In If This is a Woman, Sarah Helm has written utterly phenomenal study. She tells of the atrocities of Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp during the Second World War, and the only one of its kind exclusively for women prisoners. It is the first book to write extensively about Ravensbruck, one of the final camps to be liberated by the Russians.
Only ten percent of Ravensbruck’s prisoners were Jewish, contrary to a lot of other camps; the rest were arrested due to opposition to the Nazi Party, and were drawn from such groups as communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Resistance in various European countries. There were also others deemed ‘asocials’, who ranged from lesbians to Gypsies. Among the prisoners were ‘the cream of Europe’s women’, including various countesses, a former British golfing champion, and the niece of General de Gaulle.
Helm draws upon the published testimonies of Ravensbruck’s prisoners, as well as seeking out those who survived the brutal conditions, and studying records of the court case which followed, aiming as it did to punish those who were in charge. Her research has been carried out impeccably, particularly considering that the majority of the papers relating to prisoners and conditions were burnt before liberation. Helm has aimed to create ‘a biography of Ravensbruck beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could’. The death toll from the camp is unknown, but is estimated to be somewhere between 30,000 and 90,000.
Helm’s writing style is immensely readable, and her research meticulous. If This is a Woman is such a well paced account, and the author never shies away from demonstrating how harrowing the conditions were, and how horrific the injuries and deaths which many within Ravensbruck faced. In trying to tell the individual stories of as many women as she possibly could, both prisoners and those who guarded them, she has added an invaluable biography to the field of Holocaust and Second World War studies.
If This is a Woman won the Longman-History Today Prize, which was incredibly well deserved. One can only hope that further accolades follow. <i>If This is a Woman</i> is, without a doubt, one of my favourite historical studies in terms of its far-reaching material and the sensitivity which has been continually demonstrated, as well as one of my books of the year.
Like many readers, I very much enjoy Bill Bryson’s non-fiction work. I picked up his newest publication, The Body: A Guide for Occupants having not read any of his writing for such a long time, and was so pleased that I did. I was reminded once more of how warm his prose is, and how fascinating his subjects.
Many of Bryson’s books are essentially travel writing, in which he writes about countries and regions which he has lived or travelled within – the United States, United Kingdom, and Africa are just three examples. The Body is something a little different to these personal geographies, though. It is far more science-based than much of his work, and does not include many personal stories, something which his books tend to be built upon. It looks inward, trying to decipher what really makes a human being.
The Body has been split into many chapters, each of which focuses upon a distinctive part of the human body. These range from ‘The Immune System’ and ‘The Brain’ to ‘Into the Nether Regions’. These chapters are incredibly thorough; there is not an element of the body which has not been explored in some way. He moves seamlessly from one topic to another. With his chapter on the skin, for instance, he moves from bacteria found on the skin to the phenomenon of itching, and then the reasons as to why we lose hair as we age, all in less than two pages.
Bryson writes about so many things here, including the beginning of forensic science; microbes and proteins, and their functions and uses within the body; viruses; advances in medicine; evolutionary changes within human anatomy; how different parts of us age, and the consequences felt; the myriad benefits of exercise; and the wonder found within the structure of our bones. He writes about so many things that are known about the human body, and also the surprising number of elements which remain a mystery. Bryson introduces several medical conundrums, interesting cases which cannot be solved.
Bryson has chosen to begin The Body with rather a fascinating chapter, entitled ‘How to Build a Human’, which calculates how expensive it would be to procure all of the elements which make up the human body – clue: a lot. This memorable prologue, as it were, sets the tone for the book, and feels perfectly placed.
As ever, Bryson’s writing in The Body is both absorbing and accessible. He grapples with complex ideas throughout the book, but presents everything in a way which can be read and understood by newcomers to this subject. He introduces myriad facts in marvellous ways, which really make one think; for instance, ‘In the second or so since you started this sentence, your body has made a million red blood cells.’ One can see from the outset that Bryson clearly has quite a passion for this subject, and this shines throughout, as does his humour. Throughout, Bryson consults experts in different fields, and also mentions a lot of books which focus upon biology along the way.
The Body is a book which one can learn, unsurprisingly, a great deal from. I have always been fascinated by biology and the human body, and have read a few books on the subject before, but I found myself learning new facts throughout. Although there is such a great deal packed into the pages of The Body, and a great deal of impeccable research has clearly been done, it never feels saturated with information, and can easily be read from cover to cover. The Body is, all in all, a fact-lover’s dream, which demonstrates how wonderful the human body is, in all of its strangeness.
