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‘Weather’ by Jenny Offill ****

Jenny Offill is an author whose work I very much enjoy; I was enraptured whilst reading both Dept. of Speculation and Last Things. Her newest novel, Weather, appealed to me on several levels, and I was eager to dig in.

The protagonist of Weather is Lizzie Benson, who managed to slide ‘into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree.’ Whilst this causes animosity with some of her colleagues, it also gives her ‘a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: as an unofficial shrink.’ Lizzie comes from a difficult familial background; her mother is ‘God-haunted’, and speaks to her of ‘the light, the vine, the living bread’, and her brother is a troubled, recovering addict.

From the outset of the novel, we are introduced to some of the library’s patrons, and their very particular quirks. There, is, for instance, ‘The man in the shabby suit [who] does not want his fines lowered. He is pleased to contribute to our institution. The blond girl whose nails are bitten to the quick stops by after lunch and leaves with a purse full of toilet paper.’ There is some wonderfully strange imagery at play throughout Weather; for example, ‘But the man in the shabby suit tells me things I want to know. He works for hospice. He said that it is important when a loved one dies to try to stay alone in the house for three days. This is when the manifestations occur. His wife manifested as a small whirlwind that swept the papers off his desk.’

Lizzie’s old mentor, Sylvia Liller, was responsible for getting her young protégée her job. Sylvia is currently well-known for her ‘prescient podcast’ about the state of the world, entitled ‘Hell and High Water’. She proposes to Lizzie that she could build her career by answering the mail which she receives in response to the podcast; this is from ‘left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of Western civilization.’

As she is considering whether to take the job, Lizzie reveals: ‘I ask her what sorts of things she gets. All kinds, she tells me, but everyone who writes her is either crazy or depressed. We need the money for sure, but I tell her I have to think about it. Because it’s possible my life is already filled with these people.’ She decides to accept, and begins to move in a different trajectory to that which her librarian job offers. As Lizzie becomes a part of this highly polarised platform, she finds that ‘the voices of the city keep floating in – funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.’

Offill has cleverly woven together several different elements, allowing us to really get to know her characters and their foibles. Alongside musings about Lizzie’s career, she worries deeply about motherhood, and protecting her young son, Eli: ‘I’m not allowed to think about how big this school is or how small he is. I’ve made that mistake after other drop-offs. I should be used to it by now, but sometimes I get spooked all over again.’ Offill gives us a real insight into her protagonist and what matters to her, as well as the tiny cruelties which play on her mind, and the more philosophical questions which she considers.

I warmed to Lizzie very quickly, and appreciated the character arc which is taken throughout the novel. She is a highly complex individual, who muses about such interesting things. One particular foible of Lizzie’s which I loved was her ‘bookish superstition about my birthday… I like to see what Virginia Woolf said about an age in her diaries before I reach it. Usually it’s inspiring.’ This could well be something which I choose to adopt in my own life, so taken with the idea was I!

There is always something in Offill’s novels which feels original, which is uniquely hers. Weather is no different. At just 200 pages, it is a relatively quick read, but so much fills it. It is a realistic novel, but at the same time, there is an almost magical, otherworldly quality to it. The structure of paragraph-long vignettes which have been used work marvellously. I really enjoyed the approach taken, and felt connected with the story from beginning to end. I sank into Offill’s prose from the very first page, and did not want to finish reading.

2

‘Painter to the King’ by Amy Sackville ****

I adored Amy Sackville’s first two novels, Orkney and The Still Point. When I spotted a copy of her newest work in my local library, therefore, I picked it up and read its blurb with interest. Painter to the King is very different in its approach, given that it marks Sackville’s first foray into historical fiction, but as she is such an innovative writer, I fully expected to love it too.

Painter to the King gives a fictional account of artist Diego Velázquez, who, as a twenty three-year-old, was summoned to the court of King Philip IV of Spain. He arrived in Madrid to become the official ‘painter to the King’, a position which he would hold until his death.

Velázquez’s job gave him ‘an unparalleled view of palace life’, and it is this which Sackville has set out to explore. She examines his story through his own eyes, and in consequence, ‘… we see an intimate relationship that is not quite a friendship, between a king and his subject, between an artist and his subject.’ Sackville aims to expose ‘what is shown and what is seen, about art and death and life’, and dips into the spaces between.

When we first meet Velázquez, in 1622, he has ridden to Madrid from Seville: ‘He had a stipend for the journey and some pride, he arrives in style: he has paid for a horse. Just one attendant on a mule with the baggage, who has no features in the dark beyond the torchlight.’ He meets the King quite soon afterwards; at this point, Philip IV is not even twenty, seen as ‘a man of solid flesh, and the greatest monarch in the world.’ He has been the King of Spain for two years, much of that time spent mourning his late father. He would go on to rule Spain during the Thirty Years War.

