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‘Business as Usual’ by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford ****

I had wanted to get my hands on a copy of Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford since its reissue by Handheld Press. At a time when bookshops were closed during the long lockdown at the outset of 2021, and I was trying my utmost not to purchase anything online to add to my TBR, my library very kindly purchased a copy on my behalf, and I was the first to read it. Business as Usual was one of my most anticipated books of the year, and I am thrilled to impart that it lived up to my high expectations.

Published in 1933, Business as Usual is a ‘delightful illustrated novel in letters’. Its protagonist is twenty seven-year-old Edinburgh woman named Hilary Fane, who has a degree from the University of Oxford, and was recently employed as a teacher at a girls’ school outside Glasgow. Newly engaged, she insists on achieving her dream of moving to London for a year before her marriage, and is ‘determined to support herself by her own earnings’. Despite the ‘resentment of her surgeon fiancé’, she makes her way to the capital, finding a room in a boarding house – named the Minerva Hotel, the many notices pasted around her bedroom have a ‘cumulative effect [which] is shattering’ – and spending much of her time searching for a job.

Hilary’s first foray into employment in the capital is as a typist at a London department store named Everyman’s on Oxford Street – ‘a very thin disguise for Selfridges’. Through ‘luck and an inability to type well’, she is transferred first to the book department – where she is initially refused employment because she is ‘too tall’ – and then into the library. She loves the environment in which she finds herself, and receives a rapid promotion. We learn about her, and her new London life, through a series of letters, which she writes to both her parents and her fiancé, Basil. Other elements have been included when an overview is needed, such as memos between senior colleagues of Hilary’s, and a letter from her mother to her sister-in-law; here, she writes: ‘They’re not to be married for a year. I don’t approve of long engagements, but in this case Basil’s work makes one necessary, and Hilary is determined not to spend the time at home doing nothing.’

Almost as soon as she moves to London, Hilary meets some wonderfully eccentric characters, including an aunt of hers, who insists on taking her out for long lunches despite the fact that Hilary should be working. Her second interview before securing employment is, for example, ‘with a purveyor of Psycho-therapy. He had a perfectly normal (female) secretary, so that I wasn’t prepared to find him in a Biblical bath-robe, contemplating eternity in front of a Grecian vase with one lovely flower in it. I can’t think what my duties would have been, but the word “salary” shocked him…’.

From the first, Hilary is a highly positive young woman; she comments: ‘Almost any interesting job would do for a year. At about four pounds a week, I thought. After all, I’m not preparing to make a life’s work of it.’ I loved her enduring eagerness, and the way in which she presented herself. When she begins work at Everyman’s, and she is describing her new morning routine to Basil, she writes: ‘Half-way along the Lane I usually begin to run, hypnotised by that clock over the Staff Entrance. After that come the million stairs to the Cloakroom (Women Staff) so that I inevitably arrive on the Book Floor without a breath in my body.’

Business as Usual was the first joint literary venture between Helen Rees and Anne Pedler – the real names of Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford respectively – and I very much hope that it isn’t too difficult to find other books which they worked on together. There are almost one hundred of them, published either jointly or separately by Rees and Pedler, after all. I must admit that I will be avoiding their many Mills and Boon publications, though!

Notes on the novel have been provided by Handheld Press’ director, Kate Macdonald, herself a social historian. She writes that Rees and Pedler, who founded the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for young Commonwealth authors, ‘recreate with relish the working lives of single women in 1930s London, and the struggle to find work that was interesting, amenable and paid enough to live on.’ Of the structure of Business as Usual, she comments: ‘The letters are actively enhanced rather than merely illustrated by Ann Stafford’s line drawings, and by the original layout (reproduced in this edition) that simulates telegrams, in-house memoranda and private letters.’

Business as Usual is marvellously amusing, and quite charming. It is exactly the kind of book I enjoy – rooted so well in its historical and social context, but with a highly realistic protagonist, and infused with a great deal of warmth and humour. I thoroughly enjoyed this lively, and lovely, novel. I loved its tongue-in-cheek asides, and its memorable characters. Business as Usual would not be out of place on the Virago or Persephone lists, and surely holds a great deal of appeal for their readers.

