4

‘The Liar’s Dictionary’ by Eley Williams ****

I have wanted to read Eley Willams’ debut short story collection, Attrib., since it was first published, but have been unable to find a copy. I was delighted, therefore, when I was able to find her first novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, in my local library.

The Liar’s Dictionary tells two parallel stories, which revolve around the creation and revision of an unfinished dictionary, Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. The first of these stories takes place in 1899, where Peter Winceworth is ‘toiling away’, and has reached the letter ‘S’. He is feeling somewhat threatened by his colleagues, who are intent only upon the ‘regiment facts’, and decides to insert a series of mountweazels, completely fictitious words, into the dictionary.

Such mountweazels are often used to prevent copyright infringement, but Winceworth finds them fascinating, and begins to invent slews of his own; ‘fourteenth-century dignitaries from Constantinople and a small religious sect living in the volcanic Japanese Alps. More often that not, however, these false entries allowed him to plug a lexical gap, create a word for a sensation or a reality where no word in current circulation seemed to fit the bill. This ranged from waxing poetical about a disappointing novel – susposset (n.)… [to] larch (v.), to allot time to daydreaming.’

The present story takes place in the same physical office building which Winceworth once worked within. Here, we follow a young intern named Mallory, who is, in fact, the only member of staff in the office, aside from David Swansby, a relative of the original dictionary creator. Her job is to locate all of the mountweazels in the text, and remove them for the revised edition. As she finds more and more invented words, she ‘has access to their creator’s motivations, hopes and desires.’ She is entirely forbidden from adding modern words into the dictionary, too. Mallory’s narrative begins in a manner which amused and intrigued me: ‘David spoke to me for three minutes without realising I had a whole egg in my mouth.’

Mallory and Winceworth are both fully-formed and fascinating. Winceworth decided, in childhood, to cultivate a lisp, which his mother found ‘endearing’ and his father ‘ridiculous’; this has followed him into his adult life. Mallory is complex, coming to terms with her life, and nervous about whether she should reveal the existence of her girlfriend, Pip, to her boss.

I thoroughly enjoyed the observations which Williams made throughout the novel; David Swansby, for instance, ‘looked like his handwriting: ludicrously tall, neat, squared-off at the edges. Like my handwriting, I was aware that I often looked as though I needed to be tidied away, or ironed, possibly autoclaved.’ As Mallory begins to learn of Winceworth’s story, she reflects: ‘The more I thought about it at work, the more I liked the close-but-unreachable sound of 1900 and its neologisms, the words that entered mouths and ears and inkwells that year. Teabag, come-hither, razzmatazz. 1900 sounds like a lot more fun than 1899, and its note-taking lexicographers.’

The novel’s preface muses about what makes the ‘perfect dictionary’, which would, of course, be tailored to the individual reader. It comments that ‘a dictionary’s preface can act like an introduction to someone you have no interest in meeting’. I found this section relatively humorous, and felt that it nicely paved the way for the two stories to unfold. I very much liked the structural approach which Williams took, too; The Liar’s Dictionary follows the patterns and directives of a real dictionary: it ranges from the chapter heading ‘A is for artful (adj.)’ to ‘Y is for yes (exclam.)’.

Williams’ novel ‘celebrates the rigidity, fragility and absurdity of language’, and she does this so well. It is clear that the author gets such joy from wordplay, and this was one of my favourite elements throughout the entire novel. There are moments of real brilliance here, and a lot of curious observances to be found. The Liar’s Dictionary is a thoroughly engaging, entertaining, and playful read, which I had so much fun with.

3

‘Liminal’ by Bee Lewis *****

I was not planning on breaking my book buying ban (again…), but I ended up ordering a copy of Bee Lewis’ Liminal, along with Eleanor Anstruther’s fascinating A Perfect Explanation.  The publisher of both novels, Salt Books, was asking for everyone to buy one book during the pandemic, as their business was suffering.  I set out to just choose one, but could not decide which I would rather read, so both novels landed on my doorstep a week or so later.

37810194._sx318_I was immediately drawn to Liminal when I started to read its Gothic-sounding blurb.  I very much enjoy reading deliberately unsettling books, and had not picked one up in quite some time.  Liminal, therefore, sounded perfect.  It focuses on Esther, a pregnant woman whose leg was amputated after a childhood accident, and her husband, Dan.  The pair are travelling from their former home in Bristol to start a new life in the remote Scottish Highlands, restoring a former train station, which has been abandoned for decades.

