4

Escapist Reading: Recommendations

The world feels like a very strange and unsettling place to be right now, and like many others, I have been using long stretches of my time indoors to read.  I have been increasingly drawn to historical fiction, and thought that it would be a good idea to put together a list of books which I have really enjoyed of late.  These stories encompass many different time periods, and whilst largely novels aimed at adults, there are a couple of children’s reads here too.  I hope you find something here to divert your attention, and that you find these differing worlds as absorbing as I have.

 

258610941. Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett (review forthcoming)
‘An impassioned, charming, and hilarious debut novel about a young woman’s coming-of-age, during one of the harshest whaling seasons in the history of New South Wales, Australia.  1908: It’s the year that proves to be life-changing for our teenage narrator, Mary Davidson, tasked with providing support to her father’s boisterous whaling crews while caring for five brothers and sisters in the wake of their mother’s death. But when the handsome John Beck-a former Methodist preacher turned novice whaler with a mysterious past-arrives at the Davidson’s door pleading to join her father’s crews, suddenly Mary’s world is upended.  As her family struggles to survive the scarcity of whales and the vagaries of weather, and as she navigates sibling rivalries and an all-consuming first love for the newcomer John, nineteen-year-old Mary will soon discover a darker side to these men who hunt the seas, and the truth of her place among them.   Swinging from Mary’s own hopes and disappointments to the challenges that have beset her family’s whaling operation, RUSH OH! is an enchanting blend of fact and fiction that’s as much the story of its gutsy narrator’s coming-of-age as it is the celebration of an extraordinary episode in history.’

 

2. Annelies: A Novel of Anne Frank by David Gillham (review forthcoming) 45161414._sy475_
‘A breathtaking new novel that asks the question: what if Anne Frank survived the Holocaust?  In 1945, aged sixteen, Anne Frank walks out of the liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and into a new life as a survivor of the Holocaust. Returning to Amsterdam, she is reunited with her beloved father. Yet Anne feels like a ghost. In the city where she and her family were betrayed, Anne struggles to let go of the horrors she witnessed, to forget the cruel death of her mother and her sister Margot. She dreams of being a writer, but how do you carry on when you’ve lost everything you once were?  To create a new life for herself, a life of freedom as a woman and a writer, she knows she must transform her story of trauma into a story of redemption and hope.’

 

41473945._sy475_3. Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange
‘Growing up in a lighthouse, 11-year-old Pet’s world has been one of storms, secret tunnels, and stories about sea monsters. But now the country is at war and the clifftops are a terrifying battleground. Pet will need to muster all her bravery to uncover why her family is being torn apart.  This is the story of a girl who is afraid and unnoticed. A girl who freezes with fear at the enemy planes ripping through the skies overheard. A girl who is somehow destined to become part of the strange, ancient legend of the Daughters of Stone.’

 

4. The Holiday Friend by Pamela Hansford Johnson (review forthcoming) 41160614
‘Gavin and Hannah Eastwood are a happy couple, holidaying with their overprotected eleven-year-old son Giles in a beautiful village on the coast of Belgium.  Melissa is a student of Gavin’s, also in the village, having followed Gavin there. A hopeless romantic living in a fantasy, she obsessively follows the family, going out of her way to bump into the couple repeatedly – soon becoming inescapable.  While Gavin pities her, Hannah finds her presence alarming; and while they’re distracted by her appearances, they miss Giles secretly pursuing his own sinister friendship…’

 

12757335. Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther (review forthcoming)
‘Shortly before the Second World War, a column by ‘Mrs Miniver’ appeared in The Times, the first of many recounting the everyday events of a middle=class London family: Mrs Miniver’s thrill at the sight of October chrysanthemums, her sense of doom when the faithful but rackety car is replaced, the escapades of her unpredictable young children, and, as war becomes a reality, the strange experience of acquiring gas masks and the camaraderie of those early days.  Published in book form in 1939, and later an enormously successful film, Mrs Miniver became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, with Churchill exclaiming that it had done more for the Allied cause than a flotilla of battleships.’

 

6. The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor 35663223._sy475_
‘1917: When two young cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright from Cottingley, England, announce they have photographed fairies at the bottom of the garden, their parents are astonished. But when the great novelist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, endorses the photographs’ authenticity, the girls become a sensation; their discovery offering something to believe in amid a world ravaged by war.  One hundred years later… When Olivia Kavanagh finds an old manuscript and a photograph in her late grandfather’s bookshop she becomes fascinated by the story of the two young girls who mystified the world. As Olivia is drawn into events a century ago, she becomes aware of the past and the present intertwining, blurring her understanding of what is real and what is imagined. As she begins to understand why a nation once believed in fairies, will Olivia find a way to believe in herself?’

 

28430665._sy475_7. The Lark by E. Nesbit (review forthcoming)
‘It’s 1919 and Jane and her cousin Lucilla leave school to find that their guardian has gambled away their money, leaving them with only a small cottage in the English countryside. In an attempt to earn their living, the orphaned cousins embark on a series of misadventures – cutting flowers from their front garden and selling them to passers-by, inviting paying guests who disappear without paying – all the while endeavouring to stave off the attentions of male admirers, in a bid to secure their independence.’

 

8. A Lost Lady by Willa Cather 48200
Marian Forrester is the symbolic flower of the Old American West. She draws her strength from that solid foundation, bringing delight and beauty to her elderly husband, to the small town of Sweet Water where they live, to the prairie land itself, and to the young narrator of her story, Neil Herbert. All are bewitched by her brilliance and grace, and all are ultimately betrayed. For Marian longs for “life on any terms,” and in fulfilling herself, she loses all she loved and all who loved her. This, Willa Cather’s most perfect novel, is not only a portrait of a troubling beauty, but also a haunting evocation of a noble age slipping irrevocably into the past.’

 

What have you been reading lately?  I hope you’re all staying safe, and managing to fill your days with things that you make you feel a little better.

0

The Book Trail: From ‘The Lark’ to ‘Reuben Sachs’

I am using E. Nesbit’s quite charming novel, The Lark, which I recently reviewed on the blog, as my starting point for this edition of The Book Trail.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list.  Do let me know which of these books you have read, and if you are interested in reading any of them!

 

1. The Lark by E. Nesbit (1922) 9781911579458
‘It’s 1919 and Jane and her cousin Lucilla leave school to find that their guardian has gambled away their money, leaving them with only a small cottage in the English countryside. In an attempt to earn their living, the orphaned cousins embark on a series of misadventures – cutting flowers from their front garden and selling them to passers-by, inviting paying guests who disappear without paying – all the while endeavouring to stave off the attentions of male admirers, in a bid to secure their independence.’

