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‘Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore **

Helen Dunmore’s final novel, Birdcage Walk, is a piece of historical fiction set in 1792, in Bristol.  At this time, ‘Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence’.  The Observer calls Birdcage Walk ‘the finest novel Dunmore has written’.  The Daily Telegraph deem it ‘Quietly brilliant…  among the best fiction of our time.’  The Guardian believe it to be ‘a blend of beauty and horror evoked with such breathtaking poetry that it haunts me still’.  The novel was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, and has been rather highly praised by critics, as the above quotes demonstrate. 9780099592761

Lizzie Fawkes, the protagonist of the novel, is the product of a childhood lived in Radical circles, ‘where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism’.  Lizzie has recently married a property developer named John Diner Tredevant, who is ‘heavily invested’ in their city’s housing boom, and has ‘everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war’.  He is displeased with Lizzie’s ‘independent, questioning spirit’, and is of the conviction that she should live and behave only in the manner he wishes her to.  In 1793, war was declared between Britain and France, which led to the collapse of the housing boom in Bristol, causing many builders and developers to go bankrupt; this, of course, affects Lizzie and John.

The novel opens in present day Bristol, where a dogwalker comes across an overgrown grave: ‘If my friends hadn’t decided that I should have a dog I would never have opened the gate and gone into the graveyard.  I always took the paved path between the railings.  Birdcage Walk, it’s called, because of the pleached lime trees arching overhead on their cast iron frame.’  The grave which his dog, Jack, first discovers ‘leaned only slightly backwards’.  The name inscribed upon it is Julia Elizabeth Fawkes, an eighteenth-century writer.  The narrator is able to find no information about her whatsoever online, and goes to an open day at her known residence in order to ask an archivist what they are able to find out.

The novel proper begins with rather a chilling chapter.  It begins: ‘He must have shut his eyes.  When he opened them, there she was.  She lay as he had left her, under a tree in the brambles and ivy.  He had laid her out straight, and crossed her hands, and then he had wrapped his coat about her head.  He had known that she would stiffen in a few hours, and that he would not want to see her once again.  There she was.  No one had come; he’d known that no one would come.  It was his luck.  There were no marks where he had dragged her, because he had lifted her in his arms and carries her.’  This man, unknown to us at first, then digs a grave and buries her, before scurrying away.  The second chapter of the novel, and the majority of those which follow, are narrated by Lizzie, whose mother is a writer.

The descriptions in Birdcage Walk are sometimes inventive, and have a vivacity to them.  For instance, Dunmore writes: ‘But the moon was inside too.  It had got into the bedroom while we were sleeping.  Its light walked about over the bedstead, over the chest, the basin in its stand and the blue-and-white jug.  It was a restless thing and I could not lie still.’  I found the first couple of chapters, and the differentiation between tone, character, and period intriguing, but I soon found myself losing interest in the story once Lizzie’s account began.  Her voice felt too settled, and I could not invest enough empathy in her plight.  The dialogue felt forced, unnatural, and repetitive, and the prose and plot were too slow, and plodded along.  Julia Fawkes was a real person, but I felt as though Dunmore had no hold upon her character.  Whilst Dunmore often excels in her novels with her descriptions of the natural world, and in setting scenes, I did not quite feel as though this was the case here.

Birdcage Walk deals with ‘legacy and recognition – what writers, especially women writers, can expect to leave behind them’.  This has an added poignancy, given Dunmore’s untimely death last year.  Unfortunately, whilst I have very much enjoyed several of Dunmore’s novels in the past, Birdcage Walk neither lived up to its premise, nor to its praise, for me.  I am all for slow novels, but I like my historical fiction to be highly absorbing, and well anchored in the period.  Unfortunately, Birdcage Walk was neither.

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One From the Archive: ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet ****

“Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942: two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent on a daring mission by London to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich – chief of the Nazi secret services, ‘the hangman of Prague’, ‘the blond beast’, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’. His boss is Heinrich Himmler but everyone in the SS says ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’, which in German spells “HHhH”.

9780099555643“All the characters in HHhH are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are a novelist writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up? HHhH is a panorama of the Third Reich told through the life of one outstandingly brutal man, a story of unbearable heroism and loyalty, revenge and betrayal. It is improbably entertaining and electrifyingly modern, a moving and shattering work of fiction.”

