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‘The Travelers’ by Regina Porter ****

Regina Porter’s sweeping debut novel, The Travelers, was recommended to me by the wonderful Storygraph website. For those readers who have yet to check it out, I would highly recommend it. You can important existing reading lists, and the recommendations are tailored specifically to you; basically, it weeds out a lot of the generic fiction which Goodreads seems to proffer, and allows you to come across titles which you perhaps wouldn’t otherwise. The Travelers was such a title for me.

Porter has blended together a history of the United States, which ranges from the middle of the twentieth century, to President Obama’s first year in office. It illuminates more than six decades of tumult and change on a grand scale, moving from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, to the Vietnam War and beyond. Porter incorporates several US states – New York, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Tennessee – as well as the likes of France and Germany. Her focus is two families, who seem rather different on the face of it, and who come together in ‘unexpected, intimate and profoundly human ways’.

The first character we meet is Jimmy Vincent; Porter moves rather hurriedly through the momentous occasions in his life. As the novel progresses, we meet one character after another in this way, and learn more about them when their paths cross. The links between them come to light slowly at times, and quickly at others; some are self-explanatory, and others are rather surprising. The connections forged are many, and clever.

Each of the characters, perhaps unsurprisingly given the novel’s title, undergoes travel in some way; sometimes across continents, and at others just to a house in the same town they grew up in, or from one relationship to another. They move towards, and away from things. Porter effortlessly captures how each individual, as well as the places which they inhabit, change over time, and understands so well how different neighbourhoods and communities can so easily become gentrified.

Much is revealed about each of the protagonists; for instance, in 1966, we meet nineteen-year-old Agnes Miller. Porter writes: ‘Agnes’s legs were so long they could skip across the Nile. Her hemline was modest. She worked part-time in the college library. Whenever anyone asked Agnes what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would tell him or her automatically that she wanted to be a teacher. It did not matter if Agnes liked the profession. The answer was suitable and pleasing.’ The first tense moment in the novel – and there are many which follow it – occurs when Agnes and her fiancé, Claude, are stopped by police whilst driving.

Porter’s prose is rather more matter-of-fact than I was expecting, but her style works wonderfully given the scope of the novel. She has managed to fit in an astonishing amount in just over 300 pages. Two elements of her writing which I very much enjoyed are the use of vignettes, and the differing perspectives which she creates. Whilst we hear from a few characters in the first person, an omniscient narrative has been chosen for others. This helps to break up the writing, and stops any of the characters from feeling too similar, as can so often happen in books featuring multiple perspectives. The structure is not a linear one either, and moves back and forth in time, which allows Porter to build up the more mysterious elements of the stories with a great deal of tension and wonder.

That The Travelers is infused with melancholy seems obvious, given that Porter covers a lot of difficult and grave topics here – the aftermath of war, grieving, racial issues, and the breakdown of relationships, for instance – but there are also some amusing and lighthearted moments to be found. There is also a great deal of emotion within the pages of The Travelers, and some passages which will stay with me for a long time yet: ‘Nevertheless, Eloise would remember these rare evenings from hr childhood when she sat at the kitchen table on a broken stool between her mother and father and the three of them peered down together at the newspaper clipping and she did not have to vie for their attention with beer, bourbon, scotch, or gin.’

First published in 2019, The Travelers is a remarkable debut. The different threads of story, set in different locations and time periods, which run through the whole, have been wonderfully wrapped up at the end, without rushing, or making unrealistic claims. There is such variety here, and so much for the reader to enjoy. The characters are distinctive, and everything within the novel has been executed admirably. Each time period is well anchored, with a lot of specific social and societal detail. I found The Travelers to be wonderfully absorbing, and transporting.

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‘Weather’ by Jenny Offill ****

Jenny Offill is an author whose work I very much enjoy; I was enraptured whilst reading both Dept. of Speculation and Last Things. Her newest novel, Weather, appealed to me on several levels, and I was eager to dig in.

The protagonist of Weather is Lizzie Benson, who managed to slide ‘into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree.’ Whilst this causes animosity with some of her colleagues, it also gives her ‘a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: as an unofficial shrink.’ Lizzie comes from a difficult familial background; her mother is ‘God-haunted’, and speaks to her of ‘the light, the vine, the living bread’, and her brother is a troubled, recovering addict.

From the outset of the novel, we are introduced to some of the library’s patrons, and their very particular quirks. There, is, for instance, ‘The man in the shabby suit [who] does not want his fines lowered. He is pleased to contribute to our institution. The blond girl whose nails are bitten to the quick stops by after lunch and leaves with a purse full of toilet paper.’ There is some wonderfully strange imagery at play throughout Weather; for example, ‘But the man in the shabby suit tells me things I want to know. He works for hospice. He said that it is important when a loved one dies to try to stay alone in the house for three days. This is when the manifestations occur. His wife manifested as a small whirlwind that swept the papers off his desk.’

