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‘Pepita’ by Vita Sackville-West **

Vita Sackville-West was a prolific author indeed, writing fiction (novels and short stories), poetry, biographical works, travel literature, and a column on gardening, amongst other things.  Vita Sackville-West’s Pepita, a biography which portrays the lives of both her grandmother, Josefa, whom she never met, and her mother Victoria, was first published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s The Hogarth Press in 1937.  The edition which I read was sadly not an original, but it did include rather a lovely introduction written by Alison Hennegan.

Josefa, lovingly known as Pepita to those around her, was ‘the half-gypsy daughter of an 9781784871161old-clothes pedlar from Malaga’, who made her fortune as a dancer, first in Madrid, and then as the ‘toast of all Europe’.  In May 1852, when she was just twenty-two years old, she arrived in London, already having been married and separated.  She soon met and became the ‘contented though severely ostracized mistress of Lionel Sackville-West, an English aristocrat and diplomat’. and bore him five illegitimate children, of whom Sackville-West’s mother was the second eldest.

After Pepita’s death, her nine-year-old daughter Victoria was sent to live in a convent, where she stayed until she was eighteen.  At this juncture, she was summoned to Washington to become ‘mistress’ of her diplomat father’s household.  She goes on to find herself ‘the volatile and wayward mistress of Knole’ in what is termed in Pepita‘s blurb as an ‘unlikely inheritance’.

In her introduction, Hennegan states: ‘For what appears to be a straightforward joint biography of her grandmother and mother becomes the means whereby Vita explores and makes sense for herself of those warring elements in her own past and temperament which most exercised and perplexed her.’  She goes on to say that for Vita, it was her ‘”Spanishness” which enabled her to accept her lesbianism comparatively easily, her “Englishness” which forbade anything as “vulgar” as a public acknowledgement of it.’  Sackville-West herself saw Pepita as a ‘gift to herself of the mother she almost had… [and] an extended love letter to the woman she wanted her mother to be.’  She writes: ‘Pepita, can I re-create you?  Come to me.  Make yourself alive again.  Vitality such as yours cannot perish.  I know so much about you: I have talked to old men who knew you, and they have all told me the same legend of your beauty’ of the section on her grandmother.  She extends this rule of exploration, and the hearsay she has been told, when she writes about, and tries to understand, her mother.

Despite Sackville-West’s proclamation in her own introduction to the book that everything which she has written is true, it seems rather fanciful and unrealistic at times.  Due to the style which Sackville-West has adopted, Pepita reads more like a novel than a work of biography.  The historical context has been used well, and does give one a feel for the backdrop which both Pepita and Victoria lived against.  Sackville-West does recognise that her portrayal of both her mother and grandmother are heavily biased as, of course, one would expect: ‘The one person who never speaks in this whole history, is Pepita herself.  We see her always objectively, never subjectively…  Pepita herself is never explicit.  In order to understand her at all, we have to find a piece from a different part of the puzzle, and fit it in.’

What I found most interesting about this account was the effect which Pepita had upon Lionel.  Sackville-West writes: ‘I mean no disrespect to my grandfather, but I do not think he was the man ever to enjoy dealing with a difficult situation: he far preferred to go away if he decently could and leave it to somebody else.  Hitherto, Pepita had ordered his life, and now [after her death] there was to be an uncomfortable period of transition until Pepita’s eldest daughter was of an age to assume the same responsibility.’  The psychological effects of the First World War which Sackville-West presents are also fascinating.

There is a lot of Vita herself within the book, and not just in the fact that she is writing about her ancestry.   She measures herself against her mother and grandmother at junctures, and is always passing her own opinion about their characters, or the decisions which they made.  Of course she has a strong connection with both of her subjects, but there is nothing objective about this biography; there is not the level of detachment and feeling of truthfulness which I expect of works of this kind.  Sackville-West does not remove her own self from the book enough for it to be anything like a full and far-reaching biography.

Pepita is a relatively entertaining book, but I feel as though it pales in comparison to much of Sackville-West’s other work.  It is difficult to take Pepita at face value, and it lacks that engagement which I have come to expect from Sackville-West’s books.  It is clear that her relationship with her mother was turbulent, but it feels at times as though episodes have been suppressed, or skimmed over.  There is no real explanation as to their relationship which lasts long enough to be entirely satisfying.  Overall, Pepita did not quite live up to my expectations.

