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The Book Trail: From Hunger to Nives

I am beginning the first episode of The Book Trail in 2022 with a memoir which I greatly enjoyed listening to last year. As ever, I have chosen to use the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature on Goodreads in order to generate this list. Please let me know if you’ve read any of these books, and which you would recommend!

1. Hungry by Grace Dent

‘From an early age, Grace Dent was hungry. As a little girl growing up in Currock, Carlisle, she yearned to be something bigger, to go somewhere better. Hungry traces Grace’s story from growing up eating beige food to becoming one of the much-loved voices on the British food scene. It’s also everyone’s story – from treats with your nan, to cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, to the exquisite joy of cheaply-made apple crumble with custard. It’s the high-point of a chip butty covered in vinegar and too much salt in the school canteen, on an otherwise grey day of double-Maths and cross country running. It’s the real story of how we have all lived, laughed, and eaten over the past 40 years.’

2. Holiday Heart by Margarita García Robayo

‘From internationally acclaimed Colombian author Margarita García Robayo, and following the success of Fish Soup (selected by the TLS as one of the Best Books of the Year, 2018), comes her latest novel Holiday Heart.

Lucía and Pablo are a couple, they are also school teachers who left Colombia to make a living in the US. While Pablo keeps fond memories of his motherland and a close relationship with his family, Lucía rejects all notions of patriotism, nostalgia and sense of belonging. After struggling to conceive for a long time, Lucía finally gets pregnant with twins. Zealously looking after them, she excludes her husband from this new family life. Hurt and frustrated, Pablo attempts to boost his ego through dispassionate affairs with underage students. While he works on his novel, Lucía writes a feminist column for a magazine picking apart marriage, motherhood and all things related to being a middle-class woman. After one of his affairs comes to light, Lucía takes the kids to Florida while Pablo remains in their empty home thinking about all the time they’ve shared: petty fights, selfish decisions, unkind words. While being apart, they both begin to wonder whether perhaps their love has come to an irreparable end.’

3. The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili

‘In post-soviet Georgia, on the outskirts of Tbilisi, on the corner of Kerch St., is an orphanage. Its teachers offer pupils lessons in violence, abuse and neglect. Lela is old enough to leave but has nowhere else to go. She stays and plans for the children’s escape, for the future she hopes to give to Irakli, a young boy in the home. When an American couple visits, offering the prospect of a new life, Lela decides she must do everything she can to give Irakli this chance.’

4. The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez

‘Following the “propulsive and mesmerizing” (New York Times Book Review ) Things We Lost in the Fire comes a new collection of singularly unsettling stories, by an Argentine author who has earned comparisons to Shirley Jackson and Jorge Luis Borges.

Mariana Enriquez has been critically lauded for her unconventional and sociopolitical stories of the macabre: populated by unruly teenagers, crooked witches, homeless ghosts, and hungry women, they walk the uneasy line between urban realism and horror. The stories in her next collection are as terrifying as they are socially conscious, and press into being the unspoken — fetish, illness, the female body, the darkness of human history — with unsettling urgency. A woman is sexually obsessed with the human heart; a lost, rotting baby crawls out of a backyard and into a bedroom; a pair of teenage girls can’t let go of their idol; an entire neighborhood is cursed to death by a question of morality they fail to answer correctly.

Written against the backdrop of contemporary Argentina, and with resounding tenderness towards those in pain, in fear, and in limbo, this new collection from one of Argentina’s most exciting writers finds Enriquez at her most sophisticated, and most chilling.’

5. Eartheater by Dolores Reyes

‘Electrifying and provocative, visceral and profound, a powerful literary debut novel about a young woman whose compulsion to eat earth gives her visions of murdered and missing people—an imaginative synthesis of mystery and magical realism that explores the dark tragedies of ordinary lives.

Set in an unnamed slum in contemporary Argentina, Earth-eater is the story of a young woman who finds herself drawn to eating the earth—a compulsion that gives her visions of broken and lost lives. With her first taste of dirt, she learns the horrifying truth of her mother’s death. Disturbed by what she witnesses, the woman keeps her visions to herself. But when Earth-eater begins an unlikely relationship with a withdrawn police officer, word of her ability begins to spread, and soon desperate members of her community beg for her help, anxious to uncover the truth about their own loved ones.

Surreal and haunting, spare yet complex, Earth-eater is a dark, emotionally resonant tale told from a feminist perspective that brilliantly explores the stories of those left behind—the women enduring the pain of uncertainty, whose lives have been shaped by violence and loss.’

6. The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8 by Amy Fusselman

‘Amy Fusselman’s first two books, The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8, weave surprising beauty out of diverse strands of personal reflection. Half memoir and half philosophical improvisation, each focuses loosely on a relationship with a man in the author’s life: The Pharmacist’s Mate with her recently deceased father, and 8 with “my pedophile” (as Fusselman painfully refers to her childhood assailant). Along the way, Fusselman covers sea shanties and artificial insemination, World War II and AC/DC, alternative healers and monster-truck videos. Fusselman’s “wholly original epigrammatic style” (Vogue) “makes the world strange again, a place where dying and making life are equally mysterious and miraculous activities” (Time Out New York).’

7. The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

‘Following on her wonderfully received first novel, Another Place You’ve Never Been, called “mesmerizing,” “powerful,” and “gorgeous,” by critics all over the country, Rebecca Kauffman returns with Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old who is suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration. He struggles to establish human connections—even his emotional life is a blur.

