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One From the Archive: ‘Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore **

First published in 2018.

Helen Dunmore’s final novel, Birdcage Walk, is a piece of historical fiction set in 1792, in Bristol.  At this time, ‘Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence’.  The Observer calls Birdcage Walk ‘the finest novel Dunmore has written’.  The Daily Telegraph deem it ‘Quietly brilliant…  among the best fiction of our time.’  The Guardian believe it to be ‘a blend of beauty and horror evoked with such breathtaking poetry that it haunts me still’.  The novel was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, and has been rather highly praised by critics, as the above quotes demonstrate. 9780099592761

Lizzie Fawkes, the protagonist of the novel, is the product of a childhood lived in Radical circles, ‘where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism’.  Lizzie has recently married a property developer named John Diner Tredevant, who is ‘heavily invested’ in their city’s housing boom, and has ‘everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war’.  He is displeased with Lizzie’s ‘independent, questioning spirit’, and is of the conviction that she should live and behave only in the manner he wishes her to.  In 1793, war was declared between Britain and France, which led to the collapse of the housing boom in Bristol, causing many builders and developers to go bankrupt; this, of course, affects Lizzie and John.

The novel opens in present day Bristol, where a dogwalker comes across an overgrown grave: ‘If my friends hadn’t decided that I should have a dog I would never have opened the gate and gone into the graveyard.  I always took the paved path between the railings.  Birdcage Walk, it’s called, because of the pleached lime trees arching overhead on their cast iron frame.’  The grave which his dog, Jack, first discovers ‘leaned only slightly backwards’.  The name inscribed upon it is Julia Elizabeth Fawkes, an eighteenth-century writer.  The narrator is able to find no information about her whatsoever online, and goes to an open day at her known residence in order to ask an archivist what they are able to find out.

The novel proper begins with rather a chilling chapter.  It begins: ‘He must have shut his eyes.  When he opened them, there she was.  She lay as he had left her, under a tree in the brambles and ivy.  He had laid her out straight, and crossed her hands, and then he had wrapped his coat about her head.  He had known that she would stiffen in a few hours, and that he would not want to see her once again.  There she was.  No one had come; he’d known that no one would come.  It was his luck.  There were no marks where he had dragged her, because he had lifted her in his arms and carries her.’  This man, unknown to us at first, then digs a grave and buries her, before scurrying away.  The second chapter of the novel, and the majority of those which follow, are narrated by Lizzie, whose mother is a writer.

The descriptions in Birdcage Walk are sometimes inventive, and have a vivacity to them.  For instance, Dunmore writes: ‘But the moon was inside too.  It had got into the bedroom while we were sleeping.  Its light walked about over the bedstead, over the chest, the basin in its stand and the blue-and-white jug.  It was a restless thing and I could not lie still.’  I found the first couple of chapters, and the differentiation between tone, character, and period intriguing, but I soon found myself losing interest in the story once Lizzie’s account began.  Her voice felt too settled, and I could not invest enough empathy in her plight.  The dialogue felt forced, unnatural, and repetitive, and the prose and plot were too slow, and plodded along.  Julia Fawkes was a real person, but I felt as though Dunmore had no hold upon her character.  Whilst Dunmore often excels in her novels with her descriptions of the natural world, and in setting scenes, I did not quite feel as though this was the case here.

Birdcage Walk deals with ‘legacy and recognition – what writers, especially women writers, can expect to leave behind them’.  This has an added poignancy, given Dunmore’s untimely death last year.  Unfortunately, whilst I have very much enjoyed several of Dunmore’s novels in the past, Birdcage Walk neither lived up to its premise, nor to its praise, for me.  I am all for slow novels, but I like my historical fiction to be highly absorbing, and well anchored in the period.  Unfortunately, Birdcage Walk was neither.

