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Three Historical Fiction Picks

Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres to read, but I have discovered that I don’t often get around to reviewing books which fall into this category. Here, I have brought together three mini reviews of novels which I have read and very much enjoyed, and which I would urge those who like to read historical fiction to pick up. They provide wonderful escapism, which I have found very comforting during these couple of strange years.

The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea

I have had a galley copy of Caroline Lea’s debut novel, The Glass Woman, on my Kindle for quite some time, but for some reason did not get around to reading it very quickly. Set in Iceland during the 1680s, the novel follows a young married woman, Rósa, and her husband, Jón. Rósa has moved far from her home to an isolated croft, where she is left alone much of the day, and is urged not to speak to the locals. Lea captures her loneliness with care and understanding, and uses the third person perspective to examine her protagonist. One of the real strengths of the novel is the unsettling feel which it has; this builds as the story progresses. The reader is aware that something is not quite right, and that something sinister might be lurking in the croft’s attic space, which Rósa is banned from exploring.

Wonderfully descriptive, The Glass Woman captures space and place very well. She writes about the unforgiving landscape in which Rósa finds herself, and the sadness which she feels at being pulled away from her sick mother. A few other reviews which I have read have commented that The Glass Woman is not particularly well situated, and that its action could quite easily be moved to another location – and even perhaps another time period entirely. I do not agree. Lea mentions specific Icelandic sagas throughout, and also sprinkles a few Icelandic words throughout the narrative, which contribute to embedding the story in one place and time. I feel that this has been rather well done, personally.

Jón’s first person perspective is introduced quite far into the novel, something which I was not expecting to happen. Whilst, as other reviewers have noted, I can see why Lea chose to do this, I would have preferred the novel to use the third person narrative voice throughout. Regardless, my interest in the story did not wane, and I was pulled into Rósa’s world; Lea describes this as ‘a blizzard-blurred huddle of white drifts and blank hillocks, made of nothing more than ice and air. Everything has reduced to an arm’s length away, as if life beyond the croft no longer exists.’ Some of the tropes used within The Glass Woman are arguably a little obvious, but overall, it is a very effective novel, which has been well plotted, and moves along nicely.

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

I have heard so much buzz around Georgia Hunter’s novel, We Were the Lucky Ones. It is set largely during the Second World War, and encompasses one family who are fractured by the Holocaust. The novel opens in 1939, in Poland, where several generations of the Kurc family are trying their hardest to continue with their normal lives. However, like so many millions of Jews all across Europe, they are forced to try and survive in a terrifying new world, in which they are marginalised and persecuted.

Hunter’s novel is sweeping; it moves across five continents, and spans a period of eight years. The novel is based upon true events; the author’s own family, she discovered in her teenage years, were Holocaust survivors. Whilst some names have been changed here, a lot of the details echo reality, and the novel is the result of incredibly extensive research. The author is clearly attuned to the world of which she writes, and the numerous events which affect every single family member. Her characters become almost helpless, as they begin to lose control over every aspect of their lives.

From the outset, I very much admired Hunter’s approach, wherein she follows different members of the family as they move away from their home. A lot of what they have to face – the sacrifices which they are forced to make, and the acts of bravery which they choose to – is difficult to read, but it is obviously also incredibly important to remember. Hunter has interspersed her family’s story with brief factual details explaining the political situation at each particular point in history. The present tense which she uses throughout infuses We Were the Lucky Ones with a real sense of urgency, and the different threads of story have been wonderfully tied together.

The Last Camellia by Sarah Jio

Sarah Jio is an author whom I have become really interested in reading of late. Every single one of her works of historical fiction appealed to me, and I ended up selecting The Last Camellia to begin with merely because my local library had a copy which I was able to reserve. I also love stories about botanists during the wars – rather niche, I know.

I very much enjoy novels with dual timelines, something which The Last Camellia uses to its advantage. Jio has crafted a clever familial saga which stretches across two timelines – the 1940s and the 2000s. The 1940s story, in which a young woman named Flora Lewis travels from New York to a small English village to take over as the nanny for the Livingston family – under false pretences – was my favourite, as I felt that the historical context had been really well thought out. There is also the trope of a mildly unsettling housekeeper, who is somehow still working at the house in 2000. In this more modern timeline, we meet Addison, whose husband’s family has just purchased the manor. She works as a landscaper, and this ties in nicely with the mystery of the rarest camellia in England, the Middlebury Pink, one of which is thought to be still living somewhere around the grounds of Livingston Manor.

I loved the element of mystery which has been woven in here, and it certainly kept me guessing throughout. The different threads of story were well handled, and whilst I felt that some of the denouements were a little far-fetched, I still very much enjoyed this absorbing reading experience, and the transporting stories within it. Jio’s prose is really quite nice; it did not make me swoon at all, as some historical fiction does, but it is undoubtedly vivid. I reserved another of Jio’s books from my local library before I had even finished The Last Camellia, and am hoping that she could fast become a new go-to historical fiction author for me.

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‘The Nine Hundred: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz’ by Heather Dune Macadam *****

I studied the Second World War and the Holocaust extensively whilst at school and University, and have been lucky enough to visit Holocaust museums and memorials all around the world, from Poland and Hungary to Australia. It is a subject which I keep coming back to, time and again, particularly as more scholarly books and works of memoir are published. As an historian, it is so important to me to learn as much as I can about different periods in history, and about the many causes and triggers which led to a particular situation.

