4

‘Annelies: A Novel of Anne Frank’ by David Gillham ****

Back in February 2017, I had the honour of visiting the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam.  I have been aware of Anne’s story ever since I can remember; indeed, one of my first reading memories is of encountering her biography in a written-for-children format at school, and sobbing.  Since I was old enough to read her diary in its entirety, I have done so every couple of years without fail, and am always moved to tears.

I was a little wary of David Gillham’s Annelies: A Novel of Anne Frank when I first spotted it in the library.  It tells an alternative story, of Anne Frank surviving the persecution she faced during the Holocaust in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and moving back to Amsterdam to live with her father, Otto.  However, I do find ‘what if?’ stories rather fascinating; Stephen Fry’s Making History is a prime example of just how good this sub-genre can be.  I decided, therefore, to pick up the paperback edition of Annelies. 45161414._sy475_-1

The opening section of Annelies creates an imagined narrative which relies heavily upon her own diaries.  Events that I have read of so many times in Anne’s own beautiful writing are rendered in a different voice here.  The preface of each chapter contains a quote from Anne’s diary, which I felt was a nice touch.

The first short chapter of the novel really caught my attention, and immediately sets up the alternate twist of history.  Here, Gillham writes: ‘And in that fractured moment, the world that would have been takes a different path: a flicker of the girl she once was makes a last demand for life.  A breath, a flinch of existence…  She coughs viciously, but somethingin her has found a pulse.  Some vital substance.’  We move from here to Anne’s childhood, at a point in time before the Franks had to move into the annexe above Otto’s workplace, but when the situation is becoming grave.  Gillham notes: ‘It’s obvious that things are not good for the Jews since the Hun occupied the city.  It’s even obvious to a child that things are happening.  Anne is not as oblivious as everyone believes.  But why in the world should they dwell on it so?’

On her return to Amsterdam, nothing is as she left it.  Anne feels like a completely different person, whose childhood has been left far behind her.  She struggles to come to terms with the death of her mother, Edith, and her elder sister, Margot, as well as what happened to her in Bergen-Belsen.  Her only way to survive, and to recover, is to ‘transform her story of trauma into a story of redemption and hope.’

Gillham continually asserts the solace which Anne felt within the pages of her diary, each entry of which she affectionally addressed to ‘Kitty’.  He writes: ‘In her diary Anne turns herself inside out…  Splashing ink on the paper, sometimes boisterously, sometimes angrily, often critically, perhaps even artfully.  She has learned to depend on words to see herself more clearly.  Her demands, her frustrations and furies, her unobtainable ideals, and her relentless desires, all a reflection of the lonely self she confesses only to the page, because if people aren’t patient, paper is.’

anne_frank_promo_00000219900048The historical detail here has clearly been well researched, and helps to situate Anne, particularly after her character returns to Amsterdam.  Gillham shows how troubled anyone in her situation would be, and the myriad reasons as to why she is unable to settle back into her old life as though nothing has happened.  The absence of her family is obvious at every point, and Gillham places emphasis on the rather tumultuous relationship which existed between Anne and her mother.  The dynamics between each of the protagonists here have been so well drawn.  Anne’s grief, when she makes the gruelling journey from the concentration camp to her old home, is almost palpable: ‘She no longer knows what home is now.  Her family is dead.  Without them how can such a thing as home exist?’

I have already mentioned that I had reservations about reading Gillham’s book, but I really should not have worried.  He handles Anne’s story – both the real and the imagined aspects of it – with heart and compassion.  Gillham’s version of her is recognisable; the plucky, confident Anne, which is so often shown in her diary, and in the accounts of those who knew her, is visible and apparent.  Gillham writes, for instance: ‘Instead she has a swift desire to misbehave.  She tastes it like spice on the back of her tongue.’

Gillham also shows the other side of Anne, the lonely, longing girl, which is sometimes revealed in her diaries.  In one of the early chapters, the author explains: ‘This is the Anne she keeps a secret from others.  The panicked Anne.  The helpless Anne on the edge of a lonely void.  It would not do for such an Anne to show up in the world.’  The Anne of Gillham’s creation is three-dimensional, sometimes so much so that the loss of her potential – and that of millions more murdered in the Holocaust – feels overwhelming.

The omniscient perspective of Annelies, which follows our protagonist at every turn, was effective, and I felt that every aspect of the story was well handled.  It is often chilling – for instance, when Gillham asserts ‘Anne knows that she has no identity beyond the number imprinted on her arm.’  Annelies is both sensitive and immensely readable.  It feels incredibly thorough, and there are so many touching moments woven throughout.  In his author’s note, Gillham writes that he his ‘priority has been to honor Anne’s story with honesty and accuracy’, and indeed, this feels like exactly what he has achieved.

4

One From the Archive: ‘An Academic Question’ by Barbara Pym ****

First published in 2012.

Virago have recently reprinted several of Barbara Pym’s novels, all with new introductions by a selection of different authors, all avid fans of her work.  The introduction of  An Academic Question, first published posthumously in 1986, has been written by novelist Kate Saunders, who believes the book to be ‘witty, sharp, light as a syllabub… and with a cast of typically Pym-like eccentrics’.  She goes on to say that ‘no other novelist has celebrated our national silliness with such exuberance’.

