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One From the Archive: ‘Gilgi’ by Irmgard Keun *****

First published in 2017.

Gilgi (full title, Gilgi, One Of Us) has been presented in a new English translation as part of Melville House Publishing’s Neversink Library collection.  First published in its original German in 1931, Irmgard Keun’s debut novel, published when she was just twenty-six, has been rendered into the most beautiful English prose by Geoff Wilkes.  In Germany, Gilgi became an overnight sensation, and Keun was driven to sue the Gestapo several years afterwards for blocking her royalties.

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The protagonist of Gilgi is Gisela Kron, a ‘disciplined and ambitious secretary’ in a hosiery business.  Immediately admirable with her hardworking stubbornness,  she is desperately ‘trying to establish her independence in a society being overtaken by fascism’.  Falling in love, however, is a ‘fateful choice’ which will ‘unmoor’ Gilgi from her own position in the world, that which she has fought for so long to uphold.  Gilgi is essentially a coming-of-age novel; whilst Gilgi is biologically older than a character whom we might expect to undergo such a formative transformation, she learns much about the world around her, and about herself, as the novel progresses.  She is made aware of her own strengths and weaknesses, and the place which she occupies in both public and private spheres in her home city of Cologne.

Keun’s choice of opening is fascinating, and very much sets the tone for the whole: ‘She’s holding it firmly in her hands, her little life, the girl Gilgi.  She calls herself Gilgi, her name is Gisela.  The two i‘s [sic] are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s, to tiny fashionable hats which contrive mysteriously to stay perched on the very top of her head.  When she’s twenty-five, she’ll call herself Gisela.  But she’s not at that point quite yet.’  She is a cool-headed character, and faced with many of the challenges as she is, many other protagonists would have inevitably had some sort of breakdown or existential crisis.  Not Gilgi.  She is a firm believer in dealing with everything thrown at one, and she does so largely flawlessly.

Gilgi’s familial situation is exposed to the reader almost immediately: ‘No one speaks.  Everyone is earnestly and dully occupied with their own concerns.  The complete lack of conversation testifies to the family’s decency and legitimacy.  Herr and Frau Kron have stuck together through years of honorable tedium to their silver wedding anniversary.  They love each other, and are faithful to each other, something which has become a matter of routine, and no longer needs to be discussed, or felt’.

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Irmgard Keun

Gilgi is very of its time; Keun is never far away from inserting snippets of social history, or the economic struggles which many around Gilgi faced on a daily basis.  So many issues which are still of much importance in our modern society are tackled here – patriarchy, sexual relations, pregnancy out of wedlock, and the very concept of womanhood.  It is an astoundingly frank work, both ‘piercingly perceptive and formally innovative’.  Gilgi is told on the morning of her twenty-first birthday, for instance, that her parents are not biologically hers, and then given the details of her birth mother.

Gilgi herself provides a contrast to the societal norms held for women during the period; she is proactive, has her own job, and pays for her own things: ‘I want to work, want to get on, want to be self-supporting and independent…  At the moment I’m learning my languages – I’m saving money…’.  She may still live at home with the Krons who raised her, but she makes clear that her biggest aim in life is to fund her own apartment.

Until she meets Martin, the idea of being a kept woman repulses her; indeed, even with Martin, Keun has allowed Gilgi her independence.  The pair move in with one another to the vacant apartment of one of Martin’s friends; he is unshakeable in his existence and largely lives hand to mouth, so it is up to Gilgi to work and pay for everything.  Again, tradition is eschewed here, and Keun demonstrates to a point that a woman of the period could make things work by herself.  Gilgi’s grand ambitions still live within her, even when she becomes conscious that they are not perhaps achievable due to the pregnancy which befalls her naive self.

I was put in mind of reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage at several points during the novel; the narrative voice which Keun has crafted simultaneously weaves the first and third person perspectives together in a beguiling manner.  There is a wonderful stream-of-consciousness approach to the whole in places.  Gilgi is a fascinating, deeply complex, and thoroughly realistic character.  Each individual consequence which she has to face is tackled with the utmost verisimilitude.  Gilgi is a stunning novel, with prose echoes of Hans Fallada and Stefan Zweig.  It is absolutely wonderful, and sure to delight those with a fondness for strong female characters, or who want to read a striking piece of translated literature.

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‘The Bird in the Tree’ by Elizabeth Goudge *****

Elizabeth Goudge is an author whose work I have been planning to read for at least a decade. I have no idea why it has taken me such a long time to get around to picking up one of her novels; perhaps it is merely because she seems to have been very underrepresented in the majority of the physical bookshops which I have visited over the years. I am thrilled to say though that my local library had a copy of the first novel in the Eliots of Damerosehay trilogy, and that I fell in love with its story immediately.

