2

‘The Great Lover’ by Jill Dawson ***

The Great Lover is the first of Jill Dawson’s novels which I have read.  All of her stories interest me, but I plumped for The Great Lover is a starting point for two reasons; it is set close to where I grew up, and features poet Rupert Brooke, whose writing I admire, as a character.  It also takes place in a time period which I love to read about.

The Great Lover begins in the summer of 1909 in Grantchester, Cambridgeshire, a place much famed as a hangout spot for a lot of famous Cambridge-educated writers and artists.  Seventeen-year-old Nell Golightly, a fictional creation of Dawson’s, has just been employed to waitress at the Orchard Tea Gardens.  Soon after she begins her new job, Rupert Brooke arrives as a lodger, hoping that being away from his University halls at King’s College will enable him to complete a lot of projects without distractions. 9780340935668

Brooke is something of a talking point immediately.  He is ‘famed for his good looks and flouting of convention’, and ‘captures the hearts of men and women alike, yet his own seems to stay intact.’  Despite her ‘good sense’, Nell too begins to fall for Brooke, and he for her.  Told from two perspectives, the novel ‘gives voice to Rupert Brooke himself in a tale of mutual fascination and inner turmoil, set at a time of great social unrest.’  Dawson weaves together extracts from Brooke’s own letters with the imagined voice which she has created for him; she builds her narrative around his own.  The other voice we hear within the novel is Nell’s.

One gets a feel for Nell immediately.  She has been recently orphaned, losing her mother in girlhood, and her father quite recently.  She takes the job away from her Fenland home in order to support her younger siblings.  She describes herself as a ‘good, sensible girl’, with ‘many faults: I am feverishly curious, some would say nosy; I have no compunction about reading other people’s letters; I’m proud and full of vanity; I’ve a quick tempter although I forgive just as easily; I am not fond of horses and I am wont to be impatient with bees; and, worse of all, I am a girl who is incapable of being romanced because I don’t have a sentimental bone in my body.  Moons and Junes mean nothing to be, unless it is to signify good conditions for bees.’

When Nell first meets Brooke, ‘he appears at the door, tall and sunny, loose-limbed and lanky, with his high forehead and mane of hair…  he grins a glorious grin at me and the sun blazes through the floor, warming my face to scarlet.  He wears grey flannels and a soft collar with no tie, and his face is rather innocent and babyish and, at the same time, inspired with a fierce life.’  The narrative using Brooke’s voice, which uses flowery, poetic prose, provides much of the humour in the novel.  In the first of his entries, when he has moved into the Orchard Tea Rooms, he writes: ‘My bedroom looks as though it hasn’t been cleaned since Thomas Hardy was first weaned and the beam above my head sheds little flakes of rotting wood like a shower of chocolate on the sheets in the morning.’

A high level of description, and the engaging, rich prose in which it is written, threads through the entire novel, and helps to create a vivid sense of place.  The Great Lover has clearly been so well researched, and the atmosphere of the time really comes alive.  The social and cultural climate of the time is always there; socialism, suffragism, and the like beat on in the background, sometimes being discussed by the protagonists too.  Added to this is the way in which Dawson has introduced real-life figures, who interact mainly with Rupert.  We meet, amongst others, Bohemians like Augustus John and ‘peacock’-like Ottoline Morrell, and Virginia Woolf even makes a cameo.

In her acknowledgements-cum-afterword, Dawson notes: ‘Of course I made Rupert [as well as Nell] up… and he is ‘my’ Rupert Brooke, a figure from my imagination, fused from his poetry, his letters, his travel writing and essays, photographs, guesswork, the things I know about his life blended with my own dreams of him, and impressions.’  Brooke’s character adds a tongue in cheek, playful element to the novel.  I must say, however, that his voice did not always feel authentic to me, and I largely preferred Nell’s section of the narrative.

The element of Brooke’s inner turmoil has not been explored in as much detail here as I was expecting.  His nervous breakdown, which offered so much room for investigation, has been almost glossed over.  Whilst many of the reviews point to the depth which Dawson has given her characters in The Great Lover, I do not feel as though Brooke has quite been developed as well as he could have been.  The narrative voices, which switch between one another throughout, are not always as distinctive as they could have been; on a couple of occasions, it did feel a little confusing to differentiate between the speakers.  I was expecting a heady, sensual novel, and do not quite feel as though this element was realised.  There are some very well executed parts to The Great Lover, but Brooke unfortunately felt little more than a caricature at times.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

The Book Trail: From ‘Oystercatchers’ to ‘Fred & Edie’

This Book Trail begins with Susan Fletcher’s fantastic Oystercatchers, and, as ever with this series, uses the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ feature on Goodreads to show seven other interesting books.

