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Two Reviews: ‘Kadian Journal’ and ‘The Little Girls’

The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen ***
9780099287780I have found Elizabeth Bowen’s novels a little hit and miss in the past, but since absolutely adoring The House in Paris, I was eager to read more of her work. I selected The Little Girls as my next choice, and initially found it a little difficult to get into; Bowen’s writing is notoriously beautiful and complex, and it always takes me a chapter or two to feel entirely comfortable with the way in which she writes.

The plot of The Little Girls, with a mystery at its heart, appealed to me, and whilst I came away without loving it, it is definitely a novel which I admire. The novel, as with many of Bowen’s, is very character driven. I was not, however, pulled in enough to warrant a four or five star rating, and only found myself completely engaged with the section in which the three protagonists were ‘little girls’. Bowen, for me, creates far more believable child characters than she does adults, and I was struck by every character trait and peculiarity about them. The dialogue here is often meandering, and a few retorts were utterly nonsensical; this can make the novel feel a little confusing at times. Had The Little Girls contained very little dialogue, the chances are that I would have loved it.

 

 

Kadian Journal by Thomas Harding ***
Harding’s reflection on grief, after his only son, Kadian, is killed in a freak cycling 9780099591849accident, opens on that pivotal day. The family are cycling in the Wiltshire countryside, when he is killed; of witnessing the accident, Harding writes: ‘He’s suddenly way ahead of me. A hundred feet perhaps. He must have gathered speed. And then there’s a flash of a white van, moving fast from left to right, at the bottom of the slope. It shouldn’t be there. And the van hits Kadian. Driving him away from view, away from me.’

Much of the memoir uses this choppy narrative style, which works very well to describe the accident and its aftermath, but is not so effective at other times. For the most part, Harding’s prose is both heartfelt and very matter-of-fact; the latter made me feel rather detached from the whole. It felt, at times, as though I was intruding upon somebody’s personal diary, which I had no right to read. There was no real sense that Kadian Journal was meant for a general readership; it felt too raw, in many ways. Harding also uses rather a lot of repetition unnecessarily, which I did find wearing after a while. Kadian Journal is a nice tribute to a lost son, but it did not always plunge the depths or the despair which I would have expected from such a book.

 

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Three Novels: ‘Winter’, ‘War Crimes for the Home’, and ‘Turtles All the Way Down’

Winter by Ali Smith ***** 9780241207024
Anybody who knows me will not be surprised in the slightest to hear that Ali Smith’s Winter, the second novel in her seasonal quartet, was one of my most highly anticipated reads of 2017. I received a signed copy for Christmas, and read it just three days afterwards. The novel is, again unsurprisingly, startlingly brilliant; I was swept in immediately, and was once again blown away by the quality and clarity of Smith’s writing. Winter is searing, and so clever; it is once incredibly topical, informed, and important. I cannot speak highly enough of the novel in my review; I shall merely end by saying that it is an absolutely brilliant literary offering from Smith, as per.

 

9780747561460War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen ****
I have very much enjoyed most of Liz Jensen’s novels to date, and the storyline of War Crimes for the Home would have piqued my interest even if I had not already been acquainted with her work. This is, I believe, my first foray into her historical fiction, and I found it very enjoyable. This takes place on the Home Front in Britain during the Second World War, and the battles fought on British soil, along with the effects which they brought, have been well captured. I liked the use of retrospect, and the memory loss which present-day Gloria suffers with has been handled well. Not at all a nostalgic portrayal of times gone by, War Crimes for the Home is sure to appeal to every fan of historical fiction that likes to be surprised a little in their reading.

 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green **** 9780525555360
As with many readers, John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down was a highly anticipated read for me. I really enjoy his writing, particularly with regard to the dialogue which he sculpts; it is not always entirely authentic, in that I cannot imagine many teenagers speaking as articulately as he clearly can, but it is stuffed with original ideas, and beautiful turns of phrase. Green’s portrayal of anxiety is not a stereotypical one, such as I have read before; rather, it has depth. The plot is not a predictable, and it certainly throws up some surprises along the way. Whilst not my favourite of his novels, I still found it markedly difficult to put Turtles All the Way Down well… all the way down.