The Bird in the Tree, first published in 1940, is also known as the first part of the Eliot Chronicles series. The Eliot family decided to relocate to a rather decrepit house named Damerosehay, close to the Hampshire coast, following the First World War. When discovering the neglected house whilst on a walk with her young grandson David, Goudge writes: ‘They opened doors into queer rooms lit only by the long fingers of bright sunlight that smote through the chinks in the shutters… They pursued long twisting passages to their strange conclusions in unexpected flights of steps and small closets throughout whose broken windows creepers had grown, trailing their tendrils on the floor… They explored attics under the roof where the plaster had fallen and the slates had slipped, so that patches of blue sky smiled in upon them, and exciting cellars where toadstools like orange flowers were growing in the must and damp.’ Lucilla decides, immediately, that this is the house for them, and sets about buying it.

Matriarch Lucilla Eliot then spends ‘a lifetime’ making this house ‘a tranquil haven for her family’, and it is here that we watch them grow. There are several rather endearing young grandchildren – Ben, Tommy, and Caroline – who flit in and out of the action, and two dogs named ‘Pooh-Bah and Bastard’ complete the ensemble.

Far from being a peaceful novel, though, The Bird in the Tree is filled with scandal. Lucilla’s beloved grandson, David, deigns to fall in love with ‘an unsuitable woman’ – his aunt by marriage, now divorced. Of course, Lucilla takes this news terribly, feeling that it threatens her ‘most cherished ambitions’. At a point just before she learns of David’s transgressions, ‘… she looked what she was, a leisured and lovely old lady securely enthroned in a home where there was enough money for the creation of dignity and beauty but not enough for luxury or ostentation.’

Much understanding is given by Goudge to her characters. Nine-year-old Ben, who has grown up in Egypt and India, is finally settling in to life at Damerosehay. Goudge writes: ‘The first seven years of his life were now just a confused and painful memory of heat and flies, bands playing, riots when people got shot, a burning fever in his body, a pain in his head, a choking feeling in his chest that they told him was asthma, and his father and mother quarrelling.’ His divorced parents are largely absent from the lives of himself, Tommy, and Caroline, with their father moving back to India, and their mother residing in London – until she and David fall in love and she returns, much to the chagrin of her sons, of course.

Goudge’s descriptions are nothing short of superb. When writing about Ben, one of the grandchildren, for instance, she says: ‘In his mind’s eye, as he ran on, he could see the green grass paths between the lavender hedges, the purple masses of the Michaelmas daisies with the butterflies sunning their wings upon them, the glowing spires of the golden rod and the flowers of the dahlias and petunias, the frail late autumn roses and the ilex tree by the house where the blackbird sang. He could see the colour of it, and smell the damp sweet scent of it, and feel how it lived and breathed within its old brick walls just to give sanctuary to those who needed it.’ The garden particularly came to life for me; it is presented in so much precise detail that was a real joy to read. Goudge’s descriptions are made up of many layers, and are as rich and visceral as anything written by the likes of Dorothy Whipple or Elizabeth Taylor. I must say – merely on the strength of one novel – that if you enjoy either of the aforementioned authors, you are sure to love Goudge’s work.

I loved Goudge’s wry humour, too. She comments, for example, that Tommy ‘looked like one of Raphael’s cherubs but unfortunately his character was most distressingly at variance with his outward appearance’. Caroline, who is almost six, ‘seldom spoke and it was impossible to say at her age whether her silence was due to the presence of great thoughts in her mind or to the abundance of any thoughts at all.’ Such offhand phrases effortlessly capture her characters. Much humour surrounds Lucilla and her maid, Ellen, two years her senior. The women have a well-drawn and believable relationship, which I appreciated. Ellen has very pronounced opinions, which she sometimes tries to keep to herself. Goudge writes: ‘Ellen sniffed. The extravagance of Lucilla’s love for her grandson David, as for his father before him, always slightly irritated her. It was out of proportion. It was not quite the correct reaction of maternity. It was almost more the love of a girl for her lover… And Lucilla was seventy-eight.’

In part, The Bird in the Tree is old-fashioned and perhaps a little melodramatic, but it so appealed to me as a reader, and I am eager to continue with the rest of the trilogy. The novel put me in mind throughout of the perfect Virago or Persephone title; it features sharp character portraits, excellent writing, and a compelling story. There are some beautifully observed scenes throughout, and Goudge writes with such a deft touch. Watching the relationship between Lucilla and her various children and grandchildren unfold was a delight, and I very much look forward to meeting the Eliots, and Damerosehay, again in the near future.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Woman Upstairs’ by Claire Messud *****

First published in August 2018.

