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One From the Archive: ‘The Shutter of Snow’ by Emily Holmes Coleman *****

First published in June 2019.

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I have wanted to read Emily Holmes Coleman’s The Shutter of Snow for years, but had never got around to doing so, as copies proved difficult to find, and rather expensive. Only the selection of the novel for my online book club pushed me to source a (thankfully free) copy from OpenLibrary, and I began it way ahead of time.

This novella, the only work published by American author Emily Holmes Coleman, is semi-autobiographical.  It focuses on a period of her life in which she was institutionalised due to contracting puerperal fever following the birth of her son in 1924, and suffering a nervous breakdown as a result.  Our protagonist, Marthe Gail, has postpartum psychosis, and is forced to spend her time away from her baby son in a mental hospital in New York.  Here, she tries, with varying levels of success, to persuade others that she is well.

Marthe’s condition, and its manifestation, is startling.  She believes herself to be a sort of amalgamation of God and Jesus Christ.  From the outset, The Shutter of Snow is unsettling, and quickly establishes a sense of the place in which Marthe is trapped: ‘The voice on the other side of her wall was shouting for someone.  It never stopped all night.  It became entangled in the blankets and whistled the ice prongs on the wind.  The rest of the voices were not so distinct.  It was very still out in the hall when the voices stopped.’ There is a sense, for Marthe, of being completely alone and adrift, whilst also being surrounded by many other people.

The imagery which Holmes Coleman creates often has a shock value to it: ‘She had been a foetus and had knitted herself together in the bed’, and ‘Clean cheeks and a little river in her teeth.  Pine needles dripping in the Caucasus’, stood out particularly to me.  I also found the following nightmarish scene incredibly chilling: ‘How could they expect her to sleep when she was going through all of it?  They didnt [sic] know.  She had swung about the room from the ceiling and it was a swinging from the cross.  There had been the burial.  She was lying quietly in the bed and being covered over her face.  She was carried quietly out and put in the casket.  Down, down she went in the rectangle that had been made for her.  Down and the dirt fell in above.  Down and the worms began to tremble in and out.  Always she had kept telling of it, not one word of it must be forgotten.  It must all be recorded in sound and after that she could sleep.’

As well as the horror which permeates it, there are moments of strange beauty in Holmes Coleman’s descriptions; for example, when she writes: ‘The only thing to do is to put hammers in the porridge and when there are enough hammers we shall break down the windows and all of us shall dance in the snow.’  The use of recurring motifs within the novella was highly effective – for instance, Marthe’s dancing, and the unusual imagery of orange peel in the snow.

The Shutter of Snow presents a striking character study of a woman in the depths of mania.  Holmes Coleman’s prose is effective; she uses a stream-of-consciousness-esque style, with the subconscious and unconscious embedded within its omniscient perspective.  I’m not sure that I would categorise this as a stream-of-consciousness work, per se, but it certainly can be recognised as a Modernist work.  There is a real urgency to her writing.  I can see why her style, with its omission of speech marks and no clear delineation between what is real and imagined, might be off-putting to many readers, but as a huge fan of Modernist writing, I found it immediately immersive.  The mixture of reality and psychiatric episodes are chilling, and blend into one another seamlessly.

Given that The Shutter of Snow was published in 1930, it feels startlingly modern.  I agree entirely with the two reviews I read prior to beginning the novella.  Fay Weldon remarked that is an ‘extraordinary and visionary book, written out of those edges where madness and poetry meet’, and The Nation commented that ‘The Shutter of Snow is a profoundly moving book, supplying as it does a glimpse of what a temporary derangement and its consequences mean to the sufferer.’  I found the entirety of this book to be poignant and affecting, and it has become a firm favourite of mine.  I expected that it might be difficult to read, and whilst there are some shocking incidents at work in the novella, the constantly shifting prose works perfectly to demonstrate the fog in Marthe’s brain.

There are relatively few novellas that say so much as Holmes Coleman does so fluidly and fluently in The Shutter of Snow.  She speaks volumes about the human condition, and the frailty and fragility which go hand in hand with it.  The Shutter of Snow is a literary whirlwind, a completely absorbing and often quite frightening story.  An obvious comparison to give is its similarities to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, which deals with similar themes in that the narrator is forced to undertake a rest cure following childbirth.  There are flashes here of a similar beguiling style as Djuna Barnes’, and some of Virginia Woolf’s more complicated scenes – in Orlando, for example.  In some ways, however, The Shutter of Snow is quite unlike anything which I have ever read, and it is all the stronger for this unusual quality.  There is so much within it which is all its own, and it is a real shame that Holmes Coleman never again put her pen to paper following the publication of this staggeringly powerful and phenomenal novella.