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Ten Great Books

The instances in which I read a really enjoyable book, but don’t have time to write a comprehensive review of it seem to be increasing in frequency. I read so many works worthy of more comment, but unless I take comprehensive notes as I am going along, I rarely get around to writing about them in any detail.

With that in mind, I thought I would gather together ten books which I have read of late, and really enjoyed, and which I just haven’t had the time to review. I am loath to forget anything, so rather than leave you with a few hashed together thoughts from my reading journal, I have decided to copy across the blurb of each book. I hope that at least one of them tempts you, and that you find something of interest to add to your TBR

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

‘On the longest day of the summer, twelve people sit cooped up with their families in a faded Scottish cabin park. The endless rain leaves them with little to do but watch the other residents. A woman goes running up the Ben as if fleeing; a retired couple reminisce about neighbours long since moved on; a teenage boy braves the dark waters of the loch in his red kayak. Each person is wrapped in their own cares but increasingly alert to the makeshift community around them. One particular family, a mother and daughter without the right clothes or the right manners, starts to draw the attention of the others. Tensions rise and all watch on, unaware of the tragedy that lies ahead as night finally falls.’

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

‘Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem only a distant echo. An only child, he lives alone with Emilie, the mother he adores but who treats him with bitter severity. He begins an intense friendship with a Jewish boy his age, talented and mercurial Anton Zweibel, a budding concert pianist. The novel follows Gustav’s family, tracing the roots of his mother’s anti-Semitism and its impact on her son and his beloved friend.

Moving backward to the war years and the painful repercussions of an act of conscience, and forward through the lives and careers of Gustav and Anton, The Gustav Sonata explores the passionate love of childhood friendship as it’s lost, transformed, and regained over a lifetime. It’s a powerful and deeply moving addition to the beloved oeuvre of one of our greatest contemporary novelists.’

Say Say Say by Lila Savage

‘Ella is nearing thirty, and not yet living the life she imagined. Her artistic ambitions as a student have given way to an unintended career as a care worker. One spring, Bryn – a retired carpenter – hires her to help him care for Jill, his wife of many years. A car accident caused a brain injury that has left Jill verbally diminished; she moves about the house like a ghost of her former self.

As Ella is drawn ever deeper into the couple’s household, she is profoundly moved by the tenderness Bryn shows toward the wife he still fiercely loves. Ella is startled by the yearning this awakens in her, one that complicates her feelings for her girlfriend, Alix, and causes her to look at relationships of all kinds – between partners, between employer and employee, and above all between men and women – in new ways.

Tightly woven, humane and insightful, tracing the most intimate reaches of a young woman’s heart and mind, Say Say Say is a riveting story about what it means to love, in a world where time is always running out.’

The Fogging by Luke Horton

‘Tom and Clara are two struggling academics in their mid-thirties, who decide to take their first holiday in ten years. On the flight over to Indonesia, Tom experiences a debilitating panic attack, something he hasn’t had in a long time, which he keeps hidden from Clara. At the resort, they meet Madeleine, a charismatic French woman, her Australian partner, Jeremy, and five-year-old son, Ollie, and the two couples strike up an easy friendship. The holiday starts to look up, even to Tom, who is struggling to get out of his own head. But when Clara and Madeleine become trapped in the maze-like grounds of the hotel during ‘the fogging’ — a routine spraying of pesticide — the dynamics suddenly shift between Tom and Clara, and the atmosphere of the holiday darkens.

Told with equal parts compassion and irony, and brimming with observations that charm, illuminate, and devastate, The Fogging dives deep into what it means to be strong when your foundation is built on sand.’

Blueprint by Theresia Enzensberger

‘At the beginning of the turbulent 1920s, she leaves her father’s conservative household in Berlin for Weimar’s Bauhaus university, with dreams of studying architecture. But when she arrives and encounters a fractured social world of mystics and formalists, communists and fascists, the dichotomy between the rigid past and a hopeful future turns out to be a lot more muddled than she thought.

She gets involved with a cult-like spiritual group, looking for community and falling in love with elusive art student Jakob. Luise has ambitions of achieving a lot in life – but little of it has to do with paying homage to great men. Surrounded by luminaries of the period, like Gropius and Kandinsky, she throws herself into the dreams and ideas of her epoch.

