2

‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ by Sally Rooney **

There is hardly an author more hyped in modern British society than Sally Rooney, it seems. I very much enjoyed her first two novels, her debut Conversations with Friends, and 2018’s Normal People, which I thought pitch-perfect. I was quite looking forward, then, to picking up her newest effort, 2021’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, and joined my library’s reservation queue before it got too long.

I was not sure what to expect from Beautiful World, Where Are You, and feared that it would be a rehash of her first two books. Let’s face it, these novels are filled with similarities already, from their Irish setting, to the hapless individuals who don’t really know where they’re going in life. If I’m honest, the blurb of Beautiful World, Where Are You didn’t hold much appeal for me. Had this just been a random tome from an unknown author which I’d picked up in the library or a bookshop, I doubt I would have chosen to read it. This perhaps should have been an indicator for me of what was to come.

The novel deals with four people approaching the end of their twenties. Novelist Alice has just rented an enormous house somewhere on the coast of the Republic of Ireland, and meets warehouse worker Felix there on a Tinder date. This encounter is one of the most awkward and cringeworthy interactions which I have read in a novel for quite some time. Felix is incredibly shifty, and I still do not understand the motivations for Alice inviting him on a work trip to Rome, when she has only met him three times – on said awkward date, on an equally awkward encounter in a local shop, where he spends a lot of time hitting a ready meal against his leg (?), and a ‘party’ at his house, which she practically invites herself to anyway – and he really does not seem to like her. The odd relationship which then ensues between the pair is so convoluted as to be unbelievable.

Alice’s best friend from college, Eileen, at least has some real-world problems to deal with, on her very low salary, with prickly parents who seem to favour her older sister, and living with a married couple in a barely adequate flat in Dublin. Her relationship with the slightly older Simon, whom she was friends with as a child, is on-again, off-again, and becomes quite exhausting to follow. I did like Eileen on the whole, though; perhaps this is just because she appeared very favourable in comparison to the quite loathsome young author in this novel.

Beautiful World, Where Are You had so many five-star reviews on Goodreads far before it had been released; that’s the kind of author Rooney is. It feels a little odd to add my meagre two-stars to the list, but I pride myself on being honest in my reviews, and I cannot rate it any more highly. I read most of the novel feeling bored at the lack of direction in the plot, and at the infuriating characters. Alice particularly – whom many have indicated is a version of Rooney herself – is not at all likeable.

I still can’t make up my mind as to whether I actually enjoy Rooney’s writing. In Conversations with Friends and Normal People, her style felt fresh, and exciting. Here, the author is clearly trying to come across as more mature and worldly-wise. The prose, in consequence, is both far too matter-of-fact and pretentious, in an imbalanced combination which soon feels rather jolting to read. I did not like this new departure much at all, and whilst there is a marked improvement in the last hundred pages or so, I felt like there was a lot of wading to do before I reached the more readable sections of the novel.

There is a vast detachment throughout from the characters, and some of them do not feel like realistic constructions at all. Even after finishing the novel, I do not really see what the point of Felix was; he was flat, rude, and came with a set of actions and speeches which made no sense in the context of the whole. There is also a real lack of emotion throughout, even through those parts of the narrative which should contain a lot more feeling – for instance, when Alice talks about her time in a psychiatric hospital.

Something which Rooney has been so strong at in her previous work is in writing about the relationships between people, particularly as they change over time, and shift with circumstance. Sadly, this strength seems to be very much lacking in Beautiful World, Where Are You. The relationships between the four – perhaps with the exception of Alice and Eileen toward the end of the novel – just do not feel feasible. The long, drawn-out, and repetitive emails, which Alice and Eileen write to one another throughout, I found ridiculous. These are filled with so much existential angst, and ramble on for pages and pages, constantly repeating their themes. If I received something similar from one of my friends, I think I’d be a bit worried about them.

For me, Beautiful World, Where Are You felt very lacklustre, even vapid. In some places, the novel has far too much to say, and in others its narrative feels rather lost. There are a lot of the same themes to be found here as in Rooney’s previous two novels, but I do not feel as if they are explored quite as well. The style of Rooney’s newest book was not as readable for me, and I found myself having to force my way through some of the chapters – particularly those with Alice and Felix at the fore. I’m honestly not sure that I’ll pick up any of Rooney’s other books in future, so underwhelming did I find this one. Of course, it is great that the author wants to grow, and to change her style to something more mature, but it just wasn’t something that I enjoyed.

4

‘In the Kitchen: Essays on Food and Life’

Any reader of my reviews will already know that I am consistently drawn to themed anthologies. I am also a huge fan of food, both of preparing and eating it. It was inevitable, then, that I would pick up In the Kitchen: Essays on Food and Life, which brings together original pieces by many different authors. The gorgeously designed book has been released by the publishing arm of Daunt Books, and it looks to be part of a small series of anthologies on specific themes. I have already read and loved At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond (review here), and hope to be able to pick up In the Garden very soon.

The book’s blurb declares that food ‘can embody our personal histories as well as wider cultural histories. But what are the stories we tell ourselves about the kitchen, and how do we first come to it?’ The collection aims to explore whether food, and the process of cooking, can be ‘a tool for connection’, both in the physical space of the kitchen, and in the wider world.