Lizzie’s old mentor, Sylvia Liller, was responsible for getting her young protégée her job. Sylvia is currently well-known for her ‘prescient podcast’ about the state of the world, entitled ‘Hell and High Water’. She proposes to Lizzie that she could build her career by answering the mail which she receives in response to the podcast; this is from ‘left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of Western civilization.’

As she is considering whether to take the job, Lizzie reveals: ‘I ask her what sorts of things she gets. All kinds, she tells me, but everyone who writes her is either crazy or depressed. We need the money for sure, but I tell her I have to think about it. Because it’s possible my life is already filled with these people.’ She decides to accept, and begins to move in a different trajectory to that which her librarian job offers. As Lizzie becomes a part of this highly polarised platform, she finds that ‘the voices of the city keep floating in – funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.’

Offill has cleverly woven together several different elements, allowing us to really get to know her characters and their foibles. Alongside musings about Lizzie’s career, she worries deeply about motherhood, and protecting her young son, Eli: ‘I’m not allowed to think about how big this school is or how small he is. I’ve made that mistake after other drop-offs. I should be used to it by now, but sometimes I get spooked all over again.’ Offill gives us a real insight into her protagonist and what matters to her, as well as the tiny cruelties which play on her mind, and the more philosophical questions which she considers.

I warmed to Lizzie very quickly, and appreciated the character arc which is taken throughout the novel. She is a highly complex individual, who muses about such interesting things. One particular foible of Lizzie’s which I loved was her ‘bookish superstition about my birthday… I like to see what Virginia Woolf said about an age in her diaries before I reach it. Usually it’s inspiring.’ This could well be something which I choose to adopt in my own life, so taken with the idea was I!

There is always something in Offill’s novels which feels original, which is uniquely hers. Weather is no different. At just 200 pages, it is a relatively quick read, but so much fills it. It is a realistic novel, but at the same time, there is an almost magical, otherworldly quality to it. The structure of paragraph-long vignettes which have been used work marvellously. I really enjoyed the approach taken, and felt connected with the story from beginning to end. I sank into Offill’s prose from the very first page, and did not want to finish reading.

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‘Painter to the King’ by Amy Sackville ****

I adored Amy Sackville’s first two novels, Orkney and The Still Point. When I spotted a copy of her newest work in my local library, therefore, I picked it up and read its blurb with interest. Painter to the King is very different in its approach, given that it marks Sackville’s first foray into historical fiction, but as she is such an innovative writer, I fully expected to love it too.

Painter to the King gives a fictional account of artist Diego Velázquez, who, as a twenty three-year-old, was summoned to the court of King Philip IV of Spain. He arrived in Madrid to become the official ‘painter to the King’, a position which he would hold until his death.

Velázquez’s job gave him ‘an unparalleled view of palace life’, and it is this which Sackville has set out to explore. She examines his story through his own eyes, and in consequence, ‘… we see an intimate relationship that is not quite a friendship, between a king and his subject, between an artist and his subject.’ Sackville aims to expose ‘what is shown and what is seen, about art and death and life’, and dips into the spaces between.

When we first meet Velázquez, in 1622, he has ridden to Madrid from Seville: ‘He had a stipend for the journey and some pride, he arrives in style: he has paid for a horse. Just one attendant on a mule with the baggage, who has no features in the dark beyond the torchlight.’ He meets the King quite soon afterwards; at this point, Philip IV is not even twenty, seen as ‘a man of solid flesh, and the greatest monarch in the world.’ He has been the King of Spain for two years, much of that time spent mourning his late father. He would go on to rule Spain during the Thirty Years War.

The omniscient narrator of the novel speaks from a position of hindsight. When describing the King, for instance, the following is said: ‘… Now he is young and golden, and his people love him, and although he is melancholy by temperament he hasn’t yet known many of the many sadnesses that will later come to weigh him down and pull at the corners of his eyes and cast the court into muttering silence, chafing in the draughts; all this is to come and if anyone can see it they won’t speak, won’t see it, or won’t be listened to; only a fool would tell a truth like that one, that it’s all already ending -‘. The narrator also writes about experiences they have had viewing Velázquez’s paintings whilst on a trip to Madrid in the modern world; I found this a thoughtful inclusion.

I loved Sackville’s descriptions, and the importance of minutiae in her writing. Her prose is beautiful and rich, suffused with detail. I admired the way in which she tries to infiltrate the visions of the artist at the novel’s core. She writes: ‘The painter has faith in solid objects, arresting their motion through the world and preserving forever their thisness, the quiddity of matter and moisture and shine; transparency, opacity; the exterior that things present to the world, and how much of the world can be seen through them, distorted, distilled… he attends to all of this, plasticity, rigidity, fragility, damage and flaw, detail, surface and shape.’

