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One From the Archive: ‘Mossy Trotter’ by Elizabeth Taylor ****

First published in 2015.

The 633rd book on Virago’s wonderful Modern Classics list is Elizabeth Taylor’s only book for children, Mossy Trotter.  First published in 1967, the new edition comes with lively Tony Ross illustrations, and an introduction written by Taylor’s son, Renny, who says: ‘… some of it is based on my childhood…  She must have made notes of  things that I got up to because you’ll read about some of my adventures in Mossy Trotter‘.

The blurb of Mossy Trotter – which has been praised by prolific children’s authors Jacqueline Wilson and Kate Saunders – says that within its pages, Taylor ‘perfectly captures the temptations and terrors of a mischievous boy – and just how illogical, frustrating and inconsistent adults are’.  It then goes on to compare the book to such classics as Richmal Crompton’s Just William, and Clive King’s Stig of the Dump

The premise of the book is almost Roald Dahl-esque, and it is sure to appeal to both adults and children: ‘When Mossy moves to the country, life is full of delights…  But every now and then his happiness is disturbed – chiefly by his mother’s meddling friend, Miss Silkin.  And a dreaded event casts a shadow over even the sunniest of days – being a page-boy at her wedding’.

Mossy is a curious, likeable and amusing child, whose inquisitiveness often gets the better of him, and leads him into sticky – sometimes quite literally – situations.  He is particularly fond of tar, and finds himself playing in it when the workmen have been, despite knowing that his mother will be cross with him: ‘… to begin with, he would stand in the tar-splashed grass at the side of the road; then he would drop a few stones on to the tar to see if they stuck; then he would put out his toe and prod an oozy patch, and in no time at all he was stamping in it, picking bits up and rolling them into rubbery balls, and his legs would be smeared, and so would his jeans and his shirt’.

An understanding Taylor bestows the role of confidante upon her young audience almost immediately: ‘Where things had been was what grown-ups worried about all the time.’  She outlines, in the tale’s very beginning, the vast differences which exist between children and adults.  The character of Miss Silkin opens proceedings by talking about her concept of paradise: ‘Standing where she was she could not possibly see the beautiful rubbish dump among the bracken.  This had been his private paradise from the moment he discovered it.  It was a shallow pit filled with broken treasures from which, sometimes, other treasures could be made…  If he could only find two old wheels, he could build himself a whole bicycle, he thought’.

I was reminded throughout of Astrid Lindgren’s charming Pippi LongstockingMossy Trotter feels almost as though it was written by the same author, just with a more masculine young audience in mind.  Mossy’s adventures, much like Pippi’s – a birthday party, a visit from his grandfather, and being a page boy, for example – are lovingly relayed by Taylor, and are certain to leave children wanting more.  The whole has been so well crafted, and interlinking tales wind through from one chapter to the next.  Mossy Trotter is rather a charming read, which is sure to drum up childhood nostalgia in the adults who come across it due to Virago’s reprint.

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The 1944 Club: ‘The Case of the Gilded Fly’ by Edmund Crispin ****

Hurrah!  I have finally been organised enough to be able to participate in one of the wonderful yearly clubs run by Simon and Karen.  The year which they have chosen for bloggers to read books from this week is 1944, and I was so pleased that I could read and review the first book in the Gervase Fen series, The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin, for the occasion.

9780099542131The Guardian praise Edmund Crispin’s series of crime novels as ‘a ludicrous literary farce’, and The Times call the author ‘one of the last exponents of the classical English detective story… elegant, literate, and funny.’  In this, the first novel in the series, a ‘pretty but spiteful young actress’ named Yseut Haskell, who has a ‘talent for destroying men’s lives’, is discovered dead in a University room ‘just metres from unconventional Oxford don Gervase Fen’s office.’  In rather an amusing aside, the blurb says: ‘Anyone who knew her would have shot her, but can Fen discover who could have shot her?’

The Case of the Gilded Fly begins in early 1940, in a typically British manner: ‘To the unwary traveller, Didcot signifies the imminence of his arrival at Oxford; to the more experienced, another half-hour at least of frustration.’  On such a railway journey is where we first meet English Language and Literature Professor Fen – ‘And as his only distraction was one of his own books, on the minor satirists of the eighteenth century, which he was conscientiously re-reading in order to recall what were his opinions of these persons, he became in the later stages of the journey quite profoundly unhappy’ – as well as the other protagonists.  This cast of characters is rather a diverse one.  After brief sketches of their personalities and professions, Crispin discusses them for the first time as a group: ‘By Thursday, 11 October, they were all in Oxford.  And within the week that followed three of those eleven died by violence.’

