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One From the Archive: ‘The Small Widow’ by Janet McNeill ****

First published in May 2019.

Irish writer Janet McNeill seems to be unjustly underappreciated.  Whilst a prolific author, publishing ten novels for adults and penning a whole host of radio plays, it is her children’s books for which she is most well known – and for those, she seems to be barely remembered.  She has intrigued me ever since I saw her single title, Tea at Four o’Clock, represented on the Virago Modern Classics list.  Whilst I was unable to find a copy of the aforementioned in time for my book club’s monthly author selection, I got my hands on a copy of The Small Widow, and am so pleased that I did.

9780957233652Fortnight writes of McNeill’s work favourably, and draws parallels between her and ‘English novelists such as Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner and, more particularly, Elizabeth Taylor.  What their writing shares… is a subtlety which makes demands of its readers.’  These three are all novelists whom I very much enjoy reading, and I have adored everything of Taylor’s which I have read to date.  I was therefore most excited to begin The Small Widow.

The novel’s protagonist is a middle-aged woman named Julia, who has been left a widow after the death of her husband Harold.  She is ‘alone and struggling with grief as well as her new life.’  She is a mother to four children, none of whom she feels overly comfortable in interacting with, as their relationships have shifted so much since their childhoods.  For the first time, she ‘has to learn independence, she needs to discover who she is when she is no longer a wife and is now a mother to children who do not need her.’  The central question which the novel asks is this: ‘As a widow can Julia find a freedom, an identity, which has never existed in her life before?’

The novel opens with Harold’s funeral: ‘The car slowed, they were approaching the gates.  Julia’s throat tightened, the impossible thing is happening now…  She ached to escape from the pressure of her daughters’ hips, the inevitability of shared warmth and the threat of shared emotion.’  The funeral scene is vivid: ‘The mourners formed into an untidy procession and started in the direction of the grave, trying to find a pace between a stroll and a trot.  The raw wind robbed them of any attempt at dignity.  It plucked their hair and their clothes, snatched the breath out of their mouths and ruffled the tufts of frozen grass.  Only the humped shapes of the dead were undisturbed.’  McNeill goes on to probe Julia’s conflicting emotions about her sudden loss.  At this point in time, when everything is raw and new, she sees her children as ‘… four relentless and dedicated orphans, demanding a formal come-back from her, the Mother Figure, whom they had discarded years ago.  It wasn’t fair.  Julia felt that she needed protection from them.’

The Small Widow is told using the third person omniscient perspective, which has been interspersed with Julia’s opinions and concerns.  In this way, McNeill makes us party to Julia’s innermost thoughts, and the secretive, one-sided conversations which she imagines with her husband: ‘I’ll do my mourning for you later, Harold.  Just now I am getting through this the best way I can.  You could have coped magnificently with my funeral, Harold.  I don’t know how to cope with yours.’  These asides continue throughout the book, and are particularly poignant when Julia considers her children.  Of her son, Johnnie, who lives in an outbuilding on her property, and runs a small bookshop, she thinks: ‘To him I’m not a person in the ordinary sense of the word.  I was typecast the minute the cord was cut.  I have been drained and diminished by motherhood.  I am a collection of attitudes, a pocket-sized matriarch whom it is traditional to have around…  It doesn’t help these self-made creatures to remember they are the children of my body.  I have done my job.  I am allowed, expected, to love them still, but at a decent distance.’

Julia’s concerns do not just affect her family.  Some of them are deeply personal, and seem trivial at first to outsiders.  She therefore keeps her grievances private, sometimes excruciatingly so.  She is forced to make all sorts of adjustments, and get used to the absence of things which she has grown so accustomed to throughout her long marriage.  For instance, ‘During the day the uninhabited area of the bed made her embarrassed.  One didn’t think of bereavement as posing problems like this.  One expected anguish, not embarrassment.  (I shall feel anguish in a week or two, Harold, just now there isn’t anything much that I feel.  It was puzzling to know what to do about the space here and all through the house that Harold used to occupy.  Presumably time would spill over and close the gaps, like the bark of a tree when it has been cut.’  She develops coping mechanisms; if she does not move from her place on the sofa or in bed for the entirety of the day, for example, ‘she wouldn’t notice that she was by herself.’

