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‘Perfume from Provence’ by Winifred Fortescue ****

I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in France since I was a child, and have always been drawn to memoirs of those who have swapped their busy lives for a slower existence in the beautiful country. Lady Winifred Fortescue’s Perfume from Provence had been high on my rather large memoirs list for quite some time, before I caved and ordered a secondhand copy; reading it on a warm afternoon was bliss when I was unable to travel myself.

In the early 1930s, alongside her husband Sir John Fortescue, Winifred left her home in Hertfordshire, England, and ‘settled in Provence, in a small stone house amid olive groves’. Their new abode, named the Domaine, was very close to the world-famous perfume making town of Grasse. They made the large move partly for health reasons, but also because between the wars, France was a far more affordable country than England in which to live. As soon as the pair arrived, they were ‘bewitched, by the scenery, by their garden – an incredible terraced landscape of vines, wild flowers, roses and lavender – and above all by the charming, infuriating, warm-hearted and wily Provençals.’

When it was first published in 1935, Perfume from Provence was a bestseller. It rose to the top of the lists again when it was reissued by Black Swan in 1992. It is not difficult to see why. Although the book seems to be relatively forgotten nowadays, it presents a wonderfully slow, amusing, and warm slice of life, which transported me entirely from the crazed modern world. Fortescue’s prose is so vivid and sumptuous that I could almost feel the golden sun upon my skin, and hear the thousands of cicadas chirping in the fields. She writes: ‘Here there is a lovely leisure in all our doings. The sun shines so gloriously, the sky is so incredibly blue, and the scent of flowers, warmed by the sunshine, so drowsy and intoxicating that there is every inducement to be lazy and leisurely.’

From its very beginning, Fortescue writes with such ambiability, and a wonderful sense of humour. She tells us about the motley crew of workmen who are extending their small house: ‘Hardly a day passed without a visit from one or other of them: the electrician with a finger cut by wire; a mason with a smashed thumb; various blessés with casualties greater or less, all howling for “Madame” and tincture of iodine.’ The house also came with a rather beligerent gardener named Hilaire, who continuously ropes both Fortescues into helping him with garden tasks. To escape this, Sir John often feigns deafness. Many of the neighbours, too, shoehorn the Fortescues into assisting them – lending their car for a local wedding, or guilt-tripping them into buying up ‘several hundreds of logs’ in the heat of summer, as the seller insists that ‘wood was very scarce, and customers who were late with their commands would not get served at all.’

Perfume from Provence has been split into sections, all of which deal with one aspect of life in Provence, and range from ‘Building’ and ‘My Garden’, to ‘Marriage’ and ‘Housekeeping’. In each chapter, seemingly endless mishaps occur: a garden wall crumbling, and ruining a recently planted rose garden; a gentleman comically slipping on a banana skin on market day, and upending a ‘heap of oranges, some of which scatter under the stalls and are swiftly prigged by alert urchins, while other marketeers roller-skate on the remainder’; and the ‘gesticulating little creature’ of the local barber dropping all of his tools over the market square, and making ‘himself an amusing nuisance’ in the aftermath. There is so much evocative detail here about customs unique to Provence, and the lively book is full to the brim with memorable characters and encounters.

There are some lovely moments here too, many of which come from their rural neighbours. One of these, Monsieur Pierre, reflectively tells Fortescue: ‘He sweeps a brawny arm out towards the majesty of mountains rising above a sea of grey-green olive foliage, and asks me why people spend their lives striving to make money when Le Bon Dieu gives them all this beauty for nothing? Is not health, and the life of a peasant in the open air, better than riches and a dyspeptic stomach in a city? The world has grown too restless and discontented, and men have forgotten that peace and happiness can still be found in woods with birds and flowers and bees.’ One night, Fortescue relays that when went to be early one night, ‘… I lay luxuriously staring out of my windows at a mass of mountains gradually fading away into opalescent dusk…’.

I am always delighted when I pick up books of this kind, and am thrilled that I have discovered a new author to enjoy in Lady Winifred Fortescue. Her account of life in France is delightful, as ‘warm and witty’ as the book’s blurb promises. Fortescue lived in Provence until her death in 1951, and released more reflections of her beloved life there, which I am most looking forward to reading. Next for me will be Sunset House: More Perfume from Provence. There is so much to like in Perfume from Provence, and I have high hopes for the rest of Fortescue’s oeuvre. Of course, this volume has made me want to book a very long holiday in France, but until I can get there again, I will read the rest of her books with joy.

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One From the Archive: ‘One Writer’s Beginnings’ by Eudora Welty ****

First published in July 2018.

I very much enjoy Eudora Welty’s fiction, but know comparatively little about her childhood.  I read the wonderful What There Is To Say We Have Said a couple of years ago, which features much of the correspondence between Welty and another favourite author of mine, William Maxwell.  This autobiographical work, which is composed of a wealth of memories largely from Welty’s Mississippi childhood, works as a wonderful companion volume.

Of One Writer’s Beginnings, William Maxwell writes, ‘It is all wonderful…  The parts of the book that are about her family… are by turns hilarious and affecting.  They are a kind of present… from Miss Welty to her audience.’  Penelope Lively believes it to be a piece of ‘entrancing reading’, and Paul Binding writes in the New Statesman: ‘A writer for whom “genius” is for once a not inappropriate word…  A book of great sensitivity – as controlled and yet aspiring as a lyric poem.’

9780674639270In One Writer’s Beginnings, which was first published in 1984, Welty decided to tell her story in one ‘continuous thread of revelation’.  The book provides, says its blurb, ‘… an exploration of memory by one of America’s finest writers, whose many honours include the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award for Fiction, and the Gold Medal for the novel.’  This book consists of three essays – ‘Listening’, ‘Learning to See’, and ‘Finding a Voice’ – which have been transcribed from a set of three lectures which Welty gave at Harvard University in April 1983.