While her art school friends retreat into a world of self-improvement and jargon, her home city of Berlin is embroiled in street fights. Amid the social upheaval, she has to decide where she stands. From technology to art, romanticism to the avant-garde, populism to the youth movement, Luise encounters themes, utopias and ideas that still sahep us to the present day. Blueprint is a young woman’s dispatch from a past culture war that rings all too familiar.’

The Glass House by Eve Chase

‘Outside a remote manor house in an idyllic wood, a baby girl is found.

The Harrington family takes her in and disbelief quickly turns to joy. They’re grieving a terrible tragedy of their own and the beautiful baby fills them with hope, lighting up the house’s dark, dusty corners. Desperate not to lose her to the authorities, they keep her secret, suspended in a blissful summer world where normal rules of behaviour – and the law – don’t seem to apply.

But within days a body will lie dead in the grounds. And their dreams of a perfect family will shatter like glass. Years later, the truth will need to be put back together again, piece by piece…

From the author of Black Rabbit Hall, The Glass House is a emotional, thrilling book about family secrets and belonging – and how we find ourselves when we are most lost.’

The Push by Ashley Audrain

‘A tense, page-turning psychological drama about the making and breaking of a family, told through the eyes of a woman whose experience of motherhood is nothing at all what she hoped for–and everything she feared.

Blythe Connor is determined that she will be the warm, supportive mother she never had to her new baby Violet.

But in the thick of motherhood’s exhausting early days, Blythe doesn’t find the connection with her daughter she expected. She’s convinced that something is wrong with Violet–the little girl is distant, rejects affection, and becomes increasingly disruptive at preschool.

Or is it all in Blythe’s head? Her husband, Fox, says she is imagining things. Fox doesn’t see what Blythe sees; he sees a wife who is struggling to cope with the day-to-day challenges of being a mother. And the more Fox dismisses her fears, the more Blythe begins to question her own sanity…

Then their son Sam is born–and with him, Blythe has the natural maternal connection she’d always dreamed of. Even Violet seems to love her little brother. But when life as they know it is changed in an instant, the devastating fall-out forces Blythe to face the truth about herself, her past, and her daughter.

The Push is a rare and extraordinary gift to readers: a novel about the expectations of motherhood we’re taught not to challenge and what really happens behind the closed doors of even the most perfect-looking families. It’s impossible to put down and impossible to forget.’

After Midnight by Irmgard Keun

‘Nineteen-year-old Sanna just wants to drink her beer in peace, but that’s difficult when Hitler has come to town and his motorcade is blocking the streets of Frankfurt. What’s more, her best friend Gerti is in love with a Jewish boy, her brother writes books that have been blacklisted and her own aunt may denounce her to the authorities at any moment, as Germany teeters on the edge of the abyss. Written after she had fled the Nazi regime, Irmgard Keun’s masterly novel captures the feverish hysteria and horror of the era with devastating perceptiveness and humour.’

The Glass House by Beatrice Colin

‘Scotland, 1912. Antonia McCulloch’s life hasn’t gone the way she planned. She and her husband, Malcolm, have drifted apart; her burgeoning art career came to nothing; and when she looks in the mirror, she sees disappointment. But at least she will always have Balmarra, her family’s grand Scottish estate, and its exquisite glass house, filled with exotic plants that can take her far away.

When her estranged brother’s wife, Cicely Pick, arrives unannounced, with her young daughter and enough trunks to last the summer, Antonia is instantly suspicious. What besides an inheritance dispute could have brought her glamorous sister-in-law all the way from India? Still, Cicely introduces excitement and intrigue into Antonia’s life, and, as they get to know one another, Antonia realizes that Cicely has her own burdens to bear. Slowly, a fragile friendship grows between them. But when the secrets each are keeping become too explosive to conceal, the truth threatens their uneasy balance and the course of their entire lives.’

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

‘This collection of stories is about women and their experiences in society, about bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of its characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession and love. Throughout the collection, women become insects, men turn to stone, a city becomes insomniac and bodies are picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sea side towns are invaded and transformed by the physical, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to the bodies of its inhabitants. Blending the mythic and the fantastic, the collection considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new.’