I was so very impressed by Laurence Binet’s HHhH. I found the entire novel incredibly engrossing, and I loved the mixture of fact and fiction which Binet had used. The different narrative structures which he made use of worked wonderfully, both singularly and together. The translation has been rendered with such care and precision that it never feels awkward, as many pieces of translated fiction can so easily. Binet’s writing suits the story he has crafted, and his take on the tale is really quite chilling at times. He portrays the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime very well indeed. His descriptions of Prague, one of my favourite cities, are exquisite.

I have never before read a book without page numbers, but I am glad that this was the first. Odd as it may sound, the structure of the book just does not make them necessary. HHhH is a book to be drawn into and to forget the world around you as you continue to read. It is more interesting in such cases, I feel, to be so engrossed that you no longer wonder how many pages you have left to go until you reach the end. HHhH is marvellously paced, particularly towards the end, and is a must read for any self-confessed history nerds out there.

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‘The Pigeon Pie Mystery’ by Julia Stuart ***

I have wanted to read Julia Stuart’s The Pigeon Pie Mystery for what feels like absolutely ages, after really enjoying her other three novels (The Matchmaker of Perigord (2007), Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo (2010), and The Pearl Fisher of Scotland (2016).  The Pigeon Pie Mystery is her third novel, and is set largely inside Hampton Court Palace and its grounds during the reign of Queen Victoria.

As still happens today, the reigning monarch allowed ‘grace and favour’ residents to make their home in Hampton Court Palace, with their rent, at least, being paid by the state.  One such character, whom Stuart focuses upon in this novel, is an Indian Princess named Alexandrina, and nicknamed Mink.  She is invited to make her home in the palace in March 1897 after her father dies ‘in such unusual circumstances’ and leaves her penniless, forcing her to move out of their luxurious home, and into quarters with her hopeless and stubborn maid, Pooki.9780307947697

Soon after she arrives, Mink ‘is befriended by three eccentric widows’, who invite her to a picnic, along with many other grace and favour residents and their families.  Pooki decides to bake a great British favourite, a pigeon pie, for the occasion.  At the picnic, nobody touches this, save for General-Major Bagshot, who dies.  The coroner discovers traces of arsenic in his system, and Pooki thus becomes the favourite suspect in the ensuing investigation.  A ‘fun and quirky murder mystery’ is promised.

This quirkiness is perhaps most apparent with a couple of the peripheral characters, as well as with Stuart’s rather inventive chapter headings.  These range from ‘The Ominous Arrival of the Undertaker’ and ‘An Unfortunate Incident with the Blancmange’, to ‘The Hazards of a Stuffed Codpiece’.  The character list which has been included also features quite unusual attributes and details about the protagonists.  The Countess of Bebbington, for example, is a ‘parsimonious widow in perpetual mourning, with an addiction to ferns’, and the Watercress Seller who ‘hawks outside the palace gate and sleeps in a coffin’.

I hoped that The Pigeon Pie Mystery would be just as entertaining as Stuart’s other novels, but was left feeling a little disappointed.  Whilst there are some undoubtedly creative and amusing elements at play within it, they become lost somewhat in rather a saturated plot, peopled with too many characters.  The writing is certainly intelligent here, but it feels as though Stuart was trying to make too many things work; she had too many fingers in too many pies, and the result became something of a muddle, unfortunately.

The Pigeon Pie Mystery reads like a comedy of manners; in this way, it does tend to become a little silly in places.  Whilst the novel did keep my interest, it was not at all what I was expecting.  It felt quite different to Stuart’s other books, perhaps just because it is her only historical novel.  Although there is great period detail, and a clearly large amount of research which has gone into this work, it feels flatter than it should.

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‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ by Svetlana Alexievich ****

Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘classic oral history’ The Unwomanly Face of War has recently been released in its first English version, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  I was so excited to pick up a copy, fascinated as I am by Russian history and the Second World War, both of which Alexievich’s work encompasses.

During the Second World War, ‘about a million women fought in the Soviet army,’ Alexievich writes in her introduction.  ‘They mastered all military specialties, including the most “masculine” ones.  A linguistic problem even emerged: no feminine gender had existed till then for the words “tank driver,” “infantryman,” “machine gunner,” because women had never done that work.  The feminine forms were born there, in the war’.  Belarusian Alexievich then goes on to discuss her experiences growing up just after the war in Ukraine, when tragedy affected everyone: ‘We didn’t know a world without war; the world of war was the only one familiar to us, and the people of war were the only people we knew.’