71ww2biwk9nlAn Academic Question is essentially an amalgamation of two different manuscripts which Pym wrote and was dissatisfied with.  The novel tells the story of Caroline Grimstone, a ‘dissatisfied faculty wife’.  Caro and Alan live in a neo-Georgian house in the ‘provincial’ university sprawled across a nameless town in which Alan lectures.  They have a four-year-old daughter named Kate and a rather flippant Swedish au pair named Inge, both of whom Caro believes ‘in name and appearance, seemed very suitable, I thought, for a modern couple like Alan and me’.

The novel opens with the characters of Kitty Jeffreys and her middle-aged son Coco, both of whom left their home in the Caribbean ‘after the death of [Kitty’s] husband and, more importantly, the election of an all-black government’.  Coco, having been awarded a fellowship at the university, works alongside Caro’s husband Alan.  

Many secondary characters feature throughout the novel, the majority of them academics and lecturers at the university.  Certainly the two most interesting and eccentric characters are hedgehog fanatic and local bookshop owner Dolly Arborfield who spends large chunks of her pension money on brandy, and Crispin Maynard, an ardent collector of Africana.

Caroline’s first person perspective is used throughout.  The narrative voice works relatively well with the story but Caroline herself is not always a likeable character.  She is a rather self-pitying woman who feels ‘abandoned and neglected’.  She sees her young daughter as a burden and tries to palm her off onto the au pair as much as possible.  She is rather disgruntled with what life has afforded her but she essentially lacks drive to change the elements which she is displeased with.  The only thing which Caro does in order to give herself a sense of ‘self-worth’ is to begin to read to an elderly man named Reverend Stillingfleet, a resident at a local nursing home.  This arrangement seems rather too convenient, as Alan and his colleague Crispin Maynard have been wanting to read Reverend Stillingfleet’s manuscripts for some time but have thus far been unable to get hold of them.

The novel does tend to be rather dark in places.  The majority of the characters have secrets and shames which they try to keep from others, but it feels as though we, as readers, do not know the characters as well as we should.  Even Caroline as a first person narrator seems aloof and elusive.

Pym’s writing shines above the storyline and characters which she has created.  Throughout the novel, her descriptions are sometimes charming and always original.  For example, the wife of the university’s assistant librarian ‘seemed never to have recovered from the worries of card indexes and bibliographies in the days when she too had worked in a library’, and Coco and Kitty ‘always made a point of arriving last at everything, like royalty’.  Despite this, the prose does sometimes feel a little repetitive, which is a shame.

The writing style of the novel works well but there is little wit and amusement involved.  Whilst the two manuscripts have been merged together relatively well, it feels as though An Academic Question is lacking in something – whether a more likeable narrator, a slightly more in-depth storyline or an ending that does not feel so rushed, it is unclear.

2

One From the Archive: ‘Needlework’ by Deirdre Sullivan ****

First published in October 2019.

I do not tend to gravitate toward young adult books, but Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan sounded quite original.  Whilst I had not read any of her fiction before picking up this tome, I have heard a lot of positive comments about her writing, and was eager to sample it for myself.  Fellow Irish YA author Louise O’Neill, whose fiction I enjoy, writes: ‘Reading Needlework is similar to getting your first tattoo – it’s searing, often painful, but it is an experience you’ll never forget.’
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Our protagonist, sixteen-year-old Frances, is known as Ces.  Ces wants to become a tattoo artist, so that she can ’embroider skin with beautiful images.  But for now she’s just trying to reach adulthood without falling apart.’ She lives in Ireland, and has to work at a local newsagents in order to make ends meet.  She and her mother have left her violent father, and her mother often does not leave her bedroom during the day.  ‘She is a good mother,’ Ces tells us, ‘or she can be.  It’s just that she is broken and she knows I am as well but that doesn’t stop her breaking me even more.’

We learn, throughout, about Ces’ ‘meditation on her effort to maintain her bodily and spiritual integrity in the face of abuse, violation and neglect.’  She ruminates on the horrors which have been done to her, and the fear which she has of being seen as a victim.  She has a sexual relationship with the boy that lives next door in a house ‘mostly made of plywood and fag ash’, Tom, and recognises the deep-rooted problems at its heart: ‘There is something wrong with it, amoral even.  Not on my part, or on his, but kind of both.  I’m using him while also being used.’  Indeed, there is a volatility to each of the relationships in her life.

Sections of present-day narrative have been interspersed with poetic, rather mesmerising prose, which details tattoos and artwork. Ces is continually concerned with the body and the skin, and how it can be transformed into something beautiful, or just different.  The novel opens in the following way: ‘First prepare the skin.  Not the room, the tools you’ll use.  The skin itself, a mental switch to open you to something…  Needles, things that fascinate me always.  Much kinder and much crueller than are knives, a spindle-pierce through filaments and fingers.’  This continues throughout, pulling the whole story together, and often adding a little light relief to the dark subject matter.

