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‘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.

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‘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.

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‘Shelter’ by Sarah Franklin **

9781785762826Clare Mackintosh calls Sarah Franklin’s debut novel, Shelter, ‘life-affirming and compelling’, and the Irish Times heralds it ‘tender, moving… [and with] an unforgettable heroine’.  Historical author Essie Fox writes that the novel ‘shows how outsiders in a time of war seek to rebuild their lives again’.  Shelter, which was first published in 2017, was also chosen as a book of the month on Netgalley, and has been well-received by a slew of reviewers.  I am disappointed then, with all of these positive reviews, my adoration of historical fiction, and the promise of so many elements which I ordinarily enjoy that I failed to enjoy the novel.

Set in rural Gloucestershire in Spring 1944, Shelter follows two protagonists, Connie Granger and Seppe.  Connie has joined the Women’s Timber Corps, an organisation which I knew nothing about before beginning the novel.  Connie hopes that her new job as a lumberjill ‘will give her a place of safety, and a place to protect the secret she carries.’  Seppe, on the other hand, comes from a markedly different background.  He is an Italian prisoner of war, who has been transported to the Forest of Dean.  He is, unsurprisingly, haunted by his wartime experiences, ‘but is surprised to find a certain liberty in his new surroundings’.

Part of Connie’s decision to move to a new area in such a tumultuous time in British history is that she yearned to escape the devastation wreaked on her home city, Coventry, much of which was destroyed in bombing attacks.  When she arrives in the Forest of Dean, expecting to find peace, she is surprised: ‘The place gave her the willies, always something creaking or scratching.  Whoever thought the countryside was still and calm hadn’t spent any time in it.’

When we first meet Seppe, he is being transported, along with a group of other soldiers, to the forest: ‘Seppe had been the last one on to the truck, shoved aside by the rest of them as usual.  From here at the back of the truck he had a good view of the exhaust pipe.  He’d been staring at it for hours, fogged into stupidity, assuming the nausea he felt was merely the same nausea that had accompanied him through the months in Africa, intensifying cruelly each time he’d shouldered his weapon.  But overlaying the nausea now, overlaying, too, the anxiety of what might lie ahead, was dishonourable relief that they were truly done with fighting.  Nobody was sending him back out there into those sheets of dust, that suffocating cacophony of shouts and weapon fire.  It made him a bad patriot, but he’d been a bad patriot for a long time.’

The prologue of Shelter opens with Connie attending a dance with fellow lumberjill, Hetty.  The first chapter then flits back to the day of her arrival in the forest.  Here, ‘Connie stepped off the train and quietly joined the throng of muttering girls as they trailed off the platform towards the station entrance.  This wasn’t like any station she’d seen before, more like a rundown bus shelter, really.  There was none of the bustle you’d see at Coventry station of an evening, even with the war on.  It gave her the creeps, but she’d keep her opinions to herself for once.  She needed to behave, make a good impression; this next billet mattered like none before.’

As demonstrated in the given examples, Franklin’s prose is written in a  chatty style, particularly with regard to those chapters which follow Connie.  Every other chapter, which takes Seppe as its focus, is a little more serious in tone.  His state of mind and fragility are hinted at throughout.  I found him a far more believable character than I did Connie, and was intrigued to learn more about him.

Shelter is rather slow in terms of its pace, and I found the prose a little repetitive.  Whilst Franklin sets the historical period well, I found the narrative both distanced from its characters, and rather uneven in its tone and style.  There is a sense of impersonality which suffuses the text, and after a while, I found myself not caring whatsoever about what was going to happen to either main character.  The secondary characters are shadowy and typecast, and even elements of the protagonists – particularly I found it very difficult to engage with it, and the story – whilst it sounded right up my street – did not pull me in.