When ‘Listening’ begins, Welty’s words set the scene immediately: ‘In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.’  Throughout, Welty’s voice is lyrical, candid, and often quite moving.  She reveals her deep love of books, which was present even when she was a tiny child.  ‘I learned,’ she writes, ‘from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or be read to.’  Welty’s writing is particularly beautiful when she discusses her love of stories: ‘It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.  Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.  Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them.’

In a series of vignettes, Welty talks about stargazing, singing, childhood illness, learning the alphabet, religion, schooling, and the quirks of her in some ways unconventional parents, amongst other things.  The imagery which she conjures up is often lovely; for instance: ‘All children in those small-town, unhurried days had a vast inner life going on in the movies.  Whole families attended together in the evenings, at least once a week, and children were allowed to go without chaperone in the long summer afternoons – schoolmates with their best friends, pairs of little girls trotting on foot the short distance through the park to town under their Japanese parasols.’  When she discusses the travels which she went on with her family each summer, she writes of their positive effect upon her later writing: ‘I think now, in looking back on these summer trips – this one and a number later, made in the car and on the train – that another element in them must have been influencing my mind.  The trips were wholes unto themselves.  They were stories.  Not only in form, but their taking on direction, movement, development, change.  They changed something in my life: each trip made its particular revelation, though I could not have found words for it.  But with the passage of time, I could look back on them and see them bringing me news, discoveries, premonitions, promises – I still can; they still do.’

One Writer’s Beginnings spans Welty’s childhood, and includes comparatively brief reflections about her time at college, and the early days of her writing career.  She is insightful about the creation of her characters, and the knowledge which one must have as an author to create enough depth.  ‘Characters take on a life sometimes by luck,’ writes Welty, ‘but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.’

One Writer’s Beginnings is a beautifully written celebration of stories, of Welty’s own, and of those which filled her girlhood.  I was pulled in immediately, transported to the Deep South in the early twentieth century.  This is a joyous account, filled with depth and insight.  Welty’s voice is utterly charming, and sometimes quite profound.  I shall close this review with one of the most wonderful quotes from the book: ‘The memory is a living thing – it too is in transit.  But during the moment, all that is remembered joins and lives – the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.’

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The Book Trail: From Hunger to Nives

I am beginning the first episode of The Book Trail in 2022 with a memoir which I greatly enjoyed listening to last year. As ever, I have chosen to use the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature on Goodreads in order to generate this list. Please let me know if you’ve read any of these books, and which you would recommend!

1. Hungry by Grace Dent

‘From an early age, Grace Dent was hungry. As a little girl growing up in Currock, Carlisle, she yearned to be something bigger, to go somewhere better. Hungry traces Grace’s story from growing up eating beige food to becoming one of the much-loved voices on the British food scene. It’s also everyone’s story – from treats with your nan, to cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, to the exquisite joy of cheaply-made apple crumble with custard. It’s the high-point of a chip butty covered in vinegar and too much salt in the school canteen, on an otherwise grey day of double-Maths and cross country running. It’s the real story of how we have all lived, laughed, and eaten over the past 40 years.’

2. Holiday Heart by Margarita García Robayo

‘From internationally acclaimed Colombian author Margarita García Robayo, and following the success of Fish Soup (selected by the TLS as one of the Best Books of the Year, 2018), comes her latest novel Holiday Heart.

Lucía and Pablo are a couple, they are also school teachers who left Colombia to make a living in the US. While Pablo keeps fond memories of his motherland and a close relationship with his family, Lucía rejects all notions of patriotism, nostalgia and sense of belonging. After struggling to conceive for a long time, Lucía finally gets pregnant with twins. Zealously looking after them, she excludes her husband from this new family life. Hurt and frustrated, Pablo attempts to boost his ego through dispassionate affairs with underage students. While he works on his novel, Lucía writes a feminist column for a magazine picking apart marriage, motherhood and all things related to being a middle-class woman. After one of his affairs comes to light, Lucía takes the kids to Florida while Pablo remains in their empty home thinking about all the time they’ve shared: petty fights, selfish decisions, unkind words. While being apart, they both begin to wonder whether perhaps their love has come to an irreparable end.’

3. The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili

‘In post-soviet Georgia, on the outskirts of Tbilisi, on the corner of Kerch St., is an orphanage. Its teachers offer pupils lessons in violence, abuse and neglect. Lela is old enough to leave but has nowhere else to go. She stays and plans for the children’s escape, for the future she hopes to give to Irakli, a young boy in the home. When an American couple visits, offering the prospect of a new life, Lela decides she must do everything she can to give Irakli this chance.’

4. The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez

‘Following the “propulsive and mesmerizing” (New York Times Book Review ) Things We Lost in the Fire comes a new collection of singularly unsettling stories, by an Argentine author who has earned comparisons to Shirley Jackson and Jorge Luis Borges.

Mariana Enriquez has been critically lauded for her unconventional and sociopolitical stories of the macabre: populated by unruly teenagers, crooked witches, homeless ghosts, and hungry women, they walk the uneasy line between urban realism and horror. The stories in her next collection are as terrifying as they are socially conscious, and press into being the unspoken — fetish, illness, the female body, the darkness of human history — with unsettling urgency. A woman is sexually obsessed with the human heart; a lost, rotting baby crawls out of a backyard and into a bedroom; a pair of teenage girls can’t let go of their idol; an entire neighborhood is cursed to death by a question of morality they fail to answer correctly.

Written against the backdrop of contemporary Argentina, and with resounding tenderness towards those in pain, in fear, and in limbo, this new collection from one of Argentina’s most exciting writers finds Enriquez at her most sophisticated, and most chilling.’

5. Eartheater by Dolores Reyes

‘Electrifying and provocative, visceral and profound, a powerful literary debut novel about a young woman whose compulsion to eat earth gives her visions of murdered and missing people—an imaginative synthesis of mystery and magical realism that explores the dark tragedies of ordinary lives.