In The Nine Hundred, Heather Dune Macadam has chosen to focus upon a particular instance and group of women whom I knew little about – those who were sent on the first official Jewish transport to the Auschwitz concentration camp. In Poprad, Slovakia, in March 1942, almost one thousand young and unmarried Jewish women, many of them teenagers, boarded a train. They were “asked” to ‘commit to three months of government work service’, and believed that they were going to be working in a factory, before coming back to their families. With a ‘sense of adventure and national pride’ they set off. Only later did they realise what was in store for them, and many had to watch whilst their families were also forced to Auschwitz, and sent straight to the gas chambers. By the end of 1942, two thirds of the women on this first convoy had been murdered, and just a handful survived the war.

The Slovakian government despicably paid 500 Reichsmarks – or about £160 or $200 apiece – for the Nazis to take these young Jewish women away, and use them for slave labour. As news travelled slowly around rural Slovakia at that time, the announcements were staggered, and no immediate warnings could be made before more women were taken away. Macadam writes: ‘All over Slovakia, the same notices were being posted and simultaneously heralded by town criers clanging brass bells or banging drums. The only variable between communities was where the girls should go: firehouse, school, mayor’s office, bus stop. The rest of the news was the same…’.

Relatively little is known about this initial transport, but Macadam has pieced together so many sources, from consulting with historians to the relatives of these first deportees. She has also interviewed as many survivors as she could firsthand. She writes that knowing about these women is ‘profoundly relevant today. These were not resistance fighters or prisoners of war… Sent to almost certain death, the young women were powerless and insignificant not only because they were Jewish – but also because they were female.’

The foreword to the volume has been written by historian Caroline Moorehead, whose book, A Train in Winter, I loved. She comments that in The Nine Hundred, Macadam ‘has managed to re-create not only the backgrounds of the women on the first convoy but also their day-to-day lives – and deaths – during their years in Auschwitz.’

Alongside the wider historical context, which she covers excellently, Macadam has taken the decision to focus upon as many of the individual women in this transport as was possible. This means that what we read as a result is concurrently a shared experience, and a solitary one. In her author’s note, Macadam explains: ‘This book would not be a memoir… It would be about all of them, or as many as I could find information on and fit into this complex history.’ She goes on to write: ‘It is a great honor and privilege to be a part of these women’s histories, their champion and their chronicler.’

I liked the way in which Macadam has structured The Nine Hundred. It is a work of non-fiction, but some of the writing reads more like that of a novel, allowing one to become involved with the individuals immediately. Macadam begins her narrative in the incredibly cold winter of 1942, just before the girls were snatched from their homes. At this time, rumours were beginning to fly around Slovakia’s small towns and villages: ‘Flames of doubt and uncertainty were quenched by reason. If the rumor was true, the most reasonable said, and the government did take girls, they wouldn’t take them far away. And if they did, it would only be for a little while. Only for the spring – when and if spring ever arrived. If, that is, the rumor was true.’ Macadam goes on to recap many of the restrictions and laws made against Jewish people in Slovakia before this point, which ranged from being ‘forbidden to reside on any main street’ in a town, and being banned from having pets, to having to deposit their fur coats with the right-wing Hlinka Guard, and the denial of operations at any hospital.

The Nine Hundred is an invaluable resource, which has a real quality of immediacy about it. It goes without saying that the content of Macadam’s book is shocking and horrific, and I did find some of it very difficult to read. The author demonstrates real strength in setting the scene, and in giving appropriate background information whenever it is needed. One gets the sense, from the very beginning, that Macadam cares deeply about each of these girls, and she handles the portrayal of each expertly. The Nine Hundred is heartbreaking, but learning about these brave women, many of whom were forced to abruptly grow up and face so many horrors, is a powerful and moving privilege.

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‘The Last Life’ by Claire Messud ****

Messud is an author whose writing I greatly admire. Over the last few years, I have slowly been making my way through her back catalogue, and have thoroughly enjoyed each of her books. Messud, as an author, appears to me to be rather underrated. I rarely see reviews of her work unless I seek them out, and one of my absolute favourites amongst her novels – The Emperor’s Children – seems polarising among readers.

One thing which I love about Messud’s work is that each of her books is so different in subject matter. Everything which she writes about, from an obsessive female friendship in The Woman Upstairs, to a complicated relationship between two sisters living on opposite sides of the world in When the World Was Steady, is utterly compelling. The Last Life, her second novel, was published in 1999, and is certainly a book to savour.

The Last Life takes as its focus a fifteen-year-old girl named Sagesse LaBasse, who tells her story with a ‘ruthless regard for truth’. She comes from a family of French Algerian immigrants who own a hotel, the Bellevue, on the French Riviera. This overlooks their old homeland. The family are ‘haunted by their history’ and, early on in the novel, they are ‘brought to the brink of destruction by a single reckless act.’

Sagesse has an American mother, and muses throughout about her heritage, and what her mixed nationalities mean to her. The novel is told from a position of retrospect, from Sagesse’s apartment in New York City; it opens: ‘I am American now, but this wasn’t always so.’ A couple of paragraphs later, she reveals the following: ‘I’m not American by default. It’s a choice. But it is a mask. Who, in the thronged avenues of Manhattan, hasn’t known this?’ The grown Sagesse has reached a point in her life where she wishes to ‘translate the world inside, beginning with the home that was once mine, on France’s southern coast…’. So begins her story.

From the outset, everything about The Last Life intrigued me. Messud’s prose is rich, and characteristically searching. The many descriptions which she gives throughout to situate Sagesse and her family are luscious, and incredibly evocative. Messud’s attention to detail renders every landscape, every object, almost tangible to the reader. When living in the South of France, for instance, ‘… the days lingered like overripe fruit, soft and heavily scented, melting into the glorious dusk. We gathered by the hotel pool, on the clifftop, after supper, watching the sky falter into Prussian blue, to blue-black, and the moon rise over the Mediterranean, the sea spread out before us, whispering and wrinkled.’