The prose has some really gorgeous, textured writing to it, particularly when Sullivan explores tattoos, art, and marking oneself with something as permanent as a tattoo: ‘Your needle is a pen, and ink your pigment.  Fish-scale silver, saucy ketchup red.  Mute or lurid colour.  A whisper or a scream.’  The imagery which Sullivan creates is sometimes quite haunting.  She writes: ‘I drew an angry eye inside my book.  A woman made of snakes.  A crown of bones upon a kingly head.  A woman holding up a mirror to her decapitated neck.  A jar of honey filled with many bees.’

I found the narrative quite beguiling.  Ces is an unusual character in her outlook, and the way in which she tackles things.  She seems, in many ways, older than her years; she tends to be quite wise.  There is no real naivety to her, due to the situations which she has found herself in, and the way in which the agency of her body has been taken by others.  She is not always a loner, but she often feels alone.  She comments: ‘I am not liked.  People who do not know me automatically assume that I am a cold bitch.  That is the phrase they use.  Maybe it is true.  I find it difficult to warm to people.  I always assume that they pose a threat and gird myself accordingly.’

Ces’ observations of herself are suffused with pain; they are sometimes brutal, and often hard to read.  She does not hold out a great deal of hope for her future, either: ‘I sometimes see my life as a series of doors shutting loudly, one after another.’  I found her narrative voice entirely convincing throughout.  When she talks about her difficult past, and how it has affected her, she does so with a kind of gloomy beauty: ‘I thought Dad was the source of all my problems.  And now he is removed and things remain the same within my head.  I wish my brain was metamorphic rock.  Dark blue limestone changed to purest marble, wiping clean the dirt that lurks in pores.  Like a phoenix, rising from the heat, all new and perfect.’

Needlework is described in its blurb as ‘powerful, poetic and disturbing’; it is all of these things.  Its beautifully written prose is often bleak, and there are such vivid descriptions of violence and abuse within it that it should not be read by the faint-hearted.  Needlework is more hard-hitting than any other young adult novel I have encountered; there is so much within it that seems more suited to gritty adult fiction.  Sullivan has certainly tackled some difficult subjects here, particularly with regard to sexual abuse, and I would suggest that it is not an appropriate novel for those under the age of fourteen to read.  I, somewhat older than the novel’s intended audience, found myself wincing at points in the narrative.

Sullivan presents a raw, unflinching portrait of the real troubles that so many young girls are forced to go through, and Needlework is all the more unforgettable and striking for it.  This coming-of-age novel is painfully observed, and well worth picking up if you’re looking for something challenging to read.  Needlework did so much more than I was expecting, and I imagine that its powerful story will stay with me for a long time to come.

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Five Under-the-Radar Books

I was thankfully able to read some wonderful books whilst in the horrid period of lockdown.  To my surprise, I found that many of them, to date, have been seldom read by other bloggers and reviewers.  I thought, therefore, that I would collect together five books, all of which I feel warrant far more attention than they have had to date.  All are relatively new releases, and should be readily available wherever you get your reading material from.

 

52889970._sy475_1. A Saint in Swindon by Alice Jolly a dark, dystopian story about the sheer power of literature in uncertain times (certainly fitting to read during the lockdown period…)

When a stranger arrives in town, with a bulging blue bag and a whiff of adventure, the neighbourhood takes notice. When he asks for his meals to be sent to his room and peace and quiet for reading, curiosity turns to obsession. Each day he stays there, locked in his room, demanding books: Plath, Kafka, Orwell, Lawrence, Fitzgerald, James, Bronte (the eldest), Dickens, Dumas, Kesey – on and on, the stranger never leaving his room. Who exactly is he? What is he reading? And will it be able to save us from the terrible state of the world?  Written by award-winning author Alice Jolly, and based on an idea by the book lovers of Swindon town, this funny and, ultimately, dystopian tale, reminds us of the importance of literature in an increasingly dark world.

 

2. The Harpy by Megan Hunter a dark novel, very much in the vein of Hunter’s debut, 50433219._sy475_The End We Start From, which feels startlingly original at times

Lucy and Jake live in a house by a field where the sun burns like a ball of fire. Lucy has set her career aside in order to devote her life to the children, to their finely tuned routine, and to the house itself, which comforts her like an old, sly friend. But then a man calls one afternoon with a shattering message: his wife has been having an affair with Lucy’s husband, Jake. The revelation marks a turning point: Lucy and Jake decide to stay together, but make a special arrangement designed to even the score and save their marriage–she will hurt him three times.  As the couple submit to a delicate game of crime and punishment, Lucy herself begins to change, surrendering to a transformation of both mind and body from which there is no return.  Told in dazzling, musical prose, The Harpy is a dark, staggering fairy tale, at once mythical and otherworldly and fiercely contemporary. It is a novel of love, marriage and its failures, of power, control and revenge, of metamorphosis and renewal.

