.  The flakes were smaller now and driving harder.  She was uncertain of how far she had come, uncertain of exactly where she was; and as she realized this she felt a conscious movement inside her, the sudden squeeze of sudden fright.’

There is a dark thread which weaves its way through the entire novel.  Whilst it is aimed at children, the writing is not at all simplified, and Smith does not intentionally hide things from her readers.  The mystery element, of the man’s identity and the appearance of two men who appear afterwards, has been well handled.  The denouement of No Way of Telling is wonderful; it both surprises and satisfies in equal measure.  Smith has created a wonderfully palpable tension in her novel.

No Way of Telling is the perfect wintry read.  Smith was shortlisted for the 1973 Carnegie Medal for this novel, and one can see why almost immediately.  Her story is compelling, her characters wonderfully realistic, and her prose layered and intelligent.  She explores the relationship between the young girl and her grandmother, and the way in which the appearance of the stranger impacts upon their daily life.  Smith’s narrative style is engaging, and her two protagonists feel three-dimensional.  The novel appealed to me greatly as an adult reader, and had it been published as an adult novel, I would not have been at all disappointed with it.


‘As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War’ by Emma Smith ***

I had read two of Emma Smith’s books – one written for adults (The Far Cry) and the other for children (No Way of Telling) – prior to picking up one of her memoirs.  Whilst As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War (2013) is not chronologically the first of her autobiographical works, it highly interested me, and was also available in my local library.

9781408835630Elspeth Hallsmith, as Emma Smith was born, moves with her family from Newquay in Cornwall to a Devonshire village named Crapstone.  Soon afterwards, her father suffers a nervous breakdown, and the family are left to deal with the far-reaching consequences.  There is also the outbreak of the Second World War to contend with, and Smith’s crisis that she has no idea how to help the war effort.  Her elder sister joins the WAAF, and her brother enlists with the RAF after a period of flirting with pacifism.  At this point, Smith is only sixteen years old.  She goes to secretarial college, which ‘equips her for a job with MI5’, but which she finds stuffy and dull.  She ‘yearns for fresh air and joins the crew of a canal boat carrying much-needed cargoes on Britain’s waterways.’  After the war ends, and her freedom is returned to her, Smith travels to India, moves to Chelsea in London, falls in and out of love, and writes, of course.

Smith has used a structure of short vignettes, which follow particular episodes in her life – for instance, travelling to London to be a bridesmaid; making a best friend at school; horseriding; playing sports; dancing classes; being left behind when her sister grows up and begins to study at art college; her father’s bad temper and fits of rage; and the longing which she often has to be alone.  When her family move to Devon, Smith describes her delight at being able to attend a ‘proper school’ with her sister, which comes with a uniform requirement: ‘And the fictitious girls in such Angela Brazil novels as I succeeded in borrowing from Boots’ Lending Library – they too wore gymslips on the illustrations I pored over, and now I shall be able to feel I am the same as those heroines.’

Of her father’s breakdown, she reflects: ‘Almost the worst part of the anguish is the sense of there being nobody I can share it with.  I don’t know how much the Twins are troubled, or indeed if they are troubled at all, by the blight that has fallen on our family.  I don’t know what either of them is thinking.  Pam has become uncommunicative, barely exchanging a sentence with me; Jim has deserted to the group of his cheerful friends… and Harvey – Harvey is only six.  I put my arms around him, hugging him tightly for comfort – my comfort, not his.  He wriggles free.’

In Smith’s fiction, I have been struck by her narrative voice, and I imagined that I would be here too.  Whilst some of her writing is certainly lovely, and sometimes revealing, other parts are comparatively simplistic.  There was no real consistency here.  I did feel at times as though Smith was holding back somewhat.  There was a sense of unexpected detachment in As Green As Grass, and it did not always feel as though there was sufficient explanation as to the many characters which flit in and out of its pages.