 

17769932. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes (1947)
‘It’s a summer’s day in 1946. The English village of Wealding is no longer troubled by distant sirens, yet the rustling coils of barbed wire are a reminder that something, some quality of life, has evaporated. Together again after years of separation, Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria are forced to manage without “those anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and pulled the strings.” Their rambling garden refuses to be tamed, the house seems perceptibly to crumble. But alone on a hillside, as evening falls, Laura comes to see what it would have meant if the war had been lost, and looks to the future with a new hope and optimism. First published in 1947, this subtle, finely wrought novel presents a memorable portrait of the aftermath of war, its effect upon a marriage, and the gradual but significant change in the nature of English middle-class life.’

 

3. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim (1907) 1140708
‘This enchanting novel tells the story of the love affair between Rose-Marie Schmidt and Roger Anstruther. A determined young woman of twenty-five, Rose-Marie is considered a spinster by the inhabitants of the small German town of Jena where she lives with her father, the Professor. To their homes comes Roger, an impoverished but well-born young Englishman who wishes to learn German: Rose-Marie and Roger fall in love. But the course of true love never did run smooth: distance, temperament and fortune divide them. We watch the ebb and flow of love between two very different people and see the witty and wonderful Rose-Marie get exactly what she wants.’

 

71337934. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge (1935)
Even though she is a renowned painter Lady Kilmichael is diffident and sad. her remote, brilliant husband has no time for her and she feels she only exasperates her delightful, headstrong daughter. So, telling no one where she is going. she embarks on a painting trip to the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia – in the Thirties a remote and exotic place. There she takes under her wing Nicholas, a bitterly unhappy young man, forbidden by his family to pursue the painting he loves and which Grace recognises as being of rare quality. Their adventures and searching discussions lead to something much deeper than simple friendship…  This beautiful novel, gloriously evoking the countryside and people of Illyria, has been a favourite since its publication in 1935, both as a sensitive travel book and as [an] unusual and touching love story.’

 

5. Miss Mole by E.H. Young (1930) 1983763
‘When Miss Mole returns to Radstowe, she wins the affection of Ethel and of her nervous sister Ruth and transforms the life of the vicarage. This book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1930.’

 

29218749._sx318_6. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple (1932)
‘Persephone Books’ bestselling author Dorothy Whipple’s third novel (1932) was the choice of the Book Society in the summer of that year. Hugh Walpole wrote: ‘To put it plainly, in Dorothy Whipple’s picture of a quite ordinary family before and after the war there is some of the best creation of living men and women that we have had for a number of years in the English novel. She is a novelist of true importance.”

 

7. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell (1915) 933516
‘Set in Iowa in 1900 and in 1913, this dramatic and deeply moral novel uses complex but subtle use of flashback to describe a girl named Ruth Holland, bored with her life at home, falling in love with a married man and running off with him; when she comes back more than a decade later we are shown how her actions have affected those around her. Ruth had taken another woman’s husband and as such ‘Freeport’ society thinks she is ‘a human being who selfishly – basely – took her own happiness, leaving misery for others. She outraged society as completely as a woman could outrage it… One who defies it – deceives it – must be shut out from it.’  But, like Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier in ‘The Awakening’ and Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ Ruth has ‘a diffused longing for an enlarged experience… Her energies having been shut off from the way they had wanted to go, she was all the more zestful for new things from life…’ It is these that are explored in Fidelity.’

 

27022868. Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy (1888)
‘Oscar Wilde wrote of this novel, “Its directness, its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make Reuben Sachs, in some sort, a classic.” Reuben Sachs, the story of an extended Anglo-Jewish family in London, focuses on the relationship between two cousins, Reuben Sachs and Judith Quixano, and the tensions between their Jewish identities and English society. The novel’s complex and sometimes satirical portrait of Anglo-Jewish life, which was in part a reaction to George Eliot’s romanticized view of Victorian Jews in Daniel Deronda, caused controversy on its first publication.’

4

‘The Lark’ by E. Nesbit ****

I have read, and very much enjoyed, many of E. Nesbit’s books for children over the years, but was somehow unaware that she had also published eleven books with an adult audience in mind.  It was with delight, then, that I picked up a copy of The Lark in the library, and read it outside on a gloriously sunny day – the perfect setting, I feel, for such a novel.  The novel was first published in 1922, and has been recently reissued by both Penguin and the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press.

9781911579458In 1919, nineteen-year-old cousins Jane Quested and Lucinda Craye leave their boarding school, only to find that their guardian has gambled away all of their money.  He leaves them with only a ‘small cottage in the English countryside’, and quickly flees, checking in on them only very occasionally.  One the pair realise that their fortune has been squandered, and all they have is the aforesaid small cottage in Kent, and £500 to live on, Jane declares: ‘Everything that’s happening to us – yes, everything – is to be regarded as a lark.  See?  This is my last word.  This. Is. Going. To. Be. A. Lark.’

The girls, both orphaned, hope to secure their independence, and in doing so, ’embark on a series of misadventures’.  They begin a flower-selling enterprise, and soon realise that they will have to relocate to larger premises in order to meet the demand of working men for their posies.  A plot ensues which is filled with more money-making schemes, misunderstandings, two very plucky heroines, and so much heart.

One gets a feel for the protagonists, and their differences, immediately.  Jane is by far the more outgoing cousin, who spouts annoying and endearing comments to her cousin throughout.  At the outset, she says to Lucinda: ‘But we shall never do anything if we think of ourselves as two genteel spinsters who have seen better days.  We must think of ourselves as adventurers with the whole world before us.  Frightfully interesting.’  Lucinda is more quiet and cautious; she is the serious and pragmatic one of the pair, whilst Jane is comically headstrong, and unrelentingly in charge.

Nesbit’s customary lighthearted amusement peppers the book, and proved such an enjoyable element.  She lends a commentary to proceedings, filled with asides and gentle satire.  She writes, for instance, ‘John Rochester was young and, I am sorry to say, handsome.  Sorry, because handsome men are, as a rule, so very stupid and so very vain.’  Rochester soon proves to be the sole exception to this rule, and becomes involved in the lives of the cousins.  Jane tells Lucinda, who appears quite taken to him, that they will take none of his nonsense, however: ‘We’ve got our livings to make, and we don’t want young men hanging round, paying attentions and addresses and sighing and dying and upsetting everything.  If he likes to be a good chum I don’t mind, but the minute I see any signs of philandering, the least flicker of a sheep’s eye, we’ll drop Mr Rochester, if you don’t mind.’