In many ways, The Last Life is a coming-of-age novel; we watch the teenage Sagesse grow, preoccupied with stuffing her bra, and being around her peers rather than her family. There are moments of intrigue here, and others of surprise. The single incident, which serves to make the LaBasse family question so much, felt unexpected, as did Sagesse’s expulsion from the family home soon afterward, to stay with her aunt in America. Messud demonstrates great insight throughout, especially on the many and varied experiences of being a teenager. I found Sagesse and her reactions to be thoroughly believable.

The storyline of The Last Life is an intricate one. The feelings of displacement, of ‘otherness’, ricochet through the novel, affecting many of the characters. When with her aunt in Boston, Sagesse comments: ‘It dawned on me in those early days that I was, in this place, remarkably, a cipher. I didn’t speak much. The tidal wave of American English was tiring for me, and it took all my energy to keep up, and anyway I felt that my personality didn’t translate. I couldn’t make jokes in English, or not without planning them out before I spoke, by which time they ceased to be funny and I couldn’t be bothered to voice them… But because they didn’t know me, my cousins didn’t notice. They thought me reserved, perhaps, or pensive, or homesick (which I often was, but they didn’t ask about my home), and each projected onto me the character she wanted or needed me to have.’

I have always found Messud’s work to contain incredibly deep portrayals and explorations of the human condition. This novel is certainly no different; it is just as astute, direct, and thorough as I was expecting. I cannot fathom why Messud seems to be such an underappreciated author, and I hope that if you pick up The Last Life, or one of her books based on this review, that you enjoy her work just as much as I do.

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‘On the Black Hill’ by Bruce Chatwin ****

Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill was the winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award, upon its publication in 1982. The Independent calls the novel Chatwin’s ‘deepest and best book’ and, having read nothing of the author’s before, I felt it would be a good starting point. His travelogue, In Patagonia, has been hovering somewhere around the top of my to-read list for years now, and when I do finally pick it up, I am keen to see how it compares.

On the Black Hill is described as ‘an elegantly written tale’ of Benjamin and Lewis, identical twin brothers who grew up on a farm in rural Wales, and who never leave home. They ’till rough soil and sleep in the same bed, touched only occasionally by the advances of the twentieth century.’ I am always drawn to books set in rural locations, or isolated communities, and this novel ticks both boxes. The nature of the novel allows Chatwin to comment ‘movingly on the larger questions of human experience.’

On the Black Hill opens in a way which perfectly sets the scene. Chatwin writes: ‘For forty-two years, Lewis and Benjamin Jones slept side by side, in their parents’ bed, at their farm which was known as “The Vision”.’ Owned by their parents since 1899, it lies right on the line between England and Wales – so much so that the brothers can see the ‘green fields of England’ from one window, and the black hill of Wales from the other. Aside from one holiday at the seaside during their childhood, they have never left. They have seen the same view every day of their lives.

I found the prose throughout the novel rather powerful, and sometimes even haunting, in what it revealed. I admired the way in which Chatwin uses just a few details to say so much. Of the brothers’ bedroom, he says, for instance: ‘The room was always dark and smelled of lavender and mothballs.’ Descriptions of the landscape, too, are highly effective, and effortlessly create a panorama of the twins’ surroundings. Chatwin writes: ‘To the east was the River Wye, a silver ribbon snaking through water-meadows, and the whole countryside dotted with white or red-brick farmhouses. A thatched roof made a little patch of yellow in a foam of apple-blossom, and there were gloomy stands of conifers that shrouded the homes of the gentry.’

Whilst identical and difficult to tell apart in childhood, clear differences grow between the brothers; these, Chatwin captures throughout. He writes, for example, ‘Benjamin was shorter, pinker, neater and sharper-tongued.’ The relationship revealed between the twins is one of the great strengths of On the Black Hill; as adults, they ‘quarrelled without speaking’. As youngsters, they ‘persisted in sharing everything. They even split their sandwiches in two, and swapped the halves.’

When we first meet the twins, they are eighty. Chatwin moves back in time to encompass not just their childhoods, and their experiences of adulthood, but the relationship between their kind mother and hot-headed father, which soon spirals into violence. I found the characters to be rather fascinatingly drawn, and they each felt fleshed out in their unpredictability. A good example of this regards the twins’ parents. Before they married, their parents were both more exuberant, and more unsure, ‘bursting with things to say to each other. Both felt, at that moment, there was nothing more to say; that nothing would come of their meeting; that their two accents would never make one whole voice; and that they would both creep back to their shells – as if the flash of recognition in church were a trick of fate, or a temptation of the Devil to ruin them. They stammered on, and gradually their words spaced themselves into silence: their eyes did not meet as he edged out backwards and ran for the hill.’

Whilst this novel tends to be rather dark, there are some amusing moments here, which I’m not sure that I was quite expecting. I felt as though the entirety of the novel was well controlled, particularly with the way in which it moved back in history. It is also effectively rooted in the according time periods; Chatwin is very aware of details in this regard, and weaves small details in throughout. At the annual Flower Show in 1903, for instance, ‘… the pony shied at a dead hedgehog in the lane, and their mother won First Prize for runner beans.’