The Small Widow was first published in 1967, and was the only book which McNeill wrote whilst living outside Northern Ireland.  In the novel, she ‘anticipates many of the concerns of the 1970’s women’s movement in its awareness of the restricted role of women in the traditional family and marriage.’  I liked the way in which McNeill pushed against these limitations, giving Julia a voice and authority of her own, which built as the novel went on.  I found myself rooting for our central character, who rises above the opinions which others around her hold of women in her particular position, and the demands which they often make upon her.  The Small Widow feels far more modern, in many ways, than it is; Julia’s concerns are still prevalent in today’s society, particularly with regard to loneliness, and the shifting relationships between parents and their grown children.  The familial relationships here are revealing, and have a complexity to them; they shift both with time, and as a consequence of Julia finding her voice.

As a character portrait, The Small Widow is striking.  Throughout, Julia has a great deal of depth to her, and I found her surprising rather than predictable.  Her character arc alters  believably due to her circumstances.  On the basis of this well-sculpted novel, it is evident why one of her books has been published by Virago; it is just a shame that more haven’t followed suit.

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One From the Archive: ‘What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell’, edited by Suzanne Marrs *****

First published in 2016.

What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell is one of my most anticipated books – well, ever.  Maxwell is one of my favourite writers (and it pains me that he is so little known), and I very much admire Welty.  Regardless, I knew little about them as individuals, so when I spotted this volume, I immediately put it at the top of my birthday list. 97805477503231

Marrs’ introduction is wonderful.  She writes with such passion, and compassion, for her subjects.  From the very beginning, I knew that I would have loved to meet both of those whom Marrs clearly deeply admires.  Welty was an incredibly sassy, shrewd woman; of Jane Austen’s house, she wrote that it ‘looks big, but is really small.  The opposite of her novels.’  Bill, who struck up a wondrous friendship with her, was an incredibly humble, humane man, filled with a myriad of thoughts, and devoted to all of those around him.

It goes without saying that both are incredible writers.  Learning about the process of their craft was fascinating enough, but getting to know the pair as individuals was far more rewarding.  That rare thing is so evident here; that enduring friendship, built upon mutual respect, which was all the more cherished as the two lived far from one another (Maxwell in New York, and Welty in Mississippi).  They could see one another only at long intervals, but in some ways, both found this beneficial; the therapeutic motion of penning (semi-) regular letters to one another lasted for decades, and much was learnt about the other in consequence.

What There Is To Say We Have Said is a stunning read, and I was a little sad when I came to its end.  Throughout, one is nudged to remember just how important communication is (and just how much the majority of us in the modern world almost instantaneous communication for granted), and how beautiful the art of letter writing.  There is not a single dull sentence in this 450-page long volume, and if it had been twice as long, I would have been thrilled.

I could type out quotes at length here, but I shall leave you, dear reader, with the ones which really touched me:
– Maxwell to Welty: ‘There are enough similarities in our two childhoods to make me feel […] that they grew up on a tandem bicycle.’
– Maxwell to Welty, on the publication of one of her works: ‘But I wanted to write to you now, because when a book first comes out, it is really like a party, and when I am invited to a party, I like to come early.’

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One From the Archive: ‘Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want’ by Ruby Tandoh *****

First published in July 2018.

Anyone who knows me will know what a huge fan of food I am.  I adore cooking new recipes, playing around with flavours, and visiting new restaurants.  It comes as no surprise, then, that I have wanted to read Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want ever since it came out.  Many will remember Tandoh from The Great British Bake Off, of which she was a contestant in 2013.

In her insightful introduction, Tandoh gives her reasoning for writing such a positive 9781781259597book about food; it directly goes against the wealth of dieting and fitness crazes which have swept the United Kingdom over the last few years.  She begins by rubbishing the often contradictory dietary advice which we hear almost daily on the news: ‘We don’t want to go hungry, we don’t want to be too greedy, we don’t want to live too exuberantly, we don’t want to be a kill-joy.  We fret about our size and shape, and too often police the bodies of others.  We accept the lie that there’s a perfect way of eating that will save your soul and send you careering blithely through your eighties, into your nineties and beyond.  Do what you want, we’re told – but you’ll die if you get it wrong.’

The main exploration in Eat Up! is ‘everything that happens in the peripheries when we take a bite: the cultures that birth the foods we love, the people we nurture, the science of flavour and the ethics of eating.’  Tandoh recognises the splendour of all food, regardless of its preparation; she shows the myriad ways in which food is directly linked with how we feel, and what we need in our lives.  ‘Not every meal,’ she writes, ‘will be in some sunlight dappled orange grove; sometimes what you need is a pasty by the side of the M4, and there’s no harm in that.’  Food can also be used as a tool in order to bring people together; it ‘transgresses the “boundaries” between here and there, us and them, me and you, until we are all just bundles of matter, eating and being eaten.’