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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Non-Fiction November: ‘Letters from Tove’ by Tove Jansson *****

Tove Jansson is one of my all-time favourite authors, from her charming Moomin stories which I have adored from my earliest childhood, to her beautiful and assertive short stories. I had so looked forward to reading the edited collection, Letters from Tove, and although I did not receive a copy for Christmas (despite it being right at the top of my list!), I managed to reserve a copy from my local library.

Letters from Tove has been edited by Boel Westin – the author of a fantastic Jansson biography, which I reviewed here – and Helen Svensson, and is translated from the original Swedish by Sarah Death. This is the first time that the selected letters have been published in a single edition, along with commentary.

I wholeheartedly agree with Ali Smith – another of my absolute favourite authors – who writes: ‘It’s hard to describe the astonishing achievement of Jansson’s artistry’. I have loved every single piece of work of Jansson’s which I have read, and reading her letters, addressed to a number of varied recipients, proved a real privilege. In the introduction, Westin and Svensson write that Jansson ‘was a great correspondent, writing frequently and at length…’. They also comment about how important the letter is in Jansson’s fiction, from messages found in bottles in the Moomin books, to the epistolatory form which she sometimes used in her short stories.

Letters from Tove has been arranged chronologically by recipient. There are letters here to her friends, family, and lovers of both genders, spanning a vast period between 1933 and 1988. The collection includes letters written to her parents and brothers; the photographer Eva Konikoff, who was one of Jansson’s best friends; the director Vivica Bandler; the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom Jansson lived for many years; the translator Maya Vanni; and Jansson’s publisher, Åke Runnquist. Although every single year during this period has not been included, an exceptional portrait of a remarkable life is shown to us.

Given that this volume provides just an edited selection of Jansson’s letters, one can conclude that she was both prolific and patient – particularly given that every single letter she sent was written by hand! Added to this is the way in which Jansson responded to almost every single fan letter or question which she received, which amounted to almost 2,000 each year. Westin and Svensson estimate that Jansson would have answered around 92,000 such letters between 1954 – when the Moomins became a global success- and 2001, the year in which she died.

‘Jansson’s letters ‘tell us all about herself,’ write Westin and Svensson in their introduction. ‘They deal with love and friendship, loneliness and solidarity, and also with politics, art, literature and society. But a letter also documents a juncture in time, stops the clock an tells us about things that otherwise get forgotten or sink into the depths of memory.’ Whatever she writes about, or however the mood in these letters sits, Westin and Svensson say that ‘they rarely leave us unmoved’. The editors have included relatively thorough biographical and contextual information throughout.

The familial scenes which Jansson describes are lively, as are depictions of her extensive travels, and her studies before the Second World War. In one of the earliest letters, written to her ‘Beloved Ham’ – the affectionate name which she gave her mother – when she was an art student in Stockholm in 1933, Jansson says: ‘I am a part of you. More so than the boys… how can I care one jot about Sweden when you’re not here?… I’m coming home, and soon. I’m coming home, just the way I was when I left… it may well be that I can now understand you better, help you better, and painstakingly start to appreciate how lucky I am to have you and the rest.’ Even in these earliest letters, an alluring philosophical wisdom shines through.

Through reading her letters, I was swept into Jansson’s world. I was helped to understand, so acutely, what mattered to her, and the efforts she would go to for those she loved. As in her fiction, the writing in her letters is unsurprisingly rich, nuanced, and astonishingly beautiful. Jansson is searingly honest throughout, and we are given the ability to really see her grow as time goes on. Her letters are open and revealing, and are sometimes startlingly modern. There is much seriousness here, but a great deal of light and hope, too. Letters from Tove provided me with a great deal of joy; it felt like I was reading the words of a dear friend. I really love to read one-sided correspondence like this, and it is certainly a volume which I hope to come back to many more times in future.

I shall close this review with a quote from the volume, which really spoke to me. In 1941, in the midst of a discussion about the Second World War and the tumult which it created in her home of Finland, she writes to Eva Konikoff: ‘Strange that it will all just go on, we will paint, travel, love, grieve, collect money, buy things, grow old… whether we want to or not.’

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Non-Fiction November: ‘A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt’, edited by Simon Garfield *****

I remember reading an article about A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt when it was first released, and have had my eye out for a copy ever since. I ended up finding a gorgeous hardback edition on a remaindered books website, and read its 700 pages over the space of a few days.

