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‘Under Storm’s Wing’ by Helen Thomas *****

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.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Shutter of Snow’ by Emily Holmes Coleman *****

First published in June 2019.

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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.

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‘Notes From an Island’ by Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä *****

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. 

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Short Story Collections

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.

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‘Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai’ by Nina Mingya Powles *****

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.

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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.