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‘Eden’s Garden’ by Juliet Greenwood ****

I adored the first novel of Juliet Greenwood’s which I read a few months ago, We That Were Left, and was most keen to read the rest of her oeuvre.  I ordered a copy of her debut novel, Eden’s Garden, because I am so drawn to books which contain two distinct stories within them, and which overlap towards the end.  The stories here are set in 2011 and 1898.

9781906784355In the contemporary story, we follow a protagonist named Carys, whose ‘dreams for the future are falling apart as she returns to the Snowdonia village where she was born, to look after her mother.’  Greenwood describes the way in which ‘Carys’ past was here, amongst the mountains rising up behind the shabby little seaside town.  And in the smaller – and even shabbier – time-passed-by village in the hills, where every road and path led towards the rambling grounds of Plas Eden.’

Whilst in Wales once more, Carys is drawn back to this ‘ramshackle country house’, where she bade her childhood sweetheart farewell.  This episode is related in the prologue, which is set in 1996, and which marks the tone and sumptuous descriptions of the story that follows.  In the prologue, Greenwood writes: ‘It was strange, seeing the house from this unfamiliar angle.  Close to, Plas Eden was slightly shabby, in a homely, comforting sort of way.  Between the ivy, white paint peeled away from the masonry.  Moss collected where slates had slipped or broken, and the skinny beginnings of a tree sprouted from a broken edge of guttering on one side.’

The late Victorian story in Eden’s Garden intrigued me most: ‘The last time Ann was in London she was a spoilt, aristocratic bride.  Now she stands destitute on London Bridge, with the Meredith Charity Hospital her only lifeline.  But who can she trust, and will she ever escape her past?’  Both Ann and Carys ‘struggle with love, family duty, long-buried secrets and their own creative ambitions’, and are mysteriously connected to one another.

I was more interested in the Victorian story at first, but became far more drawn into the contemporary part of the novel once the mystery element was introduced.  The female characters almost sprang to life upon the page, but I found the males more problematic; some of them felt as though they had not quite been drawn realistically enough.  Regardless, the novel is still a highly atmospheric one, which takes place in both the Welsh and Cornish countryside, and is all the richer for having more than one setting.  The layering effect of story upon story here works wonderfully too.

Eden’s Garden is a wholly transporting novel, which I found immediately absorbing.  It is, like We That Were Left, a novel which entirely sweeps one away.  For a debut, this novel is highly polished, and its mystery carefully and cleverly pieced together.  I did find a couple of elements which Greenwood had dreamed up a little unbelievable, and others rather twee, but I thoroughly enjoyed the novel overall.  Greenwood is an author who certainly deserves to be read more widely; I would recommend her work for fans of the likes of Kate Morton.

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Books I Wish More People Would Read

I have just come across a Goodreads list entitled ‘Books I Wish More People Would Read’, and have stolen its title for my own purposes here at The Literary Sisters.  A lot of the books which I read seem to slip under the radar, and there are several which I have adored, or very much admired, of late, which I rarely see others reviewing, or even reading.  I thought that I would therefore make a list of six books that I would happily thrust into the hands of every reader whom I meet.  (Please note, it is entirely a coincidence that all of these books were written by women!)

 

185908911. Don’t Go To Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories by Celia Fremlin
Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark (1972) was the first gathering of Celia Fremlin’s short fiction, a form in which she had published prolifically – for the likes of She, Playmen, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine – while building her reputation as a novelist of psychological suspense.  Female characters predominate in these tales, as does the doom-filled atmosphere that was Fremlin’s metier. She explores her familiar theme of strained mother-child relations, but she also delves into the supernatural realm as well as the psychological. As ever, her capacities for making the everyday unnerving and keeping the reader guessing are richly in evidence.

 

2. May We Shed These Human Bodies by Amber Sparks (review here) 15701573
May We Shed These Human Bodies peers through vast spaces and skies with the world’s most powerful telescope to find humanity: wild and bright and hard as diamonds.

