‘Palace of the Drowned’ by Christine Mangan ****

I very much enjoyed Christine Mangan’s debut novel, Tangerine, and was looking forward to reading her second, Palace of the Drowned. As in her first book, Palace of the Drowned features a female character abroad in a modern historical setting, and an element of taut mystery.

Forty-two-year-old novelist Frances Croy, known as Frankie, is ‘working to leave the previous year behind’, and has escaped to Venice. Here, living in a crumbling but charming palazzo belonging to friends, who turn up some way into the narrative, Frankie ‘finds comfort in the emptiness of Venice in winter, in the absence of others.’ Set during the historic flood of 1966, the worst which was ever experienced in the city, she ‘struggles to make sense of what is and is not the truth, ultimately culminating in a tragedy that leaves her questioning her own role and responsibility – as well as her sanity.’

Palace of the Drowned opens in Rome in the November of 1966, where Frankie has found herself after the events in Venice: ‘She wondered what the guard might see if he were to return her gaze – an innocent tourist momentarily overcome by the beauty of Rome, or something closer to the truth.’ After this short chapter, the narrative shifts back to October in Venice. The sense of place which Mangan builds is striking: ‘It was hypnotic, the lapping of the green water up and over the cobbles, the smell of brine surrounding her, so that instead of taking a step back, she had moved forward, as if to welcome it. The spell was broken only when a local had appeared in one of the windows, calling out something to her in Venetian.’

I really enjoy the attention which the author pays to small details; for example: ‘Frankie felt suddenly prim, older than her years, with her short blonde wisps of hair pinned tightly back, kirby grips scraping against her scalp, her face bare except for some hastily applied eyeliner.’

Soon after she arrives, without her friend who was supposed to be travelling with her in tow, Frankie meets Gilly, who introduces herself as the daughter of a ‘publishing acquaintance’.

As in Tangerine, Mangan builds tension with a great deal of skill. Each sentence is taut and carefully crafted, particularly as the narrative builds to its climax: ‘It happened quickly then. The feeling of something around her throat, the grip tightening so that she could not breathe… She needed an exit – a chance to catch her breath, to let her skin cool, for already she could feel it, the sharp pinpricks of heat as they crept across her skin, first on the inside of her elbows and towards her wrists, and then on her back, her chest, crawling up, reaching for her throat.’

I believe that Mangan is quite an underrated writer. I hadn’t heard anything about this novel until I spotted it on my library’s website, and I remember next to no coverage of Tangerine upon its publication, either. Palace of the Drowned really drew me in, and I was keen to keep turning the pages and uncover the mysteries of this cleverly crafted novel. The characters Mangan has created are excellently developed, and the scenes their actions play out against are strongly imagined. A real strength of Palace of the Drowned is in its immaculate pacing, and it kept me guessing throughout.


One From the Archive: ‘The Colour’ by Rose Tremain *****

First published in 2018.

I chose Rose Tremain’s The Colour for the penultimate stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Set in New Zealand, The Colour is the first of Tremain’s novels which I have read; before this, I had only encountered one of her short story collections.  The Daily Telegraph calls her ‘one of the finest writers in English’, and this sentiment seems to be echoed by many reviewers.


The central characters in The Colour are married couple Joseph and Harriet Blackstone.  They choose to migrate from Norfolk to New Zealand in 1864, along with Joseph’s mother, Lilian, ‘in search of new beginnings and prosperity’.  Soon after they construct their house, Joseph finds small pieces of gold in the local creek, and is ‘seized by a rapturous obsession with the voluptuous riches awaiting him deep in the earth’.  He then sets off alone, with the destination of New Zealand’s Southern Alps on his mind; there are a series of newly-discovered goldfields there, and he joins an enormous migration of men in order to try and make his fortune.  The blurb declares the novel ‘by turns both moving and terrifying’, and describes it as being ‘about a quest for the impossible, an attempt to mine the complexities of love and explore the sacrifices to be made in the pursuit of happiness.’

