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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.

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Books for Autumntime

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 autumn, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with a steaming cup of tea, a view of the changing foliage, and your most comfortable item of knitwear

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

‘Orphaned as a child, Jane has felt an outcast her whole young life. Her courage is tested once again when she arrives at Thornfield Hall, where she has been hired by the brooding, proud Edward Rochester to care for his ward Adèle. Jane finds herself drawn to his troubled yet kind spirit. She falls in love. Hard. But there is a terrifying secret inside the gloomy, forbidding Thornfield Hall. Is Rochester hiding from Jane? Will Jane be left heartbroken and exiled once again?’

2. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

‘Working as a paid companion to a bitter elderly lady, the timid heroine of Rebecca learns her place. Life is bleak until, on a trip to the South of France, she falls in love with Maxim de Winter, a handsome widower whose proposal takes her by surprise. Whisked from Monte Carlo to Manderley, Maxim’s isolated Cornish estate, the friendless young bride begins to realise she barely knows her husband at all. And in every corner of every room is the phantom of his beautiful first wife, Rebecca. Rebecca is the haunting story of a woman consumed by love and the struggle to find her identity.’

3. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

‘Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts. There are dangers and adventures for Bod in the graveyard. But it is in the land of the living that real danger lurks for it is there that the man Jack lives and he has already killed Bod’s family.’

4. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

‘To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history….Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters. The letters are all addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor,” and they plunge her into a world she never dreamed of, a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an inconceivable evil hidden in the depths of history. The letters provide links to one of the darkest powers that humanity has ever known and to a centuries-long quest to find the source of that darkness and wipe it out. It is a quest for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the legend of Dracula. Generations of historians have risked their reputations, their sanity, and even their lives to learn the truth about Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. Now one young woman must decide whether to take up this quest herself–to follow her father in a hunt that nearly brought him to ruin years ago, when he was a vibrant young scholar and her mother was still alive. What does the legend of Vlad the Impaler have to do with the modern world? Is it possible that the Dracula of myth truly existed and that he has lived on, century after century, pursuing his own unknowable ends? The answers to these questions cross time and borders, as first the father and then the daughter search for clues, from dusty Ivy League libraries to Istanbul, Budapest, and the depths of Eastern Europe. In city after city, in monasteries and archives, in letters and in secret conversations, the horrible truth emerges about Vlad the Impaler’s dark reign and about a time-defying pact that may have kept his awful work alive down through the ages.’

5. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.


Written for J.R.R. Tolkien’s own children, The Hobbit met with instant critical acclaim when it was first published in 1937. Now recognized as a timeless classic, this introduction to the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf, Gollum, and the spectacular world of Middle-earth recounts of the adventures of a reluctant hero, a powerful and dangerous ring, and the cruel dragon Smaug the Magnificent.’

6. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

‘In this sensational, hard-hitting and passionate tale of marital cruelty, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall sees a mysterious tenant, Helen Graham, unmasked not as a ‘wicked woman’ as the local gossips would have it, but as the estranged wife of a brutal alcoholic bully, desperate to protect her son. Using her own experiences with her brother Branwell to depict the cruelty and debauchery from which Helen flees, Anne Bronte wrote her masterpiece to reflect the fragile position of women in society and her belief in universal redemption, but scandalized readers of the time.’

7. Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson

‘The young orphan Silver is taken in by the ancient lighthousekeeper Mr. Pew, who reveals to her a world of myth and mystery through the art of storytelling. A magical, lyrical tale from one of Britain’s best-loved literary novelists. of the Cape Wrath lighthouse. Pew tells Silver ancient tales of longing and rootlessness, of the slippages that occur throughout every life. One life, Babel Dark’s, a nineteenth century clergyman, opens like a map that Silver must follow, and the intertwining of myth and reality, of storytelling and experience, lead her through her own particular darkness. Stevenson and of the Jekyll and Hyde in all of us, Lighthousekeeping is a way into the most secret recesses of our own hearts and minds. Jeanette Winterson is one of the most extraordinary and original writers of her generation, and this shows her at her lyrical best.’

8. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

‘Stevenson’s famous exploration of humanity’s basest capacity for evil, “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” has become synonymous with the idea of a split personality. More than a morality tale, this dark psychological fantasy is also a product of its time, drawing on contemporary theories of class, evolution, criminality, and secret lives.’