The omniscient narrator of the novel speaks from a position of hindsight. When describing the King, for instance, the following is said: ‘… Now he is young and golden, and his people love him, and although he is melancholy by temperament he hasn’t yet known many of the many sadnesses that will later come to weigh him down and pull at the corners of his eyes and cast the court into muttering silence, chafing in the draughts; all this is to come and if anyone can see it they won’t speak, won’t see it, or won’t be listened to; only a fool would tell a truth like that one, that it’s all already ending -‘. The narrator also writes about experiences they have had viewing Velázquez’s paintings whilst on a trip to Madrid in the modern world; I found this a thoughtful inclusion.

I loved Sackville’s descriptions, and the importance of minutiae in her writing. Her prose is beautiful and rich, suffused with detail. I admired the way in which she tries to infiltrate the visions of the artist at the novel’s core. She writes: ‘The painter has faith in solid objects, arresting their motion through the world and preserving forever their thisness, the quiddity of matter and moisture and shine; transparency, opacity; the exterior that things present to the world, and how much of the world can be seen through them, distorted, distilled… he attends to all of this, plasticity, rigidity, fragility, damage and flaw, detail, surface and shape.’

Painter to the King is highly evocative throughout, and Sackville captures precise scenery, sights, and smells with such a deft hand. The writing here is often sensuous, particularly when Velázquez’s work is described, or when evoking the entire process of creating a new painting. When she describes El Corto, the area around the palace in which civilians live and work, she writes: ‘Everything here exists to serve the court, to bake its bread and cure its meat and weave and stretch its linens and sew its sleeves and tunics and undergarments; an ersatz city at the axis of a cross drawn through the country, and built upon a high dry plain across which hot winds in summer and ice winds in winter wander and gallop like madness.’

Sackville’s prose is relatively experimental, and there are some sections of stream-of-consciousness here. I really liked the fresh approach which she gives to the historical novel, a genre which tends to follow a similar writing style. Sackville’s rich vocabulary lends itself well to this work, and allows her to blend art and history in such a satisfying way. Painter to the King reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s playful historical novel Orlando at times. She sweeps through Philip’s reign, and Velázquez’s career with such authority.

Painter to the King was first published in 2018, but I only found out about it when browsing in my local library in the summer of 2020; even as someone who looks out for Sackville’s work, I do not find it reviewed often – or at all – and this is a great shame. I admired this interesting and unconventional work of historical fiction, but must admit that I did not find it as compelling or as breathtaking as her contemporary fiction. However, Sackville is a highly underrated writer, and one which I urge every reader to seek out. Whichever of her novels you choose to begin with, they are guaranteed to intrigue and surprise.

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‘The Changeling’ by Joy Williams ****

It pleased me when I saw that Joy Williams’ rather forgotten novel, The Changeling, was back in print after forty years, having first been published in 1978. The New York Times declares Williams ‘one of the great writers of her generation’, an opinion which has been echoed by many.

The Changeling is a novel steeped in mystery and magical realism. Our focus is Pearl, a young mother trapped inside her marriage to Walker. At the outset of the novel, she has fled to the anonymous bar of a Florida hotel, with her infant son, Sam: ‘She was running away from home, from her husband… She had boarded a plane and traveled twelve hundred miles in three hours. The deception that had been necessary! The organization! People were always talking to her at home, on her husband’s island. She couldn’t bear it any more. She had to have a new life.’ This soon proves to be an unsuccessful escape, however, as Walker suddenly appears to force her home.

On her return, the unnamed island off the coast of the United States is ‘transformed into a place of madness and pain’. Pearl soon ‘slips into the delirium of motherhood and alcoholism’, becoming convinced that Sam is not her baby. The Changeling is unsettling throughout, and there is a lot of tension between its characters, as well as between Pearl’s physical body and her mind.

The reissued novel has an introduction by author Karen Russell, whose work I very much enjoy. She writes that the novel ‘feels at once unprecedented and eerily familiar’, and goes on to say: ‘Every great book shapeshifts with its reader. The Changeling, however, does something wilder still: it generates its own autonomous magic, one that feels wholly independent of the reader and her moment. The spirit inside it is not the human spirit – it is far vaster than that.’

Russell, who says that she has read The Changeling on numerous occasions, comments that Williams’ sentences ‘have a cartilaginous magic. They come glinting out of profound and mysterious depths, slipping quickly through the deadening nets of any easy understanding.’ In a particularly beautifully phrased observation, she writes: ‘This is a young tale; its landscape is the womb of the world, its language is perennially green, and the only thing I can say about it with absolute conviction is that your encounter will surely be very different than my own.’