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‘The Butcher’s Hook’ by Janet Ellis ****

Of former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis’ debut novel, Hannah Kent writes: ‘Ellis has created something marvellous in the character of Anne Jaccob – her voice is strange, dark and utterly mesmeric…  This is historical fiction as I’ve never encountered it before: full of viscera, snorting humour and obsessive desire.’  Other reviews which pepper the cover and the first page of The Butcher’s Hook describe it variously as ‘bewitching’, ‘dark, shocking and funny’, and ‘terrific.’  I was therefore suitably excited to begin, and snapped up a gorgeous turquoise hardback copy for myself. 9781473625112

The Butcher’s Hook is set in Georgian London during the summer of 1765.  Nineteen-year-old Anne Jaccob, the eldest daughter in a wealthy but unhappy family, is our protagonist and narrator.  Although ‘her family want for nothing, her father is uncaring, her mother is ailing, and the baby brother who taught her how to love is dead.’  In the novel’s first few chapters, Anne is ‘awakened to the possibility of joy when she meets Fub, the butcher’s apprentice, and begins to imagine a life of passion with him.’  However, as suited the time, Anne’s family have chosen her ‘a more suitable husband’ than the lowly Fub could ever become.

The novel opens when Anne’s mother is in childbirth, and Anne fully expects that she will not get back up again.  She says: ‘This is my nineteenth summer, but I have known only thirteen happy years to this date.  And that is only if I include my early childhood in the reckoning, back when, in all honesty, I owned no accountable state of mind.  Without that, it is a very poor tally.’  Anne’s present is interspersed with memories from her childhood, many of them rather dark and maudlin.

Anne is a headstrong character, who does not let societal mores prevent her from living as she pleases.  This is a pivotal time in her life, in which she is learning about herself, her body, and her sexuality, along with the amount of power which she can wield.  Throughout, she ‘shows no fear or hesitation.  Even if it means getting a little blood on her hands…’.  Anne has a rather hard and cold interior.  Of the ‘Scrap in the cot’, as she addresses her new sister, she expresses: ‘Do not think me harsh that I do not coo at this new-born infant, but I had done much loving with that boy my brother, and he had coughed his last just before his third birthday two years ago, so a lot of good all that loving did him.’

As a character construct, Anne is fascinating and unusual.  She has psychopathic tendencies, which are revealed close to the novel’s beginning.  As a young girl, she collected dead things which she viewed as treasure, and fantasised about heavy stone curlicues falling on a peer: ‘If it cracked and fell, it would flatten her…  I wanted it to happen so much that my teeth felt loose in my gums.’  Anne is not likeable, but she has such a depth and complexity about her.

Ellis’ character descriptions felt vivid and curious from the outset.  For instance, she writes: ‘This man was a great long coil of a person, his face was a thin stripe of flesh with features squeezed on, even his hands were stretched and narrow.  I imagined his daughter perched beside me, so tall that her hair would catch the breeze, like a pennant on a ship’s mast.’  When Anne meets Fub for the first time, she says: ‘I have never seen him before, but it is as if I recognise him.  I stop in my tracks, because otherwise I might run to him.  He looks as if he would speak but cannot remember how.  We stare as intensely as if we’re about to jump together from a great height.  The world gives a great lurch then resumes its customary spinning.’  Similarly, when she first meets loathsome suitor Simeon Onions, who has been selected by her father, she muses: ‘The only way I can think of his heart without crying aloud is to imagine it impaled on a fruit knife and that lace shirt of his getting redder by the minute.’  Anne’s voice reminded me at times of the narrator of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.

Georgian London has been vividly and vigorously applied to The Butcher’s Hook, and its dingy streets, strewn with poverty and disease, spring to life.  A real sense of place is evoked, and Ellis reminds one throughout of the nuances of the city in which Anne lives.  When she enters a church, she tells us: ‘Their numbers thin as I approach the church, and by the time I tread the path to the door, I am alone.  The huge heavy door is only slightly ajar, and it’s quite a struggle to push it further.  A smell of wax, incense, dust and something floral is so thick in the air it’s almost visible.  Not so any other person, for my footsteps sound loudly on the floor and even my skirt’s swish is distinctly audible.  There are no candles lit, doubtless to save money, for, even though it is morning and daylight outside, within is fusty darkness and shadows.’

The Butcher’s Hook is an unusual novel, with a vivid and realistic protagonist.  Its subject matter is rather dark, but its style is easy to read, and so immersive.  I found it engaging from the outset, and the volatility of Anne as a character made some of the twists quite surprising.  There are sparks of lovely imagery in the novel, and Ellis’ writing is taut and accomplished.  I found the ending markedly satisfying, and look forward to Ellis’ future publications with interest.

