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Books Set in English Villages

I always appreciate pastoral settings, and am thus constantly drawn to books set in English villages. Many such books are ubiquitous with the murder mystery genre, but I wanted to create as varied a list as possible. Please let me know if you have read any of these, and which your favourite books set in small villages in England are.

  1. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

‘You are about to travel to Edgecombe St. Mary, a small village in the English countryside filled with rolling hills, thatched cottages, and a cast of characters both hilariously original and as familiar as the members of your own family. Among them is Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired), the unlikely hero of Helen Simonson’s wondrous debut. Wry, courtly, opinionated, and completely endearing, Major Pettigrew is one of the most indelible characters in contemporary fiction, and from the very first page of this remarkable novel he will steal your heart.

The Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But then his brother’s death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their respective spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more. But village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and her as the permanent foreigner. Can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition?’

2. The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

‘In 1959 Florence Green, a kindhearted widow with a small inheritance, risks everything to open a bookshop – the only bookshop – in the seaside town of Hardborough. By making a success of a business so impractical, she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers. By daring to enlarge her neighbors’ lives, she crosses Mrs. Gamart, the local arts doyenne. Florence’s warehouse leaks, her cellar seeps, and the shop is apparently haunted. Only too late does she begin to suspect the truth: a town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one.’

3. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

‘It is the summer of 1950–and at the once-grand mansion of Buckshaw, young Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison, is intrigued by a series of inexplicable events: A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Then, hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath.

For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”’

4. Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

‘Unsuitable romance is the theme of this wickedly comedic novel. A series of entanglements brings together an odd assortment of characters – clergymen, university dons, naive students, and academic hangers-on – with hilarious results.’

5. Thrush Green by Miss Read

‘The first novel in the bestselling Thrush Green series. It’s the May Day holiday, and a fair has come to the village of Thrush Green. The residents of Thrush Green all have their own views about the fair. For young Paul, just recovered from an illness, it is a joy to be allowed out to play at the fair; for Ruth, who returned to the soothing tranquillity of Thrush Green nursing a broken heart, the fair is a welcome distraction from her own problems. And for Dr Lovell, the fair brings an unexpected new patient. Then there is Mrs Curdle, the long-standing matriarch of the fair. For her, this year’s visit to Thrush Green awakens mixed feelings, and a difficulty she doesn’t want to face… Full of Miss Read’s inimitable charm and humour, Thrush Green is a wonderful introduction to this bestselling series.’

6. Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

‘Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Their rented cottage is simultaneously their armour against the world and their sanctuary. Inside its walls they make music, in its garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.

But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. At risk of losing everything, Jeanie and her brother must fight to survive in an increasingly dangerous world as their mother’s secrets unfold, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.

This is a thrilling novel of resilience and hope, of love and survival, that explores with dazzling emotional power how the truths closest to us are often hardest to see.’

7. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

‘High Wages (1930) was Dorothy Whipple’s second novel. It is about a girl called Jane who gets a badly-paid job in a draper’s shop in the early years of the last century. Yet the title of the book is based on a Carlyle quotation – ‘Experience doth take dreadfully high wages, but she teacheth like none other’ – and Jane, having saved some money and been lent some by a friend, opens her own dress-shop.

As Jane Brocket writes in her Persephone Preface: the novel ‘is a celebration of the Lancastrian values of hard work and stubbornness, and there could be no finer setting for a shop-girl-made-good story than the county in which cotton was king.’’

8. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

‘The case is closed. Five years ago, schoolgirl Andie Bell was murdered by Sal Singh. The police know he did it. Everyone in town knows he did it.

But having grown up in the same small town that was consumed by the murder, Pippa Fitz-Amobi isn’t so sure. When she chooses the case as the topic for her final year project, she starts to uncover secrets that someone in town desperately wants to stay hidden. And if the real killer is still out there, how far will they go to keep Pip from the truth?’

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‘Unsettled Ground’ by Claire Fuller ****

Claire Fuller is an author whose career I have followed from the beginning. I love her insightful prose, and find that all of her novels have stuck with me, even years after I picked them up. I was so excited, therefore, to read her newest offering, Unsettled Ground.

The protagonists of this novel are 51-year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius Seeder, who ‘have always been different from other people’. They live in ‘rural isolation and poverty’ with their mother, Dot, in a small decrepit cottage in the Wiltshire countryside, and have been shielded from a lot during their lives. When Dot suddenly dies at the outset of the novel, ‘threats to their livelihood start raining down’, and Dot’s deep web of secrets begins to unravel.

