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One From the Archive: ‘A Wreath of Roses’ by Elizabeth Taylor *****

First published in January 2019.

I originally purchased Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses in order to participate in a group read, but was unable to wait, and started it almost as soon as I received a copy.  I adore Elizabeth Taylor; she is one of my favourite authors, and without Virago’s republication of her novels and short stories, it may well have taken me far longer to discover her.  A Wreath of Roses is number 392 on the Virago Modern Classics list, and was first published in 1949.

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Of her writing, fellow Virago-published author Rosamond Lehmann said it is ‘sophisticated, sensitive and brilliantly amusing, with a kind of stripped, piercing feminine wit.’  The Daily Telegraph calls her a ‘fearsome writer, ruthless in her examination of solitude, and a sparkling chronicler of ordinary lives.’  Kingsley Amis regarded her as ‘one of the best English novelists born in this century.

The Virago edition which I read included a warm introduction written by Helen Dunmore.  She writes that A Wreath of Roses has been ‘called Elizabeth Taylor’s darkest novel, dealing as it does with murder, loneliness, terror and suicide.’  She goes on to make a comparison between Taylor and Virginia Woolf.  She writes: ‘Like Woolf, Taylor is fearless in her handling of tragedy and mental suffering’.

The protagonist of A Wreath of Roses is a young woman named Camilla Hill.  Each year, she spends the summer in the countryside with two women who are very dear to her.  ‘But this year,’ notes the novel’s blurb, ‘their private absorptions – Frances with her painting and Liz with her baby – seem to exclude her from the gossipy intimacies of previous holidays.  Feeling lonely, and that life and love are passing her by, Camilla steps into an unlikely liaison with Richard Elton, handsome, assured – and a dangerous liar.’  The novel is set in the aftermath of the Second World War, and takes place in a small village named Abingford somewhere in England, within ‘the blazing heart of an English summer.’  This village, writes Dunmore, is ‘hypnotically beautiful, but never idyllic.’  She deems this an ‘unflinching novel, which probes deep into the self-deceptions that grow up in order to soften life, and end up by choking it like so many weeds.’

A Wreath of Roses begins at the train station of this small English village, where Camilla spots a man on the platform.  Taylor’s description of their staunch British behaviour is demonstrated thus:  ‘Once the train which had left them on the platform had drawn out,’ writes Taylor, ‘the man and woman trod separately up and down, read time-tables in turn, were conscious of one another in the way that strangers are, when thrown together without a reason for conversation.  A word or two would have put them at ease, but there were no words to say.  The heat of the afternoon was beyond comment and could not draw them together as hailstones might have done.’

It is not long afterwards that Camilla sees a ‘shabby man’ throw himself from the train bridge, and Taylor comments upon how this event drastically impacts upon Camilla: ‘This happening broke the afternoon in two.  The feeling of eternity had vanished.  What had been timeless and silent became chaotic and disorganised, with feet running along the echoing boards, voices staccato, and the afternoon darkening with the vultures of disaster, who felt the presence of death and arrived from the village to savour it and to explain the happening to one another.’

Taylor’s novels are beautiful, and full of depth.  She is an author who is so perceptive of the tiny things which make up a life.  A Wreath of Roses is no different in this respect.  Dunmore believes that ‘she writes with a sensuous richness of language that draws the reader down the most shadowy paths.’  She goes on to further describe Taylor’s writing style, pointing out that she ‘has a way of seeming to be one kind of writer, and then revealing herself to be quite another, or, perhaps, to be a writer who is capable of inhabiting many selves at the same time.’  Dunmore beautifully comments upon the essence of her art, when she writes that ‘Taylor makes the living moment present, touchable, disturbing, enchanting.’  The imagery which she creates is rich, and often quite lovely.  For instance, Taylor writes of an English summer night in the following way: ‘Trees and the hedgerows were as dark as blackberries against the starry sky; a little owl took off from a telegraph-post, floating down noiselessly across a field of stubble.’

Taylor seems to effortlessly capture real, human feelings, and the way in which relationships can shift and change so quickly.  She is perhaps most understanding of protagonist Camilla’s altered position, both in life and in Abingford: she ‘felt as if the day had been a dream, that she would come out of it soon, lifting fold after fold of muffling web; for this could not be real – meeting Liz again after eleven months and finding herself so alienated from her that she would show off to her about a man.’  Throughout, the reader is given hints about Richard’s sinister edge, but these are hidden from Camilla.  In this way, we are forced to watch the somewhat dark consequences of the relationship which she embarks upon with him.  Through these characters, Taylor explores in great deal how the expectations which we have of someone, and the effects which they have upon us, can be so terribly damaging.  The tenseness within the novel builds, and is masterfully put in place until it feels almost claustrophobic.

I could hardly bear to put A Wreath of Roses down.  Taylor has a style all of her own, and whilst this novel is in some ways quite different to the rest of her oeuvre, it is characteristically hers.  I was surprised by the twists which this story takes, and the ending completely surprised me.  A Wreath of Roses is a masterful novel, which shows an author at the peak of her power.

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Eight Very Long Books Worthy of Your Time

I tend to opt for midsize books, or short ones, but every so often, I will settle down with such a large tome that I will inevitably end up with aching wrists from holding it up for so long. However, sometimes, these very long – and sometimes pain-inducing – books are very much worth the effort, and the time it takes to read them. I have collected together eight books which took me quite a while to get through, but which I thoroughly enjoyed, in the hopes that you too will (carefully!) pick them up.

  1. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

‘It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.’