In the very first chapter of the book, whilst Pearl sits in the Florida bar, Williams captures such an atmosphere, something which goes on to suffuse the entire novel. She also gives us a real insight into the state of Pearl’s mentality: ‘The heavy white air hung visibly in layers. Pearl could see the layers very clearly. The middle layer was all dream and misunderstanding and responsibility. Things moved about at the top with a little more arrogance and zip but at the bottom was the ever-moving present. It was the present, it had been the present, and it was always going to be the present. Pearl was always conscious of this. It made her pretty passive and indecisive usually.’

When, on the way back to the island, Pearl is involved in a plane crash, she becomes convinced that her son has been swapped with another baby. She is uncertain around him, afraid. When he gets older, this feeling still remains; he is a constant reminder to Pearl that something is not quite right. ‘He seemed,’ writes Williams, ‘all the disorder of her heart. She saw the infant in his face still. His other face, his boy’s face, was harder for her to recognize. He didn’t speak to her as the other children did. He kept away. She had no real sense of his purposes. Were not his purposes rooted in her responsibility? But she was an irresponsible woman, removed from everything, floating through space, exercising longing.’

There are some deeply unsettling, nightmarish scenes throughout The Changeling, and elements of strange eroticism. In one particularly chilling example, Williams includes a hallucination which Pearl has: ‘She was having a baby in a large, freshly cut field. There was blood on the grass but it may not have been her own… Her thighs were spread. Her arms were spread. She was going to have a baby. She knew that those around her were going to cut open her stomach and fold back the flaps of skin and unfold the baby from her like a bridal gown. She knew that they would abandon her there, her terrible dark wound a nest for the dying creatures of the night.’

Pearl’s mania develops as the novel goes on, and its scenes become all the more unnerving: ‘In the night, demons chattered in her aching head, not voices at all but comprehensible all the same. Terrible things. Creeping or winged, dark and avenging, carving a woman like her out of carrion, out of mold. Carving this woman out with their sharp beaks.’

Nothing about The Changeling feels at all dated. Rather, it is fresh and original, a modern fairy tale written in lyrical prose, which holds so much surprise. The novel is beguiling and disturbing in equal measure, and it reads as though one is in a dreamlike – or nightmarish – state. There is a real claustrophobia to it, in both its tension and atmosphere, and I found it incredibly creepy.

Williams has authored three other novels and three short story collections; I can only hope that these will become readily available, and soon. I imagine that, like with The Changeling, I will be thinking about each of her stories for a long time to come.

2

‘The Paper Cell’ by Louise Hutcheson ****

Louise Hutcheson’s debut novel, The Paper Cell, was a highly anticipated read for me, after seeing snippets of reviews sprinkled around the Internet, but not much more. The Paper Cell was published in 2017, and is part of the Contraband Pocket Crime Collection – which provides ‘distinctive diversions for discerning readers’. I received a copy of the lovely miniature Contraband hardback edition for Christmas, and dug in on Boxing Day.

In the London of the 1950s, a publishing assistant named Lewis Carson ‘finds fame when he secretly steals a young woman’s brilliant novel manuscript and publishes it under his own name’. Two days later, the woman’s body is found on Peckham Rye Common; she has been strangled to death. The blurb posits, rather intriguingly, ‘did Lewis purloin the manuscript as an act of callous opportunism, or as the spoils of a calculated murder?’

The Paper Cell begins in 1953, in a London-based publishing house. When Fran Watson, the young author in question, first pays him a visit, Hutcheson immediately sets the scene, showing how manipulative Lewis can be: ‘Lewis shifted behind his desk, aiming to look uncomfortable and achieving it. He affected a grimace as her eyes flitted up, then down. It was a pleasing dynamic, he thought. Though she had arrived when he was at the height of a bad temper, her obvious defects made him feel rather good about himself by comparison.’

At this point in time, Lewis has not read Fran’s manuscript, but rejects it – and her – regardless. After she has left, he then spends the next two hours ‘pored over its pages – once, twice, three times – returning compulsively again and again to the first page with a growing sense of horror.’ In London, Lewis belongs to a ‘ramshackle writers’ group with not one published piece between them and a tendency to get drunk before they get constructive’.

The narrative then shifts forward in time, and we move to Edinburgh. Here, an ageing Lewis is living, and in 1998, he is about to give his first interview for over a decade, to a sharp newspaper journalist. The novel which he stole was published under the title of ‘Victory Lap’, and is highly regarded as a classic of the twentieth century.

