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‘The Body: A Guide for Occupants’ by Bill Bryson *****

Like many readers, I very much enjoy Bill Bryson’s non-fiction work.  I picked up his newest publication, The Body: A Guide for Occupants having not read any of his writing for such a long time, and was so pleased that I did.  I was reminded once more of how warm his prose is, and how fascinating his subjects.

Many of Bryson’s books are essentially travel writing, in which he writes about countries and regions which he has lived or travelled within – the United States, United Kingdom, and Africa are just three examples.  The Body is something a little different to these personal geographies, though.  It is far more science-based than much of his work, and does not include many personal stories, something which his books tend to be built upon.  It looks inward, trying to decipher what really makes a human being. 43582376

The Body has been split into many chapters, each of which focuses upon a distinctive part of the human body.  These range from ‘The Immune System’ and ‘The Brain’ to ‘Into the Nether Regions’.  These chapters are incredibly thorough; there is not an element of the body which has not been explored in some way.  He moves seamlessly from one topic to another.  With his chapter on the skin, for instance, he moves from bacteria found on the skin to the phenomenon of itching, and then the reasons as to why we lose hair as we age, all in less than two pages.

Bryson writes about so many things here, including the beginning of forensic science; microbes and proteins, and their functions and uses within the body; viruses; advances in medicine; evolutionary changes within human anatomy; how different parts of us age, and the consequences felt; the myriad benefits of exercise; and the wonder found within the structure of our bones.  He writes about so many things that are known about the human body, and also the surprising number of elements which remain a mystery.  Bryson introduces several medical conundrums, interesting cases which cannot be solved.

Bryson has chosen to begin The Body with rather a fascinating chapter, entitled ‘How to Build a Human’, which calculates how expensive it would be to procure all of the elements which make up the human body – clue: a lot.  This memorable prologue, as it were, sets the tone for the book, and feels perfectly placed.

As ever, Bryson’s writing in The Body is both absorbing and accessible.  He grapples with complex ideas throughout the book, but presents everything in a way which can be read and understood by newcomers to this subject.  He introduces myriad facts in marvellous ways, which really make one think; for instance, ‘In the second or so since you started this sentence, your body has made a million red blood cells.’  One can see from the outset that Bryson clearly has quite a passion for this subject, and this shines throughout, as does his humour.  Throughout, Bryson consults experts in different fields, and also mentions a lot of books which focus upon biology along the way.

The Body is a book which one can learn, unsurprisingly, a great deal from.  I have always been fascinated by biology and the human body, and have read a few books on the subject before, but I found myself learning new facts throughout.  Although there is such a great deal packed into the pages of The Body, and a great deal of impeccable research has clearly been done, it never feels saturated with information, and can easily be read from cover to cover.  The Body is, all in all, a fact-lover’s dream, which demonstrates how wonderful the human body is, in all of its strangeness.

I will end this review with a passage which I, personally, found fascinating: ‘The most remarkable part of all is your DNA.  You have a metre of it packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single fine strand it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto.  Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system.  You are in the most literal sense cosmic.’

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‘A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym’ by Hazel Holt *****

After Barbara Pym’s death, American author Anne Tyler wrote: ‘What do people turn to when they’ve finished Barbara Pym?  The answer is easy: they turn back to Barbara Pym.’  Although I have not quite completed her oeuvre, I very much appreciate this perspective; Pym’s novels have so much to offer, and her strength of place and character, as well as her delicious wit, are worth revisiting over and over again.

I realised some months ago that there are many authors whose work I have greatly enjoyed, but whom I know very little about as individuals.  Trying to remedy that, I requested a copy of Hazel Holt’s biography A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym from my local library, and settled down with it on a peaceful afternoon. 20590911

In this biography, says the blurb, ‘… we come to know a person whose humour and sharp observation were uniquely combined with a compassionate acceptance of human nature – qualities that made her such an outstanding novelist.’  It is promised that Pym ’emerges from these pages as an entertaining companion with an insatiable curiosity and an unquenchable delight in the eccentricities of her fellows.’

Holt was a good friend to Pym, and also acted as her literary executor, before passing away in 2015.  In her introduction, Holt writes: ‘It seemed right… to try to put Barbara into her own setting, to define the manners and mores of the social scene around her (one day her novels will be a rich source for social historians), to describe her friends and colleagues, and to show how her books were moulded by her life, as well as the other way around.’  The book includes many entries from Pym’s private papers, as well as a lot of her correspondence; this is particularly true in the case of the friendship between herself and poet Philip Larkin.  Even in the briefest correspondence, Pym writes beautifully and compassionately to her intended.