In the Kitchen features work from new-to-me authors, as well as those whom I have read and enjoyed before – Daisy Johnson, Ruby Tandoh, and Nina Mingya Powles, to name but three. There are thirteen essays in total, and each considers various aspects of cooking and eating, and ‘the possibilities and limitations the kitchen poses.’ Throughout, the authors discuss their experiences of cooking in a particular kitchen, or simply being present in one. Almost every essay is bound up with memories; they seem inextricable from the process of using the kitchen as an adult.

I love the way in which each of the included pieces are so very different. In ‘A Life in Cookers’, Rachel Roddy writes about the ovens which she has lived with, from ‘the heavyweight comforter’ of an Aga in her childhood home, to ‘a cream and green electric cooker with hot plates like liquorice whirls’ owned by her grandparents. On said cooker, her grandmother ‘boiled tongue for hours and made pan after pan of a minced beef and potato stew called tattie hash, the smell of which clung to the wallpaper like a pattern, along with worry and love.’ In Ella Risbridger’s essay, the author details the sensuality which often strike her when she is in the kitchen: ‘There is something about the kitchen that invites intimacy. I suppose kitchens are a space for intimacy because I will touch with my hands the things that will go in your mouth; I will taste what you taste; I will work for you, or you will work for me. I will make this for you because I love you, because you need it, because you want it.’

In ‘The New Thing’, Juliet Annan – who taught herself to cook using often vague Penguin paperbacks – details some of the questionable menus which she made for friends in the late 1970s: ‘… October 14 is Whiting and Fennel Soup, followed by Stuffed Cabbage, followed by Apple Steamed Pudding; very heavy. It makes me wonder about central heating – did we not have any? – but even on a summer’s day I see the menu was: Lettuce and Hazelnut Soup, Spiced Chicken with Tomato Salad and New Potatoes and then Baked Alaska and Fruit Salad.’ Annan goes on to remark: ‘… I was cooking dinners like this at least twice a week: the suet pudding years, and I was turning into one.’

Daisy Johnson writes about rituals surrounding food, such as her family’s tradition of making pizzas from scratch on Christmas Eve. She says that this tradition is ‘older than I am and has changed as my siblings and I have grown.’ Johnson goes on to comment that writing about food is ‘almost impossible’, and difficult to capture: ‘I would like to write about the ritual of food. I would like to write about how food rituals grow and about the ones that I have grown with my family and friends. I would like to write about how these rituals have come about seemingly without discussion and are now almost impossible to break.’

In ‘Steam’, Nina Mingya Powles talks about the foods bound up with her Asian heritage, and the almost endless variations of the same dish which can be found from one country to another. She tells us, in her rich and careful prose: ‘My most treasured childhood foods are steamed: dumplings, bao, parcels of sticky rice wrapped in leaves, silky cheung fun. Somehow, steaming feels more alchemical than other ways of cooking.’ As with Powles, for many of these authors, food is deeply connected to their treasured memories, and to fostering a sense of community at different points in their lives. Powles captures this beautifully when she writes: ‘In the kitchen, memories live in the body, just under the skin and under the tongue. Scents and residues from childhood rub off on our hands.’

Rebecca Liu takes a different tack, exploring the recent phenomenon of recipe boxes in her essay. Laura Freeman ponders over the diets of famous writers; for example, Iris Murdoch’s ‘surprise pudding’, which she served to her friends, and which turned out to be ‘a single Mr Kipling cake’. Ruby Tandoh writes of Doreen Fernandez, who ‘travelled widely across many of the 7,641 islands that comprise the Philippines, documenting the ways in which multiple cultures (and multiple colonisers) have… often synthesised to create the diverse and endlessly inventive foods of the country.’ The essayists draw their inspiration from a wealth of different sources – films, literature, love affairs, or the country of origin of a former partner, for example.

The separate essays have been arranged into three sections, entitled ‘Coming to the Kitchen’, ‘Reading and Writing the Kitchen’, and ‘Beyond the Kitchen’. So many of the authors have been wonderfully inventive and, as I have demonstrated above, have gone in very different directions in what they have explored here. A loose structure, such as the one which the separate sections gives, is effective.

I found In the Kitchen both immersive, and highly entertaining. I was awed by the variety which it contained, and took something particular from every single piece. Every essay made me contemplate something, and – as well as making me feel very hungry! – connected me with a lot of memories in the various kitchens which I have known during my lifetime. I can only hope that Daunt Books expand this as-yet small collection, and in the meantime, I look forward to reading much more of the publishing house’s back catalogue.

If you are a self-confessed foodie, like I am, In the Kitchen will be an incredibly valuable addition to your reading life. I relish books like this, which push me in the directions of different cuisines which I am not as familiar with as I would like to be, recipes which I have not yet tried, and techniques which I have not explored in my cooking. I very much look forward to implementing everything which I have learnt from this excellent collection in my own kitchen.

2

‘Sunset Song’ by Lewis Grassic Gibbon ***

I had meant to read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song whilst living in Glasgow. Published in 1932, the novel has been voted the best Scottish book of all time. However, after three years of life in the city, I never got around to it, for some reason I cannot quite pinpoint. Fast forward almost two years, and I managed to find a discounted copy of Sunset Song online. It perhaps did not give quite the same experience to read this during early spring in England, but I was keen enough to meet the heroine of the piece that I picked it up almost as soon as it arrived.