One of the real strengths of The Paper Cell is the control which Hutcheson has over her scenes and characters. She showcases a lot of emotions which flash and seethe within her cast. I very much enjoyed the vintage setting, which feels realistic; several period details are signposted throughout the novel, which embed it in time and place. Most of the narrative takes place in 1953, and the portions which occur in 1998 are, of course, heavily concerned with the earlier period. I really enjoyed Hutcheson’s descriptions, many of which are brief, but almost tangible; she writes, for instance, ‘The faintest whisper of daylight was beginning to creep through the drapes, but the room was mostly dark, and heavy with cigarette smoke.’

Hutcheson writes throughout with a practiced hand, and The Paper Cell, in consequence, feels like a very polished debut novel. It is not quite what I was expecting, and takes a lot of wonderful twists and turns as it goes on. The LGBTQ+ element to the plot was well handled too, and the entirety moves along nicely. Despite the brevity of the story, I felt that I really got to know the characters and their world. I was so enthralled by the novel, in fact, that I read it in a single sitting.

I have been careful not to give too much away in this review, as I very much enjoyed coming to The Paper Cell and knowing very little about it, aside from the stolen manuscript element of the plot revealed on its blurb. In my opinion, The Paper Cell is a book best to read without knowing the entire plot; it offers up many surprises in consequence, and there is far more to it than initially meets the eye. I very much look forward to reading more of Hutcheson’s work in future, as it certainly seems as though she has a promising writing career ahead.

1

‘Lucy’ by Jamaica Kincaid ****

Jamaica Kincaid is an author who has been on my radar for over a decade. Before a family holiday in Antigua, taken in 2008, I searched high and low for some of her novels, wanting to read at least one Antiguan author whilst away. However, my search was sadly a fruitless one.

It has, surprisingly, taken me the intervening twelve years to find a single copy of one of her books, as they never seem to be available in any bookshops which I peruse, or any of the several county library systems which I have used since. I finally found an affordable copy of her third novel, Lucy, which seemed like a great title to begin with, on AbeBooks, and began to read it almost as soon as it dropped through my letterbox.

Our named protagonist, nineteen years old and already world-weary, has left her home in the West Indies behind to become an au pair to ‘four small girls’ in the United States. She has left her ‘much loved, much hated mother, [and] her childhood self’ behind.

The novel begins in mid-January, when Lucy is trying to settle into a quite bewildering life in a big city. Everything is different, and new – using lifts, having a refrigerator, and staying in an apartment to name but three examples. Lucy comments: ‘… I could not see anything clearly on the way in from the airport, even though there were lights everywhere. As we drove along, someone would single out to me a famous building, an important street, a park, a bridge that when built was thought to be a spectacle. In a daydream I used to have, all these places were points of happiness to me; all these places were lifeboats to my small drowning soul…’.

Snow, too, is new to Lucy. She arrives in the United States during a very cold winter. She remembers that ‘the snow was the color and texture of a half-cooked egg white, making the world seem soft and lovely and – unexpectedly, to me – nourishing. That the world I was in could be soft, lovely, and nourishing was more than I could bear, and so I stood there and wept, for I didn’t want to love one more thing in my life, didn’t want one more thing that could make my heart break into a million little pieces at my feet.’

Throughout, Lucy tries to reconcile her new life, which she had so yearned for, with her old one. She reflects: ‘What a surprise this was to me, that I longed to be back in the place that I came from, that I longed to sleep in a bed I had outgrown, that I longed to be with people whose smallest, most natural gesture would call up in me such a rage that I longed to see them all dead at my feet.’ She feels exiled from her past, and from her own country: ‘I looked at a map. An ocean stood between me and the place I came from, but would it have made a difference it had been a teacup of water? I could not go back.’

I loved the poetic prose in Lucy, and enjoyed the authentic first person perspective throughout. I really appreciated the somewhat cynical tone which suffuses the novel, and found Lucy a wonderfully unusual and unpredictable young woman. She often surprises with her comments and observations; she sees a lot of things in quite unexpected ways. She is unflinchingly honest; of her own position, she says: ‘I was not a man; I was a young woman from the fringes of the world, and when I left my home I had wrapped around my shoulders the mantle of a servant.’

I quite enjoyed the geographical vagueness; we only know that Lucy has moved from one unnamed country to an unnamed city in another, and many of the landmarks with which the reader could identify both have been removed. Lucy comments: ‘I was born and grew up in a place that did not seem to be influenced by the tilt of the earth at all; it had only one season – sunny, drought-ridden. And what was the effect of growing up in such a place? I did not have a sunny disposition, and, as for actual happiness, I had been experiencing a long drought.’

The novel is slim yet powerful. It is structured as a series of short vignettes, which over time reveal our protagonist to us. Kincaid is a perceptive author, particularly with regard to the relationships formed between characters.

Lucy is a highly readable and transporting story, and I cannot wait to build up a collection of Kincaid’s work as soon as I can find more copies of her books. I can see that she could very quickly become a favourite author of mine.