Tremain gives a marked consideration to colour in her novel from its very beginning.  She writes: ‘It was their first winter.  The earth under their boots was grey.  The yellow tussock-grass was salty with hail.  In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding-sheet of snow.’  I was struck by Tremain’s writing immediately.  She has such a gift for seamlessly blending her vivid descriptions with her characters, and the actions which they take.  There is a timelessness to Tremain’s prose, despite the effective rooting of her novel in a very particular period and setting.  She uses her chosen framework in order to explore many different themes relating to expatriation, nature, and human nature, particularly with regard to the ways in which changing conditions alter the relationships between husband and wife, and son and mother.

It feels as though the author is intimately acquainted with her characters, and their every wish and whim.  When describing Joseph in the novel’s early stages, for instance, Tremain writes: ‘He turned away from his mother and looked admiringly at this new wife of his, kneeling by the reluctant fire.  And he felt his heart suddenly fill to the very core with gratitude and affection…  Joseph wanted to cross the room and put his arms around Harriet and gather her hair into a knot in his hand.  He wanted to lay his head on her shoulder and tell her the one thing that he would never be able to admit to her – that she had saved his life.’  Harriet, too, feels fully formed, particularly given her slightly unusual and non-conformist character: ‘But she was a woman who longed for the unfamiliar and the strange…  She wanted to see her own hand in everything.  No matter if it took a long time.  No matter if her skin was burned in the summer heat.  No matter if she had to learn each new task like a child.  She had been a governess for twelve years.  Now, she had travelled an ocean and stood in a new place, but she wanted to go still further, into a wilderness.’

The Colour feels ultimately realistic from its beginning.  It is filled with fraught discussions, and the darkness and loneliness which such a new life can bring with it.  The cultural information is rich, and, particularly along with Tremain’s descriptions, paints a wonderful and tangible picture.  I did find the ending slightly problematic, but it was still very enjoyable nevertheless, and I certainly struggled to put it down.  Immersive and beautifully executed, The Colour is a believable and very human novel, which I highly recommend.  I cannot wait to read more books by Tremain.


‘Delphi’ by Clare Pollard ***

I picked up Claire Pollard’s short novel, Delphi, whilst browsing in my local library. It was not a book I had heard of before, but the striking neon cover caught my attention. When I saw that the novel had been highly praised by contemporary authors whose work I very much enjoy – Anna Hope, Evie Wyld, Claire Fuller – I picked it up.

Delphi, Pollard’s debut, is set in 2020, ‘in a time more turbulent than any of us could have ever imagined.’ Our protagonist, who juggles different roles as a lecturer, translator, researcher, and author, is ‘attempting to write a book about prophecy in the ancient world’, whilst she simultaneously navigates ‘the tightening grip of lockdown, a marriage in crisis, and a ten-year-old son who seems increasingly unreachable.’ The book is further described as ‘both a snapshot and a time capsule, deftly capturing our pasts, our presents, and how we keep on going in a world that is ever more uncertain and absurd.’

Delphi opens as follows, catapulting us right into the life of our unnamed narrator: ‘I am sick of the future. Up to here with the future. I don’t want anything to do with it; don’t want it near me.’ The thoughts presented to the reader are a mixture of irritated, angry, and thoughtful: ‘Perhaps the deeper in the future we get, the more aware of it we become.’

On the same theme, which is repeated throughout, the narrator reveals: ‘Recently, I have begun to fear the future. This year I am forty-five, and for the last decade I have taught classes on a part-time contract at a good university; have translated, from the German, some prize-winning novels, although my name is rarely mentioned in the reviews. I am, I suppose, at the peak of my career. But both my jobs feel underpaid and undervalued, reliant on me putting in wageless hours through love.’ She goes on: ‘It is not going to get better than this. I will age and diminish. And the world, too, diminishes… I am unsure what to aim for. What to look forward to.’