 

46258455._sx318_3. On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons by Laura Cumming – an engrossing memoir of the brief disappearance of Cumming’s mother, and the tumultuous history which the pair discover of her past

‘Uncovering the mystery of her mother’s disappearance as a child: Laura Cumming, prize-winning author and art critic, takes a closer look at her family story.  In the autumn of 1929, a small child was kidnapped from a Lincolnshire beach. Five agonising days went by before she was found in a nearby village. The child remembered nothing of these events and nobody ever spoke of them at home. It was another fifty years before she even learned of the kidnap.  The girl became an artist and had a daughter, art writer Laura Cumming. Cumming grew up enthralled by her mother’s strange tales of life in a seaside hamlet of the 1930s, and of the secrets and lies perpetuated by a whole community. So many puzzles remained to be solved. Cumming began with a few criss-crossing lives in this fraction of English coast – the postman, the grocer, the elusive baker – but soon her search spread right out across the globe as she discovered just how many lives were affected by what happened that day on the beach – including her own.  On Chapel Sands is a book of mystery and memoir. Two narratives run through it: the mother’s childhood tale; and Cumming’s own pursuit of the truth. Humble objects light up the story: a pie dish, a carved box, an old Vick’s jar. Letters, tickets, recipe books, even the particular slant of a copperplate hand give vital clues. And pictures of all kinds, from paintings to photographs, open up like doors to the truth. Above all, Cumming discovers how to look more closely at the family album – with its curious gaps and missing persons – finding crucial answers, captured in plain sight at the click of a shutter.’

 

4. You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken a thoroughly 52759381._sx318_sy475_enjoyable novel about three friends set in the Republic of Ireland, and their formative years

Katie, Maeve and Evelyn – friends forever, united by their childhood games and their dreams of escaping the tiny Irish town of Glenbruff. Outspoken, unpredictable and intoxicating, Evelyn is the undisputed leader of the trio. That is, until the beautiful, bold Pamela Cooney arrives from Dublin and changes Glenbruff forever… Told from Katie’s witty, quirky perspective, Frances Macken’s debut beautifully captures life in a small town and the power of yearning for something bigger. Filled with unforgettable characters and crackling dialogue, You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here takes a keen-eyed look at the complexities of female friendship, the corrosive power of jealousy and guilt, and the way that life can quietly erode our dreams unless we’re willing to fight for them.’

 

43447542._sy475_5. Attraction by Ruby Porter – so much more than a road trip novel set in New Zealand, there is so much to admire within this collection of fictional vignettes

Three women are on a road trip, navigating the motorways of the North Island, their relationships with one another and New Zealand’s colonial history. Our narrator doesn’t know where she stands with Ilana, her not-quite-girlfriend. She has a complex history with her best friend, Ashi. She’s haunted by the spectre of her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend. And her period’s now weeks late.  Attraction is a meditative novel of connection, inheritance and the stories we tell ourselves. In lyrical fragments, Porter explores what it means to be and to belong, to create and to destroy.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which pique your interest?

4

‘Agatha’ by Anne Cathrine Bomann ***

I had not heard of Danish author Anne Cathrine Bomann’s debut novel, Agatha, before spotting it in my local library.  Bomann’s 2017 novel became an international bestseller by word of mouth, and has been translated into over twenty languages to date.  Its English translation has been nicely handled by Caroline Waight.

50774470._sx318_sy475_Set in Paris during the 1940s, Agatha focuses upon a crotchety unnamed psychiatrist and one of his patients.  The psychiatrist is counting down the days until his retirement, quite literally marking the hours of consultations off from one day to the next: ‘Retiring at seventy-two meant that there were five months still to work.  Twenty-two weeks in total, and if all my patients came that meant I had exactly eight hundred sessions to go.  If somebody cancelled or fell ill, the number would of course be fewer.  There was a certain comfort in that, in spite of everything.’  He laments being old, and the myriad ways in which his body has altered: ‘And just as the record came to an end and the silence left me alone in the front room, came the fatal blow: there was no way out.  I had to live in this traitorous grey prison until it killed me.’

Throughout, he continues to reflect on the following, the fear which he feels in finishing work and being at a loose end: ‘Imagine if it turned out life outside these walls was just as pointless as life inside…  It occurred to me that I’d been imagining my proper life, my reward for all the grind, was waiting for me when I retired.  Yet, as I sat there, I couldn’t for the life of me work out what that existence would contain that was worth looking forward to.  Surely the only things I could reliably expect were fear and loneliness?’

His plans to wind down, however, are disrupted when a woman named Agatha Zimmermann, who has a history of rather severe mental illness, walks into his practice and demands to be seen.  Agatha is a young German woman, who has suffered from ‘severe mania after a suicide attempt a few years ago.’  She is striking to the psychiatrist; he notes that ‘Her brown eyes shone fever-bright and her gaze was so intense it felt as though she’d grabbed my arms.’

There is a moral element at play in the story.  Bomann has focused upon the ways in which the psychiatrist and Agatha help one another – the psychiatrist in terms of alleviating Agatha’s symptoms, and Agatha with regard to helping him out of his shell.  Until he met her, he kept a distance from everyone, choosing to have no friends, and to live entirely alone.