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‘Black Lake’ by Johanna Lane **

Loving stories about old houses, and the families which live in them, Black Lake by Johanna Lane piqued my interest as soon as I spotted its blurb on my local library catalogue.  Despite Ireland being a country that I love to visit, I have found of late that barely any Irish literature has made its way onto my yearly reading lists.  Of course, I wanted to rectify this, and again, Black Lake ticked that box.

The Irish Examiner calls the novel: ‘A complex and beautifully structured story’, and the Irish Independent writes: ‘Lane’s prose is graceful, textured and her elegant style reflects the Campbells’ glazed retrograde world.’  John Burnside also praises the novel highly, 9780755396320deeming it: ‘A beautiful portrait of a family faced with unbearable loss.’

The Campbell family have lived on a sprawling estate named Dulough, the Irish for ‘black lake’, on the Irish coast of Donegal, for generations.  Like many families whose homes have been handed down, the Campbells have run out of money, and have little choice but to let the government take over the care and upkeep of the house, making it into a ‘tourist attraction’ in the process.  The family have to therefore move into a ‘small, damp caretaker’s cottage’ on the estate.  The ‘upheaval of this move strains the already tenuous threads that bind the family, and when a tragic accident befalls them, long-simmering resentments and unanswered yearnings are forced to the surface.’

Black Lake opens in autumn, when the family have opened up the house to the public, and moved into their new cottage.  The tragic accident described in the blurb has taken place at this point, and the family’s mother struggles to cope; she ends up taking her daughter, twelve-year-old Kate, from her boarding school, and locking her into the abandoned ballroom with her for long stretches of time.  At first unnamed, and without voices of their own, the initial chapter gives an insightful glimpse into the Campbell’s family dynamic.  As winter approaches, Lane describes the way in which, in her beautifully sculpted prologue: ‘The girl remembers when the snow began, flakes settling into the windowpane, muffling everything outside, even the wind.  The tourists were gone by then and it was just the sound of her father and the housekeeper moving about below, shutting up the house, covering the beds in dust sheets, rolling up the rugs, stowing away quilts no one ever slept under.  The girl missed the sound of the visitors, the guide herding them from room to room, story to story.  Surely, when the house was finally locked for winter, the father would say that they had to leave, too?’

Lane takes notice of incredibly small details; of the removal men, she writes, from the perspective of the Campbell’s eight-year-old son: ‘The men were older than his father; they had deep lines in their faces, like valleys, Philip thought.  He imagined tiny glaciers settling into their skin, the ice cracking and expanding.’

Whilst Black Lake is well structured, with different chapters following each of the characters in turn, there is a sense of detachment to the whole, which is exacerbated by the loose third person narrative voice.  I do not feel that Black Lake reached its potential; it was rather run-of-the-mill for a familial saga, and the writing was nowhere near as poetic as I expected after reading its prologue.  Unfortunately, Black Lake quite failed to hold my interest; it is not a bad book, but simply did not stand out enough for my personal liking.

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‘White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas’ by Robert Twigger **

I came across a copy of Robert Twigger’s White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas whilst browsing for books to take on holiday.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but was very much intrigued by the title and blurb.  I love travelogues and travel literature, and imagined that this would be a mixture of the two.  Its blurb says: ‘These mountains, home to Buddhists, Bonpas, Jains, Muslims, Hindus, Shamans and animals, to name only a few, are a place of pilgrimage and dreams, revelation and war, massacre and invasion, but also peace and unutterable calm.’

9780297608714In White Mountain, Twigger professes that he wishes to look at and explore the links between real and imagined journeys over the vast range of the Himalayas.  His father was born there, and he therefore feels a connection, which pushes him toward exploring the mountains himself.   In his own trips to the region, he ‘encounters incredible stories from a unique cast of mountaineers and mystics, pundits and prophets.  The result is a sweeping, enthralling and surprising journey through the history of the world’s greatest mountain range.’

White Mountain did not live up to my expectations.  Rather than the geographical biography which I was expecting, I was met with an incredibly imbalanced range of chapters, some of which are so short as to say barely anything, and others which are so long that they ramble and meander around points which could be interesting, had they been focused upon.  The historical detail was fascinating; the religious detail was rather overblown, and saturated the whole.  The nods to science are rendered intelligently.