I will end this review with a passage which I, personally, found fascinating: ‘The most remarkable part of all is your DNA. You have a metre of it packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single fine strand it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto. Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system. You are in the most literal sense cosmic.’
I chose Rose Tremain’s The Colour for the penultimate stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. Set in New Zealand, The Colour is the first of Tremain’s novels which I have read; before this, I had only encountered one of her short story collections. The Daily Telegraph calls her ‘one of the finest writers in English’, and this sentiment seems to be echoed by many reviewers.
The central characters in The Colour are married couple Joseph and Harriet Blackstone. They choose to migrate from Norfolk to New Zealand in 1864, along with Joseph’s mother, Lilian, ‘in search of new beginnings and prosperity’. Soon after they construct their house, Joseph finds small pieces of gold in the local creek, and is ‘seized by a rapturous obsession with the voluptuous riches awaiting him deep in the earth’. He then sets off alone, with the destination of New Zealand’s Southern Alps on his mind; there are a series of newly-discovered goldfields there, and he joins an enormous migration of men in order to try and make his fortune. The blurb declares the novel ‘by turns both moving and terrifying’, and describes it as being ‘about a quest for the impossible, an attempt to mine the complexities of love and explore the sacrifices to be made in the pursuit of happiness.’
Tremain gives a marked consideration to colour in her novel from its very beginning. She writes: ‘It was their first winter. The earth under their boots was grey. The yellow tussock-grass was salty with hail. In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding-sheet of snow.’ I was struck by Tremain’s writing immediately. She has such a gift for seamlessly blending her vivid descriptions with her characters, and the actions which they take. There is a timelessness to Tremain’s prose, despite the effective rooting of her novel in a very particular period and setting. She uses her chosen framework in order to explore many different themes relating to expatriation, nature, and human nature, particularly with regard to the ways in which changing conditions alter the relationships between husband and wife, and son and mother.
It feels as though the author is intimately acquainted with her characters, and their every wish and whim. When describing Joseph in the novel’s early stages, for instance, Tremain writes: ‘He turned away from his mother and looked admiringly at this new wife of his, kneeling by the reluctant fire. And he felt his heart suddenly fill to the very core with gratitude and affection… Joseph wanted to cross the room and put his arms around Harriet and gather her hair into a knot in his hand. He wanted to lay his head on her shoulder and tell her the one thing that he would never be able to admit to her – that she had saved his life.’ Harriet, too, feels fully formed, particularly given her slightly unusual and non-conformist character: ‘But she was a woman who longed for the unfamiliar and the strange… She wanted to see her own hand in everything. No matter if it took a long time. No matter if her skin was burned in the summer heat. No matter if she had to learn each new task like a child. She had been a governess for twelve years. Now, she had travelled an ocean and stood in a new place, but she wanted to go still further, into a wilderness.’
The Colour feels ultimately realistic from its beginning. It is filled with fraught discussions, and the darkness and loneliness which such a new life can bring with it. The cultural information is rich, and, particularly along with Tremain’s descriptions, paints a wonderful and tangible picture. I did find the ending slightly problematic, but it was still very enjoyable nevertheless, and I certainly struggled to put it down. Immersive and beautifully executed, The Colour is a believable and very human novel, which I highly recommend. I cannot wait to read more books by Tremain.
Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait was perhaps my most highly anticipated releases of 2022. O’Farrell is an author whose books I request from my local library, or purchase outright, before reading even a sentence of the blurb. The Marriage Portrait is another work of historical fiction, following Hamnet, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020.
The Marriage Portrait is set during the winter of 1561, when 16-year-old Lucrezia di Cosimo de Medici, the new Duchess of Ferrara, is ‘taken on an unexpected visit to a country villa by her husband, Alfonso.’ Lucrezia is the ‘troublesome’ fifth child and third daughter of Grand Duke Cosimo I, ruler of Tuscany; she is thrown into the limelight after her older sister passes away on the eve of her wedding to the ruler of Ferrara, Moderna, and Regio. Lucrezia is made to marry him herself. She realises that here, in secluded Fortezza, he intends to murder her. Up until this point, she has lived her life ‘locked away inside Florence’s grandest palazzo, guarded by her father’s soldiers and her mother’s ladies in waiting.’ At the countryside villa, however, there is nobody to protect her.
