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Eight Very Long Books Worthy of Your Time

I tend to opt for midsize books, or short ones, but every so often, I will settle down with such a large tome that I will inevitably end up with aching wrists from holding it up for so long. However, sometimes, these very long – and sometimes pain-inducing – books are very much worth the effort, and the time it takes to read them. I have collected together eight books which took me quite a while to get through, but which I thoroughly enjoyed, in the hopes that you too will (carefully!) pick them up.

  1. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

‘It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.’

2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace centers broadly on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the best-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves behind his family to fight in the war against Napoleon; and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman, who intrigues both men. As Napoleon’s army invades, Tolstoy vividly follows characters from diverse backgrounds—peasants and nobility, civilians and soldiers—as they struggle with the problems unique to their era, their history, and their culture. And as the novel progresses, these characters transcend their specificity, becoming some of the most moving—and human—figures in world literature.’

3. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

‘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.

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.’

4. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

‘England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?’

5. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

‘For centuries, the story of Dracula has captured the imagination of readers and storytellers alike. Kostova’s breathtaking first novel, ten years in the writing, is an accomplished retelling of this ancient tale. “The story that follows is one I never intended to commit to paper… As an historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it.” With these words, a nameless narrator unfolds a story that began 30 years earlier.

Late one night in 1972, as a 16-year-old girl, she discovers a mysterious book and a sheaf of letters in her father’s library—a discovery that will have dreadful and far-reaching consequences, and will send her on a journey of mind-boggling danger. While seeking clues to the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s puzzling disappearance, she follows a trail from London to Istanbul to Budapest and beyond, and learns that the letters in her possession provide a link to one of the world’s darkest and most intoxicating figures. Generation after generation, the legend of Dracula has enticed and eluded both historians and opportunists alike. Now a young girl undertakes the same search that ended in the death and defilement of so many others—in an attempt to save her father from an unspeakable fate.’

6. Middlemarch by George Eliot

‘Taking place in the years leading up to the First Reform Bill of 1832, Middlemarch explores nearly every subject of concern to modern life: art, religion, science, politics, self, society, human relationships. Among her characters are some of the most remarkable portraits in English literature: Dorothea Brooke, the heroine, idealistic but naive; Rosamond Vincy, beautiful and egoistic: Edward Casaubon, the dry-as-dust scholar: Tertius Lydgate, the brilliant but morally-flawed physician: the passionate artist Will Ladislaw: and Fred Vincey and Mary Garth, childhood sweethearts whose charming courtship is one of the many humorous elements in the novel’s rich comic vein.’

7. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

‘Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love – and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling power. Combining unforgettably vivid characters and thrilling suspense, it is a beautiful, addictive triumph – a sweeping story of loss and obsession, of survival and self-invention, of the deepest mysteries of love, identity and fate.’

8. A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt

‘In April 1925, Jean Lucey Pratt began writing a journal. She continued to write until just a few days before her death in 1986, producing well over a million words in 45 exercise books over the course of her lifetime. For sixty years, no one had an inkling of her diaries’ existence, and they have remained unpublished until now.

Jean wrote about anything that amused, inspired or troubled her, laying bare every aspect of her life with aching honesty, infectious humour, indelicate gossip and heartrending hopefulness. She recorded her yearnings and her disappointments in love, from schoolgirl crushes to disastrous adult affairs. She documented the loss of a tennis match, her unpredictable driving, catty friends, devoted cats and difficult guests. With Jean we live through the tumult of the Second World War and the fears of a nation. We see Britain hurtling through a period of unbridled transformation, and we witness the shifting landscape for women in society.

As Jean’s words propel us back in time, A Notable Woman becomes a unique slice of living, breathing British history and a revealing private chronicle of life in the twentieth century.’

Have you read any of these? Which is your favourite long book, which may or may not have caused you an injury?

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Six Books I’ve Enjoyed in 2022…

… but have not written reviews for. Because I read as often as I can, but have a full-time job, there are many books I would like to review, but sadly don’t get chance to. I thought I would collect a few of these together so that they don’t fall through the cracks. Their content is relatively varied, but these are just a few titles which I have thoroughly enjoyed this year, and would highly recommend. As ever, let me know if you have read any of these, or if they pique your interest.

  1. In and Out of the Garden by Sara Midda (1982; non-fiction; gardens and growing; charming illustrations; beautifully put together)

‘Sara Midda’s richly illustrated In and Out of the Garden has delighted readers and critics alike. Diana Vreeland praised it as “delightful and delicious,” and Laura Ashley called it “pure inspiration.”

The most elegant and subtle of books to give and to have, it evokes the English gardens of Sara Midda’s childhood, sowing the imagination with glorious images. Dozens and dozens of illustrations and tender reflections recall a hut in the wood, or a topiary maze, a summer day spent podding peas, or an herb patch that yields Biblical fragrances. Ruby-red radishes are the jewels of the underworld. Myriad colors fall upon warm green moss. Painted with Sara Midda’s fine brush, it is a book of lasting enchantment.’

2. Raising a Rare Girl by Heather Lanier (2020; memoir; illness narrative; rare genetic disorder; heartfelt and honest)

‘Award-winning writer Heather Lanier’s memoir about raising a child with a rare syndrome, defying the tyranny of normal, and embracing parenthood as a spiritual practice that breaks us open in the best of ways.

Like many women of her generation, Heather Lanier did everything by the book when she was expecting her first child. She ate organic foods, recited affirmations, and drew up a birth plan for an unmedicated labor in the hopes that she could create a SuperBaby, an ultra-healthy human destined for a high-achieving future.