Painter to the King is highly evocative throughout, and Sackville captures precise scenery, sights, and smells with such a deft hand. The writing here is often sensuous, particularly when Velázquez’s work is described, or when evoking the entire process of creating a new painting. When she describes El Corto, the area around the palace in which civilians live and work, she writes: ‘Everything here exists to serve the court, to bake its bread and cure its meat and weave and stretch its linens and sew its sleeves and tunics and undergarments; an ersatz city at the axis of a cross drawn through the country, and built upon a high dry plain across which hot winds in summer and ice winds in winter wander and gallop like madness.’

Sackville’s prose is relatively experimental, and there are some sections of stream-of-consciousness here. I really liked the fresh approach which she gives to the historical novel, a genre which tends to follow a similar writing style. Sackville’s rich vocabulary lends itself well to this work, and allows her to blend art and history in such a satisfying way. Painter to the King reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s playful historical novel Orlando at times. She sweeps through Philip’s reign, and Velázquez’s career with such authority.

Painter to the King was first published in 2018, but I only found out about it when browsing in my local library in the summer of 2020; even as someone who looks out for Sackville’s work, I do not find it reviewed often – or at all – and this is a great shame. I admired this interesting and unconventional work of historical fiction, but must admit that I did not find it as compelling or as breathtaking as her contemporary fiction. However, Sackville is a highly underrated writer, and one which I urge every reader to seek out. Whichever of her novels you choose to begin with, they are guaranteed to intrigue and surprise.

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‘The Changeling’ by Joy Williams ****

It pleased me when I saw that Joy Williams’ rather forgotten novel, The Changeling, was back in print after forty years, having first been published in 1978. The New York Times declares Williams ‘one of the great writers of her generation’, an opinion which has been echoed by many.

The Changeling is a novel steeped in mystery and magical realism. Our focus is Pearl, a young mother trapped inside her marriage to Walker. At the outset of the novel, she has fled to the anonymous bar of a Florida hotel, with her infant son, Sam: ‘She was running away from home, from her husband… She had boarded a plane and traveled twelve hundred miles in three hours. The deception that had been necessary! The organization! People were always talking to her at home, on her husband’s island. She couldn’t bear it any more. She had to have a new life.’ This soon proves to be an unsuccessful escape, however, as Walker suddenly appears to force her home.

On her return, the unnamed island off the coast of the United States is ‘transformed into a place of madness and pain’. Pearl soon ‘slips into the delirium of motherhood and alcoholism’, becoming convinced that Sam is not her baby. The Changeling is unsettling throughout, and there is a lot of tension between its characters, as well as between Pearl’s physical body and her mind.

The reissued novel has an introduction by author Karen Russell, whose work I very much enjoy. She writes that the novel ‘feels at once unprecedented and eerily familiar’, and goes on to say: ‘Every great book shapeshifts with its reader. The Changeling, however, does something wilder still: it generates its own autonomous magic, one that feels wholly independent of the reader and her moment. The spirit inside it is not the human spirit – it is far vaster than that.’

Russell, who says that she has read The Changeling on numerous occasions, comments that Williams’ sentences ‘have a cartilaginous magic. They come glinting out of profound and mysterious depths, slipping quickly through the deadening nets of any easy understanding.’ In a particularly beautifully phrased observation, she writes: ‘This is a young tale; its landscape is the womb of the world, its language is perennially green, and the only thing I can say about it with absolute conviction is that your encounter will surely be very different than my own.’

In the very first chapter of the book, whilst Pearl sits in the Florida bar, Williams captures such an atmosphere, something which goes on to suffuse the entire novel. She also gives us a real insight into the state of Pearl’s mentality: ‘The heavy white air hung visibly in layers. Pearl could see the layers very clearly. The middle layer was all dream and misunderstanding and responsibility. Things moved about at the top with a little more arrogance and zip but at the bottom was the ever-moving present. It was the present, it had been the present, and it was always going to be the present. Pearl was always conscious of this. It made her pretty passive and indecisive usually.’

When, on the way back to the island, Pearl is involved in a plane crash, she becomes convinced that her son has been swapped with another baby. She is uncertain around him, afraid. When he gets older, this feeling still remains; he is a constant reminder to Pearl that something is not quite right. ‘He seemed,’ writes Williams, ‘all the disorder of her heart. She saw the infant in his face still. His other face, his boy’s face, was harder for her to recognize. He didn’t speak to her as the other children did. He kept away. She had no real sense of his purposes. Were not his purposes rooted in her responsibility? But she was an irresponsible woman, removed from everything, floating through space, exercising longing.’