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‘Eden’s Garden’ by Juliet Greenwood ****

I adored the first novel of Juliet Greenwood’s which I read a few months ago, We That Were Left, and was most keen to read the rest of her oeuvre.  I ordered a copy of her debut novel, Eden’s Garden, because I am so drawn to books which contain two distinct stories within them, and which overlap towards the end.  The stories here are set in 2011 and 1898.

9781906784355In the contemporary story, we follow a protagonist named Carys, whose ‘dreams for the future are falling apart as she returns to the Snowdonia village where she was born, to look after her mother.’  Greenwood describes the way in which ‘Carys’ past was here, amongst the mountains rising up behind the shabby little seaside town.  And in the smaller – and even shabbier – time-passed-by village in the hills, where every road and path led towards the rambling grounds of Plas Eden.’

Whilst in Wales once more, Carys is drawn back to this ‘ramshackle country house’, where she bade her childhood sweetheart farewell.  This episode is related in the prologue, which is set in 1996, and which marks the tone and sumptuous descriptions of the story that follows.  In the prologue, Greenwood writes: ‘It was strange, seeing the house from this unfamiliar angle.  Close to, Plas Eden was slightly shabby, in a homely, comforting sort of way.  Between the ivy, white paint peeled away from the masonry.  Moss collected where slates had slipped or broken, and the skinny beginnings of a tree sprouted from a broken edge of guttering on one side.’

The late Victorian story in Eden’s Garden intrigued me most: ‘The last time Ann was in London she was a spoilt, aristocratic bride.  Now she stands destitute on London Bridge, with the Meredith Charity Hospital her only lifeline.  But who can she trust, and will she ever escape her past?’  Both Ann and Carys ‘struggle with love, family duty, long-buried secrets and their own creative ambitions’, and are mysteriously connected to one another.

I was more interested in the Victorian story at first, but became far more drawn into the contemporary part of the novel once the mystery element was introduced.  The female characters almost sprang to life upon the page, but I found the males more problematic; some of them felt as though they had not quite been drawn realistically enough.  Regardless, the novel is still a highly atmospheric one, which takes place in both the Welsh and Cornish countryside, and is all the richer for having more than one setting.  The layering effect of story upon story here works wonderfully too.

Eden’s Garden is a wholly transporting novel, which I found immediately absorbing.  It is, like We That Were Left, a novel which entirely sweeps one away.  For a debut, this novel is highly polished, and its mystery carefully and cleverly pieced together.  I did find a couple of elements which Greenwood had dreamed up a little unbelievable, and others rather twee, but I thoroughly enjoyed the novel overall.  Greenwood is an author who certainly deserves to be read more widely; I would recommend her work for fans of the likes of Kate Morton.

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‘Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore **

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One From the Archive: ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet ****

“Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942: two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent on a daring mission by London to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich – chief of the Nazi secret services, ‘the hangman of Prague’, ‘the blond beast’, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’. His boss is Heinrich Himmler but everyone in the SS says ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’, which in German spells “HHhH”.

9780099555643“All the characters in HHhH are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are a novelist writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up? HHhH is a panorama of the Third Reich told through the life of one outstandingly brutal man, a story of unbearable heroism and loyalty, revenge and betrayal. It is improbably entertaining and electrifyingly modern, a moving and shattering work of fiction.”

I was so very impressed by Laurence Binet’s HHhH. I found the entire novel incredibly engrossing, and I loved the mixture of fact and fiction which Binet had used. The different narrative structures which he made use of worked wonderfully, both singularly and together. The translation has been rendered with such care and precision that it never feels awkward, as many pieces of translated fiction can so easily. Binet’s writing suits the story he has crafted, and his take on the tale is really quite chilling at times. He portrays the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime very well indeed. His descriptions of Prague, one of my favourite cities, are exquisite.

I have never before read a book without page numbers, but I am glad that this was the first. Odd as it may sound, the structure of the book just does not make them necessary. HHhH is a book to be drawn into and to forget the world around you as you continue to read. It is more interesting in such cases, I feel, to be so engrossed that you no longer wonder how many pages you have left to go until you reach the end. HHhH is marvellously paced, particularly towards the end, and is a must read for any self-confessed history nerds out there.

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