Sunset Song focuses on a young Scottish woman named Chris Guthrie, a bright student who has to put her ambition on hold when her family moves from Aberdeenshire to a rather remote farming community. She is fifteen when this occurs. Soon after they arrive, her family begins to disintegrate. The naive and rather innocent Chris can feel that things are going wrong, but cannot quite understand their gravity. She is at the mercy of the land, and also of the people around her. Soon after they move, the omniscient narrator of the piece observes: ‘Something was happening to mother, things were happening to all of them, nothing ever stayed the same except maybe this weather…’.

Her mother commits suicide, after poisoning Chris’ baby twin siblings, and soon afterwards, two of her brothers are adopted by a childless aunt and uncle. Her father is violent – ‘… it was coarse, coarse land, wet, raw, and red clay, father’s temper grew worse the more he saw of it’ – and her elder brother, Will, becomes the only point of constancy in her life. The advent of the First World War also causes change, with those around her joining up to fight.

Her mother’s death particularly alters things for Chris, including the way in which she views the landscape: ‘… the black damp went out of the sunshine and the world went on, the white faces and whispering ceased from the pit, you’d never be the same again, but the world went on and you went with it. It was not mother only that died with the twins, something died in your heart and went down to lie with her in Kinraddie kirkyard – the child in your heart died then, the bairn that believed the hills were made for its play… Thar died, and the Chris of the books and the dreams died with it, or you folded them up in their paper of tissue and laid them away by the dark, quiet corpse that was your childhood.’

The novel is split into three parts – ‘Prelude’, ‘The Song’, and ‘Epilude’. The Prelude opens with a sweeping and detailed history of the town of Kinraddie, which is written in a style reminiscent of a Medieval legend. Here, Gibbon sets up the geography of the local area, and introduces several characters. We then move onto the main section of narrative, which is set during the first period of drought for thirty years; the landscape is ‘fair blistering with heat’. We are pulled immediately into Chris’ world; we learn of what she sees, thinks, and feels.

Sunset Song is the first volume of the Scots Quair trilogy. As I thought I would enjoy this novel far more than I did, I have decided that continuing with the series isn’t the best idea. By the end of the novel, I sadly had no real interest in any of the characters, or where their lives would lead them. I found Gibbon rather a shrewd writer, very understanding of his young character, and her tumultuous thoughts and feelings. At times, he captures her spirit and unease well; after she is struck, for instance: ‘She’d thought, running, stumbling up through the moor, with that livid flush on her cheek, up through the green of the April day with the bushes misted with cobwebs, I’ll never go back, I’ll never go back, I’ll drown myself in the loch! Then she stopped, her heart it seemed near to bursting and terribly below it moved something, heavy and slow it had been when she ran out…’. However, something about Chris as she became older alienated me as a reader; she did not feel quite convincing.

Sunset Song is a bleak novel, a sad portrait of a life which is marred by tragedy. There is nothing gentle about this book, which is, in part, a moving portrait of a family beset by change and grief. The real strength here for me was the portrayal of Scotland, particularly when she is at the mercy of the weather, and the way in which Gibbon captured place and period. There is a real artistry which can be found in some of Gibbon’s descriptions, which really helped to set the scene. This is not a heavy-going book; the narrative is relatively straightforward, and although the many Scots words which pepper the text are easy enough to grasp, a glossary has been included. However, it did feel a little too bleak in places, and I longed for a lighter read or two to balance it out.

0

‘Love Lessons’ by Joan Wyndham ****

I had had my eye on Joan Wyndham’s Love Lessons: A Wartime Diary for quite some time, and borrowed a gloriously musty second edition copy from my local library. First published in 1985, at the urging of Wyndham’s daughter, these diaries, which span the first two years of the Second World War, begin in August 1939. At this point, she is a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in the capital, but it closes down just as war is declared. Along with its sequel, Love Is Blue, Love Lessons recounts Wyndham’s life during wartime.

At the outset of war, sixteen-year-old Wyndham lives with her mother and ‘her religious companion, the enigmatic Sid’. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and her father is a bristling, sometimes absent figure, in her life. Wyndham is described in the blurb as a ‘teenage Catholic virgin… [who] spent her days trying to remain pure and unsullied and her nights trying to stay alive.’ One critic rather memorably called its young author ‘a latterday Pepys in camiknickers’.

Wyndham is open in that she falls for people incredibly quickly. When she visits her local first-aid post for the war effort, she makes a friend, and comments on the 4th of September 1939: ‘At the moment, Laura and I are enjoying a gentle lesbianism of the mind, but I’m afraid it won’t last and soon I shall be in love with her properly.’ There are similar situations with various men, some of whom treat her very badly; many of them seem intent only upon taking her virginity.

Wyndham can be quite fickle, in the tradition of adolescents; she shifts admiration and adoration from one individual to another, and is often momentarily heartbroken between. She does impart wise comments upon her condition and position at times, though, and seems very aware of her own self. In April 1940, she writes: ‘What an extraordinary thing this love is that comes and goes, making a completely different person of you while it lasts… You have to be terribly careful when you are young.’