Crispin controls his writing and characters wonderfully.  The opening description of Yseut gives her character a complexity, and sets the reader – like her acquaintances – against her rather quickly.  Crispin writes: ‘To a considerable extent we are all of necessity preoccupied with ourselves, but with her the preoccupation was exclusive, and largely of a sexual nature into the bargain.  She was still young – twenty-five or so – with full breasts and hips a little crudely emphasized by the clothes she wore, and a head of magnificent and much cared-for red hair.  There, however – at least as far as the majority of people were concerned – her claims to attractiveness ended.  Her features, pretty enough in a conventional way, bore little hints of the character within – a trifle of selfishness, a trifle of conceit; her conversation was intellectually pretentious and empty; her attitude to the other sex was too outspokenly come-hither to please more than a very few of them, and her attitude to her own malicious and spiteful.’

The Case of the Gilded Fly is both intelligently written and highly immersive.  Whilst not my favourite in the Gervase Fen series – that accolade has to be given to the magnificent The Moving Toyshop – The Case of the Gilded Fly, whilst stylistically different in some ways, serves as a marvellous introduction to the series.  Crispin sets it up so that everyone has a grievance against Yseut, and the reader is consequently left guessing who could have perpetrated the crime, when all have a motive.

The sense of place here has been well captured, too, as well as the early Second World War time period in which it is set.  Crispin notes that the college admissions at Oxford University have been greatly affected, with many students going off to fight.  The blackout conditions are also in place when Yseut is murdered, which does not help matters; her death is first ruled as a suicide, until Fen and an Inspector from the local police force probe more deeply and discover several clues.  The novel does not throw up as many red herrings as I had come to expect from the later books in the series; it is more of a measured and meditative novel.  I did correctly guess one of the elements, but found it incredibly well pieced together nonetheless.

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Abandoned Books: ‘Anna and the French Kiss’ by Stephanie Perkins **

9781409579939I really enjoyed Stephanie Perkins’ There’s Someone Inside Your House, which I found unpredictable and taut. I have also enjoyed the short story anthologies which she has both edited and contributed to; the Christmas one in particular is lovely. Up until I picked up Anna and the French Kiss, I had largely avoided her Young Adult romance novels, largely because I do not often read YA as a genre, and I don’t enjoy fully-fledged romance stories, where the love interest is the only focus of the story. However, I chose to borrow this from my online library’s catalogue, as I was intrigued both by the very high ratings given by a lot of my Goodreads friends, and the quite hilarious one- and two-star reviews which I came across whilst wondering whether to read it. (Go and seek them out. They’re well worth a read.) I also wanted something easy to read whilst suffering with the ‘flu.

Paris, where this novel is set, is one of my favourite cities, and I have been lucky enough to visit a lot over the years. It is described only frugally, and becomes a secondary concern for Perkins almost from the get go. Anna, our named protagonist, is rather entitled. Despite having divorced parents, and living almost frugally with her mother, her father has become a bestselling novelist. He decides to send her from her home in Atlanta, Georgia, to live at a boarding school in Paris for a year, believing that the experience will be a great one for her.

Anna says, of his decision, that she is not ‘ungrateful’, but basically, she is. I did not like her as a character; she is spoilt and bratty, and just the kind of girl whom I did my best to avoid whilst I was at school. She is filled to the brim with cliched, and often quite horrid, views about France; she believes that everyone spends their spare time watching mime artists and eating ‘weird’ food, she wonders if French water is ‘even safe to drink’, and she is surprised when she sees a chef sporting a handlebar moustache, as she didn’t realise they had them ‘over here’. She calls herself a huge fan of cinema, and wants to be a film critic when she is older. She does not even realise that there are cinemas in France, one of the most influential countries in cinema. When she finally goes to these picture houses – many of which are very close to her school – she seeks out American movies, and refuses to watch any foreign films. She makes ridiculous comments throughout, and does not once act her age.

It is not just Anna who is a terrible character; those who surround her at school largely are too. At first they intrigued me, but after a while I wondered why I was even persevering with the novel. Her love interest, Etienne St. Clair, is a scruffy American citizen who has been brought up in London and thus speaks with an English accent; this baffles Anna at first. Rather than speak realistically, he has one of those BBC voices circa 1940. He says things like ‘Hallo’ and ‘come along’, which you hear quite rarely in twenty-first century London (trust me).