Fuller makes us constantly aware of the poverty in which Jeanie and Julius live. She writes of a long-broken window in their barn which nobody has fixed; the lack of education given to Jeanie as ‘an education for the king of people they were – poor people, country people – would only steal her away from where she belonged – at home’; and the payment of their mother’s funeral, which is so far away from what they can afford.

I love how detailed Fuller’s descriptions are throughout, and how consistent they are. As Dot opens the door on the morning of her death, she: ‘… watches her hand grasping the wrought iron, the liver spots and crosshatching seeming peculiar, unlike anything she’s seen before: the mechanics of her fingers, the way the skin on her knuckles stretches over bone, bending around the handle. The articulation is alien – the hand of an impostor.’ After Dot dies, and her body is resting at home, Fuller writes: ‘Since Dot has been in the parlour, the feel of the cottage is different, the air denser, her and her brother’s actions slower, as though they were moving through smoke, feeling their way with their hands outstretched in a house that once was familiar.’

Unsettled Ground is an impressive novel the pen of a highly perceptive author. I am struck, with each of Fuller’s novels, by the way in which she instinctively knows her characters; every single one springs to life, fully formed. Fuller is aware of the complexities of their emotions, and the way in which they flare and settle. She is also incredibly strong at weaving together different storylines, which all come together wonderfully at the novel’s climax. Unsettled Ground intrigued me throughout, and I found myself really moved by Jeanie and her plight; her vulnerabilities become more and more obvious as the novel progresses, and I felt for her deeply.

Unsettled Ground is not a happy story in any sense of the word. The characters are buffeted against such sadness and discomfort throughout, and an entirely fitting bleak atmosphere suffuses the whole. I did not find a lot of the plot here surprising, but for me, that was not the point. I was interested in the characters, and how they interacted with one another. Unsettled Ground is a transporting novel, a tender story about two lost people rallying against the circumstances in which they have found themselves. It is not my favourite of Fuller’s novels – and, to be honest, I do not think anything will beat the exquisite Swimming Lessons for me – but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Two Nature Memoirs: ‘The Dun Cow Rib’ and ‘The Grassling’

The Dun Cow Rib by John Lister-Kaye ***

John Lister-Kaye was a new-to-me author when I picked up The Dun Cow Rib, a memoir of his English childhood, which was spent ‘scrambling through hedges… keeping pigeons in the loft and tracking foxes around the edge of the garden.’ In his foreword, Lister-Kaye writes about his present life in the Scottish Highlands, in which a self-built hut has become ‘a treasured centre of separateness, a place to muse, an escape.’ He embarked upon the writing of this book in the hope that he could discover what first gave him such an enduring interest in the natural world.

His 1950s childhood sounds rather lonely, although he insists it was not. During the holidays, he would go and stay with his grandparents in the Manor House in rural Warwickshire, his father’s country pile ‘to which we always gravitated as surely as bees return to their hive, however far afield the capricious winds of fortune had wafted us.’ Here, he remembers spending a lot of time by himself in the garden, with its ‘rampant, inexhaustible verdure’. This was a privileged existence; the house had many rooms to explore, and a full retinue of servants.

The prose is very descriptive, and rather lyrical, but it does verge upon sickly at times. The structure, however, is where the book is let down. The narrative jumps around a lot from one idea to another, or from one time period to the next, and then back again. The motifs and images tend to become rather repetitive too. I would have definitely enjoyed this memoir more had it focused more upon his childhood – and perhaps less upon the many boarding school japes – and had it a chronological narrative. The Dun Cow Rib is also not exclusively a memoir of childhood, which I feel is a little misleading; Lister-Kaye writes about the lives of his parents, and moving to the Highlands to work with Gavin Maxwell, for instance. There are also whole chapters to be found here which fail to mention the natural world at all.

I did not know what to expect from Lister-Kaye’s writing, but I was hoping that I might enjoy it more than I did. On the whole, this was pleasant enough, but it is not overly relatable, given the privilege of his upbringing. In the past, I have been blown away by a lot of the nature writers I have discovered, but I cannot say the same for this fellow. Perhaps this is not the best of his books to begin with, but I do not feel overly compelled to reach for any others.

The Grassling: A Geographical Memoir by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett ****

I had heard nothing about Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s nature memoir, The Grassling: A Geographical Memoir, before stumbling across it on an Instagram post. I was intrigued enough by its blurb to request a copy from the library, and I am so pleased that I took the chance. Burnett, who has previously published poetry collections, was ‘spurred on’ to write The Grassling by the declining health of her father. Her intention here is to permeate ‘layers of memory, language and natural history to tell a powerful story of how the land shapes us and speaks to us.’

