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‘Charms for the Easy Life’ by Kaye Gibbons ****

I adored Kaye Gibbons Ellen Foster, and very much enjoyed Sights Unseen too.  Charms for the Easy Life, first published in 1993, is the author’s fourth novel.  Alice Hoffman, whose writing and stories I find have the same lovely intelligent but easygoing prose as Gibbons’, writes that the novel ‘is filled with lively humour, compassion and intimacy’.

Charms for the Easy Life tells the story of three generations of ‘fiery’ women, living without men: Charlie Kate Birch, a ‘self-proclaimed doctor who treats everything from leprosy to lovesickness with her roots and herbs’, her daughter Sophia, ‘who has inherited her mother’s wisdom and will and applies them to her desire to rule the world around her and land the man of her choice’, and granddaughter Margaret, ‘whose struggle towards adulthood is complicated by World War II’.  Margaret is the novel’s captivating narrator, and lives with her mother and grandmother in the ‘lush, green backwoods’ of North Carolina.9780060760250

As is usual with first person perspective-driven novels, we learn about the other characters through Margaret’s portrayal of them.  Charlie Kate, particularly, is strong and forward-thinking: ‘My grandmother was to be remembered for many achievements, from campaigning for in-school vaccinations to raising money to buy prosthetics for veterans of the world war, but in the Beale Street area of Raleigh she lives in the memory of an old few as the first woman anybody knew with the courage not only to possess a toilet but to use it.’  Sophia is more of a shadowy figure at times, largely absent from much of the prose.

The Birch family have historically been plagued by problems.  Their family has a remarkably high suicide rate, which is detailed in oddly beautiful prose in the first chapter.  Margaret tells us, of her remaining family members: ‘They threatened to kill themselves in the river all the time.  They used the threat in arguments with each other.  They said the words without thinking…  But they didn;t go in the river, because the river was life to them, life all surging and all crashing into white foam on river rocks they had known their whole lives, and the thought of throwing themselves into a familiar current and banging choked and goggle-eyed against rocks they had stood on and courted on and fished and dreamed on, and sat in the sun and dared to open their blouses and nurse their babies on, this was not something they could do.  They would walk fifty miles and jump in some other person’s river, but not their own.’  As is evident from this description, Gibbons creates such a vivid sense of place, and her writing feels continuously effortless.

The novel has been slotted so well into the looming threat of war; Gibbons startlingly describes conditions at the time, and is particularly involved with those lives lived without privilege, or in dire poverty.  Myriad details ground Charms for the Easy Life nicely into history, with references to popular culture, and mentions every now and again of wider conflict.  Gibbons also notes how important small changes, or transformations, in the world are to her protagonists, and how these changes translate into their own selves.  This is particularly poignant when she writes about ageing: ‘[Sophia] was showing signs of loneliness.  She had recently begun the process of resigning herself to the slide from beautiful lady to handsome older woman, adjusting her lipstick color from fire-engine red to brick, exchanging bright beads for pearls and stylish platform soles for pumps.  And by “process,” I mean just that: she had not fully committed her body to middle age yet.’

Thoughtful in its outlook, and with a fascinating and tender story about non-conformist women at its heart, Charms for the Easy Life is a novel which I would definitely recommend.  The relationships drawn here have so much complexity about them, and the story takes directions which I did not expect.  I shall close this review with a wonderful quote from the novel: ‘If my grandmother could’ve populated the world, all the people would’ve been women, and they all would’ve been just like her.’

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Books I Wish More People Would Read

I have just come across a Goodreads list entitled ‘Books I Wish More People Would Read’, and have stolen its title for my own purposes here at The Literary Sisters.  A lot of the books which I read seem to slip under the radar, and there are several which I have adored, or very much admired, of late, which I rarely see others reviewing, or even reading.  I thought that I would therefore make a list of six books that I would happily thrust into the hands of every reader whom I meet.  (Please note, it is entirely a coincidence that all of these books were written by women!)

 

185908911. Don’t Go To Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories by Celia Fremlin
Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark (1972) was the first gathering of Celia Fremlin’s short fiction, a form in which she had published prolifically – for the likes of She, Playmen, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine – while building her reputation as a novelist of psychological suspense.  Female characters predominate in these tales, as does the doom-filled atmosphere that was Fremlin’s metier. She explores her familiar theme of strained mother-child relations, but she also delves into the supernatural realm as well as the psychological. As ever, her capacities for making the everyday unnerving and keeping the reader guessing are richly in evidence.

