7

‘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.

2

‘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.

 

0

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.

1

‘The Priory’ by Dorothy Whipple *****

I had been saving the fortieth Persephone publication, Dorothy Whipple’s The Priory, for a literal rainy day.  Take it from me – there is little better than a new Persephone to get stuck into when the rain is pouring down outside, and you’ve finished running all of your errands.  A chunky novel such as The Priory provides an even better treat.  I therefore settled down to read this on a gloomy September day.

First published in 1939, and set in the late 1930s, The Priory was the third of Whipple’s novels to be republished by Persephone.  The novel takes place in Saunby Priory, a ‘large house somewhere in England which has seen better times’.  Like much of Whipple’s work, it follows a central family, as well as those connected, in various ways, to them.

At the heart of this novel are the Marwoods; the widowed Major father, and two adult daughters, Penelope and Christine, who still live at home.  The sisters are described by the publishers as being ‘more infantile than most’; they have been sheltered from the outside world throughout their lives, and have very little independence to speak of.
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When the reader is introduced to the Priory, it is ‘… still dark.  To the stranger it would have appeared deserted…  [There was] a cold glitter of water beside it, a cold glitter of glass window when clouds moved in the sky.’  At this point in time, the young women are in the nursery, surrounded by a dressmaking pattern.  They have not moved from the nursery since they were born: ‘Their set of rooms was quite complete; a little world of its own shut off from the downstairs adult world by a stout oak door at the top of the stairs.’  This isolation, much of it self-imposed, has had a real effect on the sisters.  Whipple writes that it had ‘encouraged in them the family tendency to detachment.  They didn’t like to be asked to do anything, they didn’t like to be asked to do anything, they didn’t like fixed hours or fixed appointments, they didn’t like taking part in other people’s affairs at all.’

Penelope and Christine’s spinster aunt, Victoria, sits three storeys below them, ‘in the dark, her white stockings alone betraying her presence.’  The women, and the servants, are all waiting for the now impoverished Major Marwood to put the electricity on at the outset of the novel.  Whipple comments: ‘Since he was very economical in everything that did not directly affect his own comfort, the household had to wait for light until he wanted light himself.’

Major Marwood received the Priory as inheritance, but continually laments that he did not just stay in the army: ‘… Saunby was a mill-stone round his neck; a beautiful and honourable mill-stone, a mill-stone conferring great distinction, but a mill-stone.’  Very early in the novel, he decides to propose marriage to a woman named Anthea, some years his junior.

When her acceptance is revealed to the sisters, they are shocked: ‘To marry at forty and fifty.  It shouldn’t be done.  Such bad taste…  their own father…  What amazed them now was that he was going to be different, he was going to be connected with somebody else, with a wife?  It was incredible.  It was stupefying.’  They go out of their way to stay out of Anthea’s way, spending more time than ever in each other’s company.

I do not want to give anything away about the plot, as one of the real delights of The Priory is the changes of direction which it takes.  Whipple’s story, and her characters, are both splendidly drawn.  Whipple’s characters immediately feel so realistic.  They are concerned with real, understandable things, and their relationships with one another are multilayered and complex.  Whipple is so interested in how her creations are affected by circumstance, particularly when this suddenly or dramatically changes.  Few authors reveal quite as much as Whipple does about her characters.  I soon became absorbed into the world of the Marwoods.  Their development is steady and believable.  There is a quaintness to Whipple’s work, but her writing, as ever, holds what feels like a very modern quality.

I am thrilled that so much of Whipple’s work has been republished by the wonderful Persephone Books, and so pleased that I still have a few titles outstanding to read.  Reading The Priory was a delight from start to finish, and I absolutely adored it.

3

‘Multitudes’ by Lucy Caldwell *****

I have wanted to read Lucy Caldwell’s work for such a long time, and decided to start with her short story collection entitled Multitudes.  It has been praised by reviewers and critics alike since its publication in 2016.  Eimear McBride comments that these tales are ‘beautifully crafted, and so finely balanced that she holds the reader right up against the tender humanity of her characters.’  The Scotsman remarks that the collection ‘feels like a truly unified work of art.’  Caldwell has won numerous awards, and was also shortlisted for the BBC International Short Story Award in 2012.

