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Three Historical Fiction Picks

Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres to read, but I have discovered that I don’t often get around to reviewing books which fall into this category. Here, I have brought together three mini reviews of novels which I have read and very much enjoyed, and which I would urge those who like to read historical fiction to pick up. They provide wonderful escapism, which I have found very comforting during these couple of strange years.

The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea

I have had a galley copy of Caroline Lea’s debut novel, The Glass Woman, on my Kindle for quite some time, but for some reason did not get around to reading it very quickly. Set in Iceland during the 1680s, the novel follows a young married woman, Rósa, and her husband, Jón. Rósa has moved far from her home to an isolated croft, where she is left alone much of the day, and is urged not to speak to the locals. Lea captures her loneliness with care and understanding, and uses the third person perspective to examine her protagonist. One of the real strengths of the novel is the unsettling feel which it has; this builds as the story progresses. The reader is aware that something is not quite right, and that something sinister might be lurking in the croft’s attic space, which Rósa is banned from exploring.

Wonderfully descriptive, The Glass Woman captures space and place very well. She writes about the unforgiving landscape in which Rósa finds herself, and the sadness which she feels at being pulled away from her sick mother. A few other reviews which I have read have commented that The Glass Woman is not particularly well situated, and that its action could quite easily be moved to another location – and even perhaps another time period entirely. I do not agree. Lea mentions specific Icelandic sagas throughout, and also sprinkles a few Icelandic words throughout the narrative, which contribute to embedding the story in one place and time. I feel that this has been rather well done, personally.

Jón’s first person perspective is introduced quite far into the novel, something which I was not expecting to happen. Whilst, as other reviewers have noted, I can see why Lea chose to do this, I would have preferred the novel to use the third person narrative voice throughout. Regardless, my interest in the story did not wane, and I was pulled into Rósa’s world; Lea describes this as ‘a blizzard-blurred huddle of white drifts and blank hillocks, made of nothing more than ice and air. Everything has reduced to an arm’s length away, as if life beyond the croft no longer exists.’ Some of the tropes used within The Glass Woman are arguably a little obvious, but overall, it is a very effective novel, which has been well plotted, and moves along nicely.

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

I have heard so much buzz around Georgia Hunter’s novel, We Were the Lucky Ones. It is set largely during the Second World War, and encompasses one family who are fractured by the Holocaust. The novel opens in 1939, in Poland, where several generations of the Kurc family are trying their hardest to continue with their normal lives. However, like so many millions of Jews all across Europe, they are forced to try and survive in a terrifying new world, in which they are marginalised and persecuted.

Hunter’s novel is sweeping; it moves across five continents, and spans a period of eight years. The novel is based upon true events; the author’s own family, she discovered in her teenage years, were Holocaust survivors. Whilst some names have been changed here, a lot of the details echo reality, and the novel is the result of incredibly extensive research. The author is clearly attuned to the world of which she writes, and the numerous events which affect every single family member. Her characters become almost helpless, as they begin to lose control over every aspect of their lives.

From the outset, I very much admired Hunter’s approach, wherein she follows different members of the family as they move away from their home. A lot of what they have to face – the sacrifices which they are forced to make, and the acts of bravery which they choose to – is difficult to read, but it is obviously also incredibly important to remember. Hunter has interspersed her family’s story with brief factual details explaining the political situation at each particular point in history. The present tense which she uses throughout infuses We Were the Lucky Ones with a real sense of urgency, and the different threads of story have been wonderfully tied together.

The Last Camellia by Sarah Jio

Sarah Jio is an author whom I have become really interested in reading of late. Every single one of her works of historical fiction appealed to me, and I ended up selecting The Last Camellia to begin with merely because my local library had a copy which I was able to reserve. I also love stories about botanists during the wars – rather niche, I know.

I very much enjoy novels with dual timelines, something which The Last Camellia uses to its advantage. Jio has crafted a clever familial saga which stretches across two timelines – the 1940s and the 2000s. The 1940s story, in which a young woman named Flora Lewis travels from New York to a small English village to take over as the nanny for the Livingston family – under false pretences – was my favourite, as I felt that the historical context had been really well thought out. There is also the trope of a mildly unsettling housekeeper, who is somehow still working at the house in 2000. In this more modern timeline, we meet Addison, whose husband’s family has just purchased the manor. She works as a landscaper, and this ties in nicely with the mystery of the rarest camellia in England, the Middlebury Pink, one of which is thought to be still living somewhere around the grounds of Livingston Manor.

I loved the element of mystery which has been woven in here, and it certainly kept me guessing throughout. The different threads of story were well handled, and whilst I felt that some of the denouements were a little far-fetched, I still very much enjoyed this absorbing reading experience, and the transporting stories within it. Jio’s prose is really quite nice; it did not make me swoon at all, as some historical fiction does, but it is undoubtedly vivid. I reserved another of Jio’s books from my local library before I had even finished The Last Camellia, and am hoping that she could fast become a new go-to historical fiction author for me.

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‘The Last Life’ by Claire Messud ****

Messud is an author whose writing I greatly admire. Over the last few years, I have slowly been making my way through her back catalogue, and have thoroughly enjoyed each of her books. Messud, as an author, appears to me to be rather underrated. I rarely see reviews of her work unless I seek them out, and one of my absolute favourites amongst her novels – The Emperor’s Children – seems polarising among readers.

One thing which I love about Messud’s work is that each of her books is so different in subject matter. Everything which she writes about, from an obsessive female friendship in The Woman Upstairs, to a complicated relationship between two sisters living on opposite sides of the world in When the World Was Steady, is utterly compelling. The Last Life, her second novel, was published in 1999, and is certainly a book to savour.