Nothing about this journal is typical, particularly given the time in which it was written, and I feel as though this account would probably shock a lot of her contemporaries in its frankness. From the very first, Love Lessons is wonderfully evocative, rather amusing, and quite risqué. In the first entry, for instance, Wyndham remarks: ‘Granny is a bit of a bore, always chasing me to wash my hands and wear a dress – but luckily she’s in bed a lot of the time, wearing a chin-strap and a little circle of tin pressed into the middle of her forehead to keep the wrinkles at bay – it’s hard work being an ageing beauty.’ She has a lot of affection for her Aunt Bunch, of whom she comments: ‘Mummy says she takes drugs and goes around with Negroes, but I don’t care.’

I found Wyndham’s entries immediately compelling, and her tone refreshing and quite modern. I was not expecting the explicit sexual content which crops up here from time to time, but it feels authentic to show just what a modern woman Wyndham was, and the shifting world in which she became an adult. She offers comments on everyone, and everything. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so frank from this period, and it certainly opened my eyes a little. As a teenager, she ‘strayed into London’s Bohemian set’, meeting rather eccentric characters at every turn. One of her friends from drama school has a ‘sugar daddy’, and becomes ‘the first of my friends to go over the edge’ by losing her virginity. Another friend, Prudey, ‘married a Greek don who seduced her in every field in Cambridge. He used to make noises like a wolf and got very enraged if she wouldn’t bleat. When she was unfaithful to him he was so amazed he had her put into a lunatic asylum, but she ran away to Greece and got herself three lovers.’

She and her friends discuss taboo subjects with regularity, and she seems to recount each of these episodes. In May 1940, she writes, for instance, of a married male acquaintance, Leonard: ‘I think he would have kissed me, but I gracefully freed myself and ran down the steps, because it’s rather embarrassing to kiss a man smaller than yourself standing up. I think I’m becoming the most awful bitch.’

Of the war, which is of course all around her, Wyndham writes of her confusion in May 1940: ‘I don’t seem to be able to react or to feel anything. I don’t know what’s real any more. I don’t think I’m real or that this life is real. Before this last winter everything seemed real, but since then I seem to have been dreaming.’ When the air raids in London become too much, her mother has her ‘evacuated’ to the Kent town of Tunbridge Wells, to stay with her aunt. Although Wyndham is only here for a couple of weeks in the end, when she is first sent away, she recounts her discontent: ‘This morning was zero hour – the place, the country, seemed unbearably remote, cut off from the warm stream of life.’

I had only read the first two weeks of entries in this book before requesting Love is Blue from the library. Throughout Love Lessons, Wyndham gives important commentary about being a young woman in the context of wartime London, whilst being really very funny about it. There are some serious moments here, of course, but her sense of humour really shines through. Wyndham is warm and witty, charming and candid, and readers are sure to have so much fun with her highly readable accounts of wartime life.

4

‘The Conscientious Objector’s Wife’, edited by Kate Macdonald ****

I came across The Conscientious Objector’s Wife: Letters Between Frank and Lucy Sunderland, 1916-1919 whilst browsing a list of Handheld Press’ publications. The book really caught my eye, and after a quick peruse of my local library’s catalogue, I had found and reserved a copy. The Conscientious Objector’s Wife is part of Handheld’s Research collection, and the letters within have been collated and edited by Kate Macdonald, a literary historian, and the company’s director.

Frank and Lucy Sunderland were English pacifists, vegetarians, and ‘fervent supporters of Labour politics and the New Town movement.’ They had moved from London to Letchworth, the first Garden City, to give their three children – Dora, Chrissie, and Morris – a healthier lifestyle. The pair were highly involved in local politics and schemes; in 1917, for instance, Lucy began to run the committee at the town’s Adult School.

In November 1916, the couple were separated for almost three years, when Frank, who refused to be conscripted into the British Army during the First World War, was sentenced to hard labour for being a conscientious objector. He was first incarcerated in Wandsworth Prison in London, before being moved to Bedford. Frank was finally released in April 1919, at which point the letters in this edition stop.

Letchworth, in Hertfordshire, was a town ‘designed for social and environmental harmony’; it was predominantly Quaker, and many were pacifists. Almost all of its inhabitants supported the family, in contrast to the attitudes of their families in London, who viewed Frank’s ‘stance as unpatriotic’. During Frank’s incarceration, Lucy had no option but to support her family financially. She took over Frank’s work in collecting insurance premiums, and also took in sewing, and the odd lodger.

As well as strong contemporary details about what it was like to live in Britain during the First World War, these letters demonstrate ‘how their shared ideology of a socialist pacifism upheld the couple in separation, planning for a better future in a more equal society for all.’ Perhaps one of the saddest parts is the outbreak of scarlet fever which occurred in 1917; although all of their children pulled through, they did have to be hospitalised, and took rather a long time to recuperate. Due to the strict rules regarding how many letters conscientious objectors could receive, Frank did not find out about their illness at the time.

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife includes an introduction written by Macdonald. Here, she sets out her aim to ‘reframe’ histories of the First World War, which so often exclude women. She writes about Frank’s belief ‘in a universal brotherhood of men and women, which gave him the strength of purpose to resist incorporation’ into the Army. Macdonald goes on to comment that the Sunderland family ‘lived very familiar lives, making this… a human story of value to us all.’