Please stay tuned for the final subsequent winter recommendation post, which will be published at the beginning of the new season. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!

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‘The Merry Spinster’ by Daniel Mallory Ortberg ****

I had not heard of The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror before I plucked it from a library shelf, but I had read snippets about its author, Mallory Ortberg, around the Internet. I really enjoy magical realism, and hadn’t read much of it during 2020, so I very much looked forward to beginning this short story collection.

The Merry Spinster reminded me – after reading its blurb, and a host of comments which point to its originality – of something by Kirsty Logan, an author whose work I always find clever and imaginative. A review by John Scalzi particularly caught my eye; he writes that ‘the sloe gin wit of Dorothy Parker and the soul of a Classics nerd’ have been combined in Ortberg’s work.

The Merry Spinster is comprised of eleven ‘darkly mischievous stories based on classic fairy tales. Sinister and inviting, familiar and alien’, Ortberg ‘updates traditional children’s stories… with elements of psychological horror, emotional clarity and a keen sense of feminist mischief.’ The author has also included a short note on the sources and inspirations used in this collection – the Brothers Grimm feature heavily, but authors famous for tales about anthropomorphic animals, such as Kenneth Grahame and Arnold Lobel, also make an appearance. There is even a biblical tale, based on Genesis.

I very much liked the frank, cool matter-of-fact prose in these tales. In the first, ‘Daughter Cells’, Ortberg writes: ‘There once was a king who owned a great deal of what lay under the surface of the sea, and he happened to fill it with his daughters. Another man might have filled it with something else – potato farmers or pop-eyed scholars or merchant marines – but this one filled it with daughters, so there’s no use arguing about it now.’

I loved the unusual descriptions which Ortberg often creates, in which the monstrous is made a thing of beauty, and vice versa. For instance, in ‘The Daughter Cells’: ‘Now here is what the sea witch looked like: she was hinged neatly in the middle; she could jump very high by bending and straightening her great-foot; she could whistle water through her teeth and hit a swimming fish one hundred yards away; and she had no head at all. She was lovely to look at.’

Ortberg somehow makes the lewd and ridiculous feel quite realistic, and writes throughout with a practiced hand. A lot of societal conventions, particularly those regarding sexuality and gender, are turned on their head. There is something both whimsically old-fashioned and searingly modern to be found within The Merry Spinster, particularly with regard to its dialogue patterns.

Clues are given in each story regarding their original source material, but there is certainly something which feels fresh and new within The Merry Spinster. Much of Ortberg’s prose holds the sinister, unsettling feeling which, of course, exists in the vast majority of fairytales. Ortberg’s stories, which often move in surprising directions, are rather beguiling, and highly memorable. They provoke much consideration in the mind of the reader with their clever subversion of events. The Merry Spinster is strange and unsettling, but it also hums with a true beauty.

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‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong ****

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was a highly anticipated novel for me. I very much enjoyed his lyrical and fraught debut poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, upon reading it back in 2018, and Vuong has been on my author radar ever since. This, his first novel, has been declared a ‘marvel’ by Marlon James, and Celeste Ng calls it ‘luminous, shattering, urgent, necessary.’

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous takes the form of a letter, written to an illiterate mother by her son. Its speaker, known throughout as Little Dog, is in his late twenties; the letter which he pours his heart and soul into ‘unearths a family’s history that began before he was born.’ The novel ‘serves as a doorway’ into elements of his life which he has never revealed to his mother, including his sexuality and bewilderment at life.

Little Dog’s letter begins: ‘I am writing to reach you – even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.’ He goes on to explain something of himself: ‘I am twenty-eight years old, 5ft 4in tall, 112 lbs. I am handsome at exactly three angles and deadly from everywhere else. I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son.’ Later, he reveals the following: ‘… the very impossibility of you reading this is all that makes my telling it possible.’

As in Vuong’s poetry, central themes here are the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and the difficulties which can come with resettling in a new and different culture – Hartford in the US state of Connecticut, in this case. Much social commentary upon the present day is offered, intertwined with memories of when Little Dog was small, and dependent. He reveals what he learnt about the struggles which his mother had as a young woman in Vietnam, and the terror which she had to live with for years. He reconciles the way in which he was shielded from most of this, but how the decision also profoundly affected him.

