1

‘The Roundabout Man’ by Clare Morrall ****

The Roundabout Man is the first of Clare Morrall’s novels which I have read.  I have been interested in her work for quite some time now, and selected this novel as my first taste of it due to the wonderful quirkiness of its blurb.  The Roundabout Man is Morrall’s fifth book, and was first published in 2012.

Of Morrall’s main protagonist, the Literary Review writes ‘Quinn is quietly fascinating…  his fumblings toward an understanding that can only ever be partial are brilliantly achieved.’  The Sunday Times agrees, stating that: ‘Morrall writes with poise and delicacy, and her subjects are delightful offbeat.’ 9780340994306

Quinn Smith lives in an old caravan in the middle of an overgrown roundabout, somewhere in England.  He shares his name with a young boy in a ‘world-famous series of children’s books’, and people often think he is joking when he introduces himself.  However, he was the inspiration for the fictional Quinn, a series which was written by his mother, and featured his older, bossy triplet sisters, Zuleika, Fleur, and Hetty.  It is ‘this legacy which he has successfully run away from – until now.’  In the novel, Quinn is forced to face the ghosts of his past, and the ‘uncomfortable truths it holds about himself, his sisters and, most of all, his mother.’

The Roundabout Man opens in rather a beguiling manner.  Morrall writes using sixty-year-old Quinn’s voice, which I believed in immediately: ‘I exist in the eye of the storm, the calm in the centre of a perpetual hurricane of cars and lorries heading for the M6, the north and Scotland, or south to Penzance and Land’s End.  I sometimes wonder if they don’t go on the motorway at all, that I hear the same vehicles circling endlessly, a kind of multiple Flying Dutchman, doomed to travel for ever.  I don’t regret for one minute that I am no longer one of them.’  He goes on to state: ‘I’ve anchored myself in the middle of one of the few patches of land where no one goes, among well-established birches, ashes, sycamores, surrounded myself with rotten and claimed sanctuary.’

At the outset of the novel, Quinn is visited by a young journalist named Lorna, who is keen to interview him for a piece in the local newspaper.  She asks him if he minds living alone, and his answer, whilst guarded, is a resounding no.  He does sometimes let himself wonder why, at his age, he is living as he is, feeling ‘far too old for extended camping holidays’.  His way of life is particularly difficult when the weather becomes cold: ‘When the frost clutches everything around’, he allows himself to ‘consider the merits of carpets and central heating’.  However, Quinn is able to see ‘compensations’ in the beauty of the nature all around him.

Morrall’s prose is nicely wrought, and there is an almost unusual quality to its phrases and what it touches upon.  I really liked the structure of the novel; each relatively short chapter is made up of several sections, which either note the events of Quinn’s present, or regress back to the past.  He reveals little about himself in person, but the reader learns a lot about him due to Morrall’s arrangement of plot.  Of his childhood home, he says: ‘Our house, The Cedars, was an Arts and Crafts house, bought by my parents when they first married, paid for with the money they’d inherited from their parents, both sets of whom had died by then.  It was exactly the right setting for a famous writer.’

We learn of his mother, Larissa, who comes across as cold and lacking maternal instincts.  She reminded me somewhat of Enid Blyton, putting on the airs of a darling, beloved mother during photoshoots with prestigious newspapers and magazines, but showing little affection to her children, and the family’s string of foster children, in private.  Of these photography sessions, Quinn warmly reminisces that he loved them, allowing him ‘the rare opportunity to sit on my mother’s lap.’  The memories of all four siblings have become confused with certain scenes in their mother’s books, and they muse upon what is real, and what is fabricated, and how one can possibly tell when they all remember different things.

Quinn’s voice feels candid throughout, and one cannot help but feel for him, particularly in those sections where he writes about his often lonely childhood.  Their upbringing has had a knock-on effect into their present: ‘Zuleika, Fleur and I had kept in touch, but we were not a close family.  Our childhood had been so public that my sisters had leaped away from The Cedars with enthusiasm and reinvented themselves, coming back less and less often until they stopped altogether.’  Hetty is rarely in touch with her sisters, and never with her brother.  Of his sisters in adulthood, Quinn muses: ‘It was hard to believe the they were all the same age, that they used to impersonate each other, do everything together, think identical thoughts.  They had been a three-headed creature in my childhood, but at some point in the lat few years, a phantom surgeon had performed an operation, separated the organs, made them into three people.’

I found The Roundabout Man immersive, peopled with a cast of three-dimensional characters.  Morrall has struck a great balance between character focus and plot.  The family dynamics are fascinating, and filled with tiny, observant details.  This novel, full of heart, seems to be rather an underrated one, but its unusual story has a lot of depth, and is well worth a read.