Our narrator, living with her long-term partner Jason and young son Xander, looks as though she has it all, but it is clear from the outset that she feels unfulfilled. Jason is often busy, and Xander only interested in gaming. She muses: ‘Why am I dissatisfied, wanting to throw away this happiness when I should be trying to carry it carefully to the grave with me? Why do I want to have an affair, leave, quit my job, anything?… Because otherwise nothing will ever happen again.’

I liked this novel stylistically; I enjoyed the short chapters, many of which were comprised of a single memory or thought. The linear timeline makes it feel almost as though one is reading a personal diary. As one might expect from both the title and the author’s research interests, Ancient Greece features heavily throughout. Pollard quite cleverly draws parallels between Ancient Greece and living through the pandemic; she is particularly poignant in her commentary when it comes to the many examples of poor and dishonest governance.

Going into this novel, I admit that I was a little concerned as to how I would find it; in my experience, reading pandemic-centred literature is somewhat draining. This is not a cheerful book; nor is it a particularly profound one. What Pollard does very well indeed is placing her characters at a particular moment in time, which we all lived through, and which many of us struggled greatly with.

There are a lot of in-the-moment concerns here, which many readers will be able to relate to: the concept of ‘home’, when it is somewhere we cannot leave; obsessions with social media, and keeping in the loop; the endless scrolling on live Covid-19 blogs. Myriad observations are offered with regard to how the world is changing: ‘I feel this weird, low-grade anger, like every single petty thing in the world is now becoming an Instagram opportunity; is demanding my attention.’ Delphi is an interesting character study and commentary from a time of crisis and uncertainty.

The quote which I have chosen to end my review with sums up perfectly, I feel, that strange time in the spring of 2020, when our usual lives were stripped away: ‘It is weird, to always be ironing or eating cereal or watching a show actually literally called “Normal People” as the world changes forever.


One From the Archive: ‘Women Talking’ by Miriam Toews ****

First published in 2020.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


‘The Marriage Portrait’ by Maggie O’Farrell *****

Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait was perhaps my most highly anticipated releases of 2022. O’Farrell is an author whose books I request from my local library, or purchase outright, before reading even a sentence of the blurb. The Marriage Portrait is another work of historical fiction, following Hamnet, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020.

The Marriage Portrait is set during the winter of 1561, when 16-year-old Lucrezia di Cosimo de Medici, the new Duchess of Ferrara, is ‘taken on an unexpected visit to a country villa by her husband, Alfonso.’ Lucrezia is the ‘troublesome’ fifth child and third daughter of Grand Duke Cosimo I, ruler of Tuscany; she is thrown into the limelight after her older sister passes away on the eve of her wedding to the ruler of Ferrara, Moderna, and Regio. Lucrezia is made to marry him herself. She realises that here, in secluded Fortezza, he intends to murder her. Up until this point, she has lived her life ‘locked away inside Florence’s grandest palazzo, guarded by her father’s soldiers and her mother’s ladies in waiting.’ At the countryside villa, however, there is nobody to protect her.

The Marriage Portrait, which is based on real historical events, has been described as a ‘vivid evocation of the beauty and brutality of Renaissance Italy, and of a young woman whose proximity to power places her in mortal danger.’ In the historical note which prefaces the novel, O’Farrell comments: ‘The official cause of her death was given as “putrid fever”, but it was rumoured that she had been murdered by her husband.’

In the opening paragraph, O’Farrell immediately caught my attention: ‘Her husband is sitting down, not in his customary place at the opposite end but next to her, close enough that she could rest her head on his shoulder, should she wish; he is unfolding his napkin and straightening a knife and moving the candle towards them both when it comes to her with a peculiar clarity, as if some coloured glass has been put in front of her eyes, or perhaps removed from them, that he intends to kill her.’ O’Farrell goes on: ‘The certainty that he means her to die is like a presence beside her, as if a dark-feathered bird of prey has alighted on the arm of her chair.’