2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace centers broadly on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the best-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves behind his family to fight in the war against Napoleon; and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman, who intrigues both men. As Napoleon’s army invades, Tolstoy vividly follows characters from diverse backgrounds—peasants and nobility, civilians and soldiers—as they struggle with the problems unique to their era, their history, and their culture. And as the novel progresses, these characters transcend their specificity, becoming some of the most moving—and human—figures in world literature.’

3. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

‘Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.’

4. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

‘England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?’

5. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

‘For centuries, the story of Dracula has captured the imagination of readers and storytellers alike. Kostova’s breathtaking first novel, ten years in the writing, is an accomplished retelling of this ancient tale. “The story that follows is one I never intended to commit to paper… As an historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it.” With these words, a nameless narrator unfolds a story that began 30 years earlier.

Late one night in 1972, as a 16-year-old girl, she discovers a mysterious book and a sheaf of letters in her father’s library—a discovery that will have dreadful and far-reaching consequences, and will send her on a journey of mind-boggling danger. While seeking clues to the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s puzzling disappearance, she follows a trail from London to Istanbul to Budapest and beyond, and learns that the letters in her possession provide a link to one of the world’s darkest and most intoxicating figures. Generation after generation, the legend of Dracula has enticed and eluded both historians and opportunists alike. Now a young girl undertakes the same search that ended in the death and defilement of so many others—in an attempt to save her father from an unspeakable fate.’

6. Middlemarch by George Eliot

‘Taking place in the years leading up to the First Reform Bill of 1832, Middlemarch explores nearly every subject of concern to modern life: art, religion, science, politics, self, society, human relationships. Among her characters are some of the most remarkable portraits in English literature: Dorothea Brooke, the heroine, idealistic but naive; Rosamond Vincy, beautiful and egoistic: Edward Casaubon, the dry-as-dust scholar: Tertius Lydgate, the brilliant but morally-flawed physician: the passionate artist Will Ladislaw: and Fred Vincey and Mary Garth, childhood sweethearts whose charming courtship is one of the many humorous elements in the novel’s rich comic vein.’

7. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

‘Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love – and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling power. Combining unforgettably vivid characters and thrilling suspense, it is a beautiful, addictive triumph – a sweeping story of loss and obsession, of survival and self-invention, of the deepest mysteries of love, identity and fate.’

8. A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt

‘In April 1925, Jean Lucey Pratt began writing a journal. She continued to write until just a few days before her death in 1986, producing well over a million words in 45 exercise books over the course of her lifetime. For sixty years, no one had an inkling of her diaries’ existence, and they have remained unpublished until now.

Jean wrote about anything that amused, inspired or troubled her, laying bare every aspect of her life with aching honesty, infectious humour, indelicate gossip and heartrending hopefulness. She recorded her yearnings and her disappointments in love, from schoolgirl crushes to disastrous adult affairs. She documented the loss of a tennis match, her unpredictable driving, catty friends, devoted cats and difficult guests. With Jean we live through the tumult of the Second World War and the fears of a nation. We see Britain hurtling through a period of unbridled transformation, and we witness the shifting landscape for women in society.

As Jean’s words propel us back in time, A Notable Woman becomes a unique slice of living, breathing British history and a revealing private chronicle of life in the twentieth century.’

Have you read any of these? Which is your favourite long book, which may or may not have caused you an injury?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Comet Seekers’ by Helen Sedgwick ****

First published in 2016.

One Day meets The Time Traveler’s Wife in this spellbinding, magical debut novel about love, loss, hope and heartbreak that shows us that for each of us, the world can be as lonely or as beautiful as the comets that illuminate the skies above us. Roisin and Francois first meet in the snowy white expanse of Antarctica. And everything changes. While Roisin grew up in a tiny village in Ireland, ablaze with a passion for science and the skies and for all there is to discover about the world, Francois was raised by his beautiful young mother, who dreamt of new worlds but was unable to turn her back on her past. As we loop back through their lives, glimpsing each of them only when a comet is visible in the skies above, we see how their paths cross as they come closer and closer to this moment. Theirs are stories filled with love and hope and heartbreak, that show how strangers can be connected and ghosts can be real, and the world can be as lonely or as beautiful as the comets themselves.’

I started reading Helen Sedgwick’s The Comet Seekers on the long journey up to Glasgow.  It has fast become one of my highly anticipated reads of the year, especially since scrolling through some of its Goodreads reviews.  The premise was simple, yet very cleverly used, and all of the separate stories were carefully tied together to make a rich whole.  Some of the occurrences – for example, Roisin and Francois living in the relatively small town of Bayeux at the same time – felt a little too convenient, but it was put together in such a way that actually, such chance almost-meetings felt very sweet, and almost necessary to the whole.

The breadth of Sedgwick’s research here is almost breathtaking.  She handles the information well, and writes beautifully.  Some of her phrasing is nothing short of sublime.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about the presence of the ghosts – I am the first to admit that I am not at all interested in the paranormal for the most part – but in hindsight, it did work well.  The Comet Seekers is peopled with realistic characters, well-rehearsed scenes, and startling conversations.  My only real qualm was that some of the details toward the end of the novel were a little odd and unnecessary, but overall, I must admit that I really enjoyed it.

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Six Books I’ve Enjoyed in 2022…

… but have not written reviews for. Because I read as often as I can, but have a full-time job, there are many books I would like to review, but sadly don’t get chance to. I thought I would collect a few of these together so that they don’t fall through the cracks. Their content is relatively varied, but these are just a few titles which I have thoroughly enjoyed this year, and would highly recommend. As ever, let me know if you have read any of these, or if they pique your interest.

  1. In and Out of the Garden by Sara Midda (1982; non-fiction; gardens and growing; charming illustrations; beautifully put together)

‘Sara Midda’s richly illustrated In and Out of the Garden has delighted readers and critics alike. Diana Vreeland praised it as “delightful and delicious,” and Laura Ashley called it “pure inspiration.”