 

321449223. A House on the Rhine by Frances Faviell
Having made her publishing debut with The Dancing Bear, a superb memoir of life in Berlin immediately after World War II, Frances Faviell applied first-hand knowledge to fiction, telling the riveting, harrowing tale of one large, troubled family in Germany nearly a decade after the war’s end.  In a town near Cologne, rebuilding is proceeding at a frantic pace, factory work is plentiful and well-paid, and the dark days of near-starvation have ended. But Joseph, a former Allied prisoner of war, and his enormous brood–his wife having received a medal under the Nazis for bearing more than 10 children–face new problems ranging from the mother’s infidelity, the oldest child’s involvement with a brutal youth gang leader, and a beloved adopted daughter’s plans to marry an American soldier.  Vividly portraying the love and conflict of a large family and the dramatic, sometimes tragic social change of Germany’s postwar recovery, A House on the Rhine is a powerful, heartbreaking tale from the author of the London Blitz memoir A Chelsea Concerto.’

 

4. We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood 18760917
A privileged young wife on a large Cornwall estate gains responsibility and confidence when her husband leaves to fight overseas. This English home front saga then becomes something more when she leaves for France herself to rescue a friend from danger.

 

9773745. Daughters of the House by Michele Roberts
Booker Prize Finalist, Daughters of the House is Michèle Roberts’ acclaimed novel of secrets and lies revealed in the aftermath of World War II. Thérèse and Leonie, French and English cousins of the same age, grow up together in Normandy. Intrigued by parents’ and servants’ guilty silences and the broken shrine they find in the woods, the girls weave their own elaborate fantasies, unwittingly revealing the village secret and a deep shame that will haunt them in their adult lives.

 

6. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna 17237713
Aminatta Forna has established herself as one of our most perceptive and uncompromising chroniclers of war and the way it reverberates, sometimes imperceptibly, in the daily lives of those touched by it. With The Hired Man, she has delivered a tale of a Croatian village after the War of Independence, and a family of newcomers who expose its secrets.  Duro is off on a morning’s hunt when he sees something one rarely does in Gost: a strange car. Later that day, he overhears its occupants, a British woman, Laura, and her two children, who have taken up residence in a house Duro knows well. He offers his assistance getting their water working again, and soon he is at the house every day, helping get it ready as their summer cottage, and serving as Laura’s trusted confidant.  But the other residents of Gost are not as pleased to have the interlopers, and as Duro and Laura’s daughter Grace uncover and begin to restore a mosaic in the front that has been plastered over, Duro must be increasingly creative to shield the family from the town’s hostility, and his own past with the house’s former occupants. As the inhabitants of Gost go about their days, working, striving to better themselves and their town, and arguing, the town’s volatile truths whisper ever louder.

 

 

Have I convinced you to pick up any of these unfairly neglected novels?

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The Book Trail: The Historical Edition

I begin this edition of The Book Trail with a novel set during the First World War that I read recently and absolutely loved; my review of it went up yesterday, if you wish to read my thoughts.  I have, as usual, used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature to come up with this list.

1. We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood 9781906784997
‘Elin lives a comfortable but lonely life at Hiram Hall. Hugo loves his young wife but is damaged by his experiences in the Boer War. August 1914 sees Hugo off to the front. Elin must support Hiram and its people, drawing on all her determination to do the right thing. Alongside her cousin Alice and friend Mouse, Elin learns to manage the estate in Cornwall, growing much needed food, sharing her mother’s recipes and making new friends and enemies. But Mouse cannot resist the lure of danger and it isn’t long before Elin herself is drawn into the horrors in France. Not everyone escapes unharmed – and when the Great War finally ends, Elin faces an even more difficult battle at home…’

 