The book is entirely set around the countryside in Devon, which Burnett grew up within. She writes at length about the changing seasons, and , whilst also weaving in bigger questions about her identity and belonging. As a half-Kenyan woman, she finds herself Othered at times, not at home in the place which she spent so much of her young life. She writes, early on, ‘I turn back to the earth. The magnetism of the land, not just where I was birthed, but where my father was; his father and his; pulls me to it, as if by knowing it, I should know them.’

From the outset, it is clear that The Grassling has been written by a poet. Burnett’s grasp of vocabulary is rich, and has such a striking beauty to it. Her writing is visceral, and incredibly visual; it heightens all of the senses. The opening paragraph begins: ‘On the shortest day, the light never ends. Conifers buffer deep gusts of air, animals cry. The sky stings of a metal or an ore, iron wool rolled flat from moon to field. No stars. Clouds ripple the darkening grey. It must be darker because colours are, but the feeling is still of light. The body and the air.’

I recognise that The Grassling will not appeal to everyone, but I found it beautiful and reflective. Burnett is candid throughout, constantly reasserting what she is seeking out. She is admirably in touch with her surroundings, and I found a real reverence toward the landscape within the piece. I loved her approach, in which she blends together a series of different narrative techniques. The Grassling is an unusual and original book in many ways, and whilst it is not entirely straightforward at points, it is well worth seeking out. Burnett is capable of making us see the things around us with fresh eyes, and that is a real gift.

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‘Call of the Curlew’ by Elizabeth Brooks ****

Elizabeth Brooks’ novel, Call of the Curlew (also published as The Orphan of Salt Winds), caught my eye whilst browsing in the library. I don’t think I had heard of it before, but after reading the blurb and the various reviews dotted over its cover – Eowyn Ivey calling it ‘bewitching’ was enough for me – I was suitably intrigued, and took it home with me.

On New Year’s Eve in 1939, Virginia is ten years old. She is an orphan, whose parents passed away when she was just an infant. At this point in time, she is being taken to the ‘mysterious’ grand house, Salt Winds, to begin a new life with her adoptive parents, Clem and Lorna Wrathmell. The house borders a salt flat named Tollbury Marsh in the East of England, a ‘beautiful but dangerous place’.

At first, the Second World War, which has just begun, feels far away from the Wrathmells’ secluded home. However, whispers in the nearby town regarding the local knife grinder, a Jewish German man, begin to spread, and something sinister simmers below the idyllic surroundings. The German plane crashing into the marsh is a real turning point for Virginia; her adoptive father goes to rescue the pilot and does not return. As she first waits hopefully for his return, and then begins to grieve Clem, she realises that she is as embroiled in war as anyone else.

When the plane comes down, Brooks writes, rather beautifully: ‘It was the grace of the thing that astonished her in retrospect. You’d expect a burning fighter plane to make a great hullabaloo: howling engines, roaring flames, a great boom as it hit the ground, nose first. But if this one made any noise at all, Virginia didn’t notice. All she recalled, later on, was the slow arc it traced through the sky on its way down, like a spark floating from a bonfire. Even the explosion was gentle from their vantage point: a little orange flower that budded, bloomed and withered, all in a moment, far away on the edge of the marsh.’

I found the narrative within Call of the Curlew wonderfully beguiling. The opening paragraph, which is set at the end of 2015, really sets the scene: ‘Virginia Wrathmell knows she will walk on to the marsh one New Year’s Eve, and meet her end there. She’s known it for years. Through adolescence and adulthood she’s spent the last days of December on edge, waiting for a sign. So when one finally arrives, in her eighty-sixth year, there’s no good reason to feel dismayed.’ This sign turns out to be the skull of a curlew, which she finds on her doorstep. ‘All these years,’ Brooks writes, ‘she’s been wondering what the sign will turn out to be, and she’s come up with the strangest ideas. Words forming on a misted window. An anonymous note. A ghost. She’s never imagined anything as perfect as a curlew’s skull.’

Despite the air of mystery about it, there is a really comforting warmth to be found within Brooks’ prose. The descriptions, of which there are many, are wonderfully vivid: ‘Virginia glanced at the flatness to her left, where the silence lay. It was too dark to see the silhouette-bird now. The deep, arctic blue of the sky was reflected, here and there, in streaks of water, and there was a single star in the sky, but everything was black.’

Brooks has such control when she shifts Virginia’s story from the present day to the past, and then back again. Given this structure, we learn a lot about the two Virginias rather quickly; the sometimes crotchety, headstrong old lady, and the curious young girl. Although Virginia is the author’s focus, other characters become clear too, as do their relationships with one another. It is obvious from the outset, for instance, that Clem and Lorna’s marriage contains a great deal of upset, and is fraught with issues.