0

‘Small Pleasures’ by Clare Chambers ****

Reliant as I have become upon my local library for the few new releases which I want to pick up straight away, I have become accustomed to waiting for quite a long time for my reservations. I was not prepared for the waiting list for Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures, though; I sat as patiently as I could for months, and found that over twenty people were lined up for the same copy once I’d finally finished with it.

I am so pleased to report that Small Pleasures was worth the few months it took to get to me, and I am thrilled that the novel is getting so much attention. Small Pleasures was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021, which is probably why so many people are longing to read it. Before this, the buzz about Small Pleasures was spread largely through word of mouth, and the incredibly positive reviews which have appeared in all manner of publications, as well as the staggering number of ‘Best Books of 2020’ lists which it appeared on.

In 1957, in the suburbs of the southeast of London and Kent, our protagonist Jean Swinney works as a journalist for a local newspaper, the North Kent Echo. She is ‘trapped in a life of duty and disappointment from which there is no likelihood of escape’. She lives in a small house with her demanding mother, who has not left the house very often in years, and feels tired with the drudgery of everyday life. Things change, however, when a young woman named Gretchen Tilbury sends a letter to the newspaper, claiming that her daughter, Margaret, is the result of a virgin birth, ‘without the involvement of any man’. Of course, the investigation becomes Jean’s responsibility; she is described as ‘features editor, columnist, dogsbody and the only woman at the table’ in the newspaper office.

When the women first meet one another, Jean asks Gretchen how her pregnancy occurred. Gretchen replies: ‘”I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. I’m not religious like my mother. I only know what didn’t happen.”‘ She goes on to explain that for a four-month stretch, she was bedridden in a hospital, and later found out that she had become pregnant during this time. Jean, on the receiving end of this news, ‘was unable to hide her surprise at this revelation. It seemed to provide an unexpected level of corroboration to Mrs Tilbury’s account. Her claim had suddenly become much harder to dismiss and to Jean’s surprise, she was glad. For reasons that were not just to do with journalistic hunger for a good story, she wanted it to be true.’

From the very beginning, one of Chambers’ real strengths is clearly the way in which she so effectively sets the scene and period. Early on, when Jean is running errands after work, Chambers writes the following, capturing so much detail: ‘By the time she reached home, a modest 1930s semi backing on to the park, her cheerful mood had evaporated. Somehow, in transferring the waxed paper package of liver to her tartan shopping bag she managed to drip two spots of blood on the front of her dust-coloured wool skirt.’

I love novels with mysteries at their heart, and Small Pleasures held every iota of my attention throughout. There is a wry humour which suffuses the whole, which I very much enjoyed. The entirety of the novel is highly readable, and I was pulled right into Jean’s world. I love the way in which the relationship between Jean and the Tilburys unfolded, and not wishing to give anything away, will be leaving the rest of the details of the plot out of this review. Needless to say, some elements are rather predictable, and others took me entirely by surprise. For Jean, being noticed by the family meant so much: ‘It was impossible not to be flattered and charmed by their interest, to blossom and expand in their company and become the interesting woman they thought her.’

I must admit that despite Small Pleasures being Chambers’ seventh novel, I had never heard of her before picking this up. It is her first publication in a decade, so perhaps she just passed me by beforehand. I have read some of the blurbs of her other books, and feel that she is an author whose other work I could really enjoy too, so I will definitely be picking some of them up in future. Chambers, with her acute observations on everyday life, and her sharp humour, put me in mind of Anita Brookner and Barbara Pym – a very high compliment, indeed.

2

‘Greenbanks’ by Dorothy Whipple *****

Like, I imagine, the vast majority of Persephone’s devoted readers, I number Dorothy Whipple amongst my all-time favourite authors. I have loved all of Whipple’s books which I have been privileged enough to read this far, and it is a great delight for me to settle down with one of her new-to-me books. I began Greenbanks with much anticipation and, as I jolly well expected to, I absolutely adored it.

As many of Whipple’s books do, Greenbanks centres around a family, and deals in particular with the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter. Matriarch Louisa, the head of the household, is very close to spirited Rachel, her favourite of rather a large bunch of grandchildren, and just four years old when she is first introduced.

We first meet the Ashtons at the tail end of 1909, as they are gathering together at Greenbanks, the Lancashire family home, to celebrate Christmas. Here, Whipple has used the simple but effective prop of an old family photo album to show their considered backstories; the Ashton daughters, for instance, attended a convent school in Belgium, with ‘long skirts, ribbons from the back of their hats, crosses on their breasts and freckles on their noses.’