Anna and the French Kiss is a largely predictable novel. Whilst better written than some of the YA which I have encountered over the years, there is little about it that is intellectually stimulating – despite its Paris setting, which is largely overlooked – and I ended up feeling quite frustrated with it. I only got around a third of the way through the novel before giving up on it, but I could tell which direction it was going to go in from Anna and Etienne’s first meeting. It is full of cliches, and even a reference to my favourite film director, Wes Anderson, was not enough to save it for me. I hope that Perkins goes on to write another slasher novel in future, but this is a series of books which I will definitely be leaving alone.

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The Book Trail: From Hanya Yanigahara to Karin Altenberg

I am beginning this edition of the Book Trail with something a little different; a novel which I have not read as yet, but remember seeing a lot of buzz about when it was released.  Whilst I can’t promise I’ll be able to have read and reviewed it by the time this year ends, it is definitely on my radar, and I will be picking it up at the first opportunity.  As ever, I am using the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list.

1. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigahara 39789318
In 1950, Norton Perina, a young American doctor, joins an anthropological expedition to a remote Micronesian island in search of a rumoured lost tribe. There he encounters a strange group of jungle-dwellers who appear to have attained a form of immortality that preserves the body but not the mind. Perina uncovers their secret and returns with it to America, where he soon finds great success. But his discovery has come at a terrible cost, not only for the islanders, but for Perina himself.

2. Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
A luminous collection of heartbreaking, vivid, startling, and gloriously unique stories set amongst the Filipino-American communities of California and the Philippines. Already the worthy recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and a Stegner Fellowship, Tenorio brilliantly explores the need to find connections, the melancholy of isolation, and the sometimes suffocating ties of family in tales that range from a California army base to a steamy moviehouse in Manilla, to the dangerous false glitter of Hollywood.