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‘Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore **

Helen Dunmore’s final novel, Birdcage Walk, is a piece of historical fiction set in 1792, in Bristol.  At this time, ‘Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence’.  The Observer calls Birdcage Walk ‘the finest novel Dunmore has written’.  The Daily Telegraph deem it ‘Quietly brilliant…  among the best fiction of our time.’  The Guardian believe it to be ‘a blend of beauty and horror evoked with such breathtaking poetry that it haunts me still’.  The novel was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, and has been rather highly praised by critics, as the above quotes demonstrate. 9780099592761

Lizzie Fawkes, the protagonist of the novel, is the product of a childhood lived in Radical circles, ‘where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism’.  Lizzie has recently married a property developer named John Diner Tredevant, who is ‘heavily invested’ in their city’s housing boom, and has ‘everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war’.  He is displeased with Lizzie’s ‘independent, questioning spirit’, and is of the conviction that she should live and behave only in the manner he wishes her to.  In 1793, war was declared between Britain and France, which led to the collapse of the housing boom in Bristol, causing many builders and developers to go bankrupt; this, of course, affects Lizzie and John.

The novel opens in present day Bristol, where a dogwalker comes across an overgrown grave: ‘If my friends hadn’t decided that I should have a dog I would never have opened the gate and gone into the graveyard.  I always took the paved path between the railings.  Birdcage Walk, it’s called, because of the pleached lime trees arching overhead on their cast iron frame.’  The grave which his dog, Jack, first discovers ‘leaned only slightly backwards’.  The name inscribed upon it is Julia Elizabeth Fawkes, an eighteenth-century writer.  The narrator is able to find no information about her whatsoever online, and goes to an open day at her known residence in order to ask an archivist what they are able to find out.

The novel proper begins with rather a chilling chapter.  It begins: ‘He must have shut his eyes.  When he opened them, there she was.  She lay as he had left her, under a tree in the brambles and ivy.  He had laid her out straight, and crossed her hands, and then he had wrapped his coat about her head.  He had known that she would stiffen in a few hours, and that he would not want to see her once again.  There she was.  No one had come; he’d known that no one would come.  It was his luck.  There were no marks where he had dragged her, because he had lifted her in his arms and carries her.’  This man, unknown to us at first, then digs a grave and buries her, before scurrying away.  The second chapter of the novel, and the majority of those which follow, are narrated by Lizzie, whose mother is a writer.

The descriptions in Birdcage Walk are sometimes inventive, and have a vivacity to them.  For instance, Dunmore writes: ‘But the moon was inside too.  It had got into the bedroom while we were sleeping.  Its light walked about over the bedstead, over the chest, the basin in its stand and the blue-and-white jug.  It was a restless thing and I could not lie still.’  I found the first couple of chapters, and the differentiation between tone, character, and period intriguing, but I soon found myself losing interest in the story once Lizzie’s account began.  Her voice felt too settled, and I could not invest enough empathy in her plight.  The dialogue felt forced, unnatural, and repetitive, and the prose and plot were too slow, and plodded along.  Julia Fawkes was a real person, but I felt as though Dunmore had no hold upon her character.  Whilst Dunmore often excels in her novels with her descriptions of the natural world, and in setting scenes, I did not quite feel as though this was the case here.

Birdcage Walk deals with ‘legacy and recognition – what writers, especially women writers, can expect to leave behind them’.  This has an added poignancy, given Dunmore’s untimely death last year.  Unfortunately, whilst I have very much enjoyed several of Dunmore’s novels in the past, Birdcage Walk neither lived up to its premise, nor to its praise, for me.  I am all for slow novels, but I like my historical fiction to be highly absorbing, and well anchored in the period.  Unfortunately, Birdcage Walk was neither.

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‘The Greatcoat’ by Helen Dunmore ***

Helen Dunmore, a prolific author, died in June 2017; The Greatcoat was published in 2012.  Reviews from critics have been largely positive – for instance, The Times calls the novel ‘the most elegant flesh-creeper since The Woman in Black‘, and the Independent on Sunday ‘a perfect ghost story’ – but those from readers have been rather mixed.  Regardless, one has to admire Dunmore for writing about such a wealth of different time periods and characters, from Second World War Russia in The Siege, to D.H. Lawrence’s experiences in Cornwall in Zennor in Darkness, and children’s books about an underwater land named Ingo, which is peopled by mermaids.