Purchase from The Book Depository

Advertisements
0

‘The Emperor’s Children’ by Claire Messud *****

After adoring Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and very much enjoying her latest novel, The Burning Girl, which I read in Florida last year, I was keen to pick up another of her books.  I chose a gorgeous Picador Classics edition of The Emperor’s Children, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  The novel is set in New York in 2001, when ‘the whole world shifts’.  In it, Messud explores ‘how utterly we are defined by the times in which we live.’

The Independent on Sunday calls Messud’s 2006 novel ‘a masterpiece’, and The Times deems it ‘thrillingly real, alive and utterly convincing… [an] intensely pleasurable reminder of the possibilities of the English language’.  The New York Times concurs, writing that ‘Messud does a nimble, quicksilver job of portraying her central characters from within and without – showing us their pretensions, frailties and self-delusions, even as she delineates their secret yearnings and fears.’  It is, promises its blurb, a novel which ‘brings us face to face with the enduring gap between who we are and who we long to be.’

9781447289418The Emperor’s Children focuses on four characters, three of whom – Danielle Minkoff, Marina Thwaite, and Julius Clarke – became firm friends whilst studying at Brown University during the 1990s.  They are ‘young, bright New Yorkers living at America’s beating heart in the early years of the twenty-first century’, and are joined.  The fourth character is Marina’s socially awkward cousin, Frederick Tubb, who is known as Bootie.  He is ‘fresh from the provinces and keen to make his mark’ on the world.  His arrival causes the three other protagonists to ‘confront their desires and leaves them dangerously exposed.’  Also examined in part are the parents of Danielle, Marina, and Bootie.

Danielle is working as a television producer, Julius makes his living by taking temporary secretarial job, and moneyed Marina has been procrastinating by halfheartedly working on a book for several years.  In his introduction to the volume, Neel Mukherjee describes Marina as the ‘aimless daughter of the Thwaites, casting about for something to do and using her ongoing project of writing a book about Americans dress their children… as a kind of displacement activity’.  He calls Julius a ‘gay, sharp, bitchy, and… self-invented man’.  Danielle is perhaps, in this way, the only one of the three friends who is making a success of her life, but her story is fraught with problems too.  Bootie has been used as ‘one of the oldest tropes in storytelling’, as ‘a stranger who turns everyone’s life upside down’.

Messud’s character descriptions are wonderful.  When introducing Bootie’s mother, for instance, she writes: ‘she felt she walked into the light: the two large windows cast a shadowless opalescence onto the sprigged wallpaper, the family photos on top of the bureau.  Even her discarded stockings, still carrying from yesterday the shape of her solid limbs, appeared outlined in light, luminous.  Her hands and her hair, a grayed cloud, had carried up from the kitchen the smell of coffee, and the vents at her ankles pushed a warm wind around the floor.  In spite of Bootie, in spite, in spite, in this moment at least, she felt happy: she was not too old to love even the snow.’

Messud is so involved with her characters and their quirks of personality throughout, that one comes to know them intimately.  Throughout the novel, she places very in depth portrayals and explorations of self.  Of Marina, she writes: ‘She sometimes felt as though she were a changeling, as hough someone completely new had taken on the identity of Marina Thwaite  – or rather, as if someone who was seen from the outside to be completely new had done so, while beneath the surface she remained unchanged.’  When discussing Julius, Messud notes: ‘He was aware that at thirty he stretched the limits of the charming wastrel, that some actual sustained endeavor might be in order were he not to fade, wisplike, away: from charming wastrel to needy, boring failure was but a few, too few, short steps.’  Her characters are not entirely likeable, and some are almost odious in their privilege and behaviour. In consequence, I found all of Messud’s protagonists, and indeed the secondary figures who orbit around them, wholly believable.

A masterful quality in the novel is the way in which Messud focuses upon the nuances and tiny shifts in relationships, which still have the power to alter them irrevocably.  The Emperor’s Children is not overly plot heavy; whilst things happen, particularly toward the final third of the novel, Messud is more interested in the reactions which her characters have to sudden, or brooding, changes in their situations.

There is, as anyone familiar with Messud’s writing might expect, an awful lot about morality and politics woven into The Emperor’s Children.  Of this, Mukherjee writes: ‘Messud’s novel is political in the most inclusive, most intelligent understanding of that notion – it looks at the private sphere, at how individuals live in the world, how they conduct their lives, what their moral codes are, to give an indication of the bigger, wider world and the matrix of history in which these private lives are necessarily situated, the private and the public at once shaping and being shaped by each other.’  He goes on to say: ‘The questions it poses are enormous and profound.  What is a person’s true, authentic self?  Does a life need to be lived in continuous connection with that?  What if the truest idea we have of our true selves is a false one, or one held in bad faith?  Are our notions of authenticity confected, too?’  Whilst Mukherjee’s introduction is insightful, and certainly complements the novel, I would recommend that one reads it after finishing the novel, as it is rather revealing, and contains a lot of detailed commentary upon Messud’s characters and plot points.