I also found it a little strange that Smith had largely employed the present tense with which to set out her memories.  Whilst As Green As Grass is certainly readable, and Smith’s voice is warm and engaging, I must admit that I was a little put off by the use of present tense, which made the whole seem imagined and exaggerated rather than truthful.  Had Smith approached this memoir from the perspective of herself as an adult looking back, I’m almost certain that I would have enjoyed it more.

Smith’s work is highly praised, but does not appear to be widely read, which is a real shame.  Whilst there were elements of As Green As Grass that I wasn’t overly keen on, I found it interesting overall.  However, I must say that As Green As Grass was not quite the book which I had hoped it would be, and I was made to feel a little uncomfortable by some of the antiquated and racist language which she uses – ‘native-born Indians’, for example.

Whilst As Green As Grass is by no means amongst the best war memoirs which I have read, I did enjoy the recollections of Smith’s childhood and teenage years.  The parts on the canal boat, which I expected to really enjoy and get a lot out of, were quite repetitive.  To date, I have enjoyed her fiction more, but I’m still relatively keen to pick up another of her memoirs; I am particularly intrigued by her recollections of her Cornish childhood in Great Western Beach.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Three)

With this post, we reach the midway point of this series of Really Underrated Books.  As ever, there are some very different tomes highlighted here, from essay collections to books hailed ‘impossible to define’.

1. Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political by James Kelman
James Kelman is justly celebrated as a major European novelist, short story writer, and playwright. Yet crucially his “artistry, authenticity and a voice of singular power” (Independent) flow from being an engaged writer and a cultural and political activist. In this collection of essays, polemics, and talks, Kelman directs his linguistic craftsmanship and scathing humor at the racism, class bias, and elitism of the English literary scene, the Labour Party’s establishment role, the treatment of asbestos victims, the media, and other political and cultural questions. Essays include “Artists and Value,” “Art and Subsidy,” “Some Recent Attacks on the Rights of the People,” “A Brief Note on the War Being Waged Against the Victims of Asbestos,” and “The Importance of Glasgow in My Work.”


2. The Passive Vampire by Gherasim Luca 3240545
Originally published in 1945 by Les Éditions de l’Oubli in Bucharest, The Passive Vampire caught the attention of the French Surrealists when an excerpt appeared in 1947 alongside texts by Jabès and Michaux in Georges Henein’s magazine La part du sable. Luca, whose work was admired by Gilles Deleuze, attempts here to transmit the “shudder” evoked by some Surrealist texts, such as André Breton’s Nadja and Mad Love, probing with acerbic humor the fragile boundary between “objective chance” and delirium.  Impossible to define, The Passive Vampire is a mixture of theoretical treatise and breathless poetic prose, personal confession and scientific investigation – it is 18 photographs of “objectively offered objects,” a category created by Luca to occupy the space opened up by Breton. At times taking shape as assemblages, these objects are meant to capture chance in its dynamic and dramatic forms by externalizing the ambivalence of our drives and bringing to light the nearly continual equivalence between our love-hate tendencies and the world of things.


3. Berlin Wild by Elly Welt
Banned from school by Nazi proclamation, 16-year-old Josef Berhardt enters the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute as a lab assistant, but the guilt he feels for spending the war drinking laboratory-brewed vodka and discovering sex with female researchers will haunt him for 20 years. How he finally learns to forgive himself makes this black comedy a moving, rewarding novel.


18075654. Diary of Gesa Csath by Gesa Csath
An acclaimed neurologist widely viewed as Hungary’s first contemporary author, Geza Csath was also a morphine addict who shot and killed his wife before killing himself. The diary begins as a clinically graphic depiction of Csath’s conquest of dozens of women – from chambermaids to aristocrats – during his tenure as a doctor at a Slovakian health spa in 1912.


5. In the Hour of Signs by Jamal Mahjoub
Nineteenth-century Sudan, wracked by religious, cultural, and political differences, is brilliantly evoked in the most ambitious book yet by this talented novelist. This, Mahjoub’s 1996 novel, centers around the Battle of Omdurman—one of the great colonial wars in Britian’s attempt to gain control over the Sudan. Mahojoub brings this period to life with perception, honesty, and integrity.  This is a story of fighting men, most Sudanese but some British; some showed wisdom, but for the most part they were either mad or misguided. Mahjoub writes with a profound, poetic intensity that illuminates a wide range of characters; from the cook to the Mahdi, from an Arab prostitute to the gentle Hawi, whose powerful message combines with the judgment and blindness of the other characters to bind the story together in a satisfying yet disturbing way.


6. Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding by Dorothy Ko
The history of footbinding is full of contradictions and unexpected turns. The practice originated in the dance culture of China’s medieval court and spread to gentry families, brothels, maid’s quarters, and peasant households. Conventional views of footbinding as patriarchal oppression often neglect its complex history and the incentives of the women involved. This revisionist history, elegantly written and meticulously researched, presents a fascinating new picture of the practice from its beginnings in the tenth century to its demise in the twentieth century. Neither condemning nor defending foot-binding, Dorothy Ko debunks many myths and misconceptions about its origins, development, and eventual end, exploring in the process the entanglements of male power and female desires during the practice’s thousand-year history.  Cinderella’s Sisters argues that rather than stemming from sexual perversion, men’s desire for bound feet was connected to larger concerns such as cultural nostalgia, regional rivalries, and claims of male privilege. Nor were women hapless victims, the author contends. Ko describes how women—those who could afford it—bound their own and their daughters’ feet to signal their high status and self-respect. Femininity, like the binding of feet, was associated with bodily labor and domestic work, and properly bound feet and beautifully made shoes both required exquisite skills and technical knowledge passed from generation to generation. Throughout her narrative, Ko deftly wields methods of social history, literary criticism, material culture studies, and the history of the body and fashion to illustrate how a practice that began as embodied lyricism—as a way to live as the poets imagined—ended up being an exercise in excess and folly.


7. No Way of Telling by Emma Smith (of Persephone fame!) 6111016
The day they were sent home early from school because of a threatening blizzard, Amy rode with the other pupils in Mrs. Rhys’s van to where the road ended, but from there she had to trudge by herself through the driving snowflakes to the Gwyntfa, the gray stone cottage where she lived alone with her grandmother, Mrs. Bowen. Once home, Amy knew she was safe. With a well-stoked larder and plenty of oil for the lamps, her grandmother promised her they might even enjoy being snowed in. They liked each other’s company and every night would sit one on each side of the fire, working at their patchwork quilt until it was time for a cup of tea and a game of Patience or Two-handed Whist before bed.  But on the day the snow began they never played their game of cards. They were interrupted by a growl from Amy’s dog, a tremendous thump at the door, and an intrusion of such violence as they had never in their lives met before. Yet though there was no way of telling who their intruder might be, Mrs. Bowen somehow knew he meant them no harm; and in the four extraordinary days that followed, bringing intruders of a different kind, Amy discovered that her grandmother’s instinct had been right.  Against the beautifully portrayed background of a Welsh hillfarm in winter, suspense mounts almost unbearably for Amy and her grandmother – and for the reader as well – as they face ruthless evil in this contemporary story superbly told by a distinguished writer.


8. Corrigan by Caroline Blackwood
Corrigan is at once a mordant comedy of manners and a very modern morality play. Since her husband’s death, the increasingly frail Mrs. Blunt has had only her trips to his grave to look forward to. Her raucous housekeeper’s conversation, and cooking, are best forgotten. Nadine, her daughter, is an infrequent, uneasy visitor. Then one day a charming, wheelchair-bound Irishman shows up at Mrs. Blunt’s door in search of charitable contributions. Corrigan is an arch manipulator, Mrs. Blunt is his mark, and before long we realize that they are made for each other. As the two grow ever more entrenched, Nadine fears for her mother’s safety (or is it for her own inheritance?). With Corrigan Caroline Blackwood takes a long, hard look at our dearly beloved notions of saints and sinners, victims and villains, patrimony and present pleasure—and winks.


1291889. Seeing Through Clothes by Anne Hollander
In this generously illustrated book, Anne Hollander examines the representation of the body and clothing in Western art, from Greek sculpture and vase painting through medieval and renaissance portraits, to contemporary films and fashion photography. First published ahead of its time, this book has become a classic.