But her daughter Fiona challenged all of Lanier’s preconceptions. Born with an ultra-rare syndrome known as Wolf-Hirschhorn, Fiona received a daunting prognosis: she would experience significant developmental delays and might not reach her second birthday. Not only had Lanier failed to produce a SuperBaby, she now fiercely loved a child that the world would sometimes reject. The diagnosis obliterated Lanier’s perfectionist tendencies, along with her most closely held beliefs about certainty, vulnerability, God, and love.

With tiny bits of mozzarella cheese, a walker rolled to library story time, a talking iPad app, and a whole lot of pop and reggae, mother and daughter spend their days doing whatever it takes to give Fiona nourishment, movement, and language. They also confront society’s attitudes toward disability and the often cruel assumptions made about Fiona’s worth. Lanier realizes the biggest question is not, Will my daughter walk or talk? but, How can I best love my girl, just as she is?

Loving Fiona opens Lanier up to new understandings of what it means to be human, what it takes to be a mother, and above all, the aching joy and wonder that come from embracing the unique life of her rare girl.’

3. Lily’s Promise by Lily Ebert and Dov Forman (2021; memoir; Holocaust; honest, heartwrenching, and hopeful)

‘When Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert was liberated in 1945, a Jewish-American soldier gave her a banknote on which he’d written ‘Good luck and happiness’. And when her great-grandson, Dov, decided to use social media to track down the family of the GI, 96-year-old Lily found herself making headlines round the world. Lily had promised herself that if she survived Auschwitz she would tell everyone the truth about the camp. Now was her chance.

In Lily’s Promise she writes movingly about her happy childhood in Hungary, the death of her mother and two youngest siblings on their arrival at Auschwitz in 1944 and her determination to keep her two other sisters safe. She describes the inhumanity of the camp and the small acts of defiance that gave her strength. From there she and her sisters became slave labour in a munitions factory, and then faced a death march that they barely survived.

Lily lost so much, but she built a new life for herself and her family, first in Israel and then in London. It wasn’t easy; the pain of her past was always with her, but this extraordinary woman found the strength to speak out in the hope that such evil would never happen again.’

4. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane (2019; novel set in the 1980s; family saga; interesting characters and dynamics)

‘Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, rookie NYPD cops, are neighbors in the suburbs. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne, sets the stage for the explosive events to come.

In Mary Beth Keane’s extraordinary novel, a lifelong friendship and love blossoms between Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, born six months apart. One shocking night their loyalties are divided, and their bond will be tested again and again over the next thirty years. Heartbreaking and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes is a gorgeous and generous portrait of the daily intimacies of marriage and the power of forgiveness.’

5.Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories, edited by Audrey Niffenegger (2015; short stories; wonderfully curated; varied content; great illustrations)

‘Collected and introduced by the bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry–including Audrey Niffenegger’s own fabulous new illustrations for each piece, and a new story by her–this is a unique and haunting anthology of some of the best ghost stories of all time.

From Edgar Allan Poe to Kelly Link, M.R. James to Neil Gaiman, H.H. Munro to Audrey Niffenegger herself, Ghostly reveals the evolution of the ghost story genre with tales going back to the eighteenth century and into the modern era, ranging across styles from Gothic Horror to Victorian, stories about haunting–haunted children, animals, houses. Every story is introduced by Audrey Niffenegger, an acclaimed master of the craft, with some words on its background and why she chose to include it. Audrey’s own story is “A Secret Life With Cats.”

Perfect for the classic and contemporary ghost story aficionado, this is a delightful volume, beautifully illustrated by Audrey, who is a graphic artist with great vision. Ghostly showcases the best of the best in the field, including Edith Wharton, P.G. Wodehouse, A.S. Byatt, Ray Bradbury, and so many more.’

6. The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman (2019; historical fiction; magical realism; creative; beautifully written)

‘In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses; from a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be.

What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending.’

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Novella November: ‘Reunion’ by Fred Uhlman ****

I have been meaning to read Fred Uhlman’s work for ages, but as with so many things, I hadn’t got around to doing so. It was a ‘currently reading’ status update on my Goodreads feed that prompted me to seek one of Uhlman’s books out. I felt that Reunion, the title which he is best known for, was a great choice to begin with.

Reunion is incredibly short; the Vintage edition which I read comes in at just 74 pages. It includes an introduction by the translator of the English edition, Jean d’Ormesson, and a short afterword by author Rachel Seiffert. D’Ormesson begins his introduction as follows: ‘I remember as if it were yesterday my first encounter, some twenty years ago, with this small volume, brought to my attention by a friend.’ He goes on to write of the ‘literary perfection’ of Reunion. Sadly, he does give quite a lot of the plot away of this very short book.

Reunion begins on a grey afternoon in the German city of Stuttgart, in 1932. Here, a classroom at a prestigious boy’s school is ‘stirred by the arrival of a newcomer’, Konradin von Hohenfels, the son of a Count. Our narrator, a middle-class pupil named Hans Schwarz, is ‘intrigued by the aristocratic new boy’. After some time, the pair embark on ‘a friendship of the greatest kind, of shared interests and long conversations, of hikes in the German hills and growing up together.’ The intense friendship between Hans and Konradin is set against the tumultuous backdrop of 1930s Germany, and the rise of Nazism.

Reunion opens: ‘He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again.’ Hans goes on: ‘I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair.’ When Konradin is introduced to the class, Hans comments: ‘… our eyes were concentrated on the Newcomer. He stood motionless and composed, without any sign of nervousness or shyness. Somehow he looked older than us and more mature, and it was difficult to believe he was just another new boy.’

