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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.

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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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One From the Archive: ‘Vain Shadow’ by Jane Hervey ****

The 112th book on the marvellous Persephone list, and one of the new additions for Spring 2015, is Jane Hervey’s only published novel, Vain Shadow.  Hervey wrote it during the 1950s and stored it away in a drawer for a decade; it was not until 1963 that the novel, which is centered around ‘the portrait of a family funeral and its repercussions’, was published.  Even then, the ‘obvious portrayal’ of some of Hervey’s family members within Vain Shadow offended them, to the extent that they did not speak to her for years.

Celia Robertson’s preface to the volume has been wonderfully written and thoughtfully constructed.  Robertson writes that ‘as a needle on the historical compass of the previous decade, it quivers with the anticipation of change, poised at the very end of what had gone before’, and that Hervey’s ‘take on a death in the family is unique, astute and very funny’. She goes on to say that ‘Vain Shadow is quietly successful…  It shows us – in the most undramatic but knowing way – how tyranny and casual violence exist in the most civilised of settings; how far – legally, at least – women have come since the 1950s, and how death remains impossible to get right’.

The structure of Vain Shadow is fitting; Hervey has split it into four parts, each of which corresponds to a particular day.  ‘The weight of the novel’, writes Robertson, ‘lies in the relationships between the old man’s surviving wife and adult children as they begin to realise what his death will mean’.  Other themes come across strongly too, particularly with regard to class – the hired staff seem to be far more in control of the situation than the Winthorpe family themselves – and the position of women.  The omniscient perspective has been marvellously utilised, as have the stream-of-consciousness thoughts of each character, which unfold simultaneously alongside the action.  Mrs Winthorpe, the deceased Colonel’s widow, rejoices, for instance, that after fifty-three years, she will no longer have to kiss him.  She then busies herself playing a secretive game of patience just an hour after she has been informed of his death.  Her one wish, which is mentioned several times within the story, is to finally have the peach bathroom which she has, up until now, been denied.

One gets a feel for Vain Shadow‘s characters almost as immediately as they are introduced, as well as of their dreams, desires, and darkest thoughts.  Different characters who inhabit different corners of the house as the story goes on are followed; we learn about how they walk, how they stand their ground in a given disagreement, and how they view their own positions within the realm of the family.  In the novel, Hervey presents herself as the family’s granddaughter, Joanna, whom Robertson believes is ‘the one character who reveals a capacity for love’.  Every person within Vain Shadow‘s pages is flawed in some way, be it within their character, or their negative thoughts of others.  This makes it most refreshing to read.

Whilst we never meet the Colonel himself, we learn a lot about him; he comes across as a tyrant, cruel and standoffish, and belligerent, and it is clear as to why the majority of his family were frightened of him.  He is cleverly ever-present – whilst discussing funeral arrangements, for instance, ‘It was just as though Grandfather was still there, perhaps always would be there, somewhere… waiting to pounce’.

Throughout, Hervey also exemplifies how one’s outer facade rarely reflects their innermost feelings and persona; all of the protagonists here are very focused upon fitting in and appearing to behave properly in any given situation, despite the anguish they invariably feel within.  Over breakfast, for instance, ‘They all paused to regard, through Nurse’s eyes, the old man whom alive they had known fierce, intolerant, ever-battling, consecrated now in dying, humble and saintly.  Which was the true man; which the shadow?’  The protagonists’ preoccupations with the trivial also come to the fore – Jack, worried about balding; a moment of shared thought about how much the Colonel disliked competition; Harry’s egg not quite cooked to his liking.  These thoughts can sometimes overshadow the bigger picture for them all; they continually have to remind one another of the reason as to why they have been brought together, and of the sadness which they should be feeling. The hierarchy within the family shows itself too, particularly with regard to the sons.  Brian, who lives nearby, flits in and out of the action, believing himself head and shoulders above his brothers: he ‘looked down on them all from the height of his superior knowledge.  They really knew very little about Father’.

The Derbyshire setting has been well evoked, and a dark edge is occasionally introduced to the whole: ‘The house, built three hundred years ago, of stone and slate, stood halfway up a hill, facing undisturbed the fierce gales that from time to time attacked it from the valley, battering at its windows and tearing at the old wisteria which twisted across the front of it like a long, grey snake’.

Vain Shadow is so engaging.  Rather than just an overseer, it feels as though the reader is an intrinsic being within the family; we are brought into the thick of conversations, and bouts of important decision-making.  Hervey is an incredibly perceptive author; there are swathes of realism here, particularly with regard to the complex familial relationship which exists for the Winthorpe clan.  Sharp, surprising and so well written, Vain Shadow is a most fitting addition to the Persephone list.  One can only hope that more of Hervey’s work will be published soon.

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‘Elmet’ by Fiona Mozley ***

I was expecting to love Fiona Mozley’s Elmet; it sounded like just my kind of book. I favour quiet novels with brooding settings, and characters who come to life on the page, and expected all of these elements to be present here. As with many readers, I expect, my interest within Elmet was piqued when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017.

9781473660540It is rather a slow novel, and I have no problem at all with that, but Elmet did not sweep me away anywhere near as much as I had hoped it would. I found a few anomalies within the prose, discrepancies with small details which were a little more obvious than they perhaps would have been had the novel been packed with plot points.