Rather than focus entirely on Pym, Holt gives some of the rather colourful history of her parents and grandparents.  Pym’s own childhood, in a small market town in Shropshire, was ‘comfortable and conventional’, quite by contrast to the life of her illegitimate father, and filled with ‘a great deal of quiet affection’.  When she moved to Oxford to study English Literature at University, however, Pym became somewhat more alive.  She kept a diary, which she regularly filled with ‘sightings’ of men whom she liked, and certainly had a great deal of adventures with them.  Whilst at University, Pym occasionally attended Labour Party meetings, but ‘more for the young men than for the politics’.

Holt continually asserts how important Pym’s imagination was to her; she often preferred her conjured fantasies and imagined relationships with others to whatever was happening in reality. Holt follows Pym through various love affairs; here, she observes, Pym often ‘made the mistake of expecting more than the other person was prepared to give, of building a great romantic castle on shifting sand.’

In some ways, Holt writes, Pym was rather naïve, and this was particularly true when it came to politics, or the problems of the wider world.  When she moved to Poland to work as a governess in the tumultuous days of 1938, she largely ignored the threat of war: ‘Although she notes without comment that the Germans had entered Prague she gives equal space in her diary to the fact that she had been served fried potatoes with yoghurt.’   Holt captures, quite vividly, Pym’s travels around Europe, which become extensive following the Second World War, as well as the war work which she completed in Naples, Italy.

In A Lot to Ask there is, as one might expect, a lot of commentary about Pym’s books and her writing practices, which I found rather enlightening. Holt quotes at length from many of Pym’s books, in order to further illustrate points.   It is clear that even as a teenager, Pym was already developing her signature prose style, capturing scenes and individuals in such vivid detail in just a sentence or two.

Pym wrote thirteen novels, four of which were published posthumously, after her untimely death from cancer in early 1980.  There was, however, a painful fourteen-year period in which Pym could not find a publisher for her books, and which impacted her greatly.  She is a novelist who has thankfully, and deservedly, risen to prominence once again in the twenty-first century, and I for one feel grateful that I still have several of her books yet to read.

First published in 1990, A Lot to Ask is a biography of the loveliest measure.  One can tell how fond Holt was of Pym, yet the biography still feels as considered and far-reaching as it would be had the pair never known one another at all.  Like her subject, Holt writes with a great deal of warmth and understanding.  So absorbing, and highly readable, A Lot to Ask has so much depth to it, and feels entirely harmonious.  Holt’s biography is a sheer delight, both charming and satisfying.  I would dearly like to read more of her work, as well as the remainder of Pym’s correspondence in the near future.

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‘The Twelve Birds of Christmas’ by Stephen Moss *****

I adored Stephen Moss’ The Wren: A Biography, which I read quite recently, and was keen to get my hands on a copy of The Twelve Birds of Christmas.  The idea behind it is rather charming; Moss tells ‘the enthralling story of twelve iconic British birds’ by ‘playing on one of our best-known carols’.  Like The Wren, this proved to be another firm favourite of mine, and it was the perfect tome to kick off my Christmas reading with.

In The Twelve Birds of Christmas, Moss has given an avian interpretation to the famous Christmas carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, which first appeared in its written form around 1780.  He personally describes it as ‘endlessly parodied, highly memorable and occasionally infuriating’.  Together with his own commentary, ‘he weaves history, culture, bird behaviour and folklore into a compelling narrative for each species’, and traces their fortunes over the centuries since the carol first appeared.

To anyone who knows the carol already, birds feature heavily, but Moss asked himself whether the entire carol could really be about our avian friends.  He muses: ‘… I look beneath the surface of this familiar carol, and reveal what I believe is an alternative meaning to the verses.  For in my view, every single one of the carol’s dozen lines could plausibly be about a particular species of bird.’
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The birds which Moss focuses on here are both rare and common in the United Kingdom.  In turn, he writes about grey partridges, turtle doves, domestic chickens, blackbirds, yellowhammers, geese, mute swans, nightjars, cranes, black grouse, sandpipers, and woodpeckers.  In each separate chapter, he weaves in observations made throughout history about his chosen birds.  These largely come from naturalists who have influenced Moss’ own career.  He links each species rather cleverly to the original carol; the crane, for instance, has been selected to represent ‘nine ladies dancing’ because of its entrancing mating dance.