I found Call of the Curlew wholly absorbing; it is the best kind of historical novel, in that you sink into it. Its landscape is so clear, and its characters hold a great deal of interest. I enjoyed the omniscient perspective, which allowed Brooks to shift from one individual to another, whilst never losing sight of Virginia and her thoughts and feelings. I loved the air of mystery, and the many things left unspoken until far later in the novel. I was caught up in Virginia’s story from the outset. The threads of story which weave throughout have been beautifully layered, and it put me in mind of other authors which I have always enjoyed, namely Kate Morton and Helen Humphreys. I would highly recommend Call of the Curlew to anyone looking for a historical fiction fix.

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‘Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Like No Other’ by James Aldred ****

The quite excellent naturalist Helen Macdonald, whose two books to date rank amongst my favourite nature books, calls James Aldred’s Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Like No Other ‘magical and transporting’. If I wasn’t already fascinated in Aldred’s subject – the goshawk – Macdonald’s quote alone would have drawn me to pick this up.

Aldred is the author of one previous book, entitled The Man Who Climbs Trees, and has worked as a wildlife cameraman and documentary filmmaker since 1997. He has worked with the likes of the legendary David Attenborough, and has won awards for his work. As one would expect, for a filmmaker skilled particularly in filming from heights using aerial equipment, Aldred has worked all over the world. In early 2020, he was located in East Africa following a family of cheetahs.

Then, Covid spread, and lockdown happened in Britain. Aldred was granted a special dispensation to film, and spent much of the first period of lockdown in the south of England’s New Forest, following a pair of goshawks as they hatched three chicks. Aldred was often the only one in the woods; this, he says, gave him ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity to keep filming’. He stationed himself in a treetop hide between April and June, filming the goshawks: ‘From up here the wood became a three-dimensional landscape of dense foliage and distant glimpses. The understorey below was an open colonnade of vertical trunks, but level with the nest the branches closed in and I saw corridors of approach that remained invisible from the ground. A labyrinth of shifting parallax. For a predatory bird able to curl, tuck and swerve through the smallest of gaps, that discreet canopy would be paradise.’

Goshawks are unpredictable birds; it can be incredibly difficult to locate them, as they do not like to be seen. Aldred comments: ‘Some are skittish; others brazen. Some like low and stay put; others slope off the nest and melt away the moment anyone steps foot in their wood.’ They more often than not nest in the same place, returning year after year; they can use the same physical nest for up to a decade.

Alongside his documentary filming, Aldred decided to keep a written record – a field diary – about his experiences. He spent an extended stretch of time in a place so devoid of people, but filled to the brim with different species, some of them rare. He writes, early on, ‘Amidst the fragility and the fear, there was silver moonlight, tumbling fox cubs, calling curlew and, of course, the searing goshawks.’ This record became Goshawk Summer. Goshawks are, of course, the focus – both of the book and of his documentary – but he also writes about other species which he comes across: foxes, curlews, pipits, and pine martens, to name but four.

The New Forest is a place which Aldred knows intimately. He speaks, very early on, of his deep affection for the region: ‘To this day, part of my heart remains in the forest, dwelling in the quiet rides and woods of my childhood. Even the smell of the place stirs deep currents of longing within me.’ Later, he discusses that although he knows stretches of the woods as well as he can, and has such good memories of cooking stews with his friends, and sleeping outside as a teenager, there are other parts of the New Forest which he knows not at all.

I was struck throughout by the power and visceral beauty of Aldred’s prose. He writes almost like a poet, placing such emphasis on using precise and beautiful vocabulary. Goshawk Summer begins in the following, quite breathtaking way: ‘A loud call shatters the peace. Not the blunt mewing of a buzzard, but the piercing cry of something infinitely more predatory: a wild goshawk. It echoes through the woods around me. Strident, commanding, forceful. A regal sound for a regal bird.’ He continues: ‘The goshawk. Steel grey, the colour of chainmail. Sharp as a sword. A medieval bird for a medieval forest. A timeless scene.’ Throughout, Aldred is highly adapted to, and aware of, his surroundings – whatever they may be.

There is something so meditative about nature memoirs written during, or since, lockdown. Goshawk Summer is no different; in fact, I would go as far to say that it is the most thoughtful one which I have read to date. Along with showing joy at the way in which nature flourished in the New Forest during the first lockdown – ‘Nature’s been given the space to unfurl her wings and they are shimmering’ – Aldred laments about the behaviour of many people when the first restrictions were lifted, destroying fragile habitats, and leaving the national park strewn with litter. The pandemic is never far away from his commentary, but he finds solace in the natural world, and having a focus during what was an incredibly strange and difficult time.