129646653. Aerogrammes by Tania James
‘This is a bravura collection of short stories set in locales as varied as London, Sierra Leone, and the American Midwest that captures the yearning and dislocation of young men and women around the world.  In “Lion and Panther in London,” a turn-of-the-century Indian wrestler arrives in London desperate to prove himself champion of the world, only to find the city mysteriously absent of challengers. In “Light & Luminous,” a gifted dance instructor falls victim to her own vanity when a student competition allows her a final encore.  In “The Scriptological Review: A Last Letter from the Editor,” a young man obsessively studies his father’s handwriting in hopes of making sense of his death. And in the marvelous “What to Do with Henry,” a white woman from Ohio takes in the illegitimate child her husband left behind in Sierra Leone, as well as an orphaned chimpanzee who comes to anchor this strange new family.  With exuberance and compassion, Tania James once again draws us into the lives of damaged, driven, and beautifully complicated characters who quietly strive for human connection.
4. Miss Timmins’ School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy
A murder at a British boarding school in the hills of western India launches a young teacher on the journey of a lifetime.  In 1974, three weeks before her twenty-first birthday, Charulata Apte arrives at Miss Timmins’ School for Girls in Panchgani. Shy, sheltered, and running from a scandal that disgraced her Brahmin family, Charu finds herself teaching Shakespeare to rich Indian girls in a boarding school still run like an outpost of the British Empire. In this small, foreign universe, Charu is drawn to the charismatic teacher Moira Prince, who introduces her to pot-smoking hippies, rock ‘n’ roll, and freedoms she never knew existed.  Then one monsoon night, a body is found at the bottom of a cliff, and the ordered worlds of school and town are thrown into chaos. When Charu is implicated in the murder—a case three intrepid schoolgirls take it upon themselves to solve—Charu’s real education begins. A love story and a murder mystery, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is, ultimately, a coming-of-age tale set against the turbulence of the 1970s as it played out in one small corner of India.
5. The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler 13073377
In 1978, Dawit, a young, beautiful, and educated Ethiopian refugee, roams the streets of Paris. By chance, he spots the famous French author M., who at sixty is at the height of her fame. Seduced by Dawit’s grace and his moving story, M. invites him to live with her. He makes himself indispensable, or so he thinks. When M. brings him to her Sardinian villa, beside the Bay of Foxes, Dawit finds love and temptation—and perfects the art of deception.
6. Little Woman in Blue by Jeannine Atkins
May Alcott spends her days sewing blue shirts for Union soldiers, but she dreams of painting a masterpiece—which many say is impossible for a woman—and of finding love, too. When she reads her sister’s wildly popular novel, Little Women, she is stung by Louisa’s portrayal of her as “Amy,” the youngest of four sisters who trades her desire to succeed as an artist for the joys of hearth and home. Determined to prove her talent, May makes plans to move far from Massachusetts and make a life for herself with room for both watercolors and a wedding dress. Can she succeed? And if she does, what price will she have to pay? Based on May Alcott’s letters and diaries, as well as memoirs written by her neighbors, Little Woman in Blue puts May at the center of the story she might have told about sisterhood and rivalry in an extraordinary family.
111858397. The Luminist by David Rocklin
Photography comprises the bright, tensile thread in the sweep of The Luminist, drawing tight a narrative that shifts between the prejudices and passions of Victorian England and those of colonial Ceylon.  It binds the destinies of Catherine Colebrook, the proper wife of a fading diplomat, who rebels against every convention to chase the romance of science through her lens, and Eligius, an Indian teenager thrust into servitude after his father is killed demanding native rights.  The Luminist is a weave of legend and history, science and art, politics and domesticity that are symphonic themes in the main title, the story of an enduring and forbidden friendship. Catherine and Eligius must each struggle with internal forces that inspire them and societal pressures that command them. Rocklin’s is a bold landscape, against which an intimate drama is poignantly played out. Just in this way, our minds recall in every detail the photo snapped at the moment of pain, while all the lovely scenes seem to run together.
8. Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg
A portrait of a marriage, a meditation on faith, and a journey of conquest and self-discovery, Island of Wings is a passionate and atmospheric novel reminiscent of Wuthering Heights.  July, 1830. On the ten-hour sail west from the Hebrides to the islands of St. Kilda, everything lies ahead for Lizzie and Neil McKenzie. Neil is to become the minister to the small community of islanders, and Lizzie, his new wife, is pregnant with their first child. Neil’s journey is evangelical: a testing and strengthening of his own faith against the old pagan ways of the St. Kildans, but it is also a passage to atonement. For Lizzie — bright, beautiful, and devoted — this is an adventure, a voyage into the unknown. She is sure only of her loyalty and love for her husband, but everything that happens from now on will challenge all her certainties.  As the two adjust to life on an exposed archipelago on the edge of civilization, where the natives live in squalor and subsist on a diet of seabirds, and babies perish mysteriously in their first week, their marriage — and their sanity — is threatened. Is Lizzie a willful temptress drawing him away from his faith? Is Neil’s zealous Christianity unhinging into madness? And who, or what, is haunting the moors and cliff-tops?  Exquisitely written and profoundly moving, Island of Wings is more than just an account of a marriage in peril — it is also a richly imagined novel about two people struggling to keep their love, and their family, alive in a place of terrible hardship and tumultuous beauty.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which would you recommend?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Joy Luck Club’ by Amy Tan ****

The Joy Luck Club begins is Amy Tan’s first novel, and was first published in 1989.  The novel begins in 1949, where four women, all recent arrivals in San Francisco, decide to ‘meet weekly to play mah-jong and tell stories of what they left behind in China’.  These women call themselves the Joy Luck Club.  The novel is split into four sections, each of which includes a chapter told by three of the four women in the club – An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong and Ying-Ying St. Clair – or their daughters – Waverly, Lena, Rose and Jing-Mei.  Tan has decided to begin the novel with a small cast list featuring her protagonists.

9780749399573The first perspective used in The Joy Luck Club is that of Jing-Mei Woo, who has had no real choice but to join the club: ‘My father has asked me to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club.  I am to replace my mother, whose seat at the mah-jong table has been empty since she died two months ago.  My father thinks she was killed by her own thoughts’.  All of the women within the Joy Luck Club met each other through the First Chinese Baptist Church when first arriving in their new hometown.  Jing-Mei says: ‘My mother could sense that the women of these families also had unspeakable tragedies they had left behind in China and hopes they couldn’t begin to express in their fragile English’.  The idea for the club had been dreamed up by her mother whilst she was still a resident of her native China, ‘on a summer night that was so hot even the moths fainted to the ground, their wings so heavy with the damp heat’.  Her vision for the club included the following view: ‘We weren’t allowed to think a bad thought…  And each week we could hope to be lucky.  The hope was our only joy’.