The Last Life takes as its focus a fifteen-year-old girl named Sagesse LaBasse, who tells her story with a ‘ruthless regard for truth’. She comes from a family of French Algerian immigrants who own a hotel, the Bellevue, on the French Riviera. This overlooks their old homeland. The family are ‘haunted by their history’ and, early on in the novel, they are ‘brought to the brink of destruction by a single reckless act.’

Sagesse has an American mother, and muses throughout about her heritage, and what her mixed nationalities mean to her. The novel is told from a position of retrospect, from Sagesse’s apartment in New York City; it opens: ‘I am American now, but this wasn’t always so.’ A couple of paragraphs later, she reveals the following: ‘I’m not American by default. It’s a choice. But it is a mask. Who, in the thronged avenues of Manhattan, hasn’t known this?’ The grown Sagesse has reached a point in her life where she wishes to ‘translate the world inside, beginning with the home that was once mine, on France’s southern coast…’. So begins her story.

From the outset, everything about The Last Life intrigued me. Messud’s prose is rich, and characteristically searching. The many descriptions which she gives throughout to situate Sagesse and her family are luscious, and incredibly evocative. Messud’s attention to detail renders every landscape, every object, almost tangible to the reader. When living in the South of France, for instance, ‘… the days lingered like overripe fruit, soft and heavily scented, melting into the glorious dusk. We gathered by the hotel pool, on the clifftop, after supper, watching the sky falter into Prussian blue, to blue-black, and the moon rise over the Mediterranean, the sea spread out before us, whispering and wrinkled.’

In many ways, The Last Life is a coming-of-age novel; we watch the teenage Sagesse grow, preoccupied with stuffing her bra, and being around her peers rather than her family. There are moments of intrigue here, and others of surprise. The single incident, which serves to make the LaBasse family question so much, felt unexpected, as did Sagesse’s expulsion from the family home soon afterward, to stay with her aunt in America. Messud demonstrates great insight throughout, especially on the many and varied experiences of being a teenager. I found Sagesse and her reactions to be thoroughly believable.

The storyline of The Last Life is an intricate one. The feelings of displacement, of ‘otherness’, ricochet through the novel, affecting many of the characters. When with her aunt in Boston, Sagesse comments: ‘It dawned on me in those early days that I was, in this place, remarkably, a cipher. I didn’t speak much. The tidal wave of American English was tiring for me, and it took all my energy to keep up, and anyway I felt that my personality didn’t translate. I couldn’t make jokes in English, or not without planning them out before I spoke, by which time they ceased to be funny and I couldn’t be bothered to voice them… But because they didn’t know me, my cousins didn’t notice. They thought me reserved, perhaps, or pensive, or homesick (which I often was, but they didn’t ask about my home), and each projected onto me the character she wanted or needed me to have.’

I have always found Messud’s work to contain incredibly deep portrayals and explorations of the human condition. This novel is certainly no different; it is just as astute, direct, and thorough as I was expecting. I cannot fathom why Messud seems to be such an underappreciated author, and I hope that if you pick up The Last Life, or one of her books based on this review, that you enjoy her work just as much as I do.

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‘On the Black Hill’ by Bruce Chatwin ****

Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill was the winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award, upon its publication in 1982. The Independent calls the novel Chatwin’s ‘deepest and best book’ and, having read nothing of the author’s before, I felt it would be a good starting point. His travelogue, In Patagonia, has been hovering somewhere around the top of my to-read list for years now, and when I do finally pick it up, I am keen to see how it compares.

On the Black Hill is described as ‘an elegantly written tale’ of Benjamin and Lewis, identical twin brothers who grew up on a farm in rural Wales, and who never leave home. They ’till rough soil and sleep in the same bed, touched only occasionally by the advances of the twentieth century.’ I am always drawn to books set in rural locations, or isolated communities, and this novel ticks both boxes. The nature of the novel allows Chatwin to comment ‘movingly on the larger questions of human experience.’

On the Black Hill opens in a way which perfectly sets the scene. Chatwin writes: ‘For forty-two years, Lewis and Benjamin Jones slept side by side, in their parents’ bed, at their farm which was known as “The Vision”.’ Owned by their parents since 1899, it lies right on the line between England and Wales – so much so that the brothers can see the ‘green fields of England’ from one window, and the black hill of Wales from the other. Aside from one holiday at the seaside during their childhood, they have never left. They have seen the same view every day of their lives.

I found the prose throughout the novel rather powerful, and sometimes even haunting, in what it revealed. I admired the way in which Chatwin uses just a few details to say so much. Of the brothers’ bedroom, he says, for instance: ‘The room was always dark and smelled of lavender and mothballs.’ Descriptions of the landscape, too, are highly effective, and effortlessly create a panorama of the twins’ surroundings. Chatwin writes: ‘To the east was the River Wye, a silver ribbon snaking through water-meadows, and the whole countryside dotted with white or red-brick farmhouses. A thatched roof made a little patch of yellow in a foam of apple-blossom, and there were gloomy stands of conifers that shrouded the homes of the gentry.’

Whilst identical and difficult to tell apart in childhood, clear differences grow between the brothers; these, Chatwin captures throughout. He writes, for example, ‘Benjamin was shorter, pinker, neater and sharper-tongued.’ The relationship revealed between the twins is one of the great strengths of On the Black Hill; as adults, they ‘quarrelled without speaking’. As youngsters, they ‘persisted in sharing everything. They even split their sandwiches in two, and swapped the halves.’

When we first meet the twins, they are eighty. Chatwin moves back in time to encompass not just their childhoods, and their experiences of adulthood, but the relationship between their kind mother and hot-headed father, which soon spirals into violence. I found the characters to be rather fascinatingly drawn, and they each felt fleshed out in their unpredictability. A good example of this regards the twins’ parents. Before they married, their parents were both more exuberant, and more unsure, ‘bursting with things to say to each other. Both felt, at that moment, there was nothing more to say; that nothing would come of their meeting; that their two accents would never make one whole voice; and that they would both creep back to their shells – as if the flash of recognition in church were a trick of fate, or a temptation of the Devil to ruin them. They stammered on, and gradually their words spaced themselves into silence: their eyes did not meet as he edged out backwards and ran for the hill.’

