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The Book Trail: A Persephone Special

We begin this edition of The Book Trail with one of my favourite reads of late, Elizabeth Jenkins’ depiction of a real Victorian murder case, Harriet.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ feature on Goodreads to compile this list.  Harriet is a Persephone publication; each of the recommended reads on its page, as well as pages for following books, is also published by the same wonderful press.

1. Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins 13607031
This story traces the life of Harriet Richardson, a mentally-disabled young woman who was allowed to die of starvation by her husband.

 

2. Tea With Mr. Rochester by Frances Towers
When these captivating and at times bizarre stories were published posthumously in 1949, Angus Wilson wrote: ‘It appears no exaggeration to say that Frances Towers’s death in 1948 may have robbed us of a figure of more than purely contemporary significance. At first glance one might be disposed to dismiss Miss Towers as an imitation Jane Austen, but it would be a mistaken judgment, for her cool detachment and ironic eye are directed more often than not against the sensible breeze that blasts and withers, the forthright candour that kills the soul. Miss Towers flashes and shines now this way, now that, like a darting sunfish.’ ‘At her best her prose style is a shimmering marvel,’ wrote the Independent on Sunday, ‘and few writers can so deftly and economically delineate not only the outside but the inside of a character…There’s always more going on than you can possibly fathom.’ And the Guardian said: ‘Her social range may not be wide, but her descriptions are exquisite and her tone poised between the wry and the romantic.’

 

14458613. Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories by Mollie Panter-Downes
‘For fifty years Mollie Panter-Downes’ name was associated with “The New Yorker”, for which she wrote a regular ‘Letter from London’, book reviews and over thirty short stories; of the twenty-one in “Good Evening, Mrs Craven”, written between 1939 and 1944, only two had ever been reprinted – these very English stories have, until now, been unavailable to English readers.  Exploring most aspects of English domestic life during the war, they are about separation, sewing parties, fear, evacuees sent to the country, obsession with food, the social revolutions of wartime.’

 

4. The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
The setting for this, the third novel by Dorothy Whipple Persephone have published, is Saunby Priory, a large house somewhere in England which has seen better times. We are shown the two Marwood girls, who are nearly grown-up, their father, the widower Major Marwood, and their aunt; then, as soon as their lives have been described, the Major proposes marriage to a woman much younger than himself – and many changes begin.

 

5. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher 2703159
Although this novel first appeared in 1924, it deals in an amazingly contemporary manner with the problems of a family in which both husband and wife are oppressed and frustrated by the roles they are expected to play. Evangeline Knapp is the perfect, compulsive housekeeper, while her husband, Lester, is a poet and a dreamer. Suddenly, through a nearly fatal accident, their roles are reversed: Lester is confined to home in a wheelchair and his wife must work to support the family. The changes that take place between husband and wife and particularly between parents and children are both fascinating and poignant.

 

6. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
Tells the tale of a woman who goes on a cruise and is swept overboard. She lives for three years on a desert island before being rescued by a destroyer in 1943. When she returns to England it seems to her to have gone mad: she cannot buy clothes without ‘coupons’, and she is considered uncivilised if she walks barefoot or is late for meals.

 

7. Doreen by Barbara Noble
Describes the mind of a child torn between her mother, whom she leaves behind in London, and the couple who take her in.

 

8. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski 163544
Hilary Wainwright, poet and intellectual, returns after the war to a blasted and impoverished France in order to trace a child lost five years before. Is the child really his? And does he want him?

 

Which of these books have you read?  Have any of them piqued your interest?  Which is your favourite Persephone publication?

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Underrated Novelists Week: Penelope Mortimer

Penelope Mortimer is my third choice for this week’s Underrated Novelists Week.  I have only read one of her books to date, The Pumpkin Eater, as most are proving quite difficult to get hold of, but I recently reread the aforementioned tome, and found even more to enjoy and startle me.