O’Farrell then transports us back in time, to a chapter entitled ‘The unfortunate circumstance of Lucrezia’s conception’, in 1544. She captures, sweepingly, her father’s palazzo: ‘It occupied a corner of the largest piazza in Florence, its back to the river, sides soaring above the citizens like great cragged cliffs.’ We then meet the 7-year-old Lucrezia in a following chapter, and begin to get a real feel for her character and intelligence: ‘Words pressed themselves into her memory, like a shoe sole into soft mud, which would dry and solidify, the shoe print preserved for ever. Sometimes she felt filled up, overstuffed with words, faces, names, voices, dialogues, her head throbbing with pain, and she would be set off-balance by the weight of what she carried, stumbling into tables and walls.’

As anyone familiar with O’Farrell’s writing would expect, The Marriage Portrait is sensual, rich, and evocative. The marvellous detail which it is suffused with is an everpresent quality of the author’s work. I found The Marriage Portrait entirely absorbing, captivated from start to finish. I loved the approach which O’Farrell took, flitting back and forth in time, and capturing beautifully imagined scenes, and vivid scenery. The novel is rendered quite exquisitely, and demonstrates what a master O’Farrell is at her craft.


‘Lean Fall Stand’ by Jon McGregor ****

I was absolutely blown away by Jon McGregor’s debut novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, and I do not feel as though the author gets anywhere near as much attention as he deserves. I believe, after reading all of his books published to date, that he is one of the UK’s finest contemporary authors. If you’re sceptical, Hilary Mantel declared Lean Fall Stand ‘beautiful’, and Maggie O’Farrell ‘spectacular’.

Our focus is the character of Doc Wright, who is lost in an ice storm in Antarctica when we first meet him. For Doc, ‘distance loses meaning’. He is alone; nobody is answering the radio, and he has lost contact with his colleagues, Luke and Thomas: ‘They weren’t lost. They couldn’t be lost. They were out of radio contact for a time, was all.’ All that is left to Doc is ‘to keep going, but something has gone wrong inside his head.’ When he returns back to the UK, after being airlifted to hospital in Chile, he is the only person who truly knows what happened during the expedition, but ‘after what changed on the ice, everything has lost its meaning.’

As McGregor’s books always do, Lean Fall Stand caught my attention from the very first sentence: ‘When the storm came in it was unexpected and Thomas Myers was dropped to his knees.’ McGregor goes on to describe the landscape, in marvellous detail: ‘… it was hard not to just stop and stare. All that ice and snow and sea and sky. Glaciers and ridges and icebergs and scree. Weathering and wind-form and shear. The air so clear that distances shrank and all the colours shone.’ He captures, vividly, the disorientation and claustrophobia which the snowstorm brings with it: ‘He remembered the way the sky had changed colour, just before the storm hit. The bright sunshine before that. How quickly things could change. The polished blue sky behind the head of the glacier turning a murky orange – brown. Darker. Blackening. The light going out. The weather gathered over the ridge.’

In the second part of the novel, Doc’s wife, Anna, is alerted to his condition, and flies out to Santiago. She is met by the news that doctors believe her husband has suffered ‘a bit of a stroke’. ‘Years, she’d waited for something like this,’ McGregor writes, before continuing: ‘Her imagination churning in the months he was away. It was almost a relief, now. A bloody-minded satisfaction in getting it over with.’

The character evolution in this novel is excellent. We are given many details about Doc’s illustrious career as a technical assistant, travelling to Antarctica many times over the span of around three decades, and devoting himself to his work. The Doc we get to know in the present day, though, is a changed man; his wife is having to care for him full time, and he cannot carry out the simplest tasks by himself during his long rehabilitation. McGregor writes portions of the novel using the language which Doc has managed to hold onto, when so much else is gone, and manages to capture so much of his protagonist’s frustration in the process: ‘And, and, and. Up again, up again. Stand. Christ but what was. The pain in his head and the weakness. His weak right side. Numb the face rub. What was wrong. What was up. What’s up, Doc?’