The opening paragraph of the novel demonstrates much of why I so adore Whipple’s work – beautifully constructed sentences, the level of intricate detail, and the interesting viewpoints from which she looks at a scene, or a character. It begins: ‘The house was called Greenbanks, but there was no green to be seen to-day; all the garden was deep in snow. Snow lay on the banks that sloped from the front of the house; snow lay on the lawn to the left, presided over by an old stone eagle who looked as if he had escaped from a church and ought to have a Bible on his back; snow lay on the lawn to the right, where a discoloured Flora bent gracefully but unaccountably near a piece of lead piping which had once been her arm.’

Time moves quickly in this novel; months pass quietly from one chapter to the next. In this way, we see the characters develop, and Rachel particularly grow up over the duration of the novel. We are also made aware that despite the large country house, the Ashtons have a far from idyllic life; almost every single character has their own personal tragedies to deal with, some of which are collective.

Whipple does so many things wonderfully in her fiction, but I particularly love the way in which she reveals her characters, and the perhaps more secretive elements of their personalities. She is a wonderful observer, who is always so aware of thoughts, feelings, reactions, and expectations. The conversations between characters are sharply observed, and their relationships are always shifting – often difficult, and sometimes even tumultuous.

Whipple has such knowledge of what it means to be young, and learning. When Rachel is sent to a school in close proximity to Greenbanks so that she can spend more time with her grandmother, for instance, Whipple writes: ‘When the bell rang at eleven o’clock and the little girls went out into the garden to play, Rachel found it possible to run into Greenbanks and get biscuits from the glass barrel on the dining-room sideboard. She climbed on a chair to do this, and if Auntie Laura came into the room she complained about the upset and the crumbs, but Grandma never minded.’

Another quite lovely, and rather amusing, section of the novel comes when Louisa takes Rachel with her on a trip to London. Rachel has never been before, and asks her father what she can expect. Whipple comments: ‘He gave her a great deal of information; so much, indeed, that she went to bed in a muddle, not sure whether London stood on the Tower or the Thames, or if Big Ben lived in the Houses of Parliament, or why the King sat on a scone to be crowned, or why London had a tube in its inside like Dennis Thompson when he had appendicitis; but sure, all the same, that London was a place full of strange and marvellous things.’

There are dark and serious scenes which unfold in Greenbanks, too. When the First World War begins, and her sons go off to enlist, Whipple observes: ‘Yes, thought Louisa, it’s different for women. They don’t do; they bear what others do; they watch them come and go, they are torn and healed and torn again…’. I cared deeply for all of the characters here, but especially for Louisa and Rachel. They are women living in a world which was firmly in the grasp of men; it takes Rachel months to convince her father that she wishes to continue her education, even with her excellent grades. The character arcs here are so realistic, and so true to their historical context.

Although first published in 1912, there is something marvellously modern about Greenbanks; at junctures, the modern seems to butt against the old. Whipple’s prose is highly nuanced, and as ever, there is a startling clarity to her work here. She has a marvellous wit, and is incredibly knowing. Reading a new Whipple novel is like being reunited with an old friend, and I thoroughly enjoyed the time which I spent with her, at lovely Greenbanks. This is an exceptional novel, and one which I would recommend to every reader.

5

The Book Trail: From ‘The Fire Starters’ to ‘Piranesi’

This edition of The Book Trail begins with a novel which I very much enjoyed when I read it last year; I found its depiction of The Troubles quite surprising, and also highly chilling at times. As ever, I have used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature to generate this list.

1. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson
‘Dr Jonathan Murray fears his new-born daughter is not as harmless as she seems. Sammy Agnew is wrestling with his dark past, and fears the violence in his blood lurks in his son, too. The city is in flames and the authorities are losing control. As matters fall into frenzy, and as the lines between fantasy and truth, right and wrong, begin to blur, who will these two fathers choose to protect? Dark,propulsive and thrillingly original, this tale of fierce familial love and sacrifice fizzes with magic and wonder.’

2. Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan
‘In 1973 Moll Gladney goes missing from the Tipperary hillside where she was born. Slowly her parents, Paddy and Kit, begin to accept that she’s gone forever. But she returns, changed, and with a few surprises for her family and neighbours. Nothing is ever the same again for the Gladneys, who learn that fate cares little for duty, that life rarely conforms to expectation, that God can’t be relied upon to heed any prayer. A story of exile and return, of loss and discovery, of retreat from grief and the saving power of love.’