Little Dog writes, very early on, about a time when he was five or six years old, and leapt out at his mother during a game, shouting ‘Boom!’. The reaction which his mother gave is strong, and vivid: ‘You screamed, face raked and twisted, then burst into sobs, clutched your chest as you leaned against the door, gasping. I stood bewildered, my toy army helmet tilted on my head. I was an American boy parroting what I saw on TV. I didn’t know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves – but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son.’

There is so much pain here, and an incredible amount of rawness. The trauma is often difficult to read, and certain scenes were almost too graphic for this sensitive reader. There is a great deal of violence within On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and much of this takes place within domestic settings. Little Dog writes, for instance, ‘The first time you hit me, I must have been four. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My mouth a blaze of touch.’

Vuong writes this novel as a poet; his prose is melodic, even when describing times of trauma, and not a single word is wasted. Vuong’s language is rich, creative, sensual, and unusual. The structure which has been chosen – the main form of a letter, comprised of many vignettes which denote a particular place, time, or situation – works wonderfully. It allows Vuong to explore Little Dog coming to terms with his identity, and his place in America, and away from Vietnam. The letter itself, written to a mother who will not be able to access it, is something of a cathartic exercise, revealing Little Dog and all of his vulnerabilities, but also offering him a shade of protection from the person whom he is most afraid of showing himself to.

Vuong’s prose is both beautiful and searching. When describing a poignant moment in which Little Dog looks in the mirror, hoping to discover something of himself, he writes the following: ‘Who was he? I touched the face, its sallow cheeks. I felt my back, the braid of muscles sloped to collarbones that jutted into stark ridges. The scraped-out ribs sunken as the skin tried to fill its irregular gaps, the sad little heart rippling underneath like a trapped fish. The eyes that wouldn’t match, one too open, the other closed, slightly lidded, cautious of whatever light was given it. It was everything I hid from, everything that made me want to be a sun, the only thing I knew that had no shadow. And yet, I stayed. I let the mirror hold those flaws – because for once, drying, they were not wrong to me but something that was wanted, that was sought and found among a landscape as enormous as the one I had been lost in all this time.’

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is tender and heartfelt. There is so much emotion suffused within its pages; it is a triumph. Vuong’s narrative holds a great deal of wisdom, and many of his carefully crafted sentences make one stop and think. The novel is a memorable one; I am sure that I will be thinking about it for months to come.

5

The Book Trail: From Short Stories to Questions

I am beginning this particular episode of The Book Trail with a thoughtful and complex short story collection which I would highly recommend. As usual, I have made use of the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads, in order to generate this list.

1. To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss
‘In this dazzling collection of short fiction, the National Book Award Finalist and New York Times bestselling author of The History of Love—“one of America’s most important novelists and an international literary sensation” (New York Times)—explores what it means to be in a couple, and to be a man and a woman in that perplexing relationship and beyond.

In one of her strongest works of fiction yet, Nicole Krauss plunges fearlessly into the struggle to understand what it is to be a man and what it is to be a woman, and the arising tensions that have existed from the very beginning of time. Set in our contemporary moment, and moving across the globe from Switzerland, Japan, and New York City to Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, and South America, the stories in To Be a Man feature male characters as fathers, lovers, friends, children, seducers, and even a lost husband who may never have been a husband at all. 

The way these stories mirror one other and resonate is beautiful, with a balance so finely tuned that the book almost feels like a novel. Echoes ring through stages of life: aging parents and new-born babies; young women’s coming of age and the newfound, somewhat bewildering sexual power that accompanies it; generational gaps and unexpected deliveries of strange new leases on life; mystery and wonder at a life lived or a future waiting to unfold. To Be a Man illuminates with a fierce, unwavering light the forces driving human existence: sex, power, violence, passion, self-discovery, growing older. Profound, poignant, and brilliant, Krauss’s stories are at once startling and deeply moving, but always revealing of all-too-human weakness and strength.’

2. What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
‘A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life: an ex she runs into by chance at a public forum, an Airbnb owner unsure how to interact with her guests, a stranger who seeks help comforting his elderly mother, a friend of her youth now hospitalized with terminal cancer. In each of these people the woman finds a common need: the urge to talk about themselves and to have an audience to their experiences. The narrator orchestrates this chorus of voices for the most part as a passive listener, until one of them makes an extraordinary request, drawing her into an intense and transformative experience of her own.

