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‘These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards’ by Jean Sprackland ****

I love walking through graveyards, and have been lucky enough to do so all over the world.  Although creepy to some, for me, it is a very peaceful environment.  Whilst living in central Glasgow, I would regularly walk up to the Necropolis, where enormous and grand mausoleums wound their way up the hill, and more modern graves filled the slopes.  In fact, Akylina and I took a lovely long walk there when she visited the city for a conference.

Graveyards all over the United Kingdom are the focus of poet and non-fiction author Jean Sprackland’s These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards.  Her memoir of sorts has been split into eight different sections; these include loose musings on topics like ‘The Graveyard in Spring’, ‘The Graveyard at Dawn’, and ‘The Drowned Graveyard’. 49569565._sy475_-1

In her prologue, Sprackland comments: ‘I can remember my life by the graveyards I have known…  Wherever I have lived, I have found them – some like cities, others like gardens, or forests of stone – and they have become the counterparts of those lived places: the otherworlds which have helped make sense of this world.’  She goes on to write about her decision to ‘revisit all my old hometowns, to make a journey into the physical fabric of my own past.’

In beautiful prose, Sprackland takes us around the country.  The first stop on each trip is the graveyard, the place where she believes ‘the stories are kept’.  Her descriptions are gorgeously poetic; of a grave in Stoke Newington, for instance, she writes: ‘A breeze ripples the roof of the tomb with shadow.  The lower branches of a holly tree languish exhaustedly over its surface, like the thin arms of a girl over her books.’

For Sprackland, too, graveyards are a place filled with peace: ‘Sorrow is present, but age and weather have tempered it.’  She writes at length about her infatuations with individuals buried in the various graveyards which she visits – Elizabeth Pickett, for instance, who died in 1781 ‘in consequence of her Cloaths taking Fire the preceding Evening’, and a smuggler and ‘sometime leader of a notorious gang’ in Devon, quite wonderfully named Hanibal Richards.  Alongside these individual stories, she seamlessly integrates a wider sense of place, and discusses the avoidance of, and discomfort felt toward, the notion of death in many modern day societies.  She also writes about the history of each graveyard which she visits.

Sprackland writes with such insight.  She informs her reader: ‘I am accustomed to thinking of the graveyard as a kind of archive, a source of information which is not available elsewhere.’  She is also honest about the little she knows regarding her own family: ‘What does it mean, anyway, to belong somewhere?…  No place owns me, and I like staying free, staying lost.  But I don’t know where the bones of my ancestors lie, and I have never seen a monument bearing my family name.’

These Silent Mansions is both absorbing and moving, and infused with such beauty.  Sprackland’s journey, around both her past and the pasts of so many who lie beneath the ground, is a quiet and absorbing one.  The author writes so tenderly about the natural decay of both gravestones, and the bodies which lie beneath them: ‘Words blur and lose their definition, or the stone recedes and the leading stands proud on its pegs like long teeth before loosening and falling out.’  These Silent Mansions is utterly transporting, and so thoughtful.

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Five Great Memoirs

I have always delighted in learning about the lives of others, and have tried to incorporate as many memoirs into my reading as is possible.  I enjoy reading about individuals, particularly women, whose lives are very different to my own, and always find this a highly enriching experience.  With this in mind, I have gathered together five wonderful memoirs of women which I have read of late, and which I would highly recommend.  There are illness narratives, translated books, works set during wartime, and quiet meditations in the list, and I dearly hope that you find something new to pick up.

34104392._sy475_1. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs *****
An exquisite memoir about how to live–and love–every day with “death in the room,” from poet Nina Riggs, mother of two young sons and the direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the tradition of When Breath Becomes Air.  Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, the mother of two sons, ages seven and nine, and married sixteen years to her best friend, received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal.  How does one live each day, “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty?  Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, even as she wrestles with the legacy of her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs’s breathtaking memoir continues the urgent conversation that Paul Kalanithi began in his gorgeous When Breath Becomes Air. She asks, what makes a meaningful life when one has limited time?  Brilliantly written, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving, The Bright Hour is about how to love all the days, even the bad ones, and it’s about the way literature, especially Emerson, and Nina’s other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer. It’s a book about looking death squarely in the face and saying “this is what will be.”  Especially poignant in these uncertain times, The Bright Hour urges us to live well and not lose sight of what makes us human: love, art, music, words.

2. When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew by Hendrika de Vries 45480725._sy475_****
Born in the Netherlands at a time when girls are to be housewives and mothers and nothing else, Hendrika de Vries is a “daddy’s girl” until her father is deported from Nazi-occupied Amsterdam to a POW camp in Germany and her mother joins the Resistance. In the aftermath of her father’s departure, Hendrika watches as freedoms formerly taken for granted are eroded with escalating brutality by men with swastika armbands who aim to exterminate those they deem “inferior” and those who do not obey.  As time goes on, Hendrika absorbs her mother’s strength and faith, and learns about moral choice and forced silence. She sees her hidden Jewish “stepsister” betrayed, and her mother interrogated at gunpoint. She and her mother suffer near starvation, and they narrowly escape death on the day of liberation. But they survive it all—and through these harrowing experiences, Hendrika discovers the woman she wants to become.