Focus has been placed upon the effects of individuals determined to reverse the decline of bird species, many of which have a current status which looks rather bleak.  Of the turtle dove, for instance, Moss writes: ‘Once so common that observers didn’t even bother to send in records of the species, by the turn of the millennium it had disappeared as a breeding bird from the county’ of Somerset, where Moss’ home is located.  Some of the birds featured in The Twelve Birds of Christmas have thankfully fared better; the blackbird, for example, is the fourth most numerous bird in Britain, and is ‘present in 96 per cent of all the 3,862 10 kilometre squares in Britain and Ireland, in both summer and winter.’

Throughout, Moss touches upon so many different elements of bird life: the domestication of birds by humans; the migratory patterns of different species; folklore; and the effects of climate change and the destruction of habitats on bird numbers.  The chapters are relatively short, but the book itself is undoubtedly thorough.

The Twelve Birds of Christmas is a darling book, even lovelier than it sounds.  Gloriously illustrated throughout, and impeccably researched, Moss gives such attention to detail.  His enthusiasm for nature shines through on every single page.  His prose is rich and captivating, and it is so easy to read.

The structure which Moss has fitted his twelve birds around works wonderfully, and he certainly makes an engaging argument.  The Twelve Birds of Christmas is a really great, and slightly alternative, book to pick up for Christmas, from a man who is fast becoming one of my favourite nature writers.

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One From the Archive: ‘Uncanny Stories’ by May Sinclair *****

First published in September 2018.

I have been coveting a copy of Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair for such a long time.  She is an author whom I was originally focusing upon in my current postgraduate thesis, and whilst my scope has changed since I began my project, I am still very keen to read her entire oeuvre.  This particular book proved rather difficult to find, but I struck gold by keeping my eye on Abebooks, and finding a copy which was around £20 cheaper than those which I have previously seen.

The Wordsworth Edition which, whilst out of print, seemed to be the only edition which I could find, has been edited and introduced in a thorough manner by the well-informed 9781840224924Paul March-Russell.  The stories were first published with this title in 1923, and throughout, Sinclair ‘combines the traditional ghost story with the discoveries of Freud and Einstein.’  March-Russell, who calls her a ‘pivotal writer in the development of the ghost story’, recognises the myriad elements which influenced Sinclair’s work, calling her ‘one of the most intellectually driven of writers, pursuing the “new” and the “modern” in philosophy, psychoanalysis, mysticism and the paranormal.’  These eight tales promise to ‘shock, enthral, delight and unsettle’.  March-Russell writes that due to the very nature of these stories, they are ‘disturbing’ both in their content and the Modernist form in which they have been written.

A recurring motif in Sinclair’s stories is the ‘horror of family life’, and the ‘theme of self-denial’; she explores both in each of these stories, weaving them cleverly in with mysterious circumstances and paranormal occurrences.  Her writing is what really shines here.  A contemporary critic of hers named Julian Thompson said that her writing was ‘pin-sharp, often harrowingly economic.’  Everything here feels almost effortless; there is such a sense of flow and control in Sinclair’s writing, which often feels like a mixture of the Victorian Gothic and the Modernist tradition.

Uncanny Stories has a curiosity about it; it is as though Sinclair has chosen to explore our world through things which cannot be proven to exist, but which a lot of people in the Victorian era, for instance, as well at the time of writing, were highly interested in.  The descriptions which Sinclair has crafted are vivid and mysterious at once.  ‘The Finding of the Absolute’, for example, deals with differing dimensions and the emergence of Kant conversing with the narrator in this particular space, and is the most unusual story in the collection.  Here, she writes: ‘He found himself alone in an immense grey space, in which there was no distinguishable object but himself.  He was aware of his body as occupying a portion of this space.  For he had a body; a curious, tenuous, whitish body.  The odd thing was that this empty space had a sort of solidity under him.  He was lying on it, stretched out on it, adrift.  It supported him with the buoyancy of deep water.  And yet his body was part of it, melted in.’

Different narrative techniques and perspectives can be found from one story to another so, despite the often recurring themes, there is a freshness and variety to the collection.  Given its main theme, Uncanny Stories could so easily have been melodramatic, but not a single story can be categorised as such.  Sinclair has a way of making obscene and otherworldly things seem entirely reasonable; she provides ghosts and hauntings almost with a sense of normalcy.  The tension is built masterfully, and the theme of obsessive love has been explored in such depth in many differing situations.  Whilst there is a trope in these stories in which many young wives come back to haunt their husbands, the ways in which they do so vary, as does the reasoning.  The only thing here which I felt was a little overdone were the accents, some of which felt almost impenetrable.