Whilst this novel tends to be rather dark, there are some amusing moments here, which I’m not sure that I was quite expecting. I felt as though the entirety of the novel was well controlled, particularly with the way in which it moved back in history. It is also effectively rooted in the according time periods; Chatwin is very aware of details in this regard, and weaves small details in throughout. At the annual Flower Show in 1903, for instance, ‘… the pony shied at a dead hedgehog in the lane, and their mother won First Prize for runner beans.’

On the Black Hill is a thoughtful and readable novel, which spans two entire lives. Alongside the more serious elements of the plot, there are some really charming and meditative scenes to be found throughout. On the Black Hill is not hugely dramatic by any means, and is more quiet and contemplative than anything else. Through Chatwin’s words, I sank into rural Wales; I delighted in the not always idyllic countryside presented, and the very memorable people who called it home.

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‘Inlands’ by Elin Willows ****

Translated from the Swedish by Duncan J. Lewis

I have such a deep interest in all things Scandinavian, and try to ensure that I read as many Scandi books as I can get my hands on. I was intrigued by Elin Willows’ Inlands as soon as I spotted its striking pastel cover, and ended up ordering myself a copy online. The novel was first published in Sweden in 2018, and translated into English by Duncan J. Lewis in 2019. The lovely edition which I read was published by Nordisk Books, a relatively new, and immensely exciting, publishing house, which was founded in 2016.

Inlands centres on a young, unnamed woman, who moves from bustling Stockholm to Sweden’s ‘inlands’, to a small village in the far north to live where her boyfriend comes from. Of her choice, she comments: ‘In both places, there’s equal surprise. Not over the fact that I want to live with him, but that I’m the one moving to him. Everyone wonders why we don’t do it the other way around. Why he doesn’t move to me. The people I’m moving away from don’t know where I’m going. No one has been here. Where I’m moving to, they’re also surprised. Why am I leaving that which I’m leaving, for this?’

Her boyfriend, also unnamed, drives down to Stockholm to pick her up, but as soon as they arrive in the north of the country, both are aware that their relationship has irrevocably ended. Rather than return to the place which she knows so well, she makes the decision to stay, reasoning that her plan was to live in the village anyway. She quickly finds a job in a large grocery store, and even after she has been there for a year or two, is constantly aware – and is made aware – that she is an outsider. Regardless, she finds a kind of peace in the area, something which was missing from her city life: ‘I stay in the village. There’s no anxiety here. No one I need to be anxious about. I’ve got myself. I avoid a lot of emotions by being here.’

There are mundane moments throughout, many of which revolve around the narrator’s work and home life. She does not do that much; she spends whole stretches of days indoors, eating poorly, and wearing jogging bottoms. Willows has balanced this with real poignancy though; for instance, when she tells us: ‘I see the Northern Lights for the first time one evening when I’ve just started to get used to the loneliness.’

Inlands is incredibly readable, and its translation has been expertly handled. The novel is comprised of short chapters, and a relatively fragmented narrative, something which I very much enjoy in contemporary fiction. It will not be for everyone, but I loved the way in which the story slotted together over time.

The narrator’s voice is expansive, earnest, and sometimes raw. Inlands is a character study, essentially, which displays the innermost thoughts and impacts of a changed, and changing, life, when our narrator is transplanted by a city to a very quiet new place a thousand kilometres away. I admired the way in which Willows discusses, at points throughout, the dislocation of self which her protagonist feels: ‘The world seems so disconnected from my life now. My two lives, completely separated, connected only by the fact that I live in both of them. I think about my old life in a large city as a vacuum that I can still go into, but when I’m there, my current life becomes strange and unreachable.’ There is so much to consider here, and I felt almost bereft when I reached the end of this beautifully melancholy book; it was one which I did not want to put down, and was so absorbed by.

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One From the Archive: ‘Gilgi’ by Irmgard Keun *****

First published in 2017.

Gilgi (full title, Gilgi, One Of Us) has been presented in a new English translation as part of Melville House Publishing’s Neversink Library collection.  First published in its original German in 1931, Irmgard Keun’s debut novel, published when she was just twenty-six, has been rendered into the most beautiful English prose by Geoff Wilkes.  In Germany, Gilgi became an overnight sensation, and Keun was driven to sue the Gestapo several years afterwards for blocking her royalties.

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The protagonist of Gilgi is Gisela Kron, a ‘disciplined and ambitious secretary’ in a hosiery business.  Immediately admirable with her hardworking stubbornness,  she is desperately ‘trying to establish her independence in a society being overtaken by fascism’.  Falling in love, however, is a ‘fateful choice’ which will ‘unmoor’ Gilgi from her own position in the world, that which she has fought for so long to uphold.  Gilgi is essentially a coming-of-age novel; whilst Gilgi is biologically older than a character whom we might expect to undergo such a formative transformation, she learns much about the world around her, and about herself, as the novel progresses.  She is made aware of her own strengths and weaknesses, and the place which she occupies in both public and private spheres in her home city of Cologne.

Keun’s choice of opening is fascinating, and very much sets the tone for the whole: ‘She’s holding it firmly in her hands, her little life, the girl Gilgi.  She calls herself Gilgi, her name is Gisela.  The two i‘s [sic] are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s, to tiny fashionable hats which contrive mysteriously to stay perched on the very top of her head.  When she’s twenty-five, she’ll call herself Gisela.  But she’s not at that point quite yet.’  She is a cool-headed character, and faced with many of the challenges as she is, many other protagonists would have inevitably had some sort of breakdown or existential crisis.  Not Gilgi.  She is a firm believer in dealing with everything thrown at one, and she does so largely flawlessly.