I highly appreciated the opportunity which Goshawk Summer gave me; to read a book from a perspective which I haven’t been immersed within to this extent before. I love watching documentaries about wildlife cameramen, and I am in awe at the sheer amount of time and patience which it takes to film just one or two scenes. Often, though, these are relative snippets which have been tacked onto a longer documentary. Being able to read Aldred’s expansive work, and his musings about his own filming, is a privilege. I found it fascinating to learn about the many preparations which he has to make before he even begins to film, such as locating a suitable filming site, whilst having a constant awareness of others close by in case something goes wrong. It is a much more intricate process than one expects.

Goshawk Summer is such a valuable addition to the canon of nature writing. Aldred has an excellent attention to detail, and I can only hope that he brings out another book very soon. This expansive and honest memoir, from a markedly different perspective, is sure to be of interest to so many readers, and I cannot recommend it enough.

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‘Small Pleasures’ by Clare Chambers ****

Reliant as I have become upon my local library for the few new releases which I want to pick up straight away, I have become accustomed to waiting for quite a long time for my reservations. I was not prepared for the waiting list for Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures, though; I sat as patiently as I could for months, and found that over twenty people were lined up for the same copy once I’d finally finished with it.

I am so pleased to report that Small Pleasures was worth the few months it took to get to me, and I am thrilled that the novel is getting so much attention. Small Pleasures was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021, which is probably why so many people are longing to read it. Before this, the buzz about Small Pleasures was spread largely through word of mouth, and the incredibly positive reviews which have appeared in all manner of publications, as well as the staggering number of ‘Best Books of 2020’ lists which it appeared on.

In 1957, in the suburbs of the southeast of London and Kent, our protagonist Jean Swinney works as a journalist for a local newspaper, the North Kent Echo. She is ‘trapped in a life of duty and disappointment from which there is no likelihood of escape’. She lives in a small house with her demanding mother, who has not left the house very often in years, and feels tired with the drudgery of everyday life. Things change, however, when a young woman named Gretchen Tilbury sends a letter to the newspaper, claiming that her daughter, Margaret, is the result of a virgin birth, ‘without the involvement of any man’. Of course, the investigation becomes Jean’s responsibility; she is described as ‘features editor, columnist, dogsbody and the only woman at the table’ in the newspaper office.

When the women first meet one another, Jean asks Gretchen how her pregnancy occurred. Gretchen replies: ‘”I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. I’m not religious like my mother. I only know what didn’t happen.”‘ She goes on to explain that for a four-month stretch, she was bedridden in a hospital, and later found out that she had become pregnant during this time. Jean, on the receiving end of this news, ‘was unable to hide her surprise at this revelation. It seemed to provide an unexpected level of corroboration to Mrs Tilbury’s account. Her claim had suddenly become much harder to dismiss and to Jean’s surprise, she was glad. For reasons that were not just to do with journalistic hunger for a good story, she wanted it to be true.’

From the very beginning, one of Chambers’ real strengths is clearly the way in which she so effectively sets the scene and period. Early on, when Jean is running errands after work, Chambers writes the following, capturing so much detail: ‘By the time she reached home, a modest 1930s semi backing on to the park, her cheerful mood had evaporated. Somehow, in transferring the waxed paper package of liver to her tartan shopping bag she managed to drip two spots of blood on the front of her dust-coloured wool skirt.’

I love novels with mysteries at their heart, and Small Pleasures held every iota of my attention throughout. There is a wry humour which suffuses the whole, which I very much enjoyed. The entirety of the novel is highly readable, and I was pulled right into Jean’s world. I love the way in which the relationship between Jean and the Tilburys unfolded, and not wishing to give anything away, will be leaving the rest of the details of the plot out of this review. Needless to say, some elements are rather predictable, and others took me entirely by surprise. For Jean, being noticed by the family meant so much: ‘It was impossible not to be flattered and charmed by their interest, to blossom and expand in their company and become the interesting woman they thought her.’

I must admit that despite Small Pleasures being Chambers’ seventh novel, I had never heard of her before picking this up. It is her first publication in a decade, so perhaps she just passed me by beforehand. I have read some of the blurbs of her other books, and feel that she is an author whose other work I could really enjoy too, so I will definitely be picking some of them up in future. Chambers, with her acute observations on everyday life, and her sharp humour, put me in mind of Anita Brookner and Barbara Pym – a very high compliment, indeed.