The letters themselves are heartfelt and, particularly given the circumstances, they tend to be quite moving. On the 9th of November 1916, when Frank has been held in a barracks awaiting trial, Lucy writes: ‘I feel your spirit always with me. It helps me throughout the loneliness of the night. I haven’t time to feel lonely during the day.’ When Frank is sentenced, she sends the following: ‘I really feel quite at peace because I am sure we are taking the right stand. If our thought is too advanced for the present state of civilization we cannot help that, but must be true to ourselves… but all new teaching must have pioneers and its martyrs although we little dreamt in talking about our future that you would be one.’

There is some joviality here, too; on the 11th of November 1916, Frank writes: ‘You might let me have the interpretation of Morris’s letter as I can’t make head nor tail out of it.’ Like Lucy, he can be incredibly tender too. In February 1917, when his initial sentence is increased by two years, Frank writes: ‘… I assure you of my true Love to you and I feel that though we are parted in the flesh, Love leaps all boundaries of flesh and we are still together. Be brave little woman and I’ll try also, and together we shall gather strength to walk through the maze of sorrow and tribulation. I have written just as I feel knowing that you will be able to read my heart.’

Frank and Lucy wrote freely to one another; some of the letters read almost as streams of consciousness. Each one, however brief, is engaging. The couple recorded what was going on around then, as well as their hopes and dreams for a better future, lived together. Lucy does not shy away from writing of the loneliness which she feels, and the money troubles which often plague her.

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife is an accessible collection, which is worthy of so much attention. I was rather saddened when I went to rate it on Goodreads, and saw that I was the only person who had read it. The letters really give one a feel for how fraught things were during this period. The strength of both Sunderlands, and the way in which they took every difficulty in their stride, is inspiring. I also admired the way in which Frank and Lucy’s letters were turned into a family project, with different generations typing and collating everything which they wrote to one another, and the intention to turn the letters into a published book when the opportunity arose.

I feel grateful that I have been able to read these sometimes very private letters between a loving husband and wife. They reveal much about a still relatively little known group of people, who stood up for their pacifist beliefs. The Conscientious Objector’s Wife provides a window onto an important piece of social history, and I can only hope that more readers pick it up in future.

4

‘Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead’ by Barbara Comyns *****

I was absolutely thrilled to get my hands on a brand new edition of Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, after having spent more than a decade trying to find an affordable secondhand copy. Thankfully, the wonderful Daunt Books have reissued the novel, and I am most grateful.

I so enjoy Barbara Comyns’ work; it is wonderfully strange, and sometimes a little horrifying, but it is always compelling, and surprising. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, which was first published in 1954, fits all of this criteria. The novel is set in a small Warwickshire village and, set over a short span of time, the story encompasses many strange things. After the river floods excessively in early summer, the villagers begin to change, exhibiting odd and frightening behaviours; these range from a ‘mad miller’ who drowns himself, to the village barber, who cuts his own throat in full view. These nasty and unforeseen ends are attributed to a peculiar illness, which spreads like wildfire through the village.

Overseeing this pandemic are Emma and Hattie Willoweed, part of a sprawling family living in the home of their formidable grandmother. The characters are curious, and unpredicable. The girls’ father, Ebin, veers between mild interest and indifference, and their younger brother, Dennis, provides some much-needed comedy. Once the flood occurs, Comyns describes the mild horror which comes when Ebin fixates on taking Hattie out after her lunch to find drowned bodies; he reasons that she is ‘always game for anything.’

I found the Willoweed children particularly endearing. When Hattie and Dennis are left to their own devices in their father’s room whilst he is supposed to be schooling them, for instance, they rip up a copy of Macaulay’s History of England, and proceed to turn its pages into many paper hats and boats. At the same time, eldest sister Emma has been tasked with mending a great deal of ripped sheets: ‘She had mended several with the aid of a small and ancient sewing machine; but to her horror, the patches were coming off already because the machine was only capable of a rather charming chain stitch and she had forgotten to secure the ends of the thread.’

Grandmother Willoweed is an enigma. She is starkly judgemental, particularly with regard to the staff she employs in her household; she is often found shouting ‘slut!’ after her maids, for no reason one can discern. The groundskeeper, Old Ives, has an unhealthy rivalry with her: ‘Ives was a year older than Grandmother Willoweed, but considered that he had the better chance of survival: he thought she would die from overeating.’ In response to the birthday gift of food which he proffers her, Grandmother aptly responds: ‘”Ah, Ives, I’m afraid, when it’s your birthday, I shall be bringing clovers for your grave.”‘

She is an extremely keen gossip, although Comyns explains that this comes with problems of her own making: ‘Her audience was rather limited because for many years she had not left her own house and garden. She had an objection to walking or passing over ground that did not belong to her…’ Grandmother also has a fearful reputation, which precedes her: ‘Most of the village children had never seen her and she had become a terrifying figure in their minds. They thought she could hear everything they said wit her ear trumpet, and that instead of a tongue she had two curling snakes in her ugly mouth. When the children grew up and some of them became maids in Willoweed House they were always disappointed to discover she wasn’t so strange as they expected…’.