As with her other novels, Tan weaves in the vivid past of the Chinese, making it a firm and intrinsic element of her protagonists and, indirectly, of their daughters.  The disparities between both cultures – Chinese and American – is highlighted throughout, particularly so with regard to the generational divide.  The differences between different areas of China is also addressed.  Lindo says: ‘That was how backward families in the country were.  We were always the last to give up stupid old-fashioned customs…  You never heard if ideas were better in another city, only if they were worse’.  Tan outlines the way in which language can be misconstrued in its meaning from one culture to another.  The Joy Luck Club is culturally stable, and uses Chinese vocabulary, customs and a wealth of traditional foodstuffs to ground it in time, place and culture.  The merging of the cultures is fascinating, as is the outlining of Chinese cultural constraints and expectations.  From a cultural perspective, The Joy Luck Club is a most interesting novel.

Tan’s prose, particularly with regard to the speech of her characters, is beautiful.  She excels particularly at descriptions.  The stories of each of the protagonists are woven in throughout.  The way in which different first person perspectives have been used works so well.  The majority deal with the present, and all include details of the past, which have shaped the women.  Throughout, Tan exemplifies the bravery of women in the face of dire adversity. The relationships between the women are believable and translate well to the page.  Each thread of the story works well, and an extremely absorbing novel is created as a result.

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‘The Shadow Year’ by Hannah Richell **

I really enjoyed Hannah Richell’s debut novel, Secrets of the Tides, and jumped at the chance of receiving a review copy of The Shadow Year.  This is blurbed as ‘another mesmerising story of tragedy, lies and betrayal.’

9781455554331In the novel, protagonist Lila Bailey receives a package ‘out of the blue’, which consists of a letter and a key.  She has no idea who could have done such a thing, but someone has anonymously bequeathed her a ‘remote lakeside cottage and the timing couldn’t be better; with her marriage unravelling, the house offers the perfect escape.’  Upon reaching the cottage, which lies in Derbyshire’s Peak District, Lila soon begins to wonder as to why the previous inhabitants clearly left in such a hurry, leaving their belongings behind.  She also, later on, starts to feel as though she is being watched at every turn.  ‘As a year at the lake unfolds, Lila uncovers long forgotten secrets and discovers that the past can cast a very long shadow.’

The prologue is rather sensuously written.  Here, Richell has focused upon an unnamed female character, and speaks of the lake itself almost as a character in its own right: ‘Pushing off from the bottom, she swims out to where the water is dark and deep then stops to watch the breeze play across the surface, lifting it in choppy peaks.  Her blood is cooling and she feels the weight of herself – her arms, her legs, the heavy tangle of her nightie, her slow-beating heart.  Treading water, she sees the cottage tilt in the distance and the light waver across the treetops.  It’s a dream, she tells herself and lays her head back upon the water, suspended there between earth and sky, floating for a moment upon the skin of the lake.’

Lila likes the idea of going to explore the land with Tom, her husband, a trip which is focused upon in the first chapter.  The pair are dealing with a bereavement, following a miscarriage.  Of the trip, which Lila suggests after a series of arguments, Richell writes: ‘She can see that he is surprised by her sudden desire to do something and knows it must seem strange when she has spent the last couple of weeks holed-up at home, doing very little of anything besides sleeping and crying and wandering aimlessly around the house.  But somewhere new and remote…  somewhere no one knows them…  somewhere where no one knows what’s happened is strangely appealing.’

The second chapter of The Shadow Year begins in 1980, when five friends, all of whom have just finished their undergraduate degrees, stumble upon the same cottage that will be left to Lila decades later.  They are all unsure about what to do in the ‘real world’, and the cottage becomes a place of escape for them.  Upon the suggestion of Ben’s, they decide on a whim to spend an entire year there as an ‘experiment’, cut off from the rest of the world, and able to enjoy their own pursuits.  All is not as idyllic as it first seems, however; tensions begin to mount between various members of the group, and ‘when an unexpected visitor appears at their door, nothing will be the same again.’

Richell’s descriptions of the dilapidated cottage are quite lovely.  She writes: ‘The gritstone walls are spotted with lichen and the rose appears to be missing several tiles.  Closer still and she can see guttering hanging off at an alarming angle and birds’ nests and cobwebs lodged under the eaves.  In front of both ground floor windows, nestled amidst the dandelions and nettles are wild bursts of lime green seed heads, round and flat and translucent like paper…  As they move closer still they see that the windows are black with grime…’.