We follow Esther ‘as her marriage, life and body begin to dramatically change’.  Due to her disability, she often feels isolated; this is exacerbated by the rough and uneven terrain around their new home, and its remote position.  A deep snowfall, which arrives soon after the couple do, also makes movement more difficult to Esther.  Early in the novel, she thinks back to her home in Bristol, uncertain about having left everything which she is so comfortable with behind: ‘The city was her touchstone, its roads were rooted in her veins, its houses in her cells.  Yet she’d agreed to leave her sanctuary, trading the strident city streets for the cool mountain air and yawning expanse.  She’d heard her rational self trotting out the reasons why: new life, fresh start, fantastic opportunity, support for Dan.  But she couldn’t just ignore the small voice deep inside her that invaded her dreams and called her out for the coward she was.’

Lewis’ beautiful prose highlights all that is bleak around Esther: ‘The bone-numbing wind tried to breathe new life into the ancient landscape, but Spring was not yet ready to be roused and instead pulled a cloak of frost around her.’  One of my favourite parts of the entire novel was the way in which the landscape is personified; it is a character in itself, and it lives and adapts throughout the novel.  Lewis’ writing is continuously dark, descriptive, and haunting, but never does it feel repetitive or overdone.

Even the elements of magical realism – ‘Gothic fantasia’, as they are termed in the novel’s blurb – blend in seamlessly with the realistic.  Esther awakes one morning, for instance, naked and outside, ‘on a bed of bracken’.  Lewis describes the experience, with striking imagery, as follows: ‘The metal shaft of her right leg was cold against her skin…  This was bad.  She had to get back home, back to Dan, back to safety, but nothing looked familiar to her and a growing dread burrowed into her stomach.  She ran her hands over her body, checking for injuries as she stood up, hunching her shoulders and stooping low to the ground, conscious of her nakedness.  Her moth tasted of iron as the fear she felt fused with her blood.  The trees loomed in towards her, closing ranks, surrounding her on every side.’

The span of Liminal, which takes place over a single week, works wonderfully.  The atmosphere and pressure grow exponentially.  We learn early on that something is not right within Esther and Dan’s marriage, and that it has not been so for a long time.  They are grieving both the death of a friend and a miscarriage, and Esther cannot quite believe that she has been given another chance to become a mother.

From the outset, Liminal felt like a novel which I would love.  This feeling grew stronger as I continued to read it, and I quickly got to the stage where I could not bear to put it down. I sank into the writing; I was totally absorbed within it.  For a debut novel, Liminal is nothing short of a masterpiece.  There are so many elements here which soar.  Lewis has such an understanding of Esther, and focuses on her strengths whilst also being continually aware of her limitations as a disabled woman.  I am so looking forward to reading whatever Lewis publishes next, and am almost certain that whatever her main subject is, it will be handled with finesse and compassion.

2

Two Novels: ‘Dancing Backwards’ and ‘The Word for Woman is Wilderness’

Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers ****

I cannot help but feel that British author Salley Vickers is somewhat underrated.   I have not seen many reviews of her work online, or on platforms like BookTube, and her works tend to have rather low overall ratings on Goodreads.  However, she is an author whose work I have very much enjoyed since first picking up Miss Garnet’s Angel back in 2012.

6918121I picked up one of her novels, Dancing Backwards, when my library first reopened for browsing, having been shut for four months due to the pandemic.  Stuck in one place, with little opportunity to travel, I decided that I wanted to read as many books about journeys as was possible.  Dancing Backwards, therefore, seemed perfect.  The protagonist of the piece, a woman named Violet Hetherington, is travelling to New York by ship, to meet an old acquaintance.  Her journey is as much an inner one as a physical one; thus, I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s early masterpiece, The Voyage Out.

As ever, Vickers’ prose is remarkably vivid from the outset.  Her writing is intelligent, and it has a lot of depth to it.  She never loses the focus of Violet, but is astute at writing about her surroundings, and of the other characters who are taking the same journey.  Violet feels wholly realistic; we learn about her past and present, and her hopes for the future, through the many vignettes which make up the novel’s structure.  She can be rather an acerbic woman, and I enjoyed her dark humour.  Vickers wonderfully charts Violet’s relationships, and deftly handles the way in which the narrative moves back and forth in time.  Dancing Backwards is a wonderful novel about taking chances, and being true to oneself.

 

The Word for Woman is Wilderness by Abi Andrews ****

I also picked up Abi Andrews’ novel, The Word for Woman is Wilderness, on the same library visit.  It has been on my radar for quite some time, and I was so interested in the plot and somewhat unconventional structure.  The novel takes as its focus a nineteen-year-old woman named Erin, who has never strayed too far from her Midlands home.  She decides, however, to take an epic journey to the wilds of Alaska, travelling via Iceland, Greenland, and Canada to do so.