The Marriage Portrait, which is based on real historical events, has been described as a ‘vivid evocation of the beauty and brutality of Renaissance Italy, and of a young woman whose proximity to power places her in mortal danger.’ In the historical note which prefaces the novel, O’Farrell comments: ‘The official cause of her death was given as “putrid fever”, but it was rumoured that she had been murdered by her husband.’
In the opening paragraph, O’Farrell immediately caught my attention: ‘Her husband is sitting down, not in his customary place at the opposite end but next to her, close enough that she could rest her head on his shoulder, should she wish; he is unfolding his napkin and straightening a knife and moving the candle towards them both when it comes to her with a peculiar clarity, as if some coloured glass has been put in front of her eyes, or perhaps removed from them, that he intends to kill her.’ O’Farrell goes on: ‘The certainty that he means her to die is like a presence beside her, as if a dark-feathered bird of prey has alighted on the arm of her chair.’
O’Farrell then transports us back in time, to a chapter entitled ‘The unfortunate circumstance of Lucrezia’s conception’, in 1544. She captures, sweepingly, her father’s palazzo: ‘It occupied a corner of the largest piazza in Florence, its back to the river, sides soaring above the citizens like great cragged cliffs.’ We then meet the 7-year-old Lucrezia in a following chapter, and begin to get a real feel for her character and intelligence: ‘Words pressed themselves into her memory, like a shoe sole into soft mud, which would dry and solidify, the shoe print preserved for ever. Sometimes she felt filled up, overstuffed with words, faces, names, voices, dialogues, her head throbbing with pain, and she would be set off-balance by the weight of what she carried, stumbling into tables and walls.’
As anyone familiar with O’Farrell’s writing would expect, The Marriage Portrait is sensual, rich, and evocative. The marvellous detail which it is suffused with is an everpresent quality of the author’s work. I found The Marriage Portrait entirely absorbing, captivated from start to finish. I loved the approach which O’Farrell took, flitting back and forth in time, and capturing beautifully imagined scenes, and vivid scenery. The novel is rendered quite exquisitely, and demonstrates what a master O’Farrell is at her craft.
I have wanted to read Edith Holden’s The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady for many years now, after seeing some effusive reviews before I had even entered the world of blogging about literature. I had found it difficult to find an affordable copy which was in good condition, but luckily I thought to search for it on my local library’s catalogue, and found a lovely facsimile reproduction housed in the county store.
Holden was born in Kings Norton in Worcestershire in 1871, and grew up in a small Warwickshire village with her family. Here, she wrote and illustrated ‘Nature Notes for 1906’; however, the book was not published under its current title, The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, until 1977. Holden tragically drowned in the Thames in 1920, whilst collecting buds from chestnut trees at Kew.
In this beautiful book, Holden ‘recorded in words and paintings the flora and fauna of the British countryside through the changing seasons of the year’. She wrote everything by hand, and this has touchingly been reproduced, along with several original spelling errors. Alongside darling watercolours of the nature which she observed in her local area, Holden recorded fragments of her favourite poems by the likes of Burns, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Barrett Browning, and personal observations. Included in this volume are recollections from extended family holidays in Scotland and Devon.
As one would expect from a diary, The Country Diary… has been split into separate months. Each begins with a memorandum-style page or two, which collect together facts about the month, and titbits which Holden felt were relevant, such as rhymes and old wives’ tales. In January, for instance, she records that the month was ‘named from the Roman god Janus, who is represented with his faces looking in opposite directions – as retrospective to the past, and prospective to the coming year.’ She has also noted special dates and bank holidays throughout, some of which she calls ‘Feast Days etc’. Some of the entries for separate days contain weather conditions, or things of note which she saw on that given day.
The detail here is absolutely charming. On January 23rd, she records: ‘Went for a country walk. Every thing on every tree and bush was outlined in silver tracery against the sky; some of the dead grasses and seed-vessels growing by the road-side were specially beautiful; every detail of them sparkling with frost crystals in the sunshine.’ Her entry three days later begins: ‘The last few weeks, our own and our neighbours’ gardens have been haunted by a very curious Robin.’ On June 7th, she observes: ‘There is a fine show of wild roses… In many places the hedges are festooned with wreathes of Black Bryony and Honeysuckle. The pale pink Blackberry blossom and the large, white masses of Elder blossom are everywhere conspicuous. Climbing up the banks to meet them are tall purple fox-gloves and nodding heads of grasses heavy with pollen, mingled with Purple and Yellow Hatches and Clover blossom.’
