0

‘The Butcher’s Hook’ by Janet Ellis ****

Of former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis’ debut novel, Hannah Kent writes: ‘Ellis has created something marvellous in the character of Anne Jaccob – her voice is strange, dark and utterly mesmeric…  This is historical fiction as I’ve never encountered it before: full of viscera, snorting humour and obsessive desire.’  Other reviews which pepper the cover and the first page of The Butcher’s Hook describe it variously as ‘bewitching’, ‘dark, shocking and funny’, and ‘terrific.’  I was therefore suitably excited to begin, and snapped up a gorgeous turquoise hardback copy for myself. 9781473625112

The Butcher’s Hook is set in Georgian London during the summer of 1765.  Nineteen-year-old Anne Jaccob, the eldest daughter in a wealthy but unhappy family, is our protagonist and narrator.  Although ‘her family want for nothing, her father is uncaring, her mother is ailing, and the baby brother who taught her how to love is dead.’  In the novel’s first few chapters, Anne is ‘awakened to the possibility of joy when she meets Fub, the butcher’s apprentice, and begins to imagine a life of passion with him.’  However, as suited the time, Anne’s family have chosen her ‘a more suitable husband’ than the lowly Fub could ever become.

The novel opens when Anne’s mother is in childbirth, and Anne fully expects that she will not get back up again.  She says: ‘This is my nineteenth summer, but I have known only thirteen happy years to this date.  And that is only if I include my early childhood in the reckoning, back when, in all honesty, I owned no accountable state of mind.  Without that, it is a very poor tally.’  Anne’s present is interspersed with memories from her childhood, many of them rather dark and maudlin.

Anne is a headstrong character, who does not let societal mores prevent her from living as she pleases.  This is a pivotal time in her life, in which she is learning about herself, her body, and her sexuality, along with the amount of power which she can wield.  Throughout, she ‘shows no fear or hesitation.  Even if it means getting a little blood on her hands…’.  Anne has a rather hard and cold interior.  Of the ‘Scrap in the cot’, as she addresses her new sister, she expresses: ‘Do not think me harsh that I do not coo at this new-born infant, but I had done much loving with that boy my brother, and he had coughed his last just before his third birthday two years ago, so a lot of good all that loving did him.’

As a character construct, Anne is fascinating and unusual.  She has psychopathic tendencies, which are revealed close to the novel’s beginning.  As a young girl, she collected dead things which she viewed as treasure, and fantasised about heavy stone curlicues falling on a peer: ‘If it cracked and fell, it would flatten her…  I wanted it to happen so much that my teeth felt loose in my gums.’  Anne is not likeable, but she has such a depth and complexity about her.

Ellis’ character descriptions felt vivid and curious from the outset.  For instance, she writes: ‘This man was a great long coil of a person, his face was a thin stripe of flesh with features squeezed on, even his hands were stretched and narrow.  I imagined his daughter perched beside me, so tall that her hair would catch the breeze, like a pennant on a ship’s mast.’  When Anne meets Fub for the first time, she says: ‘I have never seen him before, but it is as if I recognise him.  I stop in my tracks, because otherwise I might run to him.  He looks as if he would speak but cannot remember how.  We stare as intensely as if we’re about to jump together from a great height.  The world gives a great lurch then resumes its customary spinning.’  Similarly, when she first meets loathsome suitor Simeon Onions, who has been selected by her father, she muses: ‘The only way I can think of his heart without crying aloud is to imagine it impaled on a fruit knife and that lace shirt of his getting redder by the minute.’  Anne’s voice reminded me at times of the narrator of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.

Georgian London has been vividly and vigorously applied to The Butcher’s Hook, and its dingy streets, strewn with poverty and disease, spring to life.  A real sense of place is evoked, and Ellis reminds one throughout of the nuances of the city in which Anne lives.  When she enters a church, she tells us: ‘Their numbers thin as I approach the church, and by the time I tread the path to the door, I am alone.  The huge heavy door is only slightly ajar, and it’s quite a struggle to push it further.  A smell of wax, incense, dust and something floral is so thick in the air it’s almost visible.  Not so any other person, for my footsteps sound loudly on the floor and even my skirt’s swish is distinctly audible.  There are no candles lit, doubtless to save money, for, even though it is morning and daylight outside, within is fusty darkness and shadows.’

The Butcher’s Hook is an unusual novel, with a vivid and realistic protagonist.  Its subject matter is rather dark, but its style is easy to read, and so immersive.  I found it engaging from the outset, and the volatility of Anne as a character made some of the twists quite surprising.  There are sparks of lovely imagery in the novel, and Ellis’ writing is taut and accomplished.  I found the ending markedly satisfying, and look forward to Ellis’ future publications with interest.