As the novel begins, he is reconnecting with “The Gunners,” his group of childhood friends, after one of their members has committed suicide. Sally had distanced herself from all of them before ending her life, and she died harboring secrets about the group and its individuals. Mikey especially needs to confront dark secrets about his own past and his father. How much of this darkness accounts for the emotional stupor Mikey is suffering from as he reaches his maturity? And can The Gunners, prompted by Sally’s death, find their way to a new day? The core of this adventure, made by Mikey, Alice, Lynn, Jimmy, and Sam, becomes a search for the core of truth, friendship, and forgiveness.

A quietly startling, beautiful book, The Gunners engages us with vividly unforgettable characters, and advances Rebecca Kauffman’s place as one of the most important young writers of her generation.’

8. Nives by Sacha Naspini

‘One of the most exciting new voices in Italian literature brings to life a hauntingly beautiful story of undying love, loss, and resilience, and a fierce, unforgettable new heroine

Nives can’t seem to be able to shed a tear for her husband’s death. She didn’t cry when she found the body, she didn’t cry at the funeral. Even the fog of her loneliness evaporates quickly when she decides to keep her favorite chicken Giacomina with her in the bedroom. She suddenly feels relieved, almost happy, but also guilty: how can the company of a chicken replace her dead husband?

Then one day, Giacomina becomes paralyzed in front of the tv. Unable to wake her up, Nives has no choice but to call the town’s veterinarian, Loriano Bottai, an old acquaintance of hers. What follows is a phone call that seems to last a lifetime. The conversation veers from the chicken to the past—to the life they once shared, the secrets they never had the courage to reveal, wounds that never healed.

Nives echoes the stories we tell ourselves at night, when we can’t sleep: stories of love lost, of abandonment, of silent and heart-breaking nostalgia. With delicate yet sharp prose and raw, astonishing honesty, Sacha Naspini bravely explores the core of our shared humanity.’

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‘Business as Usual’ by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford ****

I had wanted to get my hands on a copy of Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford since its reissue by Handheld Press. At a time when bookshops were closed during the long lockdown at the outset of 2021, and I was trying my utmost not to purchase anything online to add to my TBR, my library very kindly purchased a copy on my behalf, and I was the first to read it. Business as Usual was one of my most anticipated books of the year, and I am thrilled to impart that it lived up to my high expectations.

Published in 1933, Business as Usual is a ‘delightful illustrated novel in letters’. Its protagonist is twenty seven-year-old Edinburgh woman named Hilary Fane, who has a degree from the University of Oxford, and was recently employed as a teacher at a girls’ school outside Glasgow. Newly engaged, she insists on achieving her dream of moving to London for a year before her marriage, and is ‘determined to support herself by her own earnings’. Despite the ‘resentment of her surgeon fiancé’, she makes her way to the capital, finding a room in a boarding house – named the Minerva Hotel, the many notices pasted around her bedroom have a ‘cumulative effect [which] is shattering’ – and spending much of her time searching for a job.

Hilary’s first foray into employment in the capital is as a typist at a London department store named Everyman’s on Oxford Street – ‘a very thin disguise for Selfridges’. Through ‘luck and an inability to type well’, she is transferred first to the book department – where she is initially refused employment because she is ‘too tall’ – and then into the library. She loves the environment in which she finds herself, and receives a rapid promotion. We learn about her, and her new London life, through a series of letters, which she writes to both her parents and her fiancé, Basil. Other elements have been included when an overview is needed, such as memos between senior colleagues of Hilary’s, and a letter from her mother to her sister-in-law; here, she writes: ‘They’re not to be married for a year. I don’t approve of long engagements, but in this case Basil’s work makes one necessary, and Hilary is determined not to spend the time at home doing nothing.’

Almost as soon as she moves to London, Hilary meets some wonderfully eccentric characters, including an aunt of hers, who insists on taking her out for long lunches despite the fact that Hilary should be working. Her second interview before securing employment is, for example, ‘with a purveyor of Psycho-therapy. He had a perfectly normal (female) secretary, so that I wasn’t prepared to find him in a Biblical bath-robe, contemplating eternity in front of a Grecian vase with one lovely flower in it. I can’t think what my duties would have been, but the word “salary” shocked him…’.

From the first, Hilary is a highly positive young woman; she comments: ‘Almost any interesting job would do for a year. At about four pounds a week, I thought. After all, I’m not preparing to make a life’s work of it.’ I loved her enduring eagerness, and the way in which she presented herself. When she begins work at Everyman’s, and she is describing her new morning routine to Basil, she writes: ‘Half-way along the Lane I usually begin to run, hypnotised by that clock over the Staff Entrance. After that come the million stairs to the Cloakroom (Women Staff) so that I inevitably arrive on the Book Floor without a breath in my body.’

Business as Usual was the first joint literary venture between Helen Rees and Anne Pedler – the real names of Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford respectively – and I very much hope that it isn’t too difficult to find other books which they worked on together. There are almost one hundred of them, published either jointly or separately by Rees and Pedler, after all. I must admit that I will be avoiding their many Mills and Boon publications, though!

Notes on the novel have been provided by Handheld Press’ director, Kate Macdonald, herself a social historian. She writes that Rees and Pedler, who founded the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for young Commonwealth authors, ‘recreate with relish the working lives of single women in 1930s London, and the struggle to find work that was interesting, amenable and paid enough to live on.’ Of the structure of Business as Usual, she comments: ‘The letters are actively enhanced rather than merely illustrated by Ann Stafford’s line drawings, and by the original layout (reproduced in this edition) that simulates telegrams, in-house memoranda and private letters.’