In What Are You Going Through, Nunez brings wisdom, humor, and insight to a novel about human connection and the changing nature of relationships in our times. A surprising story about empathy and the unusual ways one person can help another through hardship, her book offers a moving and provocative portrait of the way we live now.’

3. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
‘Amanda and Clay head out to a remote corner of Long Island expecting a vacation: a quiet reprieve from life in New York City, quality time with their teenage son and daughter, and a taste of the good life in the luxurious home they’ve rented for the week. But a late-night knock on the door breaks the spell. Ruth and G. H. are an older black couple—it’s their house, and they’ve arrived in a panic. They bring the news that a sudden blackout has swept the city. But in this rural area—with the TV and internet now down, and no cell phone service—it’s hard to know what to believe.

Should Amanda and Clay trust this couple—and vice versa? What happened back in New York? Is the vacation home, isolated from civilization, a truly safe place for their families? And are they safe from one another? 

Suspenseful and provocative, Rumaan Alam’s third novel is keenly attuned to the complexities of parenthood, race, and class. Leave the World Behind explores how our closest bonds are reshaped—and unexpected new ones are forged—in moments of crisis.’

4. Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
‘Micah Mortimer is a creature of habit. A self-employed tech expert, superintendent of his Baltimore apartment building seems content leading a steady, circumscribed life. But one day his routines are blown apart when his woman friend tells him she’s facing eviction, and a teenager shows up at Micah’s door claiming to be his son. These surprises, and the ways they throw Micah’s meticulously organized life off-kilter, risk changing him forever.’

5. Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent
‘This story begins with a funeral. One of three brothers is dead, mourned by his siblings. But which one? And how? And, most importantly: why?

William, Brian, and Luke are each born a year apart in a lower middle class Catholic family in 1960s Dublin. William, the eldest, rises to the top of the heap in the film industry as a successful movie producer. Luke, the baby of the family, surprises everyone by morphing into a worldwide pop star. Brian, the compliant middle son, is the eternal adult in the room: the helpful, steady one, the manager of finances and careers.

But none of them is actually quite what he seems. Wounded by childhood, they have betrayed one another in myriad ways, hiding behind little lies that have developed into full blown treachery. With an unnerving eye for the complexities of families, Nugent delves into the secret life of a deeply troubled household and provides stunning insights into the many forces that shape us from childhood.’

6. Violet by S.J.I. Holliday
‘When two strangers end up sharing a cabin on the Trans-Siberian Express, an intense friendship develops, one that can only have one ending… Carrie’s best friend has an accident and can no longer make the round-the-world trip they’d planned together, so Carrie decides to go it alone. Violet is also travelling alone, after splitting up with her boyfriend in Thailand. She is also desperate for a ticket on the Trans-Siberian Express, but there is nothing available. When the two women meet in a Beijing Hotel, Carrie makes the impulsive decision to invite Violet to take her best friend’s place.

Thrown together in a strange country, and the cramped cabin of the train, the women soon form a bond. But as the journey continues, through Mongolia and into Russia, things start to unravel – because one of these women is not who she claims to be… A tense and twisted psychological thriller about obsession, manipulation and toxic friendships, Violet also reminds us that there’s a reason why mother told us not to talk to strangers…’

7. The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey
‘Selina Lennox is a Bright Young Thing. Her life is a whirl of parties and drinking, pursued by the press and staying on just the right side of scandal, all while running from the life her parents would choose for her.

Lawrence Weston is a penniless painter who stumbles into Selina’s orbit one night and can never let her go even while knowing someone of her stature could never end up with someone of his. Except Selina falls hard for Lawrence, envisioning a life of true happiness. But when tragedy strikes, Selina finds herself choosing what’s safe over what’s right.

Spanning two decades and a seismic shift in British history as World War II approaches, Iona Grey’s The Glittering Hour is an epic novel of passion, heartache and loss.’

8. If You Were Here by Alice Peterson
‘When her daughter Beth dies suddenly, Peggy Andrews is left to pick up the pieces and take care of her granddaughter Flo. But sorting through Beth’s things reveals a secret never told: Beth was sick, with the same genetic condition that claimed her father’s life, and now Peggy must decide whether to keep the secret or risk destroying her granddaughter’s world.
 