Purchase from The Book Depository

Advertisements
2

‘Mr Fox’ by Barbara Comyns ****

I love Comyns’ work, and try to pick up her novels whenever I place an online order, difficult as they seem to locate in physical bookshops.  Virago have reissued three of her books – The Vet’s DaughterSisters by a River, and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – in the last few years, and NYRB have just brought out a lovely edition of The Juniper Tree, but I have seen nothing about a republication of her 1987 novel, Mr Fox.  I therefore purchased a copy of it online, and was eager to begin.

Comyns’ penultimate novel, Mr Fox is set during the Second World War, and moves from London to some small, imagined towns and villages nearby.  At the outset of the novel, which is narrated in its entirety by Caroline Seymore, Mr Fox, a ‘spiv’, offers her and her young daughter, Jenny, assistance.  The pair were deserted by Jenny’s father, Oliver, whilst Caroline was still pregnant, as he felt that running off to Spain to fight against Franco was more important than providing for his family.  Mr Fox promises the Seymores ‘a roof over their heads, advice on evading creditors and a shared – ie. dubious – future.’  Mr Fox is ‘always full of new ideas about making money and was often very prosperous, but sometimes almost penniless.’  He takes on many schemes to make dishonest 7191026money, and is unable to keep any savings in the bank, due to the temptation of spending them.

The novel opens in the following manner, which wonderfully sets the tone for the whole: ‘The other people in the house where I lived didn’t like me.  I expect it was because I was living with a man I wasn’t married to.  We just had “Mr Fox and Mrs Caroline Seymore” written on the door that led to our flat.  There was a Miss Seymore living there, too, but she didn’t have her name on the door because she was only three years old.’  Adhering to social conventions is something which does not greatly bother Caroline; the welfare of herself and her daughter during wartime is her primary concern.  Of her marriage to Oliver, Caroline writes: ‘I don’t think it’s a frightfully good thing to do to marry poets.  My mother was very much against it, but she was rather a dreary kind of woman and I didn’t want to grow dreary too, so I left her and married Oliver, who was delightful and sparkling, and it was only afterwards I discovered he was shallow and spoilt and really rather affected, and his poetry was affected, too.’

Their existence with Mr Fox is often rather tumultuous.  Early on in the narrative, Caroline admits: ‘We often did things that made him [Mr Fox] displeased with us, but we had nowhere else to go, so we had to go on living with him.’  Once the air raids begin in earnest, she and Mr Fox decide to move out of London.  They find a ‘shoddy little house’ in the fictional town of Straws, near the factory where Mr Fox is able to get a job.  Caroline writes: ‘It wasn’t the war that depressed me so much but life at Straws.  It was the most dreary, lonely place in the world, and it made Mr Fox unbearable.  He became frightfully bad-tempered and nervy and had completely changed from the dashing kind of crook he used to be; leading an honest life didn’t suit him at all.’  Although she has been removed from the fear of being bombed, she feels increasingly trapped and frightened, with nowhere else to go, and no friends to speak to.  Despite her misfortunes, Caroline does not allow herself to become pessimistic: ‘In the back of my mind I was always sure that wonderful things were waiting for me, but I’d got to get through a lot of horrors first.’

The chatty style which Comyns employs works so well here; Caroline feels like a three-dimensional creation, always candid and often rather funny.  Comyns also gives one a real feel for the period as the threat of war, and later conflict itself, progresses: ‘But it wasn’t the same as the scare the previous year.  The war came nearer and nearer and there was no escaping it, you could almost see it coming like a great dust-storm.’  In Mr Fox, Comyns tells of a quite ordinary woman’s experiences during wartime, crafting rather a straightforward and sincere voice in which to do so.  Mr Fox is an immersive novel, and an unfairly neglected one too.  I’m crossing my fingers that a publisher will reprint it soon, so that it can be discovered by a whole new clutch of readers.

1

A Month of Favourites: ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’ by Elizabeth Taylor

‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’

Mention Virago Modern Classics to many people, and they will wax lyrical about Elizabeth Taylor and her work.  It is with great pleasure that I am able to say that I can join this group, so impressed was I with her novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.  I received the book for Christmas, along with two of her other books, and only waited two days before I eagerly dove into it.

I had heard only good things about this book, and know that many people regard Mrs Palfrey, the protagonist of the novel, as one of their favourite literary constructs.  I fully expected to love it, and I am so pleased to say that I adored every page.