Nesbit’s descriptions are exquisite, something which strikes me in her work for children too.  She has such a glorious way with words, and is able to quickly build vivid pictures of characters and surroundings.  Of Rochester’s first glimpse of the cousins, for instance, she writes: ‘He saw a glade, ringed round with rhododendrons and azaleas, their big heads of bloom glistering in the wan light cast from the Japanese lanterns that hung like golden incandescent fruit from the branches of the fir-trees.  In the middle of the glade a ring of fairy lights shining like giant glow-worms were set out upon the turf.’

Nesbit conjures up such a sense of nostalgia in the imagery which she creates: ‘It was a very nice dinner – the cold lamb from yesterday, and what was left of the gooseberry-pie, and lettuces and radishes, and what sounds so nice when you call it (fair white bread).  The sun shone, the green leaves flickered and shivered in the soft airs of May.  The peonies shone like crimson cannon-balls, and the flags stood up like spears; the birds sang, and three very contented people ate and talked and laughed together.’

There are a lot of recognisable elements of the children’s adventure story within The Lark, and this, I think, made it all the more enjoyable.  The story takes twists and turns, some of which tend to be a little melodramatic, but due to Nesbit’s plotting and prose style, this approach works very well.  The novel can become a little farcical at times, but this further ensured that there were a lot of surprises in the plot.  The whole plays out rather well, and I very much enjoyed its blithesome tone.

The Lark is very of its time, but it still feels modern and relevant in many respects.  It is a novel which would sit perfectly upon the Persephone and Virago lists; it has a similar charm to works by Dorothy Whipple and Marghanita Laski, to name but two authors.  It is a real treat to read, and I hope that this review will encourage others to pick it up.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘Clara’ by Janice Galloway ***

Janice Galloway is an author whose work I very much admire, and have often been blown away by.  I spotted her historical novel, Clara, whilst spending some vouchers in Waterstones, and just could not bear to leave without it.  It oddly took me quite a while to actually pick up the book, despite loving everything of Galloway’s which I had read to date.  Clara, a historical novel, and the recipient of the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award, is quite a change from the very contemporary work of Galloway’s which I am used to.  It has variously been called intense, powerful, and brilliant by reviewers, and is described as a ‘lyrical and vibrant account of two remarkable and highly dramatic musical careers.’

w204The novel is based on the life of Clara Schumann, the celebrated nineteenth-century concert pianist.  Schumann also worked as a composer, teacher, and editor, and was a friend of Brahms.  She married Robert Schumann, who suffered from ‘crippling mental illnesses’, and the couple had eight children together.  Clara was born to the Wieck family in Liepzig, to musical parents, and went on to be considered one of the best composers of the Romantic age.

With poetic language from the outset, Galloway’s third novel introduces Clara in a beautiful and memorable manner: ‘Her eyes are wide…  Look hard as you like, they don’t change.  The depth of those eye sockets, the slab of her brow is how she is arranged, that’s all…  So far as can be managed, this face is blunt.  Inscrutable.  As it should be.  A pianist must develop more than technique, more than musicianship, more, even, than luck.  She needs the capacity to deny fear.’  Galloway’s prose marches on in this manner, and she proves time and again that she can capture so much using just a few words.  She writes, for instance, ‘… her unmade bed, its spill of pillows; the window, the single chair.’   Galloway’s writing is often stunning, and rich with the images which it evokes.

Galloway, too, is practiced at capturing sound and touch in a sensual manner.  When describing Clara’s playing as a child, she writes: ‘During the day, all day, the music rises.  Standing over the practice room ceiling, upon the floorboards of elsewhere, she can feel it buzz beneath the soles of her canvas shoes.  Music makes sensation, it vibrates along the bones.’  The novel is evocative, sad, and vivid in almost equal measure.  In the first of the novel’s eight parts, Galloway focuses on Clara as a small child: ‘Some children can lie so still you’d think they’d stopped breathing, and this one’s better than most.  She lies in the dark like a dead thing till the dark sucks her in and she supposes that is sleep.  It never seems like sleep.  It seems like waiting.’

The novel’s composition has been delicately and expertly handled, and it moves forward chronologically in time, charting Clara’s growth both in a physical and musical manner.  Galloway handles her primary material with tact, elevating it until it feels fresh and new.  Regardless, the novel is rather a long one, and I feel as though Clara would have had far more impact had it been shorter, and perhaps consisted of less parts.  Although its plot has been well arranged, there were some sections which added little to the overall novel.

Galloway captures so much here, and she undeniably does it well.  It did get to the stage, however, where I began to wonder if she was describing everything in too much detail.  Whilst nice enough to read, a lot of the minutiae which has been included is unnecessary, and contributes very little to the novel in the grand scheme of things.

Clara appears to be distinctly under-read, with under 250 ratings on Goodreads, and just a handful of reviews.  There is a lot of substance to the novel, but never does it become saturated or difficult to read.  I was pulled in immediately, and for the first hundred pages or so, was reluctant to put it down.  For me, though, Clara felt far more realistic in her incarnation as a child than she did as an adult.  There was something about her adult self which simply did not feel convincing.

However, I did find that parts of the novel became a little repetitive, particularly with regard to Robert’s episodes of mental illness, and the effects they had on Clara, as well as Galloway’s descriptions of music.  I also found it a little odd that Clara was not always the focus of this, her own story; attention shifts to Robert as soon as he is introduced, and Clara becomes almost a secondary character.  I wish she had been given far more agency.  I was fascinated by Clara and her story, but my interest was not always sustained due to the continual shift of focus onto Robert.  This, for me, was a real shame, as I was fully expecting to love Clara when I began to read it.  

I love Galloway’s experimental prose style, but do not feel as though it suits a work of historical fiction.  Galloway’s writing sometimes felt too modern for the story, and in that manner there are slight jarring clashes which become more apparent as the novel goes on.  It is an ambitious book, but for me, Galloway did not quite pull everything together in a satisfactory manner, and there are a manner of ambiguities which remain.  Regardless, Clara Schumann was a remarkable woman in many ways, and I would certainly like to learn more about her in future.