From the outset, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead mesmerises. Comyns begins the novel: ‘The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in.’ In this manner, Comyns sets the scene of the flood quite wonderfully. She goes on: ‘Ebin Willoweed rowed his daughters round the submerged garden. He rowed with gentle ineffectual strokes because he was a slothful man, but a strong vein of inquisitiveness kept him from being entirely indolent. He rowed away under a blazing sun; the light was very bright and the water brilliant.’ Comyns is an excellent writer, and she creates some gorgeous, lingering imagery within the novel. She writes a scene, for instance, in which Emma and Norah, one of the family’s maids, ‘went down to the garden together to pick peas for supper, and to dream their dreams in the summer dusk.’

There is not a great deal of cheer to be found here, as I am sure one can discern from my review, but I expected as much from Comyns’ work. There is a real morbidity to be found within the novel, in fact, especially that displayed between Ebin and Grandmother; the pair are nothing short of bloodthirsty at times. When the miller drowns himself in the river, for example, Grandmother insists that she is taken to see his body ‘dragged out of the water’. When Ebin ‘heard what all the commotion was about, he was not at all averse to seeing the drowned miller himself, and offered to take his mother.’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is a deceptively easy read, which becomes more and more unsettling as it progresses. There is a palpable tension, and nothing is shied away from.

Whilst I must admit that it did feel strange to read a book about a pandemic whilst in the midst of one, I absolutely adored this odd and beguiling novel, and cannot recommend it highly enough. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is darkly amusing – deliciously so – and I was pulled in from the outset. This is a novel to really savour, from an author whose work I find so much to admire within. As with her other novels, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead feels at once highly modern and wonderfully old-fashioned. It held me in its grip from start to finish, and I am sure that the same effect will be felt by its every reader.

0

‘Small Bodies of Water’ by Nina Mingya Powles *****

Nina Mingya Powles is an author whose work I have been interested in since reading her excellent essay in At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond (review here). Her first full-length work of non-fiction, Small Bodies of Water, appealed to me on so many levels. Even had I not heard of Powles before, the quotes written by Robert Macfarlane, Amy Liptrot, and Jessica J. Lee on the book’s cover – all non-fiction authors whom I highly admire – would have drawn me to it. Small Bodies of Water won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize in 2019, and was published in full in August 2021.

Powles was born in New Zealand, partly grew up in China and the United States, and now lives in London. She has also spent an extensive time in Malaysia, where her grandparents live. As she so aptly writes, ‘Home is many people and places and languages, some separated by oceans.’

Small Bodies of Water is an exploratory memoir, about what home and family mean, and about belonging. The book presents a series of interlinked essays, woven together from ‘personal memories, dreams and nature writing’. The topics which she writes about are many and varied. Powles weaves in her own experiences of swimming around the world with myths and legends, earthquakes, food, wildlife, other literature which has struck her, notions of pain, waves and tidal movements, her difficulties in communicating with her grandparents, music, and Miyazaki movies, amongst many other things.

There are whole sections devoted to swimming, something which I personally love to read about. Focus is placed upon the ‘small bodies of water’ which ‘separate and connect us’ in which Powles has spent time. She learnt to swim close to her grandparents’ home in Borneo, where her mother was born, and where her grandfather studied the island’s freshwater fish for a living. Throughout her life, there have been many more bodies of water, from the ‘wild coastline of New Zealand’ to the Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath, northwest London.

Throughout, Powles’ descriptions are evocative and expansive. In the first essay, she recalls the act of swimming with her cousin in Malaysia: ‘I hover in a safe corner of the deep end, waiting to see how long I can hold my breath. Looking up through my goggles I see rainforest clouds, a watery rainbow. I can see the undersides of frangipani petals floating on the surface… I straighten my legs and point my toes and launch myself towards the sun.’ I love the way in which she writes about water, and its constant movement. Later, she describes: ‘Underwater everything was different, bathed in holy silence and blue echoes. The slanted windows cast wavering lines a liquid light beneath the surface, across our bodies. We felt the way our limbs moved, lithe and strong and brand new.’ As she grows, she considers the way in which the water was sometimes the only place in which she did not feel self-conscious about her changing body. She also writes that water is something which always makes her feel grounded, no matter where in the world she finds herself: ‘The heat can’t touch me: a girl swimming is a body of water.’

Food is something which also makes her feel at home. Whilst she writes about this in far more detail in her excellent short pamphlet, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, here, she writes about eating and cooking in sensuous language. Food is a way to connect for Powles, and to have something of a communal experience even in a new place where she is alone: ‘In the Vietnamese restaurants on Kingsland Road in east London, we – all of us women in our twenties and thirties, all of us slurping pho in the middle of the day – warm our cheeks in the steam that rises from our bowls and coats the windows, shielding us from the gaze of passers-by. We don’t speak to each other, or to anyone else. We wrap scarves around our faces and step out into the melting snow.’

Powles discusses cultural identity with a great deal of insight, and muses about the meaning of belonging from the outset. She asks poignant questions, such as: ‘Where is the place your body is anchored? Which body of water is yours? Is it that I’ve anchored myself in too many places at once, or nowhere at all? The answer hits somewhere between. Over time, springing up from the in-between space, new islands form.’ Later, she tells us: ‘Home is not a place but a collection of things that have fallen or been left behind…’.