Penelope Mortimer (nee Fletcher; 1918-1999)
Born in: Flintshire, Wales
Died in: Kensington, London
Education: University College London

Biography: penelopemortimer_thumbnail
Penelope Mortimer had a rather unsettled childhood, moving between many different schools, and suffering sexually abuse by her clergyman father.  She attended University College London, but left after just one year.  She married twice and had extramarital affairs, giving birth to six children in all, by four different men.  She suffered frequent bouts of depression, and in 1962, the year in which The Pumpkin Eater was written, agreed to an abortion and sterilisation at her then husband’s urging, something which is reflected within this highly-autobiographical novel.  Career-wise, she worked as a journalist, with work appearing frequently in The New Yorker, and an agony aunt column in The Daily Mail.  She died from cancer at the age of eighty-one.

Bibliography:
Johanna (1947; as Penelope Dimont)
A Villa in Summer (1954)
The Bright Prison (1956)
Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (1958; reprinted by Persephone Books)
The Pumpkin Eater (1962)
My Friend Says It’s Bulletproof (1968)
The Home (1971)
Long Distance (1974)
Saturday Lunch With the Brownings (1977; short stories)
About Time (1979; autobiography)
The Handyman (1983)
– About Time Too
(1993; autobiography)

26021671Book to begin with: The Pumpkin Eater
“The Pumpkin Eater “is a surreal black comedy about the wages of adulthood and the pitfalls of parenthood. A nameless woman speaks, at first from the precarious perch of a therapist’s couch, and her smart, wry, confiding, immensely sympathetic voice immediately captures and holds our attention. She is the mother of a vast, swelling brood of children, also nameless, and the wife of a successful screenwriter, Jake Armitage. The Armitages live in the city, but they are building a great glass tower in the country in which to settle down and live happily ever after. But could that dream be nothing more than a sentimental delusion? At the edges of vision the spectral children come and go, while our heroine, alert to the countless gradations of depression and the innumerable forms of betrayal, tries to make sense of it all: doctors, husbands, movie stars, bodies, grocery lists, nursery rhymes, messes, aging parents, memories, dreams, and breakdowns. How to pull it all together? Perhaps you start by falling apart.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Squire’ by Enid Bagnold ****

Enid Bagnold’s The Squire, first published in 1938, is one of Persephone’s two new additions for Autumn 2013. The novel’s preface has been written by Anne Sebba, and is both informative and well constructed.  The Squire was written over a period of ‘some fifteen years’, and was informed by the births of Bagnold’s four children between 1921 and 1930.  As Sebba states, ‘she [Bagnold] realised that she wanted to write not only about birth but also to explore in detail the intimate and growing relationship between the mother and her family.  This, she believed, had never before been attempted in a novel’.  She goes on to say, ‘most importantly, she wished to describe her own attitudes towards middle age with respect to sex and the family’.

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The squire of the book’s title is the middle aged mother of a family, whose position within it whilst her husband is away on his yearly jaunt to Bombay is as an omnipotent matriarch.  She is ‘both the dispenser of punishment, and the provider of fun’, which draws parallels with Bagnold’s own life.  The squire, Sebba states, has been ‘cast in the same mould’ as her creator.

Bagnold sets the scene marvellously from the first.  The opening line paints an incredibly vivid picture: ‘From the village green where the Manor House stood, well-kept, white-painted, the sea was hidden by the turn of the street.  The house’s front, pierced with windows, blinked as the sun sank…  Sunset and moonrise were going on together.’  The house itself is like a character, and Bagnold treats it with the utmost respect throughout.  She sets the scene further when she writes the following: ‘The house, now masterless for a month, was nearly, too, without a mistress, for she, its temporary squire, was heavy with child, absent in mind’.

In her confinement, the squire spends much time with the four children she already has – Jay, Lucy, Boniface and Henry.  The house is staffed and the children have their own nurse, who ‘felt pride in her heavy squire, her argumentative, provoking squire’.  Bagnold marvellously demonstrates the hierarchy of the house, even showing the disparities between the wealth of servants who are sent about the house on the merest whim.  The characters are described realistically and rather originally.  The squire, for example, ‘who had once been thirsty and gay, square-shouldered, fair and military, strutting about life for spoil, was thickened now, vigorous, leonine, occupied with her house, her nursery, her servants, her knot of human lives, antagonistic or loving’.  Caroline, the squire’s neighbour and friend, is ‘lovely and restless, victim and adventurer’.