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‘The Story of My Face’ by Kathy Page ***

I must admit that I hadn’t heard of prolific author Kathy Page before she was selected as the monthly author for my online book club during February.  I chose to start with The Story of My Face, as it sounded the most appealing out of her oeuvre to me.  Helen Dunmore called it a ‘moving, absorbing story’, and Sarah Waters named it as one of her books of the year in 2003 after its publication the previous year.

275982The protagonist and narrator of The Story of My Face is Natalie Baron, who is thirteen and living in a small town in Suffolk when the story begins.  At this point in her life, she is ‘adrift in the world and looking for something or someone to latch on to.’  For Natalie, salvation of a sort comes when she meets Barbara Hern and her family, husband John and son Mark.  They are members of a strict Protestant sect named the Worldwide Congregation of the Engvallist Church of Grace.

Three decades later, Natalie moves to a small wooden house in Finland, the place in which the sect was dreamt up by local Tuomas Engvall.  Here, she ‘researches the life of the sect’s founder in an attempt to understand the devastating events which changed not only her face but also the course of her life.’ She is currently working as a lecturer at Durham University, and feels compelled to travel to this out-of-the-way town in order to fully immerse herself in her research, walking in Engvall’s footsteps, as it were.  Of course, the story of her own childhood is bound up with her research; of this, she reflects: ‘But perhaps what I am really doing, and have been doing ever since the accident happened, is telling the story of my face, in which Tuomas Engvall plays a part…  And of course, the story of my face is bound together with other stories; the story of a marriage, of a mother and her son; of the birth of a dream; of the archaeology of an accident.  It is also a love story of sorts.’

This transition between present and past moves smoothly, and it is very easy to pick up on the points at which the story shifts. The earlier sections, which are told using a mixture of first and third person perspectives, feel far more sensual, and contained more of interest.  I found Page’s inconstant style easy to get used to.  Whilst I was not that interested in Natalie as an adult – she felt rather too run-of-the-mill to me – I found her fascinating as a child.  She asserted her independence, in the summer of 1969, against her dysfunctional family, taking off to a summer meeting with the Hern family without saying anything to her mother.  I found young Natalie an unusual and quite complex construct, but did not feel as though her adult persona carried either of these qualities.

At the outset of the novel, Natalie outlines her status as an outsider in her present-day life: ‘I don’t like it, but the fact is I am a complete stranger in this unpronounceable speck of a place, Elojoki, that seems to have been dropped in the middle of flat and freezing nowhere, roughly 200 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle.  There are four shops, one road, a scattering of low-rise buildings, high winds, ice and conifers for miles.  It would be odd if I didn’t attract attention.’  At this point, she has only just arrived in Finland, and has a strong sense of doubt about her decision: ‘Right now, the whole trip, which I’ve worked towards for years, seems ludicrous: a woman of forty-four, not married, nor even attached, searching for a long-dead man.’  Soon afterwards, a woman from her past, Christina, recognises her when she is walking around the town, and accuses Natalie of coming ‘to destroy us’.  She is taken aback, and responds in the following way: ‘I point, using my bad hand, at my patchwork, asymmetrical face, a blotched parody of everyone else’s, which was the absolute best that could be done back then.’  She asks Christina, ‘Isn’t this enough for you?’

I really enjoy descriptive writing in literary fiction, and whilst The Story of My Face started off well in that respect, I did not feel as though this element of the novel was particularly consistent.  I did like the way in which Page set out Natalie’s surroundings in Finland at the beginning of the novel: ‘Nonetheless, this was the beginning of spring.  The sea-ice glowed, opal and milk beneath a vast and cloudless sky.  The twigs of the birches were reddening; already on some of them there were catkins and tiny aromatic buds.  They would grow redder and redder over the coming weeks, and then, suddenly, be covered in green.  By then, the skylark would be calling.’  I would certainly have liked to see more of such settings at work in the book, however; there is comparatively little of both Suffolk and Finland shown by the author, particularly as the novel progresses, and the story could really be transplanted to a whole host of locations without much having to be changed. Page had a hold on both characters and scenes, and these are what the novel really revolves around.

Whilst I still held a curiosity toward the story, The Story of My Face was neither as gripping, nor as immersive, as I was expecting.  The novel was a readable one, but it did not really pull me in.  I felt as though the second half was more powerful than the first.  Whilst I am fine with reading books where very little happens, it felt as though a lot which had been included in The Story of My Face was there merely for the purposes of padding.  The pace was a little off at times, and I did find some of the prose a touch repetitive, particularly when Natalie is recounting her present.  I would read another of Page’s books in future to see how it compares, but I will not rush to do so, as I was not at all blown away by this.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘Holloway’ by Robert Macfarlane ****

Holloway – a hollow way, a sunken path.  A route that centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll of rain-run have harrowed deep down into bedrock.