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One From the Archive: ‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths’ by Barbara Comyns ****

First published in July 2013.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was first published in 1950 and has been recently reissued by Virago, along with two of Comyns’ other novels.  The introduction to this new edition has been penned by author Maggie O’Farrell, who tells rather a lovely story about her discovery of Barbara Comyns in a secondhand bookshop.  She describes how,  ‘as I have a habit of buying up any Virago Modern Classics I don’t already own, I decided to… make the purchase.  It would prove to be the best fifty pence I ever spent.  I began to flick through the pages as I walked away from the shop.  Just five minutes later, I was so engrossed that I had to stop and sit down on a bench on the Cobb; I didn’t make it back to the holiday flat for some time’.  She believes that Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a novel ‘in which you are never quite sure what will happen next’. 

The novel is told through the eyes of twenty one-year-old Sophia Fairclough, who is embarking on a new life as a married woman.  She begins with a striking passage: ‘I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.  In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now’.  After such introductions to our protagonist have been made, the story quickly shifts back to her impending marriage, some time in the past.  She meets her partner, Charles, on a train journey and talks to him only because both are carrying portfolios.  They soon decide to marry in secret.  Despite this, the information leaks back to Charles’ relations, and she has to bear the wrath of them in all their beastly glory: ‘there was a great thumping at the door and when it opened in tumbled all Charles’s maternal relations.  I tried to run up the stairs, but they just fell on me like a swarm of angry hornets.  One woman in a stiff black hat gripped me by the arm…  She said I was an uncontrolled little beast and when was I expecting the baby…  Charles just looked very white and scared; he wasn’t very much help.’  Several weeks afterwards, Sophia and Charles find that they are going to become parents.  Whilst apprehensive about the news herself, Charles is incredibly negative and dismissing, stating ‘How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram’, and telling his wife that ‘it was no use crying about something that was not going to happen for seven months, I might have a miscarriage before then’.

As a narrator, Sophia has a lightness of touch, and as such, the happy and sad elements of her life are delivered in the same chatty tone.  Rather than add frivolity to the text, this serves merely to make the unhappy events all the more poignant and memorable.  From the outset, she is a quirky heroine.  She does such things as taking her pet newt to dinner with her and letting it ‘swim in the water jug’, and she believes that the reason she does not see her brother is because ‘they thought I was a bit “arty” and odd, but expect they hoped now I was becoming a mother I would improve’.  She is also delightfully naive, which is the most endearing quality about her.  On her wedding day, she is made to sit in a pew with Charles’ father, and comments ‘I felt a bit scared in case they married me to him by mistake’.

Comyns’ style is engaging, and her writing matches the story perfectly.  Rather than portray a humdrum account of married life and early motherhood, she has made Sophia come to life on the first page.  As a result, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a difficult novel to put down.  She creates such sympathy for her protagonist, particularly during the scenes on the labour ward, where she goes to give birth to her son: ‘I longed to see the baby, but they said I couldn’t yet.  It had stopped crying and I was worried in case it was dead.  So I cried about that, too.’  Comyns illustrates the peaks and troughs of life as a parent and struggling to survive on uneven wages in bustling areas of London in the most marvellous manner.  Every lover of literary fiction is sure to find a memorable friend in Sophia Fairclough.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Comet Seekers’ by Helen Sedgwick ****

First published in 2016.

One Day meets The Time Traveler’s Wife in this spellbinding, magical debut novel about love, loss, hope and heartbreak that shows us that for each of us, the world can be as lonely or as beautiful as the comets that illuminate the skies above us. Roisin and Francois first meet in the snowy white expanse of Antarctica. And everything changes. While Roisin grew up in a tiny village in Ireland, ablaze with a passion for science and the skies and for all there is to discover about the world, Francois was raised by his beautiful young mother, who dreamt of new worlds but was unable to turn her back on her past. As we loop back through their lives, glimpsing each of them only when a comet is visible in the skies above, we see how their paths cross as they come closer and closer to this moment. Theirs are stories filled with love and hope and heartbreak, that show how strangers can be connected and ghosts can be real, and the world can be as lonely or as beautiful as the comets themselves.’

I started reading Helen Sedgwick’s The Comet Seekers on the long journey up to Glasgow.  It has fast become one of my highly anticipated reads of the year, especially since scrolling through some of its Goodreads reviews.  The premise was simple, yet very cleverly used, and all of the separate stories were carefully tied together to make a rich whole.  Some of the occurrences – for example, Roisin and Francois living in the relatively small town of Bayeux at the same time – felt a little too convenient, but it was put together in such a way that actually, such chance almost-meetings felt very sweet, and almost necessary to the whole.

The breadth of Sedgwick’s research here is almost breathtaking.  She handles the information well, and writes beautifully.  Some of her phrasing is nothing short of sublime.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about the presence of the ghosts – I am the first to admit that I am not at all interested in the paranormal for the most part – but in hindsight, it did work well.  The Comet Seekers is peopled with realistic characters, well-rehearsed scenes, and startling conversations.  My only real qualm was that some of the details toward the end of the novel were a little odd and unnecessary, but overall, I must admit that I really enjoyed it.