Before beginning The Emperor’s Children, I was surprised to see so many negative reviews of it smattered on its Goodreads page.  I am so pleased that I ignored these and read it regardless, as I ended up absolutely loving it, and found something to admire on every page.  Messud’s writing provides a breath of fresh air, and gives one the ability to see characters and events, such as 9/11, from different angles.  She is a unique author in many ways, but her prose style at times reminded me of Donna Tartt and Zoe Heller, merely due to the weight which it holds within its words.  I can see why some might think that Messud’s prose is overwritten, but I found it both rich and sumptuous, as well as entirely absorbing.  There is so much which can be unpicked within its pages, and I am sure that I will be thinking about it for months to come.

The Emperor’s Children is a phenomenal, searching novel, filled with profound meditations on life.  Everything within it has been wonderfully handled, and it provokes thought at every turn.  She also writes with poignant and moving language of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, which profoundly affect every character.  As with her other books, I was absolutely blown away with this novel.  Messud is an interesting, original writer, and I very much look forward to exploring the rest of her oeuvre in the near future.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘The Early Stories of Truman Capote’ ****

I spotted a gorgeous US edition of The Early Stories of Truman Capote in Fopp, and could not resist picking it up.  As one of my favourite authors, I have been wanting this collection since I first learnt of its publication, which followed the rediscovery of a lot of Capote’s juvenilia in the New York Public Library’s archives.  It collects together ‘the early fiction of one of the nation’s most celebrated writers… as he takes his first bold steps into the canon of American literature.’  They ‘provide an unparalleled look at Truman Capote writing in his teens and early twenties’.  Many of the stories were published for the first time between 1940 and 1941.

718oijyWWSLThe edition which I read featured a foreword by Hilton Als, a writer at the New Yorker magazine.  He begins by focusing upon a moment in 1963, in which Truman Capote was in Kansas, conducting his research for In Cold Blood.  Als writes: ‘He’s almost forty and he’s been a writer for nearly as long as he’s been alive.  Words, stories, tales – he’s been at it since he was a child, growing up in Louisiana and rural Alabama and then Connecticut and New York – a citizen formed by a divided world and opposing cultures: in his native South there was segregation, and, up north, at least talk of assimilation.  In both places there was his intractable queerness.  And the queerness of being a writer.’  He goes on to note that ‘Capote’s cinematic eye – the movies influenced him as much as books and conversation did – was sharpened as he produced these apprentice works.’  Als also remarks upon Capote’s fascination with outsiders, believing himself to be one too.

The collection is short, spanning less than 170 pages, but over a dozen relatively brief pieces have been included.  Throughout, Capote is more focused on people than plot, but things do happen in each of the stories.  Indeed, the blurb writes that in his early work, it is evident that ‘Capote’s powers of empathy [are] developing as he depicts his characters struggling at the margins of their known worlds.’    For the most part, his early efforts have a tremendously effective pace to them.

The stories here take into account many different themes: ‘crime and violence; of racism and injustice; of poverty and despair.  And there are tales of generosity and tenderness; compassion and connection; wit and wonder.’  There are moments of comedy in some of these stories, and shades of tragedy in others.  Whilst there was less about race in the book than I was expecting, it is possible to identify Capote’s later influences and interests in this collection.

The stories here are not overly simplistic, but they perhaps err a little, on the whole, on the matter-of-fact, and are less descriptive than his later work tends to be.  As in the books of Capote’s written when he was more mature, however, I found that he has an uncanny ability to evoke both place and character by mentioning just a few details.  In ‘Parting of the Way’, for instance, he describe his protagonist like so: ‘Jake’s flaming red hair framed his head, his eyebrows looked like hors, his muscles bulged and were threatening; his overalls were faded and ragged, and his toes stuck out through pieces of shoes.’  Of Jake’s companion Tim, very much the antithesis, Capote writes: ‘His thin shoulders drooped from the strain, and his gaunt features stood out with protruding bones.  His eyes were weak but sympathetic; his rose-bud mouth puckered slightly as he went about his labor.’ Although many of the stories did not mention the specific geographic location in which they were set, each holds certain allusions to Capote’s Deep South.