The celebration of food is linked in with Tandoh’s own memories: the blackberry bush near her grandmother’s Essex garden; eating a huge Indian takeaway with her girlfriend when both were suffering with influenza; the food which comforted her when her grandfather died.  She also touches upon her own relationship with food in the past, and the eating disorders which she has dealt with in the past.  Eat Up! is highly revealing in this manner.  Never does it feel preachy, or as though Tandoh is hard done by in any sense; rather, it feels like sitting down and having a conversation with the very best, and most intelligent, of friends.

The history of food, and the ways in which we eat, have both been touched upon here.  The research which Tandoh has done is impeccable; facts and statistics blend seamlessly into her narrative.  So many issues are explored which can be linked to food and eating: those around weight, how we eat in public, the joy of seasonal eating, the diet industry, culture, eating trends, food as power, comfort food, and the scientific processes of digestion, amongst others.  This varied content, all of which has food at its centre, is fascinating, and makes for an incredibly engaging and coherent book.

Eat Up! is, pardon the pun, a delicious book; it is warm and understanding, and filled with love and humour.  Such positivity abounds; throughout, Tandoh cheers for the existence of every body, no matter its size or shape.  We all need to be nourished, and we need to feel happy when we eat.  In this manner, Tandoh weaves together a fascinating narrative about food, peppered with recipes for every occasion, and body positivity.  ‘The way you feel about food,’ she points out, ‘sits hand in hand with the way you feel about yourself, and if you eat happily and wholeheartedly, food will make you strong.’  I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience of Eat Up!, and know that it’s a tome I will dip into again and again.

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One From the Archive: Very Good Second Novels

First published in May 2018.

I have seen it said on many an occasion that authors suffer from the curse of the second novel, in which they try their best to write something as good as their first, but invariably fail.  I have come several examples where this is true (Diane Setterfield unfortunately springs to mind, as I absolutely adored The Thirteenth Tale, and very much disliked her second novel, Bellman and Black), but actually, have often found myself enjoying an author’s second novel even more than their first.  I felt that it might make a nice post to group together some thoughts on – and in the case that I have not written reviews and read the book some years ago, the blurb of – five second novels which I have very much admired, or been pleasantly surprised by.  I have tried to choose a diverse range of novels from different time periods to vary the post a little.

363750491. Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey (2018)
I really enjoyed Emma Healey’s debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing, and was thus rather keen to begin her second, Whistle in the Dark. What I found within its pages was an intriguing mystery, a cast of multilayered characters, and a very tight and controlled plot. Healey explores a fascinating family dynamic, which is threatened by various factors – namely the disappearance of teenage daughter Lana, which is the focus of the plot. I enjoyed the way in which Healey builds the novel, with longer chapters and smaller fragments, all of which reveal something.  Whistle in the Dark is so well pieced together, and I found it incredibly absorbing; it kept me up reading when I really should have been sleeping. I can’t wait to see what Healey comes up with next.

2. Uncle Paul by Celia Fremlin (1959)
Uncle Paul was the last remaining novel by Celia Fremlin which I had on my Kindle. I decided to start reading it on the way to Munich, and was gripped all the way through. I loved the opening of this, Fremlin’s second novel, and found the plot intriguing. The humour here worked well, and I found the dialogue to be both sharp and wonderfully controlled. I guessed the denouement from quite a way off, although it did not seem as though it had been well hidden. A great novel which certainly kept me guessing.

3. The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (2015) 17824793
Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is an urgent, momentous novel about the experience of three young men who immigrate from India to the United Kingdom in hope of finding work. From the very beginning, Sahota’s study of his characters is incredibly detailed. I loved the inclusion of so much cultural minutiae, and found that the use of words in different Indian dialects without their translations being given adds yet another layer to the whole. The story is incredibly evocative of place and space, and every single strand of story has been well pulled together. The way in which the different characters’ stories intertwined was clever.  The Year of the Runaways is a relatively slow novel, in the very best way. The backstories of each of Sahota’s characters are eminently believable, as are their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The novel is so immersive that it becomes difficult to put down. The Year of the Runaways is an eye-opening book, and I felt so empathetic toward all of the protagonists, as well as their wider families. I read this important book with rapt attention, and cannot recommend it enough.

