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One From the Archive: ‘Greenery Street’ by Denis Mackail *****

First published in 2016.

Denis Mackail’s Greenery Street (1925) brings something a little different to the female-dominated Persephone list, in that is one of the few novels they have chosen to publish which was penned by a man.  I knew nothing about Mackail before I began to read – not even that he was the brother of celebrated author Angela Thirkell, whose works are currently being reprinted by Virago – but the introduction was fascinating, and I was left with the impression that he was a man I would have enjoyed spending time in the company of.  He sounds like an awfully humble fellow; of his writing, he said, ‘I was just trying to tell stories, to get bits of life on to paper, and, I suppose, to express myself.  Where does all that gaiety and kindness come from when in real life I am a cynic and frequently a wet blanket as well?’

9781903155257The Greenery Street of the novel’s title is based on Mackail’s Walpole Street, in which he lived; it ‘consists of thirty-six narrow little houses – all, at first glance, exactly the same’.  Mackail sets the scene immediately, and one feels utterly familiar with the street and its inhabitants, despite never setting foot in the locale: ‘For though every young married couple that comes to Greenery Street does so with the intention of staying there for life, there are few streets where in actual fact the population is more constantly changing.  And the first sign of this change is in almost every case the same.  It is seen in the arrival of a brand new perambulator’.  On this seemingly inevitable point of leaving the street – or, rather, of being ‘forced out’ of one’s five-storey home as it is simply not big enough to house a child – the house itself is personified: ‘For all the happy memories which the little house holds, it has already become his enemy.  He knows this, and yet he can never hate it in return.  Neither, though, can he allow it to see how much, how terribly, he minds.’

We are introduced to Felicity Hamilton and Ian Foster at the outset of the second chapter.  The pair have been officially engaged for ‘very nearly a fortnight’.  The difference between them is vast – Felicity is frivolous and naive, and Ian is far more level-headed and pragmatic – but this makes the relationship between the two, and the way in which they interact, all the more interesting.

Every single one of Mackail’s characters, whether protagonists or not, feel incredibly realistic.  One could be forgiven for holding the opinion that a novel written entirely about the day-to-day lives of a married couple in the 1920s could be rather dull.  Greenery Street does busy itself with such things as budgeting, ordering meals, and decorating, but it is rendered in such a way that mundane is one thing it is not.  The details which he picks out are surprising in both his descriptions and perceptiveness: ‘His heart melted to the consistence of a hard-boiled egg.  His principles and scruples trickled out of the heels of his shoes.  He loved this maddeningly unbusinesslike creature [of Felicity], more than anyone had loved anybody in the whole history of the world…  What did anything matter so long as she clung to him like this, so long as her eyelashes flickered against his cheeks, and her heart beat so comfortably against his own?’

With regard to the novel’s prose, Mackail is witty, presenting little wink-wink nudge-nudge asides to the reader at intervals.  These additions to the main story are refreshing, and it is almost as though the reader is taken into his confidence: ‘We haven’t had much space for descriptions of people in this record so far; we have rather had to take them as they come; but we must try and squeeze in a paragraph for Mr and Mrs Foster’s brother-in-law – if only because he was so shy that we should never get to know him if we waited for him to make the first move’.

As an author, Mackail is shrewd and acerbic; the Foster’s maid, Ellen, is referred to throughout as ‘the Murderess’, for instance.  Greenery Street is also filled with humorous details; when visiting the next-door neighbours for a dinner party of sorts, both Ian and Felicity are presented with drinks which they do not particularly want: ‘Felicity, afraid of provoking him [Mr Lambert] again, took the glass which he offered her and managed, a little later, to hide it behind a photograph-frame on the mantelpiece.  Ian – after a sip which came near choking him – found sanctuary for his on the floor under his chair.  Mr and Mrs Lambert emptied their beakers with appreciative relish’.

There are interesting elements to the prose at points; some of the dialogue is rendered in play format, for example.  The itemisation of Felicity’s small library, along with details pertaining to any damage on each particular tome, was both simple and clever: ‘Item.  Shakespeare’s plays in three volumes – one slightly damaged by water, the result of the owner’s attempt to read Romeo and Juliet while having a bath.  Damage occurred when owner was fifteen’.  We are shown many of Felicity’s inner thoughts too, which works wonderfully as it unfolds against her speech and actions.