Set in an unnamed slum in contemporary Argentina, Earth-eater is the story of a young woman who finds herself drawn to eating the earth—a compulsion that gives her visions of broken and lost lives. With her first taste of dirt, she learns the horrifying truth of her mother’s death. Disturbed by what she witnesses, the woman keeps her visions to herself. But when Earth-eater begins an unlikely relationship with a withdrawn police officer, word of her ability begins to spread, and soon desperate members of her community beg for her help, anxious to uncover the truth about their own loved ones.

Surreal and haunting, spare yet complex, Earth-eater is a dark, emotionally resonant tale told from a feminist perspective that brilliantly explores the stories of those left behind—the women enduring the pain of uncertainty, whose lives have been shaped by violence and loss.’

6. The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8 by Amy Fusselman

‘Amy Fusselman’s first two books, The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8, weave surprising beauty out of diverse strands of personal reflection. Half memoir and half philosophical improvisation, each focuses loosely on a relationship with a man in the author’s life: The Pharmacist’s Mate with her recently deceased father, and 8 with “my pedophile” (as Fusselman painfully refers to her childhood assailant). Along the way, Fusselman covers sea shanties and artificial insemination, World War II and AC/DC, alternative healers and monster-truck videos. Fusselman’s “wholly original epigrammatic style” (Vogue) “makes the world strange again, a place where dying and making life are equally mysterious and miraculous activities” (Time Out New York).’

7. The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

‘Following on her wonderfully received first novel, Another Place You’ve Never Been, called “mesmerizing,” “powerful,” and “gorgeous,” by critics all over the country, Rebecca Kauffman returns with Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old who is suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration. He struggles to establish human connections—even his emotional life is a blur.

As the novel begins, he is reconnecting with “The Gunners,” his group of childhood friends, after one of their members has committed suicide. Sally had distanced herself from all of them before ending her life, and she died harboring secrets about the group and its individuals. Mikey especially needs to confront dark secrets about his own past and his father. How much of this darkness accounts for the emotional stupor Mikey is suffering from as he reaches his maturity? And can The Gunners, prompted by Sally’s death, find their way to a new day? The core of this adventure, made by Mikey, Alice, Lynn, Jimmy, and Sam, becomes a search for the core of truth, friendship, and forgiveness.

A quietly startling, beautiful book, The Gunners engages us with vividly unforgettable characters, and advances Rebecca Kauffman’s place as one of the most important young writers of her generation.’

8. Nives by Sacha Naspini

‘One of the most exciting new voices in Italian literature brings to life a hauntingly beautiful story of undying love, loss, and resilience, and a fierce, unforgettable new heroine

Nives can’t seem to be able to shed a tear for her husband’s death. She didn’t cry when she found the body, she didn’t cry at the funeral. Even the fog of her loneliness evaporates quickly when she decides to keep her favorite chicken Giacomina with her in the bedroom. She suddenly feels relieved, almost happy, but also guilty: how can the company of a chicken replace her dead husband?

Then one day, Giacomina becomes paralyzed in front of the tv. Unable to wake her up, Nives has no choice but to call the town’s veterinarian, Loriano Bottai, an old acquaintance of hers. What follows is a phone call that seems to last a lifetime. The conversation veers from the chicken to the past—to the life they once shared, the secrets they never had the courage to reveal, wounds that never healed.

Nives echoes the stories we tell ourselves at night, when we can’t sleep: stories of love lost, of abandonment, of silent and heart-breaking nostalgia. With delicate yet sharp prose and raw, astonishing honesty, Sacha Naspini bravely explores the core of our shared humanity.’

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Books for Wintertime

I have always been a seasonal reader to an extent – particularly, it must be said, when it comes to Christmas-themed books – but I feel that my reading choices have been aligned more with the seasons in the last tumultuous year. Connecting my reading with the natural world around me has given me a sense of calm whilst the world has reached such a point of crisis, and picking up a seasonally themed book has become rather a soothing task. With this in mind, I wanted to collect together eight books which I feel will be perfect picks for winter, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with a big mug of cocoa, a light dusting of snowfall outside your window, and a cosy blanket

1. A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

‘Following the widely acclaimed and bestselling The Summer Book, here is a Winter Book collection of some of Tove Jansson’s best loved and most famous stories. Drawn from youth and older age, and spanning most of the twentieth century, this newly translated selection provides a thrilling showcase of the great Finnish writer’s prose, scattered with insights and home truths. It has been selected and is introduced by Ali Smith, and there are afterwords by Philip Pullman, Esther Freud and Frank Cottrell Boyce. The Winter Book features thirteen stories from Tove Jansson’s first book for adults, The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) along with seven of her most cherished later stories (from 1971 to 1996), translated into English and published here for the first time.’

2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

‘Narnia… the land beyond the wardrobe door, a secret place frozen in eternal winter, a magical country waiting to be set free. Lucy is the first to find the secret of the wardrobe in the professor’s mysterious old house. At first her brothers and sister don’t believe her when she tells of her visit to the land of Narnia. But soon Edmund, then Peter and Susan step through the wardrobe themselves. In Narnia they find a country buried under the evil enchantment of the White Witch. When they meet the Lion Aslan, they realize they’ve been called to a great adventure and bravely join the battle to free Narnia from the Witch’s sinister spell.’

3. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

‘This epic tale about the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath on a bourgeois family was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987. One of the results of its publication in the West was Pasternak’s complete rejection by Soviet authorities; when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 he was compelled to decline it. The book quickly became an international bestseller. Dr. Yury Zhivago, Pasternak’s alter ego, is a poet, philosopher, and physician whose life is disrupted by the war and by his love for Lara, the wife of a revolutionary. His artistic nature makes him vulnerable to the brutality and harshness of the Bolsheviks. The poems he writes constitute some of the most beautiful writing featured in the novel.’

4. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

‘The classic novel of despair, forbidden emotions, and sexual undercurrents set against the austere New England countryside Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious and hypochondriac wife, Zeena. But when Zeena’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a hired girl, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent. In one of American fiction’s finest and most intense narratives, Edith Wharton moves this ill-starred trio toward their tragic destinies. Different in both tone and theme from Wharton’s other works, Ethan Frome has become perhaps her most enduring and most widely read book.’

5. Winter Trees by Sylvia Plath (my own review)

I have read Sylvia Plath’s beautiful Winter Trees several times, and find fresh beauty on every reread. These poems were all written within the last nine months of her life. As always with poetry collections, I have collected together a few of my favourite excerpts or fragments from some of these stunning poems.

– From ‘The Rabbit Catcher’:
‘I tasted the malignity of the gorse,
Its black spikes,
The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers.
They had an efficiency, a great beauty,
And were extravagant, like torture.’

– From ‘By Candlelight’:
‘This is winter, this is night, small love -‘

– From ‘Lesbos’:
‘We should meet in another life, we should meet in air,
Me and you.’

– From ‘Three Women’:
‘What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?’

6. The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm (my own review)

‘I was incredibly excited to read Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, in which she spends several winters in the Arctic Circle. Sjoholm’s entire account is vivid and fascinating; she brings to light so many elements of life in the far north, always with the utmost sensitivity for those who live there.

Throughout, Sjoholm writes about the Sami, tourism, custom and tradition, the Icehotel in Sweden, and ways to travel around, amongst a plethora of other things. She strongly demonstrates just how quickly times change, and how some centuries-old traditions are being dropped in favour of the necessity of tourism.

Everything has been so well researched here, not only with regard to her own experiences, but with insight by others who have explored the region in years past. Her narrative voice is incredibly engaging, and I learnt so much from her account. It was the perfect tome to read over the Christmas period, and has extended my wanderlust even further. The Palace of the Snow Queen is undoubtedly one of the best travelogues which I have ever read, and is a sheer transportative joy to settle down with during long winters’ nights.’

7. Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen by Katherine May

‘Wintering is a poignant and comforting meditation on the fallow periods of life, times when we must retreat to care for and repair ourselves. Katherine May thoughtfully shows us how to come through these times with the wisdom of knowing that, like the seasons, our winters and summers are the ebb and flow of life.’

8. Wintering: A Season with Geese by Stephen Rutt (my full review can be found here)

‘The arrival of huge flocks of geese in the UK is one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of winter; a vast natural phenomenon to capture the imagination. So Stephen Rutt found when he moved to Dumfries in the autumn of 2018, coinciding with the migration of thousands of pink-footed geese who spend their winter in the Firth. Thus begins an extraordinary odyssey. From his new surroundings in the north to the wide open spaces of his childhood home in the south, Stephen traces the lives and habits of the most common species of goose in the UK and explores the place they have in our culture, our history and, occasionally, on our festive table. Wintering takes you on a vivid tour of the in-between landscapes the geese inhabit, celebrating the short days, varied weathers and long nights of the season during which we share our home with these large, startling, garrulous and cooperative birds.’

I hope you have enjoyed my seasonal recommendations throughout the year. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!

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Non-Fiction November: ‘Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive’ by Stephanie Land ***

As far back as I can remember, I have always tried to read the book before I watch the adaptation. Sometimes, though, this just doesn’t happen – as in the case of Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land. The book has been somewhere on my to-read list since I heard about it, but I only picked up a copy after watching the excellent Netflix adaptation, ‘Maid’.

Maid is a memoir which details Land’s life as a struggling single mother, working long hours as a housekeeper in order to give her daughter some stability, and at the mercy of the often ridiculous grants and benefits in Washington state. Alongside her work, Land wrote; she noted down stories of the people she cleaned for, alongside her own experiences of welfare, from a perspective which was difficult to find elsewhere. This is an individual memoir, yes, but in writing about herself, Land also writes about so many voiceless people in the United States.

Maid is told in retrospect, written from a position of emotional and financial security. Land continually asserts that her incredibly hard work, and the many hoops which she had to jump through, were the only things which allowed her to leave her life of poverty behind. At the end of the memoir, we see her move to Missoula to attend a Fine Arts college, and to study Creative Writing. She had planned to do so just before she found out she was pregnant, at the age of twenty-eight, with her daughter, Mia, and had to give up her place.

Land escaped from a violent relationship with Mia’s father in 2008, when her daughter was just seven months old. The pair moved into several unsuitable homes in the town of Port Townsend, sometimes damp, and sometimes dirty, and had to learn to rely on a dizzying series of handouts from their local authority. At the outset, Land and Mia are moving from a temporary home in a rundown cabin, into transitional housing. Half of the residents are moving out of homeless shelters, and the other half have just been released from jail.

Able to work a certain number of hours per week, Land soon found a job as a housekeeper, earning barely anything by working for a series of people who ‘had financial cushions beneath them’. She also worked part-time as a landscaper for a family friend. However, nothing was set in stone, and no hours were guaranteed. Port Townsend, around two hours from state capital Seattle, is a small city which appeals to tourists; therefore, much of its employment is seasonal, and is often difficult to come by.

Land is incredibly frank and forthright from the outset. Her memoir begins: ‘My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.’ When she goes on to discuss her money troubles, and how exhausting the process of applying for welfare and proving your need is, she writes: ‘I had looked under every stone, peered through the window of every government assistance building, and joined the long lines of people who carried haphazard folders of paperwork to prove they didn’t have money. I was overwhelmed by how much work it took to prove I was poor.’ Later, she says: ‘I was on government assistance, having regular anxiety attacks, still unable to process much of the emotional abuse I’d just experienced or know the depths to which it had affected me. My life was at some sort of standstill in its new identity; in being consumed with motherhood, which I wasn’t sure I really even liked.’