The Greatcoat is set in the East Riding of Yorkshire during the winter of 1952, the year and place in which Dunmore herself was born. 9780099564935  Protagonist Isabel Carey, married for just two months to her largely absent doctor husband Philip, is ‘struggling to adjust to the realities’ of her new life.  One night, when cold, she rummages in a cupboard in their rented flat, and finds an old World War Two greatcoat, which she covers herself with.  The knock which comes at the window startles her; there is a pilot outside, wanting to come in.  She is frightened on the first night, and hides; when it happens again, ‘She could still hear the tapping sound that had woken her.  It must be her dream still turning, like a record after the needle had been lifted off.  Tap, tap, tap.  Soft, insistent, determined.  It was a real sound.  It was coming from the living room.’

Whilst, in their new home, Isabel and Philip have managed to escape the ‘narrow house where bed springs cracked like whips and the flush of the lavatory was the bellow of a caged water-dragon’ in which his parents live, conditions are little better.  Their situation, from the very beginning, is far from ideal: ‘Upstairs, the landlady laughed.  Too close, thought Isabel.  They had divided the house into flats but they couldn’t quite separate the lives within it.’  The constant walking around of the landlady becomes rather a disturbing noise for Isabel, who feels trapped within their walls, and is openly scrutinised by the townspeople whenever she ventures outdoors.  She feels out of her depth; she ‘looked all wrong.  Too young, too soft, too southern.’

Throughout, we as readers are party to Isabel’s experiences only; she is an unmoving focal point for Dunmore.  The first time she speaks to the airman, Alec, he comes into her house during the day.  At this point, ‘her thoughts moved strangely, down paths that were foreign and yet entirely familiar.  They were paths that had revealed themselves quite suddenly, as if a light had been shone inside her.  She was Isabel Carey, and yet these were thoughts that Isabel Carey had never had.  She knew what he meant, and she ought not to know it.’  Later, Dunmore writes: ‘He was a stranger, but she knew him.  Every word he spoke and every shadow of his expression fitted patterns she had never seen before but which had always been there, beneath the skin of her life.’  Isabel begins to lose herself; real memories and those which feature the airman, which she is sure she never lived, converge and blur.

The Greatcoat is a slight book, but a thoughtful one, and the pacing works well.  The story which Dunmore has woven has familiar elements to it.  Whilst it has been categorised as a ghost story, it is rather unusual in some ways.  I found myself pulled in rather early on, caring about Isabel and her plight, and wondering what would happen to her with the increased visits of Alec.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout works well, particularly when Dunmore is building tension.

However, whilst the novel is a little chilling in places, it feels as though opportunities have been missed; at no point did I find it at all scary, and when it all came together, it feels quite obvious.  Whilst the psychological impact of experiences upon Isabel are touched upon, they are not always shown with as much depth as they should have been.  The Greatcoat is an easy book to read; perhaps too easy at times, for the darker elements of the novel can be missed.

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‘Zennor in Darkness’ by Helen Dunmore *****

Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness proved the perfect tome to pick up over a relaxed and warm bank holiday weekend.  I first read the novel some years ago, but did not remember much about it, save for D.H. Lawrence featuring as one of the protagonists, and the sweeping Cornish setting.  First published in 1993, John le Carre calls this ‘a beautiful and inspired novel’, and the Sunday Telegraph deems it ‘highly original and beautifully written’.

9780141033600Zennor in Darkness opens in May 1917, when war has come to haunt ‘the coastal village of Zennor; ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion, and newspapers are full of spy stories.’  It is into this environment that D.H. Lawrence and his German wife, Frieda, move, seeking a cheaper existence away from the controversy which his writing has caused in London.  Also resident in the village, and living with her widowed father, is a young woman named Clare Coyne.  She is a young artist, whom Lawrence and Frieda soon befriend.

When Lawrence arrives in Cornwall, it is almost directly after the publication and scandal of his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  In Zennor, he is ‘growing vegetables to eke out his tiny income.  He earns his living by his writing, and it has shrunk close to nothing since his novel was seized by the police in November 1915 and prosecuted for obscenity.  The book is shameful, say reviewers and prosecution.  It is a thing which creeps and crawls…  He does not know when he will be able to publish another novel.  But with a remote cottage rented at five pounds a year, and cheap rural living, he hopes that he and his wife may get through the war.’  Controversy follows the Lawrences wherever they go, however; local residents are highly suspicious of Frieda’s German accent, and the couples’ penchant for singing Hibernian lullabies to one another.  ‘This brazen couple,’ writes Dunmore, ‘ignores the crossed, tight webs, the drystone walls, the small signals of kinship, the spider-fine apprehensions of those who’ve lived there for ever once they feel a fly strumming somewhere on their web.’

