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One From the Archive: ‘The Fires of Autumn’ by Irene Nemirovsky ****

First published in 2014.

The Fires of Autumn is essentially the prequel to Nemirovsky’s most famous work, Suite Francaise.  The novel sets the historical and political scene which Suite Francaise then builds upon. The Fires of Autumn was completed in 1942, and was published posthumously in 1957, after Nemirovsky’s death in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Fires of Autumn, the eleventh novel of Nemirovsky’s to be translated into English, is split into three separate parts, covering the period between 1912 and 1941, and following the Brun family, ‘Parisians of some small private means’.  The opening scene uses a meal eaten by the whole family as its backdrop – a simple technique, but a wonderful way in which to introduce multiple characters.

9780099520368As with her other fiction, Nemirovsky’s descriptions are beautiful.  Madame Pain, the elderly mother-in-law of patriarch Adolphe Brun, has ‘hair that looked like sea foam’, and a voice ‘as sonorous and sweet as a song’.  Each member of the family is constructed of different characteristics – for instance, twenty seven-year-old Martial is ‘overly modest’ and focuses almost solely upon his studies and marrying his young cousin Therese, two of the mothers touched upon are either anxious or ambitious, and young Bernard is a dreamer, forever envisioning his future.  When viewed as a familial unit, the Bruns feel realistic.  Generationally, The Fires of Autumn is interesting too; each character is at a slightly different point in his or her life.

The view of Paris and her suburbs is built up over time, and Nemirovsky uses all of the senses to ensure that it stands vividly in the mind of her readers.  Her use of light and darkness illuminate each scene: ‘Even this dark little recess was filled with a golden mist: the sun lit up the dust particles, the kind you get in Paris in the spring, that joyful season dust that seems to be made of face powder and pollen from flowers’.  Nemirovsky’s inclusion of social and political material ensures that The Fires of Autumn is historically grounded.  Spanning such a long period also works in the novel’s favour.

As with many of Nemirovsky’s novels, The Fires of Autumn has been translated by Sandra Smith, who has such control over the original material and renders it into a perfectly fluid and beautiful piece.  She is the author of the book’s introduction too, and believes that it offers ‘a panoramic exploration of French life’.  Indeed, The Fires of Autumn is a beautiful piece of writing, which encompasses many different themes and marvellously demonstrates the way in which Paris altered over several decades, and how this drastic change affected families just like the Bruns.

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‘Diary of an Ordinary Woman’ by Margaret Forster ****

I absolutely adored Margaret Forster’s Have the Men Had Enough? (review here) when I read it back in 2017, and think that her biography of Daphne du Maurier is superb.  It has been a surprisingly long time since I picked up another of her novels, but I selected the rather chunky Diary of an Ordinary Woman as my next Forster because it sounded splendid.  It sounds, on the face of it, as though it has rather a lot of themes in common with Have the Men Had Enough?, and I was intrigued to compare the two.

Diary of an Ordinary Woman spans an entire century, from the birth of its protagonist in 97800994492871901, to her old age in 1995.  It is presented as the ‘edited’ diary of Millicent King, who takes the decision to keep her journal just before the outbreak of the First World War.  In it, she ‘vividly records the dramas of everyday life in a family touched by war, tragedy, and money troubles.’  Of Forster’s decision to include such a vast time period in her novel, The Guardian writes: ‘Not only is the background of social and political change meticulously accurate… but there is everything one would expect from a well-kept diary.  This is fiction, yet it is true.’

The ‘diary’ begins with an introduction written by an overseer, an anonymous author who has been asked to read Millicent’s many diaries by her great-niece by marriage, and assess their literary worth.  The author comments: ‘I pointed out that it is quite dangerous letting a writer loose in a field of very personal material – I might run amok and trample on sensitive areas.’  However, upon reading the earlier diaries, they note: ‘The writing was fluent and lively, and seemed driven by some sort of inner energy which, though the content was mundane enough, gave it a sense of drama…  If she could write with such vigour at 13, how would she write at 23, 33, right up to 93?’

Millicent shows her diaries with some satisfaction: ‘Inside [a cupboard], there were three shelves packed with hardback exercise books, most of them red but some black.  She stood back and surveyed them, telling me that whenever she looked at them like this, she felt her life must, against all the evidence, have amounted to something after all.’  The introduction of this anonymous author-cum-editor ends as follows: ‘… there was nothing ordinary about this woman.  Indeed, I now wonder if there is any such thing as an ordinary life at all.’