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One From the Archive: ‘Shire’ by Ali Smith ****

First published in 2013

Shire is the newest offering from surely one of our most original contemporary authors, Ali Smith. In these four short stories -‘The beholder’, ‘The poet’, ‘The commission’ and ‘The wound’ – she ‘pays tribute to the sources, the people and the places which produce and nurture life and art’. Throughout, she also draws parallels and similarities between her native Scotland, and Cambridge, the city in which she now lives. The divide between the north and south has been both drawn and erased in this collection, and Smith also places much focus upon ‘poetry and the creative process’ and the ideas of ‘death and renewal’. The entire volume has been beautifully produced, and is accompanied by a lovely series of Sarah Wood’s photographs and illustrations.

Smith has used many different sources as her inspiration for these tales, ranging from a modern myth with an ‘hallucinatory quality’ and a memoriam of two Scottish poets, to an autobiographical meeting with the influential Helena Mennie Shire, a Cambridge University professor. It is perhaps easiest to write about these stories in entirely separate sections, as whilst they do share a common style, the thoughts and subject matter which they deal with can vary greatly from one to the next.

Let us begin, therefore, with ‘The beholder’. In this story, Smith has managed to inject original details into the mundane. The unnamed protagonist is visiting her doctor with regard to a breathing difficulty. When asked how her life is, she informs him: ‘… well, my dad died and my siblings went mad and we’ve all stopped speaking to each other and my ex-partner is sueing me for half the value of everything I own and I got redundant and about a month ago my next door neighbour bought a drum kit, but other than that, just, you know, the usual’. Just a little further on in the story, the narrator returns to the doctor’s surgery with a most unusual complaint – ‘little stubby branch things’ have begun to grow out of her chest. Later, she describes the way in which ‘the whole rich tangled mass of me swung and shifted and shivered every serrated edge of its hundreds of perfect green new leaves’. This is, on the face of it, an incredibly simple story, but Smith’s inventiveness and her execution of it shines. She has stuffed it to the brim with magical realism whilst also commenting on the human condition and the way in which humans can unite with the world around them.

The second story, ‘The poet’, which follows Olive Fraser, begins in the following way: ‘So she’d taken the book and she’d thrown it across the room and when it hit the wall then fell to the floor with its pages open it nearly broke, which was one of the worst things you could do, maybe a worse thing even than saying a blasphemous curse’. The narrative of this story includes some Scottish dialect – for example, ‘it wasn’t grammatical or real Latin like’, ‘the water had darkened his good trews’, ‘He was too feart even to try’ and ‘time meant a lot more than the face of a wee gold watch, aye’ – which reinforces some of the scenes. In this particular tale, the stream of consciousness style is so beautifully written that the reader cannot help but be dragged into the story. Smith’s admiration of Fraser shines through on every page, and she has created rather a delightful memoriam in consequence.

‘The commission’ is an interesting biographical essay of sorts, detailing what it was like to be a postgraduate student at Cambridge University. Smith states that she applied to Newnham College only so that she could ‘get a book grant’ whilst she was there. In ‘The wound’, nature is prominent from the first richly written page: ‘Look at the dew, so twinklingly like diamonds on every twirl of foliage; look at the flowers falling over themselves to bloom’. This story is a literary criticism of sorts, an interesting and well done reimagining of a poem by Alexander Montgomerie.

Shire is a clever, astute and rather accomplished volume, which blends together seamlessly despite its disparities with regard to genres and subject matter. It is sure to delight every existing fan of Smith’s work, and would serve as a wonderful introduction for any newcomers to her writing.

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One From the Archive: Reading the New Woman

First published in 2015.

One of my favourite things to learn about during my Master’s lessons at King’s College London was ‘The New Woman’, a feminist idea which emerged in the late nineteenth century, and inspired feminism and women’s movements during the twentieth century.  They were free spirited, and shunned the Victorian ‘Angel of the House’ ideal, eschewing marriage in favour of careers and independence.

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‘The New Woman on Wash Day’ – R.Y. Young (from The Library of Congress)

The New Woman is an endlessly fascinating subject for those of us who are interested in female social history and the like.  I thought that I would put together a little reading list for everyone who is interested in reading about The New Woman, or just fancies trying something a little different.

Firstly, we shall begin with two social history books, and will then go on to some depictions of The New Woman in literature.

The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin-De-Siecle by Sally Ledger
‘By comparing the fictional representations with the lived experience of the new woman, Ledger’s book makes a major contribution to an understanding of the ‘woman question’ at the fin de siecle. She alights on such disparate figures as Eleanor Marx, Gertrude Dix, Dracula, Oscar Wilde, Olive Schreiner and Radclyffe Hall. Focusing mainly on the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the book’s later chapters project forward into the twentieth century, considering the relationship between new woman fiction and early modernism as well as the socio-sexual inheritance of the ‘second generation’ new woman writers.’