She goes on: ‘My markers of home are rooted in plants and weather. Wind that tastes of salt, the tūī’s bright warbling call, the crunch of shells underfoot, a swaying kōwhai tree. As time passes, these pieces of home begin to feel unstable, shifting further away. Long after I’ve moved away from Wellington, after my parents moved out of our house by the sea, after the garden has gone wild, a kōwhai tree grows in a garden in London: some small proof that although my pieces of home are scattered, I will always find my way to them.’

I was thoroughly impressed throughout by the scope of Powles’ prose. She writes in a manner both detailed and poetic, and notices every single thing around her. She explores at length not just what it means to belong, but what it means to be a woman, and to be believed, and to have mixed heritage. Of the latter, she asks: ‘Some like to talk in terms of fractions: one-quarter, one-eighth, one-sixteenth. I can feel all the pieces of myself getting smaller and smaller. How do I carry them all?’

I loved the structure in Small Bodies of Water. Each essay is composed of short, vignette-like sections, which work wonderfully here. Powles adds so many layers to her memoir throughout. She considers what it means to write, and the effects which it has upon her: ‘I think of my own writing and how sometimes, making a poem means making something exist outside of my own brain, my own skin. The poem contains parts of me and I still contain parts of it, but it’s separate from myself, distinct, new.’

Small Bodies of Water sings. Powles has created such a beautiful and thoughtful work of non-fiction, which will stay with me for such a long time. I admired the huge variety of topics which have been included, and the way in which she considers each with such attention. The author has so much to say, and does with astonishing beauty. Small Bodies of Water is tremendous, and I found something to ponder on every page. I cannot wait to read whatever Powles brings out in the future.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Small Widow’ by Janet McNeill ****

First published in May 2019.

Irish writer Janet McNeill seems to be unjustly underappreciated.  Whilst a prolific author, publishing ten novels for adults and penning a whole host of radio plays, it is her children’s books for which she is most well known – and for those, she seems to be barely remembered.  She has intrigued me ever since I saw her single title, Tea at Four o’Clock, represented on the Virago Modern Classics list.  Whilst I was unable to find a copy of the aforementioned in time for my book club’s monthly author selection, I got my hands on a copy of The Small Widow, and am so pleased that I did.

9780957233652Fortnight writes of McNeill’s work favourably, and draws parallels between her and ‘English novelists such as Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner and, more particularly, Elizabeth Taylor.  What their writing shares… is a subtlety which makes demands of its readers.’  These three are all novelists whom I very much enjoy reading, and I have adored everything of Taylor’s which I have read to date.  I was therefore most excited to begin The Small Widow.

The novel’s protagonist is a middle-aged woman named Julia, who has been left a widow after the death of her husband Harold.  She is ‘alone and struggling with grief as well as her new life.’  She is a mother to four children, none of whom she feels overly comfortable in interacting with, as their relationships have shifted so much since their childhoods.  For the first time, she ‘has to learn independence, she needs to discover who she is when she is no longer a wife and is now a mother to children who do not need her.’  The central question which the novel asks is this: ‘As a widow can Julia find a freedom, an identity, which has never existed in her life before?’

The novel opens with Harold’s funeral: ‘The car slowed, they were approaching the gates.  Julia’s throat tightened, the impossible thing is happening now…  She ached to escape from the pressure of her daughters’ hips, the inevitability of shared warmth and the threat of shared emotion.’  The funeral scene is vivid: ‘The mourners formed into an untidy procession and started in the direction of the grave, trying to find a pace between a stroll and a trot.  The raw wind robbed them of any attempt at dignity.  It plucked their hair and their clothes, snatched the breath out of their mouths and ruffled the tufts of frozen grass.  Only the humped shapes of the dead were undisturbed.’  McNeill goes on to probe Julia’s conflicting emotions about her sudden loss.  At this point in time, when everything is raw and new, she sees her children as ‘… four relentless and dedicated orphans, demanding a formal come-back from her, the Mother Figure, whom they had discarded years ago.  It wasn’t fair.  Julia felt that she needed protection from them.’

The Small Widow is told using the third person omniscient perspective, which has been interspersed with Julia’s opinions and concerns.  In this way, McNeill makes us party to Julia’s innermost thoughts, and the secretive, one-sided conversations which she imagines with her husband: ‘I’ll do my mourning for you later, Harold.  Just now I am getting through this the best way I can.  You could have coped magnificently with my funeral, Harold.  I don’t know how to cope with yours.’  These asides continue throughout the book, and are particularly poignant when Julia considers her children.  Of her son, Johnnie, who lives in an outbuilding on her property, and runs a small bookshop, she thinks: ‘To him I’m not a person in the ordinary sense of the word.  I was typecast the minute the cord was cut.  I have been drained and diminished by motherhood.  I am a collection of attitudes, a pocket-sized matriarch whom it is traditional to have around…  It doesn’t help these self-made creatures to remember they are the children of my body.  I have done my job.  I am allowed, expected, to love them still, but at a decent distance.’