Alexievich, 9780141983523an investigative journalist, wanted to write an account about women, and of their experiences in conflict.  Her reasoning and justification for writing The Unwomanly Face of War are strong.  She saw the existing reportage of wartime accounts flawed, due to their masculine leanings.  She writes: ‘There have been a thousand wars – small and big, known and unknown.  And still more has been written about them.  But… it was men writing about men – that much was clear at once.  Everything we know about war we know with “a man’s voice.”‘  She goes on to exemplify the highly varied experiences of women, and their often far more emotive accounts.  ‘”Women’s” war,’ she points out, ‘has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings.  Its own words.  There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.’

It was markedly important for Alexievich to speak to as many women as she could, and in consequence, she is able to share ‘stories of women’s experiences in World War II on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories.’  To collect the testimonies, she took ‘dozens of trips all over the country, hundreds of recorded cassettes, thousands of yards of tape.  Five hundred meetings, after which I stopped counting; faces left in my memory, only voices remained.  A chorus resounds in my memory.  An enormous chorus; sometimes the words almost cannot be heard, only the weeping.’  Accounts came from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.  She interviewed snipers, drivers, traffic controllers, liaison officers, nurses, paramedics, mechanics, telephone operators, pilots, and partisans, to create her multilayered portrait of women in war.

Alexievich is aware of the flaws to be found in any project of this kind, primarily the validity of what she is being told, as there is no way to verify individual accounts.  She says, ‘but the narrators are not only witnesses – least of all are they witnesses, they are actors and makers.  It is impossible to go right up to reality.  Between us and reality are our feelings.’  Her aim here is to portray the ‘sickening’ futility of war, and its far-reaching effects: ‘I write not about war, but about human beings in war.  I write not the history of a war, but the history of feelings.  I am a historian of the soul.’

The Unwomanly Face of War, as far as it can be judged to be so, feels candid.  Both the accounts which have been transposed, and Muller’s intelligent and measured commentary, are expressive and immersive.  Whilst the accounts themselves are sometimes very matter-of-fact, and verge upon the simplistic with regard to their language, they are often horrific and difficult to read.  The Unwomanly Face of War is such an important historical document, touching and tender.  Alexievich has included fragments of so many stories which deserve to be told.

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‘Anne Frank: The Biography’ by Melissa Muller *****

I purchased a revised and expanded edition of Melissa Muller’s Anne Frank: The Biography on an affecting trip to the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam last year.  I have been so looking forward to reading it, but for some reason – emotional turmoil over Anne’s story, I expect, which never fails to bring me to tears – it took me some time to pick it up.  The Sunday Telegraph deems Muller’s biography ‘sensitive, serious and scrupulous’, and the Independent believes it to be an ‘accurate and honest portrait’.  The New York Times writes that Anne Frank: The Biography ‘acts as a supplement to the diary, filling in Anne’s fragmentary view of her own life’.

9781408842102I have read Anne’s own diary – which has sold more than thirty million copies in over seventy languages to date – countless times, as well as rather a few books about her, but Anne Frank: The Biography has become one of my absolute favourites.  It has been translated from its original German by Rita and Robert Kimber.  In this updated edition, Muller ‘details new theories surrounding the family’s betrayal, revelations about the pressure put on their helpers by the Nazi party and the startling discovery that the Franks had applied for a visa to the US.’

In her foreword, Muller writes of Anne’s importance: ‘Over the past sixty years, Anne Frank has become a universal symbol of the oppressed in a world of violence and tyranny.  Her name invokes humanity, tolerance, human rights, and democracy; her image is the epitome of optimism and the will to live.’  Upon her initial reading of Anne’s diary, Muller had many questions which were left unanswered; this inspired her to research and write Anne Frank: The Biography.  At this point, she says, ‘my search began – initially in the 1990s – to search for the person behind the legend, a search for the incidents and events that shaped the life and personality of Annelies Marie Frank.’  Her aim, she goes on, ‘was to gather as many fragments of the mosaic as possible and create as authentic a picture of Anne’s brief life as I could, illuminating the familial and social circumstances that provided the foundation of her life and left their mark on it.’