I love reading journals; they convey an excellent social history. Jean Lucey Pratt’s are no exception. She began to keep a diary at the age of 15, and continued – in 45 exercise books purchased from Woolworths for sixpence each – until a few weeks before her death in 1986. The output is astonishing, and she wrote over a million words during her lifetime. Most of her journals were personal ones, which her family and friends were unaware of, but she also kept a specific journal during the Second World War. Pratt also contributed to the Mass Observation Project, which began in 1937, and aimed to capture everyday life in Britain.

Pratt was born in Wembley in 1909, and lived for most of her life in a small and ramshackle Buckinghamshire cottage, named Wee Cottage. She looked after her niece, Babs, for some years whilst the girl’s parents were stationed abroad, but largely lived alone, her only company her cats. Pratt had a fascinating life; she trained as an architect, worked as a publicist and journalist, and went on to run a small bookshop in a street in Slough. She specialised in cat books, and continued to send these out to customers for many years after her ‘retirement’. As Garfield notes in his introduction, ‘what she really wanted to do was write and garden and care for her cats.’

In her teenage years, Pratt touchingly addresses portions of her journal to her late mother. She laments over her father’s choice of new wife, in Ethel, a woman of whom she is suspicious from the outset. In 1925, Pratt sweetly kicks off with a list of her ‘beaus’, which have been written in a secret code. One gets a feel for her character, and for what matters the most to her, straight away. She is in touch with herself throughout.

Although Pratt hints at possible publication following her death, she makes it clear that at present, the journals are for her alone: ‘And why have I that feeling at the back of my mind that no one will ever read this? But if anyone does read this – if you ever do – Reader please be kind to me! I am only 16 at present, and just realising life and beginning to think for myself. It’s all very chilling in its strange newness.’ She is candid and honest, and rather frank regarding taboo subjects, like her sex life. She is a very modern woman. In 1927, for instance, she writes: ‘I don’t want to get married – not at least to the struggling domesticated life which seems to belong to every man I know.’ Later, in 1931, she comments: ‘Even to my socialistic mind I think it would be better to be married – more convenient, double rooms being usually cheaper than singles.’

From the earliest entries, too, her writing is gorgeous. In April 1925, on a trip to Torquay, Pratt reflects: ‘We came back along the coast… And I felt tired and sad and a little exhausted, but the level, smooth stretch of sea peeping between the graceful lines of the cliffs seemed to comfort the innermost recesses of my soul. And when we lost sight of it behind high hedgerows I ached for one more sight of it.’ There is a lot of humour in A Notable Woman, too; in 1926, for instance, she writes of a new pair of cream silk stockings that she ‘unfortunately wore them for tennis yesterday and made irrevocable ladders.’

She has all of the usual teenage worries, but discusses them in a manner which is full of wisdom. We really see her grow – and flourish – as time moves on. I loved the way in which she mixes social commentary with what is happening in her own life; this begins far before the Second World War period, which is comprehensively covered. Throughout, Pratt is philosophical; in 1933, she asks herself: ‘What is one to do when one seems possessed of ideas and ideals too big for one’s meagre capabilities?’

Until A Notable Woman was published, nobody had read Pratt’s journals. Their publication is a gift; I dare anyone to not be entirely charmed by Pratt, and her words. They are, as Garfield comments, ‘a revelation and a joy’. Garfield goes on to say that when friends would ask about Pratt’s writing style, he could think of nothing better than ‘Virginia Woolf meets Caitlin Moran’ – two authors whom I very much enjoy. Had I not already been intrigued by learning more about Pratt, this comment certainly would have made me pick up a copy of A Notable Woman.

I would love to read the rest of Pratt’s original journals; this edition contains only around a sixth of what Pratt penned. Her observations throughout are so clear, and I was fascinated to learn about what filled her days. I cannot recommend A Notable Woman highly enough; it is filled with the colourful, descriptive, vivid, and heartfelt reminiscences of a fascinating character, who lives her entire life with hope and warmth.

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‘Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead’ by Barbara Comyns *****

I was absolutely thrilled to get my hands on a brand new edition of Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, after having spent more than a decade trying to find an affordable secondhand copy. Thankfully, the wonderful Daunt Books have reissued the novel, and I am most grateful.

I so enjoy Barbara Comyns’ work; it is wonderfully strange, and sometimes a little horrifying, but it is always compelling, and surprising. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, which was first published in 1954, fits all of this criteria. The novel is set in a small Warwickshire village and, set over a short span of time, the story encompasses many strange things. After the river floods excessively in early summer, the villagers begin to change, exhibiting odd and frightening behaviours; these range from a ‘mad miller’ who drowns himself, to the village barber, who cuts his own throat in full view. These nasty and unforeseen ends are attributed to a peculiar illness, which spreads like wildfire through the village.