Almost every book which gets Persephone’s stamp of approval is a firm favourite of mine.  Greenery Street is no exception.  It is a perfectly compelling read, and one which I am going to be recommending as highly as I possibly can.

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‘The Woman Upstairs’ by Claire Messud *****

I read Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl whilst on holiday in Florida last year, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I have been keen to read the rest of her oeuvre ever since, and picked up her fourth novel, The Woman Upstairs, which was first published in 2013.

Lionel Shriver, an author whose work I very much admire, writes that ‘Messud’s prose is a delight…  addictive, memorable, intense.’  Of this novel, the Sunday Times reflects that protagonist Nora is ‘a clear-eyed and fiercely self-critical narrator…  It’s beautiful, and it’s moving, and it feels true.’  The Economist declares that ‘Rage and sorrow burn so fiercely off the pages of this novel…  this is Nora’s conversation with herself, as she spins on a “mental gerbil wheel”, trying to comprehend a betrayal so foul it continues to unsettle long after the last page is turned.’  The Guardian writes ‘Rarely has the mundane been so dazzling’.9780307743763

Nora Eldridge is the protagonist and narrator of The Woman Upstairs.  She is a forty-two-year-old woman who says of herself: ‘I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend…’.  She is a former third grade teacher living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  In the reflections which she makes upon a pivotal meeting and subsequent friendship in her life, this is the position which she holds.  Of her career, which she moves away from in the present day part of the story, she muses: ‘… and maybe I’ll go back and do it again, I just don’t know.  Maybe, instead, I’ll set the world on fire.  I just might.’

It is when a young boy named Reza Shahid joins her class, whilst his academic father is undertaking a year at Harvard from his post at a Paris University, that things begin to change for Nora.  ‘It all started with the boy,’ begins chapter two.  ‘With Reza.  Even when I saw him last – for the last time ever – this summer, when he was and had been for years no longer the same, almost a young man, with the illogical proportions, the long nose, the pimples and cracking voice of incipient adulthood, I still saw in him the perfection that was.  He glows in my mind’s eye, eight years old and a canonical boy, a child from a fairy tale.’  She goes on, in quite striking prose, to describe the spell which he soon casts over children and staff alike: ‘Exceptional.  Adaptable.  Compassionate.  Generous.  So intelligent.  So quick.  So sweet.  With such a sense of humor.  What did any of our praise mean, but that we’d all fallen in love with him, a bit, and were dazzled?’  Nora soon has the opportunity to meet Reza’s parents, Skandar and Sirena, and soon becomes obsessed with the whole family.

I was immediately pulled in.  Nora’s narrative voice feels authentic from the first page, and she is a highly engaging narrator throughout, unusual in her viewpoints and outlooks.  Messud uses language in markedly interesting ways, and she creates such depth in Nora.  The Woman Upstairs is candid and darkly funny, with a realistic cast of flawed characters.  Messud presents a brooding and memorable reflection upon friendship and family, and the things which we really need in life.  By the end of this unpredictable and surprising novel, I felt that I knew Nora intimately.  In every respect, The Woman Upstairs is a wonderful and powerful novel, and I cannot recommend it enough.

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One From the Archive: ‘Every Eye’ by Isobel English *****

Every Eye is a beautiful Persephone novella, complete with, as ever, stunning endpapers.  It was the publishing house’s fifteenth publication, and is one of my favourites to date.  The copy does not contain a blurb – as many Persephones do not – but, perhaps unusually, there is no extract from the work itself either, as is often the Persephone way.  Rather, we are given an insight into the novella through an extended John Betjeman quote.  In the Daily Telegraph in 1956, Every Eye‘s publication year, he wrote: ‘Sometimes, but not often, a novel comes along which makes the rest one has to review seem commonplace.  Such a novel is Every Eye.  It is remarkable for the skill of its construction, and for the style of its writing…  [English] is on the mark whether she is observing scenery or character.’  I hasten to agree. 9781903155066