 

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One From the Archive: ‘Peony in Love’ by Lisa See ***

I have wanted to read more of See’s work since finishing her gorgeous Snow Flower and The Secret Fan. I was expecting something along the same lines if I’m honest, with constantly beautiful writing, characters I felt sympathy for, and a wonderfully crafted sense of times past in the fascinating country of China. 9780812975222

When beginning Peony in Love however, I found that it did not pull me in as much as the aforementioned novel, and I even began to get a little discontented with it as I reached the second part. The writing was relatively nice – an insipid word, but sadly I can pay no higher compliment – but something about the narrative voice made it feel a lot more modern on the whole than it should have. It was supposed to be the account of a young girl living in 16th century China, and on occasion it read like an overexcited and thoroughly modern teenager had penned it. I did not like Peony, our narrator and protagonist, at all. She was incredibly self-important, and whilst she acted as though she was so grown up, she was in reality very naive. Peony had the kind of youthful arrogance which really puts me off in novels (though I do adore Holden Caulfield – go figure). I suppose we can put See’s portrayal of Peony partly down to the teenage condition, but she very much overdid this element of the plot in my eyes.

The period of history which See addresses in Peony in Love is fascinating, but I do not feel that it is explored as well as it could have been. As in Snow Flower, the foot-binding scenes made me feel rather sick. With regard to the history presented, I felt that some of the characters clashed a little with their social backdrop. We are told why several of the protagonists act in the ways in which they do after a while, but I still struggle to believe that someone in 16th century China would be so unfailingly rude to her husband as Peony’s mother is.

Overall, I found Peony in Love to be rather an odd tale, and a thoroughly unexpected one. On the face of it, it is a love story, but elements of it are rather creepy. The cultural history which See portrays is fascinating but horrendously brutal, and I only wish See had made more of it within the novel.

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‘Doppler’ by Erlend Loe ****

In Loe’s native country of Norway, Doppler, which was first published in 2004, has sold over 100,000 copies, and the author is seen as something of a Scandinavian bestseller – for good reason. This novel is described as ‘a charming, absurd and cleverly subversive fable… about consumerism, existence… and a baby elk called Bongo’. An intriguing premise, certainly. So what is Doppler all about? 9781781851050

It tells the story of Andreas Doppler, a citizen of Oslo, who has recently lost his father and is about to become a parent himself for the third time. At the outset of the novel, Doppler states his current status in rather a matter of fact way: ‘My father is dead. And yesterday I took the life of an elk’. He goes on to say: ‘well, how can I put it, after I moved into the forest, for that is actually what happened, that’s what I do, I live in the forest’.

This move into the forest came as something of a shock for Doppler’s family. After a cycling accident, in which he tells us ‘I fell. Quite badly’, he is happy to find that his mind is finally void of all of the trivial everyday thoughts which once filled it, ranging from theme songs of his young son’s favourite television shows to the kinds of tiles he and his wife should buy for their bathroom. In jolly naivety, he believes that his wife, teenage daughter and young son Gregus will be better off without him. Doppler as a character is straight to the point and certainly knows his own mind. His prose is often blunt: ‘I don’t wish to meet people. They disgust me’. Something about this brutal honesty and the no-holds-barred approach to the events which pepper the text is endearing.

The baby elk, Bongo, comes into the story after Doppler kills his mother, and is soon the main focus of the man’s attentions. At first this feeling is one of loathing: ‘That bloody elk. If it comes back, I’ll split its skull open’, but it soon turns to understanding: ‘It’s all alone and it’s beginning to realise the world is a harsh place, and it cannot see any future or meaning in anything. Of course, it’s immature of it to take out its frustration on me, but what else can you expect? After all, it’s only a child’. Just one page after this occurs, their friendship is cemented: ‘We slept together in the tent that night. The calf supplied a surprising amount of heat. I used it as a pillow for most of the night, and when I woke up this morning, we lay looking at each other in a close, intimate way that I had seldom experienced with people’. He soon comes to think that he has actually done the elk a favour by separating it from its mother, stating: ‘… and by the way, I continued after a short pause, your mother would soon have brutally broken the ties between you two in any case. She would have shoved you away from her and told you to push off…. You lot seem so good-natured, but you treat your kids like shit’. During these one-sided conversations, the elk – and the reader – becomes Doppler’s confidante, seeming to listen patiently to his every outburst and pearl of wisdom.