I did like the focus upon the psychiatrist, and his own foibles and problems, here.  As novelist Rowan Hisayo Buchanan writes, ‘it is with pleasure that we find ourselves analysing the psychiatrist rather than his patient.’ One gets the impression, from very early on, that the psychiatrist, who has been practicing for almost fifty years, has no passion whatsoever for his profession, or for his patients.  In his rather grumpy, almost offhand narrative, he tells us: ‘Many years’ training helped me to murmur in the right places without actually listening, and if I was lucky I wouldn’t have registered one single word by the time she left the room.’

I also enjoyed the structure of the novel, split as it is into very slim chapters.  The narrative is interspersed with Agatha’s patient records, a simple yet effective tool.  Agatha is a novella, really, standing at just under 150 pages.  This length does lend itself well to the story;  the compactness of the book, and what has been left unsaid, perhaps makes one consider more about Agatha than they might otherwise.

I was relatively interested in the characters, but for me, what let the book down was the sheer lack of setting.  We are told in the book’s blurb that it is set in Paris during the 1940s, but this does not come across at all in the prose.  There are very few descriptions of the world beyond the psychiatrist’s office, and no mention whatsoever of the Second World War, or the Occupation of Paris; to me, these are major historical events which should at least be touched upon, or mentioned.  The novel feels rather ‘everyman’; it could, really, be set in any historical period, or any place, as there is so little detail within it that is not focused upon its characters.  There is, consequently, very little atmosphere to be found within Agatha.  For me, this let the whole down somewhat, as did the way in which the book felt far more modern to me than it should have.  I would have liked Agatha to be better rooted in history.

Agatha is certainly readable, and I flew through it, reading it in just a couple of hours.  The story is quite a heartwarming one, and there is much reflection as to how each protagonist changes over time.  At times, though, the prose is a little light.  Agatha is sweet enough, but since finishing the book, I do not feel like I have taken a great deal from it.  It lacked a little substance for me as a reader.

1

One From the Archive: ‘Whispers Through a Megaphone’ by Rachel Elliott ****

Rachel Elliott’s Whispers Through a Megaphone was longlisted for 2016’s Baileys Women’s Prize, won, of course, by Lisa McInerney with her novel The Glorious Heresies.  I am not familiar with the latter, although it does have a place on my enormous to-read list, but I can wholeheartedly say that Elliott’s debut novel is very good indeed.  Laurie Penny has deemed it ‘a book with a big, beating heart’, and the word ‘charming’ is repeated in a lot of the reviews on the press release.

There are two protagonists in Whispers Through a Megaphone – thirty-five year old Miriam Delaney, and Ralph Swoon, a psychotherapist with twin teenage sons.  When the novel opens, it has been three years since Miriam last left her house:9780992918224

‘No, that’s not quite true.  She has stepped into the back garden to feed the koi carp, stepped into the porch to collect the milk and leave a bin bag for her neighbour to place at the end of the drive.  But step out into the street?  No chance.’

Tossing a coin essentially hands Miriam back her freedom: ‘Heads I could be part of the world, tails I’ll always be outside it’.  Her theme song of sorts is Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’: ‘It’s the soundtrack to a future that feels terrifying, exciting, possible, impossible’.  When she does make it out of the house, Elliott wonderfully describes her inner world: ‘It is unusual for Miriam to be gleeful like this, because her default personality setting is melancholy infused with kindness, which sounds like a room spray for introverts’.

Ralph receives the curveball on his birthday, of all days, that his wife no longer loves him.  He decides to move out without informing her, taking what little he needs, and setting up camp in an abandoned shed in the woods.  He adopts a stray cat, names it Treacle, and has companionable suppers with her.  One evening, quite soon into his stay, Miriam comes across him, running, as she does, into the woods in fright: ‘But she has found him.  Or maybe he has found her.  They haven’t found each other, not yet’.  The wholly platonic relationship between the pair which follows is rather heartwarming; it’s rather refreshing to read a novel in which a romance is not automatically sparked under such circumstances.

Throughout the novel, flashbacks are given to Miriam’s childhood, lived with her rather cruel mother, Frances.  She is not bullied much at school; rather, she ‘was only visible when the children were bored’.  She has been told that her father had an aneurysm and died when she was just one, whilst he was outside pegging up various items of laundry.  Her mother’s erratic behaviour is a staple of her girlhood, and even begins a clandestine relationship with Miriam’s married headmaster.  Told to be quiet so often in childhood, Miriam’s voice has been damaged; she can only communicate in whispers, which many of the other characters attribute to her contracting severe laryngitis.

Elliott has a witty, comical way of writing, and her descriptions particularly are rendered quite original in this manner: ‘washing up water that was supposed to smell of lavender and lemon, but actually smelt like the passageway between Asda and the car park’, and, of Ralph, ‘saying “blow me” was something he had inherited from his father, along with narrow shoulders and a pert little bottom’.

Whispers Through a Megaphone is about people in all of their many horrid, wonderful forms.  It is an engaging and surprising read, in which each and every character who peppers the pages has his or her own personal crisis to deal with; Ralph’s sons, for instance – angry Arthur, and Stanley, who is trying to keep his relationship with the serious Canadian Joe under wraps.  The relationships which Elliott builds are complex, but one gets a feel for them almost as soon as each character is introduced, or each situation shifts.  The structure, in which alternate chapters follow Miriam and Ralph, works wonderfully.  Whispers Through a Megaphone is full of depth; it is essentially about a whole cast of characters discovering themselves, and reclaiming some part of their past, or their future. A lovely uplifting read, which is perfect for every season.