9780571313501The eleven stories in Multitudes largely take as their focus childhood and adolescence, and each one contains the concept of growth, rendered in different and interesting ways.  The lives which Caldwell captures here are described in the book’s blurb as ‘caught in transition between the in-crowd and the out, between love and loneliness, between the city and the country, between home and escape.’

I was immediately struck by the way in which Caldwell captures things.  In the story ‘Thirteen’, she writes: ‘Susan and I have been best friends since nursery school – since before nursery school, we always say to each other, in actual fact since Mothers and Toddlers in the hall of the Methodist church on the corner where her street meets mine.  I don’t remember that far back, only vaguely – plastic cups of orange squash and dusty, frilled-edge biscuits, the smell of floor polish – but I can’t remember, let alone imagine, life without her.’

Caldwell has such a realistic perception of how spiteful adolescents can be, and how elements of our childhood become inescapable in adulthood.  The concerns of her characters, and their actions and reactions, are so human.  In ‘Poison’, the narrator sees, years later, a teacher who caused a scandal at her school; ‘Killing Time’ presents a sudden impulsive suicide attempt; the narrator of ‘Chasing’ moves back to their childhood home, and finds very early on that this course of action is ‘not the answer’; and a lesbian relationship is hidden from everyone around the protagonist of ‘Here We Are’.  There is much exploration in Multitudes of female friendships, and the small toxicities which they so often hold.  Love, lust, deception, desire, and guilt have all been chosen as major themes in Multitudes.

Caldwell perfectly controls the vividly rendered physical environments of her stories, and often juxtaposes out-of-place characters into them.  In ‘Poison’, for example, she writes: ‘She had too much make-up on: huge swipes of blusher, exaggerated cat-eyes.  She glanced around the bar, then she took out her phone again, clicked and tapped at it.  She wasn’t used to being alone in a bar like this.  It was an older crowd and she felt self-conscious, you could tell.’

Caldwell creates such empathy for her wholly memorable cast of characters, and deals with a host of very serious subjects along the way.   The author has such a knack for writing plausible characters, and I found myself repeatedly unable to guess where the stories would end up.  Multitudes is such an absorbing collection of short stories, and one which I savoured.  I found myself pulled into each one of the narratives from their very beginnings.  Thought-provoking and refreshing, this is a collection which I cannot recommend highly enough, and I am now on the hunt for the rest of Caldwell’s books so that I can become absorbed within her writing once more.

2

‘Last Stories’ by William Trevor *****

William Trevor seems to be a much adored author in the blogosphere, and he has been on my radar of authors to try for a number of years.  Before picking up his posthumously published collection, Last Stories, I had only read a Penguin Mini entitled Matilda’s England.  I liked this well enough, but it did not push me to pick up any more of Trevor’s work, and I wish it had.

9780241337769Trevor is described on this particular book’s blurb as an author ‘widely regarded as the greatest writer of short stories in the English language’.  This high accolade is matched by John Banville, who calls him ‘at his best the equal of Chekhov’, and Yiyun Li credits him with her entire writing career.

I chose to begin what will hopefully be an exploration of Trevor’s entire oeuvre with his final collection of stories, simply because it was the only volume written by him which my local library had in stock.  It is comprised of ten stories, all written towards the end of his life.  The blurb of Last Stories declares that Trevor ‘illuminates the lives of ordinary people, and plumbs the depths of the human spirit.’

Largely, Trevor’s stories focus upon normal, everyday occurrences, which could, in theory, affect us all.  In ‘At the Caffè Daria’, two women who used to play together as children – ‘Anita round-faced and trusting, Claire beautiful already’ – meet by chance in a London café, and Trevor recollects their complex history.  Of single mother Rosanne in the story entitled ‘Taking Mr Ravenswood’, he writes: ‘Sometimes it wasn’t bad, being alone, especially when she was tired it wasn’t, no effort made, none necessary, and the silence when the television was turned off came like a balm.  But the silence could be a vacuum too, and often felt like that.’  The protagonist of ‘Giotto’s Angels’ is suffering from amnesia.