To continue with this idea of Millicent’s diaries being edited, entries are sometimes interspersed with comments from the anonymous author, which give more background to the social climate, or which explain why several months – or sometimes years – have been omitted from the ‘edited diary’.  From the beginning, one really gets a feel for Millicent’s quite prickly character.  As a young lady, she certainly feels hard done by, particularly with regard to her position in the family: ‘I am most unfortunately placed in this family, coming after Matilda and before the twins and Baby.  I am special to nobody, and that is the truth.’  Her humour, which is not always deliberate, comes through too in the earliest entries.  When she stays in Westmorland for a family holiday in 1915, she comments: ‘There is no place or time to read and in any case I must be sparing with what I have to read because there is no hope of getting to a library.  I have made Lorna Doone last for ages and I do not even like it.’

I found Diary of an Ordinary Woman immediately compelling.  Forster has perfected an intelligent but accessible writing style, which seems to give us access to Millicent’s every thought, however dark.  Due to the span of almost the entirety of the twentieth-century, Forster has allowed herself to engross one in the details, creating such depth for Millicent and the changing world in which she lives.  There is little which is remarkable in Millicent’s life, but the very fact that such a huge chunk of it has been recorded by herself, is remarkable.

One is really given a feel for the huge shifts which occurred during the twentieth century, and the impacts which this could, and would, have upon one individual.  Her life unfolds against the century; her childhood lived in the First World War, the role of fascism in Italy where she later works as a teacher, the Mass Observation Project which she takes part in, and the Korean War, amongst others.  In many ways – having a career, deciding not to get married or have children, and even wearing trousers in the early 1930s – Millicent subverts what was expected of a well-bred woman.

The element which I found a little tiresome in this novel is the emphasis placed upon Millicent’s romantic conquests.  Whilst mildly interesting at first, these soon begin to follow the same pattern, and the men whom she falls so wildly for become quite similar figures.  This detracted somewhat from my enjoyment of the novel.  Had this part been more succinct, or less spoken about, I imagine that I may well have given Diary of an Ordinary Woman a five star rating.

Millicent King is a singular woman, but she is also presented as Everywoman here.  Forster makes it clear that Millicent shares a lot of her concerns with women living within the twentieth-century.  Of Forster’s protagonist, the Independent on Sunday stresses the ‘whole-hearted’ belief which we have in Millicent, and the element of heroism within her ‘that George Eliot would recognise.’  Whilst there were some later decisions in which I found myself questioning Millicent’s judgement, I could not help but warm to her.  She feels realistic, particularly for all her foibles and complaints.

In Diary of an Ordinary Woman, Forster has created something quite remarkable.  Whilst in some respects the novel does feel rather long, there is so much within it which both fascinated me, and sustained my interest.  Evidently, to span an entire lifetime, there must be a lot of detail included, and the novel is certainly richer for it.

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‘Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves’ by Rachel Malik ****

I have wanted to read Rachel Malik’s debut novel, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, since its 2017 publication.  I have seen relatively few reviews of the book, but my interest was piqued by the praise on its cover.  Penelope Lively calls it ‘a skilful recreation of a time and a climate of mind, enriched by persuasive period detail’, and Elizabeth Buchan says that it is ‘quietly gripping and intriguing’.  The novel is loosely based upon the life of the author’s grandmother, who left her family home and three children to become a Land Girl during the Second World War.

9780241976098The protagonists of the piece are two women, Rene Hargreaves and Elsie Boston.  Rene is billeted to the rural Starlight Farm in Berkshire, far from her home in Manchester, in the summer of 1940.  At first, she finds Elsie ‘and her country ways’ decidedly odd.  However, once the women come to know one another, a mutual understanding and dependence is formed.  Their life with one another is quiet, almost idyllic, until the peace is shattered by the arrival on Starlight Farm of someone from Rene’s past.  At this point, they face trials which endanger everything which they have built, ‘a life that has always kept others at a careful distance.’