Anne Frank: The Biography opens with a copy of the Frank and Hollander family trees, which become useful to refer to when grandparents and great-grandparents are introduced into the narrative.  The initial chapter of the book opens on a scene in August 1944.  This, at first, seems like an ordinary day in the annexe in which Anne and her family, along with others, are hiding, but it proves to be the day on which they are discovered by the Dutch Nazis.  After they have been taken away, Muller describes how Miep and Bep, office workers who helped them to hide, retrieve Anne’s diary, not reading a single page so as to protect her privacy.  They hoped to be able to give it back to her after the war.

The second chapter then begins with Anne’s birth in Frankfurt, where her family lived on the outskirts of the city.  Of their new arrival, the Franks ‘had worried that Margot might be jealous of the baby, but Margot laughed with delight when she saw her.  Anne’s ears stuck out comically, and her wild black hair was silky and soft.’  A chronological timeline is followed from this chapter onward, and we are able to chart Anne’s progress as she grows, and becomes more independent.  Particular attention is paid to the craft of Anne’s writing, wishing as she did to become a novelist when she grew up.  ‘Her style,’ Muller writes, ‘improved rapidly, with astonishing speed considering her age…  The more she wrote, the sharper her observations became and the clearer her expression of those observations; the keener, too, her understanding of others and – as if she could step outside herself and look back in – of herself as well.  What she had begun in adolescent dreaminess ultimately achieved, in many passages, a maturity that was as convincing as it was astonishing.’

Political and social occurrences, particularly those which relate to the restrictions placed upon Jewish people, run alongside the lives of the Frank family.  This social context has been provided throughout, and adds depth and understanding.  Upon the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, for instance, Muller states: ‘In one day the social structure of Holland had been transformed.  Where once there had been rich and poor, an upper and a lower class, a right wing and a left wing, and various religious blocs, now only one criterion distinguished good from bad, friend from enemy: was a person anti-German or pro-German?’  Along with historical facts, Muller weaves in the interested and intelligent Anne’s own opinions.  Upon the surrender of the Netherlands, ‘Anne was outraged…  Surrender was a concept she was hearing about for the first time, and she didn’t like the sound of it.  It didn’t suit her character.’

Counter to its title, Anne Frank: The Biography is not simply a biographical account of Anne; it includes details of both her immediate and extended family members on both sides, as well as accounts of family friends, and her schoolmates.  Photographs have been dotted throughout, which adds to the narrative, and shows those around Anne, first in Germany, and then in Amsterdam, where her family moved when she was small.  Perhaps most moving in terms of these portraits is the impression we receive of her doting father, Otto.  When writing about Anne and Margot’s friends in Amsterdam, Muller says: ‘The greatest delight of all was Mr. Frank.  His wife was always there and always friendly, but the children hardly noticed her; they took such things for granted in mothers.  But Otto Frank, at almost six feet a tall man for those days, was special.  With Mr. Frank you could talk and joke about anything.  He made up games, told stories, always had a comforting word, and seemed to forgive Anne everything…  Otto’s high spirits were truly infectious.  And when he was at home he spent more time with his children than most other fathers did.’  Of course, Anne is always the central focus here, but more of an understanding of her character can be gained from seeing those around her.

Muller is so understanding of Anne’s character and qualities, and notes how great an effect being in the annexe had for her: ‘At a time when a young person is recalcitrant and restless, defiant and temperamental, full of questions and searching for answers, baffled, helpless, and often irritable, Anne had no outlets for her feelings, no way to let off steam…  Anne herself described the period from 1942 until well into 1943 as a difficult time.  In the long days of loneliness and despair and of conflict not only with her housemates but also and primarily with herself, Kitty and the diary became her closest confidants.’

Muller’s prose style makes Anne Frank: The Biography a very easy book to read; it is intelligent and measured, not to mention packed with detail, but it still feels readily accessible.  The biography is considerate and meticulously researched and, as one would expect, is both touching and harrowing throughout.  Anne Frank: The Biography is a moving and detailed tribute to a remarkable young woman, and works as the perfect companion to The Diary of a Young Girl.

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‘The Greatcoat’ by Helen Dunmore ***

Helen Dunmore, a prolific author, died in June 2017; The Greatcoat was published in 2012.  Reviews from critics have been largely positive – for instance, The Times calls the novel ‘the most elegant flesh-creeper since The Woman in Black‘, and the Independent on Sunday ‘a perfect ghost story’ – but those from readers have been rather mixed.  Regardless, one has to admire Dunmore for writing about such a wealth of different time periods and characters, from Second World War Russia in The Siege, to D.H. Lawrence’s experiences in Cornwall in Zennor in Darkness, and children’s books about an underwater land named Ingo, which is peopled by mermaids.