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The Rise of the New Woman: The Women’s Movement in America, 1875-1930 by Jean V. Matthews 
‘Following on her history of the women’s movement in America that took the story to 1876, Jean Matthews’s new book chronicles the changing fortunes and transformations of the organized suffrage movement, from its dismal period of declining numbers and campaign failures to its final victory in the Nineteenth Amendment that brought women the vote. Ms. Matthews’s engaging narrative recaptures the personalities and ideas that characterized the movement in these years. She draws deft portraits and analyzes the intellectual currents-in politics, the economy, sexuality, and social thought-that competed for women’s commitment. And she shows how new leadership and new strategies at last brought success in the long struggle during which many feminist leaders had grown old. The Rise of the New Woman emphasizes the historical contexts, including progressivism, in which the women’s movement operated; the disputes and tensions within the movement itself; and the perennial question of who was to be included and excluded in the quest for women’s rights. It also considers the often baffling aftereffects of the 1920 constitutional victory, when women found themselves wondering what to do next.’

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The Heavenly Twins by Sarah Grand
‘Sarah Grand’s dual novel of the diabolically mischievous twins Diavolo and Angelica and the coming of age of nineteen-year-old Evadne valiantly explores subjects considered taboo for a female writer of the Victorian age. Through her characters, Grand, considered one of the “New Woman” writers of the late 1800s, courageously advocated “rational dress,” financial independence, personal fulfillment over marriage and motherhood, and the freedom of women to initiate sexual relationships outside of wedlock and to openly discuss such volatile sexual topics as a woman’s right to contraception. She was one of the first to explore the complexity of gender roles and their inherent constraints.’

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A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen 
‘The slamming of the front door at the end of A Doll’s House shatters the romantic masquerade of the Helmers’ marriage. In their stultifying and infantilised relationship, Nora and Torvald have deceived themselves and each other both consciously and subconsciously, until Nora acknowledges the need for individual freedom. A revised student edition of classic set text: A Doll’s House (1879), is a masterpiece of theatrical craft which, for the first time portrayed the tragic hypocrisy of Victorian middle class marriage on stage. The play ushered in a new social era and “exploded like a bomb into contemporary life”.’

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
‘A searing indictment of the rigid Boer social conventions of the 19th century, the first great South African novel chronicles the adventures of 3 childhood friends who defy societal repression. The novel’s unorthodox views on religion and marriage aroused widespread controversy upon its 1883 publication.’

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The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
‘Love, and the erratic heart, are at the centre of Hardy’s ‘woodland story’. Set in the beautiful Blackmoor Vale, The Woodlanders concerns the fortunes of Giles Winterborne, whose love for the well-to-do Grace Melbury is challenged by the arrival of the dashing and dissolute doctor, Edred Fitzpiers. When the mysterious Felice Charmond further complicates the romantic entanglements, marital choice and class mobility become inextricably linked. Hardy’s powerful novel depicts individuals in thrall to desire and the natural law that motivates them.’

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The Odd Women by George Gissing 
‘The idea of the superfluity of unmarried women was one the ‘New Woman’ novels of the 1890s sought to challenge. But in The Odd Women (1893) Gissing satirizes the prevailing literary image of the ‘New Woman’ and makes the point that unmarried women were generally viewed less as noble and romantic figures than as ‘odd’ and marginal in relation to the ideal of womanhood itself. Set in grimy, fog-ridden London, these ‘odd’ women range from the idealistic, financially self-sufficient Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, who run a school to train young women in office skills for work, to the Madden sisters struggling to subsist in low-paid jobs and experiencing little comfort or pleasure in their lives. Yet it is for the youngest Madden sister’s marriage that the novel reserves its most sinister critique. With superb detachment Gissing captures contemporary society’s ambivalence towards its own period of transition. The Odd Women is a novel engaged with all the major sexual and social issues of the late-nineteenth century. Judged by contemporary reviewers as equal to Zola and Ibsen, Gissing was seen to have produced an ‘intensely modern’ work and it is perhaps for this reason that the issues it raises remain the subject of contemporary debate.’

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Novella November: ‘A World of Love’ by Elizabeth Bowen **** (One From the Archive)

First published in July 2019.

I have read a few of Elizabeth Bowen’s books to date, but still have rather a lot of her oeuvre outstanding.  With this in mind, I could not resist picking up a copy of her novella, A World of Love, which was first published in 1955.  This is one of Bowen’s later works, and only two finished novels were written after it.

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The premise of A World of Love is that a twenty-year-old woman named Jane Danby, living in a crumbling old house in County Cork, Ireland, finds a package of old letters in the attic.  This leads her ‘into the world of love’, in which a rather eccentric neighbour, Lady Vesta Latterly, ‘rich, promiscuous, parvenue Englishwoman… will play a part in Jane’s awakening.’  The house, Montefort, ‘harbours a group of people held together by odd ties of kinship or habit, and haunted by the memory of its former owner who was killed in France as a young man.’  Jane lives there with her parents, Fred and Lilia, and twelve-year-old sister Maud, ‘all of whom owe their domestic situation to Montefort’s owner, Antonia’, who inherited the house from her cousin Guy, who died during the First World War.  The Danby family’s place here is ‘uncertain, never secure, never defined.’

