I chose Rose Tremain’s The Colour for the penultimate stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. Set in New Zealand, The Colour is the first of Tremain’s novels which I have read; before this, I had only encountered one of her short story collections. The Daily Telegraph calls her ‘one of the finest writers in English’, and this sentiment seems to be echoed by many reviewers.
The central characters in The Colour are married couple Joseph and Harriet Blackstone. They choose to migrate from Norfolk to New Zealand in 1864, along with Joseph’s mother, Lilian, ‘in search of new beginnings and prosperity’. Soon after they construct their house, Joseph finds small pieces of gold in the local creek, and is ‘seized by a rapturous obsession with the voluptuous riches awaiting him deep in the earth’. He then sets off alone, with the destination of New Zealand’s Southern Alps on his mind; there are a series of newly-discovered goldfields there, and he joins an enormous migration of men in order to try and make his fortune. The blurb declares the novel ‘by turns both moving and terrifying’, and describes it as being ‘about a quest for the impossible, an attempt to mine the complexities of love and explore the sacrifices to be made in the pursuit of happiness.’
Tremain gives a marked consideration to colour in her novel from its very beginning. She writes: ‘It was their first winter. The earth under their boots was grey. The yellow tussock-grass was salty with hail. In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding-sheet of snow.’ I was struck by Tremain’s writing immediately. She has such a gift for seamlessly blending her vivid descriptions with her characters, and the actions which they take. There is a timelessness to Tremain’s prose, despite the effective rooting of her novel in a very particular period and setting. She uses her chosen framework in order to explore many different themes relating to expatriation, nature, and human nature, particularly with regard to the ways in which changing conditions alter the relationships between husband and wife, and son and mother.
It feels as though the author is intimately acquainted with her characters, and their every wish and whim. When describing Joseph in the novel’s early stages, for instance, Tremain writes: ‘He turned away from his mother and looked admiringly at this new wife of his, kneeling by the reluctant fire. And he felt his heart suddenly fill to the very core with gratitude and affection… Joseph wanted to cross the room and put his arms around Harriet and gather her hair into a knot in his hand. He wanted to lay his head on her shoulder and tell her the one thing that he would never be able to admit to her – that she had saved his life.’ Harriet, too, feels fully formed, particularly given her slightly unusual and non-conformist character: ‘But she was a woman who longed for the unfamiliar and the strange… She wanted to see her own hand in everything. No matter if it took a long time. No matter if her skin was burned in the summer heat. No matter if she had to learn each new task like a child. She had been a governess for twelve years. Now, she had travelled an ocean and stood in a new place, but she wanted to go still further, into a wilderness.’
The Colour feels ultimately realistic from its beginning. It is filled with fraught discussions, and the darkness and loneliness which such a new life can bring with it. The cultural information is rich, and, particularly along with Tremain’s descriptions, paints a wonderful and tangible picture. I did find the ending slightly problematic, but it was still very enjoyable nevertheless, and I certainly struggled to put it down. Immersive and beautifully executed, The Colour is a believable and very human novel, which I highly recommend. I cannot wait to read more books by Tremain.
Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait was perhaps my most highly anticipated releases of 2022. O’Farrell is an author whose books I request from my local library, or purchase outright, before reading even a sentence of the blurb. The Marriage Portrait is another work of historical fiction, following Hamnet, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020.
The Marriage Portrait is set during the winter of 1561, when 16-year-old Lucrezia di Cosimo de Medici, the new Duchess of Ferrara, is ‘taken on an unexpected visit to a country villa by her husband, Alfonso.’ Lucrezia is the ‘troublesome’ fifth child and third daughter of Grand Duke Cosimo I, ruler of Tuscany; she is thrown into the limelight after her older sister passes away on the eve of her wedding to the ruler of Ferrara, Moderna, and Regio. Lucrezia is made to marry him herself. She realises that here, in secluded Fortezza, he intends to murder her. Up until this point, she has lived her life ‘locked away inside Florence’s grandest palazzo, guarded by her father’s soldiers and her mother’s ladies in waiting.’ At the countryside villa, however, there is nobody to protect her.
The Marriage Portrait, which is based on real historical events, has been described as a ‘vivid evocation of the beauty and brutality of Renaissance Italy, and of a young woman whose proximity to power places her in mortal danger.’ In the historical note which prefaces the novel, O’Farrell comments: ‘The official cause of her death was given as “putrid fever”, but it was rumoured that she had been murdered by her husband.’