10. Requiem by Shizuko Go
The end of World War II in the city of Yokohama, Japan, is portrayed through the heartfelt conversations and letters of two young women. Setsuko and Naomi, classmates and friends living in a bombed-out city, sort through their individual beliefs: “two girls, seventeen and fifteen at their next birthday, and though their real lives had yet to begin they were talking like old folk lost in reminiscences. Or perhaps this was their old age, for the hour of their death was near, as they well knew.” Everyone close to Setsuko is dead as a result of the war, yet she believes in the war unquestioningly and writes letters to soldiers on the front urging them to fight to the finish. Naomi’s father is imprisoned because of his anti-war beliefs and she struggles to find justification for war. Over the course of the novel, through flashbacks that occur within sentences or paragraphs, the horrors of the war are brought painfully to life and each young woman questions her own stand. Who is more patriotic? What are the rules of war when it is in your front yard? Shizuko Go, herself a survivor of the bombing of Yokohama, has written a devastating and important novel.


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Two Persephones

The Far Cry by Emma Smith ****

‘The Far Cry’ by Emma Smith

The endpapers of Emma Smith’s The Far Cry are gorgeous – my favourites yet, I think.  I knew next to nothing about this novel, and wasn’t sure what to expect from it.  The Far Cry has a broad and sweeping plot, in which a young girl named Teresa Digby goes to India with her father, in order to escape the impending arrival of her overbearing mother from America.  They go to stay with Teresa’s elder half-sister Ruth, and her husband, Edwin Tracy.  Teresa is a complex construction, emotionally realistic and believable in everything she says and does.  Ruth is formidable and mysterious, and Edwin is the kindest of the characters by far.

Smith has crafted her writing beautifully, and her turns of phrase are lovely.  She writes descriptions with such clarity, and her ardent appreciation for nature is clear from the very start.  The sense of place is so well described that it almost feels claustrophobic at times, particularly with regard to the Indian vistas.  It presses in upon its characters, and the things which befall them along the way.  I was swept away in the story, and found it very difficult to put A Far Cry down.  It was a marvellous companion for an enormous Channel Tunnel delay which I was stuck in, and I would absolutely adore to read more of Smith’s work.

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The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal ****

The endpapers of ‘The Exiles Return’

This is the 102nd book on the Persephone list.  As with The Far Cry, I did not know much about this novel before I began to read it, apart from the fact that it was set in Austria.  The Exiles Return was written in the late 1950s, and was not published in de Waal’s lifetime.  The preface to the Persephone edition is written by the Viennese author’s grandson, Edmund de Waal.  He states that his grandmother ‘wanted… to create novels of ideas’, and his introduction is truly fascinating.

The novel takes place over a relatively short period, beginning in 1954 and ending the following year, just after Austria recovered her independence following Hitler’s Anschluss.  Whilst there are several characters who are introduced and focused upon in detail, the two protagonists of the piece are Professor Kuno Adler, ‘the academic whose need to return to Vienna is at the heart of the book’, and a ‘beautiful girl’ named Marie-Theres, the American-raised daughter of an Austrian princess, who comes to be known as Resi.  Adler is barely on speaking terms with his wife, and has returned from New York alone, leaving his daughters in her care.  Resi is sent to stay with her uncle and aunt, a Count and Countess, because it is believed that a change of scenery will be ‘good’ for her.

The characters whom de Waal focuses upon come from different walks of life – a prince who has lost most of his family to the Gestapo, a rich Greek man, and the children of the Count and Countess, for example.  Pre- and post-war differences within Vienna are set out well, as are the ways in which the place impacts upon those who live within it.  Lots of history has been bound alongside the story, and the novel consequently has such depths; it becomes richer as each new character or scene is introduced.  The whole is rendered almost luscious in this respect.  The Exiles Return is a fabulous addition to the Persephone list, and I can only hope that the rest of de Waal’s books are – or will soon be, at any rate – readily available in English.

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