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‘Women Talking’ by Miriam Toews ****

I have read, and very much enjoyed, almost all of Miriam Toews’ books to date, and was keen to pick up her newest novel, Women Talking.  Lauren Groff, one of my all-time favourite authors, declares the novel ‘an astonishment, a volcano of a novel…  No other book I’ve read in the past year has spoken so lucidly about our current moment, and yet none has felt so timeless.’

Women Talking is a fictional representation of a true and shocking story; it is Toews’ ‘imagined response to these real events’.  In the remote Mennonite community of Melotschina in Bolivia, between 2005 and 2009, more than one hundred girls and women were ‘knocked unconscious and raped repeatedly by what many thought were ghosts or demons’.  The women’s accounts were ‘dismissed as “wild female imagination”.’  Many men accused them of making up stories in order to mask the adultery which they were so obviously committing…  Later, though, it was confirmed that eight men from the closely related gene pool of the colony ‘had been using an animal anesthetic to knock their victims unconscious and rape them.’  In 2011, the men were convicted, but in 2013, it was reported that sexual abuse was still occurring within the community. 41rpxzik7ul._sx322_bo1204203200_

As in the real community, Toews’ women are illiterate, and have little to no concept of the world outside of their own community.  Eight women, who represent three generations from two families, the Loewens and the Friesens, ‘meet secretly in a hayloft to decide how to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.’  This concept is a simple yet all-encompassing one.

The minutes of the meeting are recounted by our narrator, a teacher named August Epp, the only male character who features in a positive capacity in the novel.  August, whose parents were excommunicated when he was twelve years old, lived away from the colony for some years, attending school and University in England, and is therefore able to bestow knowledge upon the women.  The use of a male mouthpiece here was a simple plot device, but a remarkably interesting one.  August is both part of the group, working as he does as the women’s scribe, and separate from it, due to his gender.  He is a victim of the colony, but in a very different, and less violent and intrusive, way.

Focus is given to the case throughout; indeed, the novel is set over a two-day period which feels pivotal for the women.  The men were moved, at the insistence of the police, into the closest city for their own protection, and a crucial moment has been reached in the case.  August reflects: ‘And when the perpetrators return, the women of Molotschina will be given the opportunity to forgive these men, thus guaranteeing everyone’s place in heaven.  If the women don’t forgive the men… the women will have to leave the colony for the outside world, of which they know nothing.’

The way in which August relays the case demonstrates its horror.  He says: ‘In the year after I arrived, the women described dreams they’d been having, and then eventually, as the pieces fell into place, they came to understand that they were collectively dreaming one dream, and that it wasn’t a dream at all.’  The horrors do not stop there, however.  The very fact that all of the women were rendered unconscious when they were attacked caused the male elders to tell them there was no need for counselling.  A three-year-old girl, repeatedly violated, is denied professional medical treatment, as the elders are scared about anyone outside of the colony becoming aware of the attacks, and blowing the ‘whole incident… out of proportion.’

The rules of the colony are rigid and unfair for its womenfolk; typically, the men are allowed to do anything that they want to, and rarely come under scrutiny.  It is a typical patriarchy; women are expected to cook, clean, look after the children, and even act as midwives for one another.  They are forbidden to read, denied education, and told not to speak their own minds.  They speak only Plautdietsch, or Low German, a language which has not been favoured since the Middle Ages, and which is now only found in Mennonite communities.  The women have essentially been raised to be helpless outside the colony.  One of the older characters, Agnes, perfectly sums up their vulnerability when she says: ‘We’re unable to read, we’re unable to write, we’re unable to speak the language of our country, we have only domestic skills that may or may not be required of us elsewhere in the world, and speaking of the world – we have no world map -‘.

Women Talking is, as all of Toews’ books are, written with such clarity.  She really brings the culture to life.  The conversations which occur between the characters are thoughtful, provoking, angry, tense.  Toews’ women all have distinctive personalities, and are all strong and determined.  Salome, for instance, who is both daughter and mother in the book, is described thus: her ‘reputation in the family is that of a fighter, an instigator.  She doesn’t react calmly to authority and is often engaged in a battle of wills with other colony members over the slightest of things.’  August comments that he finds it curious that Salome has not been excommunicated.  An older woman, Greta, questions her faith, and declares, in a ‘radical statement’, that she is ‘no longer a Mennonite.’  Another victim, Nettie, ‘doesn’t talk, except to the children, but at night the members of the colony can hear her screaming in her sleep – or perhaps screaming in full consciousness.’

