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‘The House Without Windows’ by Barbara Newhall Follett ***

I read about Barbara Newhall Follett’s The House Without Windows in a Waterstones newsletter, and thought it sounded intriguing.  I did a little more research, and discovered that the book was written when the author was just nine years old, and published when she was twelve, in 1927.  The twenty five-year-old Newhall Follett later disappeared in 1939, quite mysteriously, and it is not known what happened to her.  I was fascinated by her story, and decided to purchase a copy of The House Without Windows – my first book purchase of 2020, in the month of May.

44084057._sy475_The House Without Windows follows a young and ‘rather lonely’ female protagonist, who goes by the odd but sweet name of Eepersip Eigleen.  She has spent years creating the perfect garden with the help of her parents, but soon tires of it; she is, comments Newhall Follett, ‘not a child who could be contented easily’.  Eepersip decides that she has had enough of her family life, and that she is old enough to run away.  She plans to live outside, in the company of various creatures, for the rest of her life.  In Jackie Morris’ preface, Eepersip is described as a ‘heroine, a runaway seeker’.

As soon as Eepersip steals away from home in the early morning and begins to walk, her mood changes: ‘The farther she went the more her heart began to loop within her for joy of the life she was finding for herself.  Her loneliness decreased, and she was as free and happy as the birds or butterflies.’  Everything which she comes across on her subsequent walk feels quite idyllic, down to her feeding a doe a sugarcube, which she just happens to have lying in the wicker basket which she has brought along with her.

As one might expect with such a young author, there is little realism here.  On the second day, Eepersip – ‘determined to get her feet toughened so as to go barefoot all the time’ – decides to discard her shoes and socks.  She wears none for the duration of her time outside, not even in the snow, and faces no medical problems as a result.  She also eats a great deal of roots and berries, all of which are, of course, delicious morsels, and not filled to the brim with poison.

Eepersip’s parents only begin to worry about her after three days have passed, and then randomly decide to give up their house to another couple who are not much liked by others in their village.  They then go to hunt for Eepersip; they hatch a plan to hide behind some trees in the forest, and plan to ‘”catch her when she goes past.”‘  What ensues is a cat and mouse-esque game, where Eepersip continually outwits the adults: ‘For hours every day she practiced running, leaping, dancing, and prowling, until she was as fleet as a deer and as soft on her feet as a lynx.’  She can also, apparently, vault a large male deer…

Newhall Follett’s descriptions are both perceptive and beautiful, and it is sometimes difficult to believe that they were written by someone so young.  A corner of Eepersip’s garden, for instance, is ‘carpeted with tender anemones, all snow-white’, and ‘the paths through the garden had gracefully bending ferns on each side.’   Eepersip’s asides are quite lovely, too: ‘”Dawn comes to earth sometimes,” she thought, “bringing her flower-clouds and clasping them with pearl seeds.”‘  The prose is often filled with whimsy in this way.

The New York Times comments that the novel is ‘a mirror on the child mind’, and I have to agree.  It is fanciful and filled with imagination, and runs along at pace.  I found it quite lovely that the edition which I read is presented exactly as it was written by the ‘American child prodigy novelist’.  The novel is entirely absorbing, and whilst the modern reader will surely be surprised by some of the events which occur, it is quite a delightful read.  Newhall Follett’s prose is old-fashioned, and quite charming, and she demonstrates well how glorious the outside world is.  She has a lot of insight, too, about the way in which many people take nature for granted.

The House Without Windows is highly fanciful, and I have not read anything quite like it before.  Eepersip proves herself to be a resourceful child, with a wonderful imagination: ‘She could imagine miniature cities in the air, and saw little butterflies and birds constantly going and coming from them.  There were cities on the ground, too, where orchestras of grasshoppers and crickets played in the grass.’   Whilst the prose and descriptions here are elevated far above what I would expect a nine-year-old’s writing to be, the plot is fantastical and quite unrealistic throughout; this, I admit, I was expecting.  Time passes so quickly in The House Without Windows, and we barrel from one season to the next in a single sentence.  In some ways, it must be said that this book is quite remarkable, and it is certainly a worthwhile piece of juvenilia to pick up.