However, Twigger has an odd habit of repeating himself throughout, and giving the same details over and over again.  Much of White Mountain, indeed, is about Twigger himself; he comes across as rather self-righteous, and often overshadows the fascinating stories of explorers in the region with his own experiences.  Quotes from others have been included, but these are often left alone, and not analysed in any way.

Upon finishing White Mountain, I awarded it three stars, but after mulling my decision over, I have decided to downgrade it to two.  The book had such a lot of potential which simply has not been reached, and the way in which it has been structured is jarring, and lacks balance.  Photographs have been randomly placed throughout; they have little bearing for the most part about what has been written, and serve to interrupt the narrative.  I would, for all of these reasons, steer clear of Twigger’s books in future.

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‘The Still Storm’ by Francoise Sagan ****

To date, I have read quite a few of Francoise Sagan’s books.  Like the majority of English speakers, I imagine, I began with her quiet masterpiece, Bonjour Tristesse, which was published when the author was just nineteen, and led her to become something of a literary sensation.  I have since encountered such gems as A Certain Smile and her short story collection, Incidental Music.  Each time I come across one of her books therefore, regardless of the invariable ugliness of the paperback copy, I will happily pick it up.

The Still Storm has been heralded ‘Sagan’s finest love story’ by Elle, and The Guardian deems it ‘serious, skilled and successful’.  The rather short novel is set in Angouleme, in the French province of Aquitaine, where Flora de Margelasse, a young woman recently widowed, has arrived to reclaim her family estate.  A local man named Nicholas Lomont, who works in the legal profession, narrates the whole.  He immediately falls in love with Flora, but she is quite unable to return such feelings to him.  When she falls in love with someone else, ‘the son of a farm labourer, who shamelessly betrays her, the world of Nicholas Lomont51ewftrip-l-_sy344_bo1204203200_ and the provincial French bourgeoisie is shattered.’

Told in retrospect, Nicholas attempts to relay his memories of Flora: ‘Writing and remembering, both, have dangerous and painful consequences…  I continue to write for no reason and for no one’s benefit.  The scratching of this pen is an end in itself…’.  He is honest, sometimes painfully so, of his experiences of loving Flora: ‘Let us simply say that right from the start I was resigned to loving Flora; worse, I was proud to love her, proud in advance of all that she would bring upon me, including the cruellest unhappiness.’  He goes on to recount her relationship with the young farmhand, Gildas.

The Still Storm begins in the following manner, which effectively sets the tone of the whole: ‘If one day someone else should read these pages – if an author’s blind vanity or some quirk of fate prevent me from destroying them – that reader should know that it is for my own recollection, and not for the entertainment of others, that I embark on this account of the summer of 1832 and the years that followed.’  Sagan’s style of writing, and the plot which she has woven, put me in mind of Daphne du Maurier throughout.

The French countryside has been vividly evoked, and the changing of the seasons depicted with such care: ‘Despite the little, round, prancing clouds – pink, white, blue, and bright red in the west at sunset – the sky dominates the landscape.  It seems to rest on our meadows, our churches, our little towns, lying heavily on our land and stretching to the horizon on all sides, day after day…  The weather is of more importance here than elsewhere because the sky is closer and the sunshine more direct.  The nights are darker, the winds wilder, and the heat and snow more still.’  Sagan also has a real strength in demonstrating her characters, from their passions to their appearances.  The final time in which Nicholas sees Flora, he writes: ‘I remember her as I saw her then.  She wore a dress of crumpled silk, and her superb profusion of blonde hair danced in the bright sunlight like an oriflamme captured from the enemy that was branded in derision over her face now white and sexless and ageless.’

The edition which I read has been wonderfully translated from its original French by Christine Donougher, and was published in France in 1983, and English for the first time the year afterwards.  The Still Storm is engaging from start to finish.  Sagan’s writing is rich, and has a beautiful clarity to it.  There is undoubtedly a touch of the Gothic, and of overblown melodrama, but that makes it all the more fun to read.  The Still Storm is a wise and contemplative novel, sometimes dark and surprising, which reflects upon both individuals and the wider society.

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Two Reviews: ‘A Lifetime Burning’ and ‘The Room of Lost Things’

A Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard ***
9781905175253
I really enjoyed Gillard’s novel Emotional Geology when I read it a few years ago, and purchased A Lifetime Burning on my Kindle sometime afterwards. I love immersive family sagas, and was pulled in immediately. There is such an intelligence and compassion to Gillard’s prose, and I enjoyed the non-linear structure, which was effective in showing the depth and backgrounds of the characters.