50403465._sy475_3. The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War by Delphine Minoui ****
Award-winning journalist Delphine Minoui recounts the true story of a band of young rebels in a besieged Syrian town, who find hope and connection making an underground library from the rubble of war.  Day in, day out, bombs fall on Daraya, a town outside Damascus, the very spot where the Syrian Civil War began. In the midst of chaos and bloodshed, a group searching for survivors stumbles on a cache of books. They collect the books, then look for more. In a week they have six thousand volumes. In a month, fifteen thousand. A sanctuary is born: a library where the people of Daraya can explore beyond the blockade.  Long a site of peaceful resistance to the Assad regimes, Daraya was under siege for four years. No one entered or left, and international aid was blocked.  In 2015, French-Iranian journalist Delphine Minoui saw a post on Facebook about this secret library and tracked down one of its founders, twenty-three-year-old Ahmad, an aspiring photojournalist himself. Over WhatsApp and Facebook, Minoui learned about the young men who gathered in the library, exchanged ideas, learned English, and imagined how to shape the future, even as bombs fell above. They devoured a marvelous range of books–from American self-help like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to international bestsellers like The Alchemist, from Arabic poetry by Mahmoud Darwish to Shakespearean plays to stories of war in other times and places, such as the siege of Sarajevo. They also shared photos and stories of their lives before and during the war, planned how to build a democracy, and began to sustain a community in shell-shocked soil.  As these everyday heroes struggle to hold their ground, they become as much an inspiration as the books they read. And in the course of telling their stories, Delphine Minoui makes this far-off, complicated war immediate. In the vein of classic tales of the triumph of the human spirit–like All the Beautiful Forevers, A Long Way Gone, and Reading Lolita in TehranThe Book Collectors will inspire readers and encourage them to imagine the wider world.

4. These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards by Jean Sprackland **** 49569565._sy475_
Graveyards are oases: places of escape, of peace and reflection. Each is a garden or nature reserve, but also a site of commemoration, where the past is close enough to touch: a liminal place, at the border of the living world.  Jean Sprackland’s prize-winning book, Strands, brought to life the histories of objects found on a beach. These Silent Mansions is also an uncovering of individual stories: vivid, touching and intimately told. Sprackland travels back through her own life, revisiting graveyards in the ordinary towns and cities she has called home, seeking out others who lived, died and are remembered or forgotten there. With her poet’s eye, she makes chance discoveries among the stones and inscriptions: a notorious smuggler tucked up in a sleepy churchyard; ancient coins unearthed on a secret burial ground; a slow-worm basking in the sun.  These Silent Mansions is an elegant, exhilarating meditation on the relationship between the living and the dead, the nature of time and loss, and how – in this restless, accelerated world – we can connect the here with the elsewhere, the present with the past.

49114654._sx318_5. Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul by Taran N. Khan ****
For most Indians, Kabul is a city that is near, yet far-familiar, yet unknown. When Taran N. Khan arrived in Kabul in the spring of 2006, five years after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, she was earnestly cautioned never to walk. Her instincts compelled her to do the opposite: to take that precarious first step and enter the life of the city with the unique, tactile intimacy that comes from being a walker. She didn’t stop until 2013, when she returned to India.  In Shadow City, Taran N. Khan paints a lyrical, personal, and meditative portrait of a city we know primarily in terms of conflict and peace. As a Muslim woman raised in a small town in India, Taran discovered that she had access to parts of Kabul uncharted by travellers before her. The result reads like an elegiac prose map of the city, rich with surprises-from the glitter of wedding halls that shine like a bizarre version of Las Vegas; to the mental health hospital where women are abandoned and isolated but exist in a rare space of freedom and solitude; to the bookseller behind The Bookseller of Kabul, who sued Åsne Seierstad for her portrayal of him and then published the rebuttal which he displays proudly in his shop window.

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Eight Author Discoveries of 2020

Throughout this strange year, I have tried, on and off, to read books by authors I hadn’t picked up before.  Sometimes these authors were on my radar but I had been unable to find their books through my usual channels; at other times, I chose to pick up one of their books on a whim, whilst browsing in the library or on Netgalley.  I have undoubtedly read work by more than eight new-to-me authors throughout this year, but this post is comprised of those who have really stood out to me for one reason or another.

 

1. Elly Griffiths 2541526
I had seen quite a few people reading Griffiths’ books on Netgalley, but I tend to be put off by enormous series, which stretch to over ten or so books.  I have started different series in the past, but have rarely continued to the end; normally I lose patience with the characters, become disinterested in their stories, or just notice how many similarities there are from one book to another.  Of course, this is almost inevitable in a character-based series, and with a couple of notable exceptions – Miss Marple and Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series – I tend to stop reading series after the first two or three books.