The prologue, in which the figure of a solitary woman standing at a window is captured, is beautifully sculpted, and sets the tone of the rest of the novel.  Malik writes: ‘Closer, and you would see that she is waiting.  There is something of that slightly fidgety intensity, that unwilling patience.  A good deal of her life has been spent waiting, one way and another. She’ll carry on waiting, but from today the waiting will be different.’  Chapter one then opens with Elsie’s preparations for her new guest, and Rene’s journey.

Elsie has been alone in her familial home for some time; her parents and three brothers ‘died such a long time ago’, and her sisters have variously married and moved away.  The arrival of the Land Girl fills her with dread and uncertainty: ‘She was seeing everything double and she didn’t like it, it put her all at sea.  She pulled off her scarf and and rubbed her hands through her hair, trying to clear her thoughts.’  When Rene arrives, her first impressions of the place leave her a little doubtful too: ‘She found it hard to imagine a woman, or a man, living here on their own.  It seemed a little strange.  Yet she liked the soft red brick of the house, and the orchard with its shrunken fruit trees.’  Interesting dynamics are apparent between the protagonists as soon as they have become acquainted: ‘Rene found herself thinking back to that first afternoon.  She had offered her hand to Elsie, and Elsie had reached out hers but it wasn’t a greeting – Elsie had reached out as if she were trapped and needed to be pulled out, pulled free.’

As time goes on, and their anxiety settles, Malik writes of the women’s growing relationship with one another: ‘Elsie wasn’t quite like other people, but that didn’t matter to Rene.  Elsie, who had been to the pictures only twice, so long ago, and hated it; Elsie, who didn’t know how to gossip, who had never been to a dance or ever seen the sea; none of it mattered to Rene one bit, because she had fallen hook, line and sinker for Elsie’s lonely power.’  The friendship between Rene and Elsie grows quickly; they come to reveal things about themselves in embarrassment at first, and then with real feeling.  Both characters are unusual and believable.

Throughout, I enjoyed Malik’s writing; in the early few chapters, many of the gloriously structured sentences are filled with curious information about her characters.  I really liked the gentle way in which she introduced new topics into the story, particularly when these connected with the problems in the wider world.  She writes, for instance: ‘As is common when fates are being decided, the two women had no sense of gathering storm clouds.’  The sense of place which Malik crafts, and the way in which this has been woven throughout the novel, feels almost like a point of anchorage: ‘Elsie had known the canal all her life.  It was already falling into disrepair when the Bostons came to Starlight.  Now, for long stretches, the canal was a memory, an imprint: some overhanging branches where shape suggested a curve below, a patch of bricked walkway of a sudden uneasy flatness in the view ahead; Rene could pick out the weeping willows. And then you came upon the soft red curve of a broken bridge, a sudden hole-punched hole of black water, visible only for a moment.’  Malik’s authorial touch is gentle at times, and firm at moments of crisis; there is a lovely balance struck between the two.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a novel which has a quiet power.  A few reviews have mentioned that it starts almost too slowly, but I did not personally feel that this was the case.  Malik simply takes a great deal of care in setting her scenes and building the complex relationships between her main characters.  I found Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves a lovely, thoughtful, and immersive novel.  It is not a happy book, and it took a series of turns which I was not expecting, but this made it all the more compelling.

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One From the Archive: ‘Despised and Rejected’ by Rose Allatini *****

Rose Allatini’s 1918 novel, Despised and Rejected, is one of Persephone’s new titles for Spring 2018.  Allatini was an highly prolific author, publishing books under several pseudonyms; Despised and Rejected was first released under the name of A.T. Fitzroy.    Rereleased in Persephone’s distinctive dove grey covers a century after its original publication, Despised and Rejected is set during the First World War, and is described as a ‘gay pacifist novel’.  Persephone have highlighted its importance, calling it ‘one of the pioneering gay novels of the twentieth century.’  39693554

Despised and Rejected takes two characters as its focus: ‘a gay conscientious objector and his relationship with a young woman who (as he realises but she does not) is a lesbian.’  Composer Dennis Blackwood is the former of these, and Antoinette de Courcy, a young woman of French descent, the latter.

Of course, to the queasy and old-fashioned men of yesteryear, Despised and Rejected was deemed scandalous, although for its anti-war stance rather than its depictions of homosexuality.  Upon its publication, the novel sold eight hundred copies before it was deemed ‘morally unhealthy and most pernicious’.  The publisher, C.W. Daniel, was put on trial, fined, and ordered to surrender the remaining print run of two hundred copies.