Elements of the storyline, however, let the whole novel down for me. Some were frankly so unlikely that they felt ridiculous, which surprised me. I was very much enjoying the book up until the first bizarre twist came, but felt my interest in it waning somewhat. Despite being so well written, in some ways, A Lifetime Burning was really rather disappointing, and it has made me think twice about reading all of Gillard’s oeuvre, which was my original plan.

 

The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy *** 9781844082131

I decided, after quite enjoying The Hidden Room but not getting on at all well with London Lies Beneath, that I would give Stella Duffy one last chance. Thus, I borrowed The Room of Lost Things from the library. I was not pulled in straight away, but did find myself becoming more interested after a few pages, and almost engrossed a couple of chapters in.

The real strength for me here was the way in which London is portrayed; I miss the city dearly, having studied there for an entire year, and now being a whole country away from it. Duffy goes into so much detail about different boroughs; London, wonderfully evoked in all of its grit and glory, essentially becomes a character in itself, arguably the most important one in the novel. I admired the way in which everything revolved around something as dull and suburban as a dry-cleaning shop, too; it worked very ell as the novel’s focal point. The structure is clever yet simple.

I did find my attention waning after a while though; whilst the main thread of story featuring Robert and Akeel is interesting, some of the secondary characters had stories which felt quite repetitive after a while. This is my favourite of Duffy’s books to date, but I still wasn’t blown away by it.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ by Rumer Godden ****

Rumer Godden’s The Lady and The Unicorn, which was first published in 1937, is the 630th entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list. As with The River and The Villa Fiorita, both republished by Virago at the same time, The Lady and The Unicorn includes a well-crafted and rather fascinating introduction penned by Anita Desai.

9781844088478After setting out the author’s childhood, lived largely in India, Desai goes on to write about the influences which drove Godden to write over sixty acclaimed works of fiction, for both children and adults. Desai states that Godden ‘cannot be said to have been ignorant, or unmindful, of her society and its role in India. In no other book is this made as clear’ as it is in this one, a novel written ‘in the early, unhappy days of her first marriage’. Desai then goes on to write that ‘the contact with her students [at the dance school which Godden opened in Calcutta], their families and her staff taught her a great deal about the unhappy situation of a community looked down upon both by the English and by Indians as “half-castes”‘. The Lady and The Unicorn faced controversy upon its publication, with many English reviewers believing her ‘unfairly critical of English society’, and others viewing ‘her depiction of Eurasians’ as cruel. Her publisher, Peter Davies, however, deemed the novel ‘a little masterpiece’.

The Lemarchant family are Godden’s focus here; ‘neither Indian nor English, they are accepted by no-one’. They live in the small annex of a fading ‘memory-haunted’ mansion in Calcutta. The widowed father of the family is helped only by ‘auntie’ and a servant of sorts named Boy, an arrangement which causes misery for all: ‘There were so many ways that father did not care to earn money that the girls had to be taken at school for charity and the rent was always owing… No matter how badly he [father] behaved they [auntie and Boy] treated him as the honourable head of the house, and auntie complained that the children did not respect him as they ought’. The way in which the family unit is perceived within the community is negative, and often veers upon the harsh: ‘The Lemarchants are not a nice family at all, they cannot even pay their rent’ is the idea which prevails.

The three daughters of the Lemarchant family could not be more different; twins Belle and Rosa are often at odds with one another, and the youngest, Blanche, is treated no better than an outcast. Blanche is described as ‘the family shame, for she was dark. Suddenly, after Belle and Rosa, had come this other baby like a little crow after twin doves. Auntie said she was like their mother, and they hated to think of their mother who was dead and had been dark like Blanche. Belle could not bear her, and even Rosa was ashamed to be her sister’. Of the twins, Godden writes that Rosa, constantly overshadowed by her twin sister, ‘could never be quite truthful, she had always to distort, to embroider, to exaggerate, and if she were frightened, she lied’. The family in its entirety ‘were sure that Belle was not good, and yet at home she gave hardly any trouble; it was just that she was quite implacable, quite determined and almost fearless… Belle did exactly as she chose. When she was crossed she was more than unkind, she was shocking’. The divisions within the family therefore echo those which prevail in society.