A World of Love takes place during a heatwave.  It begins on a sultry June morning.  Here, writes Bowen, ‘The sun rose on a landscape still pale with the heat of the day before.  There was no haze, but a sort of coppery burnish out of the air lit on flowing fields, rocks, the face of the one house and the cliff of limestone overhanging the river.  The river gorge cut deep through the uplands.  This light at this hour, so unfamiliar, brought into being a new world – painted, expectant, empty, intense.’  As I have come to expect with Bowen’s writing, her descriptions sing.  The way in which she writes about Jane, too, is unusual and exquisitely layered.  When she introduces her protagonist, she asserts: ‘Kindled by summer though cool in nature, she was a beauty.  The cut of her easy golden hair was anachronistic over the dress she wore: this, her height and something half naive half studied about her management of the sleeves and skirts made her like a boy actor in woman’s clothes, while what was classical in her grace made her appear to belong to some other time.’

Bowen goes on to explore the isolation which surrounds the house and its inhabitants.  The day before, she explains, ‘They had all been to the Fete, and a backwash from it still agitated their tempers and nerves – in the house itself residual pleasure-seeking ghosts had been set astir.  The Hunt Fete, which drew the entire country, now was the sole festivity of the lonely year, for Montefort the only annual outing – which, more and more each summer, required nerve.’

The Vintage edition of A World of Love is introduced by Selina Hastings.  She notes that this book was written soon after the death of Bowen’s husband, but does not perhaps encompass the depths of sadness which one might expect.  Instead, writes Hastings, ‘although the book is in a sense a ghost story, with the pervasive presence of the dead permeating both place and plot, yet its mood is lyrical and light, a spirited comedy of manners finely balanced over a more sombre subterranean level of betrayal, frustration and loss.’  Bowen herself, indeed, called this novella ‘a joy to write’.  Hastings praises Bowen’s protagonist; she notes that she ‘has an almost wilful independence of spirit very different from the other solitary young girls who people Bowen’s novels.’

The family dynamics at play throughout this novella are deep and somewhat complicated.  The letters which Jane discovers quite by chance, wrapped up in a muslin dress which she takes a fancy to in the attic, provide a crux in the novella, causing – or perhaps just providing a means for allowing – the characters to quarrel amongst themselves.  These letters are not overly interesting to Jane at first: ‘The ink, sharp in the candlelight, had not faded.  She could not fail, however, when first she handled them, to connect these letters with that long-settled dust: her sense of their remoteness from her entitled her to feel they belonged to history.’  They soon begin to grow with an almost mythic importance in Jane’s mind, however.

A World of Love is an opulent novella, written by the most observant of authors.  Much of the little action which plays out here revolves around the characters, and what they mean to one another.  There is often a great deal of tension embedded within their relationships.  Each of Bowen’s creations is unusual in some way; Maud, for instance, has an imaginary friend of sorts named Gay David, who is banned from entering the dining room, and Lilia has ‘a neurosis about anyone standing outside a door.’  Whilst not overly plot heavy, there is a lot to consider within A World of Love, and it is a novella which I am sure to be thinking about for a long time to come.

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Novella November: ‘The Story of Stanley Brent’ by Elizabeth Berridge **** (One From the Archive)

First published in August 2020.

Elizabeth Berridge has undoubtedly been my author discovery of the year, and it is wonderful to see that she is having something of a resurgence across the book blogging world.  I was most excited when I was offered the chance to read her first ever published work, a novella entitled The Story of Stanley Brent, which has been reissued by Zephyr Books, an imprint of Michael Walmer.  I read it directly after another of her novels, Sing Me Who You Are, which I very much enjoyed.

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First published in 1945, The Story of Stanley Brent sounds, on the face of it, rather enchanting.  Its blurb begins: ‘Ada Boucher and Stanley Brent are young things at the time of boaters, parasols, champagne and trippers on the Thames.’  The novella captures a surprising amount, as it charts both their relationship and subsequent marriage, as well as their careers, and runs to the end of Stanley’s life.  In compressing the story of an entire life into a very small space, without rushing or omitting huge chunks, Berridge achieves something wonderful; as Walmer himself comments on the book’s blurb, she ‘navigates a path which speaks volumes.’

At the outset of the story, Ada is working as an apprentice, and Stanley as a land-broker’s assistant.  Although their relationship at first seems relatively happy, Berridge gives hints that something is not quite right.    Ada and Stanley’s courtship, and then their marriage, is ‘flushed through with naïve romance – he is bowled over by her raven-haired beauty, she by his humour and goodness.’  On their honeymoon, Ada discovers that ‘their greatest challenges may be compromise and really getting to know each other.’

I was fully invested in The Story of Stanley Brent from the start.  I found its opening sentence – ‘Stanley Brent formally proposed to Ada in nineteen-hundred and seven, on the landing of her aunt’s house at Paddington’ –  both informative and quite charming, and the same can certainly be said for the rest of Berridge’s wonderfully astute prose.