There are some deeply unsettling, nightmarish scenes throughout The Changeling, and elements of strange eroticism. In one particularly chilling example, Williams includes a hallucination which Pearl has: ‘She was having a baby in a large, freshly cut field. There was blood on the grass but it may not have been her own… Her thighs were spread. Her arms were spread. She was going to have a baby. She knew that those around her were going to cut open her stomach and fold back the flaps of skin and unfold the baby from her like a bridal gown. She knew that they would abandon her there, her terrible dark wound a nest for the dying creatures of the night.’

Pearl’s mania develops as the novel goes on, and its scenes become all the more unnerving: ‘In the night, demons chattered in her aching head, not voices at all but comprehensible all the same. Terrible things. Creeping or winged, dark and avenging, carving a woman like her out of carrion, out of mold. Carving this woman out with their sharp beaks.’

Nothing about The Changeling feels at all dated. Rather, it is fresh and original, a modern fairy tale written in lyrical prose, which holds so much surprise. The novel is beguiling and disturbing in equal measure, and it reads as though one is in a dreamlike – or nightmarish – state. There is a real claustrophobia to it, in both its tension and atmosphere, and I found it incredibly creepy.

Williams has authored three other novels and three short story collections; I can only hope that these will become readily available, and soon. I imagine that, like with The Changeling, I will be thinking about each of her stories for a long time to come.

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‘Awayland: Stories’ by Ramona Ausubel ****

Ramona Ausubel is one of my absolute favourite authors, but her work has proven to be rather difficult to find in the United Kingdom. When I spotted a copy of her newest publication, a short story collection entitled Awayland, for an affordable price on AbeBooks, I just had to order it. This gorgeously designed paperback has been well received, with the San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, writing that it ‘astounds for its daring visionary scope and compassion.’

Eleven tales make up Awayland, and these have been subsequently split up into different sections, something which feels rather rare in the form of a short story collection. They introduce us, says the blurb, ‘to a geography both fantastic and familiar’, and to the ‘tangle and thump of her characters’ inner worlds and emotional truths’.

The first rather humorous story in the collection, ‘You Can Find Love Now’, takes us through the dating profile of a Cyclops; he calls himself Cyclops15 online, as ‘Cyclops 1 through 14 were taken’. In ‘Freshwater from the Sea’, a woman in Lebanon is nearing the end of her life, and is beginning to disappear. Ausubel writes: ‘Where she had once been a precise oil painting, now she was a watercolor.’ Her state is continually changing, and as we near the end of the story, her daughter observes: ‘She looked more and more like weather, like a brewing storm.’

‘Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species’ is set in the ‘shittiness’ of a town in northern Minnesota, where the residents are failing to reproduce. The narrator of the story observes: ‘It is as if their lives are so boring, so deeply muddy that it hardly even occurs to two people with enough feeling to create anything other than a disappointed sigh.’ The town’s mayor puts into place a ‘designated sex day’, which culminates in the prize of a free car for whichever couple gives birth first on a chosen date.

‘Departure Lounge’ is a story about a group of astronauts, in training in a remote part of Hawaii: ‘We lived in a bubble on a crater on a mountain on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but where we imagined we lived was Mars.’ The chef of the group, who narrates the story, later reveals her loneliness, and her sadness at the way in which her own plans have been put on hold in order to take part in the experiment: ‘I would be a good mother. I would be generous and interested in all the side-roads of childhood – superheroes and princesses and dinosaurs and bugs and minor weaponry and animal rights. I would mean it, if only someone would join me in my little life.’

There is much in Awayland about bodies changing, both in terms of ageing, and from flesh into other states. Many of the stories contain pregnancy, and what it means to move into the state of motherhood. Ausubel also reflects at length on what it means to confront one’s own mortality. Throughout, Ausubel’s prose is layered, and unusual. In ‘Remedy’, for instance, protagonist Summer is described as ‘the smell of fire and the smell of pine forest and the smell of a storm’.

I find Ausubel’s work wondrously inventive, but I must admit that Awayland is my least favourite of her publications to date. Whilst there are undoubtedly some great and original ideas to be found here, I did not feel as though the sense of creativity and imagination which normally suffuses her stories was as strong as it perhaps could have been. The tales are not as memorable as I was expecting, either.

There is whimsy here, something which Ausubel usually excels with, but this sometimes feels a little overshadowed by other elements. There is also a great deal less magical realism than can be found in earlier stories and novels. Regardless, Ausubel definitely deserves a great deal more attention, and I wholeheartedly look forward to her next book – whatever that may be.

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‘The Paper Cell’ by Louise Hutcheson ****

Louise Hutcheson’s debut novel, The Paper Cell, was a highly anticipated read for me, after seeing snippets of reviews sprinkled around the Internet, but not much more. The Paper Cell was published in 2017, and is part of the Contraband Pocket Crime Collection – which provides ‘distinctive diversions for discerning readers’. I received a copy of the lovely miniature Contraband hardback edition for Christmas, and dug in on Boxing Day.