Business as Usual is marvellously amusing, and quite charming. It is exactly the kind of book I enjoy – rooted so well in its historical and social context, but with a highly realistic protagonist, and infused with a great deal of warmth and humour. I thoroughly enjoyed this lively, and lovely, novel. I loved its tongue-in-cheek asides, and its memorable characters. Business as Usual would not be out of place on the Virago or Persephone lists, and surely holds a great deal of appeal for their readers.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Brothers’ by Asko Sahlberg ****

First published in 2016.

The Brothers is an early Peirene publication, and one I had not been able to find a copy of.  It really took my fancy, particularly since I will happily read anything set within the bounds of Scandinavia.  This particular novella takes the Finland of 1809 as its setting, and has been translated from its original Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  The blurb hails it ‘a Shakespearean drama from icy Finland’, and it has been written by an author who is quite the celebrity in his native land. 9780956284068

The brothers of the book’s title are Henrik and Erik, who fought on opposing sides in the war between Sweden and Russia.  To borrow a portion of the blurb, ‘with peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm.  But who is the master?  Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga’.  Its attention-grabbing beginning immediately sets the scene, and demonstrates the chasm of difference between our protagonists: ‘I have barely caught the crunch of snow and I know who is coming.  Henrik treads heavily and unhurriedly, as is his wont, grinding his feet into the earth.  The brothers are so different.  Erik walks fast, with light steps; he is always in a hurry, here then gone’.  Later, of Henrik, Erik tells Anna: ‘… he said that we came into this world in the wrong order.  That he’s not comfortable here and doesn’t want to remain here, that he wants to see the world’.

Multiple narrators lead us through the whole.  We are treated to the distinctive voices of the farmhand, Anna, Henrik, Erik, and their mother, the Old Mistress.  This technique makes The Brothers feel like a multi-layered work from the very beginning.  Their voices are distinctive, and the farmhand especially – contrary perhaps to expectations – is sometimes rather profound: ‘A human being never sheds his past.  He drags it around like an old overcoat and you know him by this coat, by the way it looks and smells.  Henrik’s coat is heavy and gloomy, exuding the dark stench of blood’.

As one might expect, the landscape plays a big part in this novella, as does darkness, both literally and metaphorically.  Characters are often compared to things like trees and woodpiles.  Sahlberg captures things magnificently; he is perceptive of the smallest of details.  Of the Old Mistress, he writes: ‘Her eyes change again.  A moment ago, they were shaded.  Now they darken, open out in the middle, become tiny black abysses which suck in the gaze’.  His prose is thoughtful too, and he continually views things through the lens of others, thinking to great effect how a particular scene will make an individual feel.  For instance, the Old Mistress says, ‘But boys are fated to grow into men, and a mother has to follow this tragedy as a silent bystander.  And now it seems they will kill each other, and then this, too, can be added to my neverending list of losses’.  Sahlberg is that rare breed of writer who can get inside his characters’ heads, no matter how disparate they are, and regardless of their gender and age.  Each voice here feels authentic, peppered with concerns and thoughts which are utterly believable, and which are specifically tailored to the individual.

The politics of the period have been woven in to good effect, but Sahlberg makes it obvious that it is the characters which are his focus.  Their backstories are thorough and believable; they are never overdone.  The Brothers is an absorbing novella and, as with all of Peirene’s publications, a great addition and perfect fit to their growing list of important translated novellas.

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‘Women Talking’ by Miriam Toews ****

I have read, and very much enjoyed, almost all of Miriam Toews’ books to date, and was keen to pick up her newest novel, Women Talking.  Lauren Groff, one of my all-time favourite authors, declares the novel ‘an astonishment, a volcano of a novel…  No other book I’ve read in the past year has spoken so lucidly about our current moment, and yet none has felt so timeless.’

Women Talking is a fictional representation of a true and shocking story; it is Toews’ ‘imagined response to these real events’.  In the remote Mennonite community of Melotschina in Bolivia, between 2005 and 2009, more than one hundred girls and women were ‘knocked unconscious and raped repeatedly by what many thought were ghosts or demons’.  The women’s accounts were ‘dismissed as “wild female imagination”.’  Many men accused them of making up stories in order to mask the adultery which they were so obviously committing…  Later, though, it was confirmed that eight men from the closely related gene pool of the colony ‘had been using an animal anesthetic to knock their victims unconscious and rape them.’  In 2011, the men were convicted, but in 2013, it was reported that sexual abuse was still occurring within the community. 41rpxzik7ul._sx322_bo1204203200_

As in the real community, Toews’ women are illiterate, and have little to no concept of the world outside of their own community.  Eight women, who represent three generations from two families, the Loewens and the Friesens, ‘meet secretly in a hayloft to decide how to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.’  This concept is a simple yet all-encompassing one.

The minutes of the meeting are recounted by our narrator, a teacher named August Epp, the only male character who features in a positive capacity in the novel.  August, whose parents were excommunicated when he was twelve years old, lived away from the colony for some years, attending school and University in England, and is therefore able to bestow knowledge upon the women.  The use of a male mouthpiece here was a simple plot device, but a remarkably interesting one.  August is both part of the group, working as he does as the women’s scribe, and separate from it, due to his gender.  He is a victim of the colony, but in a very different, and less violent and intrusive, way.

Focus is given to the case throughout; indeed, the novel is set over a two-day period which feels pivotal for the women.  The men were moved, at the insistence of the police, into the closest city for their own protection, and a crucial moment has been reached in the case.  August reflects: ‘And when the perpetrators return, the women of Molotschina will be given the opportunity to forgive these men, thus guaranteeing everyone’s place in heaven.  If the women don’t forgive the men… the women will have to leave the colony for the outside world, of which they know nothing.’