Isobel English is a pseudonym for June Braybrooke, a friend of the likes of Muriel Spark, Olivia Manning, and Stevie Smith.  For simplicity’s sake, I shall refer to the author as English throughout my review.  The novella’s preface was written by her husband, Neville Braybrooke; he includes many fascinating biographical details, and writes also about the rather charming publication preparation of Every Eye: ‘… after it was returned [from being typed], she wrapped it in a silk scarf, as was her custom, and delivered it by hand to her publishers…’.  English published only three novels in her lifetime, between the years 1954 and 1960.  In 1974, she won the Katherine Mansfield Prize for her collection of short stories entitled Life After All.

Every Eye runs to just 119 pages, but its length is perfect; English’s writing certainly works well in the more compact literary frame.  The novella charts the life of a newly married woman named Hatty, and begins with the death of her aunt, Cynthia: ‘It is strange that this news should arrive today, the eve of our departure.  Tomorrow morning Stephen and I are to set off for Ibiza, the most savage of the Balearic Islands.  We have been married a year and this is a long-promised holiday.  Now it seems something over and above, an involuntary almost predestined mark of respect to a dead person, for it was Cynthia who first told me of this place which must have been when I first met her  about the time of my fourteenth birthday’.  Indeed, Cynthia, who was married to Hatty’s ‘big brown bear’-like Uncle Otway, lived there for much of her life.

Hatty is often frank, and I was immediately endeared to her; she strikes one as rather an original character construct, by all accounts.  When asked for Cynthia what she likes to read after a fraught exchange has taken place, for instance, we are given the following information: ‘Still cautious but placated almost completely, I answered, a little gruffly I remember: “I like good books,” and then to illustrate the extent of my knowledge: “I like Rider Haggard very much, but I can’t stand Jane Austen”.’

Every Eye is not at all a run-of-the-mill portrait of a young newlywed.  The details which English gives too, particularly with regard to Hatty and Stephen’s relationship, and their wider circle, intrigue: ‘6.30am and Victoria.  Stephen’s mother, Amy, is already on the platform waiting to see us off; she has brought with her the young girl that she hoped Stephen would marry before he met me.’

The structure which English has used here, of a continuous narrative with no chapter breaks to speak of, works well; it allows her to present us with a coherent barrage of thoughts and memories, which run simultaneously alongside her present day life and travels.  English’s descriptions are incredibly perceptive; she picks up on all kinds of minute details.  Of the train journey which Hatty and Stephen take through France, for instance, she writes: ‘To begin with we are a carriageful of nondescript putty-coloured figures.  But with the thinning out from station to station, there develops before our accustomed eyes brilliant coloured designs on women’s dresses, cyclamen gashes on mouths and headscarves; the cerulean of the sky greased and shining on the eyelids of the girl in front of me’.

Hatty has such realistic touches to her, and she has been thoughtfully and intelligently constructed.  English’s writing is strong and distinctive throughout, and the novella is often quite darkly funny: ‘So it is Wednesday, and the first for Cynthia below the ground – the cold raw earth lined with evergreens.  “Six feet of semi-detached will do me nicely, dear,” I had heard her say often enough when she was looking for another smaller flat when their lease expired.  At last this has been realised as a permanency’.  Every Eye is a beguiling and sometimes unsettling book, with a vivid sense of place.  From the first it is incredibly absorbing, and is a fantastic choice if you are looking for something which you can read without too much trouble in a single sitting.

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‘The Rehearsal’ by Eleanor Catton *****

The Rehearsal is the debut novel by Eleanor Catton, the author of The Luminaries, which I very much enjoyed, and which won the Man Booker Prize in 2013.  Despite the praise which her second novel has had, relatively few readers in comparison seem to have come across The Rehearsal.  I was so looking forward to reading Catton’s debut, which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and was written as her MFA thesis when she was just twenty two years old.  The Sunday Times recognises that Catton is ‘a starburst of talent and the arrival of an author wholly different from anyone else writing today’.  The Guardian calls the novel ‘astonishing… [it] has the glitter and mystery of a true literary original… the prose is so arresting, the storytelling so seductive, that wherever the book falls open it’s near impossible to put down.’