The novel is constructed using a three-part structure; the first of these takes place just before the war, and the second and third during it.  Despised and Rejected opens in the Amberhurst Private Hotel in an undisclosed location; here, the Blackwood family are holidaying, and their son Dennis meets Antoinette.  The two are drawn together almost immediately, although Antoinette’s focus is firmly placed upon a secretive woman also staying at the hotel named Hester.  Like Dennis, Hester realises that Antoinette is sexually attracted to women, but Antoinette herself is naive in this respect.  Antoinette is just twenty-one.  As with Dennis, we are given hints and clues that she is attracted to her own sex, but she is unaware that there is a reason for her gravitation toward them, and the lack of feeling which kissing men inspires within her.

From the beginning, Allatini demonstrates that Dennis’ relationship with his father is fractious: ‘Dennis said nothing and set his lips tightly, as was his way when Mr Blackwood jarred upon his nerves more exquisitely than usual.  He disliked his father, disliked the whole coarse overbearing masculinity of the man.  There was between them an antagonism that was fundamental, and quite apart from the present source of grievance’.  His mother sets out to protect him at all times, but their relationship too is, in ways, problematic.  Dennis, she writes, ‘was always on the defensive, even with his mother.  Perhaps with his mother most of all, because he felt that she was most akin to him, and might at any moment come to touch the fringe of that secret world of his…  a world that must remain secret even from the mother who loved him as perhaps no other woman on earth would ever love him.’  This is the first hint given in the novel about Dennis’ homosexuality, something which is continually aware of within himself, but which he has never articulated to anyone around him.  Allatini shows that Mrs Blackwood realises there is something a little different about Dennis, but cannot quite connect the dots: ‘Perhaps he had nothing to tell.  Perhaps she only imagined that he wasn’t happy.  Artists were sometimes peculiar – she clutched at that – and her boy was an artist: perhaps that accounted for it.  Her reason, working in a peculiarly narrow despisedandrejected_newspaper_for_websitecircle, round and round, round and round, accepted this as the solution, and was at peace.  But her instinct, less narrow, more subtle, blindingly groping, refused to be thus pacified.  There must be – something.  But what?  What…?’

Dennis is revealed in the fragments of letters which he writes to Antoinette; this use of his own voice adds more depth to the novel.  He is frightfully ashamed of his own difference, and of his desires.  Allatini writes, ‘He must be for ever an outcast amongst men, shunned by them, despised and mocked by them.  He was maddened by fear and horror and loathing of himself.’  This element of the novel, which deals with Dennis’ feelings, is achingly human, as are his convictions when it comes to refusing to fight in the First World War.  With regard to this, ‘The thought of war inspired in him none of those feelings with which convention decreed that ever true Briton should be inspired…  The whole thing was damnable, and stupid, and cruel…  pretended that it was a noble thing, a glorious game, a game which every Englishman should be proud to be playing.’

Allatini’s descriptions are both vivid and charming.  Of a small, unnamed village in which Dennis and his friend Crispin stay whilst travelling through Devonshire, she writes: ‘… it has an old-world triangular village green, planted with giant oak trees, and enclosed on two sides by dear little thatched cottages with trim little gardens; and it has an ivy-clad church and the usual combination of Post Office and all-sorts shop, in which you may revel in the complex odour of boots, cheese, liquorice, soap, sawdust, biscuits, Fry’s chocolate and warm humanity.’  In one of his letters, Dennis writes to Antoinette, ‘We’re zig-zagging about the country in the most amazing style.  And I wish I could collected all the things I’ve loved most and bring them back to you.’

Despised and Rejected is a highly immersive novel, and an incredibly moving one at that.   Allatini’s writing is intelligent, stylish, and heartfelt.  She writes with clarity and sensitivity, in a way which which feels marvellously balanced.  She has such a deep understanding of her characters, and the problems which their true selves cause for them.  Allatini presents an incredibly strong, measured, and rousing argument for pacifism, discussing the horrors and futility which war brings, and the way in which they often create more problems when they solve.

Despite being published a century ago, Despised and Rejected feels like a novel of our time; it, above all, demonstrates the need for equality and understanding, as well as peace, both within the world and individually.  It is a book which we can learn an awful lot from.