Throughout, Erin details her experiences of travelling and living in rather hostile 36279988._sy475_environments, and those who help her along the way.  Inspired on her journey by the rather infamous Chris McCandless, she comments: ‘Travelling by sea and land will be an Odyssean epic, only with me, a girl, on a female quest for authenticity.’  She films her own documentary as she goes too, which was an authentic-feeling way for Andrews to shoehorn in a lot of cultural commentary.

The Word for Woman is Wilderness is a fascinating and thought-provoking piece of ecofiction, which held my attention from its very beginning.  I loved the numerous different approaches used here, from transcripts from the documentary, to philosophical musings.  Erin is a wonderful character, who comes to rely entirely upon herself, and does so with a great deal of realism.  There are many moments of profundity throughout, and the originality which Andrews has managed to create in this, her debut, is quite astounding.

6

The TED Reading List

I recently came across this very interesting reading list, published by TED in 2018.  It is wonderfully varied, and certainly contains quite a few niche genres which I certainly have not read before.  Although the list specifies that these choices are aimed at summer reading, I thought that I would look through it and pick out ten titles which I would like to get to over the next year or two.

 

1. A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley 412vb-c3-l._sx336_bo1204203200_
‘In the nine expansive, searching stories of A Lucky Man, fathers and sons attempt to salvage relationships with friends and family members and confront mistakes made in the past. An imaginative young boy from the Bronx goes swimming with his group from day camp at a backyard pool in the suburbs, and faces the effects of power and privilege in ways he can barely grasp. A teen intent on proving himself a man through the all-night revel of J’Ouvert can’t help but look out for his impressionable younger brother. A pair of college boys on the prowl follow two girls home from a party and have to own the uncomfortable truth of their desires. And at a capoeira conference, two brothers grapple with how to tell the story of their family, caught in the dance of their painful, fractured history.  Jamel Brinkley’s stories, in a debut that announces the arrival of a significant new voice, reflect the tenderness and vulnerability of black men and boys whose hopes sometimes betray them, especially in a world shaped by race, gender, and class–where luck may be the greatest fiction of all.’

 

51xf8lggsll2. Sophie’s Misfortunes by Comtesse de Ségur
Les Malheur de Sophie (Sophie’s Misfortunes) describes the life of Sophie before the events of Les Petites Filles Modèles, when she still lives with her parents in the French countryside. She is a lively, adventurous child who keeps getting into mischief with the critical complicity of her cousin Paul. Each chapter, with a few exceptions, follow a similar pattern: Sophie does something bad or stupid; she is found out or confesses her mischief; and she gets punished –or not – by her mother Mme de Réan, who uses each incident to teach a moral lesson.’

 

3. Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Eileen McNamara 41gx2bnlk4el._sx327_bo1204203200_
‘A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist examines the life and times of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, arguing she left behind the Kennedy family’s most profound political legacy.  While Joe Kennedy was grooming his sons for the White House and the Senate, his Stanford-educated daughter Eunice was tapping her father’s fortune and her brothers’ political power to engineer one of the great civil rights movements of our time on behalf of millions of children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Now, in Eunice, Pulitzer Prize winner Eileen McNamara finally brings Eunice Kennedy Shriver out from her brothers’ shadow to show an officious, cigar-smoking, indefatigable woman of unladylike determination and deep compassion born of rage: at the medical establishment that had no answers for her sister Rosemary; at the revered but dismissive father whose vision for his family did not extend beyond his sons; and at the government that failed to deliver on America’s promise of equality.  Granted access to never-before-seen private papers—from the scrapbooks Eunice kept as a schoolgirl in prewar London to her thoughts on motherhood and feminism—McNamara paints a vivid portrait of a woman both ahead of her time and out of step with it: the visionary founder of the Special Olympics, a devout Catholic in a secular age, and a formidable woman whose impact on American society was longer lasting than that of any of the Kennedy men.’

 

41ipnhudval._sx326_bo1204203200_4. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
‘Poet and essayist Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, she received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal.  How does a dying person learn to live each day “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty? How does a young mother and wife prepare her two young children and adored husband for a loss that will shape the rest of their lives? How do we want to be remembered?  Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, Nina asks: What makes a meaningful life when one has limited time? “Profound and poignant” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Bright Hour is about how to make the most of all the days, even the painful ones. It’s about the way literature, especially Nina’s direct ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer.’

 

5. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown 51uu9frdkhl._sx324_bo1204203200_
‘For readers of Unbroken, out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times–the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant.  It was an unlikely quest from the start. With a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler. The emotional heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world. Drawing on the boys’ own journals and vivid memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, Brown has created an unforgettable portrait of an era, a celebration of a remarkable achievement, and a chronicle of one extraordinary young man’s personal quest.’