6

Historical Fiction: France

Aside from Great Britain, where I live, I have spent most time in France.  I adore the country, and have visited every year – often multiple times – since I was a child.  I am very drawn to fiction set in France, and find its historical fiction particularly rich, due to the country’s fascinating and tumultuous past.  With this in mind, I thought I would create a list of eight historical fiction books set in France which I can’t wait to read.

 

1. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas 7126
‘In 1815 Edmond Dantès, a young and successful merchant sailor who has just recently been granted the succession of his erstwhile captain Leclère, returns to Marseille to marry his Catalan fiancée Mercédès. Thrown in prison for a crime he has not committed, Edmond Dantès is confined to the grim fortress of If. There he learns of a great hoard of treasure hidden on the Isle of Monte Cristo and he becomes determined not only to escape, but also to unearth the treasure and use it to plot the destruction of the three men responsible for his incarceration.’

 

181439772. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
‘From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.  Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.  In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.’

 

3. The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg 22716467
‘A passionate and powerful novel based on the scandalous life of the French novelist George Sand, her famous lovers, untraditional Parisian lifestyle, and bestselling novels in Paris during the 1830s and 40s. This major departure for bestseller Berg is for readers of Nancy Horan and Elizabeth Gilbert.  George Sand was a 19th century French novelist known not only for her novels but even more for her scandalous behavior. After leaving her estranged husband, Sand moved to Paris where she wrote, wore men’s clothing, smoked cigars, and had love affairs with famous men and an actress named Marie. In an era of incredible artistic talent, Sand was the most famous female writer of her time. Her lovers and friends included Frederic Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Eugene Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and more. In a major departure, Elizabeth Berg has created a gorgeous novel about the life of George Sand, written in luminous prose, with exquisite insight into the heart and mind of a woman who was considered the most passionate and gifted genius of her time.’

 

146624. The Red and the Black by Stendhal
‘Handsome, ambitious Julien Sorel is determined to rise above his humble provincial origins. Soon realizing that success can only be achieved by adopting the subtle code of hypocrisy by which society operates, he begins to achieve advancement through deceit and self-interest. His triumphant career takes him into the heart of glamorous Parisian society, along the way conquering the gentle, married Madame de Rênal, and the haughty Mathilde. But then Julien commits an unexpected, devastating crime – and brings about his own downfall. The Red and the Black is a lively, satirical portrayal of French society after Waterloo, riddled with corruption, greed, and ennui, and Julien – the cold exploiter whose Machiavellian campaign is undercut by his own emotions – is one of the most intriguing characters in European literature.’

 

5. In a Dark Wood Wandering: A Novel of the Middle Ages by Hella S. Haasse 123091
‘This novel exemplifies historical fiction at its best; the author’s meticulous research and polished style bring the medieval world into vibrant focus. Set during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), the narrative creates believable human beings from the great roll of historical figures. Here are the mad Charles VI, the brilliant Louis d’Orleans, Joan of Arc, Henry V, and, most importantly, Charles d’Orleans, whose loyalty to France brought him decades of captivity in England. A natural poet and scholar, his birth and rank thrust him into the center of intrigue and strife, and through his observant eyes readers enter fully into his colorful, dangerous times. First published in the Netherlands in 1949, this book has never been out of print there and has been reprinted 15 times. ‘This novel exemplifies historical fiction at its best; the author’s meticulous research and polished style bring the medieval world into vibrant focus. Set during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), the narrative creates believable human beings from the great roll of historical figures. Here are the mad Charles VI, the brilliant Louis d’Orleans, Joan of Arc, Henry V, and, most importantly, Charles d’Orleans, whose loyalty to France brought him decades of captivity in England. A natural poet and scholar, his birth and rank thrust him into the center of intrigue and strife, and through his observant eyes readers enter fully into his colorful, dangerous times. First published in the Netherlands in 1949, this book has never been out of print there and has been reprinted 15 times.’

 

980496. Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland
‘Bestselling author Susan Vreeland returns with a vivid exploration of one of the most beloved Renoir paintings in the world.  Instantly recognizable, Auguste Renoir’s masterpiece depicts a gathering of his real friends enjoying a summer Sunday on a café terrace along the Seine near Paris. A wealthy painter, an art collector, an Italian journalist, a war hero, a celebrated actress, and Renoir’s future wife, among others, share this moment of la vie moderne, a time when social constraints were loosening and Paris was healing after the Franco-Prussian War. Parisians were bursting with a desire for pleasure and a yearning to create something extraordinary out of life. Renoir shared these urges and took on this most challenging project at a time of personal crises in art and love, all the while facing issues of loyalty and the diverging styles that were tearing apart the Impressionist group. Narrated by Renoir and seven of the models and using settings in Paris and on the Seine, Vreeland illuminates the gusto, hedonism, and art of the era. With a gorgeous palette of vibrant, captivating characters, she paints their lives, loves, losses, and triumphs in a brilliant portrait of her own.’

 

7. Paris: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd 18730321
‘From Edward Rutherfurd, the grand master of the historical novel, comes a dazzling epic about the magnificent city of Paris. Moving back and forth in time, the story unfolds through intimate and thrilling tales of self-discovery, divided loyalty, and long-kept secrets. As various characters come of age, seek their fortunes, and fall in and out of love, the novel follows nobles who claim descent from the hero of the celebrated poem The Song of Roland; a humble family that embodies the ideals of the French Revolution; a pair of brothers from the slums behind Montmartre, one of whom works on the Eiffel Tower as the other joins the underworld near the Moulin Rouge; and merchants who lose everything during the reign of Louis XV, rise again in the age of Napoleon, and help establish Paris as the great center of art and culture that it is today. With Rutherfurd’s unrivaled blend of impeccable research and narrative verve, this bold novel brings the sights, scents, and tastes of the City of Light to brilliant life.’

 

305978. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
‘This extraordinary historical novel, set in Medieval Paris under the twin towers of its greatest structure and supreme symbol, the cathedral of Notre-Dame, is the haunting drama of Quasimodo, the hunchback; Esmeralda, the gypsy dancer; and Claude Frollo, the priest tortured by the specter of his own damnation. Shaped by a profound sense of tragic irony, it is a work that gives full play to Victor Hugo’s brilliant historical imagination and his remarkable powers of description.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourite novels set in France, historical or otherwise?

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves’ by Rachel Malik ****

I have wanted to read Rachel Malik’s debut novel, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, since its 2017 publication.  I have seen relatively few reviews of the book, but my interest was piqued by the praise on its cover.  Penelope Lively calls it ‘a skilful recreation of a time and a climate of mind, enriched by persuasive period detail’, and Elizabeth Buchan says that it is ‘quietly gripping and intriguing’.  The novel is loosely based upon the life of the author’s grandmother, who left her family home and three children to become a Land Girl during the Second World War.