We soon learn that before Konradin’s arrival, Hans was friendless. He comments that there was no single boy in his class whom he ‘believed could live up to my romantic ideal of friendship, not one whom I really admired, for whom I would be willing to die and who could have understood my demand for complete trust, loyalty and self-sacrifice.’ Hans is, of course, a Romantic, yearning for meaningful relationships with those around him, and dreaming of a career as a great poet. This can be seen particularly when he describes elements of his early friendship with Konradin. He narrates: ‘I can’t remember much of what Konradin said to me that day or what I said to him. All I know is that we walked up and down for an hour, like two young lovers, still nervous, still afraid of each other…’.

The novella is a Bildungsroman, centered around the friendship, of course, but also the political situation which eventually engulfs Hans. The building of their relationship has been well balanced, and religion, and the rise of Nazism, are well handled. Whilst both are ever-present threats in the story, they do not overshadow the more personal details in Hans’ life. As things begin to change around him, Hans recounts: ‘From outside our magic circle came rumours of political unrest, but the storm-centre was far away – in Berlin, whence clashes were reported between Nazis and Communists. Stuttgart seemed to be as quiet and reasonable as ever.’

There is an element of idolatry here; Hans goes out of his way to please Konradin, and there are moments as the narrative goes on where their friendship feels fraught with inequality and contradictions. The influence of Konradin’s parents, particularly his incredibly vocal anti-Semitic mother, has an impact upon him, of course, and his behaviour and disloyalty feels very disappointing. The novella is so vivid that we can feel Hans’ disappointment and hurt on every page. Uhlman’s prose builds such a realistic picture of Hans, and of his surroundings, that once I’d finished reading, I felt like I’d been with the narrator for a very long time.

Reunion was written in 1960, and although the author biography preceding it stresses that it is ‘not an autobiographical book’, it ‘contains autobiographical elements’. These are specifically about the academic element of the book, the school, teachers, and pupils. They have been based upon the oldest and most famous grammar school in Württemberg, which Uhlman attended. There is also an element of autobiography which can be found in the main character, Hans; he is the son of Jewish parents, and is sent away before the Second World War begins. Uhlman himself, a practicing barrister and an anti-Nazi, was of Jewish descent. He fled Germany for Paris in 1933, before moving to London in 1936, and establishing a career as a painter.

Reunion is an expansive novella, which seems to contain far more than one would expect in such a short story. It evokes so much, despite its brevity, and presents a friendship between two very different boys, which was fated to fail from the outset. Both the story and the translation have been excellently handled, and I very much look forward to picking of another of Uhlman’s books at some point in future.

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‘Matrix’ by Lauren Groff ****

Lauren Groff is one of a handful of authors whom I will happily read anything by. I had not even glanced at the blurb of her 2021 novel, Matrix, before borrowing it from my library. It came as something of a surprise to me that this is a work of historical fiction, given that her previous books have been so rooted in the contemporary world. It is safe to say that my hopes for Matrix were very high indeed.

The protagonist of Matrix is seventeen-year-old Marie, a young woman living in the court of Eleanor of Aquitane, the Queen of France. Marie, who is loosely based on a twelfth-century poet named Marie de France, is a ‘bastardess sibling of the crown’. She has proved ‘too wild for courtly life’, and is swiftly despatched to an abbey in the north of England. On a cold morning in the winter of 1158, Marie is expelled from the life she has known, and sent away from her secret lover, Cecily. Cecily is ‘… this rough person who had up until this moment been everything to Marie, mistress and sister and servant and pleasure and single loving soul in all of Angleterre.’

Marie is forced to become the abbey’s prioress, despite not believing in any higher power. She finds the religion bestowed upon her ‘vaguely foolish… Her faith had twisted very early in her childhood; it would slowly grow ever more bent into its geography until it was its own angular, majestic thing.’ After she has lived there for around two decades, Groff writes that her faith has shifted entirely: ‘How strange, she thinks. Belief has grown upon her. Perhaps, she thinks, it is something like a mold.’ One of the many strengths in this novel is the portrait which Groff draws of a woman forced against her will into a way of life, and the ways in which she copes with, and adapts to, it.

In the opening scene, Marie arrives at her new home: ‘She sees for the first time the abbey, pale and aloof on a rise in this damp valley, the clouds drawn up from the ocean and wrung against the hills in constant rainfall. Most of the year this place is emerald and sapphire, bursting under dampness, thick with sheep and chaffinches and newts, delicate mushrooms poking from the rich soil, but now in late winter, all is grey and full of shadows.’ The young woman is ‘tall, a giantess of a maiden, and her elbows and knees stick out, ungainly… Her stark Angevin face holds no beauty, only canniness and passion yet unchecked.’ She has been sent to the desolate, neglected abbey during a raging epidemic of one disease or another, which has caused many of the nuns there to perish. The nuns are viewed with suspicion by those who live around the abbey; the townsfolk see them as ‘suspect, unnatural, sisters to witches.’

Over the decades which she spends at the abbey, Marie is nothing short of radical. She looks after the women around her, and comes up with bold new ideas to turn the struggling abbey into a profitable place. This element of the novel in particular will appeal to any feminist; she is a strong woman surrounded by others who become stronger under her direction. She becomes, for the abbey, an agent of change. As Groff says, ‘Her mastery will be gradual but, by the time she becomes abbess many years later, complete.’ She makes renters settle their debts; she sets up a scriptorium where the more educated nuns produce beautiful manuscripts, which can then be sold; she persuades nobles to donate the land around the abbey to the nuns.

The narrative here has been wonderfully controlled. I liked the way in which Groff wove in explorations of feminism, particularly within the female-only space of the abbey. Marie, for instance, grapples with her sexuality throughout, as do others around her. Groff writes: ‘There is no mention of female sodomy in any of the books, and the great angry moralists would have mentioned it if it were a sin, surely. Marie has searched; she has found only echoing silence.’