Holden was an incredibly talented woman, particularly with regard to her artwork. On every single page, it is clear that she gave such consideration to everything she put down on paper. Every double page spread in The Country Diary… contains at least one gorgeous watercolour. Holden’s drawings of flowers and foliage are perfectly precise, as are her depictions of different bird species, and their eggs. I also really admired that she gave the Latinate names for everything included.
One sad thing to note here is that Holden’s book was written over a century ago. I noticed that some of the species which she talks about as being common – birds, butterflies, and flowers – are things which I have never seen anywhere in Britain.
The Country Diary… is a wonderful almanac, which I thoroughly appreciated. It is wonderful both to read from cover to cover, or to dip in and out of. It is an incredibly lovely homage to the natural world, and keen naturalists will surely find of interest how much has changed in the intervening eleven decades. I very much look forward to revisiting it in future, and hopefully getting my hands on a copy which I can add to my collection, and treasure.
Helen Thomas’ Under Storm’s Wing is one of those books which I have wanted to read for years, but which has proved difficult to get hold of; in this case, copies were unaffordable. I finally managed to find a secondhand edition of the Carcanet publication for less than £10, which may well be my bargain of the year.
Under Storm’s Wing is a veritable treasure trove. It brings together two volumes of memoir – As It Was, and World Without End – Helen’s letters, written between 1896 and 1917, A Remembered Harvest, and a selection of recollections of her youngest daughter Myfanwy. Helen’s husband, Edward Thomas, is one of my favourite poets, and whilst I knew a little about Helen before I picked this up, I was gratified that it was highly illuminating.
As It Was (1926) takes as its focus Helen and Edward’s early relationship and marriage, and was written soon after he was killed during the First World War at the Battle of Arras, France, in 1917. The first of her memoirs ends with the birth of their first son, Merfyn. World Without End was written several years afterwards, in 1931. Helen’s second memoir covers a wider span of time than her first.
As It Was begins with Helen speaking expansively about her childhood: ‘Our life was very happy, very social, very united. We were unconventional, though in no startling way – just informal and unselfconscious.’ She then reveals when she first met Edward, after her literary reviewer father is asked to read some of his work, and invites him to the house. Helen describes her first meeting with the ‘shy and constrained’ Edward, noticing that his ‘eyes were grey and dreamy and meditative, but fearless and steady, and as if trying to pierce the truth itself. It was a most striking face, recalling a portrait of Shelley in its sensitive, melancholy beauty.’
Helen captures similarly lovely moments throughout. She writes, for instance: ‘I remember in that first walk how we scrambled about in a little roadside copse. It must have been winter or early spring, for the trees were bare, and Edward showed me many old nests, telling me the names of the birds which had made them, and pointing out to me their special characteristics. Later on he brought me as a present a most beautifully compact, moss-covered nest of a chaffinch, which I could hardly believe was the work of a bird, and all my wonder pleased and amused him in his grave way.’ She goes on: ‘And all his knowledge of everything we saw, and all his intimacy – everything lifted me at once into a new world.’
Throughout, I admired Helen’s honesty. She shows herself as a bold and daring young woman. She is revealing about her innermost self, about the intimacies she shared with Edward, and her naïve ideas regarding sex and desire. She recalls, with vivid clarity: ‘I had often cried bitterly in the thought that no man could ever love me, and that my longing for children would never be satisfied. I had so persuaded myself of this that it never entered my mind as a possibility until that moment when Edward took my hand; and even then I did not consciously think of love; all I felt was an unrest, a fear, a thrill, perhaps also a hope.’
The depictions here regarding Edward’s ever-present struggles with mental health are revealing. Helen tells us: ‘There were many dark periods when we were here [living on a farm in the Weald of Kent], many days of silence and wretchedness and separation, for sometimes in these moods Edward would stride away, perhaps for days, wrestling with the devil that tormented his spirit.’
Helen’s writing is beautiful, filled with glorious and expansive descriptions. On their honeymoon spent in Wiltshire, she reflects: ‘We washed in rain-water… Outside the owls hooted about the cottage, and bats twittered, and starlings stirred in the thatch. No other sound was to be heard, no trams, no people, no traffic, nothing but the sounds that do not spoil silence, but rather deepen it, and a little breeze wandering through the wood, and a leaf flapping against our window.’