 

2. May We Shed These Human Bodies by Amber Sparks (review here) 15701573
May We Shed These Human Bodies peers through vast spaces and skies with the world’s most powerful telescope to find humanity: wild and bright and hard as diamonds.

 

321449223. A House on the Rhine by Frances Faviell
Having made her publishing debut with The Dancing Bear, a superb memoir of life in Berlin immediately after World War II, Frances Faviell applied first-hand knowledge to fiction, telling the riveting, harrowing tale of one large, troubled family in Germany nearly a decade after the war’s end.  In a town near Cologne, rebuilding is proceeding at a frantic pace, factory work is plentiful and well-paid, and the dark days of near-starvation have ended. But Joseph, a former Allied prisoner of war, and his enormous brood–his wife having received a medal under the Nazis for bearing more than 10 children–face new problems ranging from the mother’s infidelity, the oldest child’s involvement with a brutal youth gang leader, and a beloved adopted daughter’s plans to marry an American soldier.  Vividly portraying the love and conflict of a large family and the dramatic, sometimes tragic social change of Germany’s postwar recovery, A House on the Rhine is a powerful, heartbreaking tale from the author of the London Blitz memoir A Chelsea Concerto.’

 

4. We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood 18760917
A privileged young wife on a large Cornwall estate gains responsibility and confidence when her husband leaves to fight overseas. This English home front saga then becomes something more when she leaves for France herself to rescue a friend from danger.

 

9773745. Daughters of the House by Michele Roberts
Booker Prize Finalist, Daughters of the House is Michèle Roberts’ acclaimed novel of secrets and lies revealed in the aftermath of World War II. Thérèse and Leonie, French and English cousins of the same age, grow up together in Normandy. Intrigued by parents’ and servants’ guilty silences and the broken shrine they find in the woods, the girls weave their own elaborate fantasies, unwittingly revealing the village secret and a deep shame that will haunt them in their adult lives.

 

6. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna 17237713
Aminatta Forna has established herself as one of our most perceptive and uncompromising chroniclers of war and the way it reverberates, sometimes imperceptibly, in the daily lives of those touched by it. With The Hired Man, she has delivered a tale of a Croatian village after the War of Independence, and a family of newcomers who expose its secrets.  Duro is off on a morning’s hunt when he sees something one rarely does in Gost: a strange car. Later that day, he overhears its occupants, a British woman, Laura, and her two children, who have taken up residence in a house Duro knows well. He offers his assistance getting their water working again, and soon he is at the house every day, helping get it ready as their summer cottage, and serving as Laura’s trusted confidant.  But the other residents of Gost are not as pleased to have the interlopers, and as Duro and Laura’s daughter Grace uncover and begin to restore a mosaic in the front that has been plastered over, Duro must be increasingly creative to shield the family from the town’s hostility, and his own past with the house’s former occupants. As the inhabitants of Gost go about their days, working, striving to better themselves and their town, and arguing, the town’s volatile truths whisper ever louder.

 

 

Have I convinced you to pick up any of these unfairly neglected novels?

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The Book Trail: The Historical Edition

I begin this edition of The Book Trail with a novel set during the First World War that I read recently and absolutely loved; my review of it went up yesterday, if you wish to read my thoughts.  I have, as usual, used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature to come up with this list.

1. We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood 9781906784997
‘Elin lives a comfortable but lonely life at Hiram Hall. Hugo loves his young wife but is damaged by his experiences in the Boer War. August 1914 sees Hugo off to the front. Elin must support Hiram and its people, drawing on all her determination to do the right thing. Alongside her cousin Alice and friend Mouse, Elin learns to manage the estate in Cornwall, growing much needed food, sharing her mother’s recipes and making new friends and enemies. But Mouse cannot resist the lure of danger and it isn’t long before Elin herself is drawn into the horrors in France. Not everyone escapes unharmed – and when the Great War finally ends, Elin faces an even more difficult battle at home…’

 