I do not believe that I’ve read another novel quite like Matrix. It is inventive in true Groff style, and I know that the story and its wonderfully drawn characters and scenes will stay with me for quite some time yet. The novel is wonderfully rich in detail, and I was pulled right into its story. The historical context which Groff provides is at once vague and detailed, and altogether, the story which has been told here is thoroughly beguiling. I really like the way in which Groff captures what was going on in the world whilst the nuns were cloistered away; for instance, when she writes: ‘Marie is forty-seven. From Rome, from Paris, from London, her spies have written swift panicked letters; Jerusalem has fallen again to the infidel.’ Groff has put such thought into how to make this world as realistic and believable as possible.

I love it when I have the chance to read a book by an author which proves a real departure from their previous publications. Matrix is definitely this for Groff. Whilst it is recognisably her work, there is definitely a different feel to it overall. The magical realism which her other novels and short stories are steeped in is barely visible here, only appearing in a couple of ‘visions’ which the nuns have. These small glimpses work wonderfully with the realism which the rest of the story is suffused in. The scenes which she has implanted magical realism into are few and far between, but also beautiful: ‘Lightning sparks at the tip of her fingers. Swifter than breath it moves through her hands, the flesh of her arms, her inner organs, her sex, her skin, and it settles jagged and blazing in her throat. Wondrous colors bloom in the sky above the forest. With a thunder that shakes the ground beneath Marie’s feet, there is a split in the sky that opens. In the split Marie sees a woman made of the greatness of all the cities in the world together, a woman clothed in radiance.’

Time passes quickly in Matrix, and I enjoyed every second. It was not the novel which I was expecting, but I thoroughly admired the way in which Groff tackles so many topics here; it is a novel of religion, sexuality, bonds, friendship, and female power, amongst much else. She has created a stylish and playful work of historical fiction, which feels fresh and exciting. Matrix is undoubtedly a very clever book, and I am so excited to see what Groff comes up with next.

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Three Historical Fiction Picks

Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres to read, but I have discovered that I don’t often get around to reviewing books which fall into this category. Here, I have brought together three mini reviews of novels which I have read and very much enjoyed, and which I would urge those who like to read historical fiction to pick up. They provide wonderful escapism, which I have found very comforting during these couple of strange years.

The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea

I have had a galley copy of Caroline Lea’s debut novel, The Glass Woman, on my Kindle for quite some time, but for some reason did not get around to reading it very quickly. Set in Iceland during the 1680s, the novel follows a young married woman, Rósa, and her husband, Jón. Rósa has moved far from her home to an isolated croft, where she is left alone much of the day, and is urged not to speak to the locals. Lea captures her loneliness with care and understanding, and uses the third person perspective to examine her protagonist. One of the real strengths of the novel is the unsettling feel which it has; this builds as the story progresses. The reader is aware that something is not quite right, and that something sinister might be lurking in the croft’s attic space, which Rósa is banned from exploring.

Wonderfully descriptive, The Glass Woman captures space and place very well. She writes about the unforgiving landscape in which Rósa finds herself, and the sadness which she feels at being pulled away from her sick mother. A few other reviews which I have read have commented that The Glass Woman is not particularly well situated, and that its action could quite easily be moved to another location – and even perhaps another time period entirely. I do not agree. Lea mentions specific Icelandic sagas throughout, and also sprinkles a few Icelandic words throughout the narrative, which contribute to embedding the story in one place and time. I feel that this has been rather well done, personally.

Jón’s first person perspective is introduced quite far into the novel, something which I was not expecting to happen. Whilst, as other reviewers have noted, I can see why Lea chose to do this, I would have preferred the novel to use the third person narrative voice throughout. Regardless, my interest in the story did not wane, and I was pulled into Rósa’s world; Lea describes this as ‘a blizzard-blurred huddle of white drifts and blank hillocks, made of nothing more than ice and air. Everything has reduced to an arm’s length away, as if life beyond the croft no longer exists.’ Some of the tropes used within The Glass Woman are arguably a little obvious, but overall, it is a very effective novel, which has been well plotted, and moves along nicely.

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

I have heard so much buzz around Georgia Hunter’s novel, We Were the Lucky Ones. It is set largely during the Second World War, and encompasses one family who are fractured by the Holocaust. The novel opens in 1939, in Poland, where several generations of the Kurc family are trying their hardest to continue with their normal lives. However, like so many millions of Jews all across Europe, they are forced to try and survive in a terrifying new world, in which they are marginalised and persecuted.

Hunter’s novel is sweeping; it moves across five continents, and spans a period of eight years. The novel is based upon true events; the author’s own family, she discovered in her teenage years, were Holocaust survivors. Whilst some names have been changed here, a lot of the details echo reality, and the novel is the result of incredibly extensive research. The author is clearly attuned to the world of which she writes, and the numerous events which affect every single family member. Her characters become almost helpless, as they begin to lose control over every aspect of their lives.

From the outset, I very much admired Hunter’s approach, wherein she follows different members of the family as they move away from their home. A lot of what they have to face – the sacrifices which they are forced to make, and the acts of bravery which they choose to – is difficult to read, but it is obviously also incredibly important to remember. Hunter has interspersed her family’s story with brief factual details explaining the political situation at each particular point in history. The present tense which she uses throughout infuses We Were the Lucky Ones with a real sense of urgency, and the different threads of story have been wonderfully tied together.

The Last Camellia by Sarah Jio

Sarah Jio is an author whom I have become really interested in reading of late. Every single one of her works of historical fiction appealed to me, and I ended up selecting The Last Camellia to begin with merely because my local library had a copy which I was able to reserve. I also love stories about botanists during the wars – rather niche, I know.