The most elegant and subtle of books to give and to have, it evokes the English gardens of Sara Midda’s childhood, sowing the imagination with glorious images. Dozens and dozens of illustrations and tender reflections recall a hut in the wood, or a topiary maze, a summer day spent podding peas, or an herb patch that yields Biblical fragrances. Ruby-red radishes are the jewels of the underworld. Myriad colors fall upon warm green moss. Painted with Sara Midda’s fine brush, it is a book of lasting enchantment.’

2. Raising a Rare Girl by Heather Lanier (2020; memoir; illness narrative; rare genetic disorder; heartfelt and honest)

‘Award-winning writer Heather Lanier’s memoir about raising a child with a rare syndrome, defying the tyranny of normal, and embracing parenthood as a spiritual practice that breaks us open in the best of ways.

Like many women of her generation, Heather Lanier did everything by the book when she was expecting her first child. She ate organic foods, recited affirmations, and drew up a birth plan for an unmedicated labor in the hopes that she could create a SuperBaby, an ultra-healthy human destined for a high-achieving future.

But her daughter Fiona challenged all of Lanier’s preconceptions. Born with an ultra-rare syndrome known as Wolf-Hirschhorn, Fiona received a daunting prognosis: she would experience significant developmental delays and might not reach her second birthday. Not only had Lanier failed to produce a SuperBaby, she now fiercely loved a child that the world would sometimes reject. The diagnosis obliterated Lanier’s perfectionist tendencies, along with her most closely held beliefs about certainty, vulnerability, God, and love.

With tiny bits of mozzarella cheese, a walker rolled to library story time, a talking iPad app, and a whole lot of pop and reggae, mother and daughter spend their days doing whatever it takes to give Fiona nourishment, movement, and language. They also confront society’s attitudes toward disability and the often cruel assumptions made about Fiona’s worth. Lanier realizes the biggest question is not, Will my daughter walk or talk? but, How can I best love my girl, just as she is?

Loving Fiona opens Lanier up to new understandings of what it means to be human, what it takes to be a mother, and above all, the aching joy and wonder that come from embracing the unique life of her rare girl.’

3. Lily’s Promise by Lily Ebert and Dov Forman (2021; memoir; Holocaust; honest, heartwrenching, and hopeful)

‘When Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert was liberated in 1945, a Jewish-American soldier gave her a banknote on which he’d written ‘Good luck and happiness’. And when her great-grandson, Dov, decided to use social media to track down the family of the GI, 96-year-old Lily found herself making headlines round the world. Lily had promised herself that if she survived Auschwitz she would tell everyone the truth about the camp. Now was her chance.

In Lily’s Promise she writes movingly about her happy childhood in Hungary, the death of her mother and two youngest siblings on their arrival at Auschwitz in 1944 and her determination to keep her two other sisters safe. She describes the inhumanity of the camp and the small acts of defiance that gave her strength. From there she and her sisters became slave labour in a munitions factory, and then faced a death march that they barely survived.

Lily lost so much, but she built a new life for herself and her family, first in Israel and then in London. It wasn’t easy; the pain of her past was always with her, but this extraordinary woman found the strength to speak out in the hope that such evil would never happen again.’

4. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane (2019; novel set in the 1980s; family saga; interesting characters and dynamics)

‘Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, rookie NYPD cops, are neighbors in the suburbs. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne, sets the stage for the explosive events to come.

In Mary Beth Keane’s extraordinary novel, a lifelong friendship and love blossoms between Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, born six months apart. One shocking night their loyalties are divided, and their bond will be tested again and again over the next thirty years. Heartbreaking and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes is a gorgeous and generous portrait of the daily intimacies of marriage and the power of forgiveness.’

5.Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories, edited by Audrey Niffenegger (2015; short stories; wonderfully curated; varied content; great illustrations)

‘Collected and introduced by the bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry–including Audrey Niffenegger’s own fabulous new illustrations for each piece, and a new story by her–this is a unique and haunting anthology of some of the best ghost stories of all time.

From Edgar Allan Poe to Kelly Link, M.R. James to Neil Gaiman, H.H. Munro to Audrey Niffenegger herself, Ghostly reveals the evolution of the ghost story genre with tales going back to the eighteenth century and into the modern era, ranging across styles from Gothic Horror to Victorian, stories about haunting–haunted children, animals, houses. Every story is introduced by Audrey Niffenegger, an acclaimed master of the craft, with some words on its background and why she chose to include it. Audrey’s own story is “A Secret Life With Cats.”

Perfect for the classic and contemporary ghost story aficionado, this is a delightful volume, beautifully illustrated by Audrey, who is a graphic artist with great vision. Ghostly showcases the best of the best in the field, including Edith Wharton, P.G. Wodehouse, A.S. Byatt, Ray Bradbury, and so many more.’

6. The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman (2019; historical fiction; magical realism; creative; beautifully written)

‘In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses; from a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be.

What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending.’

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One From the Archive: ‘Flesh of the Peach’ by Helen McClory ***

First published in August 2017.

Scottish author Helen McClory won both the Saltire Award and the Scottish First Book of the Year Award for her initial publication, a short story collection entitled On the Edges of Vision.  Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, is described in its blurb as a ‘stunning, intense and deeply moving investigation into the effects of toxic grief’.  Kirsty Logan, whom I believe to be one of the most exciting voices in contemporary fiction, deems it ‘bold and unflinching’, comparing it to ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing meets Inside Llewyn Davis: A brutal, clear-eyed study of a failing artist that shatters our expectations of what a woman should be.’