Dunmore’s descriptions throughout are highly sensual.  At the outset of the novel, when Clare decides to swim with her cousins with nothing on, she writes: ‘Second in, she must be second out.  And she wants the sea to herself for a minute, the noise and swell of it, her bare flesh rocking in salt water.’  The rural scenery, as well as the current crisis and its effects, are set with such grace.  Dunmore is very understanding of the location against which the action of the novel plays out, as well as the wider political climate, and the links between the two.  When Clare and Lawrence survey the sea, for instance, she writes: ‘It is wonderful to have your back to the land, to the whole of England: to have your back to the darkness of it, its frenzy of bureaucratic bloodshed, its cries in the night…  To have your back to this madness which finds a reason for everything: a madness of telegrams, medical examinations and popular songs; a madness of girls making shells and ferocious sentimentality.’

Dunmore’s depictions of people, too, are vivid and memorable.  When Clare meets Lawrence for the first time, for instance, she finds that ‘his beard is astonishing.  It juts from his face, wiry and bright red, and then the sunlight catches it and it’s all the colours she’d never have thought human hair could be: threads of orange and purple like slim flames lapping at coals.’

Whilst the majority of the novel is told using the third person omniscient perspective, the use of diary entries written in Clare’s voice are effective.  Using this technique, Dunmore shows a more tender side of her, and it is also, of course, far more revealing than she is able to be in her public life.  Snippets of first person perspective, and thoughts of individual characters, have been woven throughout.  Sometimes asides are given, or reflections between snatches of dialogue.  Separate characters are focused upon in individual chapters, and we are thus able to see the rich tapestry of those who live within Zennor, some of whom are real historical figures, and others of which have been imagined by Dunmore.

Everything within Zennor in Darkness has been beautifully placed into what is a taut and tightly executed novel.  Throughout, Dunmore’s writing is measured and careful; she is understanding of her characters, and never resorts to melodrama.  Zennor in Darkness is a novel to really admire; it is slow, sensuous, incredibly human, and highly beautiful.

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Reading the World: Russia

We come to one of the most fascinating countries which I have ever had the pleasure to visit now – Mother Russia.  I have read much literature and non-fiction (particularly that which deals with the Romanovs) set within the vast country, and it has been rather difficult to narrow down my recommendations.  Rather than make a series of posts, as I have done with Scandinavia, I have chosen six of what I believe to be the best books set within Russia.  (NB. I am painfully aware that no Tolstoy makes the cut, but that is solely because I have read very little of his work to date.)

1. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 9780099540946
‘In Soviet Moscow, God is dead, but the devil – to say nothing of his retinue of demons, from a loudmouthed, gun-toting tomcat, to the fanged fallen angel Koroviev – is very much alive. As death and destruction spread through the city like wildfire, condemning Moscow’s cultural elite to prison cells and body bags, only a madman, the Master and Margarita, his beautiful, courageous lover, can hope to end the chaos. Written in secret during the darkest days of Stalin’s reign and circulated in samizdat form for decades, when The Master and Margarita was finally published it became an overnight literary phenomenon, signalling artistic freedom for Russians everywhere.’

2. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
‘Banned in the Soviet Union until 1988, Doctor Zhivago is the epic story of the life and loves of a poet-physician during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. Taking his family from Moscow to what he hopes will be shelter in the Ural Mountains, Yuri Zhivago finds himself instead embroiled in the battle between the Whites and the Reds, and in love with the tender and beautiful nurse Lara.’

97803757190113. The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky
‘Constantly rebuffed from the social circles he aspires to frequent, the timid clerk Golyadkin is confronted by the sudden appearance of his double, a more brazen, confident and socially successful version of himself, who abuses and victimizes the original. As he is increasingly persecuted, Golyadkin finds his social, romantic and professional life unravelling, in a spiral that leads to a catastrophic denouement.’