Julia’s concerns do not just affect her family.  Some of them are deeply personal, and seem trivial at first to outsiders.  She therefore keeps her grievances private, sometimes excruciatingly so.  She is forced to make all sorts of adjustments, and get used to the absence of things which she has grown so accustomed to throughout her long marriage.  For instance, ‘During the day the uninhabited area of the bed made her embarrassed.  One didn’t think of bereavement as posing problems like this.  One expected anguish, not embarrassment.  (I shall feel anguish in a week or two, Harold, just now there isn’t anything much that I feel.  It was puzzling to know what to do about the space here and all through the house that Harold used to occupy.  Presumably time would spill over and close the gaps, like the bark of a tree when it has been cut.’  She develops coping mechanisms; if she does not move from her place on the sofa or in bed for the entirety of the day, for example, ‘she wouldn’t notice that she was by herself.’

The Small Widow was first published in 1967, and was the only book which McNeill wrote whilst living outside Northern Ireland.  In the novel, she ‘anticipates many of the concerns of the 1970’s women’s movement in its awareness of the restricted role of women in the traditional family and marriage.’  I liked the way in which McNeill pushed against these limitations, giving Julia a voice and authority of her own, which built as the novel went on.  I found myself rooting for our central character, who rises above the opinions which others around her hold of women in her particular position, and the demands which they often make upon her.  The Small Widow feels far more modern, in many ways, than it is; Julia’s concerns are still prevalent in today’s society, particularly with regard to loneliness, and the shifting relationships between parents and their grown children.  The familial relationships here are revealing, and have a complexity to them; they shift both with time, and as a consequence of Julia finding her voice.

As a character portrait, The Small Widow is striking.  Throughout, Julia has a great deal of depth to her, and I found her surprising rather than predictable.  Her character arc alters  believably due to her circumstances.  On the basis of this well-sculpted novel, it is evident why one of her books has been published by Virago; it is just a shame that more haven’t followed suit.

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‘Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul’ by Taran N. Khan ****

I stumbled across Taran N. Khan’s Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul on my library app, and thought it sounded fascinating.  Thankfully the ebook version was available for me to borrow, and I began it right away.  First published in 2019, Indian author Khan arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2006, three years after the Taliban regime was overthrown.

49114654._sx318_-1On her arrival in Kabul, where she embarked on a new work project with her husband at a local television station, Khan was ‘cautioned never to walk [around the city].  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.’  As a Muslim woman, she was able to access parts of the city which were closed to other travellers.  She continued to walk around different regions of the city until she returned to India in 2013.

In her memoir, Khan ‘paints a lyrical, personal, and meditative portrait of a city we know primarily in terms of conflict and peace.’  Shadow City has accordingly been split up into seven different sections, and begins and ends with a chapter named ‘Returns’.  Throughout, Khan gives a comprehensive history of Afghanistan, and of Kabul specifically.  The city is one which kept drawing Khan back, and even after short absences, she always longed to return.

In her foreword, Khan writes: ‘Memory returns in fragments.  I remember walking through the half-empty streets feeling the sun on my back.  I heard snatches of song on a radio, passed a group of young men lounging on a broken sofa they had pulled onto the street.  I saw walls with bullet marks, and barriers across gates…  Under my feet was the slush of the spring.’  She later describes Kabul as a place of hidden scenes: ‘It deceives you with its high walls streaked with brown mud…  It hides behind the fine mist of dust that hangs over its streets and homes, so that the city appears as though from the other side of a soft curtain.  Like a mirage, a place that is both near and far away.’

Khan’s ability to walk around Kabul was a sharp contrast to her strict upbringing in the city of Aligarh, India.  The few outings which she was allowed on were strictly regulated, and she was always chaperoned.  Of her past and present, she reflects: ‘The carefully cloistered routines of my adolescence corresponded seamlessly with the rhythm of the city in 2006…  the things other women from abroad found difficult about the city often seemed quite natural to me.’

Khan comments: ‘Being told not to walk was another way in which Kabul felt familiar.  To map the city, I drew on the same knowledge and intuition that had helped me navigate the streets of my home town…  These were routes of discovery – maps of being lost.  To be lost is a way to see a place afresh…  To be lost in Kabul is to find it – as a place of richness and possibility.’  I can understand Khan’s outlook, as a fellow walker; one of my favourite things to do is to wander, sometimes aimlessly, particularly when I am exploring new places.  Walking also allows Khan some freedom; she allows herself to walk, as a woman, around a male-dominated space, which ultimately gives her a lot of agency.  She becomes a flaneuse, an observer of her new place.

An element of Shadow City which I particularly enjoyed was the way in which Khan notices and interprets absences; for instance, of those who have passed away, and who now reside in various graveyards – a ‘web of memorials’ – around the city.  She also describes, quite wonderfully, how the city alters over her repeated visits: ‘With each return, my paths turned inwards as well.  I learned to see Kabul in fragments, to move through terrains of the imagination while remaining motionless.  I wandered through myths and memories…’.

Shadow City is an impressive debut, which sings with the glory of being in charge of one’s own agency, even in a geographical location which is often threatened by external forces.  Khan’s narrative is both rich and thorough, and gives a different, and worthy, perspective to the Kabul which many of us in the Western world are aware of.  Shadow City is fascinating, and serves to open a window onto both geography and society, politics and remnants of war.  Khan gives her readers an insider’s view of a city which most of us have largely seen in the wake of destruction.  She writes about the wonderful people which she meets, a sometimes fruitless search for reading material, and the way in which Kabul is slowly regaining itself.