In the London of the 1950s, a publishing assistant named Lewis Carson ‘finds fame when he secretly steals a young woman’s brilliant novel manuscript and publishes it under his own name’. Two days later, the woman’s body is found on Peckham Rye Common; she has been strangled to death. The blurb posits, rather intriguingly, ‘did Lewis purloin the manuscript as an act of callous opportunism, or as the spoils of a calculated murder?’

The Paper Cell begins in 1953, in a London-based publishing house. When Fran Watson, the young author in question, first pays him a visit, Hutcheson immediately sets the scene, showing how manipulative Lewis can be: ‘Lewis shifted behind his desk, aiming to look uncomfortable and achieving it. He affected a grimace as her eyes flitted up, then down. It was a pleasing dynamic, he thought. Though she had arrived when he was at the height of a bad temper, her obvious defects made him feel rather good about himself by comparison.’

At this point in time, Lewis has not read Fran’s manuscript, but rejects it – and her – regardless. After she has left, he then spends the next two hours ‘pored over its pages – once, twice, three times – returning compulsively again and again to the first page with a growing sense of horror.’ In London, Lewis belongs to a ‘ramshackle writers’ group with not one published piece between them and a tendency to get drunk before they get constructive’.

The narrative then shifts forward in time, and we move to Edinburgh. Here, an ageing Lewis is living, and in 1998, he is about to give his first interview for over a decade, to a sharp newspaper journalist. The novel which he stole was published under the title of ‘Victory Lap’, and is highly regarded as a classic of the twentieth century.

One of the real strengths of The Paper Cell is the control which Hutcheson has over her scenes and characters. She showcases a lot of emotions which flash and seethe within her cast. I very much enjoyed the vintage setting, which feels realistic; several period details are signposted throughout the novel, which embed it in time and place. Most of the narrative takes place in 1953, and the portions which occur in 1998 are, of course, heavily concerned with the earlier period. I really enjoyed Hutcheson’s descriptions, many of which are brief, but almost tangible; she writes, for instance, ‘The faintest whisper of daylight was beginning to creep through the drapes, but the room was mostly dark, and heavy with cigarette smoke.’

Hutcheson writes throughout with a practiced hand, and The Paper Cell, in consequence, feels like a very polished debut novel. It is not quite what I was expecting, and takes a lot of wonderful twists and turns as it goes on. The LGBTQ+ element to the plot was well handled too, and the entirety moves along nicely. Despite the brevity of the story, I felt that I really got to know the characters and their world. I was so enthralled by the novel, in fact, that I read it in a single sitting.

I have been careful not to give too much away in this review, as I very much enjoyed coming to The Paper Cell and knowing very little about it, aside from the stolen manuscript element of the plot revealed on its blurb. In my opinion, The Paper Cell is a book best to read without knowing the entire plot; it offers up many surprises in consequence, and there is far more to it than initially meets the eye. I very much look forward to reading more of Hutcheson’s work in future, as it certainly seems as though she has a promising writing career ahead.

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‘Lucy’ by Jamaica Kincaid ****

Jamaica Kincaid is an author who has been on my radar for over a decade. Before a family holiday in Antigua, taken in 2008, I searched high and low for some of her novels, wanting to read at least one Antiguan author whilst away. However, my search was sadly a fruitless one.

It has, surprisingly, taken me the intervening twelve years to find a single copy of one of her books, as they never seem to be available in any bookshops which I peruse, or any of the several county library systems which I have used since. I finally found an affordable copy of her third novel, Lucy, which seemed like a great title to begin with, on AbeBooks, and began to read it almost as soon as it dropped through my letterbox.

Our named protagonist, nineteen years old and already world-weary, has left her home in the West Indies behind to become an au pair to ‘four small girls’ in the United States. She has left her ‘much loved, much hated mother, [and] her childhood self’ behind.

The novel begins in mid-January, when Lucy is trying to settle into a quite bewildering life in a big city. Everything is different, and new – using lifts, having a refrigerator, and staying in an apartment to name but three examples. Lucy comments: ‘… I could not see anything clearly on the way in from the airport, even though there were lights everywhere. As we drove along, someone would single out to me a famous building, an important street, a park, a bridge that when built was thought to be a spectacle. In a daydream I used to have, all these places were points of happiness to me; all these places were lifeboats to my small drowning soul…’.

Snow, too, is new to Lucy. She arrives in the United States during a very cold winter. She remembers that ‘the snow was the color and texture of a half-cooked egg white, making the world seem soft and lovely and – unexpectedly, to me – nourishing. That the world I was in could be soft, lovely, and nourishing was more than I could bear, and so I stood there and wept, for I didn’t want to love one more thing in my life, didn’t want one more thing that could make my heart break into a million little pieces at my feet.’