2

An Abandoned Book: ‘Golden Child’ by Claire Adam **

I had been intrigued by Claire Adam’s debut novel, Golden Child, since its publication.  There is very little literature set in the Caribbean – one of my favourite regions on earth – which I have found readily available to date, and thus I was pleased when I found a copy of the quite delightfully designed hardback in my local library.

39731604._sy475_Golden Child is set in Trinidad, and deals with the disappearance of a thirteen-year-old boy.  The book’s blurb does not give a great amount away; it simply says that its protagonist, Clyde, has to come to terms with what it means to be the father of twin boys, and is made to discover ‘truths about Trinidad, about his family, and about himself.’  Whilst I enjoy familial sagas and mystery novels, and was intrigued by the blurb, I found the novel itself very difficult to get into.

The descriptions within the novel were not as I was expecting.  Rather than drawing attention to the lush landscapes and tropical weather of Trinidad, I found Adam’s prose rather plain.  For instance, when Clyde begins to go and search for his son, she writes: ‘Shorts and slippers are no good for that bush across the road.  Before, when Clyde was small, he used to go in there barefoot: by daylight you can easily pick your way along, avoiding ant-hills, sharp stones, prickers and whatever else.  But it’s a long time since he’s been in there, and also – who knows what will be out now, at night?  Snakes, frogs, agouti, all the night-time creatures, or spirits, or whatever they are.’  There is so little beauty within the novel, even with regard to the natural world.

When I examined the thoughts of other readers on Goodreads, I found that Golden Child has very mixed reviews; some have absolutely adored it, whilst others have either abandoned the reading process, or given it just one star.  This is, of course, markedly different to the reviews adorned on the book’s cover, which laud it variously as ‘intensely moving’, ‘quietly powerful and compelling’, and draw comparisons between Adam’s writing and that of ‘icons of her tradition like V.S. Naipaul’.

To me, Golden Child felt like something of a missed opportunity.  The novel did nothing to draw me, as a reader and observer, in; rather, I found its characters two-dimensional, and its settings rather drab.  The dialogue between characters is dull and repetitive, and the pace is plodding.  So little atmosphere and tension have been built, which I find peculiar for a novel which sees itself as a mystery, almost a thriller.  There is a real lack of emotional depth here, and too much superfluous detail; Adam focuses more on what characters are wearing and drinking than how they feel.  There is very much a ‘tell, don’t show’ mentality in place, it seems.

I read several chapters of Golden Child, but found myself reluctant to return to the novel whenever I put it down.  The story did nothing to draw me in, and I could not get on with Adam’s very matter-of-fact writing style.  I did stop reading before I found out what happened to the missing teenager, but a mixture of disinterest and the hint at disturbing elements which other reviewers mentioned put me off.  I am sure that there will be readers who really get on with this novel, but I, alas, am not one of them.

2

‘Saraswati Park’ by Anjali Joseph ****

I travelled to Mumbai (once known as Bombay) on a cruise last November, and have been eager to read more books set in the city – and, indeed, within the whole of India – ever since.  I therefore requested Anjali Joseph’s debut novel, Saraswati Park, from my local library, and settled down with it immediately.

8517801Although it seems underread, with less than 100 reviews and just 600 readers on Goodreads, the novel was well received upon its publication in 2010, and won both the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction and the Betty Trask Prize.  The Guardian writes that this ‘subtle novel is infused with multiple regrets.  How true to life it seems…’, and The Times calls Joseph ‘a latter-day Mrs Gaskell’.  The Literary Review takes a wider view, noting that the author ‘perfectly articulates a growing sense of alienation as the old, socially fractured – yet transparent – India is superseded by modern democracy.’

The protagonists of Saraswati Park are married couple Lakshmi and Mohan Karekar, who live in the quiet suburb of Saraswati Park in Bombay.  Mohan works as a letter writer, and Lakshmi is, to all intents and purposes, a housewife.  They are settled, with their children grown and living elsewhere.  When Mohan’s young nephew, Ashish, comes to stay with them, however, the lives of all three are changed.  Ashish is ‘an uncertain 19-year-old’, who is coming to terms with his homosexuality, and is struggling to make sense of himself.  Within the family, tensions begin to grow, and Mohan and Lakshmi ‘start to question the quiet rhythm of their lives – and discontents, left unspoken for many years, begin to break the surface.’

The sense of place which Joseph has created here is wonderful.  From the outset, one can feel the constant buzz and heat of Bombay, and the always moving stream of people which fills its streets and alleyways.  The novel is also highly evocative of its characters; we are aware of Mohan and Lakshmi, their motivations, and their relationship with one another from very early on.  Ashish, too, is presented as a daydreamer, rather vague and unable to stick to one path.  We learn about the past lives of each of the characters in turn, which gives them more solidity.  Their interactions with one another have been shrewdly imagined, and just as much importance is given to what is unsaid.  One gets the sense that Joseph really sees her characters.