I found this every bit as much a piece of ‘profound, unsettling and virtuoisic work’ as the book’s blurb promises it to be.  Women Talking is a powerful and fitting novel to read in this, the age of the Me Too movement, and Toews has a great deal to say within its pages.  The story of these eight women, talking – although an imagined version of the real – is searing and vital.

 

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‘Flight Behaviour’ by Barbara Kingsolver ****

I have really enjoyed the books of Kingsolver’s which I’ve read in the past – The Lacuna and The Poisonwood Bible are excellent – but although she is an author on my radar, I somehow rarely get around to picking up any of her other titles. I changed this when I purchased a remainder copy of her 2012 novel, Flight Behaviour, which blends a fictional story with real concerns about climate change, and ecology.

Dellarobia Turnbow is a young woman living on a ‘failing farm’ in the Appalachian region of Tennessee. She lives in a small house with her husband, Cub, and two young children, six-year-old Preston and two-year-old Cordelia, on the Turnbow family’s land. Bored of her life, and the constant struggle to provide for her family, Dellarobia ‘impulsively seeks out an affair’ with a man living in the local town. The novel’s opening immediately caught my attention. Kingsolver writes: ‘A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-coloured hair who marched uphill to meet her demise.’

On the day she finally walks out, and heads up the closest mountain peak to meet him, she finds something far more remarkable: ‘a beautiful and terrible marvel of nature’. On the trees all around, which her husband’s family have been considering logging for some time, are enormous clusters of monarch butterflies.

Dellarobia’s world is a small one: she has ‘not slept outside’ her home in more than a decade of marriage, the local town is one which she rarely visits, and she has not had a meal out in over two years. That is, until she discovers the butterflies. At first, she cannot understand what she is seeing. When she mentions the phenomenon, and takes her husband and his mother a couple of days afterwards, we are told: ‘They rounded the bend to the overlook and came into the full sight of it. Then golden darts filled the whole of the air, swirling like leaves in a massive storm. Wings… Butterflies… The density of the butterflies in the air now gave her a sense of being underwater, plunged into a deep pond among bright fishes. They filled the sky. Every tree on the far mountainside was covered with trembling flame, and that, of course, was butterflies… The fire was alive, and incomprehensibly immense, an unbounded, uncountable congregation of flame-coloured insects.’

The town soon becomes obsessed with the butterflies, and many come to believe that ‘saint’ Dellarobia had a religious vision of the ‘miracle’. The monarchs present an opportunity for tourism, something which had been previously unknown in the area. After a television crew comes to film Dellarobia and the butterflies, a scientist – the rather wonderfully named Ovid Byron, lepidopterist and lecturer – arrives, intent on studying why the monarchs have moved, en masse, to Tennessee instead of their usual wintering grounds in Mexico, and the implications this may have for the species. He returns with a team of researchers from his University, to look into the ‘alarming question’ of this changing migration. In a way, these scientists open Dellarobia’s eyes to more, and better, possibilities: ‘Her life was unfolding into something larger by the day, like one of those rectangular gas-station maps that open out to the size of a windshield.’

The setting is one of the real strengths of this novel. Kingsolver herself lives on a farm in southern Appalachia, and understands the region’s geography, and the concerns of its inhabitants, many of which seem insular and uncaring to a reader on the outside. She is highly aware of small-town life; in the first paragraph, Kingsolver reflects that if Dellarobia did choose to run away from her family, her ‘decision would infect her children too, that was the worst of it, in a town where everyone knew them.’ One is immediately aware of how constrained Dellarobia feels, and how stifling the community around her: ‘They would say the same thing she’d heard her mother-in-law tell Cub: that Dellarobia was a piece of work. As if she were lying on pieces on a table, pins stuck here and there, half assembled from a Simplicity pattern that was flawed at the manufacturer’s. Which piece had been left out?’