On the Black Hill is a thoughtful and readable novel, which spans two entire lives. Alongside the more serious elements of the plot, there are some really charming and meditative scenes to be found throughout. On the Black Hill is not hugely dramatic by any means, and is more quiet and contemplative than anything else. Through Chatwin’s words, I sank into rural Wales; I delighted in the not always idyllic countryside presented, and the very memorable people who called it home.

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‘Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage’ by Kathleen Winter ****

As is so often the case, I had had my eye on Kathleen Winter’s Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage for an age before I purchased it. I first read Winter years ago, when her novel, Annabel, was selected as the first choice for the in-real-life book club that I was a member of. I got a great deal from it; many others did not. Boundless is certainly a very different book, but for me, it was just as enjoyable, and just as memorable.

In 2010, Winter – who lived in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and now resides in Montreal – took ‘a journey across the legendary Northwest Passage’ in a Russian icebreaker. She travelled from the southwest coast of Greenland to the largest island in Canada, Baffin Island. On her extended trip, on which she was invited at the last minute to make up the journalist contingent, she encountered a great deal of things, many of which were troubling. She saw, firsthand, the effects of climate change on small and isolated communities, and also the difficulties between balancing the traditional cultural elements of Inuit populations with the advances of the modern world.

When she embarked on this journey, Winter had just turned fifty. At the point at which she is invited on the trip by a writer friend, who cannot make it after all, she reflects: ‘I thought of my own British childhood, steeped in stories of sea travel. I thought of Edward Lear’s Jumblies, who went to sea in a sieve. I thought… of the longing and romance with which my father had decided to immigrate to Canada. I thought of all the books I’d read on polar exploration, on white men’s and white women’s attempts to travel the Canadian Far North.’ She goes on: ‘For a writer, loneliness is magnetic. The very names on the map excited me… I knew that to go to these places would activate something inside me that had long lain dreaming.’

People from all walks of life are passengers on the ship. The majority of those on board are men, many of whom sport ‘explorer-type beards’. However, alongside Winter, there is a Canadian Inuk woman, and a Greenlandic-Canadian, both of whom are set upon cultivating interest in their communities. Winter writes that to these two women ‘fell the task of teaching us about the North from the perspectives of Inuit women who have lived there all their lives – women who have come to know its animals, plants, and people, both indigenous and visiting, through long experience.’ I found the portions where she writes about these women quite fascinating.

Whilst much of the ship is rather luxurious, her own accommodation arguably leaves something to be desired: ‘Higher up, through open doors, I had seen passengers’ deluxe cabins with big windows looking out over Baffin Bay. By the time I descended to my own little cabin, there were tiny portholes, and when I pressed my nose to the glass, there lay the sea surface at the level of my rib cage.’ However, she quite wonderfully sees everything as an adventure; she reasons that she will only be sleeping in her little cabin, and will largely be exploring, or talking to others on deck.

I admired the commentary which Winter gives; in it, she captures a great deal. When they first reach Greenland by plane, she comments: ‘Our bus had rounded a corner in the crags of Kangerlussuaq [a small town in the west of the country], and there in the bay was our ship, floating so crisp and blue and white it looked as if someone had ironed and starched it into one of those three-dimensional pop-up picture books that had enchanted me when I was a child.’

The descriptions which Winter gives of her surroundings are highly visceral. She writes, for example: ‘As we sailed into Disko Bay, ice floated in silence, quiet green-greys leading to whites and back to blues. There was no sign of any human, only reflections of ice and sky and northern sea, and the light held a low frequency that lent ice and sky and water a glow both incandescent and restrained.’ Later, she tells us: ‘The fjord acted as an orchestral chamber, magnifying the sounds of these ice monoliths as they crushed and worked. It sounded like a vast construction site. There was a gunshot crack, then a thump and another avalanche; layered under these were the lapping of water, the echoing roar of wind around the moonscape mountains, and other, more distant collisions of ice echoing down the fjord.’

Winter translates the awe which she feels regarding the landscapes around her with a great deal of care, and makes us so aware of the physical landscape. She describes the way in which: ‘We floated by Zodiac to icebergs gathering at the fjord mouth: caves, pillars, monumental and illumined with blue light, and darkness in the deep recesses – so enigmatic and imposing I said nothing for hours.’ Sometimes, in fact, she finds words quite redundant. She comments: ‘I was finding, in the North, that words are a secondary language: first we see images, then we feel heat, cold rock, flesh. We taste air before words.’

The Northwest Passage is a fascinating, and still relatively unexplored, region. Winter comments: ‘It would later be revealed that even our captain’s navigational charts did not tell the complete truth about what lay ahead of us, since much of the Arctic remains uncharted and the land, wind, and ocean themselves are forever in flux’. The original plan for the trip was to follow Roald Amuldsen’s first successful route through the Northwest Passage, but this did not quite go to plan.

The very name of the passage is problematic; it was given the moniker by colonisers, and is known as other things entirely to those who live alongside it. I appreciated the time which Winter gave to discussing this fact. She draws attention to the vast differences between explorers, who see a region briefly and seem to think they then have dominion over it, and those who have called it their home for centuries. Often, in the communities which Winter and the other passengers visit, dogs outnumber humans. Despite this, there is still such a strong sense of history, and of shared experience.

I liked the way in which Winter wrote about her voyage as both physical, and one of self-discovery. She searches, throughout, for her own belonging. As an English transplant to Newfoundland in her youth, she tells another passenger that she feels ‘”sort of at home on the ship, here, between homelands.”‘ She writes with a great deal of insight about selfhood, and the loss of her first home. It is clear, from very early on in the narrative, that this journey had a profound impact upon the author, something which she comes back to throughout.