1. Oystercatchers by Susan Fletcher 1925785
This is the second novel from highly acclaimed young writer Susan Fletcher, author of the award-winning “Eve Green”. Amy lies in a coma. Her older sister, Moira, comes to her in the evenings, sits beside her in a green-walled hospital room. Here, Moira confesses. She admits to her childhood selfishness which deeply hurt her family and to the self-imposed exile from the dramatic Welsh coast that had dominated and captivated her childhood; to her savagery at boarding school; to the wild, bitter and destructive heart that she carried into her adult life. Moira knows this: that she’s been a poor daughter, and a deceptive wife. But it is as Amy lies half-dying that she sees the real truth: she’s been a cruel sister, and it is this cruelty that has led them both here, to this hospital bed. A novel about trust, loss and loneliness, “Oystercatchers” is a love story with a profound darkness at its core.

 

2. The Glass House by Sophie Cooke
Following her expulsion from a private boarding school Vanessa, the middle child in a family of three daughters, returns home to the Southern Highlands to attend the local comprehensive. With both of her sisters away at school and her father working abroad this should be the perfect opportunity to spend time with her glamorous, autocratic mother. But instead of the idyllic life Vanessa craves she is dragged into a nightmarish world of secrets and abuse, violence and betrayal, and watches in horror as her mother self destructs in front of her. Only Alan, a childhood friend, offers Vanessa an escape from her unhappy life but will Vanessa find the strength to confide the secrets she has buried deep within her?

 

7694463. Sick Notes by Gwendoline Riley
Returning to Manchester, her broken home, Esther moves back to the flat she used to share with her best friend Donna. Surrounded by empty gin bottles, with her past life safely taped up in stacked cardboard boxes, she proceeds to turn her back on a ‘real world’ that seems meaningless and absurd. Instead she lives in her own head. Then she meets Newton, a care-worn American wanderer with a drinker’s face and an angel’s smile. Newton changes everything. But for how long?

 

4. All the Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell
When Lara was twelve, and her younger brother Alfie eight, their father died in a helicopter crash. A prominent plastic surgeon, and Irishman, he had honed his skills on the bomb victims of the Troubles. But the family grew up used to him being absent: he only came to London for two weekends a month to work at the Harley Street clinic, where he had met their mother years before, and they only once went on a family holiday together, to Spain, where their mother cried and their father lost his temper and left early.  Because home, for their father, wasn’t Earls Court: it was Belfast, where he led his other life …  Narrated by Lara, nearing forty and nursing her dying mother, All the Beggars Riding is the heartbreaking portrait of a woman confronting her past just as she realises that the time to get any sort of answers is running out.

 

5. The China Factory by Mary Costello 13636433
An elderly schoolteacher recalls the single act of youthful passion that changed her life forever; a young gardener has an unsettling encounter with a suburban housewife; a wife who miscalculated the guarantees of marriage embarks upon an online affair. And in the title story a teenage girl strikes up an unlikely friendship with a lonely bachelor.  Love, loss, betrayal. Grief, guilt, longing. The act of grace or forgiveness that can suddenly transform and redeem lives. In these twelve haunting stories Mary Costello carefully examines the passions and perils of everyday life and relationships and, with startling insight, casts a light on the darkest corners of the human heart.  What emerges is a compassionate exploration of how ordinary men and women endure the trials and complexities of marriage, memory, adultery, death, and the ripples of disquiet that lie just beneath the surface. With a calm intensity and an undertow of sadness, she reveals the secret fears and yearnings of her characters, and those isolated moments when a few words or a small deed can change everything, with stark and sometimes brutal consequences.

 

6. One by One in the Darkness by Deirdre Madden
A story about three Northern Irish sisters. It has a double narrative, part of which describes their childhood and shows the impact of the political changes and the violence of the late-1960s upon the people of Ulster, as the wholeness and coherence of early childhood gradually break down.

 

16225427. The White Family by Maggie Gee
When Alfred White, patriarch of the White family, collapses at work, his wife, May, and their three disparate children find themselves confronting issues they would rather ignore. Maggie Gee skillfully weaves a narrative that reminds us that racism not only devastates the lives of its victims, but also those of its perpetrators.

 

8. Fred & Edie by Jill Dawson
In the winter of 1922 Edith Thompson and her younger lover, Freddy Bywaters, were found guilty of murdering Percy Thompson, Edith’s boorish husband. The two lovers were executed in a whirl of publicity in 1923. The case caused a sensation, a crime of passion that gripped the nation’s imagination and became the raw material for Jill Dawson’s sensual and captivating novel Fred and Edie, a fictional account of the lovers’ romance and their subsequent trial, predominantly told through Edie’s imaginary letters addressed to her lover, “Darlint Freddie”. This is a remarkable novel, that brilliantly evokes the suburban world of 1920s London (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, published the same year as the trial, runs like a leitmotif throughout the novel). Edie, viewed from the public gallery as “silly, vain” is a superb literary creation–sensual, intelligent, articulate and liberated, bitterly denouncing in her letters to Freddy a world that denies “that our love might be a real love, on a par with other great loves. That just because you are from Norwood and work as a ship’s laundry man and I grew up in Stamford Hill and read a certain kind of novel, we are not capable of true emotions, of having feelings and experiences that matter“.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?