Flight Behaviour is an immersive novel from the start. Throughout, Kingsolver is highly insightful about her protagonist, and what she chooses to hide from others: ‘She felt out of control in some new way, unfixable, unless she could fold her life back into its former shape; pre-Turnbow family Sideshow, premarriage, back to being just one kid trying to blaze her own trail. It was exhausting, to keep being sorry for everything.’ The portrait of Dellarobia is intricate and thoughtful, and her character arc is a believable one, particularly with regard to her growing education. Kingsolver knows Dellarobia intimately; her innermost thoughts and feelings come to the fore throughout. When she begins to understand that climate change is happening, and may well be irreversible, she begins to worry, constantly, about the future, especially with regard to her children: ‘[She] felt an entirely new form of panic as she watched her son love nature so expectantly, wondering if he might be racing toward a future like some complicated sand castle that was crumbling under the tide. She didn’t know how scientists bore such knowledge. People had to manage terrible truths.’

Kingsolver trained as a biologist, and worked as a scientist; as one would therefore expect, the scientific detail contained within Flight Behaviour is impeccable, and impressively thorough. I have not read a novel as involved with environmental issues in such a long time, and this effort has made me want to seek more out in the near future. I especially liked the way in which its focus is placed on one single ecological event, with tendrils of consequences which stretch out from it as the novel goes on.

I am also pleased that I have so much of Kingsolver’s oeuvre left to read. Whilst she focuses on stories driven by her characters, and the geography in which they live, the books which I have read to date all feel very different. I will admit that Flight Behaviour, at around 600 pages, did take a relatively long time to read, but it forces one to contemplate so many enormous concepts that this felt necessary. It feels very up to date, despite being almost ten years old; this is perhaps due to the real urgency in the prose. Given the themes, this is a really serious, and sometimes scary, novel to read, but it is one which I would highly recommend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Sunset Song’ by Lewis Grassic Gibbon ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

0

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

First published in May 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

‘If I Had Your Face’ by Frances Cha ****

I have wanted to read Frances Cha’s debut novel, If I Had Your Face, since it was published in 2020. It is a novel which I have seen everywhere since, and it has been, almost without exception, incredibly well received. Helen Oyeyemi, for instance, deems it ‘glittering, engrossing’, and Nell Zink ‘troubling, kaleidoscopic and highly enjoyable’.

If I Had Your Face is set in contemporary Seoul, South Korea. It focuses upon four young women, who are ‘struggling to survive’, and are ‘balancing on the knife-edge of survival’ on the fringes of the city. Seoul is a place where ‘plastic surgery is as routine as getting a haircut… and [where] ruthless social hierarchies dictate your every move.’ The novel circles around the concept of physical beauty, which can affect your life in South Korea just as much as a premium education does; unless you are lucky enough to attend one of the premium universities in the country, it is almost impossible to work for a top company, or to progress to an executive level. At the heart of If I Had Your Face is the competitiveness which is found at every level of society in Seoul, and the way in which it captures and suffocates people.

Kyuri works at a ‘room salon’, where wealthy businessmen go to be ‘entertained after hours’. Her ‘hard-won status’ at the salon is affected, around the halfway point of the novel, when she makes a mistake with a client, which reverberates through the salon. Miho, Kyuri’s flatmate, is an orphan, given a scholarship to a prestigious art school in New York. Here, her life ‘became tragically enmeshed with the super-wealthy offspring of the Korean elite’, something which follows her when she moves back to Seoul after graduating. Ara, their neighbour, is a hair stylist, obsessed with a K-pop band, and mute following a traumatic incident. Their downstairs neighbour, Wonna, is a little older than these young women; she lives in the same cheap office-tel building with her husband, as they cannot afford much more on their combined salaries, and is expecting a baby after a series of miscarriages.

Kyuri works at a ’10 percent’ room salon, deemed as she is to be in the top 10 percent of the prettiest girls in the industry. She is recognised everywhere she goes for her beauty, although much of this has been augmented, or completely altered, by plastic surgery. Ara describes her as ‘electrically beautiful’, going on to comment: ‘The stitches on her double eyelids look naturally faint, while her nose is raised, her cheekbones tapered, and her entire jaw realigned and shaved into a slim v-line.’ Room salon workers like Kyuri are expected to get their hair and makeup done by professionals every single day.