Throughout, Bagnold’s writing is beautiful and full of power.  It is even haunting sometimes – for example, within the description she gives of the unborn baby: ‘its arms all but clasped about its neck, its face aslant…  secret eyes, a diver passed in albumen, ancient and epic…  as old as a pharoah in its tomb’.  The novel is a quiet one in terms of the events it describes, and the little action within it is very focused upon the confines of the house.  The strength of it lies in Bagnold’s writing and characters, as well as the way in which she portrays relationships so well, particularly between the young siblings.  She is an incredibly perceptive author, and this is a marvellous book with which to begin reading her oeuvre.  Its complexities are great, and Bagnold is a master in things left unsaid.  Some of the scenes which she captures, particularly those which involve the new baby, are incredibly vivid.  It goes without saying too that the Persephone edition has been beautifully produced, endpapers and all.

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‘Every Eye’ by Isobel English *****

Every Eye is a beautiful Persephone novella, complete with, as ever, stunning endpapers.  It was the publishing house’s fifteenth publication, and is one of my favourites to date.  The copy does not contain a blurb – as many Persephones do not – but, perhaps unusually, there is no extract from the work itself either, as is often the Persephone way.  Rather, we are given an insight into the novella through an extended John Betjeman quote.  In the Daily Telegraph in 1956, Every Eye‘s publication year, he wrote: ‘Sometimes, but not often, a novel comes along which makes the rest one has to review seem commonplace.  Such a novel is Every Eye.  It is remarkable for the skill of its construction, and for the style of its writing…  [English] is on the mark whether she is observing scenery or character.’  I hasten to agree. 9781903155066

Isobel English is a pseudonym for June Braybrooke, a friend of the likes of Muriel Spark, Olivia Manning, and Stevie Smith.  For simplicity’s sake, I shall refer to the author as English throughout my review.  The novella’s preface was written by her husband, Neville Braybrooke; he includes many fascinating biographical details, and writes also about the rather charming publication preparation of Every Eye: ‘… after it was returned [from being typed], she wrapped it in a silk scarf, as was her custom, and delivered it by hand to her publishers…’.  English published only three novels in her lifetime, between the years 1954 and 1960.  In 1974, she won the Katherine Mansfield Prize for her collection of short stories entitled Life After All.

Every Eye runs to just 119 pages, but its length is perfect; English’s writing certainly works well in the more compact literary frame.  The novella charts the life of a newly married woman named Hatty, and begins with the death of her aunt, Cynthia: ‘It is strange that this news should arrive today, the eve of our departure.  Tomorrow morning Stephen and I are to set off for Ibiza, the most savage of the Balearic Islands.  We have been married a year and this is a long-promised holiday.  Now it seems something over and above, an involuntary almost predestined mark of respect to a dead person, for it was Cynthia who first told me of this place which must have been when I first met her  about the time of my fourteenth birthday’.  Indeed, Cynthia, who was married to Hatty’s ‘big brown bear’-like Uncle Otway, lived there for much of her life.

Hatty is often frank, and I was immediately endeared to her; she strikes one as rather an original character construct, by all accounts.  When asked for Cynthia what she likes to read after a fraught exchange has taken place, for instance, we are given the following information: ‘Still cautious but placated almost completely, I answered, a little gruffly I remember: “I like good books,” and then to illustrate the extent of my knowledge: “I like Rider Haggard very much, but I can’t stand Jane Austen”.’

Every Eye is not at all a run-of-the-mill portrait of a young newlywed.  The details which English gives too, particularly with regard to Hatty and Stephen’s relationship, and their wider circle, intrigue: ‘6.30am and Victoria.  Stephen’s mother, Amy, is already on the platform waiting to see us off; she has brought with her the young girl that she hoped Stephen would marry before he met me.’