The narrative style which Loe has crafted throughout Doppler takes us right inside the head of our protagonist. He talks directly to us as though he trusts us with his every secret, and this creates a kind of camaraderie between the reader and character almost immediately. The prose style does not follow general conventions, and there are often commas where full stops should be, but therein lies the beauty of the book. The narrative is quite philosophical in places, and is filled with complex ideas which mingle with Doppler’s wilderness existence in interesting ways.

Don Shaw and Don Bartlett have provided a wonderful translation of the text, which I am sure rings true of the original. Sadly, there are quite a few editorial mistakes throughout the book; this does not detract from the wonderfully engrossing story, but it is a real shame.

The book as an object is lovely – a cream hardback with dark red endpapers and lovely red and white illustrations adorning the slipcover. The story is lovely too – witty, satirical, humorous and even quite touching in places. We meet Doppler’s friends as he himself does, and it feels as though we are right there beside him on his grand adventure.

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Highly Anticipated: 2018 Releases

I am currently trying to stop adding books to my extensive to-read lists, but I could not resist sneaking a peek into a few book lists which detail 2018 releases.  With this in mind, I have made a list of ten which I will be seeking out over the course of the year.

1. Awayland by Ramona Ausubel (short stories; 1st January) 35792793
‘An inventive story collection that spans the globe as it explores love, childhood, and parenthood with an electric mix of humor and emotion.  Acclaimed for the grace, wit, and magic of her novels, Ramona Ausubel introduces us to a geography both fantastic and familiar in eleven new stories, some of them previously published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Elegantly structured, these stories span the globe and beyond, from small-town America and sunny Caribbean islands to the Arctic Ocean and the very gates of Heaven itself. And though some of the stories are steeped in mythology, they remain grounded in universal experiences: loss of identity, leaving home, parenthood, joy, and longing.  Crisscrossing the pages of Awayland are travelers and expats, shadows and ghosts. A girl watches as her homesick mother slowly dissolves into literal mist. The mayor of a small Midwestern town offers a strange prize, for stranger reasons, to the parents of any baby born on Lenin’s birthday. A chef bound for Mars begins an even more treacherous journey much closer to home. And a lonely heart searches for love online–never mind that he’s a Cyclops.  With her signature tenderness, Ramona Ausubel applies a mapmaker’s eye to landscapes both real and imagined, all the while providing a keen guide to the wild, uncharted terrain of the human heart.’

 

2. Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad by Åsne Seierstad 35259571(non-fiction; 13th February)
‘One morning in October 2013, nineteen-year-old Ayan Juma and her sixteen-year-old sister Leila left their family home in Oslo. Later that day they sent an email to their parents. ‘Peace, God’s mercy and blessings upon you, Mum and Dad … Please do not be cross with us…’  Leila and Ayan had decided to travel to Syria, ‘and help out down there as best we can’. They had been planning for months. By the time their desperate father Sadiq tracks them to Turkey, they have already crossed the border. But Sadiq is determined to find them.  What follows is the gripping, heartbreaking story of a family ripped apart. While Sadiq risks his own life to bring his daughters back, at home his wife Sara begins to question their life in Norway. How could her children have been radicalised without her knowledge? How can she protect her two younger sons from the same fate?  Åsne Seierstad – with the complete support of the Juma family – followed the story from the beginning, through its many dramatic twists and turns. It’s a tale that crosses from Sadiq and Sara’s original home in Somalia, to their council estate in Oslo, to Turkey and to Syria – where two teenage sisters must face the shocking consequences of their decision.’