2. The Summer of the Barshinskeys by Diane Pearson
Although the story of the Barshinskeys, which became our story, too, stretched over many summers and winters, that golden time of 1902 was when our strange, involved relationship began, when our youthful longing for the exotic, for the fulfillment of dreams not even dreamed, took a solid and restless hold upon us.” So recounts Sophie Wolloughby as she remembers that magical English summer afternoon in the season of King Edward VII’s coronation and at the end of the Boer War; that dreamlike lull in time when the hedgerows were smothered in elderflowers and the meadow air was sweet with haymaking. With her brother, Edwin, her sister, Lillian, Sophie listened to the seductive strains of the wild Russian violin tune Mr. Barshinskey played and watched spellbound as the ragtag Barshinskey family-Ivan, sullen and dirty; Mrs. Barshinskey, pale and withdrawn; and Galina, sensual, wanton, beautiful-made their way across Tyler’s meadow and into the Willoughby’s world. The delighted Willoughby children could not know that this day and the Barshinskeys’ arrival would change their lives forever-much as a breathless Europe could not anticipate that in a few short years, winds of revolution and war would whip across continents, sweeping away the old familiar way of life. It is at this enchanted moment that The Summer of the Barshinskeys begins. A beautifully told, compelling story that moves from the small village of Kent to teeming London, from war-torn and revolution rocked Moscow to St. Petersburg, this is the unforgettable saga of two families whose destinies are fated to entwine in endless combinations.

 

178503953. Daffodils by Alex Martin
Daffodils follows the varying fortunes of three people through the turbulent time of the First World War, as Edwardian England’s rigid class structures crumble under its weight. Katy is frustrated as a domestic servant and longs to escape. Jem loves Katy but cannot have her. Lionel, fresh from working in India, is ambitious, arrogant and full of radical ideas. War affects them all in very different ways and each pays a high price for the changes they are forced to make.

 

4. Pattern of Shadows by Judith Barrow
Mary is a nursing sister at a Lancashire prison camp for the housing and treatment of German POWs. Life at work is difficult but fulfilling; life at home a constant round of arguments—often prompted by her fly-by-night sister, Ellen, the apple of her short-tempered father’s eye. Then Frank turns up at the house one night—a guard at the camp, he’s been watching Mary for weeks—and won’t leave until she agrees to walk out with him. Frank Shuttleworth is a difficult man to love and it’s not long before Mary gives him his marching orders. But Shuttleworth won’t take no for an answer and the gossips are eager for their next victim, and for the slightest hint of fraternization with the enemy. Suddently, not only Mary’s happiness but her very life is threatened by the most dangerous of wartime secrets.

 

5. The Summer House by Mary Nichols 6934159
England 1918. Lady Helen believes her parents when they say she will never find a better husband than Richard, but when he returns to the Front, she begins to wonder just who it is she has married. His letters home are cold and distant and Helen realizes that she has made a terrible mistake. Then Oliver Donovan enters her life and they begin an affair that leaves Helen pregnant and alone she is forced to surrender her precious baby. Over twenty years pass and a second war is ravaging Europe, but that is not the only echo of the past to haunt the present. Laura Drummond is caught in a tragic love affair of her own and when she is forced to leave London during the Blitz, she turns to the mother she never knew.

 

6. Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front by Joyce Dennys
Spirited Henrietta wishes she was the kind of doctor’s wife who knew exactly how to deal with the daily upheavals of war. But then, everyone in her close-knit Devonshire village seems to find different ways to cope: there’s the indomitable Lady B, who writes to Hitler every night to tell him precisely what she thinks of him; the terrifyingly efficient Mrs Savernack, who relishes the opportunity to sit on umpteen committees and boss everyone around; flighty, flirtatious Faith who is utterly preoccupied with the latest hats and flashing her shapely legs; and then there’s Charles, Henrietta’s hard-working husband who manages to sleep through a bomb landing in their neighbour’s garden.
With life turned upside down under the shadow of war, Henrietta chronicles the dramas, squabbles and loyal friendships that unfold in her affectionate letters to her ‘dear childhood friend’ Robert. Warm, witty and perfectly observed, “Henrietta’s War” brings to life a sparkling community of determined troupers who pull together to fight the good fight with patriotic fervour and good humour.’

 

2715227. We Were at War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times by Simon Garfield
Of all the accounts written about the Second World War, none are more compelling than the personal diaries of those who lived through it. We Are At War is the story of five everyday folk, who, living on the brink of chaos, recorded privately on paper their most intimate hopes and fears.  Pam Ashford, a woman who keeps her head when all around are losing theirs, writes with comic genius about life in her Glasgow shipping office. Christopher Tomlin, a writing-paper salesman for whom business is booming, longs to be called up like his brother. Eileen Potter organises evacuations for flea-ridden children, while mother-of-three Tilly Rice is frustrated to be sent to Cornwall. And Maggie Joy Blunt tries day-by-day to keep a semblance of her ordinary life.  Entering their world as they lived it, each diary entry is poignantly engrossing. Amid the tumultuous start to the war, these ordinary British people are by turns apprehensive and despairing, spirited and cheerful – and always fascinatingly, vividly real.