Gilgi’s familial situation is exposed to the reader almost immediately: ‘No one speaks.  Everyone is earnestly and dully occupied with their own concerns.  The complete lack of conversation testifies to the family’s decency and legitimacy.  Herr and Frau Kron have stuck together through years of honorable tedium to their silver wedding anniversary.  They love each other, and are faithful to each other, something which has become a matter of routine, and no longer needs to be discussed, or felt’.

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Irmgard Keun

Gilgi is very of its time; Keun is never far away from inserting snippets of social history, or the economic struggles which many around Gilgi faced on a daily basis.  So many issues which are still of much importance in our modern society are tackled here – patriarchy, sexual relations, pregnancy out of wedlock, and the very concept of womanhood.  It is an astoundingly frank work, both ‘piercingly perceptive and formally innovative’.  Gilgi is told on the morning of her twenty-first birthday, for instance, that her parents are not biologically hers, and then given the details of her birth mother.

Gilgi herself provides a contrast to the societal norms held for women during the period; she is proactive, has her own job, and pays for her own things: ‘I want to work, want to get on, want to be self-supporting and independent…  At the moment I’m learning my languages – I’m saving money…’.  She may still live at home with the Krons who raised her, but she makes clear that her biggest aim in life is to fund her own apartment.

Until she meets Martin, the idea of being a kept woman repulses her; indeed, even with Martin, Keun has allowed Gilgi her independence.  The pair move in with one another to the vacant apartment of one of Martin’s friends; he is unshakeable in his existence and largely lives hand to mouth, so it is up to Gilgi to work and pay for everything.  Again, tradition is eschewed here, and Keun demonstrates to a point that a woman of the period could make things work by herself.  Gilgi’s grand ambitions still live within her, even when she becomes conscious that they are not perhaps achievable due to the pregnancy which befalls her naive self.

I was put in mind of reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage at several points during the novel; the narrative voice which Keun has crafted simultaneously weaves the first and third person perspectives together in a beguiling manner.  There is a wonderful stream-of-consciousness approach to the whole in places.  Gilgi is a fascinating, deeply complex, and thoroughly realistic character.  Each individual consequence which she has to face is tackled with the utmost verisimilitude.  Gilgi is a stunning novel, with prose echoes of Hans Fallada and Stefan Zweig.  It is absolutely wonderful, and sure to delight those with a fondness for strong female characters, or who want to read a striking piece of translated literature.

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‘The Bird in the Tree’ by Elizabeth Goudge *****

Elizabeth Goudge is an author whose work I have been planning to read for at least a decade. I have no idea why it has taken me such a long time to get around to picking up one of her novels; perhaps it is merely because she seems to have been very underrepresented in the majority of the physical bookshops which I have visited over the years. I am thrilled to say though that my local library had a copy of the first novel in the Eliots of Damerosehay trilogy, and that I fell in love with its story immediately.

The Bird in the Tree, first published in 1940, is also known as the first part of the Eliot Chronicles series. The Eliot family decided to relocate to a rather decrepit house named Damerosehay, close to the Hampshire coast, following the First World War. When discovering the neglected house whilst on a walk with her young grandson David, Goudge writes: ‘They opened doors into queer rooms lit only by the long fingers of bright sunlight that smote through the chinks in the shutters… They pursued long twisting passages to their strange conclusions in unexpected flights of steps and small closets throughout whose broken windows creepers had grown, trailing their tendrils on the floor… They explored attics under the roof where the plaster had fallen and the slates had slipped, so that patches of blue sky smiled in upon them, and exciting cellars where toadstools like orange flowers were growing in the must and damp.’ Lucilla decides, immediately, that this is the house for them, and sets about buying it.

Matriarch Lucilla Eliot then spends ‘a lifetime’ making this house ‘a tranquil haven for her family’, and it is here that we watch them grow. There are several rather endearing young grandchildren – Ben, Tommy, and Caroline – who flit in and out of the action, and two dogs named ‘Pooh-Bah and Bastard’ complete the ensemble.

Far from being a peaceful novel, though, The Bird in the Tree is filled with scandal. Lucilla’s beloved grandson, David, deigns to fall in love with ‘an unsuitable woman’ – his aunt by marriage, now divorced. Of course, Lucilla takes this news terribly, feeling that it threatens her ‘most cherished ambitions’. At a point just before she learns of David’s transgressions, ‘… she looked what she was, a leisured and lovely old lady securely enthroned in a home where there was enough money for the creation of dignity and beauty but not enough for luxury or ostentation.’

Much understanding is given by Goudge to her characters. Nine-year-old Ben, who has grown up in Egypt and India, is finally settling in to life at Damerosehay. Goudge writes: ‘The first seven years of his life were now just a confused and painful memory of heat and flies, bands playing, riots when people got shot, a burning fever in his body, a pain in his head, a choking feeling in his chest that they told him was asthma, and his father and mother quarrelling.’ His divorced parents are largely absent from the lives of himself, Tommy, and Caroline, with their father moving back to India, and their mother residing in London – until she and David fall in love and she returns, much to the chagrin of her sons, of course.