2. The Summer of the Barshinskeys by Diane Pearson
Although the story of the Barshinskeys, which became our story, too, stretched over many summers and winters, that golden time of 1902 was when our strange, involved relationship began, when our youthful longing for the exotic, for the fulfillment of dreams not even dreamed, took a solid and restless hold upon us.” So recounts Sophie Wolloughby as she remembers that magical English summer afternoon in the season of King Edward VII’s coronation and at the end of the Boer War; that dreamlike lull in time when the hedgerows were smothered in elderflowers and the meadow air was sweet with haymaking. With her brother, Edwin, her sister, Lillian, Sophie listened to the seductive strains of the wild Russian violin tune Mr. Barshinskey played and watched spellbound as the ragtag Barshinskey family-Ivan, sullen and dirty; Mrs. Barshinskey, pale and withdrawn; and Galina, sensual, wanton, beautiful-made their way across Tyler’s meadow and into the Willoughby’s world. The delighted Willoughby children could not know that this day and the Barshinskeys’ arrival would change their lives forever-much as a breathless Europe could not anticipate that in a few short years, winds of revolution and war would whip across continents, sweeping away the old familiar way of life. It is at this enchanted moment that The Summer of the Barshinskeys begins. A beautifully told, compelling story that moves from the small village of Kent to teeming London, from war-torn and revolution rocked Moscow to St. Petersburg, this is the unforgettable saga of two families whose destinies are fated to entwine in endless combinations.

 

178503953. Daffodils by Alex Martin
Daffodils follows the varying fortunes of three people through the turbulent time of the First World War, as Edwardian England’s rigid class structures crumble under its weight. Katy is frustrated as a domestic servant and longs to escape. Jem loves Katy but cannot have her. Lionel, fresh from working in India, is ambitious, arrogant and full of radical ideas. War affects them all in very different ways and each pays a high price for the changes they are forced to make.

 

4. Pattern of Shadows by Judith Barrow
Mary is a nursing sister at a Lancashire prison camp for the housing and treatment of German POWs. Life at work is difficult but fulfilling; life at home a constant round of arguments—often prompted by her fly-by-night sister, Ellen, the apple of her short-tempered father’s eye. Then Frank turns up at the house one night—a guard at the camp, he’s been watching Mary for weeks—and won’t leave until she agrees to walk out with him. Frank Shuttleworth is a difficult man to love and it’s not long before Mary gives him his marching orders. But Shuttleworth won’t take no for an answer and the gossips are eager for their next victim, and for the slightest hint of fraternization with the enemy. Suddently, not only Mary’s happiness but her very life is threatened by the most dangerous of wartime secrets.

 

5. The Summer House by Mary Nichols 6934159
England 1918. Lady Helen believes her parents when they say she will never find a better husband than Richard, but when he returns to the Front, she begins to wonder just who it is she has married. His letters home are cold and distant and Helen realizes that she has made a terrible mistake. Then Oliver Donovan enters her life and they begin an affair that leaves Helen pregnant and alone she is forced to surrender her precious baby. Over twenty years pass and a second war is ravaging Europe, but that is not the only echo of the past to haunt the present. Laura Drummond is caught in a tragic love affair of her own and when she is forced to leave London during the Blitz, she turns to the mother she never knew.

 

6. Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front by Joyce Dennys
Spirited Henrietta wishes she was the kind of doctor’s wife who knew exactly how to deal with the daily upheavals of war. But then, everyone in her close-knit Devonshire village seems to find different ways to cope: there’s the indomitable Lady B, who writes to Hitler every night to tell him precisely what she thinks of him; the terrifyingly efficient Mrs Savernack, who relishes the opportunity to sit on umpteen committees and boss everyone around; flighty, flirtatious Faith who is utterly preoccupied with the latest hats and flashing her shapely legs; and then there’s Charles, Henrietta’s hard-working husband who manages to sleep through a bomb landing in their neighbour’s garden.
With life turned upside down under the shadow of war, Henrietta chronicles the dramas, squabbles and loyal friendships that unfold in her affectionate letters to her ‘dear childhood friend’ Robert. Warm, witty and perfectly observed, “Henrietta’s War” brings to life a sparkling community of determined troupers who pull together to fight the good fight with patriotic fervour and good humour.’