Land is clear that she had very little support at this time; whilst she hears from her parents occasionally, she acknowledges very early on that they left her ’emotionally orphaned’ during her childhood. Her slip into poverty was something unseen, though: ‘… after one kid and a breakup, I was smack in the middle of a reality that I didn’t know how to get out of.’ She writes about the societal stigma attached to welfare, particularly the use of food stamps: ‘It felt like a weighted vest I couldn’t take off, or like someone had hidden cameras on me all the time… When people think of food stamps, they don’t envision someone like me: someone plain-faced and white. Someone like the girl they’d known in high school who’d been quiet but nice. Someone like a neighbor. Someone like them.’ She is humiliated throughout by no fault of her own when using these stamps in the supermarket, and also in other situations – for instance, when her mother and her husband fly over from France to help her move into the transitional accommodation, they expect her to pay for a dinner out for them. Land can barely afford the $10.59 which her own burger cost.

The author details the start of her relationship with Mia’s father, Jamie, and the way in which she moved into his trailer so quickly. She was wooed to do so by the copies of ‘Bukowski and Jean-Paul Sartre in a line of books above the table.’ She falls pregnant just four months into their relationship, and Jamie tries to force her to get an abortion. It is from this point that the relationship starts to become emotionally abusive, and later, physically. At this point, she reveals: ‘In spite of all my hopes for a different path, I softened in the days that followed and began to fall in love with motherhood, with the idea of me as a mother.’ As her confidence in motherhood, and her own ability, grows, she still questions whether she is a good enough mother, and whether she is making enough effort for Mia.

Land writes extensively about the particularly grants and programmes which she applied for, and the differences which these made to her life. She says: ‘We were expected to live off minimum wage, to work several jobs at varying hours, to afford basic needs while fighting for safe places to leave our children. Somehow nobody saw the work; they saw only the results of living a life that constantly crushed you with its impossibility.’ Land found no opportunities to lift herself out of poverty, or away from the welfare state which she was forced to rely on. She tells us: ‘There was no incentive or opportunity to save money. The system kept me locked down, scraping the bottom of the barrel, without a plan to climb out of it.’

The book includes a foreword written by Barbara Ehrenreich, an investigative journalist who worked undercover in low-paid jobs, including housekeeping, and then wrote about doing so. She writes that maid ‘is a dainty word, redolent of tea trays, starched uniforms, Downton Abbey. But in reality, the maid’s world is encrusted with grime and shit stains.’ She goes on to remark that although such workers are invaluable to the middle- and upper-classes, ‘they remain invisible – overlooked in our nation’s politics and policies, looked down upon at our front doors.’ A short critique of class prejudice follows, before she focuses on what Land reveals in her memoir. Ehrenreich comments: ‘When confronted with an obstacle, she figures out how to move forward. But the onslaught of obstacles sometimes reaches levels of overload. All that keeps her together is her bottomless love for her daughter, which is the clear bright light that illuminates the entire book.’

Maid is readable, but it is very matter-of-fact. Land has chosen to discuss a lot of often repetitive cleaning processes in detail, and I did tire of reading these after a while. However, this is an incredibly important and eye-opening memoir, which exposes the faulty welfare system, and the unreliable work which so many people have no choice but to use.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘Prague Winter’ by Madeleine Albright ****

Madeleine Albright, a Democrat who served as the first female Secretary of State in US history (1997-2001), has written an incredible memoir of her early life in Prague Winter. Subtitled ‘A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1945’, it deals with her family’s experiences during and after the Second World War, and also serves as a wider history of what was then Czechoslovakia, and is now Czechia.

Before she was twelve years old, Albright’s once settled life was upended by the Nazi invasion of Prague, where she was living with her mother and father. Other pivotal incidents which occurred during her early life were the Battle of Britain, ‘the near-total destruction of European Jewry, the Allied victory in World War II, the rise of communism, and the onset of the Cold War.’ When the Nazis invaded Prague, and went on to absorb the entire country of Czechoslovakia into Germany, Albright notes that her parents temporarily sent her to live with her grandmother, ‘and did their best to do what their beloved country had done: disappear’.

Her family spent the Second World War in London, as her father’s job in radio broadcasting allowed them an opportunity to relocate. He worked on BBC broadcasts, which many could still pick up – although illegally – in their homeland. Of her father during this period, Albright reflects: ‘My father worked hard because his of passion for democracy but also because we needed money; the more he wrote, the more he was paid, which was still not much.’ Being in London meant that Albright and her younger sister were now in the path of the Blitz, but both thankfully emerged relatively unscathed. The Korbels later moved to quieter towns on the outskirts of London, which were far more peaceful.

In her memoir, Albright has chosen to make extensive use of a number of sources – her own memories, the written memoirs of her parents, interviews with her contemporaries, and documents which have recently become available to the public. She begins her memoir by giving a rather thorough history of how Czechoslovakia, as she knew it, came to be; in its earlier chapters, at least, Prague Winter feels more like a sweeping history book of a geographical location rather than a personal memoir.

In something which seems astonishing, but is perhaps not due to the circumstances in which the Korbel family lived, Albright was unaware of her family’s Jewish heritage until ‘many decades after the war’. It was only when she began to serve as the US Secretary of State at the age of 59, that she learnt that over twenty of her own relatives had perished in the Holocaust. She comments: ‘I had been brought up to believe in a history of my Czechoslovak homeland that was less tangled and more straightforward than the reality.’

Touchingly, Albright’s thorough and heartbreaking memoir has been dedicated ‘to those who did not survive but taught us how to live – and why.’ As one would expect, there is much emphasis on Hitler’s rise to power within the pages of Prague Winter, and its effects are felt throughout, both on a personal level, and throughout her home country. I was a scholar of this period in history for many years, and still read about it keenly. I am pleased to note that Albright’s account did offer some historical context which I was previously unaware of, and proved quite a learning curve in several places.