Overseeing this pandemic are Emma and Hattie Willoweed, part of a sprawling family living in the home of their formidable grandmother. The characters are curious, and unpredicable. The girls’ father, Ebin, veers between mild interest and indifference, and their younger brother, Dennis, provides some much-needed comedy. Once the flood occurs, Comyns describes the mild horror which comes when Ebin fixates on taking Hattie out after her lunch to find drowned bodies; he reasons that she is ‘always game for anything.’

I found the Willoweed children particularly endearing. When Hattie and Dennis are left to their own devices in their father’s room whilst he is supposed to be schooling them, for instance, they rip up a copy of Macaulay’s History of England, and proceed to turn its pages into many paper hats and boats. At the same time, eldest sister Emma has been tasked with mending a great deal of ripped sheets: ‘She had mended several with the aid of a small and ancient sewing machine; but to her horror, the patches were coming off already because the machine was only capable of a rather charming chain stitch and she had forgotten to secure the ends of the thread.’

Grandmother Willoweed is an enigma. She is starkly judgemental, particularly with regard to the staff she employs in her household; she is often found shouting ‘slut!’ after her maids, for no reason one can discern. The groundskeeper, Old Ives, has an unhealthy rivalry with her: ‘Ives was a year older than Grandmother Willoweed, but considered that he had the better chance of survival: he thought she would die from overeating.’ In response to the birthday gift of food which he proffers her, Grandmother aptly responds: ‘”Ah, Ives, I’m afraid, when it’s your birthday, I shall be bringing clovers for your grave.”‘

She is an extremely keen gossip, although Comyns explains that this comes with problems of her own making: ‘Her audience was rather limited because for many years she had not left her own house and garden. She had an objection to walking or passing over ground that did not belong to her…’ Grandmother also has a fearful reputation, which precedes her: ‘Most of the village children had never seen her and she had become a terrifying figure in their minds. They thought she could hear everything they said wit her ear trumpet, and that instead of a tongue she had two curling snakes in her ugly mouth. When the children grew up and some of them became maids in Willoweed House they were always disappointed to discover she wasn’t so strange as they expected…’.

From the outset, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead mesmerises. Comyns begins the novel: ‘The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in.’ In this manner, Comyns sets the scene of the flood quite wonderfully. She goes on: ‘Ebin Willoweed rowed his daughters round the submerged garden. He rowed with gentle ineffectual strokes because he was a slothful man, but a strong vein of inquisitiveness kept him from being entirely indolent. He rowed away under a blazing sun; the light was very bright and the water brilliant.’ Comyns is an excellent writer, and she creates some gorgeous, lingering imagery within the novel. She writes a scene, for instance, in which Emma and Norah, one of the family’s maids, ‘went down to the garden together to pick peas for supper, and to dream their dreams in the summer dusk.’

There is not a great deal of cheer to be found here, as I am sure one can discern from my review, but I expected as much from Comyns’ work. There is a real morbidity to be found within the novel, in fact, especially that displayed between Ebin and Grandmother; the pair are nothing short of bloodthirsty at times. When the miller drowns himself in the river, for example, Grandmother insists that she is taken to see his body ‘dragged out of the water’. When Ebin ‘heard what all the commotion was about, he was not at all averse to seeing the drowned miller himself, and offered to take his mother.’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is a deceptively easy read, which becomes more and more unsettling as it progresses. There is a palpable tension, and nothing is shied away from.

Whilst I must admit that it did feel strange to read a book about a pandemic whilst in the midst of one, I absolutely adored this odd and beguiling novel, and cannot recommend it highly enough. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is darkly amusing – deliciously so – and I was pulled in from the outset. This is a novel to really savour, from an author whose work I find so much to admire within. As with her other novels, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead feels at once highly modern and wonderfully old-fashioned. It held me in its grip from start to finish, and I am sure that the same effect will be felt by its every reader.

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‘Small Bodies of Water’ by Nina Mingya Powles *****

Nina Mingya Powles is an author whose work I have been interested in since reading her excellent essay in At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond (review here). Her first full-length work of non-fiction, Small Bodies of Water, appealed to me on so many levels. Even had I not heard of Powles before, the quotes written by Robert Macfarlane, Amy Liptrot, and Jessica J. Lee on the book’s cover – all non-fiction authors whom I highly admire – would have drawn me to it. Small Bodies of Water won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize in 2019, and was published in full in August 2021.

Powles was born in New Zealand, partly grew up in China and the United States, and now lives in London. She has also spent an extensive time in Malaysia, where her grandparents live. As she so aptly writes, ‘Home is many people and places and languages, some separated by oceans.’