The way in which August relays the case demonstrates its horror.  He says: ‘In the year after I arrived, the women described dreams they’d been having, and then eventually, as the pieces fell into place, they came to understand that they were collectively dreaming one dream, and that it wasn’t a dream at all.’  The horrors do not stop there, however.  The very fact that all of the women were rendered unconscious when they were attacked caused the male elders to tell them there was no need for counselling.  A three-year-old girl, repeatedly violated, is denied professional medical treatment, as the elders are scared about anyone outside of the colony becoming aware of the attacks, and blowing the ‘whole incident… out of proportion.’

The rules of the colony are rigid and unfair for its womenfolk; typically, the men are allowed to do anything that they want to, and rarely come under scrutiny.  It is a typical patriarchy; women are expected to cook, clean, look after the children, and even act as midwives for one another.  They are forbidden to read, denied education, and told not to speak their own minds.  They speak only Plautdietsch, or Low German, a language which has not been favoured since the Middle Ages, and which is now only found in Mennonite communities.  The women have essentially been raised to be helpless outside the colony.  One of the older characters, Agnes, perfectly sums up their vulnerability when she says: ‘We’re unable to read, we’re unable to write, we’re unable to speak the language of our country, we have only domestic skills that may or may not be required of us elsewhere in the world, and speaking of the world – we have no world map -‘.

Women Talking is, as all of Toews’ books are, written with such clarity.  She really brings the culture to life.  The conversations which occur between the characters are thoughtful, provoking, angry, tense.  Toews’ women all have distinctive personalities, and are all strong and determined.  Salome, for instance, who is both daughter and mother in the book, is described thus: her ‘reputation in the family is that of a fighter, an instigator.  She doesn’t react calmly to authority and is often engaged in a battle of wills with other colony members over the slightest of things.’  August comments that he finds it curious that Salome has not been excommunicated.  An older woman, Greta, questions her faith, and declares, in a ‘radical statement’, that she is ‘no longer a Mennonite.’  Another victim, Nettie, ‘doesn’t talk, except to the children, but at night the members of the colony can hear her screaming in her sleep – or perhaps screaming in full consciousness.’

I found this every bit as much a piece of ‘profound, unsettling and virtuoisic work’ as the book’s blurb promises it to be.  Women Talking is a powerful and fitting novel to read in this, the age of the Me Too movement, and Toews has a great deal to say within its pages.  The story of these eight women, talking – although an imagined version of the real – is searing and vital.

 

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‘Flight Behaviour’ by Barbara Kingsolver ****

I have really enjoyed the books of Kingsolver’s which I’ve read in the past – The Lacuna and The Poisonwood Bible are excellent – but although she is an author on my radar, I somehow rarely get around to picking up any of her other titles. I changed this when I purchased a remainder copy of her 2012 novel, Flight Behaviour, which blends a fictional story with real concerns about climate change, and ecology.

Dellarobia Turnbow is a young woman living on a ‘failing farm’ in the Appalachian region of Tennessee. She lives in a small house with her husband, Cub, and two young children, six-year-old Preston and two-year-old Cordelia, on the Turnbow family’s land. Bored of her life, and the constant struggle to provide for her family, Dellarobia ‘impulsively seeks out an affair’ with a man living in the local town. The novel’s opening immediately caught my attention. Kingsolver writes: ‘A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-coloured hair who marched uphill to meet her demise.’

On the day she finally walks out, and heads up the closest mountain peak to meet him, she finds something far more remarkable: ‘a beautiful and terrible marvel of nature’. On the trees all around, which her husband’s family have been considering logging for some time, are enormous clusters of monarch butterflies.

Dellarobia’s world is a small one: she has ‘not slept outside’ her home in more than a decade of marriage, the local town is one which she rarely visits, and she has not had a meal out in over two years. That is, until she discovers the butterflies. At first, she cannot understand what she is seeing. When she mentions the phenomenon, and takes her husband and his mother a couple of days afterwards, we are told: ‘They rounded the bend to the overlook and came into the full sight of it. Then golden darts filled the whole of the air, swirling like leaves in a massive storm. Wings… Butterflies… The density of the butterflies in the air now gave her a sense of being underwater, plunged into a deep pond among bright fishes. They filled the sky. Every tree on the far mountainside was covered with trembling flame, and that, of course, was butterflies… The fire was alive, and incomprehensibly immense, an unbounded, uncountable congregation of flame-coloured insects.’

The town soon becomes obsessed with the butterflies, and many come to believe that ‘saint’ Dellarobia had a religious vision of the ‘miracle’. The monarchs present an opportunity for tourism, something which had been previously unknown in the area. After a television crew comes to film Dellarobia and the butterflies, a scientist – the rather wonderfully named Ovid Byron, lepidopterist and lecturer – arrives, intent on studying why the monarchs have moved, en masse, to Tennessee instead of their usual wintering grounds in Mexico, and the implications this may have for the species. He returns with a team of researchers from his University, to look into the ‘alarming question’ of this changing migration. In a way, these scientists open Dellarobia’s eyes to more, and better, possibilities: ‘Her life was unfolding into something larger by the day, like one of those rectangular gas-station maps that open out to the size of a windshield.’