In his tales, Capote’s characters have a lot of variance to them, hailing as they do from different walks of life – from the aforementioned downtrodden Tim in ‘Parting of the Ways’, to the privileged protagonist of ‘Hilda’, who is troubled in an entirely different way.  He is adept throughout at setting scenes, particularly when they involve impoverishment. As in his later work, Capote has a real knack here for capturing his characters.  In ‘This is for Jamie’, Capote describes the typical Sunday morning for his young protagonist: ‘Teddy ran along the paved paths of the park with a wild exuberance.  He was an Indian, a detective, a robber-baron, a fairy-tale Prince, he was an angel, he was going to escape from the thieves through the bush – and most of ask he was happy and he had two whole hours to himself.’

The authorial voice here is recognisably Capote’s, but I did find it possible to identify echoes of other works and influences as I was reading.  The opening of ‘Miss Belle Rankin’ reminded me somewhat of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, beginning as it does: ‘I was eight the first time I saw Miss Belle Rankin.  It was a hot August day.  The sun was waning in the scarlet-streaked day, and the heat was rising dry and vibrant from the earth.’  I did find it atmospheric at times, particularly within this story.  Capote writes: ‘The room was cold when she awoke and long tears of ice hung on the eaves of the roof.  She shuddered a little as she looked about at the drabness.  With an effort she slipped from beneath the gay colored scrap quilt.’  Later in the story, Capote’s descriptions become darker and more tense: ‘It was quite dark when Miss Belle started climbing up the hill towards home.  Dark came quickly on these winter days.  It came so suddenly today that it frightened her at first.  There was no glaring sunset, only the pearl grayness of the sky deepening into rich black.’  There are other beautiful, evocative touches to be found within The Early Stories of Truman Capote.  In ‘If I Forget You’, for example, he writes: ‘She wanted to stay out here in the night where she could breathe and smell and touch it.  It seemed so palpable to her that she could feel its texture like fine blue satin.’

I found it fascinating, having read all of Capote’s other fiction, and a large chunk of his non-fiction, to see his growth as an author from these earliest efforts.  Some of the stories in this collection perhaps end a little abruptly, but actually, I did not mind this.  I found that the majority of the tales tended to finish at just the right time, leaving a sense of intrigue in their wake.  The Early Stories of Truman Capote is rather a quick read, but it offers much to mull over.  For juvenilia, some of it certainly feels quite accomplished.  There perhaps is not the polish to the majority of the pieces here, but they are certainly interesting precursors.  Regardless, Capote manages to capture a great deal in this collection, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys his later work.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘Fenny’ by Lettice Cooper ****

In a writing career which spanned over sixty years, it is a real shame that the majority of Lettice Cooper’s books are out of print, and that most prove quite difficult, or at least rather expensive, to procure.  She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1968, and had much praise bestowed on her for her services to literature.  Of her work, I had read only The New House, which I very much enjoyed, before finding an inexpensive copy of Fenny – the 264th title on the Virago Modern Classics list – online.  The green-spined edition features an introduction by Cooper’s peer, Francis King.  He notes the high quality of Cooper’s writing, which has ‘a consistency of style, of moral outlook’.

2330502First published in 1953, Fenny is a much later novel than 1937’s The New House.  As its predecessor, it enticed me from the very beginning.  It focuses on a young woman named Ellen Fenwick, who has worked at a school in her native Yorkshire for several years.  She is offered a summer post in Tuscany, in a secluded setting quite near to Florence, as the governess to an eight-year-old girl named Juliet Rivers, the granddaughter of a famous actress whom Ellen very much admires.  The entire situation thus presents a ‘dazzling prospect’ for her.  It seems ‘far removed from the fireside teas and prize-givings’ which her current job includes, and Italy promises a ‘dreamlike setting for the new life she anticipates’.

Accepting the post, Ellen soon finds herself journeying to Italy.  When she arrives at the Villa Meridiana, she finds freedom of a sort: ‘she tastes her first cocktail, cuts her hair, becomes “Fenny” – and falls in love.’  However, set as the novel is against rather a tumultuous period in history, she is ‘forced to come to terms with both emotional and political realities.’  The novel spans the period between 1933 and 1949, in which Ellen forges a new life for herself.  Throughout, Cooper charts her growth into a woman of middle age, and the circumstances which surround her, causing her to examine herself and adapt accordingly.  Ellen, throughout this, remains a believable character, constantly putting her own wellbeing behind that of those who surround her.  Of Ellen, King writes in his introduction: ‘That, in the years ahead, she should suffer so many disappointments and yet never become embittered, never lose her faith in life, never (most important of all) lose her faith in herself, is what makes her such an admirable and appealing character.’  Indeed, I liked Ellen from the first, and was so interested in the new life which she forged for herself, as well as learning about what she had left behind.