One of the elements which Berridge excels at is in capturing the relationships between people in all of their glory, as well as in the face of mounting despair.  There is such attention to detail which can be found throughout the novella.  During a storm, for instance, in which Ada and her friends form a party of six, Berridge comments, in rather lovely sing-song alliteration: ‘The men joined them on the bank, bearing the wet wicker picnic hampers on slippery straps.’

Berridge reveals her protagonists bit by bit.  Just before Stanley proposes, for instance, we are given a glimpse into the couple’s physical bearing: ‘Stanley seized her shoulders.  She was the same height but pliable, well-boned.’  Berridge taps wonderfully into the emotions and devotions of Stanley and Ada, and is shrewd and unflinching as she does so.

The Story of Stanley Brent is not entirely serious.  There are moments of humour peppered throughout.  In the same aforementioned storm scene, Ada considers whether she and her friends could run through the rain to her aunt’s nearby house; she thinks: ‘And surely Stan wouldn’t think Aunt Mildred’s skin disease ran in the family?…  Worry, she had said.  Worry and thin blood had been the cause.’  Later, Ada concludes: ‘She didn’t want her family to sound queer.  Even though Aunt Mildred was a distant sort of relation.’

As well as humorous, Berridge can also be rather a sharp narrator at times.  She does not shy away from anything, and the subjects which she focuses upon seem rather modern, given that this novella was published in the mid-1940s.  In her frank prose, she writes: ‘But when they returned from the honeymoon Ada was still a virgin.  There had been a frightening, confused scene in the gilt and crimson hotel bedroom overlooking the sea, which had finished with Ada weeping fitfully, alone in the big double bed – aware for the first time that terrible, upsetting things lay perilously near the surface of life.’  She also focuses upon Stanley’s interpretation of this experience, commenting: ‘This was an hour that would not tally with his accustomed thoughts – not only was Ada a stranger to him, he was a stranger to himself.  He was conscious of life and death flowing in and around him, desolating and building his spirit, testing and judging.  He had never felt so helpless.’

As with Berridge’s other work, atmosphere is so important within The Story of Stanley Brent.  Ada’s home life, for instance, held an ‘uneasy atmosphere that lay, persistent and indefinable, within the tall narrow house.  [Stanley] would often think about it as he walked up the long road that seemed to bear such extremes of weather in its length.’

The Story of Stanley Brent is certainly a slim story, running to just 75 pages in this edition.  However, it has a great deal to say, both about the individual and the family unit.  Berridge makes comments upon society throughout, and the whole is well grounded within its historical context.  For such a short piece, Berridge provides a wonderful commentary on how a relationship can develop over time.  There is a lot of depth here, and the character development is both believable and insightful.  The nuanced prose has been split into short sections, a structure which works well given the length of the piece.  Even in this, her first story, Berridge is a confident writer, and her writing style really suits this shorter form.

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One From the Archive – The Book Trail: From Circus to Island

First published in 2016.

I am finding the choices on The Book Depository website a little arbitrary when it comes to creating these Book Trail posts, so I have switched allegiance to Goodreads.  The choices it affords are generally far more unusual, and it’s quite refreshing not to have to wade through the most popular general fiction to find something a little different.  Without explaining my choices too much, let me present our newest Book Trail, which begins with one of my favourite books.

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1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

 
‘The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.  Within these nocturnal black-and-white striped tents awaits an utterly unique, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air. Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves. Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way–a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a “game” to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop. The game is well under way and the lives of all those involved–the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them–are swept up in a wake of spells and charms.’

This leads us to another of my absolute favourites…

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2. The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen


‘On a small snow-covered island—so tiny that it can’t be found on any map—lives twelve-year-old Minou, her philosopher Papa (a descendent of Descartes), Boxman the magician, and a clever dog called No-Name. A year earlier Minou’s mother left the house wearing her best shoes and carrying a large black umbrella. She never returned.  One morning Minou finds a dead boy washed up on the beach. Her father decides to lay him in the room that once belonged to her mother. Can her mother’s disappearance be explained by the boy? Will Boxman be able to help find her? Minou, unwilling to accept her mother’s death, attempts to find the truth through Descartes’ philosophy. Over the course of her investigation Minou will discover the truth about loss and love, a truth that The Vanishing Act conveys in a voice that is uniquely enchanting.’

We then move from one intriguing title to another…

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3. Campari for Breakfast by Sara Crowe 


‘In 1987, Sue Bowl’s world changes for ever. Her mother dies, leaving her feeling like she’s lost a vital part of herself. And then her father shacks up with an awful golddigger called Ivana.  But Sue’s mother always told her to make the most of what she’s got – and what she’s got is a love of writing and some interesting relatives. So Sue moves to her Aunt Coral’s crumbling ancestral home, Green Place, along with a growing bunch of oddballs and eccentrics. Not to mention the odd badger or two . . .  There she fully intends to write a book, fall in love, and learn to live decadently.  Campari for Breakfastis a heart-warming, eccentric novel that joins the ranks of great British coming-of-age novels such as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love.’