9780241976098The protagonists of the piece are two women, Rene Hargreaves and Elsie Boston.  Rene is billeted to the rural Starlight Farm in Berkshire, far from her home in Manchester, in the summer of 1940.  At first, she finds Elsie ‘and her country ways’ decidedly odd.  However, once the women come to know one another, a mutual understanding and dependence is formed.  Their life with one another is quiet, almost idyllic, until the peace is shattered by the arrival on Starlight Farm of someone from Rene’s past.  At this point, they face trials which endanger everything which they have built, ‘a life that has always kept others at a careful distance.’

The prologue, in which the figure of a solitary woman standing at a window is captured, is beautifully sculpted, and sets the tone of the rest of the novel.  Malik writes: ‘Closer, and you would see that she is waiting.  There is something of that slightly fidgety intensity, that unwilling patience.  A good deal of her life has been spent waiting, one way and another. She’ll carry on waiting, but from today the waiting will be different.’  Chapter one then opens with Elsie’s preparations for her new guest, and Rene’s journey.

Elsie has been alone in her familial home for some time; her parents and three brothers ‘died such a long time ago’, and her sisters have variously married and moved away.  The arrival of the Land Girl fills her with dread and uncertainty: ‘She was seeing everything double and she didn’t like it, it put her all at sea.  She pulled off her scarf and and rubbed her hands through her hair, trying to clear her thoughts.’  When Rene arrives, her first impressions of the place leave her a little doubtful too: ‘She found it hard to imagine a woman, or a man, living here on their own.  It seemed a little strange.  Yet she liked the soft red brick of the house, and the orchard with its shrunken fruit trees.’  Interesting dynamics are apparent between the protagonists as soon as they have become acquainted: ‘Rene found herself thinking back to that first afternoon.  She had offered her hand to Elsie, and Elsie had reached out hers but it wasn’t a greeting – Elsie had reached out as if she were trapped and needed to be pulled out, pulled free.’

As time goes on, and their anxiety settles, Malik writes of the women’s growing relationship with one another: ‘Elsie wasn’t quite like other people, but that didn’t matter to Rene.  Elsie, who had been to the pictures only twice, so long ago, and hated it; Elsie, who didn’t know how to gossip, who had never been to a dance or ever seen the sea; none of it mattered to Rene one bit, because she had fallen hook, line and sinker for Elsie’s lonely power.’  The friendship between Rene and Elsie grows quickly; they come to reveal things about themselves in embarrassment at first, and then with real feeling.  Both characters are unusual and believable.

Throughout, I enjoyed Malik’s writing; in the early few chapters, many of the gloriously structured sentences are filled with curious information about her characters.  I really liked the gentle way in which she introduced new topics into the story, particularly when these connected with the problems in the wider world.  She writes, for instance: ‘As is common when fates are being decided, the two women had no sense of gathering storm clouds.’  The sense of place which Malik crafts, and the way in which this has been woven throughout the novel, feels almost like a point of anchorage: ‘Elsie had known the canal all her life.  It was already falling into disrepair when the Bostons came to Starlight.  Now, for long stretches, the canal was a memory, an imprint: some overhanging branches where shape suggested a curve below, a patch of bricked walkway of a sudden uneasy flatness in the view ahead; Rene could pick out the weeping willows. And then you came upon the soft red curve of a broken bridge, a sudden hole-punched hole of black water, visible only for a moment.’  Malik’s authorial touch is gentle at times, and firm at moments of crisis; there is a lovely balance struck between the two.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a novel which has a quiet power.  A few reviews have mentioned that it starts almost too slowly, but I did not personally feel that this was the case.  Malik simply takes a great deal of care in setting her scenes and building the complex relationships between her main characters.  I found Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves a lovely, thoughtful, and immersive novel.  It is not a happy book, and it took a series of turns which I was not expecting, but this made it all the more compelling.

0

‘The Vanishing Futurist’ by Charlotte Hobson ****

Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist caught my eye soon after its publication in 2016, but it has taken me quite a while to procure a copy of the novel.  Russia and its history absolutely fascinates me, and I was intrigued by the twist which Hobson has added to the turmoil of the 1918 Revolutions.  Anthony Beever calls this novel ‘breathtakingly original, luminously intelligent and impossible to put down’, and The Guardian describes it as ‘a rapturous, carnival-like ride into political disorder, heady romance and absurdity.’
9780571234875

The Vanishing Futurist is set in Moscow in 1918 where, in the ‘heady post-revolutionary atmosphere, a young English governess, Gerty Freely, and her friends throw themselves into the task of living as genuine communists.’  A rather mysterious and revered inventor, Nikita Slavkin, runs their commune.  He is ‘determined to revolutionise daily life with his technological innovations’, one of which is thought to have caused his disappearance.  The novel opens with a report from the Soviet Press, which states that ‘the Socialisation Capsule, Slavkin’s latest invention, represented an extraordinary advance in human knowledge… [and] revolutionised our understanding of the universe.’  Slavkin is thus the ‘Vanishing Futurist’ of the novel’s title.

Gerty, a headstrong young woman, takes it upon herself to find out the truth behind his disappearance, which becomes quite notorious in Russian circles.  In fact, his mysterious exit from Russia causes him to become a ‘Soviet icon’, with streets named after him, and films made about his life.  People remain convinced that one day he will reappear; ‘that if his Socialisation Capsule can distort our perception of temporal reality, then it can equally reinstate it.’

Gerty, in her late seventies, is looking back on her life, focusing upon her time in Russia when living in London.  She justifies this decision by saying: ‘My husband, Paul, died six months ago, and since then I have had the strange sensation that the present, my creaky old body in the little terraced house in Hackney which we bought together, is no longer my home.’  She reveals that she has kept this portion of her past a secret from her only daughter, Sophy, and it seems time to make amends.  Talking face to face seems difficult, so Gerty takes another route: ‘I find myself writing an account for her instead, using the papers as my starting point.  This way, I think, will be more truthful – more complete – than if I stammer it out incoherently.’

The novel is narrated by Gerty, who comes from Truro in Cornwall, and decides to become a governess for the Kobelev family in central Moscow.  Of her reasoning to do so, she states: ‘… I was a bookish, scrawny girl, a spinster in the making; argumentative and contrary to my father (as he often said) and disappointingly serious to my mother, who wanted to gossip with me about clothes.  Reading Tolstoy had made me long to visit this country full of peasant women in birch-bark sandals, young officers as fresh as cucumbers, forests filled with unheard-of berries.’ I found Gerty’s voice immediately believable, and its pace and turns of phrase were maintained with consistency throughout.