 

8. How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton
Mention Girl Guides to any woman and the reaction will be strong. They are all too often regarded merely in terms of biscuit sales and sing-songs, hardly anybody is aware of the massive impact that they had on gender equality and the outcome of World War II. This book explores how the Guides’ work was crucial to Britain’s victory.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have you added to your TBR list?

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‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry ***

I was given a copy of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent for Christmas, and came to it with rather high hopes, as I know that a lot of fellow readers have adored it.  It was chosen as the Waterstones Book of the Year in 2016, and has also been selected for innumerable ‘best of’ lists.  I was rather underwhelmed with Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood; I will be posting my archived review of this tome tomorrow.

9781781255452The Essex Serpent begins in London in 1893.  Cora Seaborne has been recently widowed, and decides to move to Colchester in Essex with her young son, ‘black-haired, silent’ Francis.  She hears rumours almost as soon as she has relocated about ‘the Essex serpent’, a creature of local folklore which has been said to have returned to roam the marshes.  The serpent is described as ‘a great creeping thing, as they tell it, more dragon than serpent, as content on land as in water, that suns its wings on a fair day.’  After some time, Cora decides to set off upon the serpent’s trail.  This is only one thread of the novel; it is set at a time of great change, and Perry effectively contrasts Cora’s love of science, and the scientific advances of the age, with a local vicar named William Ransome, who is focused wholly upon his faith.  The blurb says that the novel is, ‘above all, a celebration of love in all its incarnations, and of what we share even when we disagree.’

The historical settings come to life from the beginning, and were, for me, a real strength of the novel.  In her opening chapter, which begins on New Year’s Eve, Perry writes: ‘One o’clock on a dreary day and the time ball dropped at the Greenwich Observatory.  There was ice on the prime meridian, and ice on the rigging of the broad-beamed barges down on the busy Thames.  Skippers marked the time and tide…  Time was being served behind the walls of Newgate jail, and wasted by philosophers in cafes on the Strand.’  Had this thread of the passing of time been included throughout the novel, I feel as though it would have drawn the whole together; rather, whilst beautifully written, and certainly effective at evoking the scene, it feel as though this prologue was separate from the rest of the novel.  The quality of Perry’s writing, in my opinion, was inconsistent; it felt very polished in the prologue, and in selected chapters later on, but due to the pace of the novel proper, it was plodding in other places.  The prose on its own was often lovely, but there was a strange density to it, and I did not find The Essex Serpent a very easy book either to read, or to immerse myself within, in consequence.

Perry did capture Cora’s new position in life, and the complexity of feeling which struck her when her abusive husband, Michael, died: ‘The sensation was decently suppressed, but all the same she could name it: it was not happiness, precisely, nor even contentment, but relief.  There was grief, too, that was certain, and she was grateful for it, since however loathed he’d been by the end, he’d formed her, at least in part – and what good ever came of self-loathing?’  Of his father’s death, Francis’ feelings are rather less predictable: ‘That his father had died struck him as a calamity, but one no worse than the loss of one of his treasures the day before (a pigeon’s feather, quite ordinary, but which could be coiled into a perfect circle without snapping its spine).’

Natural history as an element has been used very well within The Essex Serpent, and this was one of my favourite parts of the book, snaking, as it did, in and out of various chapters.  The characters were problematic, however; Cora is the main focus of the novel, but I do not feel as though I knew her satisfactorily come the end.  No single character within The Essex Serpent feels wholly realistic; for me, Francis and his behaviour would have been a much more interesting focus had it been elaborated upon more often.

Whilst I liked the core idea, and am fascinated with the period of history which Perry has focused upon, I found The Essex Serpent to be rather a slow-going novel.  I did not feel as though the whole came together satisfactorily, certainly not as well as it could have had certain plotlines been tightened up slightly, or focused upon a little more.  I felt something of a detachment toward the characters, and the entire novel did not feel as though it was quite a consistent work; for me, the prologue and end chapters held a lot more promise than the rest of the novel.  Whilst I admire the way in which Perry has completely embraced Victoriana, and has reflected the literature of the period in stylising her own sentences, The Essex Serpent did not read as fluently or fluidly as it could have done.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Giant’s House’ by Elizabeth McCracken

First published in 2012

The Giant’s House is told in retrospect from the first person perspective of librarian Peggy Cort. Thirty-five years after her story begins, Peggy is looking back on her life. From the outset, Peggy’s narrative voice is original and startling in places. She is such a charismatic, likeable narrator. Her narrative voice certainly has a distinctive style and is simultaneously chatty and eloquent, allowing the reader to be absorbed into her world from the outset. The novel addresses the audience as ‘you’ throughout which really makes the reader feel part of her story. We are consequently able to identify and empathise with Peggy completely.