7513511The Rehearsal follows the experiences of several adolescents when a sex scandal rocks their school, and later, when a group of drama school students decide to dramatise it, the wider community.  ‘The sudden publicity [of the scandal],’ says the novel’s blurb, ‘seems to turn every act into a performance and every space into a stage…  the real world and the world of the theatre are forced to meet, and soon the boundaries between private and public begin to dissolve…’.

Isolde, the younger sister of the girl who enters into a relationship with her schoolteacher, tells her saxophone teacher: ‘Dad says it would probably be years and years before Mr Saladin gets properly convicted and goes to jail…  All the papers will say child abuse, but there won’t be a child any more, she’ll be an adult by then, just like him.  It’ll be like someone destroyed the scene of the crime on purpose, and built something clean and shiny in its place.’  Isolde is focused upon throughout, as is a drama student named Stanley, and a girl named Julia, who has lessons with the same saxophone teacher as Isolde.

Isolde’s sister, Victoria, flits in and out of the narrative and its dialogue; she is the central focus of the novel, due to her actions and their repercussions, and the way in which these draw certain characters together, but she is never a protagonist in terms of the space devoted to her in the novel.  Isolde wonders about her sister’s choices, musing about them, but knowing she will never be able to directly confront Victoria.  Catton writes: ‘She could not ask, Why didn’t you tell me? when Victoria snared her first lover, began her first affair, broke her first promise, or shed, for the first time, tiny blossom-drops of virgin blood, for all those slender landmarks are part of a terrain in which the younger sister does not yet belong.’  There is a rawness to Catton’s characters throughout, and the ways in which they interact.  They are, without exception, complex, and feel ultimately realistic, even when we only know them by their job titles, or when they exist only on the periphery.

The Rehearsal has been written in an extremely clever way; it becomes difficult, almost from the very beginning, to know if the characters are those affected directly by the scandal, or whether they are mirrors, actors rendering their actions into play-form.  They go by the same names, and there is no marked distinction between the two.  This sounds confusing, but actually, it serves to make the novel all the more absorbing.  The Rehearsal bounces back and forth in time, and Catton so cleverly blends what is real, what is acted, and what is imagined together.

There is a real freshness and sharpness to the dialogue here; nothing said is ever cliched, or sentimental.  Conversational exchanges have a complexity to them, and they often startle.  At the drama institute, for instance, a former pupil tells the new intake: ‘Everything you’ve ever slammed shut gets reopened here…  If none of you had auditioned and been accepted you would all have become cemented, cast in plaster and moulded for the rest of your adult life.  That’s what’s happening to everybody else, out there.  In here you never congeal.  You never set or crust over.  Every possibility is kept open – it must be kept open.  You learn to hold all those possibilities in your fist and never let any of them go.’

Taut and impressive, The Rehearsal is certainly a novel to admire.  I enjoyed it even more than The Luminaries, which is a literary tour de force I doubt I will ever forget.  The Rehearsal is perceptive, searching, and understanding; it is incredibly compelling, and there is so much here for one to invest in.  Catton’s prose is beautiful and has such depth to it.  The Rehearsal does not read like a debut novel; rather, it feels incredibly polished and accomplished.  Catton’s voice is highly distinctive; never does it falter.  This novel is a masterful one, which I found entirely absorbing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Please Look After Mother’ by Kyung-Sook Shin *****

I chose to read Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel, Please Look After Mother, for the South Korea stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Please Look After Mother has sold almost 1.5 million copies in South Korea alone since its publication in 2009; the author is one of the country’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists, and has won many literary prizes throughout her career.  The book was a highly anticipated one for me, and I was so looking forward to getting to it.  The English translation, published in 2011, has been masterfully handled by Chi-young Kim.

The reviews on the book’s cover piqued my interest even further, it must be said.  Edwige Danticat writes that it is ‘Cleverly structured and brimming with secrets and revelations’, and Geraldine Brooks that ‘Shin penetrates the very essence of what it means to be a family, and a human being.’