Split into four distinct parts, Prague Winter moves chronologically between the pre-war period, and November 1948, when the Korbel family emigrated to the United States. Really well situated historically, and evidently a product of extensive detailed research, Prague Winter is a readable and accessible memoir. I very much admired the way in which Albright places herself within the narrative; she is both part of the action, and an overseer. I also liked the way in which she intertwines the personal and political, and the way in which she deals with such a fractious, and fractured, time. Her prose is filled with confidence and certainty, and is a wonderful choice to pick up for anyone interested in this period, or in Czechia generally. Prague Winter is very moving, and highly recommended.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘Girl in the Dark’ by Anna Lyndsey ****

I spotted a copy of Anna Lyndsey’s memoir, Girl in the Dark, whilst browsing in my local library. I hadn’t heard it before, but was drawn to both the title and design, and decided to pick it up. A work of memoir, Girl in the Dark has been described as, variously, ‘beautifully affecting’ (Observer), ‘a gift, a testament to the power of art as a saving grace’ (Susannah Cahalan), and filled with ‘melodic, penetrating prose’ (New York Times).

Lyndsey, who writes here under a pseudonym, had a full, normal life; she was working in a policy job for the government, and was under the spell of a budding new romance. However, she began to experience quite unusual symptoms, which sometimes got worse, and sometimes disappeared altogether for a long period, before coming back with a vengeance. She spent time away from work, and sought the opinions of many experts, who batted around diagnoses.

These symptoms were the beginning of her developing an extreme sensitivity to light, which has forced her to have to spend most of her time in a darkened room, with blacked-out windows, and no screens. During her best periods, Lyndsey is able to venture outside at dawn and dusk; at others, though, she has to spend months indoors, being incredibly careful when she ventures from the safety of her dark bedroom. Lyndsey is, after some time, diagnosed with a disorder called photosensitive seborrhoeic dermatitis, a skin disease caused by light.

Girl in the Dark, first published in 2015, is the account of her ‘descent into the depths of her rare and terrible illness and how she has managed to find light in even the darkest of times’. I am always drawn to illness narratives, but have never read anything specifically about light sensitivity before. Throughout, Lyndsey educated me as to how difficult – almost impossible – it can be to create full, unnatural darkness. The first chapter, ‘Light Gets In’, sets out how infuriating the process of making her bedroom a safe space was: ‘The light is laughing at me; it is playing deliberate games, lying low to persuade me that I have made an area secure, then as soon as I move on, wriggling through some overlooked wormhole. The day beyond my window is an ocean, pressing and pulsing at my protecting walls…’.

When Lyndsey comes into contact with any light, natural or otherwise, her skin becomes hypersensitive, and the effects of exposure can stay with her for weeks. She tells us: ‘Immediately I leave my blacked-out room, a clock is ticking; my skin begins its twisted dialogue with light… There are no blisters and no blotches – I am free of visible signs of conflict. But agonisingly, with ever-increasing ferocity, over the whole covering of my body, I burn with invisible fire.’ Summers are almost unbearable, and she has to cover every single inch of her skin with fabric, even in the depths of a heatwave. She develops a dependence upon audiobooks, as she is unable to grant herself the gift of enough light to read by.

Lyndsey details her growing familiarity with living in total darkness, in honest and insightful prose. She writes of things I cannot personally dream of losing – the joy of a walk outside in the sunshine, the simple light of a lamp shining in a bedroom at night – in a narrative which made me feel as though I was experiencing everything alongside her. She writes that even being close to the presence of light is highly affecting, and details her joy when she is able to move out of her bedroom, even for the briefest while: ‘When I hover on the threshold between the inside and the out – opening or closing a fanlight, or beside an open door at night – the smell fizzes in my nostrils like champagne.’

Throughout, Lyndsey intersperses dated portions of memoir with her reflections and dreams. She moves from her present day back to the early days, before her diagnosis, when she was able to work and travel freely. The short sections which make up the structure of Girl in the Dark are effective, and largely deal with one particular element of her condition, or the ways in which she must now indefinitely live with it.

Lyndsey muses, quite heartbreakingly in places, about the pressure she is putting on her husband by dint of her condition. She writes: ‘By staying, by shirking the responsibility and effort of leaving, by continuing to occupy this lovely man while giving him neither children nor a public companion nor a welcoming home – do I do wrong?’

As one might expect, the entire memoir is incredibly reflective. Lyndsey writes: ‘And I think back to the life I had before, a live of very ordinary components, with the usual balance of frustration and contentment, the standard complement of light and shade. And I remember the beginnings of the darkness and where it planted its first roots, smack into the centre of that life.’ Other relationships break down, and she comments occasionally on the scepticism which others have upon learning of her condition.

Over time, she gets to know others with chronic illnesses, and different variations of light sensitivity: ‘Like me,’ she writes, ‘they had a life before that has been lost; now they wander in the twilight zone where doctors diagnose but cannot cure, and the faint miasma of societal suspicion, never attached to those with cancer, or with heart disease, hangs about them, that somehow it must all be psychosomatic, or that at a deep level they actually want to be ill.’

In Girl in the Dark, Lyndsey provides a fascinating and candid insight into her illness. Her prose is careful and measured, and there is a real lyricism to it. Whilst I cannot say that this was an entirely comfortable read, which really brought to my attention things that I perhaps take for granted, and which Lyndsey has lost, I feel that Girl in the Dark is an incredibly important memoir, and one which deserves to be read more widely.

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The Book Trail: From Love Lessons to Invisible Illness

I am beginning this episode of The Book Trail with a non-fiction piece which both surprised and delighted me, and which I reviewed a fortnight ago. As ever, I have chosen to use Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature to generate this list. Hopefully, like me, you might find a few titles here which pique your interest.