Holloway follows a journey, and its repetition.  In 2005, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin journeyed to the Chideok Valley in the Marshwood Dale of Dorset to ‘explore the holloway’ of its sandstone.  Here, ‘They found their way into a landscape of shadows, spectres & great strangeness.’  Following Deakin’s death, Macfarlane decided to revisit the same holloway, accompanied by artist Stanley Donwood and writer Dan Richards.  The book which ensued is ‘about those journeys & that landscape…’. 9780571310661

Holloways can be found ‘where the stone is soft – malmstone, greensand, sandstone, chalk.’  Their characteristics, and the way in which they came to be, are described in the following manner: ‘Like creases in the land, or the wear on the stone sill of a doorstep or stair, they are the result of repeated human actions.  Their age chastens without crushing.  They relate to other old paths & tracks in the landscape – ways that still connect place to place or person to person.’  Macfarlane traces the history of these distinctive holloways, noting that they have been in existence since the Iron Age.  None, he says, are ‘younger than 300 years old.’  Very few holloways are still in use; most prove to be impracticably narrow given the ways in which we now travel: ‘They exist,’ affirms Macfarlane, ‘but cryptically.  They have thrown up their own defences and disguises: nettles & briars guard their entrances, trees to either side bend over them & lace their topmost branches to form a tunnel…’.

In Holloway, Macfarlane examines the original journey which he took with Deakin, whom he lovingly describes as ‘… worker with wood; writer of books; maker of friends’.  He talks quite touchingly of what the pair chose to take away with them on their journey to Dorset: ‘These were among the things we carried with us: the novel Rogue Male, published by Geoffrey Household in 1939; a map of the area; two tents; a trenching tool; penknives (Roger’s blunt, mine blunter); matches & candles; two hipflasks (one of whisky, one of arak.)’  It is in Household’s novel that the location of the particular holloway the pair sought is revealed.

This is the first time in which I have read one of Macfarlane’s full works, but it will not be the last.  His choice of vocabulary is striking and often original; his descriptions incredibly evocative.  His prose is layered, rich, and unusual.  For instance, he writes: ‘One need not be a mystic to accept that certain old paths are linear only in a simple sense.  Like trees, they have branches & like rivers they have tributaries.  They are rifts within which time might exist as pure surface, prone to recapitulation & rhyme, weird morphologies, uncanny doublings.’  Throughout, Macfarlane’s writing is gentle and lilting.  He offers peaceful meditations on the countryside, as well as the subtle ways in which the landscape has changed, along with our place within it.

This rich prose has such a sumptuousness to it, and the whole has a poetic feel.  Of their initial immersion in the holloway, Macfarlane writes: ‘The bright hot surface world was forgotten.  So close was the latticework of leaves & branches & so high the eastern side of the holloway that light penetrated its depths only in thin lances.  We came occasionally to small clearings, where light fell & grass grew.  In the windless warm air, groups of flies bobbed & weaved, each dancing around a set point like vibrating atoms held in a matrix.’  Macfarlane’s descriptions and rumination both are vivid and atmospheric.

On his second journey, Macfarlane read poetry by Edward Thomas, ‘who was the great twentieth-century poet of the old way…  His poems are thronged with ghosts, doubles & paths that peter out.  He understood himself in topographical terms & he saw that paths run through people as surely as they run through places.’

Holloway is a slim volume, but it evokes a great deal.  Spanning under 40 pages, it is a wonderful book to absorb in a single sitting, and is sure to give one a greater appreciation of the natural phenomenons which surround one.  It is worth noting the wonderful idea which came with the initial printing of Holloway; in its first run, 277 copies were produced, as that is the height in metres above sea level of Pilsdon Pen, where the Iron Age fort in which this book was begun is situated.  Pilsdon Pen is the second highest point in the county of Dorset, and clearly offered much inspiration to Macfarlane and Deakin.

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‘The Lost Garden’ by Helen Humphreys *****

I had read and enjoyed two of Helen Humphreys’ books prior to picking up her quiet masterpiece, The Lost Garden.  This short novel, which is set in Devon in early 1941, is described variously as ‘a haunting story of love in a time of war’, and ‘both heartrending and heart-mending’.    In 1941, Humphreys writes, ‘the war seems endless and, perhaps, hopeless.’  The focus of her third novel is to explore the effects of war upon the population on the Home Front.