McGregor is a captivating observer, picking up on so many details. All of the minutiae which he describes throughout Lean Fall Stand comes together to create a vivid picture. One of his main strengths as an author is in capturing place, and getting to the crux of his characters. Another is the way in which he portrays the shifting relationships between characters, particularly with regard to Doc and Anna. Lean Fall Stand has been so well thought out, and is linguistically very interesting; the reading experience here is a rewarding one, and I can only hope that this review inspires others to read this excellent novel, as well as the rest of McGregor’s oeuvre.


‘When the Emperor Was Divine’ by Julie Otsuka ****

I picked up a lovely hardback edition of Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine in a charming little secondhand bookshop at the National Trust’s Cliveden Estate in Buckinghamshire. After reading Otsuka’s most recent novel, The Swimmers, I was keen to read the rest of her small oeuvre. I picked up this, her debut, with delight, and began it just days later.

First published in 2002, When the Emperor Was Divine begins in 1942 in Berkeley, California. At the outset of this slim novel, a Japanese-American woman learns from posters plastered all over the city that she and her family have been ‘reclassified, virtually overnight, as enemy aliens’, and face expulsion to the Utah desert. The novel opens: ‘The sign had appeared overnight. On billboards and trees and the backs of the bus-stop benches. It hung in the window of Woolworth’s. It hung by the entrance to the YMCA. It was stapled to the door of the municipal court and nailed, at eye level, to every telephone pole along University Avenue.’

Otsuka uses five different perspectives to tell her story, and has based the happenings on real events. All of these narrative voices are part of the same family, and include the daughter’s experience of the long train ride to the camp, to the family’s return to their Californian home. The first chapter follows the unnamed mother, as she spends all of her time packing up their lives: ‘Tomorrow she and the children would be leaving. She did not know where they were going or how long they would be gone or who would be living in their house while they were away. She knew only that tomorrow they had to go.’ At this point in time, Otsuka notes: ‘It was late April. It was the fourth week of the fifth month of the war and the women, who did not always follow the rules, followed the rules.’

Her husband has already been taken away, arrested some months previously, and taken to Texas: ‘Every few days he was allowed to write her a letter. Usually he told her about the weather.’ We learn a great deal about the father before he takes centre stage in the narrative: ‘He was extremely polite. Whenever he walked into a room he closed the door behind him softly. He was always on time. He wore beautiful suits and did not yell at waiters. He loved pistachio nuts. He believed that fruit juice was the ideal drink. He liked to doodle. He was especially fond of drawing a box and then making it into three dimensions.’ His presence loops in and out of the narrative, and is often the central thought of his son, particularly.

I have studied the Second World War extensively over the years, but my knowledge about the expulsion of Japanese-American citizens living in the USA is relatively poor. I went into When the Emperor Was Divine in the hope that it would both educate me, and immerse me within a compelling story. I can confirm that it absolutely did both of these things.

Otsuka’s writing is incredibly precise, and she captures so much in just one or two sentences. I really appreciated the amount of detail included, and the sharply observed scenes. Otsuka is highly skilled with regard to managing the time period, and assessing its impact on the central family: ‘Far away, on the other side of the ocean, there was fighting, and at night the boy lay awake on his straw mattress and listened to the bulletins on the radio. Sometimes, in the darkness, he heard noises drifting from other rooms. The heavy thud of footsteps. The shuffling of cards.’ Later, she writes: ‘Mostly, though, they waited. For the mail. For the news. For the bells. For breakfast and lunch and dinner. For one day to be over and the next day to begin.’

As displayed above, there is an incredible poignancy here. Another example is taken from the third chapter, which begins: ‘In the beginning the boy thought he saw his father everywhere. Underneath the showers. Leaning against barrack doorways. Playing go with the other men in their floppy straw hats on the narrow wooden benches after lunch. Above them blue skies. The hot midday sun. No trees. No shade. Birds.’

What made When the Emperor Was Divine even more compelling to me was a simple narrative device; all of the central characters remain unnamed throughout. As well as the story of just a few individuals, Otsuka encapsulates an experience which affected an entire community of people. There are moments of profound sadness scattered throughout this slim novel, and there is also exquisite beauty. When the Emperor Was Divine is an evocative blend of fiction and reality, well executed and skilfully written.