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‘The Early Stories of Truman Capote’ ****

I spotted a gorgeous US edition of The Early Stories of Truman Capote in Fopp, and could not resist picking it up.  As one of my favourite authors, I have been wanting this collection since I first learnt of its publication, which followed the rediscovery of a lot of Capote’s juvenilia in the New York Public Library’s archives.  It collects together ‘the early fiction of one of the nation’s most celebrated writers… as he takes his first bold steps into the canon of American literature.’  They ‘provide an unparalleled look at Truman Capote writing in his teens and early twenties’.  Many of the stories were published for the first time between 1940 and 1941.

718oijyWWSLThe edition which I read featured a foreword by Hilton Als, a writer at the New Yorker magazine.  He begins by focusing upon a moment in 1963, in which Truman Capote was in Kansas, conducting his research for In Cold Blood.  Als writes: ‘He’s almost forty and he’s been a writer for nearly as long as he’s been alive.  Words, stories, tales – he’s been at it since he was a child, growing up in Louisiana and rural Alabama and then Connecticut and New York – a citizen formed by a divided world and opposing cultures: in his native South there was segregation, and, up north, at least talk of assimilation.  In both places there was his intractable queerness.  And the queerness of being a writer.’  He goes on to note that ‘Capote’s cinematic eye – the movies influenced him as much as books and conversation did – was sharpened as he produced these apprentice works.’  Als also remarks upon Capote’s fascination with outsiders, believing himself to be one too.

The collection is short, spanning less than 170 pages, but over a dozen relatively brief pieces have been included.  Throughout, Capote is more focused on people than plot, but things do happen in each of the stories.  Indeed, the blurb writes that in his early work, it is evident that ‘Capote’s powers of empathy [are] developing as he depicts his characters struggling at the margins of their known worlds.’    For the most part, his early efforts have a tremendously effective pace to them.

The stories here take into account many different themes: ‘crime and violence; of racism and injustice; of poverty and despair.  And there are tales of generosity and tenderness; compassion and connection; wit and wonder.’  There are moments of comedy in some of these stories, and shades of tragedy in others.  Whilst there was less about race in the book than I was expecting, it is possible to identify Capote’s later influences and interests in this collection.

The stories here are not overly simplistic, but they perhaps err a little, on the whole, on the matter-of-fact, and are less descriptive than his later work tends to be.  As in the books of Capote’s written when he was more mature, however, I found that he has an uncanny ability to evoke both place and character by mentioning just a few details.  In ‘Parting of the Way’, for instance, he describe his protagonist like so: ‘Jake’s flaming red hair framed his head, his eyebrows looked like hors, his muscles bulged and were threatening; his overalls were faded and ragged, and his toes stuck out through pieces of shoes.’  Of Jake’s companion Tim, very much the antithesis, Capote writes: ‘His thin shoulders drooped from the strain, and his gaunt features stood out with protruding bones.  His eyes were weak but sympathetic; his rose-bud mouth puckered slightly as he went about his labor.’ Although many of the stories did not mention the specific geographic location in which they were set, each holds certain allusions to Capote’s Deep South.

In his tales, Capote’s characters have a lot of variance to them, hailing as they do from different walks of life – from the aforementioned downtrodden Tim in ‘Parting of the Ways’, to the privileged protagonist of ‘Hilda’, who is troubled in an entirely different way.  He is adept throughout at setting scenes, particularly when they involve impoverishment. As in his later work, Capote has a real knack here for capturing his characters.  In ‘This is for Jamie’, Capote describes the typical Sunday morning for his young protagonist: ‘Teddy ran along the paved paths of the park with a wild exuberance.  He was an Indian, a detective, a robber-baron, a fairy-tale Prince, he was an angel, he was going to escape from the thieves through the bush – and most of ask he was happy and he had two whole hours to himself.’