Joseph makes one continually aware of old and new Bombay, and the sense of tradition and change within the city.  She writes, for instance: ‘A hundred and fifty years earlier this had been the beach, before the land reclamations; perhaps it was the murmur of the waves one heard on the busiest of days, through the endless talking… and the rumble of the red buses, the taxi horns, the metallic steps of each person hurrying through the Fort.’  The contrasts between rich and poor are, as one might expect, apparent throughout.

I love character-focused novels, and fiction set in India is a real favourite of mine.  It is therefore difficult to imagine how I would not enjoy Joseph’s novel.  Although parts of Saraswati Park are really quite slow, the overall novel is a delight to read.  The exploration of Ashish’s sexuality is one of the best handled elements in the entire book.  Saraswati Park is a lovely piece of escapist fiction and, with the rich picture Joseph creates of life in modern India, it would be the perfect choice for the even the most discerning armchair traveller.

4

‘Orphan Island’ by Rose Macaulay ***

I found, to my delight, that my local library system had a copy of Rose Macaulay’s Orphan Island in their stock deposit collection, and I duly reserved it.  The copy which I received was rather an ugly hardback, with library stamps in it dating from the 1960s and 1970s.  Regardless, I settled down with it happily, eager to read more of Macaulay’s writing.

9781448204267First published in 1924, and set during the mid-Victorian 1850s and the 1920s, Orphan Island takes one on rather a memorable romp to an island in the South Pacific, ‘far beyond even Tahiti’.  This island is, ‘at times… almost too perfect, too well-equipped by nature.’  Here, one family, fresh from Cambridge, arrives during the Roaring Twenties.  They land on the same island which Miss Charlotte Smith has, in effect, colonised, after landing there in 1855.

Miss Smith, a ‘kind-hearted lady of thirty or so’ at this point, has been tasked with taking ‘some fifty orphans, of various nationalities and all of them under ten years of age’ to San Francisco from England, where an orphanage has been provided for them.  Of course, this does not go to plan, and after the ship in which they are travelling becomes damaged, they are squashed into lifeboats and set adrift, finally ending up on a ‘peaceful and uninhabited’ island.  Miss Smith and ‘her orphans’ became castaways, ‘with nothing but a meagre library and an ideal vision of Queen Victoria at Balmoral to guide them towards the future.’  Of course, the island also provides the castaways, which include a doctor and a nursemaid, with an abundance of delicious fruits, and a freshwater spring.  The two sailors who travel with them soon abscond, and more adventure ensues.

The Cambridge-based grandson of one of these soldiers, sociologist Mr Thinkwell, finds out about the island during the 1920s.  Soon, he and his three grown-up children – Charles, William, and Rosamond – all of whom are conveniently at a relatively loose end, decide to make a journey there, to see if there are any survivors.  Their ‘voyage passed,’ writes Macaulay, ‘like a strange and lovely dream.  For days and nights they flew full-sail…’.  Of course, they find a fully-established colony, in which the now elderly Miss Smith is the fully-fledged matriarch.  She has built her very particular persona upon that of Queen Victoria.

However, the island’s society is hardly a utopian one.  Rather, the hierarchical class system is very much in place, and they rely on slaves who ‘don’t expect’ to be paid.  There are huge differences, too, between the island’s inhabitants and the Thinkwells: ‘Between them seventy years seemed to yawn, and neither understood.’  We are given a sweeping history of the island, as well as many musings upon religion.

The edition which I read featured an introduction written by Alan Pryce-Jones.  He calls Macaulay a ‘moralist’, explaining that ‘she found the spectacle of life extraordinary and fascinating; she was never deceived by appearances; but she was always unwilling to pass a final judgment.’  Pryce-Jones is well aware of the ‘gleam in Rose Macaulay’s eye which is would be unwise to overlook: she is seeing how far she can go, playing with her reader as she plays with her own fantasy.’  He believes that Orphan Island is ‘an admirable point of entry’ to her work.

As with other Macaulay novels which I have read, she has a great deal to say in Orphan Island, and writes very well.  Her descriptions of place and person are rich and sensuous; for instance, when she writes of Rosamond: ‘She wanted to swim, to wade, to curl up in the warm sand and sleep.  A small wind spiced with vanilla stroked her cheek, stole into her mouth.  There was a stirring of birds in the woods, and sharp, staccato cries, and it seemed that a monkey also woke and sang.’  Of one of the island’s inhabitants, who takes Rosamond under her wing, Macaulay notes: ‘Her voice was clear and cool, like a small waterfall, or ice tinkling on glass; her face was a blown candle, which smoulders still.’

Macaulay, throughout, poses much for her reader to consider, and Orphan Island is certainly an interesting novel in a lot of ways.  It does not, however, contain a driving narrative; there are some segments which are quite slow, and almost plod along.  Other sections are constructed like an interview, telling of practices on the island from the mouth of one of its citizens.  Orphan Island is rather a far-fetched novel in many ways, but it does provide a slice of escapist fiction.  The novel feels, at times, like an adventure story, somewhat in the vein of Swallows and Amazons but on a far more exotic scale.