In the opening paragraph, O’Farrell immediately caught my attention: ‘Her husband is sitting down, not in his customary place at the opposite end but next to her, close enough that she could rest her head on his shoulder, should she wish; he is unfolding his napkin and straightening a knife and moving the candle towards them both when it comes to her with a peculiar clarity, as if some coloured glass has been put in front of her eyes, or perhaps removed from them, that he intends to kill her.’ O’Farrell goes on: ‘The certainty that he means her to die is like a presence beside her, as if a dark-feathered bird of prey has alighted on the arm of her chair.’
O’Farrell then transports us back in time, to a chapter entitled ‘The unfortunate circumstance of Lucrezia’s conception’, in 1544. She captures, sweepingly, her father’s palazzo: ‘It occupied a corner of the largest piazza in Florence, its back to the river, sides soaring above the citizens like great cragged cliffs.’ We then meet the 7-year-old Lucrezia in a following chapter, and begin to get a real feel for her character and intelligence: ‘Words pressed themselves into her memory, like a shoe sole into soft mud, which would dry and solidify, the shoe print preserved for ever. Sometimes she felt filled up, overstuffed with words, faces, names, voices, dialogues, her head throbbing with pain, and she would be set off-balance by the weight of what she carried, stumbling into tables and walls.’
As anyone familiar with O’Farrell’s writing would expect, The Marriage Portrait is sensual, rich, and evocative. The marvellous detail which it is suffused with is an everpresent quality of the author’s work. I found The Marriage Portrait entirely absorbing, captivated from start to finish. I loved the approach which O’Farrell took, flitting back and forth in time, and capturing beautifully imagined scenes, and vivid scenery. The novel is rendered quite exquisitely, and demonstrates what a master O’Farrell is at her craft.
I picked up a lovely hardback edition of Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine in a charming little secondhand bookshop at the National Trust’s Cliveden Estate in Buckinghamshire. After reading Otsuka’s most recent novel, The Swimmers, I was keen to read the rest of her small oeuvre. I picked up this, her debut, with delight, and began it just days later.
First published in 2002, When the Emperor Was Divine begins in 1942 in Berkeley, California. At the outset of this slim novel, a Japanese-American woman learns from posters plastered all over the city that she and her family have been ‘reclassified, virtually overnight, as enemy aliens’, and face expulsion to the Utah desert. The novel opens: ‘The sign had appeared overnight. On billboards and trees and the backs of the bus-stop benches. It hung in the window of Woolworth’s. It hung by the entrance to the YMCA. It was stapled to the door of the municipal court and nailed, at eye level, to every telephone pole along University Avenue.’
Otsuka uses five different perspectives to tell her story, and has based the happenings on real events. All of these narrative voices are part of the same family, and include the daughter’s experience of the long train ride to the camp, to the family’s return to their Californian home. The first chapter follows the unnamed mother, as she spends all of her time packing up their lives: ‘Tomorrow she and the children would be leaving. She did not know where they were going or how long they would be gone or who would be living in their house while they were away. She knew only that tomorrow they had to go.’ At this point in time, Otsuka notes: ‘It was late April. It was the fourth week of the fifth month of the war and the women, who did not always follow the rules, followed the rules.’
Her husband has already been taken away, arrested some months previously, and taken to Texas: ‘Every few days he was allowed to write her a letter. Usually he told her about the weather.’ We learn a great deal about the father before he takes centre stage in the narrative: ‘He was extremely polite. Whenever he walked into a room he closed the door behind him softly. He was always on time. He wore beautiful suits and did not yell at waiters. He loved pistachio nuts. He believed that fruit juice was the ideal drink. He liked to doodle. He was especially fond of drawing a box and then making it into three dimensions.’ His presence loops in and out of the narrative, and is often the central thought of his son, particularly.
I have studied the Second World War extensively over the years, but my knowledge about the expulsion of Japanese-American citizens living in the USA is relatively poor. I went into When the Emperor Was Divine in the hope that it would both educate me, and immerse me within a compelling story. I can confirm that it absolutely did both of these things.
Otsuka’s writing is incredibly precise, and she captures so much in just one or two sentences. I really appreciated the amount of detail included, and the sharply observed scenes. Otsuka is highly skilled with regard to managing the time period, and assessing its impact on the central family: ‘Far away, on the other side of the ocean, there was fighting, and at night the boy lay awake on his straw mattress and listened to the bulletins on the radio. Sometimes, in the darkness, he heard noises drifting from other rooms. The heavy thud of footsteps. The shuffling of cards.’ Later, she writes: ‘Mostly, though, they waited. For the mail. For the news. For the bells. For breakfast and lunch and dinner. For one day to be over and the next day to begin.’