The setting is one of the real strengths of this novel. Kingsolver herself lives on a farm in southern Appalachia, and understands the region’s geography, and the concerns of its inhabitants, many of which seem insular and uncaring to a reader on the outside. She is highly aware of small-town life; in the first paragraph, Kingsolver reflects that if Dellarobia did choose to run away from her family, her ‘decision would infect her children too, that was the worst of it, in a town where everyone knew them.’ One is immediately aware of how constrained Dellarobia feels, and how stifling the community around her: ‘They would say the same thing she’d heard her mother-in-law tell Cub: that Dellarobia was a piece of work. As if she were lying on pieces on a table, pins stuck here and there, half assembled from a Simplicity pattern that was flawed at the manufacturer’s. Which piece had been left out?’

Flight Behaviour is an immersive novel from the start. Throughout, Kingsolver is highly insightful about her protagonist, and what she chooses to hide from others: ‘She felt out of control in some new way, unfixable, unless she could fold her life back into its former shape; pre-Turnbow family Sideshow, premarriage, back to being just one kid trying to blaze her own trail. It was exhausting, to keep being sorry for everything.’ The portrait of Dellarobia is intricate and thoughtful, and her character arc is a believable one, particularly with regard to her growing education. Kingsolver knows Dellarobia intimately; her innermost thoughts and feelings come to the fore throughout. When she begins to understand that climate change is happening, and may well be irreversible, she begins to worry, constantly, about the future, especially with regard to her children: ‘[She] felt an entirely new form of panic as she watched her son love nature so expectantly, wondering if he might be racing toward a future like some complicated sand castle that was crumbling under the tide. She didn’t know how scientists bore such knowledge. People had to manage terrible truths.’

Kingsolver trained as a biologist, and worked as a scientist; as one would therefore expect, the scientific detail contained within Flight Behaviour is impeccable, and impressively thorough. I have not read a novel as involved with environmental issues in such a long time, and this effort has made me want to seek more out in the near future. I especially liked the way in which its focus is placed on one single ecological event, with tendrils of consequences which stretch out from it as the novel goes on.

I am also pleased that I have so much of Kingsolver’s oeuvre left to read. Whilst she focuses on stories driven by her characters, and the geography in which they live, the books which I have read to date all feel very different. I will admit that Flight Behaviour, at around 600 pages, did take a relatively long time to read, but it forces one to contemplate so many enormous concepts that this felt necessary. It feels very up to date, despite being almost ten years old; this is perhaps due to the real urgency in the prose. Given the themes, this is a really serious, and sometimes scary, novel to read, but it is one which I would highly recommend.

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Books for Wintertime

I have always been a seasonal reader to an extent – particularly, it must be said, when it comes to Christmas-themed books – but I feel that my reading choices have been aligned more with the seasons in the last tumultuous year. Connecting my reading with the natural world around me has given me a sense of calm whilst the world has reached such a point of crisis, and picking up a seasonally themed book has become rather a soothing task. With this in mind, I wanted to collect together eight books which I feel will be perfect picks for winter, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with a big mug of cocoa, a light dusting of snowfall outside your window, and a cosy blanket

1. A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

‘Following the widely acclaimed and bestselling The Summer Book, here is a Winter Book collection of some of Tove Jansson’s best loved and most famous stories. Drawn from youth and older age, and spanning most of the twentieth century, this newly translated selection provides a thrilling showcase of the great Finnish writer’s prose, scattered with insights and home truths. It has been selected and is introduced by Ali Smith, and there are afterwords by Philip Pullman, Esther Freud and Frank Cottrell Boyce. The Winter Book features thirteen stories from Tove Jansson’s first book for adults, The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) along with seven of her most cherished later stories (from 1971 to 1996), translated into English and published here for the first time.’

2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

‘Narnia… the land beyond the wardrobe door, a secret place frozen in eternal winter, a magical country waiting to be set free. Lucy is the first to find the secret of the wardrobe in the professor’s mysterious old house. At first her brothers and sister don’t believe her when she tells of her visit to the land of Narnia. But soon Edmund, then Peter and Susan step through the wardrobe themselves. In Narnia they find a country buried under the evil enchantment of the White Witch. When they meet the Lion Aslan, they realize they’ve been called to a great adventure and bravely join the battle to free Narnia from the Witch’s sinister spell.’

3. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

‘This epic tale about the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath on a bourgeois family was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987. One of the results of its publication in the West was Pasternak’s complete rejection by Soviet authorities; when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 he was compelled to decline it. The book quickly became an international bestseller. Dr. Yury Zhivago, Pasternak’s alter ego, is a poet, philosopher, and physician whose life is disrupted by the war and by his love for Lara, the wife of a revolutionary. His artistic nature makes him vulnerable to the brutality and harshness of the Bolsheviks. The poems he writes constitute some of the most beautiful writing featured in the novel.’

4. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

‘The classic novel of despair, forbidden emotions, and sexual undercurrents set against the austere New England countryside Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious and hypochondriac wife, Zeena. But when Zeena’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a hired girl, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent. In one of American fiction’s finest and most intense narratives, Edith Wharton moves this ill-starred trio toward their tragic destinies. Different in both tone and theme from Wharton’s other works, Ethan Frome has become perhaps her most enduring and most widely read book.’

5. Winter Trees by Sylvia Plath (my own review)

I have read Sylvia Plath’s beautiful Winter Trees several times, and find fresh beauty on every reread. These poems were all written within the last nine months of her life. As always with poetry collections, I have collected together a few of my favourite excerpts or fragments from some of these stunning poems.

– From ‘The Rabbit Catcher’:
‘I tasted the malignity of the gorse,
Its black spikes,
The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers.
They had an efficiency, a great beauty,
And were extravagant, like torture.’