 

51epm2wuoil._sx327_bo1204203200_6. The Overstory by Richard Powers
‘An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These four, and five other strangers-each summoned in different ways by trees-are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. In his twelfth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers delivers a sweeping, impassioned novel of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of-and paean to-the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, exploring the essential conflict on this planet: the one taking place between humans and nonhumans. There is a world alongside ours-vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe. The Overstory is a book for all readers who despair of humanity’s self-imposed separation from the rest of creation and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming. If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us? “Listen. There’s something you need to hear.”‘

 

7. No Pity by Joe Shapiro 41gldpjfgsl._sx321_bo1204203200_
‘In No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, Joe Shapiro of U.S. News & World Report tells of a political awakening few nondisabled Americans have even imagined. There are over 43 million disabled people in this country alone; for decades most of them have been thought incapable of working, caring for themselves, or contributing to society. But during the last twenty-live years, they, along with their parents and families, have begun to recognize that paraplegia, retardation, deafness, blindness, AIDS, autism, or any of the hundreds of other chronic illnesses and disabilities that differentiate them from the able-bodied are not tragic. The real tragedy is prejudice, our society’s and the medical establishment’s refusal to recognize that the disabled person is entitled to every right and privilege America can offer. No Pity‘s chronicle of disabled people’s struggle for inclusion, from the seventeenth-century deaf communities on Martha’s Vineyard to the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992, is only part of the story. Joe Shapiro’s five years of in-depth reporting have uncovered many personal stories as well. ‘

 

8. A Kind of Mirraculus Paradise by Sandra Allen 51hyyhwsbql._sx338_bo1204203200_
‘Writer Sandra Allen did not know their uncle Bob very well. As a child, Sandy had been told Bob was “crazy,” that he had spent time in mental hospitals while growing up in Berkeley in the 60s and 70s. But Bob had lived a hermetic life in a remote part of California for longer than Sandy had been alive, and what little Sandy knew of him came from rare family reunions or odd, infrequent phone calls. Then in 2009 Bob mailed Sandy his autobiography. Typewritten in all caps, a stream of error-riddled sentences over sixty, single-spaced pages, the often-incomprehensible manuscript proclaimed to be a “true story” about being “labeled a psychotic paranoid schizophrenic,” and arrived with a plea to help him get his story out to the world.  In A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story about Schizophrenia, Sandy translates Bob’s autobiography, artfully creating a gripping coming-of-age story while sticking faithfully to the facts as he shared them. Lacing Bob’s narrative with chapters providing greater contextualization, Sandy also shares background information about their family, the culturally explosive time and place of their uncle’s formative years, and the vitally important questions surrounding schizophrenia and mental healthcare in America more broadly. The result is a heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious portrait of a young man striving for stability in his life as well as his mind, and an utterly unique lens into an experience that, to most people, remains unimaginable.’

 

9. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien 61u61td7s2bl._sx331_bo1204203200_
‘Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations–those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences. With maturity and sophistication, humor and beauty, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of life inside China yet transcendent in its universality.’

 

51ni9lnyfdl._sx325_bo1204203200_10. Sorry, Not Sorry by Haji Mohamed Dawjee
‘Why don’t white people understand that Converse tekkies are not just cool but a political statement to people of colour? Why is it that South Africans of colour don’t really ‘write what we like’? What’s the deal with people pretending to be ‘woke’? Is Islam really as antifeminist as is claimed? What does it feel like to be a brown woman in a white media corporation? And what life lessons can we learn from Bollywood movies? In Sorry, Not Sorry, Haji Mohamed Dawjee explores the often maddening experience of moving through post-apartheid South Africa as a woman of colour. In characteristically candid style, she pulls no punches when examining the social landscape: from arguing why she’d rather deal with an open racist than some liberal white people, to drawing on her own experience to convince readers that joining a cult is never a good idea. In the provocative voice that has made Mohamed Dawjee one of our country’s most talked-about columnists, she offers observations laced with acerbic wit. Sorry, Not Sorry will make readers laugh, wince, nod, introspect and argue.’

 

 

Which of these books take your fancy?  Have you read any of them?

5

‘All the Beggars Riding’ by Lucy Caldwell ****

I have been blown away by Irish author Lucy Caldwell’s short stories in the past, and have been keen to pick up one of her novels, to see how the form compares.  All the Beggars Riding was the first which I picked up, as I was kindly gifted a copy for my birthday.  The novel is Caldwell’s third, and was first published in 2013.18164399

All the Beggars Riding focuses upon Lara Moorhouse and her younger brother Alfie, who grew up in London during the 1970s and 1980s.  Their father worked as a plastic surgeon in Northern Ireland for part of each week, helping to reconstruct the faces of those injured in bombing attacks during the Troubles.  He then spent a day or two in an exclusive Harley Street practice.  When Lara’s father passes away in a helicopter crash, the truth about his life is revealed; he had another family, a wife and children, who lived in Belfast.  Lara’s mother ‘was, in fact, his mistress’.