From the outset, Hobson weaves in rather sensuous descriptions to Gerty’s narrative, which allow her to deftly capture her drastically different change of surroundings: ‘… I was shown immediately to Mrs Kobelev’s room, the heart of the house, dark and hot and smelling of face powder and eau de cologne and slept-in sheets and violet lozenges.’  Moscow, one of my own favourite cities, has been marvellously captured in all of its mystery: ‘Moscow is a city that insinuates itself cunningly into one’s affections.  At first it fascinated and slightly repelled me, as some vast medieval fair might…  Yet slowly I came to know its little courtyards, its secret gardens and alleys, its cool green boulevards cast in relief against the bustle and noise.  It was impossible not to be charmed by the wooden houses and the bawdy streets, the little churches squeezed into every corner.  There was a sort of unexpected joyfulness about it all, unlike any other city I have known.’  Despite the outbreak of war, and the looming Revolutions, Gerty finds a freedom in Moscow that she has never known at home in Cornwall: ‘… I discovered a household where the most absurd and opposing views could be voiced, disagreed with, argued over or renounced without any tempers lost or touchy Chapel gods involved.’

Hobson successfully navigates her way through a pivotal period of Russia’s history, weaving in avant-garde elements against the backdrop of mass arrests and sea-change.  Moscow, and Russia on a grander scale, has been marvellously captured, and the entirety of the novel is so engaging.  There is humour here – for instance, Slavkin ‘ate a great deal of sandwiches, swallowing them whole, like a snake’.  I could not help but feel a fondness for Gerty.

Telling such a story through the eyes of a participant and also a bystander, as Gerty is, is a clever touch, which works well.  The Vanishing Futurist took a series of twists and turns which I was not expecting, and is a novel which is so clever, and so well executed.  I look forward both to picking up Hobson’s debut, and to seeing what she comes up with next.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Three Reviews: Carmen Maria Machado, Alice Jolly, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado ** 9781781259535
I had been so looking forward to the lauded debut short story collection of Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties.  Unfortunately, I found that it fell far short of my expectations.  Whilst the stories here are well written, they all feel relatively similar, as there is such a focus upon sex within them.  Some of the tales did pull me in but had unsatisfactory endings; others did not really hold any appeal for me.

The style of prose here is varied.  I ended up skipping the second half of ‘Law and Order, SUV’, as I did not enjoy the very fragmented style of it. My favourite in the collection was by the far the first story, ‘The Husband Stitch’, which was quite beguiling.  On the whole, I felt as though the stories went on for too long, and were thus unsatisfying in consequence.

There is no real consistency to the collection, and the lack of realism in some of the stories really threw me off. Since I finished reading Her Body and Other Parties, I have found that very few of the storylines have actually stuck with me, and I cannot remember anything that happens in a few of them.  Whilst there are some interesting ideas at play here, as a collection, it felt confused and a little unfinished.

 

9781783525492Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly ***
I adored Alice Jolly’s memoir, Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, and was keen to try some of her fiction.  Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile was the only work which I could source through my library, and it intrigued me very much.  In this work of historical fiction, which is told entirely in free verse, Jolly introduces us to the elderly maidservant Mary Ann Sate, who is working at the turn of the nineteenth century.  It is described as a ‘fictional found memoir’, and I found the approach which Jolly took to her story and protagonist most interesting.

I enjoyed Jolly’s writing; it feels both modern and old-fashioned, and reminded me somewhat of Nell Leyshon’s impactful novella The Colour of Milk.  Gorgeous, and often quite startling imagery, is produced throughout, and the traditional approach of chapters within the structure does help to make the 600-page story a little more accessible.  The style did take a little while to get into, as no punctuation whatsoever has been used, and there is little which denotes the changing of scene, speaker, or ideas.  Jolly has also included a lot of colloquialisms, which help Mary Ann’s voice to come across as authentic.  I very quickly got a feel for her, her life, and the time in which she was living. In some ways, Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile is a remarkable piece of fiction.

Whilst being very well researched, and having a strong historical foundation, there was a real drawback for me with Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile.  It was rather too long, and I felt as though the repetition which exists throughout made the story lose a lot of its impact.  Jolly has certainly demonstrated that she is a very talented and versatile writer, and she definitely maintained the narrative voice well.  Had it been shorter and more succinct, I more than likely would have given it a 4-star rating.

 

Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ***
I very much enjoy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fiction, which I find poignant and 9780008241032moving.  Of late, she has published two pamphlets, I suppose one could call them, which take feminism as their central focus.  I was rather disappointed with We Should All Be Feminists, which on one level provides a very good introduction to the topic, but does not really add any depth to its explorations.  I thought that, due to liking her novels and short stories so much, I would still go on to pick up Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manigesto in Fifteen Suggestions.  In fact, this was the first audiobook which I chose to listen to with a free Scribd trial; I have since cancelled this, as I enjoy reading at my own pace.

Dear Ijeawele is adapted from a letter which Ngozi Adichie wrote to one of her friends in response to the question of how she could raise her new baby daughter to be a feminist.  In some respects, this was a powerful and insightful work, which gave a lot of good advice on raising a daughter, and tips for enabling her to see the world through measured, fair eyes.  Ngozi Adichie definitely mentions some elements which are worth further thought; for instance, the prevalence of gendered baby clothing, and the continued use of the frankly antiquated societal expectations of ‘blue for a boy’ and ‘pink for a girl’.  I liked the way in which the author had set out this book, in fifteen ‘suggestions’; it was, in this way, like a manifesto, but rather a simplistic one in many ways.

I must admit that I found quite a lot of Dear Ijeawele rather patronising.  It may have come across this way due to the audiobook narrator I listened to, but a lot of what Ngozi Adichie points out feels obvious, and I did not think any of these things particularly needed to be stated.  Her suggestion about teaching her friend’s child to read a lot, for example, felt like a generalisation, and one which the majority of parents of certain means would encourage, regardless of whether they want to raise their child to be a feminist or not.  I failed to connect with the book that much, and felt as though it was a little old-fashioned, and quite underwhelming.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘House of Glass’ by Susan Fletcher ***

Susan Fletcher is an author whose work I have always very much enjoyed.  My first encounter with one of her novels was in the glorious Harper Perennial edition of Eve Green, quite some time ago.  I have since read almost all of her other work, and when I saw that she had a new novel – House of  Glass – coming out in 2018, I borrowed it from the library just as soon as I could. 9780349007649

Many of the reviews of House of Glass mention its ‘darkly gothic’ tone, as well as the way in which it is such things as surprising, moving, and mesmerising.  Tracy Chevalier notes that whilst the novel ‘may start as a ghost story’, it ‘turns into something much more profound: a lyrical examination of how women carve lives out of a male-dominated society, even with a war looming that will change everyone.’