4. The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922)
The heir to his grandfather’s considerable fortune, Anthony Patch is led astray from the path to gainful employment by the temptations and distractions of the 1920s Jazz Age. His descent into dissolution and profligacy is accelerated by his marriage to the attractive but turbulent Gloria, and the couple soon discover the dangerous flip side of a life of glamour and debauchery. Containing obvious parallels with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s own lives, the novel is a tragic examination of the pitfalls of greed and materialism and the transience of youth and beauty.

342732365. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017)
I very much enjoyed Celeste Ng’s thoughtful and thought-provoking debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, and looked forward to her newest publication, Little Fires Everywhere. Firstly, I very much liked Ng’s dedication, which reads: ‘To those who are on their own paths, setting little fires.’ With regard to the novel itself, the characters in their entirety have such depth to them, and interact so realistically. Ng held my interest throughout, dropping small clues and questions in as she went, and tying up the loose ends masterfully. She demonstrates a wonderful grasp of history and society, and her writing is always controlled.  Little Fires Everywhere tackles a whole host of important themes, and I could barely put it down.

Of course, there are so many more great novels which I could have included here!  Which are your favourite – and least favourite – second novels?  Have you read any of these, or the debut books by the authors mentioned?

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One From the Archive: ‘Dickens at Christmas’ ****

First published in 2016.

It is said,’ states the blurb of this book, ‘that Charles Dickens invented Christmas, and within these pages you’ll certainly find all the elements of a traditional Christmas brought to vivid life: snowy rooftops, gleaming shop windows, steaming bowls of punch, plum puddings like speckled cannon balls, sage and onion stuffing, magic, charity and goodwill’. Sounds marvellous, doesn’t it? Thankfully, ‘marvellous’ is an adjective which can be applied in good measure to this lovely book. 9780099573135

Dickens at Christmas contains many extracts from his seasonal writings, some of which are short novellas (‘A Christmas Carol’, which takes pride of place as the second story in the collection, and ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’, for example), and others which number just a few pages. All of Dickens’ Christmas books are included, along with a standalone story from The Pickwick Papers and those from various short story collections.

Dickens’ wit and love of Christmas shine through on each and every page. All of the many elements of this time of year have been presented by the master himself, and encompass both the rich and the poor, the merry and the miserly, the ghostly and the real. The religious aspects are mentioned in some detail, along with the importance of the family dynamic over the Christmas period. Each scene is wonderfully written and beautifully evoked. Only Dickens could write so meticulously and creatively about a rainy day: ‘the cold, damp, clammy wet, that wrapped him up like a moist great-coat… when the rain came slowly, thickly, obstinately down; when the street’s throat, like his own, was choked with mist; when smoking umbrellas passed and repassed, spinning round and round like so many teetotums…’

I cannot write a review of Dickens at Christmas without mentioning how beautiful this edition is. The cover sparkles, and Emily Sutton’s illustrations, both on the cover and before each story, have been wonderfully drawn. It is truly an object of beauty, and is sure to delight many people this Christmas – a perfect gift to show you care, or simply one with which to adorn your own bookshelves.

Dickens at Christmas is wonderful for already established fans of Dickens’ work, but it also provides a lovely introduction to his stories and style of writing. The volume can be easily dipped in and out of, and the stories themselves are so rich in detail that they can be read again and again. Their sheer timelessness makes them suitable Christmas fare for many years to come.

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One From the Archive: ‘An Academic Question’ by Barbara Pym ****

First published in 2012.

Virago have recently reprinted several of Barbara Pym’s novels, all with new introductions by a selection of different authors, all avid fans of her work.  The introduction of  An Academic Question, first published posthumously in 1986, has been written by novelist Kate Saunders, who believes the book to be ‘witty, sharp, light as a syllabub… and with a cast of typically Pym-like eccentrics’.  She goes on to say that ‘no other novelist has celebrated our national silliness with such exuberance’.

71ww2biwk9nlAn Academic Question is essentially an amalgamation of two different manuscripts which Pym wrote and was dissatisfied with.  The novel tells the story of Caroline Grimstone, a ‘dissatisfied faculty wife’.  Caro and Alan live in a neo-Georgian house in the ‘provincial’ university sprawled across a nameless town in which Alan lectures.  They have a four-year-old daughter named Kate and a rather flippant Swedish au pair named Inge, both of whom Caro believes ‘in name and appearance, seemed very suitable, I thought, for a modern couple like Alan and me’.