3. After the Silence by Louise O’Neill
‘Nessa Crowley’s murderer has been protected by silence for ten years. Until a team of documentary makers decide to find out the truth. On the day of Henry and Keelin Kinsella’s wild party at their big house a violent storm engulfed the island of Inisrun, cutting it off from the mainland. When morning broke Nessa Crowley’s lifeless body lay in the garden, her last breath silenced by the music and the thunder. The killer couldn’t have escaped Inisrun, but no one was charged with the murder. The mystery that surrounded the death of Nessa remained hidden. But the islanders knew who to blame for the crime that changed them forever. Ten years later a documentary crew arrives, there to lift the lid off the Kinsellas’ carefully constructed lives, determined to find evidence that will prove Henry’s guilt and Keelin’s complicity in the murder of beautiful Nessa. In this bold, brilliant, disturbing new novel Louise O’Neill shows that deadly secrets are devastating to those who hold them close.’

4. A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghiofra
‘A true original. In this stunningly unusual prose debut, Doireann Ni Ghriofa sculpts essay and autofiction to explore inner life and the deep connection felt between two writers centuries apart. In the 1700s, an Irish noblewoman, on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem. In the present day, a young mother narrowly avoids tragedy. On encountering the poem, she becomes obsessed with its parallels with her own life, and sets out to track down the rest of the story. A devastating and timeless tale about one woman freeing her voice by reaching into the past and finding another’s.’

5. Actress by Anne Enright
‘Katherine O’Dell is an Irish theater legend. As her daughter Norah retraces her mother’s celebrated career and bohemian life, she delves into long-kept secrets, both her mother’s and her own. Katherine began her career on Ireland’s bus-and-truck circuit before making it to London’s West End, Broadway, and finally Hollywood. Every moment of her life is a star turn, with young Norah standing in the wings. But the mother-daughter romance cannot survive Katherine’s past or the world’s damage. With age, alcohol, and dimming stardom, her grip on reality grows fitful and, fueled by a proud and long-simmering rage, she commits a bizarre crime. Her mother’s protector, Norah understands the destructive love that binds an actress to her audience, but also the strength that an actress takes from her art. Once the victim of a haunting crime herself, Norah eventually becomes a writer, wife, and mother, finding her way to her own hard-won joy. Actress is a book about the freedom we find in our work and in the love we make and keep.’

6. Weather by Jenny Offill
‘Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience–but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in–funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.’

7. Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings
‘In a small Western Queensland town, a reserved young woman receives a note from one of her vanished brothers—a note that makes question her memories of their disappearance and her father’s departure. A beguiling story that proves that gothic delights and uncanny family horror can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun, Flyaway introduces readers to Bettina Scott, whose search for the truth throws her into tales of eerie dogs, vanished schools, cursed monsters, and enchanted bottles. In these pages Jennings assures you that gothic delights, uncanny family horror, and strange, unsettling prose can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun.’

8. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
‘Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house. There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.’

Have you read any of these books? Which of them pique your interest?

1

‘Sisters’ by Daisy Johnson ****

I have not yet read British author Daisy Johnson’s short story collection, Fen, but following on from how much I enjoyed her debut novel, Everything Under (review here), I could not resist picking up Sisters. Johnson is highly praised by her contemporaries, with Max Porter calling her ‘one of the best writers in this country’, and Karen Russell an ‘enchantress’.

Sisters is a slim novel, at just under 180 pages. However, it packs an awful lot in. It follows two protagonists, sisters July and September, who were born just ten months apart, and are inseparable. They have spent their childhoods in Oxford, but after an incident at school, their mother – who is ‘desperate for a fresh start’ – moves them to a secluded part of northern England. They are heading up ‘the bone of the country’ when the first chapter begins.

The family-owned house which they move into ‘has a troubled life of its own. Noises come from behind the walls. Lights flicker of their own accord. Sleep feels impossible, dreams are endless.’ In July’s first chapter, she comments: ‘This is the house we have come to. This is the house we have left to find. Beached up on the side of the North York Moors, only just out of the sea.’

Once they move, and adapt to the rhythms of their new locations, the relationship between fifteen-year-old July and sixteen-year-old September begins to shift. Much of their relationship is still rooted within their childhood; they continually play games like hide and seek with one another. Their mother, who writes and illustrates adventure stories for a living, is unreachable; she has ‘been this way, taciturn or silent, ever since what happened at school… She would speak only stray phrases to us, barely meeting our eyes. She is a different person in a recognisable body…’.

The novel is narrated largely from July’s perspective, and this focus on one sister worked very well. I enjoy Johnson’s writing, and it feels as though she really managed to get to the crux of her young protagonists, in all of their teenage complexity. Another of Johnson’s real strengths is the way in which she depicts the countryside; although beautiful, she shows that there is always an element of bleakness, of starkness, about it. Johnson paints things as they are, aware of their realism; for instance, when she writes: ‘The house is here. Squatting like a child by the small slate wall, the empty sheep field behind pitted with old excrement, thorn bushes tall as a person.’ She is able, in this manner, to capture the natural world in all of its wildness, and its untamed state.