Goudge’s descriptions are nothing short of superb. When writing about Ben, one of the grandchildren, for instance, she says: ‘In his mind’s eye, as he ran on, he could see the green grass paths between the lavender hedges, the purple masses of the Michaelmas daisies with the butterflies sunning their wings upon them, the glowing spires of the golden rod and the flowers of the dahlias and petunias, the frail late autumn roses and the ilex tree by the house where the blackbird sang. He could see the colour of it, and smell the damp sweet scent of it, and feel how it lived and breathed within its old brick walls just to give sanctuary to those who needed it.’ The garden particularly came to life for me; it is presented in so much precise detail that was a real joy to read. Goudge’s descriptions are made up of many layers, and are as rich and visceral as anything written by the likes of Dorothy Whipple or Elizabeth Taylor. I must say – merely on the strength of one novel – that if you enjoy either of the aforementioned authors, you are sure to love Goudge’s work.

I loved Goudge’s wry humour, too. She comments, for example, that Tommy ‘looked like one of Raphael’s cherubs but unfortunately his character was most distressingly at variance with his outward appearance’. Caroline, who is almost six, ‘seldom spoke and it was impossible to say at her age whether her silence was due to the presence of great thoughts in her mind or to the abundance of any thoughts at all.’ Such offhand phrases effortlessly capture her characters. Much humour surrounds Lucilla and her maid, Ellen, two years her senior. The women have a well-drawn and believable relationship, which I appreciated. Ellen has very pronounced opinions, which she sometimes tries to keep to herself. Goudge writes: ‘Ellen sniffed. The extravagance of Lucilla’s love for her grandson David, as for his father before him, always slightly irritated her. It was out of proportion. It was not quite the correct reaction of maternity. It was almost more the love of a girl for her lover… And Lucilla was seventy-eight.’

In part, The Bird in the Tree is old-fashioned and perhaps a little melodramatic, but it so appealed to me as a reader, and I am eager to continue with the rest of the trilogy. The novel put me in mind throughout of the perfect Virago or Persephone title; it features sharp character portraits, excellent writing, and a compelling story. There are some beautifully observed scenes throughout, and Goudge writes with such a deft touch. Watching the relationship between Lucilla and her various children and grandchildren unfold was a delight, and I very much look forward to meeting the Eliots, and Damerosehay, again in the near future.

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‘Mudbound’ by Hillary Jordan ****

I have wanted to read Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound for a very long time, but my interest was renewed when watching a trailer for the Netflix adaptation of the novel. Mudbound won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, and has been praised highly by a favourite contemporary author of mine, Barbara Kingsolver; she says, rather grandly: ‘This is storytelling at the height of its powers.’

Mudbound is set in the Mississippi Delta in 1946. Henry McAllan has moved his whole family, including his much younger wife Laura and two small daughters, to a ramshackle farm which is at the mercy of regular flooding. Before making this rather momentous decision, he does not consult his wife at all; he merely springs the date and location of their moving upon her. ‘City-bred’ Laura does not settle in well, finding her new home lacking in many of the comforts which she has been used to for her entire life. She finds the Mississippi countryside ‘both foreign and frightening’, and begins a perpetual struggle to raise her two daughters well in their isolated shack.

Added to these problems is the existence of Henry’s father, who moves with them; he is hateful and racist, and shows that he is so at any given opportunity. He is the villain of the piece from the outset; his ‘long yellow teeth’ and ‘bony yellow fingers with their thick curled nails’ make him seem animalistic, other.

Also living with them is Henry’s younger brother, Jamie, who is just back from fighting in Europe. He is shellshocked, changed by everything he has seen, including liberating the concentration camp at Dachau. Another individual returning to the homestead is a young black man named Ronsel Jackson, whose family work as sharecroppers on the land. Despite being seen as a hero for his part in the war, when he returns home, Ronsel ‘faces far more dangerous battles against the ingrained bigotry of his own countrymen.’

I found Mudbound immediately compelling. It opens with a clandestine burial, following the murder of the father-in-law. At this moment in time, Jamie narrates: ‘Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep. Any shallower and the corpse was liable to come rising up during the next big flood: Howdy boys! Remember me? The thought of it kept us digging even after the blisters on our palms had burst, reformed and burst again. Every shovelful was an agony – the old man, getting in his last licks.’ When the hole is being dug, the skeleton of a former slave is found within it, a shocking signpost which sets the scene for this captivating yet brutal novel.

The narrative then moves back in time, and we learn, slowly, what happened to bring the family to this point. It is obvious, very early on, that each character is very much at the mercy of their surroundings. ‘When it rained, as often as it did,’ Jordan writes, ‘the yard turned into a thick gumbo, with the house floating in it like a soggy cracker. When the rains came hard, the river rose and swallowed the bridge that was the only way across. The world was on the other side of that bridge, the world of light bulbs and paved roads and shirts that stayed white. When the river rose, the world was lost to us and us to it.’

Mudbound is, fittingly, the name which Laura gives to their decrepit home. She reflects: ‘Like most city people, I’d had a ridiculous goldenlit idea of the country. I’d pictured rain falling softly upon verdant fields, barefoot boys fishing with thistles dangling from their mouths, women quilting in cozy little log cabins while their men smoked corncob pipes on the porch. You have to get closer to the picture to see the wretched shacks scattered throughout those fields, where families clad in ragged flour-sack clothes sleep ten to a room on dirt floors; the hookworm rashes on the boys’ feet and the hideous red pellagra scales on their hands and arms; the bruises on the faces of the women, and the rage and hopelessness in the eyes of the men.’

I enjoyed the use of the multiple well-drawn perspectives here, and admired that Jordan made each of them distinctive. There is a lot of variance between the different voices. I particularly enjoyed reading Laura and Ronsel’s chapters, although I found the latter’s direct and shocking. Of his time in battle, for instance, Ronsel recalls: ‘I got to where I didn’t know what time it was or what day of the week. There was just the fighting, on and on, the crack of rifles and the ack ack ack of machine guns, bazookas firing, shells and mines exploding, men screaming and groaning and dying. And every day knowing you could be next, it could be your blood spattered all over your buddies.’