Myfanwy’s contribution is an excerpt from her longer memoir, One of These Fine Days. Myfanwy also contributed the preface to this volume, which was first collected together in 1988. She recollects that her mother wrote both volumes of her memoir ‘as therapy, to try to rouse [her] from the terrible lethargy and desolation which followed Edward’s death…’.
Under Storm’s Wing is a wonderful anthology, and I found it to be far more open than I would expect of a book written during this period. There is much written about the natural world, and Helen’s discovery of the countryside after spending her entire childhood in towns and cities. Under Storm’s Wing is a touching, moving, and thoughtful collection, and is a book to really linger over.
I have wanted to read Emily Holmes Coleman’s The Shutter of Snow for years, but had never got around to doing so, as copies proved difficult to find, and rather expensive. Only the selection of the novel for my online book club pushed me to source a (thankfully free) copy from OpenLibrary, and I began it way ahead of time.
This novella, the only work published by American author Emily Holmes Coleman, is semi-autobiographical. It focuses on a period of her life in which she was institutionalised due to contracting puerperal fever following the birth of her son in 1924, and suffering a nervous breakdown as a result. Our protagonist, Marthe Gail, has postpartum psychosis, and is forced to spend her time away from her baby son in a mental hospital in New York. Here, she tries, with varying levels of success, to persuade others that she is well.
Marthe’s condition, and its manifestation, is startling. She believes herself to be a sort of amalgamation of God and Jesus Christ. From the outset, The Shutter of Snow is unsettling, and quickly establishes a sense of the place in which Marthe is trapped: ‘The voice on the other side of her wall was shouting for someone. It never stopped all night. It became entangled in the blankets and whistled the ice prongs on the wind. The rest of the voices were not so distinct. It was very still out in the hall when the voices stopped.’ There is a sense, for Marthe, of being completely alone and adrift, whilst also being surrounded by many other people.
The imagery which Holmes Coleman creates often has a shock value to it: ‘She had been a foetus and had knitted herself together in the bed’, and ‘Clean cheeks and a little river in her teeth. Pine needles dripping in the Caucasus’, stood out particularly to me. I also found the following nightmarish scene incredibly chilling: ‘How could they expect her to sleep when she was going through all of it? They didnt [sic] know. She had swung about the room from the ceiling and it was a swinging from the cross. There had been the burial. She was lying quietly in the bed and being covered over her face. She was carried quietly out and put in the casket. Down, down she went in the rectangle that had been made for her. Down and the dirt fell in above. Down and the worms began to tremble in and out. Always she had kept telling of it, not one word of it must be forgotten. It must all be recorded in sound and after that she could sleep.’
As well as the horror which permeates it, there are moments of strange beauty in Holmes Coleman’s descriptions; for example, when she writes: ‘The only thing to do is to put hammers in the porridge and when there are enough hammers we shall break down the windows and all of us shall dance in the snow.’ The use of recurring motifs within the novella was highly effective – for instance, Marthe’s dancing, and the unusual imagery of orange peel in the snow.
The Shutter of Snow presents a striking character study of a woman in the depths of mania. Holmes Coleman’s prose is effective; she uses a stream-of-consciousness-esque style, with the subconscious and unconscious embedded within its omniscient perspective. I’m not sure that I would categorise this as a stream-of-consciousness work, per se, but it certainly can be recognised as a Modernist work. There is a real urgency to her writing. I can see why her style, with its omission of speech marks and no clear delineation between what is real and imagined, might be off-putting to many readers, but as a huge fan of Modernist writing, I found it immediately immersive. The mixture of reality and psychiatric episodes are chilling, and blend into one another seamlessly.
Given that The Shutter of Snow was published in 1930, it feels startlingly modern. I agree entirely with the two reviews I read prior to beginning the novella. Fay Weldon remarked that is an ‘extraordinary and visionary book, written out of those edges where madness and poetry meet’, and The Nation commented that ‘The Shutter of Snow is a profoundly moving book, supplying as it does a glimpse of what a temporary derangement and its consequences mean to the sufferer.’ I found the entirety of this book to be poignant and affecting, and it has become a firm favourite of mine. I expected that it might be difficult to read, and whilst there are some shocking incidents at work in the novella, the constantly shifting prose works perfectly to demonstrate the fog in Marthe’s brain.