Throughout, Lucy tries to reconcile her new life, which she had so yearned for, with her old one. She reflects: ‘What a surprise this was to me, that I longed to be back in the place that I came from, that I longed to sleep in a bed I had outgrown, that I longed to be with people whose smallest, most natural gesture would call up in me such a rage that I longed to see them all dead at my feet.’ She feels exiled from her past, and from her own country: ‘I looked at a map. An ocean stood between me and the place I came from, but would it have made a difference it had been a teacup of water? I could not go back.’

I loved the poetic prose in Lucy, and enjoyed the authentic first person perspective throughout. I really appreciated the somewhat cynical tone which suffuses the novel, and found Lucy a wonderfully unusual and unpredictable young woman. She often surprises with her comments and observations; she sees a lot of things in quite unexpected ways. She is unflinchingly honest; of her own position, she says: ‘I was not a man; I was a young woman from the fringes of the world, and when I left my home I had wrapped around my shoulders the mantle of a servant.’

I quite enjoyed the geographical vagueness; we only know that Lucy has moved from one unnamed country to an unnamed city in another, and many of the landmarks with which the reader could identify both have been removed. Lucy comments: ‘I was born and grew up in a place that did not seem to be influenced by the tilt of the earth at all; it had only one season – sunny, drought-ridden. And what was the effect of growing up in such a place? I did not have a sunny disposition, and, as for actual happiness, I had been experiencing a long drought.’

The novel is slim yet powerful. It is structured as a series of short vignettes, which over time reveal our protagonist to us. Kincaid is a perceptive author, particularly with regard to the relationships formed between characters.

Lucy is a highly readable and transporting story, and I cannot wait to build up a collection of Kincaid’s work as soon as I can find more copies of her books. I can see that she could very quickly become a favourite author of mine.

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‘Small Pleasures’ by Clare Chambers ****

Reliant as I have become upon my local library for the few new releases which I want to pick up straight away, I have become accustomed to waiting for quite a long time for my reservations. I was not prepared for the waiting list for Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures, though; I sat as patiently as I could for months, and found that over twenty people were lined up for the same copy once I’d finally finished with it.

I am so pleased to report that Small Pleasures was worth the few months it took to get to me, and I am thrilled that the novel is getting so much attention. Small Pleasures was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021, which is probably why so many people are longing to read it. Before this, the buzz about Small Pleasures was spread largely through word of mouth, and the incredibly positive reviews which have appeared in all manner of publications, as well as the staggering number of ‘Best Books of 2020’ lists which it appeared on.

In 1957, in the suburbs of the southeast of London and Kent, our protagonist Jean Swinney works as a journalist for a local newspaper, the North Kent Echo. She is ‘trapped in a life of duty and disappointment from which there is no likelihood of escape’. She lives in a small house with her demanding mother, who has not left the house very often in years, and feels tired with the drudgery of everyday life. Things change, however, when a young woman named Gretchen Tilbury sends a letter to the newspaper, claiming that her daughter, Margaret, is the result of a virgin birth, ‘without the involvement of any man’. Of course, the investigation becomes Jean’s responsibility; she is described as ‘features editor, columnist, dogsbody and the only woman at the table’ in the newspaper office.

When the women first meet one another, Jean asks Gretchen how her pregnancy occurred. Gretchen replies: ‘”I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. I’m not religious like my mother. I only know what didn’t happen.”‘ She goes on to explain that for a four-month stretch, she was bedridden in a hospital, and later found out that she had become pregnant during this time. Jean, on the receiving end of this news, ‘was unable to hide her surprise at this revelation. It seemed to provide an unexpected level of corroboration to Mrs Tilbury’s account. Her claim had suddenly become much harder to dismiss and to Jean’s surprise, she was glad. For reasons that were not just to do with journalistic hunger for a good story, she wanted it to be true.’

From the very beginning, one of Chambers’ real strengths is clearly the way in which she so effectively sets the scene and period. Early on, when Jean is running errands after work, Chambers writes the following, capturing so much detail: ‘By the time she reached home, a modest 1930s semi backing on to the park, her cheerful mood had evaporated. Somehow, in transferring the waxed paper package of liver to her tartan shopping bag she managed to drip two spots of blood on the front of her dust-coloured wool skirt.’

I love novels with mysteries at their heart, and Small Pleasures held every iota of my attention throughout. There is a wry humour which suffuses the whole, which I very much enjoyed. The entirety of the novel is highly readable, and I was pulled right into Jean’s world. I love the way in which the relationship between Jean and the Tilburys unfolded, and not wishing to give anything away, will be leaving the rest of the details of the plot out of this review. Needless to say, some elements are rather predictable, and others took me entirely by surprise. For Jean, being noticed by the family meant so much: ‘It was impossible not to be flattered and charmed by their interest, to blossom and expand in their company and become the interesting woman they thought her.’