Book four takes us from Campari to Cornwall…

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4. A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale


‘When 20-year-old Lenny Barnes, paralysed in a rugby accident, commits suicide in the presence of Barnaby Johnson, the much-loved priest of a West Cornwall parish, the tragedy’s reverberations open up the fault-lines between Barnaby and his nearest and dearest – the gulfs of unspoken sadness that separate them all. Across this web of relations scuttles Barnaby’s repellent nemesis – a man as wicked as his prey is virtuous. Returning us to the rugged Cornish landscape of Notes from an Exhibition, Patrick Gale lays bare the lives and the thoughts of a whole community and asks us: what does it mean to be good?’

Book five pulls together peril in both the past and present…

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5. The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale 


‘On its way to the Galapagos Islands, a light aircraft ditches into the sea. As the water floods through the cabin, zoologist Daniel Kennedy faces an impossible choice – should he save himself, or Nancy, the woman he loves?  In a parallel narrative, it is 1917 and Daniel’s great grandfather Andrew is preparing to go over the top at Passchendaele. He, too, will have his courage tested, and must live with the moral consequences of his actions.  Back in London, the atheistic Daniel is wrestling with something his ‘cold philosophy’ cannot explain – something unearthly he thought he saw while swimming for help in the Pacific. But before he can make sense of it, the past must collapse into the present, and both he and Andrew must prove themselves capable of altruism, and deserving of forgiveness.  The Blasphemer is a story about conditional love, cowardice and the possibility of redemption – and what happens to a man of science when forced to question his certainties. It is a novel of rare depth, empathy and ambition that sweeps from the trenches of the First World War to the terrorist-besieged streets of London today: a novel that will speak to the head as well as the heart of any reader.’

Book six is one which I’ve had my eye on for quite a while…

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6. The Wilding by Maria McCann


‘Jonathan Dymond, a 26-year old cider-maker in post-Civil War England, has enjoyed a quiet, harmonious existence until a letter arrives from his uncle with a request to speak with his father. When his father returns from the visit the next day, all he can say is that Jonathan’s uncle has died. Then Jonathan finds a fragment of the letter, with talk of inheritance and vengeance…’

The penultimate choice on this Book Trail is one of the most perfect novels I’ve ever read…

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7. The Still Point by Amy Sackville 


‘At the turn of the twentieth century, Arctic explorer Edward Mackley sets out to reach the North Pole and vanishes into the icy landscape without a trace. He leaves behind a young wife, Emily, who awaits his return for decades, her dreams and devotion gradually freezing into rigid widowhood. A hundred years later, on a sweltering mid-summer’s day, Edward’s great-grand-niece Julia moves through the old family house, attempting to impose some order on the clutter of inherited belongings and memories from that ill-fated expedition, and taking care to ignore the deepening cracks within her own marriage. But as afternoon turns into evening, Julia makes a discovery that splinters her long-held image of Edward and Emily’s romance, and her husband Simon faces a precipitous choice that will decide the future of their relationship. Sharply observed and deeply engaging, The Still Point is a powerful literary debut, and a moving meditation on the distances – geographical and emotional – that can exist between two people.’

Our finishing point is another set in an isolated community…

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8. Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg


‘A portrait of a marriage, a meditation on faith, and a journey of conquest and self-discovery, Island of Wings is a passionate and atmospheric novel reminiscent of Wuthering Heights.  July, 1830. On the ten-hour sail west from the Hebrides to the islands of St. Kilda, everything lies ahead for Lizzie and Neil McKenzie. Neil is to become the minister to the small community of islanders, and Lizzie, his new wife, is pregnant with their first child. Neil’s journey is evangelical: a testing and strengthening of his own faith against the old pagan ways of the St. Kildans, but it is also a passage to atonement. For Lizzie — bright, beautiful, and devoted — this is an adventure, a voyage into the unknown. She is sure only of her loyalty and love for her husband, but everything that happens from now on will challenge all her certainties.  As the two adjust to life on an exposed archipelago on the edge of civilization, where the natives live in squalor and subsist on a diet of seabirds, and babies perish mysteriously in their first week, their marriage — and their sanity — is threatened. Is Lizzie a willful temptress drawing him away from his faith? Is Neil’s zealous Christianity unhinging into madness? And who, or what, is haunting the moors and cliff-tops?  Exquisitely written and profoundly moving, Island of Wings is more than just an account of a marriage in peril — it is also a richly imagined novel about two people struggling to keep their love, and their family, alive in a place of terrible hardship and tumultuous beauty.’

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

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One From the Archive: ‘Flesh of the Peach’ by Helen McClory ***

First published in August 2017.

Scottish author Helen McClory won both the Saltire Award and the Scottish First Book of the Year Award for her initial publication, a short story collection entitled On the Edges of Vision.  Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, is described in its blurb as a ‘stunning, intense and deeply moving investigation into the effects of toxic grief’.  Kirsty Logan, whom I believe to be one of the most exciting voices in contemporary fiction, deems it ‘bold and unflinching’, comparing it to ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing meets Inside Llewyn Davis: A brutal, clear-eyed study of a failing artist that shatters our expectations of what a woman should be.’