There is such a knowing quality to Trevor’s writing, and in consequence, one immediately gets a feel for each of his characters.  We are made aware of what is important to them, as well as things that have occurred in their lives which have some impact upon their present selves.  He displays such complex human emotion, and dignifies every single one of his characters in Last Stories with motives and realistic feelings.  In ‘The Piano Teacher’s Pupil’, for instance, Trevor writes: ‘All her life, she often thought, was in this room, where her father had cosseted her in infancy, where he had seen her through the storms of adolescence, to which every evening he had brought back for his kitchens another chocolate he had invented for her.  It was here that her lover had pressed himself upon her and whispered that she was beautiful, swearing he could not live without her.  And now, in this same room, a marvel had occurred.’

Relationships and loneliness are at the core of Last Stories.  In ‘The Unknown Girl’, a young woman is killed in a traffic accident, and one of her previous employers, Harriet, is asked if she can give any details about her, for ‘nothing appears to be known about the girl.  Little more than her name.’  In the same story, Trevor sets out, in a discerning manner, the relationship between Harriet and her son, Stephen: ‘… this evening, as on other evenings, an undemanding affection one for the other made their relationship more than it might have been.  Their closeness came naturally, neither through obligation nor for a reason that was not one of feeling; and it was never said, but only known, that different circumstances, coming naturally also, would change everything.  They lived in a time-being, and accepted that.’

Last Stories is an exquisite collection, by a thankfully prolific author.  The tales here are thoughtful and perceptive, and I felt pulled into each of them straight away.  The stories are all quiet ones, but they and their characters are still rendered highly memorable by the strength of Trevor’s prose, and his insight.  There is an element of unpredictability here, and some of the stories certainly surprise.

I feel so lucky that I have Trevor’s entire oeuvre to read my way through, and imagine that the stories which I find will be just as touching and memorable as those collected in Last Stories.  I can see him becoming one of my favourite authors, and cannot recommend this collection enough.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘Minnie’s Room: The Peacetime Stories’ by Mollie Panter-Downes *****

I have read, and very much enjoyed, many books published by Persephone over the years – as, indeed, have many of the bloggers and readers I follow.  I was thrilled when I came across a copy of Mollie Panter-Downes’ peacetime stories, Minnie’s Room, in my local library.  I loved both her War Notes, and Good Evening, Mrs Craven, a collection of short stories set on the Home Front during the Second World War.  I snatched up the copy (carefully, of course), and went home immediately to begin reading it.

Minnie’s Room is a companion of sorts to Good Evening, Mrs Craven.  Comprised of ten 9781903155240stories, all of which are set outside of the Second World War, the collection runs to just 125 pages.  Panter-Downes began to write these tales immediately after she finished her much respected novel, One Fine Day, which I have yet to pick up.  They are all dated throughout the collection, and were written largely between 1947 and 1954.  The final story, however, was penned in 1965.

In Minnie’s Room, Panter-Downes shows different aspects of British postwar life.  She focuses acutely upon the English middle class, who, as the publisher’s note explains, were ‘struggling to try and live in the same way that they had enjoyed before the war.’  This note goes on to say: ‘Many of the stories are about people who once had glorious lives, either because they were more affluent or because they were powerful in India or simply because they had once been young and were now old.  In every case they are images of a once-great past now brought low.’

The titular story of the collection is about a family who are astounded that their maid, Minnie, wants to leave their employ in order to live out her days in a room of her own.  Minnie’s goal in life is highly Woolfian, although rather than yearning for a space in which to work, she longs for a room in which she can rest.  Panter-Downes’ omniscient narrator notes: ‘If a woman got to a certain age without finding a husband and kids, Minnie’s philosophy stated, she ought to have something of her own, even if it were only one room that belonged to nobody else.’

Panter-Downes explores different kinds of relationships in Minnie’s Room, but seems particularly interested in the correlation between employer and employee.  She looks at the middle classes, and how they relied in this period upon hired staff – the maid in ‘Minnie’s Room’, the nurse caring for an elderly charge in ‘Beside the Still Waters’, and the nanny of a woman whose childhood memories are collected in the quite beautiful story ‘Intimations of Mortality’.