The novel opens with the characters of Kitty Jeffreys and her middle-aged son Coco, both of whom left their home in the Caribbean ‘after the death of [Kitty’s] husband and, more importantly, the election of an all-black government’.  Coco, having been awarded a fellowship at the university, works alongside Caro’s husband Alan.  

Many secondary characters feature throughout the novel, the majority of them academics and lecturers at the university.  Certainly the two most interesting and eccentric characters are hedgehog fanatic and local bookshop owner Dolly Arborfield who spends large chunks of her pension money on brandy, and Crispin Maynard, an ardent collector of Africana.

Caroline’s first person perspective is used throughout.  The narrative voice works relatively well with the story but Caroline herself is not always a likeable character.  She is a rather self-pitying woman who feels ‘abandoned and neglected’.  She sees her young daughter as a burden and tries to palm her off onto the au pair as much as possible.  She is rather disgruntled with what life has afforded her but she essentially lacks drive to change the elements which she is displeased with.  The only thing which Caro does in order to give herself a sense of ‘self-worth’ is to begin to read to an elderly man named Reverend Stillingfleet, a resident at a local nursing home.  This arrangement seems rather too convenient, as Alan and his colleague Crispin Maynard have been wanting to read Reverend Stillingfleet’s manuscripts for some time but have thus far been unable to get hold of them.

The novel does tend to be rather dark in places.  The majority of the characters have secrets and shames which they try to keep from others, but it feels as though we, as readers, do not know the characters as well as we should.  Even Caroline as a first person narrator seems aloof and elusive.

Pym’s writing shines above the storyline and characters which she has created.  Throughout the novel, her descriptions are sometimes charming and always original.  For example, the wife of the university’s assistant librarian ‘seemed never to have recovered from the worries of card indexes and bibliographies in the days when she too had worked in a library’, and Coco and Kitty ‘always made a point of arriving last at everything, like royalty’.  Despite this, the prose does sometimes feel a little repetitive, which is a shame.

The writing style of the novel works well but there is little wit and amusement involved.  Whilst the two manuscripts have been merged together relatively well, it feels as though An Academic Question is lacking in something – whether a more likeable narrator, a slightly more in-depth storyline or an ending that does not feel so rushed, it is unclear.

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One From the Archive: ‘Needlework’ by Deirdre Sullivan ****

First published in October 2019.

I do not tend to gravitate toward young adult books, but Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan sounded quite original.  Whilst I had not read any of her fiction before picking up this tome, I have heard a lot of positive comments about her writing, and was eager to sample it for myself.  Fellow Irish YA author Louise O’Neill, whose fiction I enjoy, writes: ‘Reading Needlework is similar to getting your first tattoo – it’s searing, often painful, but it is an experience you’ll never forget.’
9781910411506

Our protagonist, sixteen-year-old Frances, is known as Ces.  Ces wants to become a tattoo artist, so that she can ’embroider skin with beautiful images.  But for now she’s just trying to reach adulthood without falling apart.’ She lives in Ireland, and has to work at a local newsagents in order to make ends meet.  She and her mother have left her violent father, and her mother often does not leave her bedroom during the day.  ‘She is a good mother,’ Ces tells us, ‘or she can be.  It’s just that she is broken and she knows I am as well but that doesn’t stop her breaking me even more.’

We learn, throughout, about Ces’ ‘meditation on her effort to maintain her bodily and spiritual integrity in the face of abuse, violation and neglect.’  She ruminates on the horrors which have been done to her, and the fear which she has of being seen as a victim.  She has a sexual relationship with the boy that lives next door in a house ‘mostly made of plywood and fag ash’, Tom, and recognises the deep-rooted problems at its heart: ‘There is something wrong with it, amoral even.  Not on my part, or on his, but kind of both.  I’m using him while also being used.’  Indeed, there is a volatility to each of the relationships in her life.

Sections of present-day narrative have been interspersed with poetic, rather mesmerising prose, which details tattoos and artwork. Ces is continually concerned with the body and the skin, and how it can be transformed into something beautiful, or just different.  The novel opens in the following way: ‘First prepare the skin.  Not the room, the tools you’ll use.  The skin itself, a mental switch to open you to something…  Needles, things that fascinate me always.  Much kinder and much crueller than are knives, a spindle-pierce through filaments and fingers.’  This continues throughout, pulling the whole story together, and often adding a little light relief to the dark subject matter.