The stories collected here were originally presented with illustrations; they have since been removed, which seems a shame.  Of this collection, I had only read one of the stories before, ‘The Flaw in the Crystal’; this, I enjoyed even more the second time around. The influence of psychology particularly here is fascinating; there are so many layers to each story, and psychological elements can be picked out in every single tale.

Uncanny Stories is highly engaging, and whilst I read it during a heatwave in France, it would definitely better suit a dark evening with a crackling fire.  The stories here should be better known and more widely read, as, indeed, should the rest of Sinclair’s books.  She is a wonderful and unjustly neglected author, and this collection demonstrates just how versatile she was.

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Three Reviews: Donal Ryan, Penelope Lively, and Angela Huth

9780857525345From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan ****
Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2018. The novel follows three men, and is focused on a small town in Ireland, in which all three characters find themselves.

Our first protagonist is a Syrian refugee named Farouk, who has to leave his home and his career in medicine, and ends up losing far more before he reaches the safety of Ireland. We then meet twenty three-year-old Laurence, known as Lampy, who has reached something of a crisis in his life. He dreamed of a career, but now works in a care home, a job which he feels he is barely qualified for, and is nursing a broken heart. The third main character is an Irishman named John, who is reflecting upon his life, and the awful things which he has done. His narrative is the only one told from the first person perspective, and it is written as a confession to a priest.

Throughout, I was so interested in each of the characters, and their motivations. The prose in the first section, which follows Farouk, is exquisite, rich and textured. The section which follows Lampy has more matter-of-fact prose, and John’s falls somewhere inbetween. Taken together, these three men show rather a diverse picture of what it means to be a man in the twenty-first century, and the trials and tribulations which we could all face, if the circumstances were different.

 

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively ***** 0241319625
Penelope Lively is an author whose work I always gravitate back to. I was enraptured when I picked up her novel, Consequences in a seconds bookshop some years ago, and absolutely loved the reading experience.  I have read quite a few of her novels since, as well as her excellent memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda, which focuses upon her childhood spent living in Egypt.

Although I do not have my own garden at present, gardening is an enduring love of mine.  I was therefore most excited to find Lively’s Life in the Garden on my library’s online borrowing service, and it proved to be just what I was in the mood for.  It is partly memoir of her own gardening escapades, and draws together a lot of other writers and their real and fictional gardens.

Lively’s exploration of gardens is very thorough, and she writes about so many different books which feature them.  She discusses at length the gardens of authors like Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, as well as the gardens which she herself has tended during her life.

Lively writes wonderfully, and I wished that this book had been twice as long so that I had a lot more time to savour her words.  Life in the Garden is a tender, lovely, and gentle read; just the thing to relax with in this busy world of ours.  I was pulled in immediately, and can only hope that Lively writes another tome like this one in the near future.

 

s-l640Collected Stories by Angela Huth ****
When I visit my local library, I’m like a magpie, borrowing anything which I fancy, even if I’ve not heard of it before.  I have decided to try and be more comprehensive about going through the many to-read notebooks which I have kept since I was a teenager, deliberately selecting tomes from them to read.  I therefore came across a collection of Angela Huth’s short stories, which I had written down about ten years ago, and decided to try them out.  I requested her Collected Stories through my local library, and the book was sent to me from the Country Store, where I believe it had been languishing for some years (the last date stamp reads 2007).

I had not read any of Huth’s work before picking up her Collected Stories, and must admit that I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  I do not recall ever seeing her work reviewed, and I do not remember where I found the recommendation.  Regardless, I settled down with the book during a storm, and read a huge chunk of it all in one go.

From the first couple of stories, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I would like Huth’s work; they seemed a little bitty and incomplete.  However, once I reached the fourth and fifth tales, I was hooked.  Some of the better stories are found towards the back of the collection.

Huth’s tales are well written – sometimes beautifully so – and very easy to read.  Huth’s work feels quite old-fashioned on the whole, and these were lovely to settle down with; I was reminded at points of work by Carol Shields and Penelope Lively.   I feel as though her style really suits this short form, and I’m currently unsure as to whether I will read any of her longer work at any time soon.