The structure which English has used here, of a continuous narrative with no chapter breaks to speak of, works well; it allows her to present us with a coherent barrage of thoughts and memories, which run simultaneously alongside her present day life and travels.  English’s descriptions are incredibly perceptive; she picks up on all kinds of minute details.  Of the train journey which Hatty and Stephen take through France, for instance, she writes: ‘To begin with we are a carriageful of nondescript putty-coloured figures.  But with the thinning out from station to station, there develops before our accustomed eyes brilliant coloured designs on women’s dresses, cyclamen gashes on mouths and headscarves; the cerulean of the sky greased and shining on the eyelids of the girl in front of me’.

Hatty has such realistic touches to her, and she has been thoughtfully and intelligently constructed.  English’s writing is strong and distinctive throughout, and the novella is often quite darkly funny: ‘So it is Wednesday, and the first for Cynthia below the ground – the cold raw earth lined with evergreens.  “Six feet of semi-detached will do me nicely, dear,” I had heard her say often enough when she was looking for another smaller flat when their lease expired.  At last this has been realised as a permanency’.  Every Eye is a beguiling and sometimes unsettling book, with a vivid sense of place.  From the first it is incredibly absorbing, and is a fantastic choice if you are looking for something which you can read without too much trouble in a single sitting.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Two Mrs Abbotts’ by D.E. Stevenson ****

D.E. Stevenson’s The Two Mrs Abbotts was first published in 1943, and has recently been reissued by Persephone Books.  Stevenson was an incredibly prolific author, and had over forty novels published during her writing career.  The Two Mrs Abbotts is the third instalment in the books which feature Miss Buncle, both of which have also been published by Persephone.  There has been no introduction included here; instead, readers are ‘referred’ to the first two volumes.

The Two Mrs Abbotts opens in Archway House in the village of Wandlebury in an unnamed county, where nursery nurse Dorcas – lovingly called ‘Dorkie’ by her young charges – is looking after Mrs Barbara Abbott’s children, Simon and Fay: ‘She was thinking how odd it was that children grew up so quickly and grown-up people remained much the same’.  The Abbotts’ home has been partially turned into a school for wartime children, or ‘Vack-wees’, as Fay rather adorably calls them.  Throughout, both children have been written about in such a way that their characters are built up in a believable manner.  Simon, for example, professes that he is ‘Four years older than the war…  I can even remember bananas – and cream’.  Later on, he is found ‘hopping and skipping and talking hard as he always did except when he felt unwell’.

One of the first events in the book is the arrival of Sarah Walker, a lecturer travelling around the country on behalf of the Red Cross.  Sarah is an old friend of Barbara’s, and they have not seen one another since the latter left the village under a cloud of sorts: ‘She had vanished in the night…  She had been obliged to go, of course, because she had written two very amusing books all about her neighbours and their little peculiarities, and her neighbours had not appreciated their portraits – quite the reverse’.  With these foundations, Barbara has gone on to marry her publisher, Arthur Abbott.

The family in their entirety is trying to cope as best they can in wartime.  Arthur’s nephew is away fighting, and his house has been taken over by a whole battalion of soldiers ‘like a crop of dragon’s teeth’.  His young wife Jerry – the other Mrs Abbott of the book’s title – has been left behind and tries to keep herself as busy as she possibly can, spending much of her time visiting Barbara and the children, and finding tenants for the small cottage which sits beside her house.  The lives of all are filled with daily duties, such as hosting tea parties for acquaintances in the village, having evacuee families to stay, and finding innovative ways of making recipes, due to the majority of the correct ingredients having been made unobtainable due to Second World War rationing.

D.E. Stevenson in the 1930s (from destevenson.org)

Stevenson’s writing is rather amusing throughout.  A young man from the village who has joined the RAF and is currently at home on sick leave, is said to have ‘cultivated a small moustache which reminded one just a little of Hitler’.  His lady friend Pearl Besserton, a woman whom nobody really likes, ‘looked as if she had stepped straight off the stage of a third-rate music hall without having taken the trouble to remove the greasepaint’.  The novel is also, as one would expect, so very British.  There is a chapter where Barbara goes to the village’s annual bazaar, to which she ‘had set out with the benevolent intention of buying something at every stall’.  She then feels obliged to purchase a very ugly pair of vases which have been saved for her by a woman who is running one of the stalls, and muses over what she can possibly do with them.  Many of the scenes which Stevenson has woven in are almost farcical, and there is one faux pas after another at many points in the novel.