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‘Carol’ by Patricia Highsmith ***

I have read rather a few of Patricia Highsmith’s books to date, beginning with her rather fabulous The Talented Mr Ripley series, and moving to her standalone crime novels more recently.  Whilst Carol, first published under a pseudonym as The Price of Salt upon its 1952 publication, has been on my radar for a long while, it was a recommendation from one of my favourite London bookshops, Gay’s the Word, which pushed me to pick it up.

9781408808979Carol felt, on the face of it, like a real step away from what I am used to with Highsmith’s work.  Graham Greene draws parallels between Carol and Highsmith’s more genre-based crime writing, however, stating that the author ‘created a world of her own, claustrophobic and irrational, which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.’  Val McDermid, who wrote the introduction to the Bloomsbury edition which I read, agrees, writing that Carol ‘has the drive of a thriller but the imagery of a romance.’  The Sunday Times continues this theme, noting that the novel is ‘very recognizably Highsmith, full of tremor and of threat and of her peculiar genius for anxiety.’

The novel’s protagonist is Therese Belivet, a nineteen-year-old woman working as a sales assistant in a New York department store during the busy Christmas rush.  This store, Frankenberg’s, was ‘organized so much like a prison, it frightened her [Therese] now and then to realize she was a part of it.’  She is in the toy department one morning when a ‘beautiful, alluring woman in her thirties walks up to her counter.  Standing there, Therese is wholly unprepared for her first shock of love.’   The woman is Carol Aird, a ‘sophisticated, bored suburban housewife in the throes of a divorce and a custody battle for her only daughter.’  McDermid writes of their meeting: ‘There’s an instant spark of attraction between them but neither knows quite how to react.  They’re drawn to each other, trying for friendship, but unable to resist the deeper attraction.  Their flirtation with danger and desire makes for almost unbearable tension.’  Indeed, many of the scenes which ensue, particularly in the second part of the novel, feel close and claustrophobic.

At the moment in time that she meets Carol, Therese is engaged to a relatively sensible young man with prospects, and a wealthy family behind him.  He pales into comparison for Therese with the rather volatile Carol, whom Highsmith describes in the following manner when the women first meet: ‘She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist.  Her eyes were grey, colourless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away…  The woman was looking at Therese, too, with a preoccupied expression, as if half her mind were on whatever it was she meant to buy here…  Then Therese saw her walk slowly towards the counter, heard her heart stumble to catch up with the moment it had let pass, and felt her face grow hot as the woman came nearer and nearer.’

As previously mentioned, Carol was published under a pseudonym as, despite Highsmith’s authorial success, ‘her mainstream publishers Harper didn’t want to because it dealt explicitly with a lesbian relationship’ (McDermid).  The novel went on to sell over a million copies in the United States alone when the paperback version of The Price of Salt was released in 1953.  This success, writes McDermid, ‘didn’t happen by accident.  When Carol appeared, it didn’t so much full a niche as a gaping void.  Back then, the only images of lesbians in literature were as miserable inverts or scandalous denizens of titillating pop fiction.’  The novel, somewhat surprisingly, was not published under Highsmith’s name until 1991.

Highsmith captures emotion and sensation deftly.  On the first meeting between the women outside the confines of the department store, for instance, Therese ‘wanted to thrust the table aside and spring into her arms, to bury her nose in the green and gold scarf that was tied close about her neck.  Once the backs of their hands brushed on the table, and Therese’s skin there felt separately alive now, and rather burning.  Therese could not understand it, but it was so.’  Highsmith writes of Therese’s innocence, and her sexual awakening, with such understanding.  Her prose is, as usual, quite matter-of-fact, but there was some great writing included.  I particularly enjoyed her descriptions of New York, and the attention to detail which she paid to clothing.

Whilst I found the premise of Carol highly intriguing, I do not feel as though my interest in the story was sustained throughout.  The first part of the novel contained some comparatively dull scenes, which contained snatches of oddly stilted conversations, and where the characters felt a little inconsistent.  The second half certainly picked up though, and the tension in this part of the book was heightened considerably.  Indeed, this second part had a better pace to it, and took twists and turns which I was not expecting.  I must admit that I did not really like any of the characters in Carol; the protagonists were too self-absorbed and largely uncaring, and some of the secondary characters felt more like caricatures than realistic beings.  Regardless, Carol is, of course, well worth a read; it is undeniably a pivotal piece of LGBT literature.