Through Ellen’s movement to mainland Europe, Cooper was able to explore one of her favourite tropes – the differences between North and South.  The North is mentioned only briefly in the novel, but it is Ellen’s assimilation into an entirely new culture and way of life which is interesting.  Added to this is the fact that before travelling to the Villa Meridiana, Ellen has never been abroad.  Far before she reaches the final stop on the train, her excitement is palpable; Cooper writes: ‘… she had been sitting on the edge of the seat, a starter poised for a race…’.  Upon arrival, Ellen is transfixed on her surroundings: ‘The strange city through which they drove was the scenery of a dream.  She saw tall, flat-fronted houses with shuttered windows, stone facades lit by street lamps.’  Throughout, Cooper’s observations of character, and descriptions of place, are perceptive and sumptuous respectively.  Italy has been used as a character in its own right here, its presence feeding into the relationships and decisions of each character within the novel.  Soon after Ellen’s arrival, Cooper describes one of the endless lovely scenes which unfold over her surroundings: ‘Every evening the sun set in splendour over the town of Florence, and as the red faded to rose and the last stain of rose died from a sky the colour of old turquoise, the sombre green cypresses became hard black shapes against the deepening blue and the appearing stars.’

Fellow Virago author Storm Jameson called this ‘certainly Lettice Cooper’s finest novel’, and it is easy to see why.  Fenny is both introspective and evocative.  It believably charts the life of a single woman in circumstances which change, and cause her to change in consequence.  Cooper has such an understanding and an awareness of her protagonist, and the things which others around her cause her to feel.  In this manner, Fenny is a fascinating and insightful character study.    Whilst, of course, the focus is upon Ellen, we do learn about the Rivers family, their friends who live not too far away, and another tutor, amongst others who are introduced later on.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout works well, and Cooper’s prose is pitch perfect.  

I found the extended timeframe in which Ellen’s story is told to be effective, and so much of Cooper’s commentary pertinent and applicable to today: ‘Of course I am interested in politics,’ a lecturer tells Ellen.  ‘Life, it seems to me, is not divisible.  One cannot disassociate oneself, especially in these days, even if one does not take an active part in them.’  I very much enjoyed reading Fenny, and whilst I did not find the final section as transporting, nor as realistic, as the previous ones, it is still a Virago publication which I treasure.

2

‘House of Glass’ by Susan Fletcher ***

Susan Fletcher is an author whose work I have always very much enjoyed.  My first encounter with one of her novels was in the glorious Harper Perennial edition of Eve Green, quite some time ago.  I have since read almost all of her other work, and when I saw that she had a new novel – House of  Glass – coming out in 2018, I borrowed it from the library just as soon as I could. 9780349007649

Many of the reviews of House of Glass mention its ‘darkly gothic’ tone, as well as the way in which it is such things as surprising, moving, and mesmerising.  Tracy Chevalier notes that whilst the novel ‘may start as a ghost story’, it ‘turns into something much more profound: a lyrical examination of how women carve lives out of a male-dominated society, even with a war looming that will change everyone.’

House of Glass opens in June 1914, in which protagonist Clara Waterfield is ‘summoned’ to a large house in rural Gloucestershire, in order to fill a glasshouse with ‘exotic plants from Kew Gardens’ at the owner’s request.  The house is named, perhaps appropriately given the Gothic atmosphere, Shadowbrook.  When Clara arrives, the owner, Mr Fox, is absent, and she is soon informed that he rarely spends any time in the house.  Around this time, she begins to hear rumours, and to her, ‘something feels wrong with this quiet, wisteria-covered house.’  The blurb concludes by stating that over the summer, Clara ‘finds herself drawn deeper into the dark interior rooms – and into the secrets that violently haunt Shadowbrook.’

The novel opens with quite a vivid description of Clara’s disability, osteogenesis imperfecta.  It begins: ‘My structure is not quite right.  By this, I mean my bones – the part on which the rest of me is stretched, stitched into place…  My skeleton is frail.  I creak with any transference of weight.  In my childhood, I fractured so frequently – with small gestures, with the simple act of looking up – that doctors winced and shook their heads.  She is imperfect, they said.’  In consequence, her mother is ordered to keep Clara inside, sheltering her from the dangerous outside world – at least until she has stopped growing.  Clara thus spends the majority of her childhood reading, largely in the library of the house, which her parents converted from their old dining room for her benefit.  I felt that Fletcher’s depiction of Clara’s ailments was well-balanced, and did not feel dramatised in any way.  I also liked the way in which Fletcher used Clara’s own voice to describe herself.  The contrast between Clara’s past and present – in which she is able to leave the house and regain some independence – is well balanced. 