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Flesh of the Peach follows a twenty seven-year-old artist named Sarah Browne.  In New York, the tumultuous end of her relationship with a married woman coincides with the death of her ‘estranged, aristocratic’ mother.  She is left with rather a lot of money, and swathes of grief, which she feels quite unable to deal with.  The book essentially depicts Sarah’s existential crisis, as she takes off across the United States on a Greyhound bus, from her home in New York to a cabin of her mother’s in secluded New Mexico.

When she sets off, the following reasoning with herself occurs:

‘Are we doing this then, she asked herself.

The question was vague because she herself was vague.  It becomes a lyric in a city like this one.  Sarah’s lover Kennedy had just severed ties.  Kennedy had been everything for a while there.

… Her mother was dead back home in England, that was the other thing.  Finally, after a slow dance with cancer.  And long after their relationship had died.’

She goes on to think about the family pile back in Cornwall, where she grew up, and clearly never felt as though she belonged: ‘But you remain on the threshold, the door never opens, never shuts behind.  You are outside and you can go no further.  And this outsideness, the jags of memory, fit into your skill to be lodged there, for however long.’  Sarah strives to move as far away from her old life as she can, searching for the ‘best possible version’ of herself, and trying her utmost to be at peace with both her body and her place in the world.

Some of the prose within Flesh of the Peach is immeasurably beautiful, but an odd balance has been struck with its many choppy, sometimes unfinished sentences.  The often very short chapters serve to exacerbate this; they oscillate between present and past, and thus Sarah’s story does tend to feel a little jumbled at times.  These sections are interspersed with short intervals detailing what she plans to do with her money; the suggestions thrown up are sometimes sensible, and sometimes utterly wild and strange.  The really interesting thing about the construction of Flesh of the Peach, however, is the way in which it is told using a mixture of traditional and experimental narrative.  This playing around with form is certainly one of McClory’s strengths here.

The depiction of Sarah’s unravelling, and her struggles to stay afloat is believable for the most part, but I felt rather removed from our protagonist whilst reading about her.  The third person omniscient voice is effective in terms of relaying the roadtrip which she takes, and the memories which flood into her mind at intervals, but despite the crisis of knowing herself which takes place, I did not feel as though she was as fully fleshed out as she perhaps could have been.  There was an insurmountable barrier between Sarah and I; yes, I could watch her and her actions, and could understand the situation in which she found herself, but it still did not make some of the actions which she took that plausible, or in character.

Flesh of the Peach is a story which both champions and degrades love, and all of its many forms.  Whilst the characters are largely interesting, we do not learn enough about the majority of them, and despite the third person narration, we see them only through Sarah’s eyes; we are thus given rather a skewed interpretation of other people.  With regard to Sarah, we as readers are always aware of her; her life, her behaviour, her thoughts, and her feelings are continually woven together.  Despite its strengths, Flesh of the Peach did not quite live up to its premise.  Regardless, I look forward to reading more of McClory’s work in future, as I have a feeling that she is definitely an author to watch.

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Six Recommendations

1. The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec

During her 30s, Klinec decided to abandon her corporate job in order to pursue a career in the culinary arts, launching a cooking school from her London kitchen. This led her to travel to Iran, to learn how to cook traditional food in a Persian home. Vahid, the son of the woman she has been invited to stay with, seems prickly and standoffish at first, but they soon fall in love with one another. What ensues is much fascinating commentary on the melding of two very different cultures and customs, and I found it highly insightful.

2. The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden
This is rather an old-fashioned books in some respects, telling the story of a young ‘diddakoi’, or half gypsy girl. I have read quite a few of Godden’s books in the past, and plan to revisit them all at some point. It was lovely to be able to pick up something ‘new’, even though my library reservation came with rather a garish 1970s front cover. The Diddakoi is well plotted, and incredibly heartwarming.

3. The Nazis Knew My Name by Magda Hellinger and Maya Lee
I had not heard of Magda Hellinger’s story before spotting a copy in the library. Written by her daughter, Maya Lee, The Nazis Knew My Name tells the true story of an incredibly brave woman, who put herself in danger to help others around her when she was forcibly taken to various concentration camps during the Holocaust. It is a privilege to read Holocaust memoirs, and I found Hellinger’s memories incredibly moving.

4. Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui
I am seemingly obsessed with swimming; I love to watch it at championships and Olympics when I get the chance, I love to swim myself, and I have already reviewed a couple of swimming-focused books in the past. I really admired the structure which Tsui adopts here, in a book which melds together history and memoir. Why We Swim is fascinating, readable, and I felt as though I learnt a great deal.

5. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
The Light of the World is a memoir centered around the sudden death of Alexander’s husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus. She is left with two young boys, not knowing how to go on without him, or whether to abandon any of the plans the pair made. Here, Alexander captures the essence of their loving relationship, from their early days, to their marriage of fifteen years, and the enormous task of trying to pick herself back up after his death. As The Light of the World has been penned by a poet, one should not be surprised that the prose is beautiful, and incredibly moving.

Assembly by Natasha Brown
At just over 100 pages long, one might be forgiven for thinking that Natasha Brown’s debut novella, Assembly, does not tackle much. Focusing on a young, Black, female protagonist working a high-level London job in the finance industry after graduating from a top University, Assembly explores so many issues around identity, the inner self, race, societal expectations, and trying to cope with living in our frantic world. I loved the structure, which is made up of many vignettes, and enjoyed Brown’s sharp descriptions. There is a real depth and intensity to Assembly. It is exciting modern fiction, and I very much look forward to what Brown writes in future.