Mudbound is a haunting novel, and a great piece of historical fiction, which comes together incredibly well. The novel is well situated within its hostile environment, and the characters remained vivid to me weeks after closing the final page. I very much look forward to reading more of Jordan’s work, and soon.

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Ten Underrated Authors

I always feel mildly surprised when I read a book which I love, but which barely anyone else seems to have picked up. Of course, there are so many books in the world, and thousands of new ones being published every year, that we can sadly never get around to picking up everything which interests us. There is a real shame though, in enjoying an author’s voice so much, and realising that others, who would surely love it too, haven’t discovered it yet.

I find examples of this often; there are so many authors who make my favourites list that draw a blank with the readers in my life. This spurred me on to create a list of ten authors, all of whom I think are underrated, and all of whom I would urge you to read. I have chosen what I feel would be a great starting point for each author, and really hope that I can persuade you, dear reader, to pick up something new.

Harriet Scott Chessman

Start with: Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper (2001)

I picked up Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper in a secondhand bookshop. I hadn’t heard anything about it before, but was captivated by its blurb. I took it home and, intrigued, began to read it the same day. I found myself pulled into the visually beautiful world of Mary Cassatt’s early Impressionist paintings. Her sister, Lydia, posed for five of her most famous paintings, and the novella follows her primarily. Scott Chessman writes with such sensitivity about Lydia’s Bright’s Disease, which attacks her kidneys, and how she deals with the knowledge of her inevitable early death. Despite this, there is so much beauty in the book, and I still think about it often.

Julia Stuart

Start with: The Matchmaker of Périgord (2007)

I can’t remember when I first discovered Julia Stuart, but I have read each of her four novels to date with a great deal of delight. Although I would recommend all of them – and they are all rather different in what they set out to achieve – my absolute favourite has been The Matchmaker of Périgord. I am always drawn to novels about France, as any readers of this blog will surely know, and this novel, set in a southwestern corner of France, is just lovely. A barber, named Guillaume Ladoucette, is losing business, and decides instead to branch out into matchmaking. Along the way, he helps a great deal of unusual and quirky characters, and instills a great joy into his small village. I loved this amusing novel, and cannot wait to reread it.

Alice Jolly

Start with: Dead Babies and Seaside Towns (2015)

I spotted this in my local library whilst I still lived in my hometown, and was drawn in by the book’s title. After reading the blurb, I added it to the staggering pile of tomes already in my arms, and took it home with me. What I found in the book’s pages was a great deal of sadness balanced with hope, all revealed in the most beautiful prose. The main events of this self-published memoir revolve around the stillbirth of Jolly’s second baby, and her consequent difficulties in conceiving, as well as a surrogacy journey. It will be relatable to a lot of people, and although it is quite often difficult to read, I savoured every word, and greatly admired Jolly’s bravery in telling her own story.

Dorothy Evelyn Smith

Start with: Miss Plum and Miss Penny (1959)

I must admit that Miss Plum and Miss Penny is the only book of Dorothy Evelyn Smith’s which I have read to date, but I feel that she will be an author whose work I adore. This novel, which tells of Miss Alison Penny, is amusing, a little silly, and rather charming. On the morning of her fortieth birthday, ‘spinster’ Miss Penny, who lives in a picturesque village, saves another woman – Miss Ada Plum – from drowning in the local duckpond. What follows took me by surprise at points, and kept my attention throughout. I must thank Dean Street Press and Furrowed Middlebrow for reprinting this one, as it may have passed me by otherwise!

Jo Baker

Start with: The Body Lies (2019)

I must admit that my absolute favourite of Jo Baker’s books is the beautiful historical novel The Picture Book, but The Body Lies is the first which I read, and one which I would highly recommend beginning with. I received a copy of the novel on Netgalley, and did not quite know what to expect, but what I found was a compelling and clever literary thriller. A writer moves to the countryside of the north of England, along with her young child, to work at a university; this is supposed to be a fresh start for her. Baker writes with such intelligence about sexual politics, and has created a deeply unsettling, and highly satisfying novel.

Joanna Cannan

Start with: Princes in the Land (1938)

The Persephone fans among you have probably heard of Joanna Cannan, a rather prolific writer who published over many different genres, from crime fiction to pony stories, and sister of the quite wonderful poet May Wedderburn Cannan. I was pulled into her novella, Princes in the Land, from the very first. We follow Patricia, who is lamenting about her children growing up and leaving home, and wondering where it leaves her in the world. Other reviewers have called this depressing, and I suppose it is to an extent, given its focus, but I thought it was beautifully written, and a very thoughtful piece.

Jesse Ball

Start with: Census (2018)

I try, as best I can, to keep up with contemporary American literature; I love it so much. It is often difficult to pick out authors whom I want to read immediately, but something about Jesse Ball caused me to scour my local library catalogues, and even to contemplate whether it would be worth ordering some of his books from the States, as they are often quite difficult to procure in the UK. I have been lucky enough to find a couple of his novels to date, and admire them for their unusualness. I would highly recommend starting, as I did, with the incredibly beautiful Census, which charts a relationship between a father and his son in a strange, changing world. You can read my full review here if you would like to.

Vendela Vida

Start with: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (2007)

I have been lucky enough to read all of Vendela Vida’s books to date, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all. She writes about highly believable characters in such beautiful language. One of the real strengths of her books is the way in which she sets the scene; she is like a painter, unfolding what she sees in front of the reader. This particular novel follows Clarissa, a twenty eight-year-old woman, who finds out after her father’s death that he was not really her father at all. This leads her on a journey to Lapland, to discover her origins. There is so much to love in this story, and love it I did.

