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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.’
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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.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Poetic Edda’, translated by Carolyne Larrington ****

First published in 2014.

The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse-Icelandic mythological and heroic poetry, which has inspired so much of the literature and media which we in the modern world know and love.  Many of the poems in this collection – which has been both translated and edited by Carolyne Larrington – were penned by an unknown writer around the year 1270, and can be found in a medieval Icelandic document, the Codex Regius.  It has not been possible to prove whether these poems came from Iceland or Norway, as experts on the poems have noted that elements of importance are often included from both countries.  It is worth noting that many of the poems within The Poetic Edda were written before the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity.

9780199675340In her introduction, Larrington sets out the importance of the poems within The Poetic Edda.  She believes that the collection is ‘comic, tragic, instructive, grandiose, witty and profound’, and that it contains scenes which have been ‘vividly staged’.  Larrington goes on to write that the Edda, incorporating as it does ‘comedy, satire, didactic verse, tragedy, high drama and profoundly moving lament’, is one of the greatest masterpieces in world literature.  Larrington’s introduction is well written and informative, and is split up into useful sections which deal with such different elements as the Old Norse cosmos and mythological history.

The Poetic Edda ‘contains the great narratives of the creation of the world and the coming of Ragnarok, the doom of the Gods’.  It traces the exploits of many characters from Icelandic and Norse mythology, from Thor to Sigurd and Brynhild, and their doomed love affair.  In their style, the poems are relatively simple, but they are often profound and always striking in the scenes and imagery which they present.

Larrington’s version of The Poetic Edda has been beautifully translated, and the flow of each poem is perfect.  The narrative voices and structure used in each is coherent and well wrought, and the collection as a whole is absolutely fascinating.  Each poem is different from the next, and every single one is filled with many memorable characters and scenes.  Violence abounds in The Poetic Edda, as do history, passion and emotions.

Oxford World’s Classics’ revised edition of the poems includes a select bibliography and a section on the genealogies of giants, gods and heroes.  Larrington has also chosen to place two new poems within the collection – ‘The Lay of Svipdag’ and ‘The Waking of Angatyr’.  There is also an invaluable section with notes on the meter and style of the poems, which is essential for any student of the work.  Each poem is prefaced by a useful contextual introduction, making The Poetic Edda accessible to all.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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One From the Archive: ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ by Maggie O’Farrell ****

First published in 2018.

Instructions for a Heatwave is the sixth novel by acclaimed Irish author Maggie O’Farrell. In it, she presents an ‘intimate portrait of a family in crisis’. This crisis is found not only in her characters, but in the setting too, taking part as it does during the London heatwave of July 1976. As one might expect, this heat is like a character throughout the book, its presence stifling: ‘The heat, the heat… It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome; it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs’.

9780755358793The novel opens with Irish housewife Gretta, one of the main characters in the book and without whom the story would not be able to unfold in quite the way it does. She is described as ‘so overweight, so eccentrically dressed, so loud, so uninhibited, so wild-haired, so keen to tell everyone her life story’. At the beginning of the book, headstrong Gretta is baking bread in the fierce heat: ‘She is in her nightdress, hair still wound into curlers… She has made soda bread three times a week for her entire married life. She is not about to let a little thing like a heatwave get in the way of that’. Gretta and her quiet husband Robert Riordan have been married for over thirty years, and are the parents of a son and two daughters – Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife, all of whom are off in the big wide world, living their own lives. The relationship of their parents is a happy one, filled with ‘small acts of kindness that [make] people know they are loved’.

On the pivotal July morning in which the novel opens, London has been in the midst of a heatwave for several days. The citizens are listless and lethargic, and even the smallest acts outside seem like heroic feats. Robert goes out to buy the newspaper at the exact time that he always does, and fails to return. The three children are drafted in from their various locations – Michael Francis in another part of London, Monica in Gloucestershire, and Aoife in New York City – to help find their father. Gretta’s relationship with each of her children is fractured in some way. She dislikes her son’s Englishness, she loathes the space which has opened up between her and her favourite daughter Monica, and she dislikes the way in which Aoife fled to the United States and ‘Never called. Never wrote’.

Each of these characters, too, has a fractured life in some way. Michael’s marriage has hit a definite rough patch; he is a man ‘hurrying home to a wife who will no longer look him in the eye, no longer seek his touch, a wife whose cool indifference has provoked in him such a slow burning, low-level panic that he cannot sleep in his own bed, cannot sit easily in his own house’. Monica is living in a lonely farmhouse with her new husband, whose stepdaughters go out of their way to make life difficult for her: ‘Peter came with a ready-made family, with spare children, she’d hoped she might slot into their lives almost as if they were her own’. Aoife is almost living a hand to mouth existence and is struggling with the fact that, having been held back so much at school, she cannot read.