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‘Matrix’ by Lauren Groff ****

Lauren Groff is one of a handful of authors whom I will happily read anything by. I had not even glanced at the blurb of her 2021 novel, Matrix, before borrowing it from my library. It came as something of a surprise to me that this is a work of historical fiction, given that her previous books have been so rooted in the contemporary world. It is safe to say that my hopes for Matrix were very high indeed.

The protagonist of Matrix is seventeen-year-old Marie, a young woman living in the court of Eleanor of Aquitane, the Queen of France. Marie, who is loosely based on a twelfth-century poet named Marie de France, is a ‘bastardess sibling of the crown’. She has proved ‘too wild for courtly life’, and is swiftly despatched to an abbey in the north of England. On a cold morning in the winter of 1158, Marie is expelled from the life she has known, and sent away from her secret lover, Cecily. Cecily is ‘… this rough person who had up until this moment been everything to Marie, mistress and sister and servant and pleasure and single loving soul in all of Angleterre.’

Marie is forced to become the abbey’s prioress, despite not believing in any higher power. She finds the religion bestowed upon her ‘vaguely foolish… Her faith had twisted very early in her childhood; it would slowly grow ever more bent into its geography until it was its own angular, majestic thing.’ After she has lived there for around two decades, Groff writes that her faith has shifted entirely: ‘How strange, she thinks. Belief has grown upon her. Perhaps, she thinks, it is something like a mold.’ One of the many strengths in this novel is the portrait which Groff draws of a woman forced against her will into a way of life, and the ways in which she copes with, and adapts to, it.

In the opening scene, Marie arrives at her new home: ‘She sees for the first time the abbey, pale and aloof on a rise in this damp valley, the clouds drawn up from the ocean and wrung against the hills in constant rainfall. Most of the year this place is emerald and sapphire, bursting under dampness, thick with sheep and chaffinches and newts, delicate mushrooms poking from the rich soil, but now in late winter, all is grey and full of shadows.’ The young woman is ‘tall, a giantess of a maiden, and her elbows and knees stick out, ungainly… Her stark Angevin face holds no beauty, only canniness and passion yet unchecked.’ She has been sent to the desolate, neglected abbey during a raging epidemic of one disease or another, which has caused many of the nuns there to perish. The nuns are viewed with suspicion by those who live around the abbey; the townsfolk see them as ‘suspect, unnatural, sisters to witches.’

Over the decades which she spends at the abbey, Marie is nothing short of radical. She looks after the women around her, and comes up with bold new ideas to turn the struggling abbey into a profitable place. This element of the novel in particular will appeal to any feminist; she is a strong woman surrounded by others who become stronger under her direction. She becomes, for the abbey, an agent of change. As Groff says, ‘Her mastery will be gradual but, by the time she becomes abbess many years later, complete.’ She makes renters settle their debts; she sets up a scriptorium where the more educated nuns produce beautiful manuscripts, which can then be sold; she persuades nobles to donate the land around the abbey to the nuns.

The narrative here has been wonderfully controlled. I liked the way in which Groff wove in explorations of feminism, particularly within the female-only space of the abbey. Marie, for instance, grapples with her sexuality throughout, as do others around her. Groff writes: ‘There is no mention of female sodomy in any of the books, and the great angry moralists would have mentioned it if it were a sin, surely. Marie has searched; she has found only echoing silence.’

I do not believe that I’ve read another novel quite like Matrix. It is inventive in true Groff style, and I know that the story and its wonderfully drawn characters and scenes will stay with me for quite some time yet. The novel is wonderfully rich in detail, and I was pulled right into its story. The historical context which Groff provides is at once vague and detailed, and altogether, the story which has been told here is thoroughly beguiling. I really like the way in which Groff captures what was going on in the world whilst the nuns were cloistered away; for instance, when she writes: ‘Marie is forty-seven. From Rome, from Paris, from London, her spies have written swift panicked letters; Jerusalem has fallen again to the infidel.’ Groff has put such thought into how to make this world as realistic and believable as possible.

I love it when I have the chance to read a book by an author which proves a real departure from their previous publications. Matrix is definitely this for Groff. Whilst it is recognisably her work, there is definitely a different feel to it overall. The magical realism which her other novels and short stories are steeped in is barely visible here, only appearing in a couple of ‘visions’ which the nuns have. These small glimpses work wonderfully with the realism which the rest of the story is suffused in. The scenes which she has implanted magical realism into are few and far between, but also beautiful: ‘Lightning sparks at the tip of her fingers. Swifter than breath it moves through her hands, the flesh of her arms, her inner organs, her sex, her skin, and it settles jagged and blazing in her throat. Wondrous colors bloom in the sky above the forest. With a thunder that shakes the ground beneath Marie’s feet, there is a split in the sky that opens. In the split Marie sees a woman made of the greatness of all the cities in the world together, a woman clothed in radiance.’

Time passes quickly in Matrix, and I enjoyed every second. It was not the novel which I was expecting, but I thoroughly admired the way in which Groff tackles so many topics here; it is a novel of religion, sexuality, bonds, friendship, and female power, amongst much else. She has created a stylish and playful work of historical fiction, which feels fresh and exciting. Matrix is undoubtedly a very clever book, and I am so excited to see what Groff comes up with next.

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Five Disappointing Books

Every so often, I pick up a book which I have been so excited about, and find it doesn’t appeal to me as much as I expected. It’s always a disappointment when this happens, and a lot of the time, I will read the first fifty pages, and if it isn’t for me, I just move on to the next tome on my enormous to-read list. However, occasionally I pick up something by an author I have previously enjoyed a great deal, and read it through to the end, despite not enjoying it. This is a habit which I’m struggling to break, sadly.

I thought I would gather together five such disappointing books by authors whose other novels I have loved. These were not quite my style for various reasons, but on the whole, I found myself getting bored rather early on. I should have put them down far earlier, but I will hopefully live and learn for the future.