– From ‘By Candlelight’:
‘This is winter, this is night, small love -‘

– From ‘Lesbos’:
‘We should meet in another life, we should meet in air,
Me and you.’

– From ‘Three Women’:
‘What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?’

6. The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm (my own review)

‘I was incredibly excited to read Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, in which she spends several winters in the Arctic Circle. Sjoholm’s entire account is vivid and fascinating; she brings to light so many elements of life in the far north, always with the utmost sensitivity for those who live there.

Throughout, Sjoholm writes about the Sami, tourism, custom and tradition, the Icehotel in Sweden, and ways to travel around, amongst a plethora of other things. She strongly demonstrates just how quickly times change, and how some centuries-old traditions are being dropped in favour of the necessity of tourism.

Everything has been so well researched here, not only with regard to her own experiences, but with insight by others who have explored the region in years past. Her narrative voice is incredibly engaging, and I learnt so much from her account. It was the perfect tome to read over the Christmas period, and has extended my wanderlust even further. The Palace of the Snow Queen is undoubtedly one of the best travelogues which I have ever read, and is a sheer transportative joy to settle down with during long winters’ nights.’

7. Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen by Katherine May

‘Wintering is a poignant and comforting meditation on the fallow periods of life, times when we must retreat to care for and repair ourselves. Katherine May thoughtfully shows us how to come through these times with the wisdom of knowing that, like the seasons, our winters and summers are the ebb and flow of life.’

8. Wintering: A Season with Geese by Stephen Rutt (my full review can be found here)

‘The arrival of huge flocks of geese in the UK is one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of winter; a vast natural phenomenon to capture the imagination. So Stephen Rutt found when he moved to Dumfries in the autumn of 2018, coinciding with the migration of thousands of pink-footed geese who spend their winter in the Firth. Thus begins an extraordinary odyssey. From his new surroundings in the north to the wide open spaces of his childhood home in the south, Stephen traces the lives and habits of the most common species of goose in the UK and explores the place they have in our culture, our history and, occasionally, on our festive table. Wintering takes you on a vivid tour of the in-between landscapes the geese inhabit, celebrating the short days, varied weathers and long nights of the season during which we share our home with these large, startling, garrulous and cooperative birds.’

I hope you have enjoyed my seasonal recommendations throughout the year. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!

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‘Sunset Song’ by Lewis Grassic Gibbon ***

I had meant to read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song whilst living in Glasgow. Published in 1932, the novel has been voted the best Scottish book of all time. However, after three years of life in the city, I never got around to it, for some reason I cannot quite pinpoint. Fast forward almost two years, and I managed to find a discounted copy of Sunset Song online. It perhaps did not give quite the same experience to read this during early spring in England, but I was keen enough to meet the heroine of the piece that I picked it up almost as soon as it arrived.

Sunset Song focuses on a young Scottish woman named Chris Guthrie, a bright student who has to put her ambition on hold when her family moves from Aberdeenshire to a rather remote farming community. She is fifteen when this occurs. Soon after they arrive, her family begins to disintegrate. The naive and rather innocent Chris can feel that things are going wrong, but cannot quite understand their gravity. She is at the mercy of the land, and also of the people around her. Soon after they move, the omniscient narrator of the piece observes: ‘Something was happening to mother, things were happening to all of them, nothing ever stayed the same except maybe this weather…’.

Her mother commits suicide, after poisoning Chris’ baby twin siblings, and soon afterwards, two of her brothers are adopted by a childless aunt and uncle. Her father is violent – ‘… it was coarse, coarse land, wet, raw, and red clay, father’s temper grew worse the more he saw of it’ – and her elder brother, Will, becomes the only point of constancy in her life. The advent of the First World War also causes change, with those around her joining up to fight.

Her mother’s death particularly alters things for Chris, including the way in which she views the landscape: ‘… the black damp went out of the sunshine and the world went on, the white faces and whispering ceased from the pit, you’d never be the same again, but the world went on and you went with it. It was not mother only that died with the twins, something died in your heart and went down to lie with her in Kinraddie kirkyard – the child in your heart died then, the bairn that believed the hills were made for its play… Thar died, and the Chris of the books and the dreams died with it, or you folded them up in their paper of tissue and laid them away by the dark, quiet corpse that was your childhood.’

The novel is split into three parts – ‘Prelude’, ‘The Song’, and ‘Epilude’. The Prelude opens with a sweeping and detailed history of the town of Kinraddie, which is written in a style reminiscent of a Medieval legend. Here, Gibbon sets up the geography of the local area, and introduces several characters. We then move onto the main section of narrative, which is set during the first period of drought for thirty years; the landscape is ‘fair blistering with heat’. We are pulled immediately into Chris’ world; we learn of what she sees, thinks, and feels.

Sunset Song is the first volume of the Scots Quair trilogy. As I thought I would enjoy this novel far more than I did, I have decided that continuing with the series isn’t the best idea. By the end of the novel, I sadly had no real interest in any of the characters, or where their lives would lead them. I found Gibbon rather a shrewd writer, very understanding of his young character, and her tumultuous thoughts and feelings. At times, he captures her spirit and unease well; after she is struck, for instance: ‘She’d thought, running, stumbling up through the moor, with that livid flush on her cheek, up through the green of the April day with the bushes misted with cobwebs, I’ll never go back, I’ll never go back, I’ll drown myself in the loch! Then she stopped, her heart it seemed near to bursting and terribly below it moved something, heavy and slow it had been when she ran out…’. However, something about Chris as she became older alienated me as a reader; she did not feel quite convincing.