9780099739913The Giant’s House does primarily deal with a love story, but it goes far deeper than that. The story begins in the autumn of 1950, when James Carlson Sweatt, the ‘giant’ of the novel, walks into the library in which Peggy works, joined by his teachers and classmates. Peggy is twenty-five years old when this happens, and James only eleven. By this point, James is already six foot four. The plot of The Giant’s House is original in that it transcends so many boundaries. In the 1950s, particularly in small-town America, many would not be aware of James’ medical condition which causes him to continually grow at an alarming rate. His classmates and other members of society treat him as an outsider. They are aware of his height towering above them but they do not really notice him as a human being. As the novel progresses, James becomes somewhat famed for his height and people begin to make special trips to Brewsterville in order to spot him.

Peggy’s sheer sense of loneliness is apparent from the outset. She has moved to Brewsterville, an unremarkable town in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, after finishing her course at library school in Philadephia. It seems that she is striving for something new – a fresh start away from everything she has ever known. Peggy, a self-confessed ‘spinster’ who has never before fallen in love, soon cares incredibly deeply for James. She does not just see him as someone too tall to fit in, but as a beautiful young boy who deserves to be loved and respected by his peers and elders. She begins a series of good deeds which eventually allow her to infiltrate James’ life, soon becoming a clear part of it. She begins by finding him different books on his weekly library trips and helping him to research other ‘giants’. The love which Peggy feels for James blossoms slowly at first. The prose is compelling, really making the reader believe in Peggy’s plight.

The Giant’s House transcends different stages in the lives of James and Peggy – stages both lived together and apart. The essence of the novel is about being different, being an outsider, trying so desperately to fit in even though you know your battle will ultimately be fruitless. The story itself builds to an incredibly sad crescendo and really jolts the reader’s heart.

Other characters feature in the novel but James features most heavily of all. He is the most pivotal character of The Giant’s House. The other characters, including Peggy, orbit around James and his wellbeing. He is their common link, an intrinsic fibre of the story and the bond which ties everything together. He really begins to come out of his shell as the story unfolds. The other characters who form different kinds of relationships with Peggy are Astoria Peck, a colleague at the library in which Peggy works, Mrs Sweatt, and Caroline and Oscar Strickland. James’ mother, Mrs Sweatt, seems a little troubled from the outset of the novel. Nobody knows her first name and she is consequently just known as ‘Missus’. She is described as being rather a heavy drinker. Caroline Strickland is the tomboyish aunt of James. She is friendly and humorous in the way in which she says things so matter-of-factly – for example, ‘Well Peggy Cort… You’re not an unpleasant woman’. Oscar Strickland is Caroline’s husband and James’ kindly uncle. At the start, James’ father does not feature in the story. He is being brought up by his mother, Aunt Caroline and Uncle Oscar in a white house painted with flowers.

The entire host of characters in The Giant’s House is incredibly believable. They fit together like people in a real twentieth century society. All of the characters are intriguing in their own ways. Despite the fact that they all live in the same small town, they are remarkably different from one another. This is another reason why they interact so well within the story. None of their dialogue, speech patterns, turns of phrase or elements which build their three-dimensional characters overlap in any way. Their interactions are always fresh and surprising, and nothing mundane is relayed in McCracken’s writing. Her dialogue is wonderful. She adds an extra depth to her characters by making them speak so realistically. Her dialogue becomes intrinsically linked with the bare bones of each character until they are suddenly fully fleshed out individuals walking around the town of Brewsterville as though they have always been there.

With regard to the writing style of the novel, McCracken is unlike many of the contemporary novelists publishing today. The first sentence of The Giant’s House – ‘I do not love mankind’ – immediately places a barrage of questions into the mind of the reader and makes us empathise with Peggy immediately.

The novel is split into three separate parts and the prose itself is haunting in places. The novel is set in the unfolding 1950s but McCracken writes in such a way that the setting and plot are vivid and alive. The reader feels that they are part of the action rather than wholly removed from it.