 

354580383. The Red Word by Sarah Henstra (novel; 13th March)
A smart, dark, and take-no-prisoners look at rape culture and the extremes to which ideology can go, The Red Word is a campus novel like no other. As her sophomore year begins, Karen enters into the back-to-school revelry–particularly at a fraternity called GBC. When she wakes up one morning on the lawn of Raghurst, a house of radical feminists, she gets a crash course in the state of feminist activism on campus. GBC is notorious, she learns, nicknamed “Gang Bang Central” and a prominent contributor to a list of date rapists compiled by female students. Despite continuing to party there and dating one of the brothers, Karen is equally seduced by the intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit of the Raghurst women, who surprise her by wanting her as a housemate and recruiting her into the upper-level class of a charismatic feminist mythology scholar they all adore. As Karen finds herself caught between two increasingly polarized camps, ringleader housemate Dyann believes she has hit on the perfect way to expose and bring down the fraternity as a symbol of rape culture–but the war between the houses will exact a terrible price.  The Red Word captures beautifully the feverish binarism of campus politics and the headlong rush of youth toward new friends, lovers, and life-altering ideas. With strains of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Alison Lurie’s Truth and Consequences, and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, Sarah Henstra’s debut adult novel arrives on the wings of furies.’

 

4. Collected Stories by Bruno Schulz (short stories; 15th March) 51cviifluxl-_sx331_bo1204203200_
Collected Stories is an authoritative new translation of the complete fiction of Bruno Schulz, whose work has influenced writers as various as Salman Rushdie, Cynthia Ozick, Jonathan Safran Foer, Philip Roth, Danilo Kis, and Roberto Bolano.Schulz’s prose is renowned for its originality. Set largely in a fictional counterpart of his hometown of Drohobycz, his stories merge the real and the surreal. The most ordinary objects-the wind, an article of clothing, a plate of fish-can suddenly appear unfathomably mysterious and capable of illuminating profound truths. As “Father,” one of his most intriguing characters, declaims: “Matter has been granted infinite fecundity, an inexhaustible vital force, and at the same time, a seductive power of temptation that entices us to create forms.”This comprehensive volume includes all of The Cinnamon Shops, restoring the original Polish title to Schulz’s most famous collection (sometimes titled The Street of Crocodiles in English), and Sanatorium under the Hourglass. Also included are four previously uncollected short stories that pay tribute to Schulz’s enduring genius. Madeline G. Levine’s masterful new translation shows contemporary readers how Schulz, often compared to Proust and Kafka, reveals the workings of memory and consciousness.’

 

 

5. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo (novel; Hogarth Shakespeare; 5th April) 33952851
Set in a dark, rainy northern town, Nesbo’s Macbeth pits the ambitions of a corrupt policeman against loyal colleagues, a drug-depraved underworld and the pull of childhood friendships.  Get ready to helter-skelter through the darkest tunnels of human experience.

 

366244156. Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean (non-fiction; 10th April)
Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm—these brilliant women are the central figures of Sharp. Their lives intertwine as they cut through the cultural and intellectual history of America in the twentieth century, arguing as fervently with each other as they did with the sexist attitudes of the men who often undervalued their work as critics and essayists. These women are united by what Dean terms as “sharpness,” the ability to cut to the quick with precision of thought and wit, a claiming of power through writing rather than position.  Sharp is a vibrant and rich depiction of the intellectual beau monde of twentieth-century New York, where gossip-filled parties at night gave out to literary slanging-matches in the pages of the Partisan Review or the New York Review of Books as well as a considered portrayal of how these women came to be so influential in a climate where women were treated with derision by the critical establishment.  Mixing biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Sharp is an enthralling exploration of how a group of brilliant women became central figures in the world of letters despite the many obstacles facing them, a testament to how anyone not in a position of power can claim the mantle of writer and, perhaps, help change the world.

 

7. Florida by Lauren Groff (short stories; 5th June) 36098092
Groff says in an interview: “The collection is a portrait of my own incredible ambivalence about the state where I’ve lived for twelve years. My feelings for Florida are immoderate, and I love the disappearing natural world, the sunshine, the extraordinary and astonishing beauty of the place as passionately as I hate the heat and moisture and backward politics and the million creatures whose only wish is to kill you. I wrote this collection very slowly and was surprised when it came together to find that the stories built into a ferocious protracted argument.”