Jessie Greengrass

Start with: Sight (2018)

Jessie Greengrass has released two novels and a short story collection to date, and all of them have really appealed to me. She focuses on different things, and each of her books is really very different, but Greengrass’ writing is something which has kept me coming back. Her first novel, Sight, which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, revolves around three females from the same family, and their relationships with one another. There are moments of such beauty and clarity here, and it is definitely a novel which I will reread in future. You can find my full review of Sight here.

Kathleen Jamie

Start with: Findings (2005)

Kathleen Jamie is both a poet and nature writer, but it is through the latter that I first discovered her work. Published by the excellent Sort Of Books, one of my favourite houses, Jamie spends her time in Findings ‘simply stepping out to look’ at what is around her. There is much about the beautiful countryside of Scotland, a country which I lived in for three years, and the nature which she is lucky enough to see here. Findings is filled with exquisite prose, and it really gives one a feel for the main themes in her work, and her way with words.

Please let me know if you’re going to pick up any books by these authors, and also which your favourite underrated authors are!

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Eight More Great Audiobooks

I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to audiobooks whilst pottering about over the last couple of years, and wanted to put together a list of those which I have particularly enjoyed, and which I would recommend. I am lucky that my local library has such an excellent and varied collection, which I am slowly working my way through.

1. Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir by Amy Tan

‘In Where the Past Begins, bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club and The Valley of Amazement Amy Tan is at her most intimate in revealing the truths and inspirations that underlie her extraordinary fiction. By delving into vivid memories of her traumatic childhood, confessions of self-doubt in her journals, and heartbreaking letters to and from her mother, she gives evidence to all that made it both unlikely and inevitable that she would become a writer. Through spontaneous storytelling, she shows how a fluid fictional state of mind unleashed near-forgotten memories that became the emotional nucleus of her novels.

Tan explores shocking truths uncovered by family memorabilia—the real reason behind an IQ test she took at age six, why her parents lied about their education, mysteries surrounding her maternal grandmother—and, for the first time publicly, writes about her complex relationship with her father, who died when she was fifteen. Supplied with candor and characteristic humor, Where the Past Begins takes readers into the idiosyncratic workings of her writer’s mind, a journey that explores memory, imagination, and truth, with fiction serving as both her divining rod and link to meaning.’

2. A Year in Paris: Season by Season in the City of Light by John Baxter

‘From the incomparable John Baxter, award-winning author of the bestselling The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, a sumptuous and definitive portrait of Paris through the seasons, highlighting the unique tastes, sights, and changing personality of the city in spring, summer, fall, and winter.

When the common people of France revolted in 1789, one of the first ways they chose to correct the excesses of the monarchy and the church was to rename the months of the year. Selected by poet and playwright Philippe-Francois-Nazaire Fabre, these new names reflected what took place at that season in the natural world; Fructidor was the month of fruit, Floréal that of flowers, while the winter wind (vent) dominated Ventôse.

Though the names didn’t stick, these seasonal rhythms of the year continue to define Parisians, as well as travelers to the city. As acclaimed author and long-time Paris resident John Baxter himself recollects, “My own arrival in France took place in Nivôse, the month of snow, and continued in Pluviôse, the season of rain. To someone coming from Los Angeles, where seasons barely existed, the shock was visceral. Struggling to adjust, I found reassurance in the literature, music, even the cuisine of my adoptive country, all of which marched to the inaudible drummer of the seasons.”

Devoting a section of the book to each of Fabre’s months, Baxter draws upon Paris’s literary, cultural and artistic past to paint an affecting, unforgettable portrait of the city. Touching upon the various ghosts of Paris past, from Hemingway and Zelda Fitzgerald, to Claude Debussy to MFK Fisher to Francois Mitterrand, Baxter evokes the rhythms of the seasons in the City of Light, and the sense of wonder they can arouse for all who visit and live there.

A melange of history, travel reportage, and myth, of high culture and low, A Year in Paris is vintage John Baxter: a vicarious thrill ride for anyone who loves Paris.’

3. When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott

‘November 1918. On the cusp of the end of the First World War, a uniformed soldier is arrested in Durham Cathedral. It quickly becomes clear that he has no memory of who he is or how he came to be there.
 
The soldier is given the name Adam and transferred to a rehabilitation home where his doctor James tries everything he can to help Adam remember who he once was. There’s just one problem. Adam doesn’t want to remember.
 
Unwilling to relive the trauma of war, Adam has locked his mind away, seemingly for good. But when a newspaper publishes Adam’s photograph, three women come forward, each just as certain that Adam is their relative and that he should go home with them.
 
But does Adam really belong with any of these women? Or is there another family waiting for him to come home?

Based on true events, When I Come Home Again is a deeply moving and powerful story of a nation’s outpouring of grief, and the search for hope in the aftermath of the First World War.’

4. Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

‘A novel of haunting metaphysical suspense about an elderly widow whose life is upturned when she finds a cryptic note on a walk in the woods that ultimately makes her question everything about her new home.

While on her normal daily walk with her dog in the forest woods, our protagonist comes across a note, handwritten and carefully pinned to the ground with a frame of stones. “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body”. Our narrator is deeply shaken; she has no idea what to make of this. She is new to area, having moved her from her longtime home after the death of her husband, and she knows very few people. And she’s a little shaky even on best days. Her brooding about this note quickly grows into a full-blown obsession, and she begins to devote herself to exploring the possibilities of her conjectures about who this woman was and how she met her fate. Her suppositions begin to find echoes in the real world, and with mounting excitement and dread, the fog of mystery starts to form into a concrete and menacing shape. But as we follow her in her investigation, strange dissonances start to accrue, and our faith in her grip on reality weakens, until finally, just as she seems be facing some of the darkness in her own past with her late husband, we are forced to face the prospect that there is either a more innocent explanation for all this or a much more sinister one – one that strikes closer to home.