The author’s descriptions of Michael Francis’ young children particularly are imaginative and perceptive: ‘Hughie is a sprite, a light, reedy being, his too-long hair flying out behind him, diaphanous, an Ariel, a creature of the air, whereas Vita is more of a soil-dwelling animal. A badger, she reminds him [Michael Francis] of, perhaps, or a fox’. Throughout, O’Farrell’s writing style is polished, and her third person narrative voice has been deftly crafted. The short time period in which the novel takes place too adds in its own way to the story.

O’Farrell clearly knows her characters incredibly well. She feeds in lots of details about each of them as the book goes on, and she makes it clear that in Instructions for a Heatwave, nothing is quite what it seems. Secrets lie behind every closed door, and once happy hearts seem as lifeless as the scorched grass in the city. The detritus of family life has built up over time, leaving behind a trail of broken individuals, who use the horrid situation they find themselves in to try and build bridges with one another.

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4

One From the Archive: Books About Gardens

First published in 2017.

I stumbled upon a Goodreads list – as any user inevitably does at one point or another whilst browsing the vast site – and thought that it would be a perfect one to transcribe for the blog. Whilst I haven’t read many of these books (those which I have read are followed by my star rating), they all sound wonderful, and are undoubtedly perfect choices for this time of year.  The following are about the garden rather than the practice of gardening; they evoke old England, and the charm of admiring what one has planted.  I have focused only upon the first fifteen (and therefore the most popular) books voted for on this list; you can see the rest of it here.  For each, I have added the blurb as shown on Goodreads.

1. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett ***** 231815
When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors.  The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?

 

2. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton *****
A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric and compulsively readable story of the past, secrets, family and memory from the international best-selling author Kate Morton.  Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra’s life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family.  Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace—the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century—Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.

 

14702453. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce ***
Lying awake at night, Tom hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike . . . eleven . . . twelve . . . thirteen . . . Thirteen! When Tom gets up to investigate, he discovers a magical garden. A garden that everyone told him doesn’t exist. A garden that only he can enter . . .

 

4. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Voodoo. Decadent socialites packing Lugars. Cotillions. With towns like Savannah, Georgia, who needs Fellini? Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil takes two narrative strands–each worthy of its own book–and weaves them together to make a single fascinating tale. The first is author John Berendt’s loving depiction of the characters and rascals that prowled Savannah in the eight years it was his home-away-from-home. “Eccentrics thrive in Savannah,” he writes, and proves the point by introducing Luther Diggers, a thwarted inventor who just might be plotting to poison the town’s water supply; Joe Odom, a jovial jackleg lawyer and squatter nonpareil; and, most memorably, the Lady Chablis, whom you really should meet for yourself. Then, on May 2, 1981, the book’s second story line commences, when Jim Williams, a wealthy antique dealer and Savannah’s host with the most, kills his “friend” Danny Hansford. (If those quotes make you suspect something, you should.) Was it self-defense, as Williams claimed–or murder? The book sketches four separate trials, during which the dark side of this genteel party town is well and truly plumbed.

 

5. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen *** 11758562
Taken from the poverty of her parents’ home, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with only her cousin Edmund as an ally. When Fanny’s uncle is absent in Antigua, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive in the neighbourhood, bringing with them London glamour and a reckless taste for flirtation. As her female cousins vie for Henry’s attention, and even Edmund falls for Mary’s dazzling charms, only Fanny remains doubtful about the Crawfords’ influence and finds herself more isolated than ever. A subtle examination of social position and moral integrity, Mansfield Park is one of Jane Austen’s most profound works.

 

6. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen ***
The women of the Waverley family — whether they like it or not — are heirs to an unusual legacy, one that grows in a fenced plot behind their Queen Anne home on Pendland Street in Bascom, North Carolina. There, an apple tree bearing fruit of magical properties looms over a garden filled with herbs and edible flowers that possess the power to affect in curious ways anyone who eats them.   For nearly a decade, 34-year-old Claire Waverley, at peace with her family inheritance, has lived in the house alone, embracing the spirit of the grandmother who raised her, ruing her mother’s unfortunate destiny and seemingly unconcerned about the fate of her rebellious sister, Sydney, who freed herself long ago from their small town’s constraints. Using her grandmother’s mystical culinary traditions, Claire has built a successful catering business — and a carefully controlled, utterly predictable life — upon the family’s peculiar gift for making life-altering delicacies: lilac jelly to engender humility, for instance, or rose geranium wine to call up fond memories. Garden Spells reveals what happens when Sydney returns to Bascom with her young daughter, turning Claire’s routine existence upside down. With Sydney’s homecoming, the magic that the quiet caterer has measured into recipes to shape the thoughts and moods of others begins to influence Claire’s own emotions in terrifying and delightful ways.  As the sisters reconnect and learn to support one another, each finds romance where she least expects it, while Sydney’s child, Bay, discovers both the safe home she has longed for and her own surprising gifts. With the help of their elderly cousin Evanelle, endowed with her own uncanny skills, the Waverley women redeem the past, embrace the present, and take a joyful leap into the future.