 

My eighth, ninth and tenth books on this list are the forthcoming Persephone publications for April 2018.  I can find little information about any of them as yet, but I am very excited to read Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini, Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple, and Tory Heaven by Marghanita Laski.

Which books are you most excited about during 2018?  Will you, or have you, read any of these?

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One From the Archive: ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ by Carol Rifka Brunt *****

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the debut novel of Carol Rifka Brunt. Its story focuses upon fourteen-year-old June Elbus, whose uncle, Finn, is the ‘only person who has ever truly understood her’. The novel takes place in the New York suburbs and opens at the end of 1986.

9781447202141The opening sentence of this beautifully crafted novel captures the attention immediately: ‘My sister Greta and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying’. Finn has AIDS at a time in which no cures were available, and in which the horrors of the disease were just beginning to come to light. June tells us: ‘We’d been going to Finn’s one Sunday afternoon a month for the last six months. It was always just my mother, Greta, and me. My father never came, and he was right not to. He wasn’t part of it’. His decline is tough on the entire Elbus family: ‘All those Sundays, my mother hardly looked at Finn. It was obvious that she was being broken up into pieces about her only brother dying’.

June’s narrative voice is engaging, and we are plunged straight into her story from the outset. We feel her fears and grief, along with the small triumphs she overcomes along the way. Throughout, her childish naivety adds a lovely touch to the novel. During the portrait painting session, June tells us, ‘I felt like grabbing the paintbrush right out of his hand so I could color him in, paint him back to his old self’. This innocence of June’s, particularly when it focuses upon Finn’s illness, is touching. Whilst she understands that her uncle is ill, she does not know about the intricacies of the disease as nobody is willing to discuss them with her. She asks such things of her elder sister as whether she could ‘catch’ AIDS if Finn kissed her hair or her forehead. Such naivety is truly heartbreaking at times.

As a protagonist, June is an interesting choice. Many original personality traits can be found within her, and rather than being the make-up and fashion loving stereotype of a teenage girl, her hobbies and interests feel rather unique – for example, the way in which she likes to pretend she lives within the Medieval period, and her dreams of being a falconer when she finishes school. She and her sister are complete opposites, and June is somewhat lonely in consequence: ‘Greta got prettier and I got… weirder’, she tells us. June is a vivid and wholly realistic character in consequence. The novel is told in retrospect, and June is around one year older than she was when Finn’s death occurred. This present day narrative is woven with memories from June’s past.

The secret which June clutches close to her chest is the way in which she felt about her uncle. At his funeral, she confesses to us, almost as though we are her only confidant in life: ‘I kept quiet, knowing that the sadness I was feeling was the wrong kind of sadness for a niece… Nobody knew my heart even a little bit. Nobody had any idea how many minutes of each day I spent thinking about Finn, and, thankfully, nobody had any idea exactly what kind of thoughts they were’. The grief she feels is tender, and the way in which she expresses it is touchingly honest: ‘Finn kept sneaking inside my head. I wished he’d been buried instead of cremated, because then I could take off my gloves and press my palms to the ground and know that he was there somehow’.

At the funeral, she and her sister are instructed not to let a certain man into the service. When June asks Greta about the man’s identity, her sister delights in telling her: ‘He’s the guy who killed uncle Finn’. A couple of weeks after this incident, June receives a package in the mail – a beautiful porcelain teapot which used to belong to her uncle. It arrives with a note from Toby, Finn’s partner whom the girls knew nothing about, which says: ‘I know you saw me at the funeral. I was the man nobody wanted to see… I think you are perhaps the only person who misses Finn as much as I do, and I think just one meeting might be beneficial to us both’. A clandestine friendship, taut at first and touching throughout, ensues. Both realise that the concrete foundations of their love for Finn and their grief at his passing are stronger than anything, and that they can help one another through it in consequence.