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‘The Vanishing Futurist’ by Charlotte Hobson ****

Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist caught my eye soon after its publication in 2016, but it has taken me quite a while to procure a copy of the novel.  Russia and its history absolutely fascinates me, and I was intrigued by the twist which Hobson has added to the turmoil of the 1918 Revolutions.  Anthony Beever calls this novel ‘breathtakingly original, luminously intelligent and impossible to put down’, and The Guardian describes it as ‘a rapturous, carnival-like ride into political disorder, heady romance and absurdity.’
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The Vanishing Futurist is set in Moscow in 1918 where, in the ‘heady post-revolutionary atmosphere, a young English governess, Gerty Freely, and her friends throw themselves into the task of living as genuine communists.’  A rather mysterious and revered inventor, Nikita Slavkin, runs their commune.  He is ‘determined to revolutionise daily life with his technological innovations’, one of which is thought to have caused his disappearance.  The novel opens with a report from the Soviet Press, which states that ‘the Socialisation Capsule, Slavkin’s latest invention, represented an extraordinary advance in human knowledge… [and] revolutionised our understanding of the universe.’  Slavkin is thus the ‘Vanishing Futurist’ of the novel’s title.

Gerty, a headstrong young woman, takes it upon herself to find out the truth behind his disappearance, which becomes quite notorious in Russian circles.  In fact, his mysterious exit from Russia causes him to become a ‘Soviet icon’, with streets named after him, and films made about his life.  People remain convinced that one day he will reappear; ‘that if his Socialisation Capsule can distort our perception of temporal reality, then it can equally reinstate it.’

Gerty, in her late seventies, is looking back on her life, focusing upon her time in Russia when living in London.  She justifies this decision by saying: ‘My husband, Paul, died six months ago, and since then I have had the strange sensation that the present, my creaky old body in the little terraced house in Hackney which we bought together, is no longer my home.’  She reveals that she has kept this portion of her past a secret from her only daughter, Sophy, and it seems time to make amends.  Talking face to face seems difficult, so Gerty takes another route: ‘I find myself writing an account for her instead, using the papers as my starting point.  This way, I think, will be more truthful – more complete – than if I stammer it out incoherently.’

The novel is narrated by Gerty, who comes from Truro in Cornwall, and decides to become a governess for the Kobelev family in central Moscow.  Of her reasoning to do so, she states: ‘… I was a bookish, scrawny girl, a spinster in the making; argumentative and contrary to my father (as he often said) and disappointingly serious to my mother, who wanted to gossip with me about clothes.  Reading Tolstoy had made me long to visit this country full of peasant women in birch-bark sandals, young officers as fresh as cucumbers, forests filled with unheard-of berries.’ I found Gerty’s voice immediately believable, and its pace and turns of phrase were maintained with consistency throughout.

From the outset, Hobson weaves in rather sensuous descriptions to Gerty’s narrative, which allow her to deftly capture her drastically different change of surroundings: ‘… I was shown immediately to Mrs Kobelev’s room, the heart of the house, dark and hot and smelling of face powder and eau de cologne and slept-in sheets and violet lozenges.’  Moscow, one of my own favourite cities, has been marvellously captured in all of its mystery: ‘Moscow is a city that insinuates itself cunningly into one’s affections.  At first it fascinated and slightly repelled me, as some vast medieval fair might…  Yet slowly I came to know its little courtyards, its secret gardens and alleys, its cool green boulevards cast in relief against the bustle and noise.  It was impossible not to be charmed by the wooden houses and the bawdy streets, the little churches squeezed into every corner.  There was a sort of unexpected joyfulness about it all, unlike any other city I have known.’  Despite the outbreak of war, and the looming Revolutions, Gerty finds a freedom in Moscow that she has never known at home in Cornwall: ‘… I discovered a household where the most absurd and opposing views could be voiced, disagreed with, argued over or renounced without any tempers lost or touchy Chapel gods involved.’