Sisters is such a readable novel, which offers a couple of surprises along the way. There is something sinister about it, and the atmosphere builds as the story moves forward – and backward – in time. The novel is peppered with quite unsettling scenes; for instance, when July wakes to this: ‘Something is crouched on top of me as I sleep. I cannot open my eyes. There is breath on my face, hot, and the grind of what feels like fists on my chest… I can’t move, my arms and legs are stiff by my sides… There is a figure above me, bearing down, their face is almost recognisable but then there is darkness and they are gone.’ I even found the novel’s short poetic prologue rather chilling. It ends: ‘My sister is a forest on fire. // My sister is a sinking ship. // My sister is the last house on the street.’

Sisters is a novel about sisters, as the title suggests, but theirs is a complex and volatile kinship. The examination and exploration which Johnson presents of their relationship almost feels claustrophobic at times. There is not a great deal of plot within Sisters; rather, it is focused almost entirely upon its characters and their interactions. Regardless, Johnson manages to cover rather a lot of ground in this piece of domestic noir. There is a well-judged urgency which shows itself just when it needs to. Johnson is certainly an author to watch, and whilst I do not know if this novel will prove to be as memorable as Everything Under, I very much enjoyed the reading experience.

4

‘The Liar’s Dictionary’ by Eley Williams ****

I have wanted to read Eley Willams’ debut short story collection, Attrib., since it was first published, but have been unable to find a copy. I was delighted, therefore, when I was able to find her first novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, in my local library.

The Liar’s Dictionary tells two parallel stories, which revolve around the creation and revision of an unfinished dictionary, Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. The first of these stories takes place in 1899, where Peter Winceworth is ‘toiling away’, and has reached the letter ‘S’. He is feeling somewhat threatened by his colleagues, who are intent only upon the ‘regiment facts’, and decides to insert a series of mountweazels, completely fictitious words, into the dictionary.

Such mountweazels are often used to prevent copyright infringement, but Winceworth finds them fascinating, and begins to invent slews of his own; ‘fourteenth-century dignitaries from Constantinople and a small religious sect living in the volcanic Japanese Alps. More often that not, however, these false entries allowed him to plug a lexical gap, create a word for a sensation or a reality where no word in current circulation seemed to fit the bill. This ranged from waxing poetical about a disappointing novel – susposset (n.)… [to] larch (v.), to allot time to daydreaming.’

The present story takes place in the same physical office building which Winceworth once worked within. Here, we follow a young intern named Mallory, who is, in fact, the only member of staff in the office, aside from David Swansby, a relative of the original dictionary creator. Her job is to locate all of the mountweazels in the text, and remove them for the revised edition. As she finds more and more invented words, she ‘has access to their creator’s motivations, hopes and desires.’ She is entirely forbidden from adding modern words into the dictionary, too. Mallory’s narrative begins in a manner which amused and intrigued me: ‘David spoke to me for three minutes without realising I had a whole egg in my mouth.’

Mallory and Winceworth are both fully-formed and fascinating. Winceworth decided, in childhood, to cultivate a lisp, which his mother found ‘endearing’ and his father ‘ridiculous’; this has followed him into his adult life. Mallory is complex, coming to terms with her life, and nervous about whether she should reveal the existence of her girlfriend, Pip, to her boss.

I thoroughly enjoyed the observations which Williams made throughout the novel; David Swansby, for instance, ‘looked like his handwriting: ludicrously tall, neat, squared-off at the edges. Like my handwriting, I was aware that I often looked as though I needed to be tidied away, or ironed, possibly autoclaved.’ As Mallory begins to learn of Winceworth’s story, she reflects: ‘The more I thought about it at work, the more I liked the close-but-unreachable sound of 1900 and its neologisms, the words that entered mouths and ears and inkwells that year. Teabag, come-hither, razzmatazz. 1900 sounds like a lot more fun than 1899, and its note-taking lexicographers.’

The novel’s preface muses about what makes the ‘perfect dictionary’, which would, of course, be tailored to the individual reader. It comments that ‘a dictionary’s preface can act like an introduction to someone you have no interest in meeting’. I found this section relatively humorous, and felt that it nicely paved the way for the two stories to unfold. I very much liked the structural approach which Williams took, too; The Liar’s Dictionary follows the patterns and directives of a real dictionary: it ranges from the chapter heading ‘A is for artful (adj.)’ to ‘Y is for yes (exclam.)’.

Williams’ novel ‘celebrates the rigidity, fragility and absurdity of language’, and she does this so well. It is clear that the author gets such joy from wordplay, and this was one of my favourite elements throughout the entire novel. There are moments of real brilliance here, and a lot of curious observances to be found. The Liar’s Dictionary is a thoroughly engaging, entertaining, and playful read, which I had so much fun with.