Cha writes at length about the widespread use of plastic surgery in Seoul; it is given to very young women, and is something which many aspire to have. Ara recalls that, whilst at high school, every girl in their class was offered half-price eyelid surgery by the husband of one of their teachers. Cha reveals just how much emphasis is placed upon beauty by society, and how every woman is expected to conform to such exacting standards; the other skills and talents of women tend to pale in comparison to how they look. The operations which women continually put themselves through are brutal, and unnecessary. Ara’s flatmate, a twenty two-year-old woman named Sujin, wishes to become a room salon girl. During her initial appointment at a plastic surgery clinic, the doctor tells her that as well as double eyelid surgery, she also ‘needs to get both double jaw surgery and square jaw surgery, desperately’, alongside a cheekbone reduction, and liposuction on her chin.

The stark reality of trying to live in Seoul is revealed by Wonna; she reflects: ‘Unless you are born into a chaebol family or your parents were the fantastically lucky few who purchased land in Gangnam decades ago, you have to work and work and work for a salary that isn’t even enough to buy a house or pay for childcare, and you sit at a desk until your spine twists, and your boss is somehow incompetent and a workaholic at the same time and at the end of the day you have to drink to bear it all.’ Wonna had a difficult childhood with her cruel grandmother, whilst her father worked in South America. ‘It was the greatest irony in the world,’ Wonna remembers, ‘that she had taken in the child of the son who humiliated her the most, she often said to me.’

I liked the way in which all of the women lived in the same apartment block; this is a simple yet effective tool to tie their different stories together. Their rent in the office-tel is ‘dirt cheap’, but only because they live on the fourth floor, a number which promotes superstition in Asian cultures. Cha has made her narrative voices distinctive, and it is easy to differentiate between them. I liked the way in which each of her characters are on different trajectories, working in different industries, and struggling with myriad problems. I really enjoyed the approaches which Cha took throughout If I Had Your Face; she gives an awful lot to think about, whilst providing a cast of compelling and believable characters, and introducing Western readers to the stark realities which exist in Seoul.

I hadn’t read much about the ‘dark side’ of Seoul before picking up If I Had Your Face. The concept of the room salon was new to me; they are largely seedy establishments, from the research which I have done since, which are bound up with prostitution. Ara’s character describes the room salons like so: ‘… now that I know what to look for, I see one on every side street. From the outside, they are nearly invisible. Nondescript signs hang above darkened stairways, leading to underground worlds where men pay to act like bloated kings.’ The Korea which Cha reveals feels a completely different world, and I admit that I found it quite shocking at times.

If I Had Your Face is a rich and accomplished first novel. Cha gives a lot of commentary about different worlds colliding, particularly the rich with the poor, the disparities between different generations, and the grave inconsistencies to be found between Korea and the West. My only criticism is that I feel that the physical city of Seoul could have been made better use of; much of the narrative here is focused upon character rather than place, and a great deal of the action occurs in bland interiors, rather than out in the city. Regardless, I was so interested throughout in each of the characters and their perspectives, and believed entirely in their realistic cares and worries. One really comes to understand each woman here, and Cha gives her readers a great deal to think about. I very much enjoyed this satisfying novel, and look forward to whatever Cha turns her hand to next.

1

‘The Glorious Guinness Girls’ by Emily Hourican **

The tagline of Emily Hourican’s newest novel, The Glorious Guinness Girls, is ‘Three sisters. One shared destiny.’ The novel purports to take the three Irish sisters of the Guinness fortune, the ‘glamorous society girls’ – ‘elegant’ Aileen, outspoken Maureen, and gentle Oonagh – as its focus, and moves from London and Ireland between 1918 and 1930. There is also a strand of a more modern story, set in 1978 in the old family home in Ireland, which is now being used as a care home.

In the late 1970s, Fliss has returned to this house, which she describes as ‘big and old and pitiful, like the knuckles on an aged hand…’. She is seeking old family papers from the crowded attic space, having been asked to do so by two of the sisters. As she searches, she comments: ‘I turn more paper. I do not know what I am looking for. All I see are sentimental recollections of childhood, and even at a distance of sixty years, I can catch the smell of that time. Dullness and emptiness, endless waiting, stuck between the schoolroom and the nursery, at ease nowhere. Beating at time with our fists to make it go faster.’