The authorial voice here is recognisably Capote’s, but I did find it possible to identify echoes of other works and influences as I was reading.  The opening of ‘Miss Belle Rankin’ reminded me somewhat of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, beginning as it does: ‘I was eight the first time I saw Miss Belle Rankin.  It was a hot August day.  The sun was waning in the scarlet-streaked day, and the heat was rising dry and vibrant from the earth.’  I did find it atmospheric at times, particularly within this story.  Capote writes: ‘The room was cold when she awoke and long tears of ice hung on the eaves of the roof.  She shuddered a little as she looked about at the drabness.  With an effort she slipped from beneath the gay colored scrap quilt.’  Later in the story, Capote’s descriptions become darker and more tense: ‘It was quite dark when Miss Belle started climbing up the hill towards home.  Dark came quickly on these winter days.  It came so suddenly today that it frightened her at first.  There was no glaring sunset, only the pearl grayness of the sky deepening into rich black.’  There are other beautiful, evocative touches to be found within The Early Stories of Truman Capote.  In ‘If I Forget You’, for example, he writes: ‘She wanted to stay out here in the night where she could breathe and smell and touch it.  It seemed so palpable to her that she could feel its texture like fine blue satin.’

I found it fascinating, having read all of Capote’s other fiction, and a large chunk of his non-fiction, to see his growth as an author from these earliest efforts.  Some of the stories in this collection perhaps end a little abruptly, but actually, I did not mind this.  I found that the majority of the tales tended to finish at just the right time, leaving a sense of intrigue in their wake.  The Early Stories of Truman Capote is rather a quick read, but it offers much to mull over.  For juvenilia, some of it certainly feels quite accomplished.  There perhaps is not the polish to the majority of the pieces here, but they are certainly interesting precursors.  Regardless, Capote manages to capture a great deal in this collection, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys his later work.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Flash Reviews (8th November 2013)

Selected Stories by Alice Munro ****
I adore Munro’s writing, as most of you probably know by now.  She has recently – and most deservedly – won the Nobel literature prize, though is sadly too ill to collect her award in person from the ceremony in Sweden.  I have read several of her collections to date, and when I saw a lovely American edition of her Selected Stories languishing on a shelf in Black Gull Books in Camden, I just had to have it.

The volume is made up of stories which Munro has selected herself, and all are presented in a roughly chronological order.  I had read several of them before in other collections, but it was lovely to reacquaint myself with them.  Munro has made a very good selection, and each story leads into the next to form a cohesive whole, despite the disparities between protagonists and their situations.  The majority of her writing here is filled with darkness, and the notion of loneliness and how it is able to affect one is woven through from the outset.  Her writing is beautiful, but this, for me, goes without saying.  Whilst I adore her titled collections, this is a great way to receive a thorough overview of Munro’s stories.  It is better to dip in and out of than to read in one go, as I did.  I very much enjoyed reading Selected Stories in this manner, but as the settings were all similar, some of the stories did run together a little, which was a shame.  Regardless, it comes with this Literary Sister’s seal of approval.

Juvenilia by Jane Austen **
I felt that, being a fan of Austen’s novels, reading her Juvenilia was a must for me.  Unfortunately, I seem to have been mistaken.  All of the stories collected here felt rushed, and the lack of editing in the volume very much annoyed me.  Yes, fair enough, Austen wasn’t the best at spelling, but there was no need, in my eyes, to keep in so many of her original mistakes.  Most of the pieces in Juvenilia are unfinished fragments, all of which share the same themes (yes, you guessed it – love and marriage, or the lack thereof).  The majority are written in the same stolid, plodding, matter-of-fact, rather bumbling way.  In comparison to the Bronte sisters’ juvenilia which I am working my way through, Austen’s early work is decidely poor.

The Secret Passage by Nina Bawden ****
The more work of Bawden’s which I read, the more I am beginning to favour her children’s stories over her adult offerings.  The last couple of the latter which I have read have been thoroughly disappointing.  I was a little apprehensive when I began The Secret Passage, but I very much enjoyed it.  The story is relatively short (only 155 pages in the lovely old Puffin edition I have), but it is so well written.  The relatively simple story – three children living in Africa suddenly have to move to England to live with her aunt after their mother passes away and their father is taken ill – has somehow been rendered unpredictable in terms of what one might expect will happen.  It reminded me a little of Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Secret Garden and Enid Blyton’s mystery stories.  A lovely, lovely book which brought a smile to my face, and which is sure to delight even the fussiest young reader.