The characters which Stevenson has created are all interesting and unpredictable, and there is not a dull person amongst them.  Everyone is likeable, or at least admirable, in their different actions and mannerisms.  It is rather refreshing to read a novel which veers off in unexpected directions as The Two Mrs Abbotts does, and the twists within its plot work marvellously.  The arc of events throughout is well paced, as is the introduction of characters.  Stevenson writes about social aspects rather wonderfully, from the importance of and reliance which one can have upon the wider community, to the problems which evacuees encounter when living away from home.

It is not necessary to have read the first two books which focus upon Barbara’s life, and no information which is important to the story within The Two Mrs Abbotts has been omitted.  The entirety of the book is quaint, amusing and rather lovely.  It is a light, easy read which is certain to appeal to anyone who enjoys fiction written or set within the first half of the twentieth century, and is certainly a great addition to the Persephone list.

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One From the Archive: ‘Into the Whirlwind’ by Eugenia Ginzburg ****

‘Journey Into the Whirlwind’ by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg

First published in April 2014.

Eugenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind is a ‘highly detailed first-hand account of one woman’s life and imprisonment in the Soviet Union during the rule of Stalin in the 1930s’.  It is the first of her two volumes of memoirs, which was smuggled out of Russia, and was ‘later sold in many different languages’.  It was not published in Ginzburg’s native Russia until 1990, and is about to be reprinted by Persephone, with a translation by Paul Stevenson and Manya Hararit.

Ginzburg was a history teacher, and belonged to the Communist Party. However, she was expelled from its membership in 1937, and was sent to a gulag in the far east of Russia, where she consequently lived as a prisoner for eighteen years.  In writing her memoirs, she felt that ‘it was her duty to bear witness and trained her extraordinary memory to record everything…  What comes across in reading Into the Whirlwind is not merely the senseless brutality and waste of the regime, but the overwhelming strength of the human spirit’.

Into the Whirlwind has been split into two parts and fifty seven chapters in all.  Ginzburg has opened her account with the murder of early Bolshevik leader Kirov.  She is summoned, along with around forty other workers, to go to factories around Russia and inform them of what has happened.  She is told that ‘the murderer was a communist’, which filled her with a ‘presentiment of terrible misfortune’.  It provides a foreshadowing of awful events to come for Ginzburg.  When a man whom she worked with, Elvov, is arrested by the party, a whirlwind of events begins to spiral for her: ‘I had not denounced Elvov as a purveyor of Trotskyist contraband…  I had not, even once, attacked him at a public meeting’.  She says: ‘1935 was a frightful year for me.  My nerves were at breaking point, and I was obsessed with thoughts of suicide’.  As their investigations into her progressed, Ginzburg writes: ‘The snowball was rolling downhill, growing disastrously and threatening to smother me’.

Throughout, Ginzburg presents herself as such a strong woman, writing that ‘in those days no power on earth could have made me join in the orgy of ‘confessions’ and ‘penitence’ which was just beginning’.  She writes, quite matter-of-factly, that ‘human beings can get used to anything, even the most frightful evils’.  From the very first page, her account is fascinating.  It is astonishing to think that this entire book was memorised, which is such an incredible feat.  Into the Whirlwind is such a brave book to have written, and reliving some of the things within it must have been nothing short of horrific – leaving her family for the last time, for example, after being arrested under the guise of the party wanting to question her about Elvov.  The entirety has such an honest feel to it, and it is certainly another fitting addition to the Persephone list.

Quite an extensive section of notes which explain who some of those affiliated with the party were, as well as political terms and party details, has been included, along with an informative afterword written by Sir Rodric Braithwaite.  Into the Whirlwind is such an important book, and one which should be read by everyone.