1. Love Lessons by Joan Wyndham

‘”On my way to the studio there was an air-raid. I ran into the brick shelter in the middle of the road. There were poor little Leonard and Agnes sitting on their suitcases, having lost their all. Luckily Leonard had been wearing his best trousers at the time. Madame Arcana was there too wearing a gold brocade toque and a blanket. It was bloody cold and I wanted to pee badly, but couldn’t. Leonard wouldn’t give me his seat as he believes in the equality of the sexes, so I sat on the floor…”

August 1939. As a teenage Catholic virgin, Joan Wyndham spent her days trying to remain pure and unsullied and her nights trying to stay alive. Huddled in the air-raid shelter, she wrote secretly and obsessively about the strange yet exhilarating times she was living through, sure that this was ‘ the happiest time of my life’.’

2. I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections by Nora Ephron

‘Nora Ephron returns with her first book since the astounding success of I Feel Bad About My Neck, taking a cool, hard, hilarious look at the past, the present, and the future, bemoaning the vicissitudes of modern life, and recalling with her signature clarity and wisdom everything she hasn’t (yet) forgotten.

Ephron writes about falling hard for a way of life (“Journalism: A Love Story”) and about breaking up even harder with the men in her life (“The D Word”); lists “Twenty-five Things People Have a Shocking Capacity to Be Surprised by Over and Over Again” (“There is no explaining the stock market but people try”; “You can never know the truth of anyone’s marriage, including your own”; “Cary Grant was Jewish”; “Men cheat”); reveals the alarming evolution, a decade after she wrote and directed You’ve Got Mail, of her relationship with her in-box (“The Six Stages of E-Mail”); and asks the age-old question, which came first, the chicken soup or the cold? All the while, she gives candid, edgy voice to everything women who have reached a certain age have been thinking . . . but rarely acknowledging.’

3. The Hungover Games: A True Story by Sophie Heawood

This “funny, dark, and true” (Caitlin Moran) memoir is Bridget Jones’s Diary for the Fleabag generation: What happens when you have an unplanned baby on your own in your mid-thirties before you’ve worked out how to look after yourself, let alone a child? 

This is the story of one woman’s adventures in single motherhood. It’s about what happens when Mr. Right isn’t around so you have a baby with Mr. Wrong, a touring musician who tells you halfway through your pregnancy that he’s met someone else, just after you’ve given up your LA life and moved back to England to attempt some kind of modern family life with him. So now you’re six months along, sleeping on a friend’s sofa in London, and waking up in the morning to a room full of taxidermied animals who seem to be staring at you. The Hungover Games about what it’s like raising a baby on your own when you’re more at home on the dance floor than in the kitchen. It’s about how to invent the concept of the two-person family when you grew up in a traditional nuclear unit of four, and your kid’s friends all have happily married parents too, and you are definitely not, in any way, ticking off the days until all those lovely couples get divorced. Unflinchingly honest, emotionally raw, and surprisingly sweet, The Hungover Games is the true story of what happens if you’ve been looking for love your whole life and finally find it where you least expect it.’

4. Glorious Rock Bottom by Bryony Gordon

‘In Glorious Rock Bottom Bryony opens up about a toxic twenty-year relationship with alcohol and drugs and explains exactly why hitting rock bottom – for her, a traumatic event and the abrupt realisation that she was putting herself in danger, time and again – saved her life. Known for her trademark honesty, Bryony re-lives the darkest and most terrifying moments of her addiction, never shying away from the fact that alcoholism robs you of your ability to focus on your family, your work, your health, your children, yourself. And then, a chink of light as the hard work begins – rehab; AA meetings; endless, tedious, painful self-reflection – a rollercoaster ride through self-acceptance, friendship, love and hope, to a joy and pride in staying sober that her younger self could never have imagined.


Shining a light on the deep connection between addiction and mental health issues, Glorious Rock Bottom is in turn, shocking, brutal, dark, funny, hopeful and uplifting. It is a sobriety memoir like no other.’

5. Some Body to Love: A Family Story by Alexandra Heminsley

‘Today I sat on a bench facing the sea, the one where I waited for L to be born, and sobbed my heart out. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover.’

This note was written on 9 November 2017. As the seagulls squawked overhead and the sun dipped into the sea, Alexandra Heminsley’s world was turning inside out.

She’d just been told her then-husband was going to transition. The revelation threatened to shatter their brand new, still fragile, family.

But this vertiginous moment represented only the latest in a series of events that had left Alex feeling more and more dissociated from her own body, turning her into a seemingly unreliable narrator of her own reality.

Some Body to Love is Alex’s profoundly open-hearted memoir about losing her husband but gaining a best friend, and together bringing up a baby in a changing world. Its exploration of what it means to have a human body, to feel connected or severed from it, and how we might learn to accept our own, makes it a vital and inspiring contribution to some of the most complex and heated conversations of our times.’

6. Hungry by Grace Dent

‘From an early age, Grace Dent was hungry. As a little girl growing up in Currock, Carlisle, she yearned to be something bigger, to go somewhere better.

Hungry traces Grace’s story from growing up eating beige food to becoming one of the much-loved voices on the British food scene. It’s also everyone’s story – from treats with your nan, to cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, to the exquisite joy of cheaply-made apple crumble with custard. It’s the high-point of a chip butty covered in vinegar and too much salt in the school canteen, on an otherwise grey day of double-Maths and cross country running. It’s the real story of how we have all lived, laughed, and eaten over the past 40 years.’

7. Blueberries: Essays Concerning Understanding by Ellena Savage

‘The body frequently escapes her, but is always very much present in these compellingly vivid, clear-eyed essays on an embodied self in flight through the world, from the brilliant young writer Ellena Savage.

In Portuguese police stations and Portland college campuses, in suburban Melbourne libraries and wintry Berlin apartments, Savage shows bodies in pain and in love, bodies at work and at rest.

She circles back to scenes of crimes or near-crimes, to lovers or near-lovers, to turn over the stones, reread the paperwork, check the deeds, approach from another angle altogether. These essays traverse cities and spaces, bodies and histories, moving through forms and modes to find a closer kind of truth. Blueberries is ripe with acid, promise, and sweetness.’