Collected Stories only had 8 ratings on Goodreads before I added my review, and I feel that it – and, too, Huth as an author – has been quite unfairly overlooked.  There is so much here to admire; the characters have depth and realness to them, and the situations in which they find themselves, whilst generally quite commonplace, are rendered memorable due to the reactions which Huth relates.

The focus upon female characters, particularly those in their middle- or old-age, made the whole feel cohesive.  There are commonalities threaded throughout Collected Stories, but each story is different enough to read one after the other.  I would highly recommend this collection, and believe that ‘Laughter in the Willows’, one of the later stories, is something akin to a masterpiece.

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‘An Impossible Marriage’ by Pamela Hansford Johnson *****

I picked up my first Pamela Hansford Johnson novel, An Impossible Marriage, during a pre-Christmas trip to the Oxfam bookshop in St Albans.  The author has been on my radar for ages but, probably because this once incredibly popular author has unfairly been forgotten, I had never been able to find any of her books.  Thankfully, Hodder has begun to reprint her work in physical editions, and quite a few more are available for a small fee from the Kindle store.

41mj54eztcl._sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_ml2_Antiquated magazine Britannia and Eve: A Monthly Journal for Men & Women wrote that this novel, first published in 1954, contains ‘a story so vivid it might be the memoir of a real person.’  Set between the wars, An Impossible Marriage focuses upon young protagonist Christine, known as Christie.  She is ‘tired of London, her job in a travel agency, her friends, and the young men she’s being set up with.’  By chance, Christie meets an older man named Ned Skelton, who ‘seems sophisticated and experienced’, and she ‘quickly becomes besotted’.  ‘But,’ the question at the heart of this novel asks, ‘will marriage to a man she doesn’t know well truly offer this young woman an escape?  Or is she walking into another prison of her own making?’

We first meet the elusive Ned, fourteen years her senior, at a dance which Christie attends with her friends.  In retrospect, Christie writes: ‘But this love of my eighteenth year was heedless, irrational and storming.  I would not believe in it; it seemed not part of myself, like bone, flesh and fibre, but a hard and alien thing which had lodged itself within me.’  Their later engagement comes as an enormous shock to Christie, whose ‘inner critic’ warns her against this decision: ‘The critic within me had something to say; but I would not listen.  Not at that time.’  When Ned gives her an engagement ring, Christie is horrified: ‘But though the ring might be little, it seemed to weigh heavily upon my finger.  I was almost painfully aware of it.  And it seemed to me strange and alarming, the thought that I must wear it until I died.’

An Impossible Marriage is profound and considered from the outset.  In the first paragraph, for instance, Christie narrates: ‘I do not like looking back down the chasm of the past and seeing, in a moment of vertigo, some terror that looks like a joy, some joy crouched like a terror.  It is better to keep one’s eyes on the rock-face of the present, for that is real; what is under your nose is actual, but the past is full of lies, and the only accurate memories are those we refuse to admit to our consciousness.’ She is a wise character.  Later in the novel, she comments: ‘The most dangerous of all our plans are the ones we formulate right at the backs of our minds and leave to grow there, like water-cultures.  They are the plans we never examine until we put them into practice.  The moment they are exposed we realise our hideous recklessness.  We realise the damage we have done.’

I immediately connected with Hansford Johnson’s prose style.  Throughout, I found myself admiring Christie’s wry narrative and amusing asides, as well as the way in which the novel has been so skilfully crafted.  Christie’s interactions with others have been well considered, particularly in those instances where she is feeling anguished, or anxious.

I was completely entranced by this coming-of-age story.  I loved the tone of the book and its tight, taut writing.  Hansford Johnson is sharp and perceptive, with regard to both characters and scenes.  At one point in the book, she writes of winter in London: ‘Sunday was a day of snow.  It lay in a crusting of black and silver beads along the privets in the front garden, clung in lichen patches to the rooftops, and was stacked, hard as steel, in the gutters.  The sky looked white and hard; there was sun behind it, but it would remain invisible, would not break through.’  Christine feels entirely realistic throughout, and even the secondary characters hum with life.  Tension builds wonderfully under Hansford Johnson’s pen.  Had this novel been twice the length, I still would have delighted in it.

Upon her death in 1981, Hansford Johnson was described by the New York Times as ‘one of Britain’s best-known novelists’.  I can only hope that hundreds of other readers discover her, and soon.  Her writing is such a treat to read.  I for one am so excited that she has a vast oeuvre of twenty-seven novels, plus countless other publications; I imagine that there are a lot of gems in store for me to discover.