1 and 2. The Good Listener and A Bonfire by Pamela Hansford Johnson

I adored Pamela Hansford Johnson’s An Impossible Marriage, and also really enjoyed The Holiday Friend, novels which I read very close to one another. I thought I’d found an author whose thrillers I would love going forward, but these two proved real gems compared to the two duds which I followed them with.

The Good Listener, published in 1975, focuses on Toby Roberts. As he is about to leave Cambridge University, he forms a relationship with a girl named Maisie. She adores him; he appears largely indifferent to her. As time goes on, he runs away from her, and perpetuates cruelties with everyone he meets. He is horrid. I know that a lot of readers do not feel as though it’s pivotal to like a character, but Toby was something else. I could not bear to read about him, but I dutifully finished the novel, thinking it might get better. It did not.

Similarly, A Bonfire came nowhere close to meeting my expectations. It was Hansford Johnson’s final novel, published in 1981, the year of her death. The fact that this was a coming-of-age novel really appealed to me, but I was never pulled into the story. I did not find that the writing had the insight of An Impossible Marriage and The Holiday Friend, and for me, it also lacked much of the intrigue which I had come to expect from Hansford Johnson’s books. I remember very little about the plot or characters, I must admit, as this one just did not stick in my head at all.

3. Still Life by Sarah Winman

I was so impressed with each of Sarah Winman’s first three novels. When God Was a Rabbit, her 2011 debut, is a coming-of-age story set amongst a very interesting and flawed family. A Year of Marvellous Ways, published in 2015, is set in Cornwall, and focuses upon a wonderful elderly character named Marvellous Ways. 2017’s Tin Man is a beautiful meditation upon love and friendship, with two young boys at its centre.

I was, understandably, looking forward to reading her newest effort, Still Life, and was so excited when I received a galley of it. That it was set toward the end of the Second World War only piqued my interest further. However, as I started to read, I began to feel very disappointed. The writing felt rather lacklustre to me, and I did not feel as though I got to know any of the characters properly. To me, they felt rather like caricatures. I just could not engage my attention fully with Still Life; something was holding me back. I will pick up Winman’s books in future, and will hope that this is just a blip in an otherwise wonderful array of novels.

4. The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

I liked Rebeca Mascull’s The Visitors when I read it quite a few years ago, but hadn’t picked up any of her other books. I received a galley of The Wild Air, and eventually picked it up months after its actual publication date – oops… Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, and I was excited to read something a little different – about a female Edwardian pilot in the United States.

Sadly, The Wild Air was a disappointment. It sounded promising, but from the beginning, I did not find it engagging. The story was incredibly slow-going, and did not pick up. I must admit that I didn’t see this one through to the end, as it felt a bit like wading through treacle. Regardless, what could have been an exciting story completely failed to pull me in, and its heroine – supposed to be plucky and daring – I found dull.

5. The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

I have read a few of Kennedy’s books to date, and have reviewed rather a lot of those on the blog, if you care to search for them. I have struggled somewhat with the fact that everyone else seems to love them, but I don’t. I was still, however, really excited to pick up The Feast, which I reviewed in full in July, as it seems to be her most loved book. I thought, that of all of Kennedy’s work, I really might love this one.

The story appealed to me greatly. The novel opens with the collapse of a cliffside hotel in Cornwall, before moving backwards in time to the week before, and allowing us insights into all of the characters. I generally really enjoy novels like this, which hold a tragedy which we know about, but link a lot of mysteries in too. However, something about The Feast did not quite come together for me, and the ending felt rushed.

Have you read any of these books, and did you like them more than I did? Which has been the most disappointing book which you have picked up of late?

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Ten More Great Books

Today, I have gathered together ten books which I read quite some time ago, but which I rarely see written or spoken about. The books here are a mixture of fiction and non-fiction from different periods. I wanted to bring a little more attention to these quite excellent tomes, and really hope that you find something which takes your fancy.

1. Basil and Josephine by F. Scott Fitzgerald

‘Basil and Josephine charts the coming of age of two privileged youths from quiet Midwestern towns, Basil Duke Lee and Josephine Perry – based on Fitzgerald himself and a combination of his first love Ginevra King and his wife Zelda. As one struggles to gain the acceptance of his peers and becomes consumed by ambition, the other finds herself obsessed by teenage crushes and has to confront the pitfalls of popularity.

Written for the Saturday Evening Post while the author was working on Tender Is the Night, these stories form a realistic and entertaining portrait of two young adults in the 1910s, fascinating both for the autobiographical insights they provide and the timeless satire that Fitzgerald’s fiction has become synonymous with.’

2. Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 by Lisa Appignanesi

‘Mad, bad and sad. From the depression suffered by Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath to the mental anguish and addictions of iconic beauties Zelda Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. From Freud and Jung and the radical breakthroughs of psychoanalysis to Lacan’s construction of a modern movement and the new women-centred therapies. This is the story of how we have understood mental disorders and extreme states of mind in women over the last two hundred years and how we conceive of them today, when more and more of our inner life and emotions have become a matter for medics and therapists.’

3. Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

‘A woman battles bluebottles as she plots an ill-judged encounter with a stranger; a young husband commutes a treacherous route to his job in the city, fearful for the wife and small daughter he has left behind; a mother struggles to understand her nine-year-old son’s obsession with dead birds and the apocalypse. In Danielle McLaughlin’s stories, the world is both beautiful and alien. Men and women negotiate their surroundings as a tourist might navigate a distant country: watchfully, with a mixture of wonder and apprehension. Here are characters living lives in translation, ever at the mercy of distortions and misunderstandings, striving to make sense both of the spaces they inhabit and of the people they share them with.’

4. Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison

I chose Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in English Weather to read during my final Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon. It is truly lovely; within its pages, Harrison takes four countryside walks around various parts of England, and in different seasons. Her writing is lovely, and she makes the most of discussing the ways in which rain affects particular landscapes, and how the animals which live within them have adapted – or not, as the case may be. Rain is geographically, geologically, historically, and biologically interesting, and provides several nods to works of literature throughout. Charming, thought-provoking, and lovely, particularly when one considers it in tandem with its glossary, which provides one hundred words for different kinds of rain around the United Kingdom.

5. The High Places: Stories by Fiona McFarlane

What a terrible thing at a time like this: to own a house, and the trees around it. Janet sat rigid in her seat. The plane lifted from the city and her house fell away, consumed by the other houses. Janet worried about her own particular garden and her emptied refrigerator and her lamps that had been timed to come on at six.

So begins “Mycenae,” a story in The High Places, Fiona McFarlane’s first story collection. Her stories skip across continents, eras, and genres to chart the borderlands of emotional life. In “Mycenae,” she describes a middle-aged couple’s disastrous vacation with old friends. In “Good News for Modern Man,” a scientist lives on a small island with only a colossal squid and the ghost of Charles Darwin for company. And in the title story, an Australian farmer turns to Old Testament methods to relieve a fatal drought. Each story explores what Flannery O’Connor called “mystery and manners.” The collection dissects the feelings–longing, contempt, love, fear–that animate our existence and hints at a reality beyond the smallness of our lives.

Salon‘s Laura Miller called McFarlane’s The Night Guest “a novel of uncanny emotional penetration . . . How could anyone so young portray so persuasively what it feels like to look back on a lot more life than you can see in front of you?” The High Places is further evidence of McFarlane’s preternatural talent, a debut collection that reads like the selected works of a literary great.’

6. A Little Love, A Little Learning by Nina Bawden

‘It is 1953 and Joanna, Kate and Poll, who are eighteen, twelve and six, are living in a riverside suburb of London with their mother Ellen and their stepfather Boyd, the local doctor. Then the past arrives to upset the present in the person of Aunt Hat, a gossipy old friend whose husband has been imprisoned for assulting her, and who seems to bring news from a different world of chaos and drama. The real danger, however, comes not from Aunt Hat’s indiscretions but from the girls themselves.’

7. Portrait of a Family by Richmal Crompton

‘Happily married for thirty years with three children that have long since grown up, Christopher Mainwaring finds himself at a total loss following the death of his beloved wife, Susan. Yet the joyful marriage he remembers may not have been all it seemed, for no one in the family knows of the troubling words his wife uttered to him from her death bed . . .

Alluding to a possible affair that took place many years ago with a close family friend, the grieving widower is haunted by visions of Susan’s infidelity and seeks to find out the truth. In his quest to unearth his wife’s potential duplicity, Christopher finds himself looking to his children’s complex lives for answers: Joy who is now married with children and concerns of her own, the professionally inept but kind-hearted Frank and his neurotic wife Rachel, and Derek, whose delusions of grandeur with his struggling business causes much distress for his long-suffering wife, Olivia.

Portrait of a Family by Richmal Crompton provides universal reflections and intimate insights into the dynamics of family life with a startling clarity that will stay with the reader long after the final page has been turned.’

8. Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

‘The 52 micro-memoirs in the genre-defying Heating & Cooling offer bright glimpses into a richly lived life. They build on one another to arrive at a portrait of Beth Ann Fennelly as a wife, mother, writer, and deeply original observer of life’s challenges and joys. Some pieces are wistful, some poignant, and many of them reveal the humor buried below the surface of everyday interactions. Heating & Cooling shapes a life from unexpectedly illuminating moments, and awakens us to these moments as they appear in the margins of our lives.’

I had not heard of Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating and Cooling before, but stumbled across it on my online library catalogue and borrowed it immediately. I love fragmented memoirs, and this is a particularly interesting one. Through each of these ‘micro-memoirs’, Fennelly reveals herself little by little. The entries are amusing, and sometimes quite touching; Fennelly’s approach is fresh and enjoyable. There is such depth and consideration to the writing, and I will definitely be looking out for Fennelly’s books in future.

9. Undying: A Love Story by Michel Faber

‘In Undying Michel Faber honours the memory of his wife, who died after a six-year battle with cancer. Bright, tragic, candid and true, these poems are an exceptional chronicle of what it means to find the love of your life. And what it is like to have to say goodbye.

All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,
is mention, to whoever cares to listen,
that a woman once existed, who was kind
and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget
how the world was altered, beyond recognition,
when we met.

10. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins

‘On the buttoned-down island of Here, all is well. By which we mean: orderly, neat, contained and, moreover, beardless.

Or at least it is until one famous day, when Dave, bald but for a single hair, finds himself assailed by a terrifying, unstoppable… monster*!

Where did it come from? How should the islanders deal with it? And what, most importantly, are they going to do with Dave?

The first book from a new leading light of UK comics, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is an off-beat fable worthy of Roald Dahl. It is about life, death and the meaning of beards.

(*We mean a gigantic beard, basically.)’

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Women in Translation Month: ‘Go, Went, Gone’ by Jenny Erpenbeck (One From the Archive)

First published in 2019.

Go, Went, Gone by German author Jenny Erpenbeck was my book club’s choice for January.  I have read all of her other books which have been translated into English thus far, and find them all wonderfully strange, and highly memorable.  I was therefore looking forward to dipping into this novel, which is the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the English PEN Award.  Go, Went, Gone was also longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.  Sally Rooney has called it ‘vital’, and The Guardian ‘profound’.  It has been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky.