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Flesh of the Peach follows a twenty seven-year-old artist named Sarah Browne.  In New York, the tumultuous end of her relationship with a married woman coincides with the death of her ‘estranged, aristocratic’ mother.  She is left with rather a lot of money, and swathes of grief, which she feels quite unable to deal with.  The book essentially depicts Sarah’s existential crisis, as she takes off across the United States on a Greyhound bus, from her home in New York to a cabin of her mother’s in secluded New Mexico.

When she sets off, the following reasoning with herself occurs:

‘Are we doing this then, she asked herself.

The question was vague because she herself was vague.  It becomes a lyric in a city like this one.  Sarah’s lover Kennedy had just severed ties.  Kennedy had been everything for a while there.

… Her mother was dead back home in England, that was the other thing.  Finally, after a slow dance with cancer.  And long after their relationship had died.’

She goes on to think about the family pile back in Cornwall, where she grew up, and clearly never felt as though she belonged: ‘But you remain on the threshold, the door never opens, never shuts behind.  You are outside and you can go no further.  And this outsideness, the jags of memory, fit into your skill to be lodged there, for however long.’  Sarah strives to move as far away from her old life as she can, searching for the ‘best possible version’ of herself, and trying her utmost to be at peace with both her body and her place in the world.

Some of the prose within Flesh of the Peach is immeasurably beautiful, but an odd balance has been struck with its many choppy, sometimes unfinished sentences.  The often very short chapters serve to exacerbate this; they oscillate between present and past, and thus Sarah’s story does tend to feel a little jumbled at times.  These sections are interspersed with short intervals detailing what she plans to do with her money; the suggestions thrown up are sometimes sensible, and sometimes utterly wild and strange.  The really interesting thing about the construction of Flesh of the Peach, however, is the way in which it is told using a mixture of traditional and experimental narrative.  This playing around with form is certainly one of McClory’s strengths here.

The depiction of Sarah’s unravelling, and her struggles to stay afloat is believable for the most part, but I felt rather removed from our protagonist whilst reading about her.  The third person omniscient voice is effective in terms of relaying the roadtrip which she takes, and the memories which flood into her mind at intervals, but despite the crisis of knowing herself which takes place, I did not feel as though she was as fully fleshed out as she perhaps could have been.  There was an insurmountable barrier between Sarah and I; yes, I could watch her and her actions, and could understand the situation in which she found herself, but it still did not make some of the actions which she took that plausible, or in character.

Flesh of the Peach is a story which both champions and degrades love, and all of its many forms.  Whilst the characters are largely interesting, we do not learn enough about the majority of them, and despite the third person narration, we see them only through Sarah’s eyes; we are thus given rather a skewed interpretation of other people.  With regard to Sarah, we as readers are always aware of her; her life, her behaviour, her thoughts, and her feelings are continually woven together.  Despite its strengths, Flesh of the Peach did not quite live up to its premise.  Regardless, I look forward to reading more of McClory’s work in future, as I have a feeling that she is definitely an author to watch.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa (One From the Archive)

Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor was a book club pick for February.  Ogawa is an author whom I have only sampled through her interconnected short story collection, Revenge, which is vivid even two and a half years later.  I plumped for The Housekeeper and the Professor as my book club choice because it sounded utterly charming, and looked like it would present a wonderful – and slightly unusual – slice of Japanese life.  First published in Japan in 2003, and translated into English by Stephen Snyder, the novel both met and exceeded my expectations.

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The Professor of the novel, a former maths teacher whose name we never learn, only has eighty minutes of short-term memory function, following a traumatic head injury seventeen years before the narrative begins.  His memory effectively stops in 1975.  Each morning, his housekeeper has to meet him anew: ‘… as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them.  The Professor may not remember what he had for breakfast, but his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past’.  It is she who narrates the story.  The third character in the novel is the Housekeeper’s ten-year-old son.  He is at first rather reluctant to spend so much time with the elderly Professor, but the two soon form an unshakeable bond.

The novel’s opening sentence really sets the tone for the whole: ‘We called him the Professor.  And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign’.  Ogawa’s writing is lovely, and she sets scenes simply yet beautifully: ‘It was a rainy evening in early April.  My son’s schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug.  The light in the Professor’s study was dim.  Outside the window, the blossoms on the apricot tree were heavy with rain’.

Maths is the force which serves to really unite the trio; as the Housekeeper describes to us, ‘… I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do.  Numbers were his way of reaching out to the world.  They were safe, a source of comfort’.  There are many mathematical problems, diagrams, and equations which have been included, but they seem a natural addition to the whole.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is rather a peaceful novel about understanding, trust, and family; protection, selflessness, and kindness.  Ogawa’s prose is unfailingly lovely, and the whole has been sensitively wrought.  The Housekeeper and the Professor is an understanding and deep tome, which transports the reader entirely.  All in all, it is a satisfying novel, which restores one’s faith in humankind, particularly within these turbulent times in which we live.