I very much enjoy novels with dual timelines, something which The Last Camellia uses to its advantage. Jio has crafted a clever familial saga which stretches across two timelines – the 1940s and the 2000s. The 1940s story, in which a young woman named Flora Lewis travels from New York to a small English village to take over as the nanny for the Livingston family – under false pretences – was my favourite, as I felt that the historical context had been really well thought out. There is also the trope of a mildly unsettling housekeeper, who is somehow still working at the house in 2000. In this more modern timeline, we meet Addison, whose husband’s family has just purchased the manor. She works as a landscaper, and this ties in nicely with the mystery of the rarest camellia in England, the Middlebury Pink, one of which is thought to be still living somewhere around the grounds of Livingston Manor.

I loved the element of mystery which has been woven in here, and it certainly kept me guessing throughout. The different threads of story were well handled, and whilst I felt that some of the denouements were a little far-fetched, I still very much enjoyed this absorbing reading experience, and the transporting stories within it. Jio’s prose is really quite nice; it did not make me swoon at all, as some historical fiction does, but it is undoubtedly vivid. I reserved another of Jio’s books from my local library before I had even finished The Last Camellia, and am hoping that she could fast become a new go-to historical fiction author for me.

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The Book Trail: From ‘The Quickening’ to ‘The Lamplighters’

I have chosen to begin this particular addition to The Book Trail with an historical fiction tome which I have had my eye on for quite some time. As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list. Please let me know which of these books you have read, and whether any of them also take your fancy.

1. The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward

‘England, 1925. Louisa Drew lost her husband in the First World War and her six-year-old twin sons in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Newly re-married to a war-traumatised husband and seven months pregnant, Louisa is asked by her employer to travel to Clewer Hall in Sussex where she is to photograph the contents of the house for auction.

She learns Clewer Hall was host to an infamous séance in 1896, and that the lady of the house has asked those who gathered back then to come together once more to recreate the evening. When a mysterious child appears on the grounds, Louisa finds herself compelled to investigate and becomes embroiled in the strange happenings of the house. Gradually, she unravels the long-held secrets of the inhabitants and what really happened thirty years before… and discovers her own fate is entwined with that of Clewer Hall’s.’

2. The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

‘As the age of the photograph dawns in Victorian Bath, silhouette artist Agnes is struggling to keep her business afloat. Still recovering from a serious illness herself, making enough money to support her elderly mother and her orphaned nephew Cedric has never been easy, but then one of her clients is murdered shortly after sitting for Agnes, and then another, and another… Why is the killer seemingly targeting her business?

Desperately seeking an answer, Agnes approaches Pearl, a child spirit medium lodging in Bath with her older half-sister and her ailing father, hoping that if Pearl can make contact with those who died, they might reveal who killed them.

But Agnes and Pearl quickly discover that instead they may have opened the door to something that they can never put back…’

3. A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

Wolf Hall meets The Favourite in this gripping dark novel based on the true scandal of two women determined to create their own fates in the Jacobean court.

When Frances Howard, beautiful but unhappy wife of the Earl of Essex, meets the talented Anne Turner, the two strike up an unlikely, yet powerful, friendship. Frances makes Anne her confidante, sweeping her into a glamorous and extravagant world, riven with bitter rivalry.

As the women grow closer, each hopes to change her circumstances. Frances is trapped in a miserable marriage while loving another, and newly-widowed Anne struggles to keep herself and her six children alive as she waits for a promised proposal. A desperate plan to change their fortunes is hatched. But navigating the Jacobean court is a dangerous game and one misstep could cost them everything.’

4. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

‘From the critically acclaimed and award‑winning author of Golden Hill, a mesmerizing and boldly inventive novel tracing the infinite possibilities of five lives in the bustling neighborhoods of 20th-century London.

Lunchtime on a Saturday, 1944: the Woolworths on Bexford High Street in southeast London receives a delivery of aluminum saucepans. A crowd gathers to see the first new metal in ages—after all, everything’s been melted down for the war effort. An instant later, the crowd is gone; incinerated. Among the shoppers were five young children.

Who were they? What futures did they lose? This brilliantly constructed novel lets an alternative reel of time run, imagining the life arcs of these five souls as they live through the extraordinary, unimaginable changes of the bustling immensity of twentieth-century London. Their intimate everyday dramas, as sons and daughters, spouses, parents, grandparents; as the separated, the remarried, the bereaved. Through decades of social, sexual, and technological transformation, as bus conductors and landlords, as swindlers and teachers, patients and inmates. Days of personal triumphs, disasters; of second chances and redemption.

Ingenious and profound, full of warmth and beauty, Light Perpetual illuminates the shapes of experience, the extraordinariness of the ordinary, the mysteries of memory and expectation, and the preciousness of life.’

5. Lightseekers by Femi Kadoye

‘When Dr. Philip Taiwo is called on by a powerful Nigerian politician to investigate the public torture and murder of three university students in remote Port Harcourt, he has no idea that he’s about to be enveloped by a perilous case that is far from cold.
 
Philip is not a detective. He’s an investigative psychologist, an academic more interested in figuring out the why of a crime than actually solving it. But when he steps off the plane and into the dizzying frenzy of the provincial airport, he soon realizes that the murder of the Okriki Three isn’t as straightforward as he thought. With the help of his loyal and streetwise personal driver, Chika, Philip must work against those actively conspiring against him to parse together the truth of what happened to these students.
 
A thrilling and atmospheric mystery, and an unforgettable portrait of the contemporary Nigerian sociopolitical landscape, Lightseekers is a wrenching novel tackling the porousness between the first and third worlds, the enduring strength of tribalism and homeland identity, and the human need for connection in the face of isolation.’