I must admit that despite Small Pleasures being Chambers’ seventh novel, I had never heard of her before picking this up. It is her first publication in a decade, so perhaps she just passed me by beforehand. I have read some of the blurbs of her other books, and feel that she is an author whose other work I could really enjoy too, so I will definitely be picking some of them up in future. Chambers, with her acute observations on everyday life, and her sharp humour, put me in mind of Anita Brookner and Barbara Pym – a very high compliment, indeed.

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Books for Summertime

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

These books are best enjoyed with a deckchair in the shade, vivid wildflowers, and a tall glass of something cool

1. Let Us Now Praise Famous Gardens by Vita Sackville-West

‘In this unique gardening chronicle Vita Sackville-West weaves together simple, honest accounts of her horticultural experiences throughout the year with exquisite writing and poetic description. Whether singing the praises of sweet-briar, cyclamen, Indian pinks and the Strawberry grape, or giving practical advice on pruning roses, planting bulbs, overcoming frosts and making the most of a small space, her writings on the art of good gardening are both instructive and delightful. Generations of inhabitants have helped shape the English countryside – but it has profoundly shaped us too. It has provoked a huge variety of responses from artists, writers, musicians and people who live and work on the land – as well as those who are travelling through it.English Journeys celebrates this long tradition with a series of twenty books on all aspects of the countryside, from stargazey pie and country churches, to man’s relationship with nature and songs celebrating the patterns of the countryside (as well as ghosts and love-struck soldiers).’

2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

‘A raucous comedy that thrusts a quartet of reckless young lovers headfirst into a world of magic and fantasy, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is edited by Stanley Wells with an introduction by Helen Hackett in Penguin Shakespeare. ‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend More than cool reason ever comprehends’ Lovers Lysander and Hermia flee Athens to escape the authority of their parents, only to be pursued by Hermia’s betrothed Demetrius, and her friend Helena. Unwittingly, all four find themselves in an enchanted forest where Oberon, the king of the fairies, and Titania, his queen, soon take an interest in human affairs, dispensing magical love potions and casting mischievous spells. In this dazzling comedy, confusion ends in harmony, as love is transformed, misplaced, and – ultimately – restored.’

3. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

‘A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric and compulsively readable story of the past, secrets, family and memory from the international best-selling author Kate Morton. Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra’s life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace—the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century—Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.’

4. Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams

‘The play is a simple love story of a somewhat puritanical Southern girl and an unpuritanical young doctor. Each is basically attracted to the other but because of their divergent attitudes toward life, each over the course of years is driven away from the other. Not until toward the end does the doctor realize that the girl’s high idealism is basically right, and while she is still in love with him, it turns out that neither time nor circumstances will allow the two ultimately to come together.’

5. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

‘Meet little Mole, willful Ratty, Badger the perennial bachelor, and petulant Toad. In the almost one hundred years since their first appearance in 1908, they’ve become emblematic archetypes of eccentricity, folly, and friendship. And their misadventures-in gypsy caravans, stolen sports cars, and their Wild Wood-continue to capture readers’ imaginations and warm their hearts long after they grow up. Begun as a series of letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, The Wind in the Willows is a timeless tale of animal cunning and human camaraderie.’

6. Florida by Lauren Groff

‘The stories in this collection span characters, towns, decades, even centuries, but Florida—its landscape, climate, history, and state of mind—becomes its gravitational center: an energy, a mood, as much as a place of residence. Groff transports the reader, then jolts us alert with a crackle of wit, a wave of sadness, a flash of cruelty, as she writes about loneliness, rage, family, and the passage of time. With shocking accuracy and effect, she pinpoints the moments and decisions and connections behind human pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and fury—the moments that make us alive.’

7. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

‘An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter while away a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges – one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the island itself, with its mossy rocks, windswept firs and unpredictable seas. Full of brusque humour and wisdom, The Summer Book is a profoundly life-affirming story. Tove Jansson captured much of her own experience and spirit in the book, which was her favourite of the novels she wrote for adults. This new edition sees the return of a European literary gem – fresh, authentic and deeply humane.’

8. Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner

‘Sophia Willoughby, a young Englishwoman from an aristocratic family and a person of strong opinions and even stronger will, has packed her cheating husband off to Paris. He can have his tawdry mistress. She intends to devote herself to the serious business of raising her two children in proper Tory fashion. Then tragedy strikes: the children die, and Sophia, in despair, finds her way to Paris, arriving just in time for the revolution of 1848. Before long she has formed the unlikeliest of close relations with Minna, her husband’s sometime mistress, whose dramatic recitations, based on her hair-raising childhood in czarist Russia, electrify audiences in drawing rooms and on the street alike. Minna, “magnanimous and unscrupulous, fickle, ardent, and interfering,” leads Sophia on a wild adventure through bohemian and revolutionary Paris, in a story that reaches an unforgettable conclusion amidst the bullets, bloodshed, and hope of the barricades. Sylvia Townsend Warner was one of the most original and inventive of twentieth-century English novelists. At once an adventure story, a love story, and a novel of ideas, Summer Will Show is a brilliant reimagining of the possibilities of historical fiction.’