House of Glass opens in June 1914, in which protagonist Clara Waterfield is ‘summoned’ to a large house in rural Gloucestershire, in order to fill a glasshouse with ‘exotic plants from Kew Gardens’ at the owner’s request.  The house is named, perhaps appropriately given the Gothic atmosphere, Shadowbrook.  When Clara arrives, the owner, Mr Fox, is absent, and she is soon informed that he rarely spends any time in the house.  Around this time, she begins to hear rumours, and to her, ‘something feels wrong with this quiet, wisteria-covered house.’  The blurb concludes by stating that over the summer, Clara ‘finds herself drawn deeper into the dark interior rooms – and into the secrets that violently haunt Shadowbrook.’

The novel opens with quite a vivid description of Clara’s disability, osteogenesis imperfecta.  It begins: ‘My structure is not quite right.  By this, I mean my bones – the part on which the rest of me is stretched, stitched into place…  My skeleton is frail.  I creak with any transference of weight.  In my childhood, I fractured so frequently – with small gestures, with the simple act of looking up – that doctors winced and shook their heads.  She is imperfect, they said.’  In consequence, her mother is ordered to keep Clara inside, sheltering her from the dangerous outside world – at least until she has stopped growing.  Clara thus spends the majority of her childhood reading, largely in the library of the house, which her parents converted from their old dining room for her benefit.  I felt that Fletcher’s depiction of Clara’s ailments was well-balanced, and did not feel dramatised in any way.  I also liked the way in which Fletcher used Clara’s own voice to describe herself.  The contrast between Clara’s past and present – in which she is able to leave the house and regain some independence – is well balanced. 

Clara was drawn to Kew Gardens quite by chance following the death of her mother, something which she was entirely unprepared for, despite the illness which ensued.  She is grieving and desperate, and walking is the only thing which helps to take some of the pain away.  She learns, in her own way, to navigate her own city, learning to board omnibuses which take her to distant parts of London.  On one such journey, she decides to alight at Kew: ‘And on a February morning, I stepped down from the bus in a place called Kew.  This was a name I knew.  For here, there were famous gardens, with rhododendron walks and glasshouses and pergolas.  I’d read of them in books.’  Spending around a decade indoors, with only glimpses of the outdoor world from windows, she is mesmerised by the wealth of plants she is able to wander amongst at Kew, now that she is older and her bones have ‘strengthened and settled themselves’.  Fletcher’s descriptions of the gardens are quite lovely; on a cold, ‘grey, desolate’ day, Clara finds an ‘extraordinary domed building of glass’ before her.  She enters, and ‘left February behind.  England, too, was gone.  For the Palm House at Kew contained canopies and ferns and damp wooden benches; palm leaves brushed my hair as I passed…  Now I wanted to be nowhere else.  I was done with crowds and London’s streets.  Here was a new beginning.’  This discovery, the comradely relationship which she strikes up with the keeper of the glasshouse, a man named Forbes, and the subsequent offer to travel to a new place in order to ‘establish a room of colour and scent and spectacle’, allows Clara to affirm her place in the world.  In this way, and given the alterations which Clara’s character undergoes, House of Glass can certainly be called a coming of age novel.

When she finds herself in Shadowbrook, after a long journey by train, Clara is met with ‘a house of pale stone.  Clematis grew on its walls.  Its courtyard was bordered with dark, leafy shrubs in which I could hear movement – nesting birds, or the scurrying of mice.  Two storeys to it, no more.  A small right-angled wing.’  At her point of arrival, Fletcher begins to introduce elements of oddness, or of ghostly occurrences.  The man who picks Clara up from the station, for instance, tells her not to worry about any noises which she might hear in the night, as old houses were prone to movement.  As she roams the grounds, and spends time within the house itself, she begins to notice something unsettling: ‘I had a curious sense of being watched; throughout the garden, I felt it.  It was as though I had entered a part of it – the orchard, the lime bower – at the very moment that someone else had risen and left; I felt that any metal chair might retain that person’s heat.  It was an unsettling notion.  I chastised myself for it – it was foolishness – yet I also looked down the lines of hedges.  On the croquet lawn, I turned in a slow, complete circle to see it all.’

Later, and unable to discover a rational solution, she muses over what the feeling of being watched, and screams and scratches in the night, could be the effects of.  After discussing the goings on with the members of staff at Shadowbrook, she says: ‘Ghost.  The word had not been said but we’d heard it even so.  It had hung above the kitchen table; it had circled us…  A thin, inconsequential, fictitious word.  It had no place in diagrams.’

In her other novels, two of Fletcher’s real strengths are her ability to create both atmosphere and realistic characters.  My experience with her newest book was much the same.  I very much admired the way in which she had not made Clara into a martyr, following the emotional and physical pain which she had to struggle with daily.  Rather, Clara was realistic; she had tempers, and spoke her mind quite wonderfully, particularly in those situations where she was challenged by other characters.  She felt entirely three-dimensional, holding within herself a myriad of worries and hopes, and a believable backstory.  Clara felt like a progressive, modern woman; she does not go to church, or believe in God, and does not allow her voice to be silenced by anyone.  She is opinionated and stubborn, and not at all a likeable character, but I found her quite fascinating.

Fletcher’s prose is rich and sensuous from the outset of House of Glass.  Of Clara’s confinement, she writes: ‘Ours became a house of cushioning.  Of velvet and goose down, embroidered pillows, Persian rugs and silk.  There was, too, a globe.  A rocking horse that I could touch but not ride.  And they’d bring home what they thought I might miss from the blustery world: fir cones and pigeon feathers, the scent of horses on my mother’s red gloves which I’d inhale, eyes closed.  Tales of how the river had looked at twilight.  How the carol singers sang, despite the rain.’  The descriptions of the library share gorgeously vivid imagery: ‘There was a chaise long which was, at first, the colour of moss.  But in time – as I read more, studied more maps – this deep, velvety green became the shade of hummingbirds’ wings or Othello’s envy or the gems which hid in equatorial soil.  The green of a tiny jungle frog.’