 

113172897. Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim *****
“Elizabeth and Her German Garden,” a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, was popular and frequently reprinted during the early years of the 20th century. “Elizabeth and Her German Garden” is a year’s diary written by Elizabeth about her experiences learning gardening and interacting with her friends. It includes commentary on the beauty of nature and on society, but is primarily humorous due to Elizabeth’s frequent mistakes and her idiosyncratic outlook on life. The story is full of sweet, endearing moments. Elizabeth was an avid reader and has interesting comments on where certain authors are best read; she tells charming stories of her children and has a sometimes sharp sense of humor in regards to the people who will come and disrupt her solitary lifestyle.

 

8. A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
All the joys and sorrows, fears and fantasies of an imaginative solitary child are brought together in this edition of a much-loved classic. Stevenson’s timeless verses bear witness to a happy childhood and create a treasure garden for every child to explore.

 

9. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh ***** 10032672
A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.  The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.  Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

 

10. The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre
The Constant Gardener is a magnificent exploration of the new world order by one of the most compelling and elegant storytellers of our time. The novel opens in northern Kenya with the gruesome murder of Tessa Quayle–young, beautiful, and dearly beloved to husband Justin. When Justin sets out on a personal odyssey to uncover the mystery of her death, what he finds could make him not only a suspect among his own colleagues, but a target for Tessa’s killers as well.   A master chronicler of the betrayals of ordinary people caught in political conflict, John le Carre portrays the dark side of unbridled capitalism as only he can. In The Constant Gardener he tells a compelling, complex story of a man elevated through tragedy as Justin Quayle–amateur gardener, aging widower, and ineffectual bureaucrat–discovers his own natural resources and the extraordinary courage of the woman he barely had time to love.

 

1383911. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of honeybees and flowers: The bee collects nectar and pollen to make honey and, in the process, spreads the flowers’ genes far and wide. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. He masterfully links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, we have also done well by them. So who is really domesticating whom?

 

12. The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama
A 20-year-old Chinese painter named Stephen is sent to his family’s summer home in a Japanese coastal village to recover from a bout with tuberculosis. Here he is cared for by Matsu, a reticent housekeeper and a master gardener. Over the course of a remarkable year, Stephen learns Matsu’s secret and gains not only physical strength, but also profound spiritual insight. Matsu is a samurai of the soul, a man devoted to doing good and finding beauty in a cruel and arbitrary world, and Stephen is a noble student, learning to appreciate Matsu’s generous and nurturing way of life and to love Matsu’s soul-mate, gentle Sachi, a woman afflicted with leprosy.

 

13. The Virgin in the Garden by A.S. Byatt 253300
The Virgin in the Garden is a wonderfully erudite entertainment in which enlightenment and sexuality, Elizabethan drama and contemporary comedy, intersect richly and unpredictably.

 

14. The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield *****
Written during the final stages of her illness, “The Garden Party and Other Stories” is full of a sense of urgency and was Katherine Mansfield’s last collection to be published during her lifetime. The fifteen stories, many of them set in her native New Zealand, vary in length and tone from the opening story, “At the Bay, ” a vivid impressionistic evocation of family life, to the short, sharp sketch “Mrs. Brill, ” in which a lonely woman’s precarious sense of self is brutally destroyed when she overhears two young lovers mocking her. Sensitive revelations of human behaviour, these stories reveal Mansfield’s supreme talent as an innovator who freed the story from its conventions and gave it a new strength and prestige.

 

3117315. Villette by Charlotte Bronte *****
Arguably Brontë’s most refined and deeply felt work, Villette draws on her profound loneliness following the deaths of her three siblings. Lucy Snowe, the narrator of Villette,flees from an unhappy past in England to begin a new life as a teacher at a French boarding school in the great cosmopolitan capital of Villette. Soon Lucy’s struggle for independence is overshadowed by both her friendship with a worldly English doctor and her feelings for an autocratic schoolmaster. Brontë’s strikingly modern heroine must decide if there is any man in her society with whom she can live and still be free.

 

How many of these have you read?  Do any of them pique your interest?