One From the Archive: ‘Charms for the Easy Life’ by Kaye Gibbons ****

First published in April 2018.

I adored Kaye Gibbons Ellen Foster, and very much enjoyed Sights Unseen too. Charms for the Easy Life, first published in 1993, is the author’s fourth novel. Alice Hoffman, whose writing and stories I find have the same lovely intelligent but easygoing prose as Gibbons’, writes that the novel ‘is filled with lively humour, compassion and intimacy’.

Charms for the Easy Life tells the story of three generations of ‘fiery’ women, living without men: Charlie Kate Birch, a ‘self-proclaimed doctor who treats everything from leprosy to lovesickness with her roots and herbs’, her daughter Sophia, ‘who has inherited her mother’s wisdom and will and applies them to her desire to rule the world around her and land the man of her choice’, and granddaughter Margaret, ‘whose struggle towards adulthood is complicated by World War II’. Margaret is the novel’s captivating narrator, and lives with her mother and grandmother in the ‘lush, green backwoods’ of North Carolina.

As is usual with first person perspective-driven novels, we learn about the other characters through Margaret’s portrayal of them. Charlie Kate, particularly, is strong and forward-thinking: ‘My grandmother was to be remembered for many achievements, from campaigning for in-school vaccinations to raising money to buy prosthetics for veterans of the world war, but in the Beale Street area of Raleigh she lives in the memory of an old few as the first woman anybody knew with the courage not only to possess a toilet but to use it.’ Sophia is more of a shadowy figure at times, largely absent from much of the prose.

The Birch family have historically been plagued by problems. Their family has a remarkably high suicide rate, which is detailed in oddly beautiful prose in the first chapter. Margaret tells us, of her remaining family members: ‘They threatened to kill themselves in the river all the time. They used the threat in arguments with each other. They said the words without thinking… But they didn;t go in the river, because the river was life to them, life all surging and all crashing into white foam on river rocks they had known their whole lives, and the thought of throwing themselves into a familiar current and banging choked and goggle-eyed against rocks they had stood on and courted on and fished and dreamed on, and sat in the sun and dared to open their blouses and nurse their babies on, this was not something they could do. They would walk fifty miles and jump in some other person’s river, but not their own.’ As is evident from this description, Gibbons creates such a vivid sense of place, and her writing feels continuously effortless.

The novel has been slotted so well into the looming threat of war; Gibbons startlingly describes conditions at the time, and is particularly involved with those lives lived without privilege, or in dire poverty. Myriad details ground Charms for the Easy Life nicely into history, with references to popular culture, and mentions every now and again of wider conflict. Gibbons also notes how important small changes, or transformations, in the world are to her protagonists, and how these changes translate into their own selves. This is particularly poignant when she writes about ageing: ‘[Sophia] was showing signs of loneliness. She had recently begun the process of resigning herself to the slide from beautiful lady to handsome older woman, adjusting her lipstick color from fire-engine red to brick, exchanging bright beads for pearls and stylish platform soles for pumps. And by “process,” I mean just that: she had not fully committed her body to middle age yet.’

Thoughtful in its outlook, and with a fascinating and tender story about non-conformist women at its heart, Charms for the Easy Life is a novel which I would definitely recommend. The relationships drawn here have so much complexity about them, and the story takes directions which I did not expect. I shall close this review with a wonderful quote from the novel: ‘If my grandmother could’ve populated the world, all the people would’ve been women, and they all would’ve been just like her.’


‘Very Cold People’ by Sarah Manguso ****

I spotted Sarah Manguso’s Very Cold People when wandering a little aimlessly around my local library. I had heard of the author, but had never read any of her work before. As soon as I spotted the quote from Jhumpa Lahiri, one of my favourite writers, on the cover, I picked it up immediately; she notes that ‘Manguso is one of the most original and exciting writers working in English today. Every word feels necessary, and she’s redefining genre as she goes.’ Lauren Groff, another of my favourite contemporary authors, comments that the novel ‘knocked me to my knees’.