Sunset Song is a bleak novel, a sad portrait of a life which is marred by tragedy. There is nothing gentle about this book, which is, in part, a moving portrait of a family beset by change and grief. The real strength here for me was the portrayal of Scotland, particularly when she is at the mercy of the weather, and the way in which Gibbon captured place and period. There is a real artistry which can be found in some of Gibbon’s descriptions, which really helped to set the scene. This is not a heavy-going book; the narrative is relatively straightforward, and although the many Scots words which pepper the text are easy enough to grasp, a glossary has been included. However, it did feel a little too bleak in places, and I longed for a lighter read or two to balance it out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One From the Archive: ‘The Small Widow’ by Janet McNeill ****

First published in May 2019.

Irish writer Janet McNeill seems to be unjustly underappreciated.  Whilst a prolific author, publishing ten novels for adults and penning a whole host of radio plays, it is her children’s books for which she is most well known – and for those, she seems to be barely remembered.  She has intrigued me ever since I saw her single title, Tea at Four o’Clock, represented on the Virago Modern Classics list.  Whilst I was unable to find a copy of the aforementioned in time for my book club’s monthly author selection, I got my hands on a copy of The Small Widow, and am so pleased that I did.

9780957233652Fortnight writes of McNeill’s work favourably, and draws parallels between her and ‘English novelists such as Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner and, more particularly, Elizabeth Taylor.  What their writing shares… is a subtlety which makes demands of its readers.’  These three are all novelists whom I very much enjoy reading, and I have adored everything of Taylor’s which I have read to date.  I was therefore most excited to begin The Small Widow.

The novel’s protagonist is a middle-aged woman named Julia, who has been left a widow after the death of her husband Harold.  She is ‘alone and struggling with grief as well as her new life.’  She is a mother to four children, none of whom she feels overly comfortable in interacting with, as their relationships have shifted so much since their childhoods.  For the first time, she ‘has to learn independence, she needs to discover who she is when she is no longer a wife and is now a mother to children who do not need her.’  The central question which the novel asks is this: ‘As a widow can Julia find a freedom, an identity, which has never existed in her life before?’

The novel opens with Harold’s funeral: ‘The car slowed, they were approaching the gates.  Julia’s throat tightened, the impossible thing is happening now…  She ached to escape from the pressure of her daughters’ hips, the inevitability of shared warmth and the threat of shared emotion.’  The funeral scene is vivid: ‘The mourners formed into an untidy procession and started in the direction of the grave, trying to find a pace between a stroll and a trot.  The raw wind robbed them of any attempt at dignity.  It plucked their hair and their clothes, snatched the breath out of their mouths and ruffled the tufts of frozen grass.  Only the humped shapes of the dead were undisturbed.’  McNeill goes on to probe Julia’s conflicting emotions about her sudden loss.  At this point in time, when everything is raw and new, she sees her children as ‘… four relentless and dedicated orphans, demanding a formal come-back from her, the Mother Figure, whom they had discarded years ago.  It wasn’t fair.  Julia felt that she needed protection from them.’

The Small Widow is told using the third person omniscient perspective, which has been interspersed with Julia’s opinions and concerns.  In this way, McNeill makes us party to Julia’s innermost thoughts, and the secretive, one-sided conversations which she imagines with her husband: ‘I’ll do my mourning for you later, Harold.  Just now I am getting through this the best way I can.  You could have coped magnificently with my funeral, Harold.  I don’t know how to cope with yours.’  These asides continue throughout the book, and are particularly poignant when Julia considers her children.  Of her son, Johnnie, who lives in an outbuilding on her property, and runs a small bookshop, she thinks: ‘To him I’m not a person in the ordinary sense of the word.  I was typecast the minute the cord was cut.  I have been drained and diminished by motherhood.  I am a collection of attitudes, a pocket-sized matriarch whom it is traditional to have around…  It doesn’t help these self-made creatures to remember they are the children of my body.  I have done my job.  I am allowed, expected, to love them still, but at a decent distance.’

Julia’s concerns do not just affect her family.  Some of them are deeply personal, and seem trivial at first to outsiders.  She therefore keeps her grievances private, sometimes excruciatingly so.  She is forced to make all sorts of adjustments, and get used to the absence of things which she has grown so accustomed to throughout her long marriage.  For instance, ‘During the day the uninhabited area of the bed made her embarrassed.  One didn’t think of bereavement as posing problems like this.  One expected anguish, not embarrassment.  (I shall feel anguish in a week or two, Harold, just now there isn’t anything much that I feel.  It was puzzling to know what to do about the space here and all through the house that Harold used to occupy.  Presumably time would spill over and close the gaps, like the bark of a tree when it has been cut.’  She develops coping mechanisms; if she does not move from her place on the sofa or in bed for the entirety of the day, for example, ‘she wouldn’t notice that she was by herself.’

The Small Widow was first published in 1967, and was the only book which McNeill wrote whilst living outside Northern Ireland.  In the novel, she ‘anticipates many of the concerns of the 1970’s women’s movement in its awareness of the restricted role of women in the traditional family and marriage.’  I liked the way in which McNeill pushed against these limitations, giving Julia a voice and authority of her own, which built as the novel went on.  I found myself rooting for our central character, who rises above the opinions which others around her hold of women in her particular position, and the demands which they often make upon her.  The Small Widow feels far more modern, in many ways, than it is; Julia’s concerns are still prevalent in today’s society, particularly with regard to loneliness, and the shifting relationships between parents and their grown children.  The familial relationships here are revealing, and have a complexity to them; they shift both with time, and as a consequence of Julia finding her voice.