Boundless is Winter’s first work of non-fiction, and I am really hoping that it isn’t the last. Her prose is excellent, and balances more informative passages with her own musings with a great deal of skill. Winter’s tone is incredibly engaging, and I loved exploring the Northwest Passage through her lens. She is a continually thoughtful guide to the Arctic region. I long to do a journey like this one sometime in the future, but for now, I can only thank Winter for allowing me to take part in her own travels, and for being so open and honest about everything she encountered. Boundless is a thorough, and quite excellent, piece of travel writing, which I read with a great deal of interest from cover to cover.

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‘Inlands’ by Elin Willows ****

Translated from the Swedish by Duncan J. Lewis

I have such a deep interest in all things Scandinavian, and try to ensure that I read as many Scandi books as I can get my hands on. I was intrigued by Elin Willows’ Inlands as soon as I spotted its striking pastel cover, and ended up ordering myself a copy online. The novel was first published in Sweden in 2018, and translated into English by Duncan J. Lewis in 2019. The lovely edition which I read was published by Nordisk Books, a relatively new, and immensely exciting, publishing house, which was founded in 2016.

Inlands centres on a young, unnamed woman, who moves from bustling Stockholm to Sweden’s ‘inlands’, to a small village in the far north to live where her boyfriend comes from. Of her choice, she comments: ‘In both places, there’s equal surprise. Not over the fact that I want to live with him, but that I’m the one moving to him. Everyone wonders why we don’t do it the other way around. Why he doesn’t move to me. The people I’m moving away from don’t know where I’m going. No one has been here. Where I’m moving to, they’re also surprised. Why am I leaving that which I’m leaving, for this?’

Her boyfriend, also unnamed, drives down to Stockholm to pick her up, but as soon as they arrive in the north of the country, both are aware that their relationship has irrevocably ended. Rather than return to the place which she knows so well, she makes the decision to stay, reasoning that her plan was to live in the village anyway. She quickly finds a job in a large grocery store, and even after she has been there for a year or two, is constantly aware – and is made aware – that she is an outsider. Regardless, she finds a kind of peace in the area, something which was missing from her city life: ‘I stay in the village. There’s no anxiety here. No one I need to be anxious about. I’ve got myself. I avoid a lot of emotions by being here.’

There are mundane moments throughout, many of which revolve around the narrator’s work and home life. She does not do that much; she spends whole stretches of days indoors, eating poorly, and wearing jogging bottoms. Willows has balanced this with real poignancy though; for instance, when she tells us: ‘I see the Northern Lights for the first time one evening when I’ve just started to get used to the loneliness.’

Inlands is incredibly readable, and its translation has been expertly handled. The novel is comprised of short chapters, and a relatively fragmented narrative, something which I very much enjoy in contemporary fiction. It will not be for everyone, but I loved the way in which the story slotted together over time.

The narrator’s voice is expansive, earnest, and sometimes raw. Inlands is a character study, essentially, which displays the innermost thoughts and impacts of a changed, and changing, life, when our narrator is transplanted by a city to a very quiet new place a thousand kilometres away. I admired the way in which Willows discusses, at points throughout, the dislocation of self which her protagonist feels: ‘The world seems so disconnected from my life now. My two lives, completely separated, connected only by the fact that I live in both of them. I think about my old life in a large city as a vacuum that I can still go into, but when I’m there, my current life becomes strange and unreachable.’ There is so much to consider here, and I felt almost bereft when I reached the end of this beautifully melancholy book; it was one which I did not want to put down, and was so absorbed by.

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One From the Archive: ‘Gilgi’ by Irmgard Keun *****

First published in 2017.

Gilgi (full title, Gilgi, One Of Us) has been presented in a new English translation as part of Melville House Publishing’s Neversink Library collection.  First published in its original German in 1931, Irmgard Keun’s debut novel, published when she was just twenty-six, has been rendered into the most beautiful English prose by Geoff Wilkes.  In Germany, Gilgi became an overnight sensation, and Keun was driven to sue the Gestapo several years afterwards for blocking her royalties.

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The protagonist of Gilgi is Gisela Kron, a ‘disciplined and ambitious secretary’ in a hosiery business.  Immediately admirable with her hardworking stubbornness,  she is desperately ‘trying to establish her independence in a society being overtaken by fascism’.  Falling in love, however, is a ‘fateful choice’ which will ‘unmoor’ Gilgi from her own position in the world, that which she has fought for so long to uphold.  Gilgi is essentially a coming-of-age novel; whilst Gilgi is biologically older than a character whom we might expect to undergo such a formative transformation, she learns much about the world around her, and about herself, as the novel progresses.  She is made aware of her own strengths and weaknesses, and the place which she occupies in both public and private spheres in her home city of Cologne.

Keun’s choice of opening is fascinating, and very much sets the tone for the whole: ‘She’s holding it firmly in her hands, her little life, the girl Gilgi.  She calls herself Gilgi, her name is Gisela.  The two i‘s [sic] are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s, to tiny fashionable hats which contrive mysteriously to stay perched on the very top of her head.  When she’s twenty-five, she’ll call herself Gisela.  But she’s not at that point quite yet.’  She is a cool-headed character, and faced with many of the challenges as she is, many other protagonists would have inevitably had some sort of breakdown or existential crisis.  Not Gilgi.  She is a firm believer in dealing with everything thrown at one, and she does so largely flawlessly.

Gilgi’s familial situation is exposed to the reader almost immediately: ‘No one speaks.  Everyone is earnestly and dully occupied with their own concerns.  The complete lack of conversation testifies to the family’s decency and legitimacy.  Herr and Frau Kron have stuck together through years of honorable tedium to their silver wedding anniversary.  They love each other, and are faithful to each other, something which has become a matter of routine, and no longer needs to be discussed, or felt’.

