1

‘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.

2

‘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.

2

‘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.

4

Escapist Reading: Recommendations

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

0

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

4

‘The Lark’ by E. Nesbit ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2

‘Clara’ by Janice Galloway ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6

Historical Fiction: France

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

0

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

Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist caught my eye soon after its publication in 2016, but it has taken me quite a while to procure a copy of the novel.  Russia and its history absolutely fascinates me, and I was intrigued by the twist which Hobson has added to the turmoil of the 1918 Revolutions.  Anthony Beever calls this novel ‘breathtakingly original, luminously intelligent and impossible to put down’, and The Guardian describes it as ‘a rapturous, carnival-like ride into political disorder, heady romance and absurdity.’
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The Vanishing Futurist is set in Moscow in 1918 where, in the ‘heady post-revolutionary atmosphere, a young English governess, Gerty Freely, and her friends throw themselves into the task of living as genuine communists.’  A rather mysterious and revered inventor, Nikita Slavkin, runs their commune.  He is ‘determined to revolutionise daily life with his technological innovations’, one of which is thought to have caused his disappearance.  The novel opens with a report from the Soviet Press, which states that ‘the Socialisation Capsule, Slavkin’s latest invention, represented an extraordinary advance in human knowledge… [and] revolutionised our understanding of the universe.’  Slavkin is thus the ‘Vanishing Futurist’ of the novel’s title.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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