The novel marks Lara’s attempts to confront her past, in which she makes herself revisit ‘troubling memories of her childhood to piece together the story of her parents’ hidden relationship.’  In the present day story, Lara is thirty-nine years old, and is grieving following the death of her mother.  Of this, she comments on the turmoil which she feels: ‘… inside, I was alternately blank and lurching with grief, thick and oily, like waves, that would rise up and threaten to swamp me utterly…  People kept saying, time will heal, and in a terrible, clichéd way, it does: every day life pastes its dull routines over the rawness, although the rawness is still there.’

The novel begins, rather specifically, on a Thursday morning in May 1972, with one of Lara’s memories: ‘Early morning, say six, or half six, but the sunlight is already pouring in, through the curtainless window set high in the slope of the roof…  You are standing, face upturned to the window, breathing in the sun.  I can see you, almost: if I close my eyes I can almost see you.’  I liked the way in which Lara occasionally addresses her childhood self, longing as she does to retain some memory of who she was.

One of my favourite elements of All the Beggars Riding was the emphasis which Caldwell places on the unreliability of memory.  Our narrator comments: ‘… lives aren’t orderly, and nor is memory…  We make it so, when we narrate things – setting them in straight lines and in context – whereas in reality things are all mixed up, and you feel several things, even things that contradict each other, or that happened at separate times, or that aren’t on the surface even related, all at once.’  Later, she muses: ‘But it seems to me that in too many books people’s memories come in seamless waves, perfectly coherent and lyrical.  Recollections come like that one just did to me, searing, intense and jagged from nowhere, burning bright when before there was nothing.’

The author certainly has a recognisable style; as with her short stories, she searches for the essence of her characters throughout All the Beggars Riding.  One gets a real insight into Lara’s thoughts and feelings, and her discomfort with writing a memoir: ‘For one thing, it’s gruesome using real people’s lives, real people’s deaths, to try and explain something of mine, I know.  The scales of suffering are incomparable.’

There is a lot to connect with within Lara’s story.  She longs to capture a realistic picture of her past self in this, her exercise of memory.  She probes into the past, often uncomfortably, asking a great deal of questions in her desperation to make sense of things.  I admired the way in which Caldwell, through Lara, went in search of her mother’s story, piecing together the concrete facts and imagining her thoughts and feelings.

I am always drawn to stories about families, particularly those in which there is an element of dysfunction within the familial structure, and I am pleased to report that All the Beggars Riding did not disappoint.  I was not as enamoured with the story as I am with much of her shorter fiction; Caldwell’s stories are perfect, truly.   Here, as in her other work though, her prose is thoughtful, and her protagonist realistic.  I did feel for Lara and her situation, her uncertain memories, and her fraught relationships with others.  I must admit that to me, though, the ending of All the Beggars Riding felt too neat, and was not entirely satisfying.

2

‘Bird Cottage’ by Eva Meijer *****

I received a copy of the beautifully designed Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer for my birthday, after hearing many wonderful things about it – Town and Country, for example, describe the novel as ‘a celebration of a life spent immersed in nature’, and Country Life deems it ‘a great pleasure for birders and readers alike’.  Bird Cottage has been translated from the original Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett, and is printed in its English edition by Pushkin Press, a publishing house which I always gravitate toward.

40724595._sy475_Bird Cottage is a fictionalised account of the life of Gwendolen Howard, known as Len.  Dissatisfied with her life in London, she decided to retire to the English countryside at the age of forty .  In 1938, she purchased a secluded cottage in Sussex, from which she would be able to observe birds.   From her new home, she found the peace, and the avian subjects, which she needed to author two bestselling bird books.  With these, she managed to captivate a large audience ‘with her observations on the tits, robins, sparrows and other birds who lived nearby, flew freely in and out of her windows, and would even perch on her shoulder as she typed.’

The prologue of Bird Cottage is set in 1965, when Len is alarmed to find a ‘stocky man’ using an electric hedge-cutter in her garden.  When she tells him that the hedge is filled with birds’ nests, her voice becomes ‘shriller than usual.  It feels as if someone is strangling me.’  We then move back and forth through time; Len in the present day attempts to stop the birds’ habitat from being destroyed, and remembers many instances from her past which include her two greatest passions – birds, and music.  As a child, living with her parents and siblings in a large house in Wales, Len used to write stories about the birds she came across, and kept lists of the many species which visited her garden each spring and summer.