The prose has some really gorgeous, textured writing to it, particularly when Sullivan explores tattoos, art, and marking oneself with something as permanent as a tattoo: ‘Your needle is a pen, and ink your pigment.  Fish-scale silver, saucy ketchup red.  Mute or lurid colour.  A whisper or a scream.’  The imagery which Sullivan creates is sometimes quite haunting.  She writes: ‘I drew an angry eye inside my book.  A woman made of snakes.  A crown of bones upon a kingly head.  A woman holding up a mirror to her decapitated neck.  A jar of honey filled with many bees.’

I found the narrative quite beguiling.  Ces is an unusual character in her outlook, and the way in which she tackles things.  She seems, in many ways, older than her years; she tends to be quite wise.  There is no real naivety to her, due to the situations which she has found herself in, and the way in which the agency of her body has been taken by others.  She is not always a loner, but she often feels alone.  She comments: ‘I am not liked.  People who do not know me automatically assume that I am a cold bitch.  That is the phrase they use.  Maybe it is true.  I find it difficult to warm to people.  I always assume that they pose a threat and gird myself accordingly.’

Ces’ observations of herself are suffused with pain; they are sometimes brutal, and often hard to read.  She does not hold out a great deal of hope for her future, either: ‘I sometimes see my life as a series of doors shutting loudly, one after another.’  I found her narrative voice entirely convincing throughout.  When she talks about her difficult past, and how it has affected her, she does so with a kind of gloomy beauty: ‘I thought Dad was the source of all my problems.  And now he is removed and things remain the same within my head.  I wish my brain was metamorphic rock.  Dark blue limestone changed to purest marble, wiping clean the dirt that lurks in pores.  Like a phoenix, rising from the heat, all new and perfect.’

Needlework is described in its blurb as ‘powerful, poetic and disturbing’; it is all of these things.  Its beautifully written prose is often bleak, and there are such vivid descriptions of violence and abuse within it that it should not be read by the faint-hearted.  Needlework is more hard-hitting than any other young adult novel I have encountered; there is so much within it that seems more suited to gritty adult fiction.  Sullivan has certainly tackled some difficult subjects here, particularly with regard to sexual abuse, and I would suggest that it is not an appropriate novel for those under the age of fourteen to read.  I, somewhat older than the novel’s intended audience, found myself wincing at points in the narrative.

Sullivan presents a raw, unflinching portrait of the real troubles that so many young girls are forced to go through, and Needlework is all the more unforgettable and striking for it.  This coming-of-age novel is painfully observed, and well worth picking up if you’re looking for something challenging to read.  Needlework did so much more than I was expecting, and I imagine that its powerful story will stay with me for a long time to come.

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One From the Archive: ‘Whispers Through a Megaphone’ by Rachel Elliott ****

Rachel Elliott’s Whispers Through a Megaphone was longlisted for 2016’s Baileys Women’s Prize, won, of course, by Lisa McInerney with her novel The Glorious Heresies.  I am not familiar with the latter, although it does have a place on my enormous to-read list, but I can wholeheartedly say that Elliott’s debut novel is very good indeed.  Laurie Penny has deemed it ‘a book with a big, beating heart’, and the word ‘charming’ is repeated in a lot of the reviews on the press release.

There are two protagonists in Whispers Through a Megaphone – thirty-five year old Miriam Delaney, and Ralph Swoon, a psychotherapist with twin teenage sons.  When the novel opens, it has been three years since Miriam last left her house:9780992918224

‘No, that’s not quite true.  She has stepped into the back garden to feed the koi carp, stepped into the porch to collect the milk and leave a bin bag for her neighbour to place at the end of the drive.  But step out into the street?  No chance.’

Tossing a coin essentially hands Miriam back her freedom: ‘Heads I could be part of the world, tails I’ll always be outside it’.  Her theme song of sorts is Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’: ‘It’s the soundtrack to a future that feels terrifying, exciting, possible, impossible’.  When she does make it out of the house, Elliott wonderfully describes her inner world: ‘It is unusual for Miriam to be gleeful like this, because her default personality setting is melancholy infused with kindness, which sounds like a room spray for introverts’.