The sense of place is deftly built, particularly with regard to the house in which the Lemarchants live: ‘There was not a corner of the house that Blanche did not know and cherish, all of them loved it as if it were their own; that was peculiar to the Lemarchants, for the house did not like its tenants, it seemed to have some strange resentment’. Of their surroundings, of which the girls know no different, Belle sneers the following, exemplifying her discontent: ‘We know a handful of people in Calcutta and most of them are nobodies too. What is Calcutta? It is not the world’. There is not much by way of plot here, really, but the whole has been beautifully written, and the non-newsworthy aspects of the girls’ lives have been set out with such feeling and emotion.

The Lady and The Unicorn is a captivating novel, which captures adolescence, and the many problems which it throws up, beautifully. Part love story and part coming-of-age novel, Godden is shrewd throughout at showing how powerful society can be, and how those within it often rally together to shun those ‘outsiders’ who have made it their home.

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‘In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom’ by Yeonmi Park ****

I find North Korea – and, indeed, life in dictatorships in general – fascinating, perhaps more so due to the general lack of knowledge which we in the Western world have had about the country until very recently.  Yeonmi Park’s memoir, In Order to Live, tells of her escape from North Korea, and its consequences; she fled from the country with her mother when she was just thirteen, arriving first in China, and then in South Korea.  The escape itself does not come without problems.  Even when she and her mother reach China, they are under the control of those who helped to smuggle them across the border; both were trafficked, and horrifically abused.  Reflecting upon her life thus far, Park writes: ‘I am most grateful for two things: that I was born in North Korea, and that I escaped from North Korea.  Both of these events shaped me, and I would not trade them for an ordinary and peaceful life.’

Park spent much of her childhood in Hyesan, a city in an impoverished part of northern North Korea, not far from the Chinese border.  Of her home, she writes: ‘In our part of North Korea, it was normal to go for weeks and even months without any electricity’.  Park’s descriptions of North Korea in the twenty first-century make it seem entirely alien.  She is honest about the levels of censorship which exist, things that she did not realise until she escaped, and was able to learn about her country from other, less biased sources: ‘The regime blocks all outside information, all videos and movies, and jam radio signals.  There is no World Wide Web and no Wikipedia.  The only books are filled with propaganda, telling us that we live in the greatest country in the world, even though at least half of North Koreans live in extreme poverty, and many are chronically malnourished.’ 9780241973035

Of the writing and remembering process which Park had to go through in order to craft her memoir, she writes: ‘Some of the images reappeared with a terrible clarity; others were hazy, or scrambled like a deck of cards spilled on the floor.  The process of writing has been the process of remembering, and of trying to make sense out of those memories.’  Park goes on to demonstrate the marked comparisons between her old world and her new, which are sometimes quite surprising.  In North Korea, she writes, ‘There was no music blaring in the background, no eyes glued to smartphones back then.  But there was human intimacy and connection, something that is hard to find in the modern world I inhabit today.’

Park’s story is both moving and markedly honest.  She writes starkly of the consequences of her escape, which prohibit her from ever seeing her homeland again under its current leadership: ‘Many of us who escape call ourselves “defectors” because by refusing to accept our fate and die for the Leader, we have deserted our duty.  The regime calls us traitors.  If I tried to return, I would be executed’.  What Park writes of the regime, and its level of control, itself is very chilling at times: ‘I actually believed that our Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, could read my mind, and I would be punished for my bad thoughts.’  Perhaps most poignant are the ways in which she demonstrates the regime’s ability to alter people irrevocably; her own mother, for instance, ends up living her life in fear.  She shows that the tiniest transgressions from what she was supposed to do gave her a tiny, sparkling taste of freedom.

In Order to Live is as important as it is enlightening; it demonstrates just how much freedom many of the countries in the world allow their citizens.  This freedom is something which is withheld from millions, and should never be taken for granted.  The Korean history here is thorough, and nothing short of fascinating.  In telling her story, Park has presented a memoir which is at once achingly sad and hopeful; now studying at Columbia University in New York, she is the voice bravely and wonderfully speaking out for her oppressed people, and against her home nation.  In Order to Live is an essential tome for understanding just how diverse different cultures in the world are, and how, with bravery, it is possible to overcome oppression and make a better life for oneself.  Park beautifully demonstrates the strength and resilience of the human spirit in the very worst of situations, and the lengths which one will go to in order to survive.

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