6. Greenwich Park by Katherine Faulkner

‘A twisty, whip-smart debut thriller, as electrifying as the #1 New York Times bestseller The Girl on the Train, about impending motherhood, unreliable friendship, and the high price of keeping secrets.

Helen’s idyllic life—handsome architect husband, gorgeous Victorian house, and cherished baby on the way (after years of trying)—begins to change the day she attends her first prenatal class and meets Rachel, an unpredictable single mother-to-be. Rachel doesn’t seem very maternal: she smokes, drinks, and professes little interest in parenthood. Still, Helen is drawn to her. Maybe Rachel just needs a friend. And to be honest, Helen’s a bit lonely herself. At least Rachel is fun to be with. She makes Helen laugh, invites her confidences, and distracts her from her fears.

But her increasingly erratic behavior is unsettling. And Helen’s not the only one who’s noticed. Her friends and family begin to suspect that her strange new friend may be linked to their shared history in unexpected ways. When Rachel threatens to expose a past crime that could destroy all of their lives, it becomes clear that there are more than a few secrets laying beneath the broad-leaved trees and warm lamplight of Greenwich Park.’

7. Another Life by Jodie Chapman

‘Nick and Anna work the same summer job at their local cinema. Anna is mysterious, beautiful, and from a very different world to Nick.

She’s grown up preparing for the end of days, in a tightly-controlled existence where Christmas, getting drunk and sex before marriage are all off-limits.

So when Nick comes into her life, Anna falls passionately in love. Their shared world burns with poetry and music, cigarettes and conversation – hints of the people they hope to become.

But Anna, on the cusp of adulthood, is afraid to give up everything she’s ever believed in, and everyone she’s ever loved. She walks away, and Nick doesn’t stop her.

Years later, a tragedy draws Anna back into Nick’s life.’

8. The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

‘Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.

What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?

Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface . . .

The Lamplighters is a heart-stopping mystery rich with the salty air of the Cornish coast, and an unforgettable story of love and grief that explores the way our fears blur the line between the real and the imagined.’

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The Book Trail: From Light to Rain

As the starting point for this particular Book Trail, I have chosen one of the standout novels which I read last year, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I have a full review on this title forthcoming in the next couple of weeks, but thought it would make a great jumping-off point for this series of mine. As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads to generate this historical fiction-heavy list. Please let me know which of these titles you have read, and if any take your fancy.

1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

‘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.

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.’

2. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

‘In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says good-bye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gaëtan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

With courage, grace and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of World War II and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France—a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.’

3. The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd

‘The year is 1739. Eliza Lucas is sixteen years old when her father leaves her in charge of their family’s three plantations in rural South Carolina and then proceeds to bleed the estates dry in pursuit of his military ambitions. Tensions with the British, and with the Spanish in Florida, just a short way down the coast, are rising, and slaves are starting to become restless. Her mother wants nothing more than for their South Carolina endeavor to fail so they can go back to England. Soon her family is in danger of losing everything.

Upon hearing how much the French pay for indigo dye, Eliza believes it’s the key to their salvation. But everyone tells her it’s impossible, and no one will share the secret to making it. Thwarted at nearly every turn, even by her own family, Eliza finds that her only allies are an aging horticulturalist, an older and married gentleman lawyer, and a slave with whom she strikes a dangerous deal: teach her the intricate thousand-year-old secret process of making indigo dye and in return — against the laws of the day — she will teach the slaves to read.

So begins an incredible story of love, dangerous and hidden friendships, ambition, betrayal, and sacrifice.

Based on historical documents, including Eliza’s letters, this is a historical fiction account of how a teenage girl produced indigo dye, which became one of the largest exports out of South Carolina, an export that laid the foundation for the incredible wealth of several Southern families who still live on today. Although largely overlooked by historians, the accomplishments of Eliza Lucas influenced the course of US history. When she passed away in 1793, President George Washington served as a pallbearer at her funeral.

This book is set between 1739 and 1744, with romance, intrigue, forbidden friendships, and political and financial threats weaving together to form the story of a remarkable young woman whose actions were before their time: the story of the indigo girl.’

4. One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow by Olivia Hawker

From the bestselling author of The Ragged Edge of Night comes a powerful and poetic novel of survival and sacrifice on the American frontier.

Wyoming, 1870. For as long as they have lived on the frontier, the Bemis and Webber families have relied on each other. With no other settlers for miles, it is a matter of survival. But when Ernest Bemis finds his wife, Cora, in a compromising situation with their neighbor, he doesn’t think of survival. In one impulsive moment, a man is dead, Ernest is off to prison, and the women left behind are divided by rage and remorse.

Losing her husband to Cora’s indiscretion is another hardship for stoic Nettie Mae. But as a brutal Wyoming winter bears down, Cora and Nettie Mae have no choice but to come together as one family—to share the duties of working the land and raising their children. There’s Nettie Mae’s son, Clyde—no longer a boy, but not yet a man—who must navigate the road to adulthood without a father to guide him, and Cora’s daughter, Beulah, who is as wild and untamable as her prairie home.

Bound by the uncommon threads in their lives and the challenges that lie ahead, Cora and Nettie Mae begin to forge an unexpected sisterhood. But when a love blossoms between Clyde and Beulah, bonds are once again tested, and these two resilient women must finally decide whether they can learn to trust each other—or else risk losing everything they hold dear.’

5. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

‘Acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught everywhere from inner-city grade schools to universities across the country, and translated all over the world, The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero.

Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous–it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.’

6. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

‘Set during the waning days of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in 1960, this extraordinary novel tells the story the Mirabal sisters, three young wives and mothers who are assassinated after visiting their jailed husbands.