Ralph receives the curveball on his birthday, of all days, that his wife no longer loves him.  He decides to move out without informing her, taking what little he needs, and setting up camp in an abandoned shed in the woods.  He adopts a stray cat, names it Treacle, and has companionable suppers with her.  One evening, quite soon into his stay, Miriam comes across him, running, as she does, into the woods in fright: ‘But she has found him.  Or maybe he has found her.  They haven’t found each other, not yet’.  The wholly platonic relationship between the pair which follows is rather heartwarming; it’s rather refreshing to read a novel in which a romance is not automatically sparked under such circumstances.

Throughout the novel, flashbacks are given to Miriam’s childhood, lived with her rather cruel mother, Frances.  She is not bullied much at school; rather, she ‘was only visible when the children were bored’.  She has been told that her father had an aneurysm and died when she was just one, whilst he was outside pegging up various items of laundry.  Her mother’s erratic behaviour is a staple of her girlhood, and even begins a clandestine relationship with Miriam’s married headmaster.  Told to be quiet so often in childhood, Miriam’s voice has been damaged; she can only communicate in whispers, which many of the other characters attribute to her contracting severe laryngitis.

Elliott has a witty, comical way of writing, and her descriptions particularly are rendered quite original in this manner: ‘washing up water that was supposed to smell of lavender and lemon, but actually smelt like the passageway between Asda and the car park’, and, of Ralph, ‘saying “blow me” was something he had inherited from his father, along with narrow shoulders and a pert little bottom’.

Whispers Through a Megaphone is about people in all of their many horrid, wonderful forms.  It is an engaging and surprising read, in which each and every character who peppers the pages has his or her own personal crisis to deal with; Ralph’s sons, for instance – angry Arthur, and Stanley, who is trying to keep his relationship with the serious Canadian Joe under wraps.  The relationships which Elliott builds are complex, but one gets a feel for them almost as soon as each character is introduced, or each situation shifts.  The structure, in which alternate chapters follow Miriam and Ralph, works wonderfully.  Whispers Through a Megaphone is full of depth; it is essentially about a whole cast of characters discovering themselves, and reclaiming some part of their past, or their future. A lovely uplifting read, which is perfect for every season.

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One From the Archive: ‘Uncanny Stories’ by May Sinclair *****

First published in September 2018.

I have been coveting a copy of Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair for such a long time.  She is an author whom I was originally focusing upon in my current postgraduate thesis, and whilst my scope has changed since I began my project, I am still very keen to read her entire oeuvre.  This particular book proved rather difficult to find, but I struck gold by keeping my eye on Abebooks, and finding a copy which was around £20 cheaper than those which I have previously seen.

The Wordsworth Edition which, whilst out of print, seemed to be the only edition which I could find, has been edited and introduced in a thorough manner by the well-informed 9781840224924Paul March-Russell.  The stories were first published with this title in 1923, and throughout, Sinclair ‘combines the traditional ghost story with the discoveries of Freud and Einstein.’  March-Russell, who calls her a ‘pivotal writer in the development of the ghost story’, recognises the myriad elements which influenced Sinclair’s work, calling her ‘one of the most intellectually driven of writers, pursuing the “new” and the “modern” in philosophy, psychoanalysis, mysticism and the paranormal.’  These eight tales promise to ‘shock, enthral, delight and unsettle’.  March-Russell writes that due to the very nature of these stories, they are ‘disturbing’ both in their content and the Modernist form in which they have been written.

A recurring motif in Sinclair’s stories is the ‘horror of family life’, and the ‘theme of self-denial’; she explores both in each of these stories, weaving them cleverly in with mysterious circumstances and paranormal occurrences.  Her writing is what really shines here.  A contemporary critic of hers named Julian Thompson said that her writing was ‘pin-sharp, often harrowingly economic.’  Everything here feels almost effortless; there is such a sense of flow and control in Sinclair’s writing, which often feels like a mixture of the Victorian Gothic and the Modernist tradition.

Uncanny Stories has a curiosity about it; it is as though Sinclair has chosen to explore our world through things which cannot be proven to exist, but which a lot of people in the Victorian era, for instance, as well at the time of writing, were highly interested in.  The descriptions which Sinclair has crafted are vivid and mysterious at once.  ‘The Finding of the Absolute’, for example, deals with differing dimensions and the emergence of Kant conversing with the narrator in this particular space, and is the most unusual story in the collection.  Here, she writes: ‘He found himself alone in an immense grey space, in which there was no distinguishable object but himself.  He was aware of his body as occupying a portion of this space.  For he had a body; a curious, tenuous, whitish body.  The odd thing was that this empty space had a sort of solidity under him.  He was lying on it, stretched out on it, adrift.  It supported him with the buoyancy of deep water.  And yet his body was part of it, melted in.’