Our young protagonist, Ruth, ‘watches everyone and everything, and waits… She doesn’t necessarily understand what she is seeing, but she records faithfully and with absolute clarity the unfurling of her awkward youth under even more awkward parenting.’ Her parents ‘alternately mock, ignore, undermine and discount’ her.

Ruth lives on the outskirts of ‘an affluent but threadbare New England township’. The novel, in fact, opens: ‘My parents didn’t belong in Waitsfield, but they moved there anyway.’ She goes on, revealing that her mother ‘referred to Western Massachusetts as out west, and I was mostly ignorant of the geography beyond our neighborhood. Three-quarters of the town stayed unknown to me…’. Her family has little money, and is always looking to cut corners. Money is stretched as far as it will go. Creditors often phone, and Ruth is made to pick up the phone and say that she is home alone. Of her parents, she relays: ‘They couldn’t conceive of buying a gift; a gift was something you gave away when you didn’t want it anymore.’

Throughout, I really enjoyed the imagery which Manguso presented, from an ‘old Irish cable-knit cardigan with leather buttons’ which was known as the family’s ‘warming sweater’, to passages such as this: ‘Autumn brought with it the slap-clatter of crows, fire smells, leafy sweet-rot. New corduroys, cold air, brown paper grocery bags folded over schoolbooks. Writing on the first pages of notebooks… never sure how my handwriting should look.’

I also loved the approach Manguso took. The entirety of Very Cold People is made up of short vignettes, an element which I love in fiction. We learn an awful lot about Ruth, and her family’s dynamics, in this manner; for instance, when Manguso writes: ‘In the tiny den, my parents and I sat and watched television… My father seemed capable of being transported to Victorian London or outer space, but my mother was always just a woman sitting on an upholstered sofa in 1985. She was the protagonist of everything.’

It is evident that Very Cold People has been very carefully written. Ruth sees so many things, which she dutifully reports in her vignettes, but her naïvety is always evident: ‘Amber’s parents didn’t notice when she came home late or when her older brother tickled her until she dropped her towel’, for instance. Of another friend, she comments: ‘And I didn’t think she was lying when she told me that she and her father still took showers together.’

Ruth’s phrasing is memorable, in that her unusual turns of phrase and unforeseen reminiscences add such a visceral element to the novel: ‘One of her [mother’s] swollen feet, squeezed into its little shoe, rested next to me like a cat curling up next to another cat. Yet these touches felt violent.’

Ruth herself has been so well fleshed out: ‘That day I held my chin up, my nose pointed skyward, as I crossed Weeks Road. I’d gotten the idea from a storybook. Fairy-tale people, before their comeuppance, walked with their chins up, proud and prim. I wanted to be the proud, bad girl who trod on a loaf. I wanted to challenge the world to break me. I wanted to explain that I was not yet broken.’ She goes on: ‘I had no character to speak of, no loyalty to anything. I made fun of anyone, given the chance, just as my parents did at home, talking about me, talking about their closest friends.’ In her naïvety, she invents kindnesses; she spins things around, making out that the cruel acts both directed toward her and around her are for good reason.

Manguso continually adds to the difficult relationship Ruth has with her parents, their cruelty clashing with her naïve outlook on the world: ‘For a while I’d have to suffer, out in the open, the only girl without extra sneakers for gym class, but it was only because my mother’s love was so much greater than all the other loves. It was that much more dangerous, so she had to love me in secret, absolutely unobserved by anyone, especially me.’ Ruth often talks herself out of things, or chooses not to participate, because the importance of keeping up a pretence has been constantly drummed into her: ‘I’d wanted to take Latin but I couldn’t. In school I needed to stay approximate. No one could know what I cared about.’