Len makes a home with the generations of birds which inhabit her garden; indeed, they soon come to inhabit her home, too.  On the decision of some Great Tits to nest inside her cottage, she observes: ‘Their choices were not always happy – they would roost between the curtain rods and the ceiling, or in the frame of a sliding door, which meant that it could no longer be closed – and so I began to hang boxes on the walls, or old food cartons, or small wooden cases.’  Such a glorious sense of place is created, and soon, Len’s cottage, with all of its little quirks, feels rather intimate.  I loved the descriptions of the outside world too, of which there are many: ‘The red in the sky has turned lilac, then purple, then dark blue, the shadow of the earth silhouetted against the pink, and now it’s become a blanket full of stars, little openings that let the light shine through.’

The first person perspective which has been used throughout works so well, as does the present tense which is continually used.  One is made aware, almost immediately, of how much Len cared about the birds whom she essentially came to plan her life around.  Everything is seen through Len’s kind eyes, and the birds become characters in their own right.  She observes: ‘The Great Tits are sunning themselves in the front garden, their wings outspread.  Jacob and Monocle II are sitting next to each other, very fraternally, as if they don’t usually spend the whole day quarrelling.  It’s the heat that has made them so placid…  Jacob’s oldest son is perched on a low, broad branch.  He is a little slower than the others – too much feeding at my bird table.’

I very much admired Meijer’s interpretation of Len Howard, and would dearly like to learn more about her.  Meijer notes that very little about Len’s life has actually been preserved, and that she pieced together the novel with the use of sparse known facts, and Len’s own work.  Unfortunately, Len’s books appear very difficult to get hold of affordably, but I can only hope that they are reissued at some point in the near future.  I am sure that the many delighted readers of Bird Cottage would love to read Len’s original work.

Such warmth suffuses Bird Cottage, and it is such a delightful novel to read.  The translation has been seamlessly done, and the prose is often achingly beautiful.  Bird Cottage is charming and delightful, and provides a wonderful piece of escapism from the fast-paced world in which we live, where many people often forget to take notice of the little things around them.  Bird Cottage is a novel to savour.

4

‘Grey Souls’ by Philippe Claudel ****

French author Philippe Claudel’s Grey Souls had been languishing on one of my many to-read lists for years before I thought to check my local library for a copy.  The novel won the Prix Renaudot in France, and has been praised variously as having a ‘heart-gripping, melancholic beauty’ (Independent), and using ‘magnificent’ language (Le Parisien).  First published in 2003, Grey Souls, which is the opening volume in a loosely-connected war trilogy, has been translated into English by Hoyt Rogers.

26848591Grey Souls is set in northern France, a region which I personally know very well, in December 1917.  The small town of ‘V’, in which the entirety of the novel takes place, is close to the Front.  Here, towards the end of the First World War, ‘any lingering sense of normality is destroyed with the discovery of a strangled ten-year-old girl in the freezing canal.’  A deserter from the army is conveniently convicted of her murder, and is subsequently executed.  Years later, however, ‘struggling with the tragedies and demons of his own past, the narrator is still trying to make sense of these events.’

The opening of Grey Souls sets up the unnamed narrator’s quest immediately: ‘It’s very difficult to find the beginning.  So much time has gone by that words will never bring back – and the faces too, the smiles, the wounds.  Even so, I must try.  I have to cut open the belly of the mystery and stick my hands deep inside, even if none of that will change a thing.’  He tells us that he once worked as a policeman, and is now retired.

At the outset, the narrator describes the moment at which the child’s body was found: ‘Lying on the ground, a ten-year-old’s body seems even smaller, especially when it’s saturated with winter water…  She looked like a fairy-tale princess with her eyelids blanched and lips turned blue, her hair entangled with the grass, withered brown by morning frosts.  Her little hands had clutched at emptiness.’  This is just one example of how rich and effective Claudel’s descriptions are.  Another which struck me is the description of the nearby battle, which the town of ‘V’ is shielded by: ‘By the grace of the hill we managed to dodge it, despite the smells and noises it threw our way…  The war mounted its stylish performances behind the hill, on the other side, in a world that wasn’t even ours – in other words, nowhere.  We refused to be its audience.  We made of the war the stuff of legend, and so we were able to live with it.’