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‘Heat Lightning’ by Helen Hull **

Helen Hull’s sixth novel, Heat Lightning, was first published in 1932, and was (relatively) recently reissued by Persephone. According to the publishing house’s magazine, The Persephone Biannually, the idea for Heat Lightning came to the author when she read the following sentence in a magazine article: ‘Here in America we stem from many races, we have no homogenous roots, no common traditions’. The preface to the volume has been provided by Patricia McClelland Miller, who states that Heat Lightning is ‘at its core, a novel of ideas’. Miller’s informative writing shows the psychology of the characters, particularly of the novel’s protagonist, Amy. She states the way in which Amy is presented with ‘a dilemma common to many of Helen Hull’s characters: how can women flourish when they are expected to make most of the adjustments in situations which really require the efforts of both men and women?’

9781903155912The novel, set in 1930, begins with Amy Westover, a thirty five-year-old woman, who is returning to her Michigan hometown with ‘a small pyramid of luggage at her feet’. She spent her childhood in a fictional town named Flemington, which she has fled to once more to escape her unhappy marriage in New York. ‘They would all wonder why she had come,’ Hull writes, ‘where her husband Geoffrey was, – and the joke was that she didn’t know the answer’. Despite returning under the guise of resting after a tonsil operation, she admits to her grandmother in an early conversation, ‘Yes, I ran away, alone’. Amy is ‘too thin, too tense, head with dark fluff of hair strained forward… and the dark eyes gave back an anxious stare’. Throughout, memories of her past is woven in, and these come to light when particular senses are affected by what she sees and feels around her – for example, the smell of ‘hot vinegar and spices’ remind her of making pickles on hot summer mornings.

A list of principal characters has been provided at the outset, ranging from our protagonist and her immediate family members to Charley Johnson, Amy’s grandmother’s former chauffeur. This list provides a useful reference point, as a lot of individuals are introduced in a kind of barrage in just a few pages. Whilst we learn rather a lot about Amy as the novel progresses, she still feels like a somewhat distant protagonist. We as readers are her overseers, and we are distinctly not part of her story. We watch her and her actions with mild interest, but there is a kind of barrier which Hull has erected which stops us from becoming too involved or too compassionate towards Amy. The other characters, too, are either not developed enough, or come across as superficial or cruel. Amy’s grandmother, for example, is incredibly judgemental of those around her, and is never scared of giving her often crude and bigoted opinions: ‘Curly doesn’t approve of immigration… No more do I. Too many foreigners. Too many right in our own family’.

The novel deals with Amy’s struggle of how to behave in two entirely different places – one as a responsible wife and mother to the oddly named Buff and Bobs, and the other as a child herself to her parents, who are ‘so familiar, so foreign’. Amy says, when speaking about her tonsils, ‘They leave you melancholy when they go’, which could equally be a comment upon her children leaving for camp, or even metaphorically, with their growing up. She does seem to relax slightly when in her Michigan life, and one touching sentence describes the way in which ‘She took their good-night kisses, still their child’.

Hull’s descriptions of place and weather are the definite strength of the novel. The summer is ‘tucked in at the horizon inescapably’, and the heat of the day was ‘wavering, full of unsteady motes’. Later on, the sun lays ‘metallic fingers at the roots of her [Amy’s] hair’. The writing style is very rich, but the conversations often feel a little stolid. Rather than providing a comment upon life in small-town America, Heat Lightning focuses upon family dynamics, and the family unit as a whole. It also presents a small insight into a relatively early twentieth century marriage, saying of Amy and Geoffrey, ”This past year their attitude toward each other had been a tight-rope on which she struggled, with painful, awkward contortions, to keep her balance. And Geoffrey – he had jiggled the tight-rope’.

Heat Lightning is an important addition to the Persephone list in that it does deal with some growing issues which women faced in the early 1930s – for example, Amy’s disillusionment with her new life and her relationship with her husband, and her cousin Harriet’s lesbianism: ‘My cousin Harriet is awfully modern, isn’t she?’ The novel itself is well written, but the meandering storyline is difficult to engross oneself into, and the characters, even those we know the most about, are difficult to feel compassion for. A sense of momentum is never really gained, and the novel feels a little flat in consequence. It is worth reading for the writing style alone, but the characters are neither strong nor realistic enough to warrant as much love for this particular Persephone title as they are in almost all of the other books the firm publishes.

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