From the author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents comes this tale of courage and sisterhood set in the Dominican Republic during the rise of the Trujillo dictatorship. A skillful blend of fact and fiction, In the Time of the Butterflies is inspired by the true story of the three Mirabal sisters who, in 1960, were murdered for their part in an underground plot to overthrow the government. Alvarez breathes life into these historical figures–known as “las mariposas,” or “the butterflies,” in the underground–as she imagines their teenage years, their gradual involvement with the revolution, and their terror as their dissentience is uncovered.

Alvarez’s controlled writing perfectly captures the mounting tension as “the butterflies” near their horrific end. The novel begins with the recollections of Dede, the fourth and surviving sister, who fears abandoning her routines and her husband to join the movement. Alvarez also offers the perspectives of the other sisters: brave and outspoken Minerva, the family’s political ringleader; pious Patria, who forsakes her faith to join her sisters after witnessing the atrocities of the tyranny; and the baby sister, sensitive Maria Teresa, who, in a series of diaries, chronicles her allegiance to Minerva and the physical and spiritual anguish of prison life.’

7. Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina García

‘Here is the dreamy and bittersweet story of a family divided by politics and geography by the Cuban revolution. It is the family story of Celia del Pino, and her husband, daughter and grandchildren, from the mid-1930s to 1980. Celia’s story mirrors the magical realism of Cuba itself, a country of beauty and poverty, idealism and corruption. DREAMING IN CUBAN presents a unique vision and a haunting lamentation for a past that might have been.’

8. After Rain by William Trevor

‘In this collection of twelve dazzling, acutely rendered tales, William Trevor plumbs the depths of the human heart. Here we encounter a blind piano tuner whose wonderful memories of his first wife are cruelly distorted by his second; a woman in a difficult marriage who must choose between her indignant husband and her closest friend; two children, survivors of divorce, who mimic their parents’ melodramas; and a heartbroken woman traveling alone in Italy who experiences an epiphany while studying a forgotten artist’s Annunciation.
Trevor is, in his own words, ‘a storyteller. My fiction may, now and again, illuminate aspects of the human condition, but I do not consciously set out to do so.’ Conscious or not, he touches us in ways that few writers even dare to try.’

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‘The Glorious Guinness Girls’ by Emily Hourican **

The tagline of Emily Hourican’s newest novel, The Glorious Guinness Girls, is ‘Three sisters. One shared destiny.’ The novel purports to take the three Irish sisters of the Guinness fortune, the ‘glamorous society girls’ – ‘elegant’ Aileen, outspoken Maureen, and gentle Oonagh – as its focus, and moves from London and Ireland between 1918 and 1930. There is also a strand of a more modern story, set in 1978 in the old family home in Ireland, which is now being used as a care home.

In the late 1970s, Fliss has returned to this house, which she describes as ‘big and old and pitiful, like the knuckles on an aged hand…’. She is seeking old family papers from the crowded attic space, having been asked to do so by two of the sisters. As she searches, she comments: ‘I turn more paper. I do not know what I am looking for. All I see are sentimental recollections of childhood, and even at a distance of sixty years, I can catch the smell of that time. Dullness and emptiness, endless waiting, stuck between the schoolroom and the nursery, at ease nowhere. Beating at time with our fists to make it go faster.’

The blurb asks, ‘what beautiful ruins lie behind the glass of their privileged worlds? The love affairs, the scandals, the tragedies, the secrets…’. The novel sounds as though it is poised to be revealing of the lives of the Guinness sisters, but unfortunately, I do not feel at all as though this was the case. We learn about the girls physically – for instance, they are described in 1918 as having ‘each other’s face but with small variations so that looking at all of them together was to see a single treasure hoard split three ways’.

Hourican has not just used historical figures in The Glorious Guinness Girls; she has invented individuals. One of these is Felicity Bryant, known as Fliss, who is the narrator of the whole, and who is undoubtedly the protagonist of the piece. She is a kind of poor cousin to the girls, who moves in with them after her father passes away. At first, it seems that she grows up as part of the family, given that she is a similar age to the younger sisters, and ‘knows the girls better than anyone.’ However, there are some hazy allusions to the way in which she feels continually excluded – when she is not taken on a very expensive cruise around the world with the sisters, for instance. Despite growing up in such privilege, Fliss is grateful for nothing, and I took a real dislike to her. As a character, she is utterly contrived; she brings nothing to the novel, and serves only to unnecessarily blur the boundaries between reality and fiction.

There are rather a lot of characters included in the novel; indeed, it is even prefaced with an extensive list of them. This feels like an overload at times, particularly early on. Barely any of the secondary characters feel fleshed out, either; rather, they skulk about in the shadows, and are known largely by the jobs which they do around the house. The way in which the narrative flits back and forth in time without any real chronological structure is a little irksome in places, too. There is very little plot here, and what there is has been stretched out; barely anything happens in more than 400 pages.

I was quite underwhelmed by the prose of the novel, too. This is Hourican’s sixth novel, but it sometimes reads more like an early, less polished effort than one might expect. The prose is quite matter-of-fact, and the conversations are so overblown and repetitive that one gets hardly anything from them. There are a great deal of clichés which have been used, too; for instance, when things change in their lives, and the supposedly incredibly naïve girls are ‘too merry and giddy to notice’. Hourican also uses some strange descriptors; I, for one, have never considered an eyepatch ‘dashing’…

The Glorious Guinness Girls is not a book which necessarily would appeal to me if I spotted it in a bookshop, but I visited the Guinness Factory in Dublin with my boyfriend a couple of years ago, and have always meant to find out more about the illustrious family. I was a little disappointed, therefore, to find that the Guinness girls actually make up a relatively small part of the plot. Given that the author writes in her notes, which follow the novel, that she has been fascinated by the family for years, and has been researching them for different publications for a decade, I am surprised that they are not focused upon more. I feel as though I learnt relatively little about them, and not once did they feel like fully fleshed out beings. Hourican notes that she was inspired by the ‘stories told about them, [and] the historical background to their lives’, but this element feels somewhat lost.