With each reading of The Giant’s House, new details seem to glow from the page. It is one of those novels that deepens and affects the reader more each time it is read. Something new is taken away with each consecutive reading of the novel. The Giant’s House is a story which seems to grow with the reader, and is a novel which deserves to be recognised as one of the highest peaks of modern literature.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Daylight Gate’ by Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson’s novels never fail to astound me.  Whilst I have most of her oeuvre yet to read, I have very much enjoyed every book of hers which I have read to date, from the heartbreakingly sad Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and the quirky The Passion, to her distinct, unique and imaginative retelling of the story of Atlas and Heracles, Weight.  I wanted, therefore, to read The Daylight Gate ever since I first learnt of its publication, and was thrilled when I received a beautiful copy from my parents for Christmas.

I find the Lancashire Witch Trials absolutely fascinating (that kind of horrid which both repulses and interests me – much like the many books about the Holocaust which I tend to read), and I am so pleased that Winterson decided to turn her talented hands to writing a novel about them.

‘The Daylight Gate’ by Jeanette Winterson

Her newest offering is so atmospheric.  Winterson unfailing writes so well, and is a master at creating chills using just a simple sentence.  This was present from the outset in The Daylight Gate, and the consequent tension was marvellously built.  The undercurrents which are present in every work of her fiction are so well done here particularly, and she suggests and hints at many elements throughout without explicitly stating facts.  I love the way in which the reader is subsequently able to come up with their own interpretation at times in The Daylight Gate, almost putting their own stamp upon the novel.

The true history of the Trials is set out throughout the volume, and this gives the entirety a real sense of place and time.  Winterson is able to switch seamlessly from one narrative perspective to another, and shifts the focus between her characters accordingly.

The way in which Winterson uses the full names of her characters for the majority of the book works very well.  As each person whom she touches upon is a distinctive being in history, this technique reminds the reader continually that they were real, and it also serves to detach us emotionally from some of the crueller beings who were involved in the Trials.  Only in the more tender, emotional or pivotal situations throughout does Winterson revert to using only the given names of her protagonists.  The psychology of each and every being we meet has been well considered.

The Daylight Gate is a dark novel, far darker than I expected it to be.  The entirety is beautifully written, the prose sparse when it needs to be, and decorated with lovely descriptions.  The novel made me feel a little uneasy at times, but some of the more gruesome instances throughout built up the book’s power to wonderful heights, making it both powerful and vivid.  I admire Winterson greatly for writing about such an important historical event and bringing it back into the contemporary consciousness in such a stunning way.

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Two Reviews: ‘A Lifetime Burning’ and ‘The Room of Lost Things’

A Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard ***
9781905175253
I really enjoyed Gillard’s novel Emotional Geology when I read it a few years ago, and purchased A Lifetime Burning on my Kindle sometime afterwards. I love immersive family sagas, and was pulled in immediately. There is such an intelligence and compassion to Gillard’s prose, and I enjoyed the non-linear structure, which was effective in showing the depth and backgrounds of the characters.

Elements of the storyline, however, let the whole novel down for me. Some were frankly so unlikely that they felt ridiculous, which surprised me. I was very much enjoying the book up until the first bizarre twist came, but felt my interest in it waning somewhat. Despite being so well written, in some ways, A Lifetime Burning was really rather disappointing, and it has made me think twice about reading all of Gillard’s oeuvre, which was my original plan.

 

The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy *** 9781844082131

I decided, after quite enjoying The Hidden Room but not getting on at all well with London Lies Beneath, that I would give Stella Duffy one last chance. Thus, I borrowed The Room of Lost Things from the library. I was not pulled in straight away, but did find myself becoming more interested after a few pages, and almost engrossed a couple of chapters in.

The real strength for me here was the way in which London is portrayed; I miss the city dearly, having studied there for an entire year, and now being a whole country away from it. Duffy goes into so much detail about different boroughs; London, wonderfully evoked in all of its grit and glory, essentially becomes a character in itself, arguably the most important one in the novel. I admired the way in which everything revolved around something as dull and suburban as a dry-cleaning shop, too; it worked very ell as the novel’s focal point. The structure is clever yet simple.

I did find my attention waning after a while though; whilst the main thread of story featuring Robert and Akeel is interesting, some of the secondary characters had stories which felt quite repetitive after a while. This is my favourite of Duffy’s books to date, but I still wasn’t blown away by it.

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