8. Show Me Where It Hurts: Living with Invisible Illness by Kylie Maslen

‘Kylie Maslen has been living with invisible illness for twenty years-more than half her life. Its impact is felt in every aspect of her day-to-day existence- from work to dating; from her fears for what the future holds to her struggles to get out of bed some mornings.

Drawing on pop music, art, literature and online culture, Maslen explores the lived experience of invisible illness with sensitivity and wit, drawing back the veil on a reality many struggle-or refuse-to recognise. Show Me Where it Hurts- Living with Invisible Illness is a powerful collection of essays that speak to those who have encountered the brush-off from doctors, faced endless tests and treatments, and endured chronic pain and suffering. But it is also a bridge reaching out to partners, families, friends, colleagues, doctors- all those who want to better understand what life looks like when you cannot simply show others where it hurts.’

Have you read any of these books? Will you be adding any of them to your TBR?

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‘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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‘Maman, What Are We Called Now?’ by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar *****

Persephone Books are a real treat for me. I love that moment when I open one of their beautiful dove grey covers for the first time, and always take a moment to admire the undoubtedly beautiful endpapers, before embarking on a story which I’m always certain I will enjoy. I was lucky enough to be able to reserve a copy of Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar’s Maman, What Are We Called Now? from my local library, as it’s a copy I’ve had difficulty picking up elsewhere.

Maman, What Are We Called Now? collects together a short journal and articles written by Paris resident, Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar, during the Second World War, and directly afterwards. First published in its original French in 1957, and in English in this translation by Francine Yorke in 2015, the book is the 115th title on the Persephone list. It also includes a long, and highly informative preface written by biographer Caroline Moorehead, in which she provides a lot of information about both their families, and their backgrounds. I really appreciated both the specific context, and the personal details which she gives; they certainly add to the whole.

Mesnil-Amar’s original journal was written between July and August 1944, and begun on the day she learnt that her husband was missing. Moorehead contextualises this well, commenting: ‘In the last frenzied weeks of the German occupation of Paris her husband André had disappeared. She wanted to record her thoughts, her fears, her desperate hopes, her memories, along with a description of Paris itself… When she abandoned her diary, five weeks later, Paris was free and André, miraculously, was alive.’

Both Jacqueline and André were Jewish, but were ‘totally assimilated’, seeing themselves as French citizens first, and Jewish second. André joined the Jewish resistance, which had begun in Warsaw in 1942. After being tricked by the Gestapo, he was sent to Auschwitz on the last deportation train, on the 17th of August 1944. Astonishingly, he managed to escape from the moving train, and walked the 50 kilometres back to Paris. After being reunited with his wife and young daughter Sylvie, he and Jacqueline helped to set up a vital network of information for deported Jews, helping them to locate their families after the Holocaust.

Throughout Mesnil-Amar’s heartrending journal, the reader is made party to her extreme anxiety, uncertainty, and grief. On the 25th of July, just a week after André’s disappearance, Mesnil-Amar writes: ‘I was straining to hear the slightest sound, longing for the familiar rapid footsteps outside the door, bur they never came. A thousand times I thought I’d heard one of the sounds that are so much a part of the man I love – the jangle of his keys, the click of the door handle, his little smoker’s cough, the rustle of a newspaper – and the sound of his cheerful voice calling out his pet name for me from the other end of the flat. But nothing. Complete silence. Always the same all-enveloping silence we endured after the others were arrested.’ On the same day, she writes of the clash of information which she has been given by others: ‘Everything just adds to the confusion and the horror, it’s all black and shadowy… I will sell my rings, I will sell my soul, I will sell my life, but I can’t believe even that would be enough.’

Throughout the journal portion of Maman, What Are We Called Now?, Mesnil-Amar lays her panic and vulnerability bare. She writes briefly of members of her family, all of whom are in hiding across the city. She writes, sometimes at length, of the incredibly brave and selfless people around her, and how they have provided herself and Sylvie with help, and with hope. She addresses sections of her journal directly to André, and these are fervent and sincere.

Something which she comes to realise is the disconnect which her husband’s disappearance creates. On the 26th of July, Mesnil-Amar reflects: ‘This endless walk took me through every part of Paris, so many different cities, each one a part of me, my avenues, my streets, the loveliest and the ugliest, the oldest and the newest, and I walked with my eyes half-closed, all of a sudden a stranger in my own city, separated from it by my grief and yet forever bound to it.’ She questions her faith, wondering whether she does believe in God: ‘Not every day, alas. And especially not every night… I no longer know who or what to hold on to, what god, what human face, which of the values that used to give meaning to my life.’

Under the rather lovely pen name of Delphine, Jacqueline contributed articles, theatre reviews, and ‘light-hearted sketches of society life’ to various magazines. After the war, the tone and topics of her writing, unsurprisingly, shifted. Moorehead notes that in these later articles, ‘the light-hearted Delphine of the pre-war years had been replaced by a more serious, sadder figure.’ One can notice a shift in tone even between the journal and the articles written afterwards; there is a gaping sadness, and a despair which is almost palpable. Both her prose and the translation are fluid and beautiful, and throughout, Jacqueline is astute and highly observant of everything around her. She questions herself relentlessly about why people were resigned to standing by and watching, as the whole of Europe was decimated, and much of its Jewish population was murdered before their very eyes.

I always feel incredibly grateful when I come to read a diary, particularly one as illuminating as Mesnil-Amar’s. For me, they provide, by far, the best insight into the author’s present. They record details which may otherwise be lost to the annals of history, or perhaps might not be picked up by future historians. Maman, What Are We Called Now? – something which Mesnil-Amar’s daughter asked her, picking up as she did on the grip of Nazi Germany, and the deportation of friends – is such an important document, and one which is an absolute privilege to read.