Familial relationships, too, and their often tumultuous nature, find a place in these stories.  In ‘Beside the Still Waters’, to use an example from above, Panter-Downes comments: ‘Her brothers and sister… greeted one another amiably but without enthusiasm.  Meeting seldom, they generally parted as speedily as possible, and with a certain amount of relief.  On such occasions, Cynthia found it difficult to think of herself and these three middle-aged adults as having at any time constituted a tight little unit known as a family, with a shared roof, habits, sentimental associations, and terms of reference.’

Panter-Downes’ observations are keen, and rather striking.  She describes physical interiors with such attention to detail that they seem to be built before the very eyes.  In the collection’s title story, for instance, she writes: ‘All the Sotherns were substantially built, and their house in Bayswater was veiled with muffling plush curtains and full of large, softly curved objects filled with down, covered with rosy glazed chintz, or padded with leather.  Even the china figures in the drawing-room cabinets contributed to the overstuffed effect, representing, as they did, bonny, plump shepherdesses and well-fed sheep.’

I particularly enjoyed the way in which Panter-Downes fleshes out her characters.  In ‘The Old People’, a family, complete with grandparents, have gone on holiday.  Panter-Downes describes the working father in the following manner: ‘Lance had appeared at breakfast that morning in shorts and an open-necked blue shirt, but the holiday garb sat on him strangely, with the look of a carefully planned fancy dress that would win its wearer a prize at a dance on board ship.  His short legs, unveiled once a year, had a curious air of still being covered by a species of spiritual tweed.’  In this manner, which continues throughout the book, Panter-Downes unfailingly strikes the perfect balance between seriousness and amusement.

However commonplace these stories and characters may seem at first, each tale offers up an element of surprise.  These range from something merely glimpsed, to a revelation to the protagonist in question.  Each has been placed perfectly into the narrative, and each made me consider something within the story.  The tales here are brief, running to around 12 pages each on average, but in every single one, realistic characters and scenarios are presented.

I have admired Panter-Downes’ work for years, and am disappointed that it took me so long to pick up a copy of Minnie’s Room.  The collection was fascinating to read, and it further cemented for me just how incredibly perceptive its author was.  Time and again, she evokes an England which is utterly recognisable, but which is largely gone.

The stories in Minnie’s Room are largely quiet ones, but they deal with large and important topics – illness, relocation, sadness, poverty, and death, to name but three.  Panter-Downes’ sharply rendered insights into her characters have a kind of empathy to them at times.  I found Minnie’s Room a real treat to read, and look forward to the day when I can finally get my hands on a copy of One Fine Day.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Emperor’s Children’ by Claire Messud *****

First published in 2019.

After adoring Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and very much enjoying her latest novel, The Burning Girl, which I read in Florida last year, I was keen to pick up another of her books.  I chose a gorgeous Picador Classics edition of The Emperor’s Children, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  The novel is set in New York in 2001, when ‘the whole world shifts’.  In it, Messud explores ‘how utterly we are defined by the times in which we live.’

The Independent on Sunday calls Messud’s 2006 novel ‘a masterpiece’, and The Times deems it ‘thrillingly real, alive and utterly convincing… [an] intensely pleasurable reminder of the possibilities of the English language’.  The New York Times concurs, writing that ‘Messud does a nimble, quicksilver job of portraying her central characters from within and without – showing us their pretensions, frailties and self-delusions, even as she delineates their secret yearnings and fears.’  It is, promises its blurb, a novel which ‘brings us face to face with the enduring gap between who we are and who we long to be.’

9781447289418The Emperor’s Children focuses on four characters, three of whom – Danielle Minkoff, Marina Thwaite, and Julius Clarke – became firm friends whilst studying at Brown University during the 1990s.  They are ‘young, bright New Yorkers living at America’s beating heart in the early years of the twenty-first century’, and are joined.  The fourth character is Marina’s socially awkward cousin, Frederick Tubb, who is known as Bootie.  He is ‘fresh from the provinces and keen to make his mark’ on the world.  His arrival causes the three other protagonists to ‘confront their desires and leaves them dangerously exposed.’  Also examined in part are the parents of Danielle, Marina, and Bootie.