Five years later, Flo is engaged and ready to pack up her life and move to New York with her high-flying fiancé. Peggy never told Flo what she discovered, but with Flo looking towards her future, Peggy realises it’s time to come clean and reveal that her granddaughter’s life might also be at risk.
 
As Flo struggles to decide her own path, she is faced with the same life-altering questions her mother asked herself years before: If a test could decide your future, would you take it?’

Have you read any of these books? Which pique your interest?

4

‘Miss Jane’ by Brad Watson ****

Brad Watson’s novel, Miss Jane, has been on my to-read list for years, and at last, I spotted a beautifully designed hardback copy in my local library. I am always drawn to female-focused novels, particularly those which follow the protagonist throughout her life. Miss Jane, which is set in Mississippi during the twentieth century, and based on the true story of Watson’s own great aunt, does just this.

The Independent calls the novel ‘superb’, The Guardian ‘subtle and moving’, and author A.M. Homes compares Watson to Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor – an interesting mix indeed. Safe to say, I was suitably intrigued, and looking forward to forming my own thoughts about the novel.

Miss Jane is Jane Chisholm, born in rural east-central Mississippi in 1915. The urological disorder which the doctor discovers when she is just moments old, is seen as a ‘birth defect’, and ‘will come to stand in the way of the central “uses” for a woman in that time and place – namely, sex and marriage.’ There are, of course, no medical treatments which Jane is able to benefit from, until very late in her life. The novel ‘brings to life a hard, unromantic past in a story tinged with the sadness of unattainable loves, yet shot through with a transcendent beauty’.

The opening scene immediately gives one a feel for Watson’s precise writing, and his understanding of what it must be like to deal with such a condition without medical intervention: ‘You would not think someone so conflicted could or would be cheerful, not prone to melancholy or the miseries. Early on she acquired ways of dealing with her life, with life in general. And as she grew older it became evident that she feared almost nothing – perhaps only horses and something she couldn’t quite name, a strange presence of danger not quite – not really a part of the world.’

We then move back in time, to Jane’s birth. Watson writes rather matter-of-factly about the discovery of Jane’s condition: ‘[The doctor] snipped the cord, and took a good look at the child, who’d come around to crying a bit. He didn’t say anything. He looked at the midwife. She stared through narrowed eyes but kept her lips pressed thin.’ The doctor then tells Jane’s father: ‘”… she’s just a girl who did not fully develop. Something stopped that in the womb… It’s rare, but at this point I do not think it’s life-threatening.”‘

We see, from very early on, that Jane has a real strength of character, and that she does not let anything hold her back. Watson comments: ‘She determined that she would live like any other girl as best she could, and when she could no longer do that, she would adjust her life to its terms accordingly.’ On the face of it, her surroundings seem idyllic, but Watson does not shy away from the fact that such a rural life is hard, and fraught with problems – with accidents, with violence, with alcoholism. Her family life can be difficult; her mother is very strict, her father rather dependent on alcohol, her elder sister Grace is difficult, and two siblings died before she was born. She is intelligent, but only attends school for a very short time.

As she begins to come to terms with the way in which she is different to other children, in her sixth year, she ‘had moments where she felt like a secret, silent creation, invisible, more the ghost of something unknowable than a person, a child, a little girl.’ She continually asks questions about what she can expect from life, and her natural curiosity shines throughout. Her main confidante is Ed, the doctor who delivered her; he becomes a sort of mentor to her, and corresponds with other colleagues about her condition, and how it can be managed.

Miss Jane is a rich and complex character portrait, of a woman who learns to live with her condition, and all of the challenges which it brings. I liked the emphasis of Jane’s many character quirks; for instance, Watson writes that ‘Between the ages of four and five, she began to make sure she was the last to sleep. It made her feel safer to be the last one awake, watching and listening to the world settle into the evening quiet and dark. The steady breathing, snoring, sleep-mumbling of the others made her feel more awake and alive, and that was a kind of safeness, too.’ As she grows older, Watson has crafted many scenes which deal with Jane discovering sex, and sensuality; she is an observer, first of the animals around the farm, and then becoming something of a voyeur.

The omniscient perspective in Miss Jane has been really well crafted, and I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience of this novel. One really gets a feel for the family dynamics, and for Jane’s independence, very early on. Whilst the focus is on Jane, we do learn about those around her too, not just those close to her, but also sharecroppers on the family’s land, for instance. The historical detail does not overwhelm, but does enough to situate the whole. I found it particularly fascinating to read about medical options changing across Jane’s lifetime, and the way in which others viewed her disability.