The blurb asks, ‘what beautiful ruins lie behind the glass of their privileged worlds? The love affairs, the scandals, the tragedies, the secrets…’. The novel sounds as though it is poised to be revealing of the lives of the Guinness sisters, but unfortunately, I do not feel at all as though this was the case. We learn about the girls physically – for instance, they are described in 1918 as having ‘each other’s face but with small variations so that looking at all of them together was to see a single treasure hoard split three ways’.

Hourican has not just used historical figures in The Glorious Guinness Girls; she has invented individuals. One of these is Felicity Bryant, known as Fliss, who is the narrator of the whole, and who is undoubtedly the protagonist of the piece. She is a kind of poor cousin to the girls, who moves in with them after her father passes away. At first, it seems that she grows up as part of the family, given that she is a similar age to the younger sisters, and ‘knows the girls better than anyone.’ However, there are some hazy allusions to the way in which she feels continually excluded – when she is not taken on a very expensive cruise around the world with the sisters, for instance. Despite growing up in such privilege, Fliss is grateful for nothing, and I took a real dislike to her. As a character, she is utterly contrived; she brings nothing to the novel, and serves only to unnecessarily blur the boundaries between reality and fiction.

There are rather a lot of characters included in the novel; indeed, it is even prefaced with an extensive list of them. This feels like an overload at times, particularly early on. Barely any of the secondary characters feel fleshed out, either; rather, they skulk about in the shadows, and are known largely by the jobs which they do around the house. The way in which the narrative flits back and forth in time without any real chronological structure is a little irksome in places, too. There is very little plot here, and what there is has been stretched out; barely anything happens in more than 400 pages.

I was quite underwhelmed by the prose of the novel, too. This is Hourican’s sixth novel, but it sometimes reads more like an early, less polished effort than one might expect. The prose is quite matter-of-fact, and the conversations are so overblown and repetitive that one gets hardly anything from them. There are a great deal of clichés which have been used, too; for instance, when things change in their lives, and the supposedly incredibly naïve girls are ‘too merry and giddy to notice’. Hourican also uses some strange descriptors; I, for one, have never considered an eyepatch ‘dashing’…

The Glorious Guinness Girls is not a book which necessarily would appeal to me if I spotted it in a bookshop, but I visited the Guinness Factory in Dublin with my boyfriend a couple of years ago, and have always meant to find out more about the illustrious family. I was a little disappointed, therefore, to find that the Guinness girls actually make up a relatively small part of the plot. Given that the author writes in her notes, which follow the novel, that she has been fascinated by the family for years, and has been researching them for different publications for a decade, I am surprised that they are not focused upon more. I feel as though I learnt relatively little about them, and not once did they feel like fully fleshed out beings. Hourican notes that she was inspired by the ‘stories told about them, [and] the historical background to their lives’, but this element feels somewhat lost.

The author does go on to comment that the characters here are purely fictional; their traits and personalities were invented almost entirely by the author. She writes of her ‘versions of these people… [as] characters based on what I know of them, fleshed out with things I have invented.’ The Glorious Guinness Girls is, Hourican stresses, ‘a kind of join-the-dots, with fiction weaving in and out of fixed historical points.’ This element of fiction, though, is dry, and bogs the entirety down. I cannot help but feel that this would have been a far more successful book had it been a straight biography of Aileen, Maureen, and Oonagh.

Fictional characters should not have had to be invented to bring these young women to life, and I feel as though the way Hourican has gone about writing this novel detracts from their own story. It is near impossible to know the elements which are based on fact, and those which have been fabricated by the author; given that Fliss is fictional, and the whole plot of the novel revolves around her, every conversation involving the sisters is surely therefore entirely made up. There is also a real lack of emotional depth here.

Whilst it is clear from her notes that Hourican did a lot of research before embarking on this book, the historical details are not always enough, and the sisters often feel too underdeveloped. The invention of Fliss as a plot devide to move the story along did not work at all, in my opinion, and I feel as though the novel would have been far more readable had a third person perspective been used throughout. Using the Guinness sisters as the focal point of this novel had a lot of potential, but for me, much about it fell flat. The Glorious Guinness Girls feels like a mistitled novel, and a missed opportunity.