5

‘Across the Common’ by Elizabeth Berridge ****

I received a delightful Abacus paperback copy of Elizabeth Berridge’s Across the Common as a birthday gift.  As I have been keen for quite some years now to try Berridge’s work, I began it within the week, and thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience.  Noel Coward described it perfectly when he wrote that the novel is ‘… entirely good and most beautifully written.  I love her subtlety and observation and impeccable characterisation…’.  Me too, Noel.  Me too.

54013540._sy475_Although she seems to have fallen into something akin to disregard in the twenty-first century, Berridge’s ‘crisp and distinctly English style of writing established her as one of the most significant novelists of the post-war years.’

Originally published in 1964, Across the Common takes as its focus Louise, who has decided to leave her husband.  She opens by saying: ‘I know it was finished, as I finished it myself…  I cooked ahead for three days, took a purple pill and under its influence was able to write some sort of crazy note. He didn’t know I had those pills: he thought I was too stable to need them.’

Louise returns to her childhood home, The Hollies, a large rambling building which stands at the edge of a common in the fictional town of Pagham Green.  The Hollies is ‘tall and big and excelled in useless crenellations’.  The house has, over the years, become ‘a refuge for that vanishing species, the Great British Aunt’ – specifically, acidic and judgemental Seraphina, who steals cuttings of plants from royal parks to grow them in her own garden; Rosa, the eldest, and therefore the one who makes all of the decisions; and ‘tiny and malevolent’ Cissie.  When Louise arrives, without having notified anyone, she finds her ‘aunts stood at either side of the front door, without surprise, and embraced me in the intense, dry way of the elderly.’  The house has become a space exclusively devoted to women; the family has, over the years, ‘shed its men’.

Along with Louise’s present day story, and the turmoil which she feels to be back in her old home, run many memories of her early life.  These memories, all of which have been woven into the narrative, have a delightful flavour to them.  She is acutely aware of all of the differences, of all of the things which have changed since she began her independent life.  On her first morning, when she walks into the local high street, she observes: ‘I moved along the row of shops like a dreamer in a largely alien landscape.  Certain things were familiar, familiar enough to lull the dreamer into a sense of false security, so that she does not wake up screaming.’

I found Berridge’s acerbic humour both welcome and amusing, and felt that it suited the tone and the plot perfectly.  I very much enjoyed Louise’s witty asides and muttered comments.  She pronounces, for instance, that ‘Aunt Cissie had the same effect on me as a lemon was supposed to have if sucked in front of an unfortunate trombonist.  She dried up my juices.’

Louise comes to life on the page; she is complex, and feels thoroughly realistic.  Her narrative voice is lively and endearing.  I enjoyed the rather eccentric cast of characters, and found myself invested in their stories.  We as readers are given a lens into the life of a family, meeting both those who exist in Louise’s present, and those whom she never met, or knew only slightly.

Across the Common is essentially a domestic novel; in reality, it is so much more than that.  There are a lot of quite ordinary scenes at play within it – for example, when Louise is tended to by the ageing housekeeper, or the aunts looking through vast collections of family photographs which have been found in the attic – but Berridge makes each one into something compelling.  She manages, somehow, to give different perspectives on the most mundane of occurrences.  Berridge’s writing is exquisite, as is her attention to detail.

On the strength of Across the Common, I broke my longstanding book-buying ban to buy three more of Berridge’s novels, and I am wholly looking forward to reading them.  Already, I can see that she could easily become one of my favourite authors.

1

‘Bilgewater’ by Jane Gardam *****

I picked up Jane Gardam’s Bilgewater in a charity shop, keen to get started with her work.  The unusual title and blurb both really appealed to me, and I was further intrigued by the reviews spattered over the cover, which call it variously ‘funny’, ‘deeply moving’, and ‘lively’.

Our protagonist is the wonderfully named Marigold Green, a young girl growing up in the boys’ school where her father is housemaster.  Marigold calls herself ‘hideous, quaint and barmy’, and is ‘convinced of her own plainness and peculiarity’.  Others call her ‘Bilgewater’.  Marigold explains: ‘My father… is known to the boys as Bill.  My name is Marigold, but to one and all because my father is very memorable and eccentric and had been around at the school for a very long time before I was born – I was only Bill’s Daughter.  Hence Bilgewater.  Oh, hilarity, hilarity!  Bilgewater Green.’9780349114026

At the outset of the novel, the young narrator says, quite matter-of-factly, ‘My mother died when I was born which makes me sound princess-like and rather quaint.’  Marigold often feels quite alone in the male-dominated world in which she lives.  She spends much of her time with her father, in complete silence: ‘Except when he is teaching,’ she reflects, ‘he is utterly quiet…  He never rustles, coughs or hums.  He never snuffles (thank goodness) and he never, ever, calls out or demands anything.’  She has one ally, a woman named Paula, who is the closest thing she has to a mother.  The blurb suggests that Marigold is ‘ripe for seduction by entirely the wrong sort of boy’, and comments that she ‘suffers extravagantly and comically in her pilgrimage through the turbulent, twilight world of alarming adolescence.’