I have got through three of Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels to date, all of which I listened to on audio through my library’s app.  I was initially drawn to the premise – that of a Norfolk-based forensic archaeologist aiding the police whenever they discover a new body – and found the first two books rather engaging.  However, I made a mistake by listening to the third book directly after the second.  I would ordinarily have left myself a few weeks between books, but my library reserve came in, and I only had a limited amount of time to finish it.  Whilst the Ruth Galloway series may not be one which I finish – there are a lot of similarities between the second and third books, and the characters do not become any better developed, I felt – I really do enjoy Griffiths’ writing.  I am going to be hunting out her standalone novels next.

 

elizabeth_berridge_1547558f2. Elizabeth Berridge
I could hardly create such a list without including Elizabeth Berridge.  She has been on my radar for a number of years now, but I have never been able to find copies of her books when I have searched for them.  Thankfully, a couple of publishers are beginning to reprint her work, and I was able to find three further copies of her novels on the wonderful AbeBooks after reading, and loving, Across the Common, which I received for my birthday.

Berridge has been a wonderful discovery this year, and I am pleased to see that she is gaining a lot of recognition on other blogs too.  She writes wonderfully, and has such an understanding of her protagonists, many of whom are women verging on middle age, who have something to overcome before they can move forward.  Her books are always a treat, and I am going to try my best to pick up the rest of her oeuvre next year if I can manage it.

 

3. Jean Sprackland sprackland
Sprackland is a non-fiction author and poet, whose topics of choice really interest me.  I have only read These Silent Mansions to date, a musing on the English graveyards which have, in a way, shaped Sprackland’s life.  I will have a review of this up next year.  Her other non-fiction book, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach is high on my wishlist, obsessed as I am with the seaside.

I am also really interested in trying Sprackland’s poetry books in the near future.  Her prose in These Silent Mansions is gorgeous, and you can tell from the outset that she takes such care about her vocabulary, and the imagery which it shapes.

 

77793744. Robbie Arnott
Australian author Robbie Arnott is a real gem.  I had wanted to read his work for a year or so before I found a gorgeous hardback copy of Flames in my local library; it was every bit as wonderful as I imagined.  He uses magical realism to great effect, and his writing and characters feel so original.  I am so looking forward to picking up more of Arnott’s work in the near future, and hope that his other novel – The Rain Heron – and his short story collection will be published in the UK very soon.

 

5. Shirley Barrett 1024
Barrett is another Australian author, whose work I found out about on Savidge Reads’ YouTube channel.  Her work is strange and fantastical, but I was hooked throughout both The Bus on Thursday and Rush-Oh!, which I reviewed back in October.  The novels could not be more different on the face of it – the former is a contemporary novel which charts the journey of a schoolteacher to a remote part of Australia, and the latter is historical fiction which focuses on whale hunting – but both are so exciting.  I could not put either novel down, and can only hope that more of her work will be made easily available to me soon.

 

duncan20barrett20author20photo6. Duncan Barrett
Barrett is a non-fiction author, whose book, When the Germans Came, I found masterful.  I have always been so interested in the German Occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War, and this is by far the best book which I have ever read on the topic.  Barrett follows many different residents of the island throughout, revealing their hopes and dreams and, quite often, their bravery.  His prose is engaging, and never does the book feel too crowded with different people; rather, it is accessible, and really does the subject justice.

Thankfully, Barrett is rather a prolific author.  Whilst I probably won’t be picking up his ‘GI Brides’ series of novels any time soon (or ever…), he has written a few more non-fiction books which look fascinating, ranging from the post office workers throughout the Second World War, to true stories of the women who really made a difference during this period.

 

7. Jo Baker 3796
Baker is a writer of historical fiction and, being one of my favourite genres, I have always meant to pick up her books.  I requested her newest book, The Body Lies, from Netgalley, and settled down to read it in January.  Whilst it does not fit the genre of historical fiction, and is more of a contemporary literary thriller, I was invested in the main character from beginning to end.

Baker writes beautifully, particularly with regard to the landscape and physical settings, and she handled every element of the story in The Body Lies with grace and deftness.  I have my eye on her historical fiction next; of particular interest to me are A Country Road, A Tree which is set during the Second World War, and family saga The Undertow.

 

pamela_hansford_johnson_as_a_young_woman8. Pamela Hansford Johnson
Last but not least, Hansford Johnson has been a wonderful discovery this year.  I have settled down with a couple of her novels – An Impossible Marriage (1954) and The Holiday Friend (1972) – and posted full reviews for them both.  Hansford Johnson wrote wonderful literary thrillers, which are enthralling from beginning to end.  She has such insight, and her characters feel so realistic.  Both of these novels could be termed domestic noir, and I cannot wait to dive into the remainder of her oeuvre, which is thankfully quite extensive.

 

Which are your favourite new author discoveries of 2020?