The Greatcoat is set in the East Riding of Yorkshire during the winter of 1952, the year and place in which Dunmore herself was born. 9780099564935  Protagonist Isabel Carey, married for just two months to her largely absent doctor husband Philip, is ‘struggling to adjust to the realities’ of her new life.  One night, when cold, she rummages in a cupboard in their rented flat, and finds an old World War Two greatcoat, which she covers herself with.  The knock which comes at the window startles her; there is a pilot outside, wanting to come in.  She is frightened on the first night, and hides; when it happens again, ‘She could still hear the tapping sound that had woken her.  It must be her dream still turning, like a record after the needle had been lifted off.  Tap, tap, tap.  Soft, insistent, determined.  It was a real sound.  It was coming from the living room.’

Whilst, in their new home, Isabel and Philip have managed to escape the ‘narrow house where bed springs cracked like whips and the flush of the lavatory was the bellow of a caged water-dragon’ in which his parents live, conditions are little better.  Their situation, from the very beginning, is far from ideal: ‘Upstairs, the landlady laughed.  Too close, thought Isabel.  They had divided the house into flats but they couldn’t quite separate the lives within it.’  The constant walking around of the landlady becomes rather a disturbing noise for Isabel, who feels trapped within their walls, and is openly scrutinised by the townspeople whenever she ventures outdoors.  She feels out of her depth; she ‘looked all wrong.  Too young, too soft, too southern.’

Throughout, we as readers are party to Isabel’s experiences only; she is an unmoving focal point for Dunmore.  The first time she speaks to the airman, Alec, he comes into her house during the day.  At this point, ‘her thoughts moved strangely, down paths that were foreign and yet entirely familiar.  They were paths that had revealed themselves quite suddenly, as if a light had been shone inside her.  She was Isabel Carey, and yet these were thoughts that Isabel Carey had never had.  She knew what he meant, and she ought not to know it.’  Later, Dunmore writes: ‘He was a stranger, but she knew him.  Every word he spoke and every shadow of his expression fitted patterns she had never seen before but which had always been there, beneath the skin of her life.’  Isabel begins to lose herself; real memories and those which feature the airman, which she is sure she never lived, converge and blur.

The Greatcoat is a slight book, but a thoughtful one, and the pacing works well.  The story which Dunmore has woven has familiar elements to it.  Whilst it has been categorised as a ghost story, it is rather unusual in some ways.  I found myself pulled in rather early on, caring about Isabel and her plight, and wondering what would happen to her with the increased visits of Alec.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout works well, particularly when Dunmore is building tension.

However, whilst the novel is a little chilling in places, it feels as though opportunities have been missed; at no point did I find it at all scary, and when it all came together, it feels quite obvious.  Whilst the psychological impact of experiences upon Isabel are touched upon, they are not always shown with as much depth as they should have been.  The Greatcoat is an easy book to read; perhaps too easy at times, for the darker elements of the novel can be missed.

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‘Love From Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother’, edited by Donald Sturrock ****

I really enjoyed Donald Sturrock’s biography of Roald Dahl, Storyteller, when I read it a couple of years ago.  I was thus very excited to read Love From Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother, which Sturrock edited.  Whilst on yet another (largely unsuccessful) book-buying ban at the time of purchase, Love From Boy looked far too lovely to pass up when I spotted a single copy in Fopp.

From his early childhood, when he was sent away to boarding school, Roald Dahl sent one letter each week to his Norwegian mother, Sofie Magdalene; he continued this habit into adulthood, and ‘unbeknown to Roald, his mother lovingly kept every single one of them.’  Of this practice, Sturrock writes: ‘Sofie was, in many ways, Roald’s first reader.  It was she who encouraged him to tell stories and nourished his desire to fabricate, exaggerate 9781444786286and entertain.’  She clearly had an enormous influence upon him, nurturing him, and facilitating his love for plants and never-ending greed for homemade cakes and food parcels.  Indeed, Dahl later ‘acknowledged her as the source for his own interest in horticulture, cooking, wine, paintings, furniture and animals.  She was the “mater familias”, his constant reference-point and guide.’