Danielle is working as a television producer, Julius makes his living by taking temporary secretarial job, and moneyed Marina has been procrastinating by halfheartedly working on a book for several years.  In his introduction to the volume, Neel Mukherjee describes Marina as the ‘aimless daughter of the Thwaites, casting about for something to do and using her ongoing project of writing a book about Americans dress their children… as a kind of displacement activity’.  He calls Julius a ‘gay, sharp, bitchy, and… self-invented man’.  Danielle is perhaps, in this way, the only one of the three friends who is making a success of her life, but her story is fraught with problems too.  Bootie has been used as ‘one of the oldest tropes in storytelling’, as ‘a stranger who turns everyone’s life upside down’.

Messud’s character descriptions are wonderful.  When introducing Bootie’s mother, for instance, she writes: ‘she felt she walked into the light: the two large windows cast a shadowless opalescence onto the sprigged wallpaper, the family photos on top of the bureau.  Even her discarded stockings, still carrying from yesterday the shape of her solid limbs, appeared outlined in light, luminous.  Her hands and her hair, a grayed cloud, had carried up from the kitchen the smell of coffee, and the vents at her ankles pushed a warm wind around the floor.  In spite of Bootie, in spite, in spite, in this moment at least, she felt happy: she was not too old to love even the snow.’

Messud is so involved with her characters and their quirks of personality throughout, that one comes to know them intimately.  Throughout the novel, she places very in depth portrayals and explorations of self.  Of Marina, she writes: ‘She sometimes felt as though she were a changeling, as hough someone completely new had taken on the identity of Marina Thwaite  – or rather, as if someone who was seen from the outside to be completely new had done so, while beneath the surface she remained unchanged.’  When discussing Julius, Messud notes: ‘He was aware that at thirty he stretched the limits of the charming wastrel, that some actual sustained endeavor might be in order were he not to fade, wisplike, away: from charming wastrel to needy, boring failure was but a few, too few, short steps.’  Her characters are not entirely likeable, and some are almost odious in their privilege and behaviour. In consequence, I found all of Messud’s protagonists, and indeed the secondary figures who orbit around them, wholly believable.

A masterful quality in the novel is the way in which Messud focuses upon the nuances and tiny shifts in relationships, which still have the power to alter them irrevocably.  The Emperor’s Children is not overly plot heavy; whilst things happen, particularly toward the final third of the novel, Messud is more interested in the reactions which her characters have to sudden, or brooding, changes in their situations.

There is, as anyone familiar with Messud’s writing might expect, an awful lot about morality and politics woven into The Emperor’s Children.  Of this, Mukherjee writes: ‘Messud’s novel is political in the most inclusive, most intelligent understanding of that notion – it looks at the private sphere, at how individuals live in the world, how they conduct their lives, what their moral codes are, to give an indication of the bigger, wider world and the matrix of history in which these private lives are necessarily situated, the private and the public at once shaping and being shaped by each other.’  He goes on to say: ‘The questions it poses are enormous and profound.  What is a person’s true, authentic self?  Does a life need to be lived in continuous connection with that?  What if the truest idea we have of our true selves is a false one, or one held in bad faith?  Are our notions of authenticity confected, too?’  Whilst Mukherjee’s introduction is insightful, and certainly complements the novel, I would recommend that one reads it after finishing the novel, as it is rather revealing, and contains a lot of detailed commentary upon Messud’s characters and plot points.

Before beginning The Emperor’s Children, I was surprised to see so many negative reviews of it smattered on its Goodreads page.  I am so pleased that I ignored these and read it regardless, as I ended up absolutely loving it, and found something to admire on every page.  Messud’s writing provides a breath of fresh air, and gives one the ability to see characters and events, such as 9/11, from different angles.  She is a unique author in many ways, but her prose style at times reminded me of Donna Tartt and Zoe Heller, merely due to the weight which it holds within its words.  I can see why some might think that Messud’s prose is overwritten, but I found it both rich and sumptuous, as well as entirely absorbing.  There is so much which can be unpicked within its pages, and I am sure that I will be thinking about it for months to come.

The Emperor’s Children is a phenomenal, searching novel, filled with profound meditations on life.  Everything within it has been wonderfully handled, and it provokes thought at every turn.  She also writes with poignant and moving language of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, which profoundly affect every character.  As with her other books, I was absolutely blown away with this novel.  Messud is an interesting, original writer, and I very much look forward to exploring the rest of her oeuvre in the near future.

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