Small Bodies of Water is an exploratory memoir, about what home and family mean, and about belonging. The book presents a series of interlinked essays, woven together from ‘personal memories, dreams and nature writing’. The topics which she writes about are many and varied. Powles weaves in her own experiences of swimming around the world with myths and legends, earthquakes, food, wildlife, other literature which has struck her, notions of pain, waves and tidal movements, her difficulties in communicating with her grandparents, music, and Miyazaki movies, amongst many other things.

There are whole sections devoted to swimming, something which I personally love to read about. Focus is placed upon the ‘small bodies of water’ which ‘separate and connect us’ in which Powles has spent time. She learnt to swim close to her grandparents’ home in Borneo, where her mother was born, and where her grandfather studied the island’s freshwater fish for a living. Throughout her life, there have been many more bodies of water, from the ‘wild coastline of New Zealand’ to the Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath, northwest London.

Throughout, Powles’ descriptions are evocative and expansive. In the first essay, she recalls the act of swimming with her cousin in Malaysia: ‘I hover in a safe corner of the deep end, waiting to see how long I can hold my breath. Looking up through my goggles I see rainforest clouds, a watery rainbow. I can see the undersides of frangipani petals floating on the surface… I straighten my legs and point my toes and launch myself towards the sun.’ I love the way in which she writes about water, and its constant movement. Later, she describes: ‘Underwater everything was different, bathed in holy silence and blue echoes. The slanted windows cast wavering lines a liquid light beneath the surface, across our bodies. We felt the way our limbs moved, lithe and strong and brand new.’ As she grows, she considers the way in which the water was sometimes the only place in which she did not feel self-conscious about her changing body. She also writes that water is something which always makes her feel grounded, no matter where in the world she finds herself: ‘The heat can’t touch me: a girl swimming is a body of water.’

Food is something which also makes her feel at home. Whilst she writes about this in far more detail in her excellent short pamphlet, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, here, she writes about eating and cooking in sensuous language. Food is a way to connect for Powles, and to have something of a communal experience even in a new place where she is alone: ‘In the Vietnamese restaurants on Kingsland Road in east London, we – all of us women in our twenties and thirties, all of us slurping pho in the middle of the day – warm our cheeks in the steam that rises from our bowls and coats the windows, shielding us from the gaze of passers-by. We don’t speak to each other, or to anyone else. We wrap scarves around our faces and step out into the melting snow.’

Powles discusses cultural identity with a great deal of insight, and muses about the meaning of belonging from the outset. She asks poignant questions, such as: ‘Where is the place your body is anchored? Which body of water is yours? Is it that I’ve anchored myself in too many places at once, or nowhere at all? The answer hits somewhere between. Over time, springing up from the in-between space, new islands form.’ Later, she tells us: ‘Home is not a place but a collection of things that have fallen or been left behind…’.

She goes on: ‘My markers of home are rooted in plants and weather. Wind that tastes of salt, the tūī’s bright warbling call, the crunch of shells underfoot, a swaying kōwhai tree. As time passes, these pieces of home begin to feel unstable, shifting further away. Long after I’ve moved away from Wellington, after my parents moved out of our house by the sea, after the garden has gone wild, a kōwhai tree grows in a garden in London: some small proof that although my pieces of home are scattered, I will always find my way to them.’

I was thoroughly impressed throughout by the scope of Powles’ prose. She writes in a manner both detailed and poetic, and notices every single thing around her. She explores at length not just what it means to belong, but what it means to be a woman, and to be believed, and to have mixed heritage. Of the latter, she asks: ‘Some like to talk in terms of fractions: one-quarter, one-eighth, one-sixteenth. I can feel all the pieces of myself getting smaller and smaller. How do I carry them all?’

I loved the structure in Small Bodies of Water. Each essay is composed of short, vignette-like sections, which work wonderfully here. Powles adds so many layers to her memoir throughout. She considers what it means to write, and the effects which it has upon her: ‘I think of my own writing and how sometimes, making a poem means making something exist outside of my own brain, my own skin. The poem contains parts of me and I still contain parts of it, but it’s separate from myself, distinct, new.’

Small Bodies of Water sings. Powles has created such a beautiful and thoughtful work of non-fiction, which will stay with me for such a long time. I admired the huge variety of topics which have been included, and the way in which she considers each with such attention. The author has so much to say, and does with astonishing beauty. Small Bodies of Water is tremendous, and I found something to ponder on every page. I cannot wait to read whatever Powles brings out in the future.

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One From the Archive: ‘What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell’, edited by Suzanne Marrs *****

First published in 2016.