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Irmgard Keun

Gilgi is very of its time; Keun is never far away from inserting snippets of social history, or the economic struggles which many around Gilgi faced on a daily basis.  So many issues which are still of much importance in our modern society are tackled here – patriarchy, sexual relations, pregnancy out of wedlock, and the very concept of womanhood.  It is an astoundingly frank work, both ‘piercingly perceptive and formally innovative’.  Gilgi is told on the morning of her twenty-first birthday, for instance, that her parents are not biologically hers, and then given the details of her birth mother.

Gilgi herself provides a contrast to the societal norms held for women during the period; she is proactive, has her own job, and pays for her own things: ‘I want to work, want to get on, want to be self-supporting and independent…  At the moment I’m learning my languages – I’m saving money…’.  She may still live at home with the Krons who raised her, but she makes clear that her biggest aim in life is to fund her own apartment.

Until she meets Martin, the idea of being a kept woman repulses her; indeed, even with Martin, Keun has allowed Gilgi her independence.  The pair move in with one another to the vacant apartment of one of Martin’s friends; he is unshakeable in his existence and largely lives hand to mouth, so it is up to Gilgi to work and pay for everything.  Again, tradition is eschewed here, and Keun demonstrates to a point that a woman of the period could make things work by herself.  Gilgi’s grand ambitions still live within her, even when she becomes conscious that they are not perhaps achievable due to the pregnancy which befalls her naive self.

I was put in mind of reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage at several points during the novel; the narrative voice which Keun has crafted simultaneously weaves the first and third person perspectives together in a beguiling manner.  There is a wonderful stream-of-consciousness approach to the whole in places.  Gilgi is a fascinating, deeply complex, and thoroughly realistic character.  Each individual consequence which she has to face is tackled with the utmost verisimilitude.  Gilgi is a stunning novel, with prose echoes of Hans Fallada and Stefan Zweig.  It is absolutely wonderful, and sure to delight those with a fondness for strong female characters, or who want to read a striking piece of translated literature.

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‘The Bird in the Tree’ by Elizabeth Goudge *****

Elizabeth Goudge is an author whose work I have been planning to read for at least a decade. I have no idea why it has taken me such a long time to get around to picking up one of her novels; perhaps it is merely because she seems to have been very underrepresented in the majority of the physical bookshops which I have visited over the years. I am thrilled to say though that my local library had a copy of the first novel in the Eliots of Damerosehay trilogy, and that I fell in love with its story immediately.

The Bird in the Tree, first published in 1940, is also known as the first part of the Eliot Chronicles series. The Eliot family decided to relocate to a rather decrepit house named Damerosehay, close to the Hampshire coast, following the First World War. When discovering the neglected house whilst on a walk with her young grandson David, Goudge writes: ‘They opened doors into queer rooms lit only by the long fingers of bright sunlight that smote through the chinks in the shutters… They pursued long twisting passages to their strange conclusions in unexpected flights of steps and small closets throughout whose broken windows creepers had grown, trailing their tendrils on the floor… They explored attics under the roof where the plaster had fallen and the slates had slipped, so that patches of blue sky smiled in upon them, and exciting cellars where toadstools like orange flowers were growing in the must and damp.’ Lucilla decides, immediately, that this is the house for them, and sets about buying it.

Matriarch Lucilla Eliot then spends ‘a lifetime’ making this house ‘a tranquil haven for her family’, and it is here that we watch them grow. There are several rather endearing young grandchildren – Ben, Tommy, and Caroline – who flit in and out of the action, and two dogs named ‘Pooh-Bah and Bastard’ complete the ensemble.

Far from being a peaceful novel, though, The Bird in the Tree is filled with scandal. Lucilla’s beloved grandson, David, deigns to fall in love with ‘an unsuitable woman’ – his aunt by marriage, now divorced. Of course, Lucilla takes this news terribly, feeling that it threatens her ‘most cherished ambitions’. At a point just before she learns of David’s transgressions, ‘… she looked what she was, a leisured and lovely old lady securely enthroned in a home where there was enough money for the creation of dignity and beauty but not enough for luxury or ostentation.’

Much understanding is given by Goudge to her characters. Nine-year-old Ben, who has grown up in Egypt and India, is finally settling in to life at Damerosehay. Goudge writes: ‘The first seven years of his life were now just a confused and painful memory of heat and flies, bands playing, riots when people got shot, a burning fever in his body, a pain in his head, a choking feeling in his chest that they told him was asthma, and his father and mother quarrelling.’ His divorced parents are largely absent from the lives of himself, Tommy, and Caroline, with their father moving back to India, and their mother residing in London – until she and David fall in love and she returns, much to the chagrin of her sons, of course.

Goudge’s descriptions are nothing short of superb. When writing about Ben, one of the grandchildren, for instance, she says: ‘In his mind’s eye, as he ran on, he could see the green grass paths between the lavender hedges, the purple masses of the Michaelmas daisies with the butterflies sunning their wings upon them, the glowing spires of the golden rod and the flowers of the dahlias and petunias, the frail late autumn roses and the ilex tree by the house where the blackbird sang. He could see the colour of it, and smell the damp sweet scent of it, and feel how it lived and breathed within its old brick walls just to give sanctuary to those who needed it.’ The garden particularly came to life for me; it is presented in so much precise detail that was a real joy to read. Goudge’s descriptions are made up of many layers, and are as rich and visceral as anything written by the likes of Dorothy Whipple or Elizabeth Taylor. I must say – merely on the strength of one novel – that if you enjoy either of the aforementioned authors, you are sure to love Goudge’s work.