Paul Bailey’s introduction to the newly pastel-jacketed Virago edition (a different cover to that pictured) is insightful and feels polished.  He sets the tone of Taylor’s writing well, and really built up my excitement to begin.

Mrs Laura Palfrey, an elderly woman, has moved into the Claremont Hotel in London to see out her retirement after her husband’s death. Mrs Palfrey is a marvellous protagonist, whose every action is both understandable and believable.  I was so very fond of her, and am longing to meet someone just like her in real life.

Taylor sets the scene marvellously from the very first page, and is sublime in establishing scenes and relationships between her characters.  It feels as though she is so understanding of the ageing process.  She treats each and every one of her characters, whether we as readers are supposed to like them or not, with such respect, forever reminding us how things – and, of course, people – can change so drastically as time goes by.  Each and every person who is considered in this novel is different, and even if they feature only marginally in the story, they are distinguishable as separate entities within the group.  The eccentricities which Taylor builds around them are so well done.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is such an engrossing novel.  From the very start I knew that I was reading something special, and I was loath for the book to end.  I read it as slowly as I possibly could, in order to savour every word, and would urge every other person lucky enough to be coming to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont for the first time to do the same.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Reviews: ‘The Wonder’, ‘Merlin Bay’, and ‘The Upstairs Room’

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue *** 9781509818402
‘An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story. Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder – inspired by numerous European and North American cases of ‘fasting girls’ between the sixteenth century and the twentieth – is a psychological thriller about a child’s murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.’

The Wonder started off well, particularly with regard to its vivid sense of place, and its sense of intrigue. Donoghue weaves in Irish history and superstition very well, and the novel has clearly been well structured. The slow pace takes a little while to get into, but undoubtedly suited the story which unfolded. Regardless, I found the twists rather obvious (and I am no supersleuth), and the whole ended on rather a flat note, which rendered the whole far less impressive than I was expecting. I would have preferred some sense of ambiguity at the end of the novel; what was included felt far too twee for my liking. Whilst well researched and relatively interesting, The Wonder is certainly not my favourite Donoghue book.

 

Merlin Bay by Richmal Crompton ****
9781509810208‘So begins Mrs. Paget’s month-long holiday as she journeys with the rest of her family to visit her grown-up daughter Pen and her grandchildren, who have moved to Cornwall to reap the benefits of the fresh Cornish air. But teeming beneath the calm surface of seaside life lies a whole world of secrets, infatuations, hopes and dreams. Over the course of their stay, visitors and residents of Merlin Bay become entangled in each other’s lives, disrupting the stability of Pen’s seemingly calm domestic life. From the elderly Mrs. Paget, who visited the bay on her honeymoon nearly fifty years ago but who has never returned, to Pen’s teenage daughter Stella, struggling to find her place in the world and feeling her first pangs of desire whilst her younger siblings play innocent childhood games on the beach, Crompton skilfully depicts the trials and tribulations of British domestic life. Will the hopes and desires of each family member be realized by the end of their stay? And what secret will Mrs. Paget unearth? Richmal Crompton’s adult novels are an absolute delight and every bit as charming as her beloved Just William series. A nostalgic treat for fans of the gentler brand of interwar fiction, Merlin Bay is the perfect heritage read for fans of 1930s fiction at its best.’

Merlin Bay is a beautifully wrought, engaging, and rather underrated novel. I did not enjoy it quite as much as Richmal Crompton’s 1933 novel The Holiday, but it was filled with a cast of fascinating characters, and did throw up a couple of surprises along the way.  Merlin Bay is a charming, quaint, and rather funny read, which proved a perfect choice for a beautifully warm summer’s day.

 

The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne ****
‘Eleanor, Richard and their two young daughters recently stretched themselves to the limit 9781509837588to buy their dream home, a four-bedroom Victorian townhouse in East London. But the cracks are already starting to show. Eleanor is unnerved by the eerie atmosphere in the house and becomes convinced it is making her ill. Whilst Richard remains preoccupied with Zoe, their mercurial twenty-seven-year-old lodger, Eleanor becomes determined to unravel the mystery of the house’s previous owners – including Emily, whose name is written hundreds of times on the walls of the upstairs room.’