What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell is one of my most anticipated books – well, ever.  Maxwell is one of my favourite writers (and it pains me that he is so little known), and I very much admire Welty.  Regardless, I knew little about them as individuals, so when I spotted this volume, I immediately put it at the top of my birthday list. 97805477503231

Marrs’ introduction is wonderful.  She writes with such passion, and compassion, for her subjects.  From the very beginning, I knew that I would have loved to meet both of those whom Marrs clearly deeply admires.  Welty was an incredibly sassy, shrewd woman; of Jane Austen’s house, she wrote that it ‘looks big, but is really small.  The opposite of her novels.’  Bill, who struck up a wondrous friendship with her, was an incredibly humble, humane man, filled with a myriad of thoughts, and devoted to all of those around him.

It goes without saying that both are incredible writers.  Learning about the process of their craft was fascinating enough, but getting to know the pair as individuals was far more rewarding.  That rare thing is so evident here; that enduring friendship, built upon mutual respect, which was all the more cherished as the two lived far from one another (Maxwell in New York, and Welty in Mississippi).  They could see one another only at long intervals, but in some ways, both found this beneficial; the therapeutic motion of penning (semi-) regular letters to one another lasted for decades, and much was learnt about the other in consequence.

What There Is To Say We Have Said is a stunning read, and I was a little sad when I came to its end.  Throughout, one is nudged to remember just how important communication is (and just how much the majority of us in the modern world almost instantaneous communication for granted), and how beautiful the art of letter writing.  There is not a single dull sentence in this 450-page long volume, and if it had been twice as long, I would have been thrilled.

I could type out quotes at length here, but I shall leave you, dear reader, with the ones which really touched me:
– Maxwell to Welty: ‘There are enough similarities in our two childhoods to make me feel […] that they grew up on a tandem bicycle.’
– Maxwell to Welty, on the publication of one of her works: ‘But I wanted to write to you now, because when a book first comes out, it is really like a party, and when I am invited to a party, I like to come early.’

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One From the Archive: ‘Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want’ by Ruby Tandoh *****

First published in July 2018.

Anyone who knows me will know what a huge fan of food I am.  I adore cooking new recipes, playing around with flavours, and visiting new restaurants.  It comes as no surprise, then, that I have wanted to read Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want ever since it came out.  Many will remember Tandoh from The Great British Bake Off, of which she was a contestant in 2013.

In her insightful introduction, Tandoh gives her reasoning for writing such a positive 9781781259597book about food; it directly goes against the wealth of dieting and fitness crazes which have swept the United Kingdom over the last few years.  She begins by rubbishing the often contradictory dietary advice which we hear almost daily on the news: ‘We don’t want to go hungry, we don’t want to be too greedy, we don’t want to live too exuberantly, we don’t want to be a kill-joy.  We fret about our size and shape, and too often police the bodies of others.  We accept the lie that there’s a perfect way of eating that will save your soul and send you careering blithely through your eighties, into your nineties and beyond.  Do what you want, we’re told – but you’ll die if you get it wrong.’

The main exploration in Eat Up! is ‘everything that happens in the peripheries when we take a bite: the cultures that birth the foods we love, the people we nurture, the science of flavour and the ethics of eating.’  Tandoh recognises the splendour of all food, regardless of its preparation; she shows the myriad ways in which food is directly linked with how we feel, and what we need in our lives.  ‘Not every meal,’ she writes, ‘will be in some sunlight dappled orange grove; sometimes what you need is a pasty by the side of the M4, and there’s no harm in that.’  Food can also be used as a tool in order to bring people together; it ‘transgresses the “boundaries” between here and there, us and them, me and you, until we are all just bundles of matter, eating and being eaten.’

The celebration of food is linked in with Tandoh’s own memories: the blackberry bush near her grandmother’s Essex garden; eating a huge Indian takeaway with her girlfriend when both were suffering with influenza; the food which comforted her when her grandfather died.  She also touches upon her own relationship with food in the past, and the eating disorders which she has dealt with in the past.  Eat Up! is highly revealing in this manner.  Never does it feel preachy, or as though Tandoh is hard done by in any sense; rather, it feels like sitting down and having a conversation with the very best, and most intelligent, of friends.

The history of food, and the ways in which we eat, have both been touched upon here.  The research which Tandoh has done is impeccable; facts and statistics blend seamlessly into her narrative.  So many issues are explored which can be linked to food and eating: those around weight, how we eat in public, the joy of seasonal eating, the diet industry, culture, eating trends, food as power, comfort food, and the scientific processes of digestion, amongst others.  This varied content, all of which has food at its centre, is fascinating, and makes for an incredibly engaging and coherent book.