In Love From Boy, we are able to ‘witness Roald Dahl turning from a boy to a man, and finally becoming a writer.’  Michael Rosen heralds Sturrock’s effort here, believing that his ‘commentary on the letters is meticulous, thoughtful and kind.’  I found this to be true with Storyteller too; it is so well-informed, and so sympathetic, without feeling overly sentimental, or glossing over any details.  A lot of thought has been put into the accompanying comments in Love From Boy, and into which of the letters should be included here.  As readers, Sturrock has allowed us to step into Sofie’s shoes; ‘we can experience his adventures, recounted in his own unique voice: a delightful and sometimes disconcerting mixture of honesty, humour, earthiness and fantasy.’

Literary Review captures the spirit of these letters wonderfully, writing that this is: ‘An entertaining and eye-opening collection…  it is his younger self that is captured here – jaunty and anarchic, yet a recognisable forerunner of that more subtly anarchic, stooping, cardiganed figure who was the world-famous author, gazing out on the world from his garden shed with watery, mischievous eyes.’  The correspondence of authors, from my experience of reading quite a few collections, often shows a different side to them entirely.  Fans of Dahl’s fun and quirky children’s books may be surprised at how much heartbreak he had in his life, and these letters do show that he had a very serious side, contrary to that which he revealed in much of his writing.

The cache of more than 600 letters which Sturrock had to choose from for this collection end two years before Sofie’s death.  Roald was bequeathed the letters, all of which had been kept in their original envelopes, after her death in 1967.  Unfortunately, none of Sofie’s letters to Roald have been recovered, and so her part in proceedings, says Sturrock, is ‘more mysterious’.  Evidently so aware of Dahl’s life and feelings, he points out that many elements and emotions were left out of these letters entirely.  He says that they are ‘interesting for what they do not say.  They seldom convey self-pity or unhappiness…  In that situation [of school-imposed censorship in his early correspondence], admitting vulnerability was treated with scorn and derision.’  There is a sense throughout of Dahl trying to protect his mother, putting a gloss on the harder things which he experiences so as not to worry her; an example of this is when he was horrendously bullied at school, but just put it down to boyish high-jinx in his letters home.

Sturrock has chosen to split these ‘remarkable’ letters into seven main sections, spanning specific periods between 1925 and 1965.  The letters themselves were sent to Sofie from Weston-Super-Mare and Kenya, from Egypt and Texas, from Iraq and Canada.  They detail Dahl’s experiences with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, and the various postings he was given, many of which he had to be rather secretive about.  The approach which Sturrock has made here is wonderful; he provides an index of locations, along with corresponding symbols for each, and has mapped them too.

Love From Boy is so nicely laid out, and include copies of Dahl’s original letters at times.  The introductions to each section are heartfelt; Sturrock helps to contextualise the letters, as well as adding thoughtful comments and biographical details.  In the second section, for example, when Dahl is at his second boarding school, Sturrock says: ‘Whether tobogganing down a hill, rioting on a train, chucking powder around his dormitory, or climbing illicitly up the tower of Repton Church, the letters convey an exultant and infectious delight in the adventures of childhood, and a sense that these simple, unsophisticated pleasures can put misery and adversity to flight.’

Some of what Dahl recounts in his letters is so matter-of-fact that it becomes comical.  In January 1927, at the age of ten, for instance, he writes: ‘I have not eaten any of what you gave me accept [sic] one little chocolate, and on Bristol Station Hoggart was sick, and when I looked at it I was sick but now I am quite all right.’  The way in which he writes is often charming and warmhearted, and his vocabulary very of its time; he speaks of a ‘topping lecture’, of a schoolmaster who has ‘got a long hanging ginger moustache, and is quite fat’, and asks, in 1927, ‘How much are the monkeys at Harrods?  It would be rather nice to have one.’  Later, hilarious satirical comments are made about political figures, the likes of Hitler and Goebbels.  When living in Dar es Salaam in 1939, Dahl writes: ‘It’s pleasant lying back and listening and at the same time watching the antics of Hitler and Mussolini who are invariably on the ceiling catching flies and mosquitoes.  Perhaps I should explain that Hitler and Mussolini are 2 lizards which live in our sitting room.’

Love From Boy is such an endearing collection, and is a lovely book for any fan of Dahl’s to read.  Sturrock’s selections give an insight both into Dahl’s life and his relationship with his mother, and allow readers to chart his changing loves and interests as time passes.  Love From Boy is, too, a fantastic piece of social and biographical history, which is both entertaining and touching from start to finish.  The letters here are full of character, as one would expect, and are a true delight to read.

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