As displayed above, there is an incredible poignancy here. Another example is taken from the third chapter, which begins: ‘In the beginning the boy thought he saw his father everywhere. Underneath the showers. Leaning against barrack doorways. Playing go with the other men in their floppy straw hats on the narrow wooden benches after lunch. Above them blue skies. The hot midday sun. No trees. No shade. Birds.’
What made When the Emperor Was Divine even more compelling to me was a simple narrative device; all of the central characters remain unnamed throughout. As well as the story of just a few individuals, Otsuka encapsulates an experience which affected an entire community of people. There are moments of profound sadness scattered throughout this slim novel, and there is also exquisite beauty. When the Emperor Was Divine is an evocative blend of fiction and reality, well executed and skilfully written.
Jenni Fagan is an author whose work I have enjoyed so much up until now that I no longer read the blurbs of her novels; rather, I just sink into the unknown, feeling sure that I will like what I find. Of course, the title of her newest novella, Hex, does bring with it a lot of punchy imagery, and it is surely not difficult to guess some of the themes which might be found within its pages.
Hex is Fagan’s shortest book by far, coming in at just over one hundred pages. It was published as part of a Polygon series entitled ‘Darkland Tales’, which aims to bring together ‘dramatic retellings of stories’ from Scotland’s history. This is the second book in the series; the first and third have been written by Denise Mina and Alan Warner, respectively.
Set on the 4th of December 1591, Hex weaves together a present day protagonist with a woman accused of witchcraft in Edinburgh. Geillis Duncan, a teenager from Trenant, Scotland, has been locked into a prison cell far below the city’s High Street, and is facing the final night of her life. However, this is not just a work of historical fiction, or an imagined narrative of real historical events. Fagan introduces, in the form of the novella’s narrator, a modern-day character named Iris from the summer of 2021, who tells Geillis that she ‘comes from a future where women are still persecuted for who they are and what they believe.’ Conducting a conversation across the centuries is a clever tool. Fagan reveals that in the vast swath of time which separates Geillis and Iris, not much has fundamentally changed. Fagan offers a simple yet very effective way in which to explore how and why women are still discriminated against almost 450 years later. Numerous parallels are drawn between the characters.
Iris essentially takes on the role of Geillis’ familiar, and directs much of her narrative is toward Geillis. The second chapter begins: ‘Your cell is several floors below the city. It is, far below footfall, or taverns, or flats; below beds, or kitchens, or hugs, or hope, or church, or prayer, or freedom, or laughter, or air; below shuttered windows, or dogs asleep in front of fires. It is so far below the seasons they might as well not exist.’ She goes on to comment: ‘Travelled time all my life’, and then: ‘Five hundred years between us, Geillis Duncan – it’s such a little leap really.’ Iris continues: ‘A woman’s voice is a hex. She must learn to exalt men always. If she doesn’t do that, then she is a threat. A demon whore, a witch – so says everyone and the law.’
When she first meets Geillis, Iris observes: ‘Head turned away, eyes toward me – the outline of your nose and forehead and chin is marked in moonlight; you look like a silver face on a ten-pence coin.’ Such sensual descriptions make Geillis almost tangible to the reader. Iris, otherworldly as she is, then begins to magick things up to help her new companion: a blanket, a meal.
We then transition from Iris’ perspective to Geillis’. As the time approaches dawn, Geillis tells Iris about how she came to be imprisoned, and offers a ‘visceral description of what happens when a society is consumed by fear and superstition.’ When she is tortured in her own home, before being thrown into her dingy prison cell, Geillis describes the following: ‘They turned me over, Iris… everything inside my body felt like it was burning, like I was on fire, like I was already in hell and they were the demons surrounding me, and it is for their crimes I will die!’ When asked why she was persecuted, Geillis responds: ‘I helped women birth… I knew how to pick the right herbs to cure a headache, and I had a terrible want in me to go out at night and see the stars.’
I found Hex to be entirely absorbing. Fagan manages to pack such a lot in, from death and murder, to race and expectations. There is a real brutality to this story, as one might surely expect. I liked the juxtaposition of both narrators, with Geillis’ sometimes old-fashioned turns of phrase, and the very current events given to authenticate Iris’ point of view: ‘If only she didn’t wear stilettos. If only she didn’t walk through a park. If only she didn’t go out at night. If only those smart, brilliant sisters had realised police officers would later take selfies by their dead bodies.’
Something which I admire about Fagan is the way in which her stories are not straightforward. Even in a work as short as this one, she is such a creative author, managing to insert quite original elements, and making for a very memorable reading experience. Another, quite moving, touch is that Fagan chose to dedicate Hex to the real Geillis Duncan.
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.
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?
… 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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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 Fishesby 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.’