Eat Up! is, pardon the pun, a delicious book; it is warm and understanding, and filled with love and humour.  Such positivity abounds; throughout, Tandoh cheers for the existence of every body, no matter its size or shape.  We all need to be nourished, and we need to feel happy when we eat.  In this manner, Tandoh weaves together a fascinating narrative about food, peppered with recipes for every occasion, and body positivity.  ‘The way you feel about food,’ she points out, ‘sits hand in hand with the way you feel about yourself, and if you eat happily and wholeheartedly, food will make you strong.’  I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience of Eat Up!, and know that it’s a tome I will dip into again and again.

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‘The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia’ by Laura Miller *****

I have never been a huge fan of the fantasy genre, but I could not get enough of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when I was a child. I remember, on a couple of occasions, finishing the last paperback in the series – a gorgeous boxed edition which my mother was given when she was a child, and passed on to me – and going right back to the beginning. I have read the series in adulthood, and found it almost as magical.

I was therefore very keen to read Laura Miller’s memoir, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, which charts her own experiences of reading the Chronicles, both in childhood and adulthood. She writes: ‘My relationship to Narnia would turn out to be as heady as any love affair, a story of enchantment, betrayal, estrangement, and reunion.’ Jonathan Lethem deems Miller’s book a ‘superb long essay’, ‘conversational, embracing and casually erudite’, and Karen Joy Fowler calls it ‘smart, meticulous, and altogether delightful’.

The Magician’s Book chronicles – pardon the pun – Miller’s ‘long, tumultuous relationship’ with C.S. Lewis’ books. Just as I did as a young teenager, Miller discovered the wealth of Christian material which suffused the books; these seem obvious to me as an older reader, but as a child, they went right over my head. Miller’s experience from this point veered in a different direction to mine; I was still keen to submerge myself within the books, but the ‘Christian themes left [Miller] feeling betrayed and alienated from the stories she had come to know and trust.’

As an adult, Miller – who was working as a literary critic at the time – came to the stories from a different perspective. She decided to investigate the Chronicles, alongside Lewis’ life, ‘to see what mysteries Narnia holds for adult eyes’. She was thankfully enraptured by the stories once more, and was able to recapture some of the childhood love which she felt for them. She muses at length upon the Christian symbolism in the novels, explaining why she initially felt let down by this element, and how cleverly Lewis drew parallels between the two. She examines, too, the role of women and race within the novels, and the lack of distinct politics in Narnia, amongst so many other elements.

I loved the mixing of Miller’s own memoir alongside a quite detailed biography of C.S. Lewis himself. She visits the places in which he lived, in both England and Ireland, and travels to the specific Irish landscapes which inspired portions of the books. Miller found Lewis to be a man ‘who stands in stark contrast to his whimsical creation’. In her research, she was particularly interested in his all-engulfing friendship with Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as the influence which he has had upon a slew of modern writers, including Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Franzen. Miller gives a fantastic commentary regarding mythology and Medieval romance, and its influences on both Lewis and Tolkien.

The Magician’s Book opens with a reflection of Miller’s childhood, when the greatest love which she felt was for the Narnia stories. She writes in especially touching prose here, telling us: ‘I’m wishing, with every bit of myself, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again.’ Narnia showed the young Laura how she ‘could tumble through a hole in the world I knew and into another, better one, a world fresher, more brightly colored, more exhilarating, more fully felt than my own.’

Miller writes beautifully throughout about Narnia and its magic. She also details how formative reading the Chronicles were, and how they provided a sort of moral and educational primer for its child readers. She says, for instance: ‘To me, the best children’s books gave their child characters (and by extension, myself) the chance to be taken seriously. In Narnia, the boundary between childhood and adulthood – a vast tundra of tedious years – could be elided. The Pevensies not only get to topple the White Witch, fight in battles, participate in an earthshaking mystical event, and be crowned kings and queens; they do it all without having to grow up. Yet they become more than children, too. Above all, their decisions have moral gravity. In contrast to how most children experience their role in an adult world, what the child characters in these stories do, for better or worse, really matters…’.

I found The Magician’s Book fascinating. Miller offers a thorough, even intricate, work of literary criticism. I left with a renewed love for the Narnia books myself, as well as a list of a few other lists and authors to explore – something which I greatly appreciate. The Magician’s Book is, overall, a fantastic melding of a variety of genres and interests, and of themes and elements found within a children’s series which contains an awful lot of depth.

As Miller puts it so wonderfully herself, Narnia ‘mixed up classical and Northern mythologies, canonical fairy tales and slangy modern schoolchildren, myth and satire, all with such cheerful indiscrimination.’ This is a wonderful piece of literary criticism, and I can only hope that every fan of Narnia will have the chance to pick it up.