The Upstairs Room felt like rather a good book to read when I felt unwell, pulling me in as it did from the beginning. It was not as dark as I had anticipated, but is undoubtedly well structured. The character studies which Murray-Browne writes are subtle at first, and then deepen and become more complex as the novel progresses. The Upstairs Room was not quite the book which I was expecting, but it is a compelling page turner nonetheless.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ by Maggie O’Farrell ****

Instructions for a Heatwave is the sixth novel by acclaimed Irish author Maggie O’Farrell. In it, she presents an ‘intimate portrait of a family in crisis’. This crisis is found not only in her characters, but in the setting too, taking part as it does during the London heatwave of July 1976. As one might expect, this heat is like a character throughout the book, its presence stifling: ‘The heat, the heat… It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome; it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs’.

9780755358793The novel opens with Irish housewife Gretta, one of the main characters in the book and without whom the story would not be able to unfold in quite the way it does. She is described as ‘so overweight, so eccentrically dressed, so loud, so uninhibited, so wild-haired, so keen to tell everyone her life story’. At the beginning of the book, headstrong Gretta is baking bread in the fierce heat: ‘She is in her nightdress, hair still wound into curlers… She has made soda bread three times a week for her entire married life. She is not about to let a little thing like a heatwave get in the way of that’. Gretta and her quiet husband Robert Riordan have been married for over thirty years, and are the parents of a son and two daughters – Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife, all of whom are off in the big wide world, living their own lives. The relationship of their parents is a happy one, filled with ‘small acts of kindness that [make] people know they are loved’.

On the pivotal July morning in which the novel opens, London has been in the midst of a heatwave for several days. The citizens are listless and lethargic, and even the smallest acts outside seem like heroic feats. Robert goes out to buy the newspaper at the exact time that he always does, and fails to return. The three children are drafted in from their various locations – Michael Francis in another part of London, Monica in Gloucestershire, and Aoife in New York City – to help find their father. Gretta’s relationship with each of her children is fractured in some way. She dislikes her son’s Englishness, she loathes the space which has opened up between her and her favourite daughter Monica, and she dislikes the way in which Aoife fled to the United States and ‘Never called. Never wrote’.

Each of these characters, too, has a fractured life in some way. Michael’s marriage has hit a definite rough patch; he is a man ‘hurrying home to a wife who will no longer look him in the eye, no longer seek his touch, a wife whose cool indifference has provoked in him such a slow burning, low-level panic that he cannot sleep in his own bed, cannot sit easily in his own house’. Monica is living in a lonely farmhouse with her new husband, whose stepdaughters go out of their way to make life difficult for her: ‘Peter came with a ready-made family, with spare children, she’d hoped she might slot into their lives almost as if they were her own’. Aoife is almost living a hand to mouth existence and is struggling with the fact that, having been held back so much at school, she cannot read.

The author’s descriptions of Michael Francis’ young children particularly are imaginative and perceptive: ‘Hughie is a sprite, a light, reedy being, his too-long hair flying out behind him, diaphanous, an Ariel, a creature of the air, whereas Vita is more of a soil-dwelling animal. A badger, she reminds him [Michael Francis] of, perhaps, or a fox’. Throughout, O’Farrell’s writing style is polished, and her third person narrative voice has been deftly crafted. The short time period in which the novel takes place too adds in its own way to the story.

O’Farrell clearly knows her characters incredibly well. She feeds in lots of details about each of them as the book goes on, and she makes it clear that in Instructions for a Heatwave, nothing is quite what it seems. Secrets lie behind every closed door, and once happy hearts seem as lifeless as the scorched grass in the city. The detritus of family life has built up over time, leaving behind a trail of broken individuals, who use the horrid situation they find themselves in to try and build bridges with one another.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

’84 Charing Cross Road’ and ‘The Duchess of Bloomsbury’ by Helene Hanff *****

I first read 84 Charing Cross Road and its sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury, some years ago.  In 2015, I had the opportunity to watch the darling, witty film adaptation, and a reread has been on the cards ever since.  During September, I decided to pick it up once more.

97807515038451The beautifully presented Sphere edition which I own contains both of the aforementioned, and from the very beginning, the entirety was so very comforting.  My initial feeling on dipping back into its pages was one of sheer delight, which soon mutated into something akin to the lovely, comfortable wearing of my favourite oversized Thrice hoodie, circa 2009.  Like a warm hug.  Like a remnant of times gone by.