There are relatively few novellas that say so much as Holmes Coleman does so fluidly and fluently in The Shutter of Snow. She speaks volumes about the human condition, and the frailty and fragility which go hand in hand with it. The Shutter of Snow is a literary whirlwind, a completely absorbing and often quite frightening story. An obvious comparison to give is its similarities to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, which deals with similar themes in that the narrator is forced to undertake a rest cure following childbirth. There are flashes here of a similar beguiling style as Djuna Barnes’, and some of Virginia Woolf’s more complicated scenes – in Orlando, for example. In some ways, however, The Shutter of Snow is quite unlike anything which I have ever read, and it is all the stronger for this unusual quality. There is so much within it which is all its own, and it is a real shame that Holmes Coleman never again put her pen to paper following the publication of this staggeringly powerful and phenomenal novella.
Tove Jansson and Tuulikki ‘Tooti’ Pietilä’s collaborative Notes From an Island was my most anticipated release of 2021. The beautifully designed large-format hardback, filled with beautiful writing and gorgeously evocative paintings, was published in its first English translation by the wonderful Sort Of Books, who have brought so much of Jansson’s work to an English-speaking audience. Notes From an Island pulls together snippets of writing from Tove, in the form of both diary entries and vignettes, extracts from ‘maverick seaman’ Brunström’s log, and Pietilä’s artwork, 24 ‘copperplate etchings and wash drawings’ which she made during the 1970s.
When she was in her late forties, Jansson, most famous for her delightful Moomin stories, ‘raced to build a cabin on an almost barren outcrop of rock in the Gulf of Finland’, on an island named Klovharun, located at the edge of the Pellinge archipelago. For the next ‘twenty-six summers’, Jansson and her life partner, Pietilä, ‘retreated there to live, paint and write, energised by the solitude and shifting seascapes.’ They remained there until their mid-seventies, eventually relinquishing their beloved cabin in 1991. Notes From an Island, which came out in its original Swedish in 1996, is ‘both a memoir and homage to the island the two women loved intensely.’
The short introductory publisher’s note states the differences between Jansson’s previous summer home, which she shared with her mother and brother on the ‘leafy and welcoming’ island of Bredskär, and the ‘stark’ Klovharun, ‘the preserve of warring gulls and terns’. The note goes on to praise this ‘moving homage to a tiny, rugged island and to a profound and enduring relationship.’
Jansson begins by writing about Bredskär, where, she says: ‘We had everything, albeit in miniature – a little forest with a woodland path, a little beach with a safe place for the boat, even a little marsh with some tufts of cotton grass.’ She goes on to tell us that Klovharun is between just 6- and 7,000 square metres; it is ‘shaped like an atoll’, divided by a lagoon in its middle. Both Jansson and Pietilä ‘relished the storms that would lash the granite rocks, marooning them for days.’
One of my favourite things about Jansson’s work – and there are many! – is the way in which she captures the natural world. Notes From an Island begins: ‘I love rock – sheer cliffs that drop straight into the ocean, unscalable mountain peaks, pebbles in my pocket. I love prising stones out of the ground, heaving them aside and letting the biggest ones roll down the granite slope into the water! As they rumble away, they leave behind an acrid whiff of sulphur.’ She writes with such care, especially regarding colour, texture, and scents: ‘On some of the blasted surfaces’, she tells us, when their cabin is being constructed, ‘the rock has an unusual colour, like oxblood or Pompeiian red, a hard colour to capture. Also the rainwater in the little hollows at the bottom of the pit is red or cadmium yellow.’ Later, she writes of quite a spectacle, when the sea ice breaks up before her eyes: ‘When we woke up, the whole ocean was full of broken ice. Unbelievable tabernacles floated by, driven by a mild south-west breeze, statuesque, glittering, as big as trolleys, cathedrals, primeval caverns, everything imaginable! And they changed colour whenever they felt like it – ice blue, green and, in the evenings, orange. Early in the morning they would be pink.’
Jansson’s notes are occasionally quite matter-of-fact, but I still found that they expressed a great deal; for instance: ‘Tooti is building shelves in the cellar. / It’s starting to get cold.’ She captures comedic scenes, particularly with regard to sailor and general handyman, Brunström, and his escapades. She writes of the time when he found ‘a huge ship’s mast, pitch-black, and with all the fittings still in place’. Brunström was determined to use this in the construction of the cabin, and had real trouble towing it ashore, almost destroying his boat in the process. There are moments of childish delight, too. On visiting one March, Jansson writes: ‘We were exhilarated by change and expectation and ran headlong here and there in the snow and threw snowballs at the navigation marker. Tooti made a toboggan out of thin strips of wood, and we rode it again and again from the top of the island far out across the ice.’