Different narrative techniques and perspectives can be found from one story to another so, despite the often recurring themes, there is a freshness and variety to the collection.  Given its main theme, Uncanny Stories could so easily have been melodramatic, but not a single story can be categorised as such.  Sinclair has a way of making obscene and otherworldly things seem entirely reasonable; she provides ghosts and hauntings almost with a sense of normalcy.  The tension is built masterfully, and the theme of obsessive love has been explored in such depth in many differing situations.  Whilst there is a trope in these stories in which many young wives come back to haunt their husbands, the ways in which they do so vary, as does the reasoning.  The only thing here which I felt was a little overdone were the accents, some of which felt almost impenetrable.

The stories collected here were originally presented with illustrations; they have since been removed, which seems a shame.  Of this collection, I had only read one of the stories before, ‘The Flaw in the Crystal’; this, I enjoyed even more the second time around. The influence of psychology particularly here is fascinating; there are so many layers to each story, and psychological elements can be picked out in every single tale.

Uncanny Stories is highly engaging, and whilst I read it during a heatwave in France, it would definitely better suit a dark evening with a crackling fire.  The stories here should be better known and more widely read, as, indeed, should the rest of Sinclair’s books.  She is a wonderful and unjustly neglected author, and this collection demonstrates just how versatile she was.

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One From the Archive: ‘Faces in the Water’ by Janet Frame

First published in 2017.

Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water was a book club pick for January, and a book which I had not expected to love quite as much as I did.  Whilst I have wanted to read it for years, it is a tome which has so far evaded me in bookshops and the like; I had to resort to the Internet to find a copy of it.

From the outset, I was immediately captivated.  We are effectively living inside protagonist Istina Mavet’s head, as she negotiates the mental hospital in which she is incarcerated.  As this account is based upon Frame’s own experiences, there is an added edge of horror to the whole.  Frame’s writing is striking and beguiling, and every sentence is memorable: ‘I will write about the season of peril.  I was put in hospital because a great gap opened in the ice floe between myself and the other people whom I watched, with their world, drifting away through a violet-coloured sea where hammerhead sharks in tropical ease swam side by side with the seals and the polar bears’.  Istina’s voice is sharp, and her ideas verge upon the theatrical: ‘I was not yet civilized; I traded my safety for the glass beads of fantasy’, and ‘9781844084616I swallowed a stream of stars; it was easy…’.

Frame’s account is vividly appealing particularly when she discusses the outside world, which is barred to Istina and her peers, and the whole is so well paced – for instance, the passage in which Istina discusses the dangers left behind ‘all the doors which lead to and from the world’.  There is a dreamlike element ever-present within, and one can pick out nods to various fairytales and other childhood stories too: ‘… I dream and cannot wake, and I am cast over the cliff and hang there by two fingers that are danced and trampled on by the Giant unreality’.

Despite this, Istina is still poignant and to the point – as well as unarguably chilling – when discussing the doctors and nurses who walk the corridors of the hospital: ‘Every morning I woke in dread, waiting for the day nurse to go on her rounds and announce from the list of names in her hand whether or not I was for shock treatment, the new and fashionable means of quieting people and of making them realize that orders are to be obeyed and floors are to be polished without anyone protesting and faces are made to be fixed into smiles and weeping is a crime’.

As readers, we are immediately aware of the never-ending, and frankly terrifying, cycle of waiting for Electroshock Therapy every day.  Frame really pulls the innards of the institution out to be looked at by us, the outsiders, who do not have to live with the consequences of being deemed unsafe within the wide society.  She lays the life of the mental hospital bare; yes, there is an element of retrospect and historical contextualisation at play here, but it does not serve to make the scenes which Istina describes any less appalling.

The stream-of-consciousness style of narration, as well as the use of fragmented prose and fractured memories, allow the story to come through in all of its horror.  Istina is fascinatingly complex, and oh-so-real.  The novel itself is stunning and hard-hitting, and not one which can be read lightly, or without dedication from the reader.  Faces in the Water is undeniably intense, and reading it is, at points, decidedly exhausting, but when an author reminds you this much of the utterly wonderful Shirley Jackson, you know that you really should read her entire back catalogue as soon as you are able to get your hands on it.