A triumphant blend of horror, suspense, and pitch-black comedy, ‘Death in Her Hands’ asks us to consider how the stories we tell ourselves both guide us closer to the truth and keep us at bay from it. Once again, we are in the hands of a narrator whose unreliability is well earned, only this time the stakes have never been higher.’

5. 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.’

6. The Most Precious of Cargoes by Jean-Claude Grumberg

‘Set during the height of World War II, a powerful and unsettling tale about a woodcutter and his wife, who finds a mysterious parcel thrown from a passing train.

Once upon a time in an enormous forest lived a woodcutter and his wife. The woodcutter is very poor and a war rages around them, making it difficult for them to put food on the table. Yet every night, his wife prays for a child.

A Jewish father rides on a train holding twin babies. His wife no longer has enough milk to feed both children. In hopes of saving them both, he wraps his daughter in a shawl and throws her into the forest.

While foraging for food, the wife finds a bundle, a baby girl wrapped in a shawl. Although she knows harboring this baby could lead to her death, she takes the child home.

Set against the horrors of the Holocaust and told with a fairytale-like lyricism, The Most Precious of Cargoes is a fable about family and redemption which reminds us that humanity can be found in the most inhumane of places.’

7. Wildwood by Roger Deakin

‘Here, published for the first time in the United States, is the last book by Roger Deakin, famed British nature writer and icon of the environmentalist movement. In Deakin’s glorious meditation on wood, the “fifth element”as it exists in nature, in our culture, and in our souls the reader accompanies Deakin through the woods of Britain, Europe, Kazakhstan, and Australia in search of what lies behind man’s profound and enduring connection with trees.

Deakin lives in forest shacks, goes “coppicing” in Suffolk, swims beneath the walnut trees of the Haut-Languedoc, and hunts bushplums with Aboriginal women in the outback. Along the way, he ferrets out the mysteries of woods, detailing the life stories of the timber beams composing his Elizabethan house and searching for the origin of the apple.

As the world’s forests are whittled away, Deakin’s sparkling prose evokes woodlands anarchic with life, rendering each tree as an individual, living being. At once a traveler’s tale and a splendid work of natural history, Wildwood reveals, amid the world’s marvelous diversity, that which is universal in human experience.’

8. The High House by Jessie Greengrass

‘Francesca is Caro’s stepmother, and Pauly’s mother. A scientist, she can see what is going to happen.


The high house was once her holiday home; now looked after by locals Grandy and Sally, she has turned it into an ark, for when the time comes. The mill powers the generator; the orchard is carefully pruned; the greenhouse has all its glass intact. Almost a family, but not quite, they plant, store seed, and watch the weather carefully.


A stunning novel of the extraordinary and the everyday, The High House explores how we get used to change that once seemed unthinkable, how we place the needs of our families against the needs of others – and it asks us who, if we had to, we would save.’

Are you a fan of audiobooks? Which of these catches your interest? Have you read, or listened to, any of them?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Woman Upstairs’ by Claire Messud *****

First published in August 2018.

I read Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl whilst on holiday in Florida last year, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I have been keen to read the rest of her oeuvre ever since, and picked up her fourth novel, The Woman Upstairs, which was first published in 2013.

Lionel Shriver, an author whose work I very much admire, writes that ‘Messud’s prose is a delight…  addictive, memorable, intense.’  Of this novel, the Sunday Times reflects that protagonist Nora is ‘a clear-eyed and fiercely self-critical narrator…  It’s beautiful, and it’s moving, and it feels true.’  The Economist declares that ‘Rage and sorrow burn so fiercely off the pages of this novel…  this is Nora’s conversation with herself, as she spins on a “mental gerbil wheel”, trying to comprehend a betrayal so foul it continues to unsettle long after the last page is turned.’  The Guardian writes ‘Rarely has the mundane been so dazzling’.9780307743763

Nora Eldridge is the protagonist and narrator of The Woman Upstairs.  She is a forty-two-year-old woman who says of herself: ‘I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend…’.  She is a former third grade teacher living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  In the reflections which she makes upon a pivotal meeting and subsequent friendship in her life, this is the position which she holds.  Of her career, which she moves away from in the present day part of the story, she muses: ‘… and maybe I’ll go back and do it again, I just don’t know.  Maybe, instead, I’ll set the world on fire.  I just might.’

It is when a young boy named Reza Shahid joins her class, whilst his academic father is undertaking a year at Harvard from his post at a Paris University, that things begin to change for Nora.  ‘It all started with the boy,’ begins chapter two.  ‘With Reza.  Even when I saw him last – for the last time ever – this summer, when he was and had been for years no longer the same, almost a young man, with the illogical proportions, the long nose, the pimples and cracking voice of incipient adulthood, I still saw in him the perfection that was.  He glows in my mind’s eye, eight years old and a canonical boy, a child from a fairy tale.’  She goes on, in quite striking prose, to describe the spell which he soon casts over children and staff alike: ‘Exceptional.  Adaptable.  Compassionate.  Generous.  So intelligent.  So quick.  So sweet.  With such a sense of humor.  What did any of our praise mean, but that we’d all fallen in love with him, a bit, and were dazzled?’  Nora soon has the opportunity to meet Reza’s parents, Skandar and Sirena, and soon becomes obsessed with the whole family.

I was immediately pulled in.  Nora’s narrative voice feels authentic from the first page, and she is a highly engaging narrator throughout, unusual in her viewpoints and outlooks.  Messud uses language in markedly interesting ways, and she creates such depth in Nora.  The Woman Upstairs is candid and darkly funny, with a realistic cast of flawed characters.  Messud presents a brooding and memorable reflection upon friendship and family, and the things which we really need in life.  By the end of this unpredictable and surprising novel, I felt that I knew Nora intimately.  In every respect, The Woman Upstairs is a wonderful and powerful novel, and I cannot recommend it enough.