4. The Siege by Helen Dunmore
‘Leningrad, September 1941. Hitler orders the German forces to surround the city at the start of the most dangerous, desperate winter in its history. For two pairs of lovers – Anna and Andrei, Anna’s novelist father and banned actress Marina – the siege becomes a battle for survival. They will soon discover what it is like to be so hungry you boil shoe leather to make soup, so cold you burn furniture and books. But this is not just a struggle to exist, it is also a fight to keep the spark of hope alive…”The Siege” is a brilliantly imagined novel of war and the wounds it inflicts on ordinary people’s lives, and a profoundly moving celebration of love, life and survival.’

5. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky
‘The twenty-six-year-old Prince Myshkin, following a stay of several years in a Swiss sanatorium, returns to Russia to collect an inheritance and “be among people.” Even before he reaches home he meets the dark Rogozhin, a rich merchant’s son whose obsession with the beautiful Nastasya Filippovna eventually draws all three of them into a tragic denouement. In Petersburg the prince finds himself a stranger in a society obsessed with money, power, and manipulation. Scandal escalates to murder as Dostoevsky traces the surprising effect of this “positively beautiful man” on the people around him, leading to a final scene that is one of the most powerful in all of world literature.’

6. Gulag by Anne Applebaum9780140283105
‘This landmark book uncovers for the first time in detail one of the greatest horrors of the twentieth century: the vast system of Soviet camps that were responsible for the deaths of countless millions. “Gulag” is the only major history in any language to draw together the mass of memoirs and writings on the Soviet camps that have been published in Russia and the West. Using these, as well as her own original research in NKVD archives and interviews with survivors, Anne Applebaum has written a fully documented history of the camp system: from its origins under the tsars, to its colossal expansion under Stalin’s reign of terror, its zenith in the late 1940s and eventual collapse in the era of glasnost. It is a gigantic feat of investigation, synthesis and moral reckoning.’

 

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Short Story Series: Part Three

I adore reading short stories, and don’t see many reviews of collections on blogs in comparison to novels and the like.  I thought that I would make a weekly series to showcase short stories, and point interested readers in the direction of some of my favourite collections.  Rather than ramble in adoration for every single book, I have decided to copy their official blurb.  I have linked my blog reviews where appropriate.

1. Tales from the Secret Annex by Anne Frank
‘The candid, poignant, unforgettable writing of the young girl whose own life story has become an everlasting source of courage and inspiration. Hiding from the Nazis in the ” Secret Annex” of an old office building in Amsterdam, a thirteen-year-old girl named Anne Frank became a writer. The now famous diary of her private life and thoughts reveals only part of Anne’s story, however. This book rounds out the portrait of this remarkable and talented young author. Newly translated, complete, and restored to the original order in which Anne herself wrote them in her notebook, Tales from the Secret Annex is a collection of Anne Frank’s lesser-known writings: short stories, fables, personal reminiscences, and an unfinished novel, Cady’s Life.’

2. M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman
‘In this collection of wonderful stories, which range between fantasy, humour, science fiction and a sprinkling of horror, the reader will relish the range and skill of Neil Gaiman’s writing. Be prepared to laugh at the detective story about Humpty Dumpty’s demise, spooked by the sinister jack-in -the-box who haunts the lives of the children who own it, and intrigued by the boy who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard in this collection of bite-sized narrative pleasures.’

3. The Persephone Book of Short Stories
This is an absolutely marvellous collection of short stories, featuring a plethora of different authors.

4. The Wordsworth Collection of Classic Short Stories
‘Poignant, wry, chilling, challenging, amusing, thought-provoking and always intriguing, these accomplished tales from the pens of great writers are object-lessons in the art of creating a literary masterpiece on a small canvas. From the straightforwardly anecdotal to the more analytical of human behaviour, all are guaranteed to capture the imagination, stir the emotions, linger in the memory and whet the reader’s appetite for more. In this book, Wordsworth Editions presents the modern reader with a rich variety of short stories by a host of towering literary figures ranging from Arnold Bennett to Virginia Woolf. This disparate and distinguished company of writers has rarely – if ever – met within the pages of one volume: the result is a positive feast.’