The narrative in Grey Souls moves quickly, pivoting from one year to another at will.  We learn, by turns, of the rather cynical narrator’s past, as well as that of his father.  The mystery element of the novel is also tied in, and returned to time and again.  ‘All this must seem a muddle, back and forth in time,’ the narrator explains, ‘but in fact it’s the very image of my life, made of nothing but jagged bits and pieces, impossible to stick back together.’  There is rather a cold, odd aspect to the narration, which culminates in paragraphs such as the following: ‘Words were never easy for me.  I hardly used them when I was still alive.  If I write as if I’m a dead man, or a matter of fact, that is true, true as true can be.  For a long time I’ve felt like one, just keeping up a pretence of living for a while longer.  I’m serving a suspended sentence, you might say.’

Grey Souls is a slim novel, but it is filled to the brim with intrigue and atmosphere.  The prose is absorbing, and the pace works well.  At its core, this is a mystery novel, but in reality, it feels like much more than that.  A lot of sadness and emotion is packed into Grey Souls, and the plotting adds intrigue to the story.  Claudel hints at occurrences throughout, but we only learn about them in their entirety much later.  This is a very good novel indeed, and I will certainly continue with the rest of the series at some point.

1

‘A Tale of Two Families’ by Dodie Smith ***

I have enjoyed everything which I have read of Dodie Smith’s to date, and was incredibly pleased when I spotted a copy of her novel, A Tale of Two Families, on the shelf of a local charity shop for just £2.  This is a book which I have struggled to get my hands on for an age, and I began to read it almost immediately.

A Tale of Two Families, which was first published in 1970, seems relatively under the radar.  However, the praise which it has received since its 2015 reissue by Hesperus Press has been glowing.  J.K. Rowling comments that the novel ‘has one of the most charismatic narrators I’ve ever met’, for instance, and Entertainment Weekly writes: ‘Dreamy and funny…  an odd, shimmering timelessness clings to its pages.’

51qwhoqlqpl._sx326_bo1204203200_Our protagonists are many; really, the entire Clare family.  May suspects her husband, George, of conducting an affair in London, and ‘decides it is high time the family moved… [to] the country’ – specifically to a large property called the Dower House in Surrey.  Her sister, June, moves with them, along with her husband, Robert – who is incidentally George’s brother – and they occupy a cottage on the grounds of the chosen property.  ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ asks Dodie Smith.  Well, in answer… rather a lot.  The novel is consequently described in its blurb as ‘a classic tale of complicated family ties, friendship and forbidden love in the beautiful English countryside.’

Smith follows each of the characters in turn throughout the novel.  As well as the two married couples and their relatively grown-up children – siblings Corinna and Dickon, and Hugh and Prudence – we are also introduced to Baggy, George and Robert’s retired father, and a rather formidable great aunt.  Despite also being related, Corinna and Hugh are fully expecting to marry one another.

It is clear that there are quite a few differences between both distinct family groups.  May and George are incredibly well off; June and Robert not so much so.  Of Corinna and Hugh, for example, Smith clarifies the following: ‘It was one of those occasions when she [Corinna] was reminded of how much more luxurious her upbringing had been than his had.  As children they had called their respective families the Clares and the Poor Clares – but had had the tact to keep this from their parents.’

I was surprised that there is so little description included of the house, placed within its own lilac grove, since it is the location in which almost the entire novel is set.  The descriptive writing which Smith has crafted, however, which is often part of reminiscences, is nice enough: ‘Whenever June looked back on their early days in the country she remembered sunshine, vividly green grass, budding trees, wonderful meals and much laughter – even when things went wrong, they went wrong amusingly.  All this, in retrospect, was jumbled together in a vague blur of happiness; she found she could not recall very many actual days, they merged into one another.’

I love familial sagas as a genre, and largely appreciated this tale of a rather unconventional family beneath a very conventional facade.  As one might expect, A Tale of Two Families is filled with a wealth of domestic details, and the quite complex relationships which so often exist within the family.  There is not a great deal which occurs in terms of plot; rather, Smith is interested in her characters, both individually and with regard to the wider group structure.

I read elsewhere that this novel is set during the late 1960s; however, there is very little to ground it within this time period, and it feels quite old-fashioned overall.  Some of the conversations between characters reveal little, and serve merely to saturate the text; they do feel a little unnecessary on the whole.

Whilst A Tale of Two Families is certainly readable, at no point did I feel as pulled in and absorbed as I have done with all of Smith’s other books.  It is a nice, gentle read, but it is not quite as transporting as I expected.  I found some of the characters more interesting, and ultimately more believable, than I did others; the younger characters were largely quite forgettable, and used rather clunky language at times.  Whilst I would never discourage anyone from picking up this book, I feel that novels like The New Moon with the Old, and Smith’s most well known classic, I Capture the Castle, are far better executed, and more memorable.