I loved Goudge’s wry humour, too. She comments, for example, that Tommy ‘looked like one of Raphael’s cherubs but unfortunately his character was most distressingly at variance with his outward appearance’. Caroline, who is almost six, ‘seldom spoke and it was impossible to say at her age whether her silence was due to the presence of great thoughts in her mind or to the abundance of any thoughts at all.’ Such offhand phrases effortlessly capture her characters. Much humour surrounds Lucilla and her maid, Ellen, two years her senior. The women have a well-drawn and believable relationship, which I appreciated. Ellen has very pronounced opinions, which she sometimes tries to keep to herself. Goudge writes: ‘Ellen sniffed. The extravagance of Lucilla’s love for her grandson David, as for his father before him, always slightly irritated her. It was out of proportion. It was not quite the correct reaction of maternity. It was almost more the love of a girl for her lover… And Lucilla was seventy-eight.’

In part, The Bird in the Tree is old-fashioned and perhaps a little melodramatic, but it so appealed to me as a reader, and I am eager to continue with the rest of the trilogy. The novel put me in mind throughout of the perfect Virago or Persephone title; it features sharp character portraits, excellent writing, and a compelling story. There are some beautifully observed scenes throughout, and Goudge writes with such a deft touch. Watching the relationship between Lucilla and her various children and grandchildren unfold was a delight, and I very much look forward to meeting the Eliots, and Damerosehay, again in the near future.

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‘Mudbound’ by Hillary Jordan ****

I have wanted to read Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound for a very long time, but my interest was renewed when watching a trailer for the Netflix adaptation of the novel. Mudbound won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, and has been praised highly by a favourite contemporary author of mine, Barbara Kingsolver; she says, rather grandly: ‘This is storytelling at the height of its powers.’

Mudbound is set in the Mississippi Delta in 1946. Henry McAllan has moved his whole family, including his much younger wife Laura and two small daughters, to a ramshackle farm which is at the mercy of regular flooding. Before making this rather momentous decision, he does not consult his wife at all; he merely springs the date and location of their moving upon her. ‘City-bred’ Laura does not settle in well, finding her new home lacking in many of the comforts which she has been used to for her entire life. She finds the Mississippi countryside ‘both foreign and frightening’, and begins a perpetual struggle to raise her two daughters well in their isolated shack.

Added to these problems is the existence of Henry’s father, who moves with them; he is hateful and racist, and shows that he is so at any given opportunity. He is the villain of the piece from the outset; his ‘long yellow teeth’ and ‘bony yellow fingers with their thick curled nails’ make him seem animalistic, other.

Also living with them is Henry’s younger brother, Jamie, who is just back from fighting in Europe. He is shellshocked, changed by everything he has seen, including liberating the concentration camp at Dachau. Another individual returning to the homestead is a young black man named Ronsel Jackson, whose family work as sharecroppers on the land. Despite being seen as a hero for his part in the war, when he returns home, Ronsel ‘faces far more dangerous battles against the ingrained bigotry of his own countrymen.’

I found Mudbound immediately compelling. It opens with a clandestine burial, following the murder of the father-in-law. At this moment in time, Jamie narrates: ‘Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep. Any shallower and the corpse was liable to come rising up during the next big flood: Howdy boys! Remember me? The thought of it kept us digging even after the blisters on our palms had burst, reformed and burst again. Every shovelful was an agony – the old man, getting in his last licks.’ When the hole is being dug, the skeleton of a former slave is found within it, a shocking signpost which sets the scene for this captivating yet brutal novel.

The narrative then moves back in time, and we learn, slowly, what happened to bring the family to this point. It is obvious, very early on, that each character is very much at the mercy of their surroundings. ‘When it rained, as often as it did,’ Jordan writes, ‘the yard turned into a thick gumbo, with the house floating in it like a soggy cracker. When the rains came hard, the river rose and swallowed the bridge that was the only way across. The world was on the other side of that bridge, the world of light bulbs and paved roads and shirts that stayed white. When the river rose, the world was lost to us and us to it.’

Mudbound is, fittingly, the name which Laura gives to their decrepit home. She reflects: ‘Like most city people, I’d had a ridiculous goldenlit idea of the country. I’d pictured rain falling softly upon verdant fields, barefoot boys fishing with thistles dangling from their mouths, women quilting in cozy little log cabins while their men smoked corncob pipes on the porch. You have to get closer to the picture to see the wretched shacks scattered throughout those fields, where families clad in ragged flour-sack clothes sleep ten to a room on dirt floors; the hookworm rashes on the boys’ feet and the hideous red pellagra scales on their hands and arms; the bruises on the faces of the women, and the rage and hopelessness in the eyes of the men.’

I enjoyed the use of the multiple well-drawn perspectives here, and admired that Jordan made each of them distinctive. There is a lot of variance between the different voices. I particularly enjoyed reading Laura and Ronsel’s chapters, although I found the latter’s direct and shocking. Of his time in battle, for instance, Ronsel recalls: ‘I got to where I didn’t know what time it was or what day of the week. There was just the fighting, on and on, the crack of rifles and the ack ack ack of machine guns, bazookas firing, shells and mines exploding, men screaming and groaning and dying. And every day knowing you could be next, it could be your blood spattered all over your buddies.’

Mudbound is a haunting novel, and a great piece of historical fiction, which comes together incredibly well. The novel is well situated within its hostile environment, and the characters remained vivid to me weeks after closing the final page. I very much look forward to reading more of Jordan’s work, and soon.