5. Stories to Get You Through the Night, edited by Helen Dunmore
‘”Stories to Get You Through the Night” is a collection to remedy life’s stresses and strains. Inside you will find writing from the greatest of classic and contemporary authors; stories that will brighten and inspire, move and delight, soothe and restore in equal measure. This is an anthology to devour or to savour at your leisure, each story a perfectly imagined whole to be read and reread, and each a journey to transport the reader away from the everyday. Immersed in the pages, you will follow lovers to midnight trysts, accompany old friends on new adventures, be thrilled by ghostly delights, overcome heartbreak, loss and longing, and be warmed by tales of redemption, and of hope and happiness. Whether as a cure for insomnia, to while away the hours on a midnight journey, or as a brief moment of escapism before you turn in, the stories contained in this remarkable collection provide the perfect antidote to the frenetic pace of modern life – a rich and calming selection guaranteed to see you through the night. It features stories by: Katherine Mansfield, Alice Munro, Anton Chekhov, Oscar Wilde, Haruki Murakami, Wilkie Collins, Kate Chopin, Elizabeth Gaskell, The Brothers Grimm, John Cheever, Arthur Conan Doyle, Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, Helen Simpson, Richard Yates, James Lasdun, Martin Amis, Angela Carter, Somerset Maugham and Julian Barnes.’

6. Cliffs of Fall by Shirley Hazzard
‘From the author of “The Great Fire,” a collection of stories about love and acceptance, expectations and disappointment Shirley Hazzard’s stories are sharp, sensitive portrayals of moments of crisis. Whether they are set in the Italian countryside or suburban Connecticut, the stories deal with real people and real problems. In the title piece, a young widow is surprised and ashamed by her lack of grief for her husband. In “A Place in the Country,” a young woman has a passionate, guilty affair with her cousin’s husband. In “Harold,” a gawky, lonely young man finds acceptance and respect through his poetry. Moving and evocative, these ten stories are written with subtlety, humor, and a keen understanding of the relationships between men and women.’

You can find my review here.

7. The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman
‘”The Red Garden” introduces us to the luminous and haunting world of Blackwell, Massachusetts, capturing the unexpected turns in its history and in our own lives. In exquisite prose, Hoffman offers a transforming glimpse of small-town America, presenting us with some three hundred years of passion, dark secrets, loyalty, and redemption in a web of tales where characters’ lives are intertwined by fate and by their own actions. From the town’s founder, a brave young woman from England who has no fear of blizzards or bears, to the young man who runs away to New York City with only his dog for company, the characters in “The Red Garden” are extraordinary and vivid: a young wounded Civil War soldier who is saved by a passionate neighbor, a woman who meets a fiercely human historical character, a poet who falls in love with a blind man, a mysterious traveler who comes to town in the year when summer never arrives. At the center of everyone’s life is a mysterious garden where only red plants can grow, and where the truth can be found by those who dare to look. Beautifully crafted, shimmering with magic, “The Red Garden” is as unforgettable as it is moving.’

8. Art in Nature by Tove Jansson
‘An elderly caretaker at a large outdoor exhibition, called Art in Nature, finds that a couple have lingered on to bicker about the value of a picture; he has a surprising suggestion that will resolve both their row and his own ambivalence about the art market. A draughtsman’s obsession with drawing locomotives provides a dark twist to a love story. A cartoonist takes over the work of a colleague who has suffered a nervous breakdown only to discover that his own sanity is in danger. In these witty, sharp, often disquieting stories, Tove Jansson reveals the fault-lines in our relationship with art, both as artists and as consumers. Obsession, ambition, and the discouragement of critics are all brought into focus in these wise and cautionary tales.’

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Best Books on the North

I like to theme my reading around the seasons as far as I can, and what better thing to post in the run-up to Christmas than a list of best books set in the wintry north?  The first five are books which I have very much enjoyed and would highly recommend, and the last five are those which are high on my wishlist.