Brunt writes beautifully, and she has portrayed the hideous realities of the 1980s AIDS epidemic in the most heartfelt of ways, by examining not only the space left behind when a death is caused by the disease, but the memories too. Although Finn is not alive during the novel’s telling, we still learn a lot about him and can see why June adores him so. This multi-layered novel is about so many things – love, remembrance, trust, understanding and family dynamics – and is incredibly sad and moving throughout.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a coming-of-age story of the most touching kind. The character development throughout is incredibly well crafted, and the novel itself is magnificent, particularly when one takes into account that it is a debut. Had it come from an already established author, it would be something akin to a masterpiece. Brunt has written a book which is incredibly difficult to put down, and has crafted a story which is sure to stay with its readers for a long time to come.

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‘Have the Men Had Enough?’ by Margaret Forster *****

Margaret Forster’s 1989 novel, Have the Men Had Enough?, is an incredibly astute familial saga with an ageing matriarch, Grandma, as its central focus.  At the outset of the novel, Grandma is clearly beginning to lose her focus, believing that her father and brothers will be coming home shortly, and that she needs to cook their dinner.

Have the Men Had Enough? is told from two perspectives, those of Grandma’s daughter-9780099455646in-law, Jenny McKay, and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Hannah.  Of Grandma’s diagnosis, the family are told ‘the long-term memory remains after the short-term has gone.  Grandma cannot remember what she had for dinner an hour ago but she can remember every detail of what she ate on the train journeys to the Highlands in the 1920s.  And it makes her happy.  It does not seem to worry her in the least that she cannot remember her husband’s first name or the colour of his eyes or what he liked and did not like.  He remains in her memory as the subject of a few unflattering anecdotes and, if she had to sum him up, she is content to say he was “a man’s man”.’  Despite these two perspectives, and their sometimes conflicting views, Grandma is always the focus of the narrative; we learn about the other characters largely with regard to their actions toward, and feelings about, her.

It was fascinating, and often saddening, to see such a story unfold from the perspective of a family who have different beliefs as to what would be the best course of action for Grandma’s ongoing care.  Her daughter Bridget, a nurse, lives next door, and is determined to keep caring for her at home for as long as she can manage.  One of her sons, Stuart, keeps away, saying that he does not want the hassle of involvement.  Her son Charlie, Jenny’s husband, funds Grandma’s flat and nursing expenses.  Whilst they live nearby, and Jenny does a lot to help from time to time, both find the process exhausting.  Jenny expresses her fears about caring for Grandma: ‘I want to act now, to protect us all.  And yes, I am afraid, afraid of what it will do to us all if we keep Grandma in our midst to the bitter end.’  Granddaughter Hannah is incredibly observant, continually questioning what would be best for Grandma; at first, she asks, ‘Haven’t the women had enough too?’, before veering back and forth on the idea of Grandma being cared for in their family home, something which her brother Adrian wants dearly.  Hannah is concerned throughout with Grandma’s happiness, and treats her with tenderness and understanding at all times.

Certainly poignant, Have the Men Had Enough? raises a wealth of important questions about ageing, and who will care for us when we reach a stage at which we are no longer able to care for ourselves.  Each of the characters is forced, at points, to reflect upon their opinions of what would be best for themselves and for Grandma.  This thought-provoking reflection makes the novel feel eminently human, and so well balanced; we recognise the discomfort of each of the characters in turn.

Others have written that Have the Men Had Enough? is a difficult book to read, both in terms of prose and content, one which takes time and concentration.  Certainly, Forster’s writing is intelligent, but from the very beginning, I found it immersive.  The story itself was a little draining at times, and one feels terribly for the McKays, in having to make such a difficult decision which will ultimately impact upon and affect them all.  There is a wonderful variation to the novel, given the range of characters, opinions, and voices.

Whilst a devoted fan of Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier, and devouring one of her more recent efforts, The Unknown Bridesmaid, a few years ago, I am baffled as to why it has taken me so long to read more of her work.  Forster is an author who has published a wealth of books which appeal to me, and I will certainly try my best to read more of them over the coming months.  I shall conclude this review with a wonderful quote by Hilary Mantel, which sums up my thoughts on the novel: ‘It is close to life in a way we hardly expect a novel to be, and finally very moving.’

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