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The novel’s protagonist is a retired University professor of Classical Philology named Richard, a man who has lived alone in Berlin since the death of his wife.  Early on in the novel, he finds ‘a surprising new community on Oranienplatz – among the African asylum seekers who have set up a tent city there.’  As Richard slowly gets to know them, his life starts to change, and his own sense of belonging is thrown into question.

The story begins on the first day of Richard’s retirement, in which he finds himself cast rather adrift: ‘He doesn’t know how long it’ll take him to get used to having time.  In any case. his head still works just the same as before.  What’s he going to do with the thoughts still thinking away inside his head?’  His existence, rather than peopled with daily interactions with students and other members of staff, suddenly feels suffused with loneliness.  The inability which he now has to share his work with his peers, and with the wider community, saddens him: ‘As it is, everything his wife always referred to as his stuff now exists for his pleasure alone.  And will exist for no one’s pleasure when he’s gone.’

I admired the way in which Erpenbeck brought together quite disparate goings on in the world, using Richard as the more focused, privileged, Western character, and placing not-so-faraway terrors in his wake.  I found the following scene rather startling: ‘This isn’t the first time he’s felt ashamed to be eating dinner in front of a TV screen displaying the bodies of people felled by gunfire or killed by earthquakes or plane crashes, someone’s shoe left behind after a suicide bombing, or plastic-wrapped corpses lying side by side in a mass grave during an epidemic.’  In this manner, and later through the individuals whom he meets, the migrant crisis is firmly embedded throughout the narrative, entwining with Richard’s own life.  I also enjoyed the parallels which Erpenbeck drew between the Ancient world and the modern; for instance, the comparison made between the anonymous demonstration of migrants on Alexanderplatz, who refused to give their identities or nationalities, to the story in which Odysseus ‘called himself Nobody to escape from the Cyclops’s cave.’

Erpenbeck’s commentary about the Berlin Wall, which ran alongside the present-day crisis, was a forcefultool, establishing similarity between Richard and the migrants.  When Erpenbeck describes the way in which the demolition of the Wall made Berlin almost unknowable to Richard, likenesses form with the borders which the migrants he meets have to try and overcome: ‘Now that the Wall is gone, he no longer knows his way around.  Now that the Wall is gone, the city is twice as big and has changed so much that he often doesn’t recognize the intersections.’  With the Wall as her focus, Erpenbeck is able to mark the passing of time, as well as the changing face of both the city, and its political climate.  Instead of the ‘good bookstore around the corner, a repertory cinema, and a lovely cafe’ around Oranienplatz, the scene now looks more like a ‘construction site: a landscape of tents, wooden shacks, and tarps: white, blue, and green…  What does he see?  What does he hear?  He sees banners and propped-up signs with hand-painted slogans.  He sees black men and white sympathizers…  The sympathizers are young and pale, they dye their hair with henna, they refuse to believe that the world is an idyllic place and want everything to change, for which reason they put rings through their lips, ears, and noses. The refugees, on the other hand, are trying to gain admittance to this world that appears to them convincingly idyllic.  Here on the square, these two forms of wishing and hoping cross paths, there’s an overlap between them, but this silent observer doubts that the overlap is large.

At the novel’s opening, Erpenbeck lets us know that Richard has been shielded from the world around him – physically in terms of the marked space imposed upon him by the Berlin Wall, but figuratively too, moving as he does in the same circles and routines throughout his work, and with his wife.  In Go, Went, Gone, the refugees are given the ability to make Richard more malleable, to open his eyes to the wider world, and to shape elements of his persona.  Richard, despite his good education, job as a professor, and prior travels, was previously ignorant to such things as African geography, and could come across as ignorant.  When he meets a group of migrants for the first time, for instance, Erpenbeck writes: ‘The refugees weren’t all doing so badly, Richard thinks, otherwise how could this fellow be so burly?’ I found some of Richard’s gradual realisations quite moving; for example: ‘There’s something he’s never thought of since these men aren’t being permitted to arrive, what looks to him like peacetime here is for them basically still war.’

The novel’s blurb declares that in Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck makes ‘a passionate contribution to the debate on race, privilege and nationality’.  I agree with this; she certainly explores many issues which revolve around the notions of statehood and selfhood, and the difficulties which so many people have to overcome in order just to live in safety.  Reading such novels as this in our current climate, which places such emphasis on borders and boundaries, is pivotal.  The use which Erpenbeck makes of the present tense throughout just makes the realistic story which she has built feel all the more urgent.  So much of the human experience can be found within this novel.

The only drawback of Go, Went, Gone for me is that it only features the male perspective, but perhaps this is what Erpenbeck was going for.  The few female characters here are either absent – Richard’s wife, and the wives and sisters of many of the migrants – or on the periphery.  In some ways, this absence makes the book seem limiting; in others, I suppose, it is rendered more realistic, as Richard perhaps would not have been allowed the same access to female migrants.  The other slight issue that I had is with the translation; whilst I found Bernofsky’s work fluid, there were some overly long, and occasionally quite muddled, sentences within the novel.

Overall, I found Go, Went, Gone poignant and highly thought-provoking; it made me give so much consideration to the world in which we live, the terrible things which humankind daily proves itself capable of, and notions of privilege.  There is a strong sense of place, and of selfhood, here, and I really did like the way in which the author has not presented Germany, or the wider Western world, as a utopia. Throughout, I found Erpenbeck’s tone, and the omniscient narrative perspective, effective.  I admire the amount of themes which the author has been able to pack in.  She considers, with empathy, what it must be feel like to be an essentially stateless migrant in the modern world, and the injustices which face them on a daily basis.  Go, Went, Gone is a timely novel which I would highly recommend.