Very Cold People is Manguso’s debut novel, something which I feel makes it even more impressive. The author has previously published several works of creative non-fiction, but her first foray into making up an original story has left me hoping for her next novel, and soon. Very Cold People is not a happy novel by any means, but it shows the work of an excellent and thoughtful writer. Manguso builds tension quite quickly, and I had the feeling throughout that something awful was going to happen. I cared deeply for Ruth as the end of the novel approached. There is a lot here which unsettled me, and the novel is definitely saturated in a great deal of sadness. I read the entirety with a sense of heightened discomfort, but at no point did I find it too bleak to read. However, I must mention that there are trigger warnings throughout, for topics such as sexual abuse, violence, and bullying, so this certainly will not be a book for everybody.


Two Shorts From the Archive: ‘Thalia’ by Frances Faviell, and ‘Ayiti’ by Roxane Gay

Thalia by Frances Faviell ***** – review first published in 2017

Like many bloggers and readers, I was immensely excited when I heard about Dean Street Press teaming up with Furrowed Middlebrow to release some little-known books written by women, and lost to the annals of time. I was so looking forward to trying Frances Faviell’s work particularly, as I have heard a little about her over the last few years, and her storylines very much appeal to me.

The first of her novels which I decided to try was Thalia. The novel is narrated by a young woman, eighteen-year-old Rachel, who is sent away from her aunt’s London home in something akin to disgrace. She takes up a post in Dinard in Brittany, as a kind of companion to a young and decidedly awkward teen named Thalia. There is a lot of family scandal within its pages, and characters as startlingly original as prickly Cynthia, Thalia and young brother Claude’s mother. The storyline takes twists and turns here and there, and one can never quite guess where it will end up; one of the true delights of the novel, I felt.

One of the other strengths within the novel – and there are many – is the sense of place which Faviell details. France springs to life immediately, and the minutiae which she displays, both in terms of the general region of Brittany, and within the home, are vivid. One feels present in Rachel and Thalia’s colliding worlds through Faviell’s stunning use of colour and scent. Rachel herself is startlingly three-dimensional; I would go as far as to say that she is one of the most realistic narrators whom I have ever come across.

Faviell’s writing is taut and beautiful; she is an extremely perceptive author. I was completely entranced by Thalia, and was loath to put it down. Thalia is brilliant; a cracking read, which definitely put me in mind of Daphne du Maurier in terms of its character development, and the use of settings as characters in themselves. Faviell’s Brittany comes to life in just the same way as du Maurier’s evocation of Cornwall; it is clear that she adores the place, and has her own experiences there have informed this novel.

In a loose way, one can see Thalia as a coming-of-age novel, but it is so much more. The social history evokes a period both gone and still present; there is simply so much here to love and admire. Thalia is breathtaking and captivating, and I am now going to happily read my way through all of the Furrowed Middlebrow/Dean Street Press titles. I imagine that, based upon the strength of Thalia, each one is going to be an absolute gem.

Ayiti by Roxane Gay **** – review first published in 2018

I have heard nothing but praise for Roxane Gay, and this collection of tales set entirely in Haiti – ‘a place run through with pain’ – really appealed to me. Ayiti is accurately described in its blurb as ‘a powerful collection exploring the Haitian diaspora experience’. Some of the stories included are little more than vignettes, or fragments of tales, examining one or two elements of the migrant experience, and covering just a couple of pages. Others are much longer, and have a lot of depth to them.

Gay’s prose has a sensual vivacity to it. The second story, ‘About My Father’s Accent’, for example, begins: ‘He knows it’s there. He knows it’s thick, thicker even than my mother’s. He’s been on American soil for nearly thirty years, but his voice sounds like Port-au-Prince, the crowded streets, the blaring horns, the smell of grilled meat and roasting corn, the heat, thick and still.’

Many themes are touched upon and tackled here. Gay writes about racism, misconceptions about the Haitian culture, superstition, medicine, tradition, sex and sexuality, violence, crime, the changing face of Haiti over time, and the family unit. The stories in Ayiti are emotive and thought-provoking; every single story, no matter its length, is memorable, and there is a real power to the collection.