 

2715227. We Were at War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times by Simon Garfield
Of all the accounts written about the Second World War, none are more compelling than the personal diaries of those who lived through it. We Are At War is the story of five everyday folk, who, living on the brink of chaos, recorded privately on paper their most intimate hopes and fears.  Pam Ashford, a woman who keeps her head when all around are losing theirs, writes with comic genius about life in her Glasgow shipping office. Christopher Tomlin, a writing-paper salesman for whom business is booming, longs to be called up like his brother. Eileen Potter organises evacuations for flea-ridden children, while mother-of-three Tilly Rice is frustrated to be sent to Cornwall. And Maggie Joy Blunt tries day-by-day to keep a semblance of her ordinary life.  Entering their world as they lived it, each diary entry is poignantly engrossing. Amid the tumultuous start to the war, these ordinary British people are by turns apprehensive and despairing, spirited and cheerful – and always fascinatingly, vividly real.

 

8. How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton
Mention Girl Guides to any woman and the reaction will be strong. They are all too often regarded merely in terms of biscuit sales and sing-songs, hardly anybody is aware of the massive impact that they had on gender equality and the outcome of World War II. This book explores how the Guides’ work was crucial to Britain’s victory.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have you added to your TBR list?

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‘We That Are Left’ by Juliet Greenwood *****

One of my favourite things about reading historical fiction is that feeling of immersion; that I am right there with the characters in any given and realistically evoked time period.  We That Are Left is one of the most immersive reading experiences which I feel I have had in a long while; I could barely tear myself away from Juliet Greenwood’s beautiful and harrowing story which unfolds at the outbreak of World War One.9781906784997

Greenwood’s novel centres around protagonist Elin Helstone, a young, married woman who lives in her childhood home in Cornwall with her husband, Hugo.  They are relatively well off, and live a comfortable life, but this offers no escape from Hugo’s experiences in the Boer War, which continue to haunt him.  When the outbreak of the First World War is announced, and he has to travel to the Front, Elin learns to cope with running the Hiram estate on her own.  Her cousin Alice and incredibly rich friend Lady Margaret, known as Mouse, also make their own choices, and end up feeling great pride with regard to the sacrifices they consequently make for others.

The realistically constructed women who people We That Are Left demonstrate the unfairness of their position throughout, even before war is announced.  Each is forward thinking, and make tiny rebellions when they are able to.  They realise that there will be a dearth of men during the war, and they need to make an effort on a personal level to keep things ticking over at home; they know that the barriers, for a little while at least, will be torn down, and they can go out to work without being scorned.  Alice, for instance, when reminded that as a woman, she should want little more than marriage and motherhood, measuredly replies: ‘Why should everyone be the same?  Why should every woman who ever lived wish to be a mother?  Especially when the experience is quite likely to kill her…  I have so many things I wish to do with my life.  So many places I want to see.  Oh, I love children and enjoy their company.  But that does not necessarily mean I have a burning desire to have my own.  Not when it would cost me so much.  I would far rather have my independence.’

I will happily read any novel set during the First World War or thereabouts, as I have studied the period in detail over the years, and find it absolutely fascinating.  Throughout her novel, Greenwood highlights the great change which has already come to England and Wales, but focuses upon the world as it was for women; wearing trousers instead of a skirt was frowned upon, even for those doing manual work, and women were prohibited from taking University examinations purely on account of their sex.  Greenwood’s characters make things of themselves during the war; Alice almost immediately goes to work in a nearby hospital with the war wounded, and Mouse decides to go off to France to help the soldiers there.  Greenwood’s characters are brave, and feel realistic both as individuals and as an entire cast.

We That Are Left is incredibly well informed with regard to both the social situation and the war.  Greenwood has such an understanding of the complexities and shifts of feelings and emotions.  The descriptions, particularly those of the natural world, are breathtakingly beautiful.  Entirely captivating and so well written, We That Are Left swept me away, and I cannot wait to read more of Greenwood’s work in future.

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