The author does go on to comment that the characters here are purely fictional; their traits and personalities were invented almost entirely by the author. She writes of her ‘versions of these people… [as] characters based on what I know of them, fleshed out with things I have invented.’ The Glorious Guinness Girls is, Hourican stresses, ‘a kind of join-the-dots, with fiction weaving in and out of fixed historical points.’ This element of fiction, though, is dry, and bogs the entirety down. I cannot help but feel that this would have been a far more successful book had it been a straight biography of Aileen, Maureen, and Oonagh.

Fictional characters should not have had to be invented to bring these young women to life, and I feel as though the way Hourican has gone about writing this novel detracts from their own story. It is near impossible to know the elements which are based on fact, and those which have been fabricated by the author; given that Fliss is fictional, and the whole plot of the novel revolves around her, every conversation involving the sisters is surely therefore entirely made up. There is also a real lack of emotional depth here.

Whilst it is clear from her notes that Hourican did a lot of research before embarking on this book, the historical details are not always enough, and the sisters often feel too underdeveloped. The invention of Fliss as a plot devide to move the story along did not work at all, in my opinion, and I feel as though the novel would have been far more readable had a third person perspective been used throughout. Using the Guinness sisters as the focal point of this novel had a lot of potential, but for me, much about it fell flat. The Glorious Guinness Girls feels like a mistitled novel, and a missed opportunity.

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‘Call of the Curlew’ by Elizabeth Brooks ****

Elizabeth Brooks’ novel, Call of the Curlew (also published as The Orphan of Salt Winds), caught my eye whilst browsing in the library. I don’t think I had heard of it before, but after reading the blurb and the various reviews dotted over its cover – Eowyn Ivey calling it ‘bewitching’ was enough for me – I was suitably intrigued, and took it home with me.

On New Year’s Eve in 1939, Virginia is ten years old. She is an orphan, whose parents passed away when she was just an infant. At this point in time, she is being taken to the ‘mysterious’ grand house, Salt Winds, to begin a new life with her adoptive parents, Clem and Lorna Wrathmell. The house borders a salt flat named Tollbury Marsh in the East of England, a ‘beautiful but dangerous place’.

At first, the Second World War, which has just begun, feels far away from the Wrathmells’ secluded home. However, whispers in the nearby town regarding the local knife grinder, a Jewish German man, begin to spread, and something sinister simmers below the idyllic surroundings. The German plane crashing into the marsh is a real turning point for Virginia; her adoptive father goes to rescue the pilot and does not return. As she first waits hopefully for his return, and then begins to grieve Clem, she realises that she is as embroiled in war as anyone else.

When the plane comes down, Brooks writes, rather beautifully: ‘It was the grace of the thing that astonished her in retrospect. You’d expect a burning fighter plane to make a great hullabaloo: howling engines, roaring flames, a great boom as it hit the ground, nose first. But if this one made any noise at all, Virginia didn’t notice. All she recalled, later on, was the slow arc it traced through the sky on its way down, like a spark floating from a bonfire. Even the explosion was gentle from their vantage point: a little orange flower that budded, bloomed and withered, all in a moment, far away on the edge of the marsh.’

I found the narrative within Call of the Curlew wonderfully beguiling. The opening paragraph, which is set at the end of 2015, really sets the scene: ‘Virginia Wrathmell knows she will walk on to the marsh one New Year’s Eve, and meet her end there. She’s known it for years. Through adolescence and adulthood she’s spent the last days of December on edge, waiting for a sign. So when one finally arrives, in her eighty-sixth year, there’s no good reason to feel dismayed.’ This sign turns out to be the skull of a curlew, which she finds on her doorstep. ‘All these years,’ Brooks writes, ‘she’s been wondering what the sign will turn out to be, and she’s come up with the strangest ideas. Words forming on a misted window. An anonymous note. A ghost. She’s never imagined anything as perfect as a curlew’s skull.’

Despite the air of mystery about it, there is a really comforting warmth to be found within Brooks’ prose. The descriptions, of which there are many, are wonderfully vivid: ‘Virginia glanced at the flatness to her left, where the silence lay. It was too dark to see the silhouette-bird now. The deep, arctic blue of the sky was reflected, here and there, in streaks of water, and there was a single star in the sky, but everything was black.’

Brooks has such control when she shifts Virginia’s story from the present day to the past, and then back again. Given this structure, we learn a lot about the two Virginias rather quickly; the sometimes crotchety, headstrong old lady, and the curious young girl. Although Virginia is the author’s focus, other characters become clear too, as do their relationships with one another. It is obvious from the outset, for instance, that Clem and Lorna’s marriage contains a great deal of upset, and is fraught with issues.

I found Call of the Curlew wholly absorbing; it is the best kind of historical novel, in that you sink into it. Its landscape is so clear, and its characters hold a great deal of interest. I enjoyed the omniscient perspective, which allowed Brooks to shift from one individual to another, whilst never losing sight of Virginia and her thoughts and feelings. I loved the air of mystery, and the many things left unspoken until far later in the novel. I was caught up in Virginia’s story from the outset. The threads of story which weave throughout have been beautifully layered, and it put me in mind of other authors which I have always enjoyed, namely Kate Morton and Helen Humphreys. I would highly recommend Call of the Curlew to anyone looking for a historical fiction fix.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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