1. The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen ***** (Various parts of Scandinavia)
2. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey ***** (Alaska)
3. Naive. Super by Erlend Loe ***** (Norway)
4. The Winter Book by Tove Jansson ***** (Finland)
5. The Siege by Helen Dunmore **** (Russia)

6. The Red Scarf by Kate Furnivall (Siberia)
7. With the Lapps in the High Mountains: A Woman Among the Sami, 1907-1908 by Emilie Demant Hatt (Northern Sweden)
8. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy (Siberia)
9. Victoria by Knut Hamsun (Norway)
10. The Crow-Girl: The Children of Crow Cove by Bodil Bredsdorff (Denmark)

Which are your favourite books set in the north?

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Flash Reviews: Three New Releases

I received review copies of the three novels below, but for one reason or another, I felt unable to finish them.  Rather than just relegate them to the abandoned pile, I felt that it was still important to write reviews, and although not comprehensive, my thoughts about each title are as follows.

1. The Gardener of Ochakov – Andrey Kurkov
This is the first of Kurkov’s books which I’ve read, and I think that it may be the last for a while.  Although The Gardener of Ochakov is nicely written, and Amanda Love Darragh’s translation does not feel stilted in any way, there is nothing outstanding which serves to capture the reader’s attention in the first few chapters.  The novel

Andrey Kurkov

Andrey Kurkov

opens in Irpen, a town outside Kiev, where a retired woman named Elena Andreevna is living with her son, Igor.  Whilst standing outside her house, she is introduced to rather an unseasonable gardener named Stepan.  On the first morning in which Stepan is engaged in employment for the family, Igor looks out of his window to find the gardener ‘standing there in nothing but a pair of black underpants’, ‘the blurred dark blue marks, as though someone had tried to cover up or remove an old tattoo’ on his arm all the more prominent.  When asked about these marks, Stepan says, ‘I can remember crying.  Apparently my old man included some kind of secret code in the tattoo’.  Igor promises to help him decipher it, along with a friend of his who is something of a computer whizz.  Much focus is placed upon the modern way of life which the characters live under – the abundance of food, electricity and the Internet, for example.  The mild intrigue regarding the meaning of the tattoo is revealed all too soon, and the materialistic elements of the plot ruin the story somewhat.

2. The Bookstore – Deborah Meyler
The blurb of The Bookstore says that it is ‘a witty, sharply observed debut novel about a young woman who finds unexpected salvation while working in a quirky used bookstore in Manhattan’.  Esme, the book’s protagonist, is a British woman studying Art History at Columbia University.  Her first person perspective begins, ‘I, Esme Garland, do not approve of mess.  This is unfortunate, because ever since I woke up this morning I’ve had a feeling that I might be in one’.  Her narrative voice is not an engaging one despite the promise of this opening, and she soon seems more interested with the quest to buy a bagel and tell the coffee shop owner that actually, their broken coffee machine is working, than anything else.  She falls pregnant, her boyfriend leaves her, and the rest of the predictable plotline follows.  The descriptions of The Owl bookshop and its ‘laconic and gentle owner’ George are nice enough, but Esme feels fake in her personam and is incredibly irritating at times.  The Bookstore is filled with mundane information which fails to hook the reader.

3. The Lie – Helen Dunmore
The Siege is the only one of Dunmore’s novels which I have really enjoyed, despite reading an awful lot of her tales.  Her prose style and storylines seem rather inconsistent from one book to the next, and that is certainly true when one reads her newest offering, The Lie.  The novel is told from the first person perspective of Daniel Branwell, a young man who has returned from France after a stint in the Army.  His narrative voice from the start is not a realistic male one, and it certainly sounds far too feminine to be anything close to plausible at times.  Both of Daniel’s parents are dead, and his only company is an elderly woman named Mary Pascoe who lives nearby -‘Even with her milky eyes she still seemed more like a bird than a woman…  I was glad that the humanness in her seemed to have been parched away, so that she was light enough to fly’ – and his memories.  Whilst Dunmore’s descriptions are nice enough for the mostpart, the characters are not built up enough to seem realistic, and the story is not original enough to stand out.  The relationships formed also seem rather awkward and stilted at times.  On the whole, it has much in common with John Boyne’s The Absolutist, another First World War novel which I was sorely disappointed with.