7

Ten Great Mysteries

I have loved reading mystery novels since I was a child, when I reread Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven series over and over.  Whilst I still read a lot of mystery books, I realised recently that I often neglect to post about them.  This is largely because I do not like to give things away.  I myself tend to read reviews of mystery novels only when I have read them, just in case a major plot point is thrown in by mistake.  With this in mind, I have decided to compile a list of ten great mysteries, all of which I have really enjoyed, and which I would highly recommend, whether you are a seasoned mystery reader or not.

 

1. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie 9780007136834
‘Ten strangers, apparently with little in common, are lured to an island mansion off the coast of Devon by the mysterious U.N.Owen. Over dinner, a record begins to play, and the voice of an unseen host accuses each person of hiding a guilty secret. That evening, former reckless driver Tony Marston is found murdered by a deadly dose of cyanide.  The tension escalates as the survivors realise the killer is not only among them but is preparing to strike again… and again…’

 

97807515372842. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
‘Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history.  In those few quiet moments, she unwittingly assumes a quest she will discover is her birthright – a hunt for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the Dracula myth. Deciphering obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions, and evading terrifying adversaries, one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil.  Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel is an adventure of monumental proportions – a captivating tale that blends fact and fantasy, history and the present with an assurance that is almost unbearably suspenseful – and utterly unforgettable.’

 

 

3. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (my review can be found here) 9780099466031
‘The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective.  William collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of night. A spectacular popular and critical success, The Name of the Rose is not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.

 

97818604925944. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (my review can be found here)
‘Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.’ Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.’

 

5. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin 9780008124120
‘Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon vivant, arrives for what he thinks will be a relaxing holiday in the city of dreaming spires. Late one night, however, he discovers the dead body of an elderly woman lying in a toyshop and is coshed on the head. When he comes to, he finds that the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store. The police are understandably skeptical of this tale but Richard’s former schoolmate, Gervase Fen (Oxford professor and amateur detective), knows that truth is stranger than fiction (in fiction, at least). Soon the intrepid duo are careening around town in hot pursuit of clues but just when they think they understand what has happened, the disappearing-toyshop mystery takes a sharp turn…’

 

97801401677716. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
‘Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of morality, their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.  The Secret History is a story of two parts; the chain of events that led to the death of a classmate – and what happened next.’

 

7. The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle 9780241952979
‘In this tale drawn from the note books of Dr Watson, the deadly hand of Professor Moriarty once more reaches out to commit a vile and ingenious crime. However, a mole in Moriarty’s frightening criminal organization alerts Sherlock Holmes of the evil deed by means of a cipher.  When Holmes and Watson arrive at a Sussex manor house they appear to be too late. The discovery of a body suggests that Moriarty’s henchmen have been at their work. But there is much more to this tale of murder than at first meets the eye and Sherlock Holmes is determined to get to the bottom of it.’

 

97814091929548. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
‘Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten.  It was once home to the March family: fascinating, manipulative Isabelle; brutal, dangerous Charlie; and the wild, untamed twins, Emmeline and Adeline. But the house hides a chilling secret which strikes at the very heart of each of them, tearing their lives apart…  Now Margaret Lea is investigating Angelfield’s past, and its mysterious connection to the enigmatic writer Vida Winter. Vida’s history is mesmering – a tale of ghosts, governesses, and gothic strangeness. But as Margaret succumbs to the power of her storytelling, two parallel stories begin to unfold…  What has Angelfield been hiding? What is the secret that strikes at the heart of Margaret’s own, troubled life? And can both women ever confront the ghosts that haunt them…?  The Thirteenth Tale is a spellbinding mystery, a love letter to storytelling, and a modern classic.’

 

9. The House at Riverton by Kate Morton 9781416550532
‘Grace Bradley went to work at Riverton House as a servant when she was just a girl, before the First World War. For years her life was inextricably tied up with the Hartford family, most particularly the two daughters, Hannah and Emmeline. In the summer of 1924, at a glittering society party held at the house, a young poet shot himself. The only witnesses were Hannah and Emmeline and only they–and Grace–know the truth. In 1999, when Grace is ninety-eight years old and living out her last days in a nursing home, she is visited by a young director who is making a film about the events of that summer. She takes Grace back to Riverton House and reawakens her memories. Told in flashback, this is the story of Grace’s youth during the last days of Edwardian aristocratic privilege shattered by war, of the vibrant twenties and the changes she witnessed as an entire way of life vanished forever. The novel is full of secrets–some revealed, others hidden forever, reminiscent of the romantic suspense of Daphne du Maurier. It is also a meditation on memory, the devastation of war and a beautifully rendered window into a fascinating time in history. ‘

 

978000819651610. The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
‘”Anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe,” declared the parson, brandishing a carving knife above a joint of roast beef, “would be doing the world at large a service!”  It was a careless remark for a man of the cloth. And one which was to come back and haunt the clergyman just a few hours later. From seven potential murderers, Miss Marple must seek out the suspect who has both motive and opportunity.’

 

Which are your favourite mystery novels?  Has anything on this list caught your eye?