Some way into Bilgewater, the mysterious Grace comes into her orbit; the two girls were best friends as small children, but time apart has made them almost complete strangers to one another.  Marigold comments: ‘Grace I saw as a figure far, far above coarseness or sloppiness – a figure of real Romance, a creature of turrets, moats and lonely vigils, gauntlets and chargers, long fields of barley and of rye.’

The novel opens in Cambridge during December, where the almost eighteen-year-old Marigold has been granted an interview at the University, and has travelled down from Yorkshire to attend.  We meet her awkwardness head on at this point; she feels like a fish out of water.  I warmed to her immediately.

Marigold’s narrative voice is entirely engaging, and wholly convincing.  It resembles an almost stream-of-consciousness style.  I was pulled right in to her story, keen to learn more about her and her world.  She is a witty and amusing character.  Marigold is very conscious of her own self; she frankly reflects, at one point: ‘I have a very good balance of hormones all distributed in the right places.  The only thing that ever worried [Paula] was that I started brewing them so early…’.  The novel is a coming-of-age story, in which our protagonist tries to find her feet; she repeatedly pushes herself outside of her comfort zone in various ways.  In short, I do not think that I will ever be able to forget her.

First published in 1976, Bilgewater was devoured eagerly by this reader at the end of 2019.  I found myself absolutely adoring everything about the novel, and wanted to read far more about the charming and unusual Marigold than Gardam allowed me.

A short novel at just 200 pages, Bilgewater is quite perfect; whilst I yearned for more of Gardam’s writing, and her fascinatingly flawed and realistic cast of characters, I know that I thankfully have a lot of the prolific author’s stories yet to read.  Bilgewater is a real gem, and a book which I will be recommending to every reader in my life.

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‘The Wren: A Biography’ by Stephen Moss *****

I adore nature writing, and was therefore keen to pick up something by prolific author Stephen Moss, who writes almost exclusively about birds.  The blurb of the beautifully produced The Wren: A Biography says that this is a ‘captivating biography of Britain’s most common bird which lives – often unseen – right on our doorstep.’

With at least eight million breeding pairs in Britain, it seems curious that the majority of people – myself included – believe they have never seen one.  In his introduction, Moss alludes to the reasoning behind this: ‘Perhaps that’s because wrens are so tiny, weighing less than half an ounce; or that they’re constantly on the move, behaving more like a mouse than a bird.’
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The Wren is a year-in-the-life biography.  Moss moves through each month, noting, as the book’s subtitle suggests, ‘The Secret Life of Britain’s Most Common Bird’.  It begins on a ‘bright, cold winter’s day’, when Moss leans out of his kitchen window ‘soon after sunrise’.  Here, he observes a wren, describing it thus: ‘… quiet and unassuming, lurking deep in the shadows beneath the shrubbery, like a shy actor waiting in the wings, while others take centre stage.’  He then goes on to comment that he has seen wrens all over the United Kingdom, ‘from the heart of London to the remotest offshore island.’

The book features gorgeous illustrations throughout, and contains such charming details of wrens in popular culture and literature, from William Shakespeare to William Blake.  Moss writes of the different names bestowed upon the birds throughout history, from the Jenny wren to the tomtit.  He also explores the ‘fascinating folklore surrounding this species.’

In each chapter, Moss references others who have written extensively about the wren.  Revered ornithologist Max Nicholson, for instance, described the wren as ‘a bird of crevices and crannies, of woodpiles and fallen trees, of hedge-bottoms and banks, walls and boulders…  Wrens therefore can cut across, or rather scramble under, the imaginary boundaries which we are accustomed to draw between different types of country.’

Throughout The Wren, Moss writes at length of many aspects of the existence of the wren.  He looks at the historical migration of the wren, which has meant that different variations of the bird can be found around the world.  He talks of their song, their mating rituals, the distribution of the birds, their preferred habitats, the effects of climate change upon them, the nest building process, and the fledging of the chicks, amongst other fascinating details.