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‘Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach’ by Jean Sprackland ****

One of my favourite places to be is on the beach, and I have been lucky enough to visit them all over the world; from Australia’s Bondi Beach on a very breezy December day, to hidden turquoise coves in Croatia and Montenegro, and the sand-swept, dune-filled coasts of Northern France and Belgium. Unfortunately, at present, I live in a landlocked English county and, like so many others across the world, was long separated from the beach by numerous lockdowns and travel bans.

One piece of solace which I found during this time was in Jean Sprackland’s first nature book, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, which won the Portico Prize in 2012. Here, Sprackland has penned ‘a series of meditations prompted by walking on the wild estuarial beaches of Ainsdale Sands between Blackpool and Liverpool’, which she recorded over a single calendar year. She explores, primarily, ‘what is lost and buried and then discovered… about flotsam and jetsam, about mutability and transformation – about sea-change.’

Strands has been split into corresponding seasons, which is one of my favourite structures in which to present a nature book. I love to see how one place can differ so much from one season to the next; even from one month to the next. This is one of the main elements of focus for Sprackland; she is aware of every small change, and of what to expect as one month passes into the next. For her, this ‘stretch of coast has an entirely different spirit. It’s all about change, shift, ambiguity. It reinvents itself. It has a talent for concealment and revelation. Things turn up here; things go missing.’

In her preface, Sprackland immediately sets out that she has been walking along this particular beach for twenty years. For her, writing Strands is a bittersweet experience, as she is about to leave her home for London, and a new marriage. She knows that this is the last time in which she will be able to travel to Ainsdale Sands so often, and wished to record this process. She writes that over those two decades ‘… our relationship has grown complex and intimate. It has become, as places can, an inner as well as an outer landscape, one I carry around in my head and explore in my imagination even when I’m far from here.’ She goes on to say: ‘The version I carry in my head is endlessly flexible, but of course the external place does not obey me at all. It remains stubbornly unknowable.’

Sprackland is also a poet, and she writes her prose using careful, memorable, and even sometimes sharp, vocabulary choices. She sees her beach with a poet’s eyes. It is, for her, ‘a place of big skies and lonely distances, a shifting palette of greys and blues; a wild, edge-of-the-world place.’ She goes on to say that ‘This characteristic of the beach – its capacity to surprise and mystify – is what brings me back here, day after day, month after month.’

Alongside the usual items which plague coasts all over the world – primarily plastic and litter – there are some surprises in store for Sprackland. In the first chapter, which occurs in spring, for example, she comes across ‘three wrecked ships lying on the surface’ of the sand. These, she has never seen before. She realises that she must have ‘cycled over them, oblivious’ when they had previously been buried under the sand. These boats, she finds out after conversing with a friend, that these ships show themselves for a few weeks at a time before being reburied, sometimes for years at a time. She later says: ‘I’ve often noticed a kind of “rule of recurrence”: I find something unusual – something I’ve never seen here before – and almost immediately I find another the same, and then another. And certain kinds of objects come and go; they’re numerous when I visit one week, and have vanished by the next.’

Sprackland goes on to find so many different things during her wanderings – mermaid’s purses, which hold the eggs of sharks, skates, and rays; samphire; ‘a bicycle saddle, a knitting needle, a large bleached knuckle bone, a light bulb’; a swarm of ladybirds; even a ‘blister pack of Prozac’, and a message in a bottle. She describes the way in which the ‘detritus of our lives is washed, softened and given back to us cleansed of its dirt and shame. That’s the work of the sea. It comes in faithfully, on schedule, like an old-time religion, and washes away our sins.’ She also nods to the myriad places in which these items she finds start their journey, ‘from so many different sources and directions: from the hands of walkers and picnickers; from the air; from underneath the sand; and of course from the sea. In an age where science has unlocked so many of Earth’s secrets, and almost the entire planet has been mapped and imaged, our oceans and shores remain relatively unexplored. Each new discovery presents questions and mysteries.’

Alongside the physical landscape of her particular beach, Sprackland has written about the crushing changes which climate change is already bringing to the species which are found just off the coast. She also wishes to raise an awareness of just how much one single person can see them changing. She urges: ‘Those of us with beaches to walk on should be learning the language of the things we find there. We should be reading the signs.’ She writes with a great deal of insight, stating: ‘If in the course of opening our eyes to environmental realities we have lost some of our simple pleasures and amazements, we have replaced them with passionate collective attachments to a few powerful symbols of what is previous and threatened: the polar bear, the tiger, the wildflower meadow, and so on. Our losses are not so often focused on the mucous, the smelly and the commonplace.’

I thoroughly enjoyed Sprackland’s second nature book, These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards; indeed, I think about it often. Here, too, there is so much to consider, and to appreciate. Sprackland’s prose is often quite profound; she makes one stop and think throughout, with sentences such as the following: ‘It’s dizzying, the realisation that we spend our lives moving precariously on the outer skin of the planet, and that same skin contains all the stuff of history.’ She is a considerate and quite meditative author. Her prose is beautiful and attentive; there is a haunting appeal to it. As with These Silent Mansions, Strands is highly detailed, and so well researched; there is also such a visceral sense of place within it.

I love the way in which Sprackland blends her own observations with scientific facts, and the way in which she includes quotes from other writers, particularly poets. Strands is relatively introspective, and deals with such a comparatively small stretch of coastline, but Sprackland manages to discuss so much within its pages. It is an unusual nature book in its focus, and one which I would highly recommend.

If you are interested, you can read my review of Sprackland’s These Silent Mansions here.