Thomas Teal’s translation is truly excellent, and he captures so much of Jansson’s glee, as well as the often amusing brevity from Brunström’s log. On the 14th of October 1964, for instance, he writes: ‘Jansson shot an eider by mistake this morning and the ladies boiled it for three hours but it made a lousy dinner.’ Teal evokes Jansson’s artistry, and her keen eye for noticing: ‘Sometimes we build things to be solid and lasting, and sometimes to be beautiful, sometimes both.’
Notes From an Island comes together wonderfully. The matter-of-fact entries of Brunström contrast wonderfully with Jansson’s beautiful eye for detail. Both are complemented by Pietilä’s full-page artwork, which makes masterful use of light and shadow using only brown tones. I loved the collaborative approach taken here; it is something I see quite rarely when reading, and I really appreciated the level of detail which it brought to the book. At just 94 pages, this is one to really linger over. Notes From an Island is entrancing; it is a glorious celebration of nature, of solitude, of collaboration, of love.
I have always been a fan of the short story; they are sharp, thoughtful reflections on very precise portions of life, and often stick in my mind for an awfully long time. I find that I review short story collections far less often than I do novels, or works of non-fiction, so I thought I would gather together several which I have very much enjoyed, and would highly recommend.
1. Runaway by Alice Munro
‘The incomparable Alice Munro’s bestselling and rapturously acclaimed Runaway is a book of extraordinary stories about love and its infinite betrayals and surprises, from the title story about a young woman who, though she thinks she wants to, is incapable of leaving her husband, to three stories about a woman named Juliet and the emotions that complicate the luster of her intimate relationships. In Munro’s hands, the people she writes about–women of all ages and circumstances, and their friends, lovers, parents, and children–become as vivid as our own neighbors. It is her miraculous gift to make these stories as real and unforgettable as our own.’
2. On the Golden Porch by Tatyana Tolstaya
A few words to describe this wonderful, dark short story collection; original, compelling, evocative, rich, creepy, mysterious, startling, overwhelming, claustrophobic, and important. These thirteen stories, which have been translated from the original Russian, focus on outsiders, those who do not quite belong.
3. Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld
‘Sittenfeld’s wryly hilarious and insightful new collection, Help Yourself, illuminates human experience and gracefully upends our assumptions about class and race, envy and disappointment, gender dynamics and celebrity.
Suburban friends fall out after a racist encounter at a birthday party is caught on video and posted on Facebook; an illustrious Manhattan film crew are victims of their own snobbery when they underestimate a pre-school teacher from the Mid-West; and a group of young writers fight about love and narrative style as they compete for a prestigious bursary.
Connecting each of these three stories is Sittenfeld’s truthful yet merciless eye, as her characters stagger from awkwardness, to humiliation and, if they’re lucky, to reconciliation. Full of tenderness and compassion, this dazzling collection celebrates our humanity in all its pettiness and glory.’
4. Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson
‘This is a daring, witty and provocative collection of twelve thematically-linked stories.
Inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses or, if you prefer, by Prada, Mary Poppins, Moschino and Barbie, these are stories of abandoned children and lonely adults, the seductiveness of our consumer society and fatalism in a post-Apocalyptic world.
From Charlene and Trudi, shopping madly while bombs explode outside, to gormless Eddie, a cataloguer of fish, and Meredith Zane who has discovered the secret to eternal life, each story brings to life a startling cast of characters. Linking the stories is an exploration of the infinite variety of ways in which people attempt to change the world around them, and themselves.’
5. I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay by Deirdre Sullivan
‘In this dark, glittering collection of short stories, Deirdre Sullivan explores the trauma and power that reside in women’s bodies.
A teenage girl tries to fit in at a party held in a haunted house, with unexpected and disastrous consequences. A mother and daughter run a thriving online business selling antique dolls, while their customers get more than they bargained for. And after a stillbirth, a young woman discovers that there is something bizarre and wondrous growing inside of her.
With empathy and invention, Sullivan effortlessly blends genres in stories that are by turns strange and exquisite. Already established as an award-winning writer for children and young adults, I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay marks her arrival as a captivating new voice in literary fiction.’
6. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
‘Navigating between the Indian traditions they’ve inherited and the baffling new world, the characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s elegant, touching stories seek love beyond the barriers of culture and generations. In “A Temporary Matter,” published in The New Yorker, a young Indian-American couple faces the heartbreak of a stillborn birth while their Boston neighborhood copes with a nightly blackout. In the title story, an interpreter guides an American family through the India of their ancestors and hears an astonishing confession. Lahiri writes with deft cultural insight reminiscent of Anita Desai and a nuanced depth that recalls Mavis Gallant.’
Have you read any of these books? Which short story collections are your favourites? Please feel free to send me some recommendations, which will be much appreciated.
I adored Nina Mingya Powles’ first full-length work of memoir, Bodies of Water, when I read it in the summer of 2021. Afterwards I was, of course, very keen to read her small, and previously published book, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, and my library very kindly purchased a copy on my behalf. Published by The Emma Press, the physical book is a vibrant thing of beauty, and features several illustrations by Emma Dai’an Wright, The Emma Press’ founder.
Tiny Moons is a ‘collection of essays about food and belonging’, and it encompasses many of the expanded themes which can be found in Bodies of Water. Here, Powles moves between China, Malaysia, and New Zealand, all three countries in which she grew up. On this journey, she was particularly interested in tracing ‘the constants in her life: eating and cooking, and the dishes that have come to define her’, in order to try and ‘find a way back towards her Chinese-Malaysian heritage.’
In Tiny Moons, Powles has focused on the city of Shanghai, as the title reveals. She moved there from New Zealand with her parents when she was twelve, and attended an international school on the outskirts of the city. In her early adulthood, she returns to take up a Chinese government scholarship to study Mandarin for a year. Here, as she reacquaints herself with a city which has changed so much, food becomes a real comfort. It allows her to ward off homesickness and loneliness, however briefly: ‘I order my noodles and eat them in peace and, for a little while, I feel less like an outsider.’
Powles reveals throughout how removed she has often felt from the Chinese part of her culture. In her introduction to the volume, entitled ‘Hungry Girls’, Powles writes: ‘But there came a time, when I was about five, when I started to hate my weekend Chinese classes… None of the other kids looked like me. None of their dads looked like mine. The languages and dialects they spoke with their parents sounded familiar to me, and I recognised a few words, but I wasn’t able to join in… Eventually my mother stopped using Chinese at home, so maybe I just stopped listening. Words vanished, along with the sounds.’ She goes on to demonstrate that preparing food and eating gave her part of this connection back: ‘I starved myself of language, but I couldn’t starve myself of other things. Wonton noodle soup, Cantonese roast duck, my mother’s crispy egg noodles and her special congee.’
Powles also explores her place within the world, and the wider context of what it means to be a woman. She writes: ‘It is tiring to be a woman who loves to eat in a society where hunger is something not to be satisfied but controlled. Where a long history of female hunger is associated with shame and madness… To enjoy food as a young woman, to opt out every day from the guilt expected of me, in a radical act, of love.’ Bound up with this is the way in which food, and the act of eating, makes her feel. In a dumpling shop in Shanghai, she tells us: ‘I take a bite and my worries melt away. I’m here and also far away from home, in one bite.’
I really admire the way in which Powles speaks about her own identity. She writes: ‘Sometimes I feel like I have no right to claim any part of my Asian-ness, given that I mostly look and sound white. Living and travelling through Asia as a half-Asian woman means moving between different versions of myself: Western tourist, foreign student, writer, language learner, a person trying to understand more about her heritage. I now know there are many different ways of travelling through the world. Some of us are more prone than others to leaving bits of ourselves behind.’
Tiny Moons has been split into five sections – ‘Winter’, ‘Spring’, ‘Summer’, ‘Autumn’, and ‘Winter Again’. Each separate, short piece within each chapter is titled with the name of a specific food item, from ‘Pineapple Buns’, to ‘Chinese Aubergines’. The structure works incredibly well, and I appreciated the glossary which has been included, allowing one to compare the Chinese characters and Chinese and Mandarin translations of particular foods.
I had a feeling that I would love Tiny Moons, and I did. It encompasses just 86 pages, but each reveals so much, and has a great deal to share. Despite its brevity, Tiny Moons goes rather deeper than merely a ‘food diary’, as it is called on the back cover; it is rich, and culturally fascinating. Powles is an excellent writer, and I was struck throughout by the sensuality and opulence of her highly evocative prose. So much of her writing here resonated with me, and this is a volume which I will definitely be purchasing in future, and treasuring each time I reread it. Tiny Moons is a tiny work of art, one to really savour.