The Wren is the most darling nature book, and one of the most engaging about a single species which I have read to date.  It is informative and immersive from its very beginning, and the structure, which follows a single calendar year, works wonderfully.  Moss’ prose is beautifully descriptive, and he speaks authoritatively throughout.

The Wren is sure to appeal to anyone interested in the natural world, and I thoroughly enjoyed Moss’ take on the tiny birds.  I am so excited to read more of his books, and feel that he could easily become one of my very favourite nature writers.

 

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Three Favourites: Norah Lange, Sally Rooney, and Lauren Groff

people-at-the-roomPeople in the Room by Norah Lange
I purchased Argentinian author Norah Lange’s novella, People in the Room, after randomly coming across it during a weekly browse of the Kindle store.  Much to my dismay, I have read very little Argentinian fiction, and would like to remedy this.  Lange’s novel – which is, as far as I am aware, the only piece of her work currently available in English translation – sounded fascinating.

The introduction, written by Cesar Aira, is both insightful and interesting, despite the fact that it gave quite a lot of the story away.  I loved Lange’s writing style and its translation into English felt fluid.  I loved the way in which almost all of the characters remained unnamed, and the element of obsession was so well handled.

I found People in the Room to be unsettling and beguiling in equal measure. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and could feel the claustrophobia closing in as it went on.  The tension in the novel is almost palpable.  I’m not sure that I have ever read anything quite like People in the Room before, and it is certainly a book which will stay with me for a very long time.

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney 9780571334650
I was a little sceptical about picking up Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, due to the sheer amount of hype which it has been getting since its publication. I have been disappointed before by novels which many others have raved about, and am therefore a little wary whenever I see the same cover splashed over blogs and BookTube. However, I need not have worried.  Normal People is wonderfully perceptive, and I got a feel for its two main characters, Connell and Marianne, immediately. There is a lot of dark content here, which becomes more prominent as the novel progresses, and I cared immensely for the protagonists.

The structure which Rooney has adopted here was effective, and kept me interested throughout. I admired the fact that she focuses in such detail upon relationships, and the ways in which they can shift. There are some very topical issues which have been tackled well here. Whilst I was a little disappointed by the ending, which I felt was a little too twee to match the tone of the rest of the book, Rooney’s writing is so pitch-perfect, and her characters so real, that I could not give this anything other than a five star rating.

Normal People is incredibly immersive; beware, and only pick it up if you have a whole afternoon free to spend in its company. I read this in two sittings, as I could barely put it down, and am now incredibly excited to get to her debut, Conversations with Friends.

 

91gogy5bsxlFlorida by Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff has been one of my favourite authors for years now.  I have always been astounded by how much atmosphere she creates, and yet how succinct her writing still is.  The stories in her newest collection, Florida, have the US state at their centre, ‘its landscape, climate, history and state of mind’ are what each character and each plot revolve around.  I love collections with a centralised heart like this, and loved being able to revisit Florida without having to take another eight-hour flight.

Showcasing eleven stories in all, and coming in at less than 300 pages, Florida is a truly masterful collection.  Groff demonstrates her insight and understanding of the diverse state in which she lives, and the sense of place which she creates is always highly evocative.  In ‘Ghosts and Empties’, for example, she writes: ‘The neighborhood goes dark as I walk, and a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one.  We have few streetlights, and those I pass under make my shadow frolic; it lags behind me, gallops to my feet, gambols on ahead…  Feral cats dart underfoot, birds-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows, smells are exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor.’  In this story, we are walked through what was once a poor neighbourhood, but which is beginning to gentrify.

Groff showed me a Florida which I was largely unaware of in these stories, and which I haven’t seen with my own eyes.  Tales are set in Florida during the cool wintertime, as well as in areas which I haven’t visited – the Everglades, for instance.  The darker side of life nestles up against the bright vibrancy which tourists see.  Never is Groff’s version of the Sunshine State sugarcoated; she shows poverty, homelessness, abandonment, neglect, and death.  Throughout, she challenges perceptions, and she does this so well.

One never knows what will happen in one of Groff’s stories, and this collection shows just how strong a writer she is.  Each tale is perfectly formed, and together they provide a kaleidoscopic view of a state at once beautiful and wild.  As anyone familiar with her work will know, she uses magical realism to perfection.  Florida is a wonderful short story collection, and one which I cannot recommend enough.