As a character portrait, The Small Widow is striking.  Throughout, Julia has a great deal of depth to her, and I found her surprising rather than predictable.  Her character arc alters  believably due to her circumstances.  On the basis of this well-sculpted novel, it is evident why one of her books has been published by Virago; it is just a shame that more haven’t followed suit.

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‘The Glorious Guinness Girls’ by Emily Hourican **

The tagline of Emily Hourican’s newest novel, The Glorious Guinness Girls, is ‘Three sisters. One shared destiny.’ The novel purports to take the three Irish sisters of the Guinness fortune, the ‘glamorous society girls’ – ‘elegant’ Aileen, outspoken Maureen, and gentle Oonagh – as its focus, and moves from London and Ireland between 1918 and 1930. There is also a strand of a more modern story, set in 1978 in the old family home in Ireland, which is now being used as a care home.

In the late 1970s, Fliss has returned to this house, which she describes as ‘big and old and pitiful, like the knuckles on an aged hand…’. She is seeking old family papers from the crowded attic space, having been asked to do so by two of the sisters. As she searches, she comments: ‘I turn more paper. I do not know what I am looking for. All I see are sentimental recollections of childhood, and even at a distance of sixty years, I can catch the smell of that time. Dullness and emptiness, endless waiting, stuck between the schoolroom and the nursery, at ease nowhere. Beating at time with our fists to make it go faster.’

The blurb asks, ‘what beautiful ruins lie behind the glass of their privileged worlds? The love affairs, the scandals, the tragedies, the secrets…’. The novel sounds as though it is poised to be revealing of the lives of the Guinness sisters, but unfortunately, I do not feel at all as though this was the case. We learn about the girls physically – for instance, they are described in 1918 as having ‘each other’s face but with small variations so that looking at all of them together was to see a single treasure hoard split three ways’.

Hourican has not just used historical figures in The Glorious Guinness Girls; she has invented individuals. One of these is Felicity Bryant, known as Fliss, who is the narrator of the whole, and who is undoubtedly the protagonist of the piece. She is a kind of poor cousin to the girls, who moves in with them after her father passes away. At first, it seems that she grows up as part of the family, given that she is a similar age to the younger sisters, and ‘knows the girls better than anyone.’ However, there are some hazy allusions to the way in which she feels continually excluded – when she is not taken on a very expensive cruise around the world with the sisters, for instance. Despite growing up in such privilege, Fliss is grateful for nothing, and I took a real dislike to her. As a character, she is utterly contrived; she brings nothing to the novel, and serves only to unnecessarily blur the boundaries between reality and fiction.

There are rather a lot of characters included in the novel; indeed, it is even prefaced with an extensive list of them. This feels like an overload at times, particularly early on. Barely any of the secondary characters feel fleshed out, either; rather, they skulk about in the shadows, and are known largely by the jobs which they do around the house. The way in which the narrative flits back and forth in time without any real chronological structure is a little irksome in places, too. There is very little plot here, and what there is has been stretched out; barely anything happens in more than 400 pages.

I was quite underwhelmed by the prose of the novel, too. This is Hourican’s sixth novel, but it sometimes reads more like an early, less polished effort than one might expect. The prose is quite matter-of-fact, and the conversations are so overblown and repetitive that one gets hardly anything from them. There are a great deal of clichés which have been used, too; for instance, when things change in their lives, and the supposedly incredibly naïve girls are ‘too merry and giddy to notice’. Hourican also uses some strange descriptors; I, for one, have never considered an eyepatch ‘dashing’…

The Glorious Guinness Girls is not a book which necessarily would appeal to me if I spotted it in a bookshop, but I visited the Guinness Factory in Dublin with my boyfriend a couple of years ago, and have always meant to find out more about the illustrious family. I was a little disappointed, therefore, to find that the Guinness girls actually make up a relatively small part of the plot. Given that the author writes in her notes, which follow the novel, that she has been fascinated by the family for years, and has been researching them for different publications for a decade, I am surprised that they are not focused upon more. I feel as though I learnt relatively little about them, and not once did they feel like fully fleshed out beings. Hourican notes that she was inspired by the ‘stories told about them, [and] the historical background to their lives’, but this element feels somewhat lost.

The author does go on to comment that the characters here are purely fictional; their traits and personalities were invented almost entirely by the author. She writes of her ‘versions of these people… [as] characters based on what I know of them, fleshed out with things I have invented.’ The Glorious Guinness Girls is, Hourican stresses, ‘a kind of join-the-dots, with fiction weaving in and out of fixed historical points.’ This element of fiction, though, is dry, and bogs the entirety down. I cannot help but feel that this would have been a far more successful book had it been a straight biography of Aileen, Maureen, and Oonagh.

Fictional characters should not have had to be invented to bring these young women to life, and I feel as though the way Hourican has gone about writing this novel detracts from their own story. It is near impossible to know the elements which are based on fact, and those which have been fabricated by the author; given that Fliss is fictional, and the whole plot of the novel revolves around her, every conversation involving the sisters is surely therefore entirely made up. There is also a real lack of emotional depth here.

Whilst it is clear from her notes that Hourican did a lot of research before embarking on this book, the historical details are not always enough, and the sisters often feel too underdeveloped. The invention of Fliss as a plot devide to move the story along did not work at all, in my opinion, and I feel as though the novel would have been far more readable had a third person perspective been used throughout. Using the Guinness sisters as the focal point of this novel had a lot of potential, but for me, much about it fell flat. The Glorious Guinness Girls feels like a mistitled novel, and a missed opportunity.