4

Books for Springtime

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 spring, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with hot cross buns, birdsong, and long walks in the countryside

1. The Nature of Spring by Jim Crumley

‘Spring marks the genesis of nature’s year. As Earth’s northern hemisphere tilts ever more towards the life-giving sun, the icy, dark days of winter gradually yield to the new season’s intensifying light and warmth. Nature responds… For our flora and fauna, for the very land itself, this is the time of rebirth and rejuvenation – although, as Jim Crumley attests, spring in the Northlands is no Wordsworthian idyll. Climate chaos and its attendant unpredictable weather brings high drama to the lives of the animals he observes – the badgers, seals and foxes, the seabirds and the raptors. But there is also a wild, elemental beauty to the highlands and islands, a sense of nature in animation during this, the most transformative of seasons. Jim chronicles it all: the wonder, the tumult, the spectacle of spring.’

2. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

‘When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors. The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?’

3. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

‘A discreet advertisement in ‘The Times’, addressed to ‘Those who Apppreciate Wisteria and Sunshine…’ is the impetus for a revelatory month for four very different women. High above the bay on the Italian Riviera stands San Salvatore, a mediaeval castle. Beckoned to this haven are Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs Arbuthnot, Mrs Fisher and Lady Caroline Dester, each quietly craving a respite. Lulled by the Mediterranean spirit, they gradually shed their skins and discover a harmony each of them has longed for but never known. First published in 1922 and reminscient of ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’, this delightful novel is imbued with the descriptive power and light-hearted irreverence for which Elizabeth von Arnin is renowned.’

4. Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively

‘Penelope Lively has always been a keen gardener. This book is partly a memoir of her own life in gardens: the large garden at home in Cairo where she spent most of her childhood, her grandmother’s garden in a sloping Somerset field, then two successive Oxfordshire gardens of her own, and the smaller urban garden in the North London home she lives in today. It is also a wise, engaging and far-ranging exploration of gardens in literature, from Paradise Lost to Alice in Wonderland, and of writers and their gardens, from Virginia Woolf to Philip Larkin.’

5. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

‘”Now, my dears,” said old Mrs Rabbit one morning, “you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden.” But what does Peter Rabbit do? Beatrix Potter’s delightful ‘Tale of Peter Rabbit’ tells the story.’

6. Spring: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons by Melissa Harrison

‘It is a time of awakening. In our ­fields, hedgerows and woodlands, our beaches, cities and parks, an almost imperceptible shift soon becomes a riot of sound and colour: winter ends, and life surges forth once more. Whether in town or country, we all share in this natural rhythm, in the joy and anticipation of the changing year. In prose and poetry both old and new, Spring mirrors the unfolding of the season, inviting us to see what’s around us with new eyes. Featuring original writing by Rob Cowen, Miriam Darlington and Stephen Moss, classic extracts from the work of George Orwell, Clare Leighton and H. E. Bates, and fresh new voices from across the UK, this is an original and inspiring collection of nature writing that brings the British springtime to life in all its vivid glory.’

7. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

‘From the Booker Prize-winning author of ‘Offshore’, ‘The Blue Flower’ and ‘Innocence’ comes this Booker Prize-shortlisted tale of a troubled Moscow printworks. Frank Reid had been born and brought up in Moscow. His father had emigrated there in the 1870s and started a print-works which, by 1913, had shrunk from what it was when Frank inherited it. In that same year, to add to his troubles, Frank’s wife Nellie caught the train back home to England, without explanation. How is a reasonable man like Frank to cope? How should he keep his house running? Should he consult the Anglican chaplain’s wife? Should he listen to the Tolstoyan advice of his chief book-keeper? How do people live together, and what happens when, sometimes, they don’t?’

8. Spring Morning by Frances Darwin Cornford (my own review)

‘I love discovering new poets, and came across this title at the back of Charlotte Mew’s Saturday Market. Published in 1918, this is a relatively short collection, made up of just 17 poems. It is complete with charming woodcuts. Whilst I found a couple of these poems quite odd, Cornford’s nature writing throughout is lovely.

I have chosen to copy out the entirety of ‘Autumn Morning at Cambridge’, which made me feel rather homesick for my home city:

I ran out in the morning, when the air was clean and new,
And all the grass was glittering, and grey with autumn dew.
I ran out to the apple tree and pulled an apple down,
And all the bells were ringing in the old grey town.

Down in the town, off the bridges and the grass
They are sweeping up the leaves to let the people pass,
Sweeping up the old leaves, golden-reds and browns,
While the men go to lectures with the wind in their gowns.’

Please stay tuned for subsequent summer, autumn, and winter recommendation posts, which will be published at the beginning of each new season. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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