One cannot fail to be charmed by these volumes.  They are lovely, if brief.  84 Charing Cross Road, as most are probably aware of by now, is a volume of correspondence written between New York resident Helene Hanff and Marks & Co., antiquarian booksellers (now, alas, closed) on Charing Cross Road, London.  Helene’s main correspondent at Marks & Co. was Frank Doel, chief buyer, but we are also treated to the letters of those who wrote to Helene only once or twice – other office staff, for instance, after receiving her Christmas parcels.  Such friendships struck up here are lovely to get a glimpse into, particularly as they progress from one year to the next.  The letters span a twenty year period, which is incredible in itself if one thinks about it.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury is written in diary format, and closely follows the daily write-up of what Hanff did whilst in London on a book tour to celebrate the success (and British publication) of 84 Charing Cross Road.  Sadly, when Hanff arrived in the city which she had dreamed of for so long, Frank Doel had passed away, and the bookshop was just an empty shell, the only remnant of the successful shop the letters which spelt out ‘Marks & Co.’ on the outside of the building.

Culturally, the sequel is fascinating.  London is a city I know very well indeed, and it was amazing to me to read about the ways in which it has changed in just a few decades.  Of course, some of it is absolutely the same, and the majority is easily recognisable, but the atmosphere has completely changed by the sound of Hanff’s recollections.  People were polite then.  They held doors open and everything.  Hanff, and the way in which she recounts every little detail, is charming and amusing.  The Duchess of Bloomsbury is a lovely piece of travel literature, and a wonderful sequel.

It must be said (and probably goes without saying, if you are at all familiar with her character) that I adore how sassy Hanff is, and how wonderfully creative her responses are.  She has a British sense of humour, when it boils down to it; she often speaks of fellow Americans who have no idea what she is speaking about.  The importance of small kindnesses is demonstrated throughout, and both books are absolutely lovely.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

One From the Archive: ‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins ****

Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on The Train is a number one bestseller, which has been incredibly well reviewed.  S.J. Watson, author of the incredibly clever Before I Go To Sleep, calls it ‘a top-notch thriller and a compulsive read’, and Stephen King says that it kept him up for ‘most of the night’. 9780857522313

The premise of The Girl on the Train is both simple and clever; Rachel Watson, our protagonist, ‘catches the same commuter train every morning.’  Each time, a signal stops it in exactly the same place, allowing her a view of a row of suburban back gardens.  One morning, ‘she sees something shocking.  It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough.  Now everything’s changed.  Now Rachel has the chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar…  She’s much more than just the girl on the train’.

The book’s opening passage – a prologue of sorts – is so intriguing, and definitely makes one want to read on: ‘She’s buried beneath a silver bitch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn…  I didn’t want to draw attention to her resting place, but I couldn’t leave her without remembrance.  She’ll sleep peacefully there, no one to disturb her, no sounds but birdsong and the rumble of passing trains’.

Rachel’s is the first perspective which is made use of, with the starting point of July 2013.  Of her daily journey, she tells us: ‘Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment.  There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home’.  We learn, rather early on, that the street which the train stops at is Blenheim Road – the place in which she used to live, in her first self-owned home with her ex-husband, Tom.  There, she was both ‘blissfully happy and utterly wretched’.  It is clear from the outset that Rachel is troubled; an untold event seems to be overshadowing everything for her, and she has turned to alcohol to seek solace.  She is a complex narrator; whilst she is lonely and, some would say, untrustworthy, there is a feisty side to her which beats its way to the fore when it is warranted: ‘Who was it said that following your heart is a good thing?  It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all.  Hatred floods me.  If I saw that woman now… I would spit in her face.  I would scratch her eyes out’.

Some of the events which Rachel participates in are obscured by her alcoholism, so the story often appears fragmented.  This is an intelligent plot device, and one which piques the interest of the reader: ‘It comes over me like a wave, black dread.  Something happened, I know it did.  I can’t picture it, but I can feel it…  I’m frightened, but I’m not sure what I’m afraid of, which just exacerbates the fear’.  She then goes on to candidly say, ‘I feel like I am part of this mystery.  I’m connected.  I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose’.

The rest of the book uses the alternating perspectives of Rachel, Megan and Anna, whose paths intersect at times.  Their voices are all relatively distinctive.  The differing vantage points and times in which these narrative voices are set add depth to the whole, and allow Hawkins to tell a story within a story within a story.  The pivotal plot points come at perfect moments, and the pieces cleverly slot into place as the novel goes on.  The mysteries deepen, and complexities give the whole a wonderfully layered texture.  Hawkins’ structure is effective; a relatively short entry is given for each day, morning and evening, for each of the perspectives.

The Girl on The Train is Hawkins’ first thriller; this is surprising, in many ways, as it feels as though she is incredibly comfortable writing within the genre.  There is nothing about the novel which does not strike one as polished and well crafted.  The Girl on The Train is gripping and difficult to put down.  If you are looking for a fast-paced thriller with depth, look no further.

Purchase from The Book Depository