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

2

‘Greenbanks’ by Dorothy Whipple *****

Like, I imagine, the vast majority of Persephone’s devoted readers, I number Dorothy Whipple amongst my all-time favourite authors. I have loved all of Whipple’s books which I have been privileged enough to read this far, and it is a great delight for me to settle down with one of her new-to-me books. I began Greenbanks with much anticipation and, as I jolly well expected to, I absolutely adored it.

As many of Whipple’s books do, Greenbanks centres around a family, and deals in particular with the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter. Matriarch Louisa, the head of the household, is very close to spirited Rachel, her favourite of rather a large bunch of grandchildren, and just four years old when she is first introduced.

We first meet the Ashtons at the tail end of 1909, as they are gathering together at Greenbanks, the Lancashire family home, to celebrate Christmas. Here, Whipple has used the simple but effective prop of an old family photo album to show their considered backstories; the Ashton daughters, for instance, attended a convent school in Belgium, with ‘long skirts, ribbons from the back of their hats, crosses on their breasts and freckles on their noses.’

The opening paragraph of the novel demonstrates much of why I so adore Whipple’s work – beautifully constructed sentences, the level of intricate detail, and the interesting viewpoints from which she looks at a scene, or a character. It begins: ‘The house was called Greenbanks, but there was no green to be seen to-day; all the garden was deep in snow. Snow lay on the banks that sloped from the front of the house; snow lay on the lawn to the left, presided over by an old stone eagle who looked as if he had escaped from a church and ought to have a Bible on his back; snow lay on the lawn to the right, where a discoloured Flora bent gracefully but unaccountably near a piece of lead piping which had once been her arm.’

Time moves quickly in this novel; months pass quietly from one chapter to the next. In this way, we see the characters develop, and Rachel particularly grow up over the duration of the novel. We are also made aware that despite the large country house, the Ashtons have a far from idyllic life; almost every single character has their own personal tragedies to deal with, some of which are collective.

Whipple does so many things wonderfully in her fiction, but I particularly love the way in which she reveals her characters, and the perhaps more secretive elements of their personalities. She is a wonderful observer, who is always so aware of thoughts, feelings, reactions, and expectations. The conversations between characters are sharply observed, and their relationships are always shifting – often difficult, and sometimes even tumultuous.

Whipple has such knowledge of what it means to be young, and learning. When Rachel is sent to a school in close proximity to Greenbanks so that she can spend more time with her grandmother, for instance, Whipple writes: ‘When the bell rang at eleven o’clock and the little girls went out into the garden to play, Rachel found it possible to run into Greenbanks and get biscuits from the glass barrel on the dining-room sideboard. She climbed on a chair to do this, and if Auntie Laura came into the room she complained about the upset and the crumbs, but Grandma never minded.’

Another quite lovely, and rather amusing, section of the novel comes when Louisa takes Rachel with her on a trip to London. Rachel has never been before, and asks her father what she can expect. Whipple comments: ‘He gave her a great deal of information; so much, indeed, that she went to bed in a muddle, not sure whether London stood on the Tower or the Thames, or if Big Ben lived in the Houses of Parliament, or why the King sat on a scone to be crowned, or why London had a tube in its inside like Dennis Thompson when he had appendicitis; but sure, all the same, that London was a place full of strange and marvellous things.’

There are dark and serious scenes which unfold in Greenbanks, too. When the First World War begins, and her sons go off to enlist, Whipple observes: ‘Yes, thought Louisa, it’s different for women. They don’t do; they bear what others do; they watch them come and go, they are torn and healed and torn again…’. I cared deeply for all of the characters here, but especially for Louisa and Rachel. They are women living in a world which was firmly in the grasp of men; it takes Rachel months to convince her father that she wishes to continue her education, even with her excellent grades. The character arcs here are so realistic, and so true to their historical context.

Although first published in 1912, there is something marvellously modern about Greenbanks; at junctures, the modern seems to butt against the old. Whipple’s prose is highly nuanced, and as ever, there is a startling clarity to her work here. She has a marvellous wit, and is incredibly knowing. Reading a new Whipple novel is like being reunited with an old friend, and I thoroughly enjoyed the time which I spent with her, at lovely Greenbanks. This is an exceptional novel, and one which I would recommend to every reader.