9780393324914The protagonist and narrator of the novel, Gwen Davies, is a horticulturalist.  She has moved from her London home, where she has been studying the effects of disease upon parsnips for the Royal Horticultural Society, in order to escape the Blitz.  She has volunteered for the Women’s Land Army, and finds herself travelling to a country estate named Mosel in a remote part of Devon, in order to lead a team of women gardeners.  Also billeted on the estate are a regiment of Canadian soldiers, who are awaiting orders to travel to the Front.  Of course, the paths of the women cross with various soldiers, but, says the blurb, ‘no one will be more changed by the stay than Gwen.  She falls in love with a soldier, finds her first deep friendship, and brings a hidden garden, created for a great love, back to life.’

From the first, Gwen is a fascinating character.  She is described as ‘shy and solitary’, and finds it difficult to move from her previous existence as a quiet, almost isolated scientist, to having to guide the ‘disparate group of young women’ whom she finds herself in charge of.  I immediately came to understand her thought process, and warmed to her instantly: ‘What can I say about love?  You might see me sitting in this taxi, bound for Paddington Station – a thirty-five-year-old woman with plain features – and you would think that I could not know anything of love.  But I am leaving London because of love.’  Gwen is immediately likeable; she details that she takes hardly any articles of clothing with her on her trip, knowing that a uniform will await her, but says: ‘my books are so many that it looks as though I am on my way to open a small lending library.’  There is such depth to Gwen; her worries and perceptions make her feel so realistic.

From the outset, Humphreys’ prose is both luminous and mesmerising.  The novel opens: ‘We step into lamplight and evening opening around us.  This felt moment.  Our brief selves.  Stars a white lace above the courtyard.’  The descriptions of Gwen’s adopted London home are poignant, particularly with regard to the devastation which war has already wreaked at this point in time.   As she passes once familiar sights in a taxi, Gwen muses: ‘The wild, lovely clutter of London.  Small streets that twisted like vines.  Austere stone cathedrals.  The fast, muddy muscle of the Thames, holding the city apart from itself…  I have stood beside the Thames and felt it there, twining beneath my feet like a root.’

As in her novel Coventry, Humphreys sparingly captures the atrocities of war, and the changing face of the city: ‘Houses became holes.  Solids became spaces.  Anything can disappear overnight.’  Humphreys’ writing is very human, particularly when she articulates the displacement which Gwen feels, with all of the sudden changes, and with such volatility around her: ‘I do not know how to reconcile myself to useless random death.  I do not know how to assimilate this much brutal change, or how to relearn this landscape that was once so familiar to me and is now different every day.  I cannot find my way back to my life when all my known landmarks are being removed.’

Juxtapositions quickly come into play when Gwen explores the peaceful Devon garden, which has been left uncared for for many years.  On her first foray into the garden, she observes: ‘There is the cheerful song of a bird in a tree by the garden well.  When was the last time I heard a bird in London?  Here, the war seems not to exist at all…  Was there a wold like this before the war?  A quiet world.  A slow garden.’  The descriptions continue in this sensual manner; for instance, Gwen touches, smells, and tastes the earth of the garden, whilst observing its red colour.

The Lost Garden has been well built, both culturally and socially.  On the day on which Gwen leaves London, for example, she spots a fellow train passenger’s newspaper, which has an article presuming that the missing author Virginia Woolf has been drowned in the River Ouse in Sussex.  We feel Gwen’s grief when her death is later announced – in fact, part of the novel reads like a love letter to Woolf – as well as her grief at the ways in which London has been lost to her.  The descriptions of war and loss here are often moving, as are those passages in which Gwen begins to come to terms with the war: ‘The thing with war is this – we cannot change ourselves enough to fit the shape of it.  We still want to dance and read.  We hang on to a domestic order.  Perhaps we hang on to it even more vigorously than before.’  Later, she says: ‘And I realize that we haven’t left our lives.  They have left us.  The known things in them.  The structure of our days.  All the bones of who we are have been removed from us.  We have been abandoned by the very facts of ourselves, by the soft weight of the old world.’

The Lost Garden is essentially a coming-of-age novel, with a protagonist a little older than one might expect to find in such a story.  There is a wisdom to Humphreys’ prose, and everything about it has been so well measured.  The story here feels simplistic on the face of it, but the writing is absolutely stunning, and I was immediately pulled in.  Gwen is an utterly realistic construct; she is flawed and unpredictable, and filled with a wealth of doubts and insecurities.  Other characters, too, are sharply defined, and have believable pasts which reflect upon their present lives.  The novel is gorgeously layered, and has been so well constructed.  The Lost Garden is a transporting novel, and one which I would urge everyone to read.

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