Hobson successfully navigates her way through a pivotal period of Russia’s history, weaving in avant-garde elements against the backdrop of mass arrests and sea-change.  Moscow, and Russia on a grander scale, has been marvellously captured, and the entirety of the novel is so engaging.  There is humour here – for instance, Slavkin ‘ate a great deal of sandwiches, swallowing them whole, like a snake’.  I could not help but feel a fondness for Gerty.

Telling such a story through the eyes of a participant and also a bystander, as Gerty is, is a clever touch, which works well.  The Vanishing Futurist took a series of twists and turns which I was not expecting, and is a novel which is so clever, and so well executed.  I look forward both to picking up Hobson’s debut, and to seeing what she comes up with next.

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One From the Archive: ‘Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore **

First published in 2018.

Helen Dunmore’s final novel, Birdcage Walk, is a piece of historical fiction set in 1792, in Bristol.  At this time, ‘Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence’.  The Observer calls Birdcage Walk ‘the finest novel Dunmore has written’.  The Daily Telegraph deem it ‘Quietly brilliant…  among the best fiction of our time.’  The Guardian believe it to be ‘a blend of beauty and horror evoked with such breathtaking poetry that it haunts me still’.  The novel was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, and has been rather highly praised by critics, as the above quotes demonstrate. 9780099592761

Lizzie Fawkes, the protagonist of the novel, is the product of a childhood lived in Radical circles, ‘where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism’.  Lizzie has recently married a property developer named John Diner Tredevant, who is ‘heavily invested’ in their city’s housing boom, and has ‘everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war’.  He is displeased with Lizzie’s ‘independent, questioning spirit’, and is of the conviction that she should live and behave only in the manner he wishes her to.  In 1793, war was declared between Britain and France, which led to the collapse of the housing boom in Bristol, causing many builders and developers to go bankrupt; this, of course, affects Lizzie and John.

The novel opens in present day Bristol, where a dogwalker comes across an overgrown grave: ‘If my friends hadn’t decided that I should have a dog I would never have opened the gate and gone into the graveyard.  I always took the paved path between the railings.  Birdcage Walk, it’s called, because of the pleached lime trees arching overhead on their cast iron frame.’  The grave which his dog, Jack, first discovers ‘leaned only slightly backwards’.  The name inscribed upon it is Julia Elizabeth Fawkes, an eighteenth-century writer.  The narrator is able to find no information about her whatsoever online, and goes to an open day at her known residence in order to ask an archivist what they are able to find out.

The novel proper begins with rather a chilling chapter.  It begins: ‘He must have shut his eyes.  When he opened them, there she was.  She lay as he had left her, under a tree in the brambles and ivy.  He had laid her out straight, and crossed her hands, and then he had wrapped his coat about her head.  He had known that she would stiffen in a few hours, and that he would not want to see her once again.  There she was.  No one had come; he’d known that no one would come.  It was his luck.  There were no marks where he had dragged her, because he had lifted her in his arms and carries her.’  This man, unknown to us at first, then digs a grave and buries her, before scurrying away.  The second chapter of the novel, and the majority of those which follow, are narrated by Lizzie, whose mother is a writer.

The descriptions in Birdcage Walk are sometimes inventive, and have a vivacity to them.  For instance, Dunmore writes: ‘But the moon was inside too.  It had got into the bedroom while we were sleeping.  Its light walked about over the bedstead, over the chest, the basin in its stand and the blue-and-white jug.  It was a restless thing and I could not lie still.’  I found the first couple of chapters, and the differentiation between tone, character, and period intriguing, but I soon found myself losing interest in the story once Lizzie’s account began.  Her voice felt too settled, and I could not invest enough empathy in her plight.  The dialogue felt forced, unnatural, and repetitive, and the prose and plot were too slow, and plodded along.  Julia Fawkes was a real person, but I felt as though Dunmore had no hold upon her character.  Whilst Dunmore often excels in her novels with her descriptions of the natural world, and in setting scenes, I did not quite feel as though this was the case here.

Birdcage Walk deals with ‘legacy and recognition – what writers, especially women writers, can expect to leave behind them’.  This has an added poignancy, given Dunmore’s untimely death last year.  Unfortunately, whilst I have very much enjoyed several of Dunmore’s novels in the past, Birdcage Walk neither lived up to its premise, nor to its praise, for me.  I am all for slow novels, but I like my historical fiction to be highly absorbing, and well anchored in the period.  Unfortunately, Birdcage Walk was neither.

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