Miss Jane is a sensitive novel, but at no point does it become sentimental. Watson has the capacity to be unflinching, but a sense of real understanding suffuses the whole. Jane feels realistic, and is a character I will not be forgetting in a hurry.

2

‘Call of the Curlew’ by Elizabeth Brooks ****

Elizabeth Brooks’ novel, Call of the Curlew (also published as The Orphan of Salt Winds), caught my eye whilst browsing in the library. I don’t think I had heard of it before, but after reading the blurb and the various reviews dotted over its cover – Eowyn Ivey calling it ‘bewitching’ was enough for me – I was suitably intrigued, and took it home with me.

On New Year’s Eve in 1939, Virginia is ten years old. She is an orphan, whose parents passed away when she was just an infant. At this point in time, she is being taken to the ‘mysterious’ grand house, Salt Winds, to begin a new life with her adoptive parents, Clem and Lorna Wrathmell. The house borders a salt flat named Tollbury Marsh in the East of England, a ‘beautiful but dangerous place’.

At first, the Second World War, which has just begun, feels far away from the Wrathmells’ secluded home. However, whispers in the nearby town regarding the local knife grinder, a Jewish German man, begin to spread, and something sinister simmers below the idyllic surroundings. The German plane crashing into the marsh is a real turning point for Virginia; her adoptive father goes to rescue the pilot and does not return. As she first waits hopefully for his return, and then begins to grieve Clem, she realises that she is as embroiled in war as anyone else.

When the plane comes down, Brooks writes, rather beautifully: ‘It was the grace of the thing that astonished her in retrospect. You’d expect a burning fighter plane to make a great hullabaloo: howling engines, roaring flames, a great boom as it hit the ground, nose first. But if this one made any noise at all, Virginia didn’t notice. All she recalled, later on, was the slow arc it traced through the sky on its way down, like a spark floating from a bonfire. Even the explosion was gentle from their vantage point: a little orange flower that budded, bloomed and withered, all in a moment, far away on the edge of the marsh.’

I found the narrative within Call of the Curlew wonderfully beguiling. The opening paragraph, which is set at the end of 2015, really sets the scene: ‘Virginia Wrathmell knows she will walk on to the marsh one New Year’s Eve, and meet her end there. She’s known it for years. Through adolescence and adulthood she’s spent the last days of December on edge, waiting for a sign. So when one finally arrives, in her eighty-sixth year, there’s no good reason to feel dismayed.’ This sign turns out to be the skull of a curlew, which she finds on her doorstep. ‘All these years,’ Brooks writes, ‘she’s been wondering what the sign will turn out to be, and she’s come up with the strangest ideas. Words forming on a misted window. An anonymous note. A ghost. She’s never imagined anything as perfect as a curlew’s skull.’

Despite the air of mystery about it, there is a really comforting warmth to be found within Brooks’ prose. The descriptions, of which there are many, are wonderfully vivid: ‘Virginia glanced at the flatness to her left, where the silence lay. It was too dark to see the silhouette-bird now. The deep, arctic blue of the sky was reflected, here and there, in streaks of water, and there was a single star in the sky, but everything was black.’

Brooks has such control when she shifts Virginia’s story from the present day to the past, and then back again. Given this structure, we learn a lot about the two Virginias rather quickly; the sometimes crotchety, headstrong old lady, and the curious young girl. Although Virginia is the author’s focus, other characters become clear too, as do their relationships with one another. It is obvious from the outset, for instance, that Clem and Lorna’s marriage contains a great deal of upset, and is fraught with issues.

I found Call of the Curlew wholly absorbing; it is the best kind of historical novel, in that you sink into it. Its landscape is so clear, and its characters hold a great deal of interest. I enjoyed the omniscient perspective, which allowed Brooks to shift from one individual to another, whilst never losing sight of Virginia and her thoughts and feelings. I loved the air of mystery, and the many things left unspoken until far later in the novel. I was caught up in Virginia’s story from the outset. The threads of story which weave throughout have been beautifully layered, and it put me in mind of other authors which I have always enjoyed, namely Kate Morton and Helen Humphreys. I would highly recommend Call of the Curlew to anyone looking for a historical fiction fix.