Whilst not my favourite of Fletcher’s novels – an accolade which must go to Oystercatchers and Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – I did enjoy many elements of House of Glass.  Whilst there is far less commentary on the outbreak of the First World War than I was expecting, I found that the period was very well evoked, and the novel itself was both immersive and atmospheric.  

At no point, however, was I entirely captivated by the story, and despite the real strengths in character building, I felt as though the denouement of the novel was a little disappointing, and something of an anticlimax, and the ending was drawn out.  The story does come together, but I did not find the twists to be overly clever or original.  I also found the pace a little awkward in places, and the tension which Fletcher had striven to create was not as heightened, and therefore not as successful, as it could have been.  Whilst there are many things which I admired in House of Glass, I have to say that it is probably my least favourite of Fletcher’s books to date.

Purchase from The Book Depository

4

‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker *****

I have been meaning to read Pat Barker’s Regeneration – the ‘classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men’ – for such a long time, but only got around to it very recently.  Probably her most famous novel, Regeneration has been considered a modern classic since its publication in 1991, and is the first book in a trilogy of the same name.  The book has been highly praised.  Margaret Forster calls it ‘a novel of tremendous power’, the Sunday Times ‘brilliant, intense, subtle’, and, fittingly, Time Out heralds it ‘a fine anthem for doomed youth’. 

9780141030937Set in 1917 at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in southeast Edinburgh, Regeneration takes as its focus three very well-known figures – Dr W.H.H. Rivers, who pioneered shellshock treatment for soldiers, and two war poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.  Robert Graves also makes odd appearances throughout.  Barker has also created, alongside these figures, the character of Billy Prior, unable to speak and only able to communicate on paper, who feels just as realistic.  Rivers’ job is to make the men in his care healthy enough that they can be returned to the Front.  ‘Yet the closer he gets to mending his patients’ minds,’ the blurb continues, ‘the harder becomes every decision to send them back to the horrors’ which await them.

Regeneration opens at the point at which Sassoon has expressed his objections to the war in writing, in a piece which he calls ‘an act of wilful defiance of military authority’.  In consequence, he is sent directly to Rivers, who receives the news of his arrival as follows: ‘Can you imagine what our dear Director of Medical Services is going to say, when he finds out we’re sheltering “Conchies” as well as cowards, shirkers, scrimshankers and degenerates?  We’ll just have to hope there’s no publicity.’

Justine Picardie writes that ‘what gives the novel its authenticity is Pat Barker’s impressive ability to capture her characters’ voices and moods.’  Indeed, Barker has a wonderful understanding of each of her characters, whether historical figures, or invented ones.  Her interpretation of them made them feel highly realistic, and at points in conversations – particularly those between Owen and Sassoon – I had to remind myself that I was not reading a piece of non-fiction.

There is such humanity to Barker’s examination, and I very much enjoyed the little glimpses of surprise in the behaviour of her characters, which often seem to be at odds with their public personas.  When Sassoon first arrives at Craiglockhart, for instance, Barker writes that he ‘lingered on the drive for a full minute after the taxi had driven away, then took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and ran up the steps.’ The descriptions which Barker gives of her characters do not just remark on the superficial; rather, they tend to have a lot of depth to them, and often err on the chilling.  She describes Sassoon in the following way: ‘Light from the window behind Rivers’s desk fell directly onto Sassoon’s face.  Pale skin, purple shadows under the eyes.  Apart from that, no obvious signs of nervous disorder.  No twitches, jerks, blinks, no repeated ducking to avoid a long-exploded shell.  His hands, doing complicated things with cup, saucer, plate, sandwiches, cake, sugar tongs and spoon, were perfectly steady…  So far he hadn’t looked at Rivers.  He sat with his head slightly averted, a posture that could easily have been taken for arrogance, though Rivers was more inclined to suspect shyness.’

Other reviewers have commented upon the language used in the novel, believing it to be too simplistic.  However, this was not the impression which I received.  There are a lot of poetic descriptions, and the dialogue particularly is filled with nuances and undercurrents.  The more stark, matter-of-fact language which has been used at odd times serves to highlight the horror of wartime.  Given the nature of the book, I felt as though the balance which Barker struck between these descriptions and the examination of her characters was perfect.  The moments of dark humour, which can be found from time to time, also worked very well.

Regeneration is very well situated historically, and scenes are vividly set in just a few sentences.  One of Barker’s particular strengths here are the comparisons which she makes between wartime and civilian life, particularly with regard to way in which she shows how quite ordinary things can be triggers for what soldiers had experienced in the trenches.  When a character named Burns is travelling on a bus, to give one example, she writes: ‘A branch rattled along the windows with a sound like machine-gun fire, and he had to bite his lips to stop himself crying out.’  She also demonstrates an impressive emotional range in her explorations of isolation and freedom, wellbeing and mentality, nightmare states and hallucinatory moments, and the profound effects which each of these things can cause.

There is, of course, much in the novel about medical experimentation, and how best to treat such troubled men.  Thoughts of, and explorations around, masculinity, have been cleverly woven in.  Barker makes it clear from the outset that the methods which Rivers has adopted in his radical treatment plan go quite against the moral, ‘manly’ values instilled in him, of demonstrating only strength and valour.  He, and too his patients, were not expected to show any signs of weakness.  Of this, Barker observes: ‘… he was already experimenting on himself.  In leading his patients to understand that breakdown was nothing to be ashamed of, that horror and fear were inevitable responses to the trauma of war and were better acknowledged than suppressed, that feelings of kindnesses for other men were natural and right, that tears were an acceptable and helpful part of grieving, he was setting himself against the whole tenor of their upbringing.’  She goes on to write: ‘The change he demanded of them – and by implication of himself – was not trivial.  Fear, tenderness – these emotions were so despised that they could be admitted into consciousness only at the cost of redefining what it meant to be a man.’

I had a feeling that I might regret leaving it so long to pick up Regeneration, and I am.  It is a stunning novel, compelling from the outset, and filled with moments of harrowing beauty, and poignant reflections on conflict and its worth.  I already have the second book in the trilogy, The Eye in the Door, on my to-read pile, and am very much looking forward to continuing with it sooner rather than later.  I imagine that it will be just as moving as Regeneration proved to be, this wonderful mixture of fact and fiction, in which Barker is constantly aware of the significance of every tiny thing.

Purchase from The Book Depository