Please Look After Mother tells the story of Park So-nyo, a wife and mother, who has ‘lived9780753828182 a life of sacrifice’.  She is recovering from an earlier stroke, which has left her ‘vulnerable and often confused’.  She and her husband decide to travel from their countryside home to Seoul, to visit their grown-up children.  At the central train station, she becomes separated from her husband when the doors of the busy train close.  The family soon begins an enormous search effort for their matriarch, reflecting on everything which she has done in her life for them: ‘As her children and husband search the streets, they recall So-nyo’s life, and revisit all the things they never told her.  Through their piercing voices, we begin to discover the desires, heartaches and secrets she harboured within.’

The novel opens with the following line: ‘It’s been one week since mother went missing’.  Throughout, varied perspectives are used; the voices of her daughter, son, and husband, as well as So-nyo herself have been deftly crafted, as have the second and third person perspectives, the latter of which has been used to oversee various parts of the search.  Each of these narrative voices feel effective, particularly that of the second person; we as readers are immediately immersed into the Park family’s story, particularly with direct writing such as this: ‘You clammed up.  You didn’t find out about Mother’s disappearance until she’d been gone four days.  You all blamed each other for Mother going missing, and you all felt wounded.’

So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment.  This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story.  So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years.  Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious.  To you, Mother was always Mother.  It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old.  Mother was Mother.  She was born as Mother.  Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood.  From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

The family dynamics which are portrayed here, and the ways in which they shift and alter over time, are both fascinating and believable.  Shin has given such a lot of thought to the ways in which such a disappearance will impact upon, or change, each member of the Parks; each reaction is different.

Please Look After Mother is rightly described in its blurb as ‘compassionate, redemptive and beautifully written’.  This absorbing novel tackles an awful lot of important themes, all of which have been translated to the page with such care and consideration.  Please Look After Mother is a loving and poignant portrait of a missing woman.  The novel is filled with tenderness and affection, but it never crosses the line into sentimentality.  Shin’s prose is beautiful throughout, and the translation is fluid.  Thoughtful and thought-provoking, as well as intense and moving, Please Look After Mother is a novel which I doubt I will ever forget.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Road Through the Wall’ by Shirley Jackson *****

‘In… an attractive suburban neighbourhood filled with bullies and egotistical bigots, the feelings of the inhabitants are shallow and selfish: What can a neighbour gain from another neighbour, what may be won from a friend? One child stands alone in her goodness: little Caroline Desmond, kind, sweet and gentle, and the pride of her family. But the malice and self-absorption of the people of Pepper Street lead to a terrible event that will destroy the community of which they are so proud. Exposing the murderous cruelty of children, and the blindness and selfishness of adults, Shirley Jackson reveals the ugly truth behind a ‘perfect’ world.’ 9780141392004

The Road Through the Wall is Queen of Creepy Shirley Jackson’s first novel.  In the foreword to the Penguin edition which I borrowed from the library, Ruth Franklin writes: ‘Compared to The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s masterful late novels, The Road Through the Wall is a slighter work.  But it is marvellously written, with the careful attention to structure, the precision of detail, and the brilliant bite of irony that would always define her style’.

The novel was published in 1948 to a ‘largely unappreciative audience’; its critics were ‘put off by the book’s unpleasant characters, its grim tone, and its violent conclusion’. The Road Through the Wall is a prelude of sorts to ‘The Lottery’, which was published the following year.  It takes place in 1936, on Pepper Street in small town California.  Instead of a familial saga, it is rather more of a neighbourhood affair, although the familial relations are nothing less than fascinating throughout.  We meet several families resident on the street, and come to know them intimately thanks to Jackson’s wonderful, measured prose.  Every single character has differing traits, and one of Jackson’s real strengths here (and there are many) lies in demonstrating the imagination and power of children.

The Road Through the Wall is not my favourite of Jackson’s works, but it is taut, surprising and compelling, and certainly an accomplished debut.  It took a final direction which I wasn’t expecting, but which made an awful lot of sense in retrospect.  The ending is marvellously and creepily crafted, and I very much liked the way in which Jackson left some of the most pressing questions unanswered.

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