Clara was drawn to Kew Gardens quite by chance following the death of her mother, something which she was entirely unprepared for, despite the illness which ensued.  She is grieving and desperate, and walking is the only thing which helps to take some of the pain away.  She learns, in her own way, to navigate her own city, learning to board omnibuses which take her to distant parts of London.  On one such journey, she decides to alight at Kew: ‘And on a February morning, I stepped down from the bus in a place called Kew.  This was a name I knew.  For here, there were famous gardens, with rhododendron walks and glasshouses and pergolas.  I’d read of them in books.’  Spending around a decade indoors, with only glimpses of the outdoor world from windows, she is mesmerised by the wealth of plants she is able to wander amongst at Kew, now that she is older and her bones have ‘strengthened and settled themselves’.  Fletcher’s descriptions of the gardens are quite lovely; on a cold, ‘grey, desolate’ day, Clara finds an ‘extraordinary domed building of glass’ before her.  She enters, and ‘left February behind.  England, too, was gone.  For the Palm House at Kew contained canopies and ferns and damp wooden benches; palm leaves brushed my hair as I passed…  Now I wanted to be nowhere else.  I was done with crowds and London’s streets.  Here was a new beginning.’  This discovery, the comradely relationship which she strikes up with the keeper of the glasshouse, a man named Forbes, and the subsequent offer to travel to a new place in order to ‘establish a room of colour and scent and spectacle’, allows Clara to affirm her place in the world.  In this way, and given the alterations which Clara’s character undergoes, House of Glass can certainly be called a coming of age novel.

When she finds herself in Shadowbrook, after a long journey by train, Clara is met with ‘a house of pale stone.  Clematis grew on its walls.  Its courtyard was bordered with dark, leafy shrubs in which I could hear movement – nesting birds, or the scurrying of mice.  Two storeys to it, no more.  A small right-angled wing.’  At her point of arrival, Fletcher begins to introduce elements of oddness, or of ghostly occurrences.  The man who picks Clara up from the station, for instance, tells her not to worry about any noises which she might hear in the night, as old houses were prone to movement.  As she roams the grounds, and spends time within the house itself, she begins to notice something unsettling: ‘I had a curious sense of being watched; throughout the garden, I felt it.  It was as though I had entered a part of it – the orchard, the lime bower – at the very moment that someone else had risen and left; I felt that any metal chair might retain that person’s heat.  It was an unsettling notion.  I chastised myself for it – it was foolishness – yet I also looked down the lines of hedges.  On the croquet lawn, I turned in a slow, complete circle to see it all.’

Later, and unable to discover a rational solution, she muses over what the feeling of being watched, and screams and scratches in the night, could be the effects of.  After discussing the goings on with the members of staff at Shadowbrook, she says: ‘Ghost.  The word had not been said but we’d heard it even so.  It had hung above the kitchen table; it had circled us…  A thin, inconsequential, fictitious word.  It had no place in diagrams.’

In her other novels, two of Fletcher’s real strengths are her ability to create both atmosphere and realistic characters.  My experience with her newest book was much the same.  I very much admired the way in which she had not made Clara into a martyr, following the emotional and physical pain which she had to struggle with daily.  Rather, Clara was realistic; she had tempers, and spoke her mind quite wonderfully, particularly in those situations where she was challenged by other characters.  She felt entirely three-dimensional, holding within herself a myriad of worries and hopes, and a believable backstory.  Clara felt like a progressive, modern woman; she does not go to church, or believe in God, and does not allow her voice to be silenced by anyone.  She is opinionated and stubborn, and not at all a likeable character, but I found her quite fascinating.

Fletcher’s prose is rich and sensuous from the outset of House of Glass.  Of Clara’s confinement, she writes: ‘Ours became a house of cushioning.  Of velvet and goose down, embroidered pillows, Persian rugs and silk.  There was, too, a globe.  A rocking horse that I could touch but not ride.  And they’d bring home what they thought I might miss from the blustery world: fir cones and pigeon feathers, the scent of horses on my mother’s red gloves which I’d inhale, eyes closed.  Tales of how the river had looked at twilight.  How the carol singers sang, despite the rain.’  The descriptions of the library share gorgeously vivid imagery: ‘There was a chaise long which was, at first, the colour of moss.  But in time – as I read more, studied more maps – this deep, velvety green became the shade of hummingbirds’ wings or Othello’s envy or the gems which hid in equatorial soil.  The green of a tiny jungle frog.’