Everything in The Shadow Year started off so well, but there was very little momentum with which to carry the story along.  Rather, whole sections felt slow and almost stagnant.  I did not feel invested in a single character here.  I remember much of the cast of Secrets of the Tides as realistic constructions, with depth to them, and believable backstories.  The characters here, however, felt rather cliched.  The main twist of the novel was predictable, and I saw it coming very quickly indeed.

A lot of other reviewers seem to have really enjoyed The Shadow Year, but I cannot help but feel disappointed.  I have read books with similar plotlines, by the likes of Juliet Greenwood and Kate Morton, which I found to be far more immersive, and better pieced together.

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‘The Big House’ by Helena McEwen ****

Over the years, I have seen very few reviews of Helena McEwen’s work; she seems to be quite an underappreciated author.  I have read her other two published novels before – Ghost Girl (2004) and Invisible River (2011) – and very much enjoyed both, but the overall ratings on Goodreads for both books are rather low (average ratings of 2.82 and 3.10 respectively).  The Big House, her debut novel, has been even more poorly rated, with an average score of 2.65.  It is, however, my favourite amongst what I feel are three very good novels.

The Independent on Sunday deems The Big House ‘brilliant…  A book of immense skill and unique vision’, and the Observer calls it ‘touching, poetic and utterly unsentimental.’  In the novel, protagonist Elizabeth’s brother James has committed suicide.  After her sister Kitty also passes away, a victim of drowning, ‘it is more than she can bear.  As she wanders the large family mansion of her childhood – a haunting place of mystery, wonder and opulence – the memories of an apparently idyllic but secretly threatening past will not let her go.’  She makes her way to Scotland, where the family home is about to be sold, in order to be alone with the memory of her siblings. 9780747548485

From the first, I found Elizabeth’s narrative voice both mesmerising and absorbing.  Trying to make sense of her loss, she asks: ‘What has happened in that time, from spring to autumn, the lifetime of a leaf?  What happened when it poked its way through the four small doors, and unfurled its pale-green folded-up pleats to the world?  James died.  And what happened as the yellow green darkened to summer green, then began to turn yellow at the edges as late summer crept along the branches?  Kitty died…’.  When this particular reflection begins, Elizabeth stands at the point in the year when the leaves are falling.

The narrative voice in The Big House is very connected to the natural world; such attention has been given to sensation and colour particularly.  Given the nature of the death of both siblings, one so deliberate and the other an accident, Elizabeth has to imagine that both are now in a better place: ‘And I can’t think of Kitty’s terrified struggle for life, and I can’t think of the pain that made James pull the trigger, because I can feel where they have gone.  It is a singing place full of light.  It dazzles me.  I long for the sweetness of it.  It is home, and I want to go home.’

The imagery in The Big House is by turns fragile and stark.  McEwen writes, for example, ‘James went along to the gun room and took a rifle down from the stand.  He must have loaded it at night in the dark, and he lay down outside in the leaves and hugged the gun as though it was a friend.’  The scenes which depict grief are touching and raw.  After James’ death on the aforementioned night, Elizabeth recalls: ‘Kitty and I lay on a bed in a hotel with the window open.  I didn’t want to leave her, even go out of the room.  I didn’t want to be anywhere without her, and feel all the feelings about James on my own.  So we lay together on the bed, with our bare arms wrapped around each other, letting the terrible feelings pass through at the same time, and outside we could hear the sea lapping against the rocks and the seagulls calling plaintive cries in the air.  They called through us, and the sound felt our pain.’

One gets a sense of something other than realism filling Elizabeth’s childhood; there are, on occasion, elements of the otherworldly, and a continuing feeling of being observed by the unknown.  ‘The invisible beings of the house seem to draw closer to me and I feel their shadows passing through me.  Little winds blow in my ear, and make me shiver, and strange wispy feelings slide up and down my spine.’  I very much enjoyed the use of the unreliable narrator which McEwen created here, and the brief sense of retrospect at the beginning of the novel, before the narrative which follows is filled with childhood memories.  There is not a great deal of plot when this ensues, but the scenes and memories which are woven in are striking and memorable.  There is a timeless quality to this story; it is never stated explicitly when events occur, and very few cultural details can be found throughout.  The Big House provides a lovely, and quite thorough, exploration of a childhood, and the strength of sibling relationships.

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