I found some of Mozley’s writing, particularly during the passages in italicised text, achingly beautiful, but other sentences were too choppy and matter-of-fact for there to feel as though there is a balance here. An example of the latter is as follows: ‘We left the house soon after. A girl, a boy, two men. Hungover, half-asleep. We stopped for a quick breakfast at a bakery on the High Street. In the mornings it served bacon, sausage and egg sandwiches. I had bacon then asked Daddy if I could have an iced bun like a shy child with a sweet tooth. He paid 50p for three.’ I feel, with such passages, that the reader is party to far too much information; yes, it is admirable that Mozley recognises and writes about the minutiae of life, but the narrative becomes bogged down with trivialities like this, which add nothing whatsoever to the novel. The detailed descriptions of the natural world are often stunning, but I was not so interested in the detailed depictions of what people were wearing in every scene, or of tiny movements which they made. It felt like I was being given an endless commentary, which made the novel something close to dull at times in consequence.

I have mixed feelings about Elmet. Whilst I can understand why other readers love it, it simply did not come together for me in the way which I would have liked. I felt little connection with most of the characters, and whilst the bleakness of the mood which settles onto the novel has been built and handled so well, it was not enough to lift the whole for me.

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‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry ***

I was given a copy of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent for Christmas, and came to it with rather high hopes, as I know that a lot of fellow readers have adored it.  It was chosen as the Waterstones Book of the Year in 2016, and has also been selected for innumerable ‘best of’ lists.  I was rather underwhelmed with Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood; I will be posting my archived review of this tome tomorrow.

9781781255452The Essex Serpent begins in London in 1893.  Cora Seaborne has been recently widowed, and decides to move to Colchester in Essex with her young son, ‘black-haired, silent’ Francis.  She hears rumours almost as soon as she has relocated about ‘the Essex serpent’, a creature of local folklore which has been said to have returned to roam the marshes.  The serpent is described as ‘a great creeping thing, as they tell it, more dragon than serpent, as content on land as in water, that suns its wings on a fair day.’  After some time, Cora decides to set off upon the serpent’s trail.  This is only one thread of the novel; it is set at a time of great change, and Perry effectively contrasts Cora’s love of science, and the scientific advances of the age, with a local vicar named William Ransome, who is focused wholly upon his faith.  The blurb says that the novel is, ‘above all, a celebration of love in all its incarnations, and of what we share even when we disagree.’

The historical settings come to life from the beginning, and were, for me, a real strength of the novel.  In her opening chapter, which begins on New Year’s Eve, Perry writes: ‘One o’clock on a dreary day and the time ball dropped at the Greenwich Observatory.  There was ice on the prime meridian, and ice on the rigging of the broad-beamed barges down on the busy Thames.  Skippers marked the time and tide…  Time was being served behind the walls of Newgate jail, and wasted by philosophers in cafes on the Strand.’  Had this thread of the passing of time been included throughout the novel, I feel as though it would have drawn the whole together; rather, whilst beautifully written, and certainly effective at evoking the scene, it feel as though this prologue was separate from the rest of the novel.  The quality of Perry’s writing, in my opinion, was inconsistent; it felt very polished in the prologue, and in selected chapters later on, but due to the pace of the novel proper, it was plodding in other places.  The prose on its own was often lovely, but there was a strange density to it, and I did not find The Essex Serpent a very easy book either to read, or to immerse myself within, in consequence.

Perry did capture Cora’s new position in life, and the complexity of feeling which struck her when her abusive husband, Michael, died: ‘The sensation was decently suppressed, but all the same she could name it: it was not happiness, precisely, nor even contentment, but relief.  There was grief, too, that was certain, and she was grateful for it, since however loathed he’d been by the end, he’d formed her, at least in part – and what good ever came of self-loathing?’  Of his father’s death, Francis’ feelings are rather less predictable: ‘That his father had died struck him as a calamity, but one no worse than the loss of one of his treasures the day before (a pigeon’s feather, quite ordinary, but which could be coiled into a perfect circle without snapping its spine).’

Natural history as an element has been used very well within The Essex Serpent, and this was one of my favourite parts of the book, snaking, as it did, in and out of various chapters.  The characters were problematic, however; Cora is the main focus of the novel, but I do not feel as though I knew her satisfactorily come the end.  No single character within The Essex Serpent feels wholly realistic; for me, Francis and his behaviour would have been a much more interesting focus had it been elaborated upon more often.

Whilst I liked the core idea, and am fascinated with the period of history which Perry has focused upon, I found The Essex Serpent to be rather a slow-going novel.  I did not feel as though the whole came together satisfactorily, certainly not as well as it could have had certain plotlines been tightened up slightly, or focused upon a little more.  I felt something of a detachment toward the characters, and the entire novel did not feel as though it was quite a consistent work; for me, the prologue and end chapters held a lot more promise than the rest of the novel.  Whilst I admire the way in which Perry has completely embraced Victoriana, and has reflected the literature of the period in stylising her own sentences, The Essex Serpent did not read as fluently or fluidly as it could have done.

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