Whilst not my favourite of Fletcher’s novels – an accolade which must go to Oystercatchers and Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – I did enjoy many elements of House of Glass.  Whilst there is far less commentary on the outbreak of the First World War than I was expecting, I found that the period was very well evoked, and the novel itself was both immersive and atmospheric.  

At no point, however, was I entirely captivated by the story, and despite the real strengths in character building, I felt as though the denouement of the novel was a little disappointing, and something of an anticlimax, and the ending was drawn out.  The story does come together, but I did not find the twists to be overly clever or original.  I also found the pace a little awkward in places, and the tension which Fletcher had striven to create was not as heightened, and therefore not as successful, as it could have been.  Whilst there are many things which I admired in House of Glass, I have to say that it is probably my least favourite of Fletcher’s books to date.

Purchase from The Book Depository

4

‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker *****

I have been meaning to read Pat Barker’s Regeneration – the ‘classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men’ – for such a long time, but only got around to it very recently.  Probably her most famous novel, Regeneration has been considered a modern classic since its publication in 1991, and is the first book in a trilogy of the same name.  The book has been highly praised.  Margaret Forster calls it ‘a novel of tremendous power’, the Sunday Times ‘brilliant, intense, subtle’, and, fittingly, Time Out heralds it ‘a fine anthem for doomed youth’. 

9780141030937Set in 1917 at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in southeast Edinburgh, Regeneration takes as its focus three very well-known figures – Dr W.H.H. Rivers, who pioneered shellshock treatment for soldiers, and two war poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.  Robert Graves also makes odd appearances throughout.  Barker has also created, alongside these figures, the character of Billy Prior, unable to speak and only able to communicate on paper, who feels just as realistic.  Rivers’ job is to make the men in his care healthy enough that they can be returned to the Front.  ‘Yet the closer he gets to mending his patients’ minds,’ the blurb continues, ‘the harder becomes every decision to send them back to the horrors’ which await them.

Regeneration opens at the point at which Sassoon has expressed his objections to the war in writing, in a piece which he calls ‘an act of wilful defiance of military authority’.  In consequence, he is sent directly to Rivers, who receives the news of his arrival as follows: ‘Can you imagine what our dear Director of Medical Services is going to say, when he finds out we’re sheltering “Conchies” as well as cowards, shirkers, scrimshankers and degenerates?  We’ll just have to hope there’s no publicity.’

Justine Picardie writes that ‘what gives the novel its authenticity is Pat Barker’s impressive ability to capture her characters’ voices and moods.’  Indeed, Barker has a wonderful understanding of each of her characters, whether historical figures, or invented ones.  Her interpretation of them made them feel highly realistic, and at points in conversations – particularly those between Owen and Sassoon – I had to remind myself that I was not reading a piece of non-fiction.

There is such humanity to Barker’s examination, and I very much enjoyed the little glimpses of surprise in the behaviour of her characters, which often seem to be at odds with their public personas.  When Sassoon first arrives at Craiglockhart, for instance, Barker writes that he ‘lingered on the drive for a full minute after the taxi had driven away, then took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and ran up the steps.’ The descriptions which Barker gives of her characters do not just remark on the superficial; rather, they tend to have a lot of depth to them, and often err on the chilling.  She describes Sassoon in the following way: ‘Light from the window behind Rivers’s desk fell directly onto Sassoon’s face.  Pale skin, purple shadows under the eyes.  Apart from that, no obvious signs of nervous disorder.  No twitches, jerks, blinks, no repeated ducking to avoid a long-exploded shell.  His hands, doing complicated things with cup, saucer, plate, sandwiches, cake, sugar tongs and spoon, were perfectly steady…  So far he hadn’t looked at Rivers.  He sat with his head slightly averted, a posture that could easily have been taken for arrogance, though Rivers was more inclined to suspect shyness.’

Other reviewers have commented upon the language used in the novel, believing it to be too simplistic.  However, this was not the impression which I received.  There are a lot of poetic descriptions, and the dialogue particularly is filled with nuances and undercurrents.  The more stark, matter-of-fact language which has been used at odd times serves to highlight the horror of wartime.  Given the nature of the book, I felt as though the balance which Barker struck between these descriptions and the examination of her characters was perfect.  The moments of dark humour, which can be found from time to time, also worked very well.

Regeneration is very well situated historically, and scenes are vividly set in just a few sentences.  One of Barker’s particular strengths here are the comparisons which she makes between wartime and civilian life, particularly with regard to way in which she shows how quite ordinary things can be triggers for what soldiers had experienced in the trenches.  When a character named Burns is travelling on a bus, to give one example, she writes: ‘A branch rattled along the windows with a sound like machine-gun fire, and he had to bite his lips to stop himself crying out.’  She also demonstrates an impressive emotional range in her explorations of isolation and freedom, wellbeing and mentality, nightmare states and hallucinatory moments, and the profound effects which each of these things can cause.

There is, of course, much in the novel about medical experimentation, and how best to treat such troubled men.  Thoughts of, and explorations around, masculinity, have been cleverly woven in.  Barker makes it clear from the outset that the methods which Rivers has adopted in his radical treatment plan go quite against the moral, ‘manly’ values instilled in him, of demonstrating only strength and valour.  He, and too his patients, were not expected to show any signs of weakness.  Of this, Barker observes: ‘… he was already experimenting on himself.  In leading his patients to understand that breakdown was nothing to be ashamed of, that horror and fear were inevitable responses to the trauma of war and were better acknowledged than suppressed, that feelings of kindnesses for other men were natural and right, that tears were an acceptable and helpful part of grieving, he was setting himself against the whole tenor of their upbringing.’  She goes on to write: ‘The change he demanded of them – and by implication of himself – was not trivial.  Fear, tenderness – these emotions were so despised that they could be admitted into consciousness only at the cost of redefining what it meant to be a man.’

I had a feeling that I might regret leaving it so long to pick up Regeneration, and I am.  It is a stunning novel, compelling from the outset, and filled with moments of harrowing beauty, and poignant reflections on conflict and its worth.  I already have the second book in the trilogy, The Eye in the Door, on my to-read pile, and am very much looking forward to continuing with it sooner rather than later.  I imagine that it will be just as moving as Regeneration proved to be, this wonderful mixture of fact and fiction, in which Barker is constantly aware of the significance of every tiny thing.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘The Shortest History of Germany’ by James Hawes *

Whilst in Munich with my boyfriend in February of last year, I mentioned that I’d love to learn more about German history. I have a sound grasp of it from the Weimar Republic up until the fall of the Berlin Wall, and have studied the period between 1914 and 1945 intensively, but I knew very little about earlier eras. James Hawes’ The Shortest History of Germany therefore sounded as though it would be perfect to fill in those gaps.

9781910400739It rings alarm bells for me when history books do not include a bibliography or list of sources, and this omits both entirely. There are no footnotes to denote where a quote has been taken from, and sometimes things are quoted – in italics! – in the main body of text which do not include even the reference of the author’s name. Had I noticed this before purchasing The Shortest History of Germany, it would have gone straight back onto the shelf.

The placing of text, maps, and diagrams here is so awkward, and makes for an unpleasant reading experience. Every pictorial source has been placed into the main body of text, sometimes randomly and without commentary, and therefore some of the text has been rendered into a column. I really did not enjoy the format, and think it would been easier to read, and more accessible, had all of the non-textual sources been grouped together on glossy paper, something most other history books include as a matter of course. This is not my only qualm in this respect, because many of these sources were poor in quality, and therefore the text was blurred. Most of them added very little to the book.

The way in which the quotes were not embedded in the main body of text, but appeared randomly in greyscale boxes – again, with barely a source to denote where they had been found – was annoying and unnecessary. I did not enjoy Hawes’ writing style at all, and did not appreciate the constant references which he tried to draw between particular elements of German history and the present day. This made it feel even fluffier than a history book with no appendix or bibliography already feels.

Whilst The Shortest History of Germany has a relatively linear structure, the way in which it has been partitioned into sections is odd. Hawes’ commentary felt as though it was all over the place due to the way in which what he includes here has both been set out and handled. I did read it all the way through, but only because it is such a short book; on reflection, I wish I hadn’t bothered. The book, as one might expect, is incredibly brief, and not at all comprehensive. Far more attention was focused upon the twentieth-century than anything else, and whilst I can understand this to a point, it made the whole feel highly uneven. It also became far more biased as time went on, and his tone felt patronising at points.

I’d like to say that I learnt a lot from this book, but as there is no concrete evidence to show what Hawes had read – if anything! – before compiling it, I found myself mistrustful. If it had been submitted as even an undergraduate thesis, I doubt it would have received a very good mark, with the unnecessary omission of the bibliography, and its quite clumsy writing at times. It feels almost as though Hawes has chosen to include so many charts, graphs, maps, and newspaper clippings – many of which are barely legible – in order to detract from his often skewed perspectives and cursory mentions of really rather important things.

There are many short books which I have read that effectively give the history of a particular topic in succinct and immersive ways, and which also include a comprehensive list of sources for further reading. The omission of such an important thing here was a mistake. In consequence, I will never read anything of Hawes’ again, as I am unsure whether I can trust what he includes.

Purchase from The Book Depository