Leanne Hall’s The Gaps really caught my attention, and when I began to read, I struggled to put it down. Centred around a school in Australia, and dealing with some incredibly pertinent issues, such as poverty and homelessness, with both sensitivity and realism, I found The Gaps to be very far indeed from a typical young adult novel. The characters are incredibly realistic, and each has a distinct voice. I very much look forward to reading whatever Hall turns her attention to next.
2. A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe
A Nail, A Rose is a fascinating collection of short stories, collected from across Belgian author Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s writing life. I thoroughly enjoyed the prose style, and found that the translation has been handled wonderfully. I particularly admired the focus upon women, their inner lives, and outer mundanity of the day-to-day (something which I have been interested in for many years). Some of the stories here are truly excellent. I just wish this had been a lot longer!
3. Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You by Kate Gross
I seem to be reviewing a lot of books of late which I have never heard of, but which catch my eye in my local library. Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You by Kate Gross is one such tome. At the age of 34, Gross, who worked for both Labour Party Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. She passed away on Christmas morning, 2014, leaving behind her husband and young twin sons. Late Fragments is her searingly honest memoir, which deals with so many elements of her disease, as well as recapturing something of her earlier life. Gross’ writing is beautiful, and highly reflective, as one might expect.
4. With Teeth by Kristen Arnett
Kristen Arnett’s second novel is smart, acerbic, and witty. The story centres around two married women, who live in Florida with their terror of a son. In With Teeth, Arnett focuses on the breakdown of relationships. Her observations are sharp and realistic, and she deals with several deep topics throughout. If you are looking to pick up a very focused character study, I would highly recommend seeking out this novel.
5. Fry’s Ties: The Life and Times of a Tie Collection by Stephen Fry
If you are going to pick up this rather niche book, all about British hero Stephen Fry’s extensive tie collection, I highly recommend listening to the audiobook, narrated throughout in the author’s velvety tones. Before coming to this, I had no idea that anyone could make ties something akin to fascinating to a woman who has never worn one. Fry managed this feat, however. There is a lot about fashion history here, which I very much appreciated, and I found it entertaining from start to finish. Fry is excellent company for both hobbies and chores around the house, and I truly wish this book had been a longer listen!
6. Letter to My Rage: An Evolution by Lidia Yuknavitch
Lidia Yuknavitch’s Letter to My Rage is an incredibly short essay, which sings with both amusement and sardonic comments. I found Yuknavitch’s commentary incredibly current and to the point. She is also incredibly anti-Trump, which is always welcome to this reader. Highly pertinent, dark, and visceral, Letter to My Rage is revealing of its author. I also enjoyed it far more than her fiction.
Helen Thomas’ Under Storm’s Wing is one of those books which I have wanted to read for years, but which has proved difficult to get hold of; in this case, copies were unaffordable. I finally managed to find a secondhand edition of the Carcanet publication for less than £10, which may well be my bargain of the year.
Under Storm’s Wing is a veritable treasure trove. It brings together two volumes of memoir – As It Was, and World Without End – Helen’s letters, written between 1896 and 1917, A Remembered Harvest, and a selection of recollections of her youngest daughter Myfanwy. Helen’s husband, Edward Thomas, is one of my favourite poets, and whilst I knew a little about Helen before I picked this up, I was gratified that it was highly illuminating.
As It Was (1926) takes as its focus Helen and Edward’s early relationship and marriage, and was written soon after he was killed during the First World War at the Battle of Arras, France, in 1917. The first of her memoirs ends with the birth of their first son, Merfyn. World Without End was written several years afterwards, in 1931. Helen’s second memoir covers a wider span of time than her first.
As It Was begins with Helen speaking expansively about her childhood: ‘Our life was very happy, very social, very united. We were unconventional, though in no startling way – just informal and unselfconscious.’ She then reveals when she first met Edward, after her literary reviewer father is asked to read some of his work, and invites him to the house. Helen describes her first meeting with the ‘shy and constrained’ Edward, noticing that his ‘eyes were grey and dreamy and meditative, but fearless and steady, and as if trying to pierce the truth itself. It was a most striking face, recalling a portrait of Shelley in its sensitive, melancholy beauty.’
Helen captures similarly lovely moments throughout. She writes, for instance: ‘I remember in that first walk how we scrambled about in a little roadside copse. It must have been winter or early spring, for the trees were bare, and Edward showed me many old nests, telling me the names of the birds which had made them, and pointing out to me their special characteristics. Later on he brought me as a present a most beautifully compact, moss-covered nest of a chaffinch, which I could hardly believe was the work of a bird, and all my wonder pleased and amused him in his grave way.’ She goes on: ‘And all his knowledge of everything we saw, and all his intimacy – everything lifted me at once into a new world.’
Throughout, I admired Helen’s honesty. She shows herself as a bold and daring young woman. She is revealing about her innermost self, about the intimacies she shared with Edward, and her naïve ideas regarding sex and desire. She recalls, with vivid clarity: ‘I had often cried bitterly in the thought that no man could ever love me, and that my longing for children would never be satisfied. I had so persuaded myself of this that it never entered my mind as a possibility until that moment when Edward took my hand; and even then I did not consciously think of love; all I felt was an unrest, a fear, a thrill, perhaps also a hope.’
The depictions here regarding Edward’s ever-present struggles with mental health are revealing. Helen tells us: ‘There were many dark periods when we were here [living on a farm in the Weald of Kent], many days of silence and wretchedness and separation, for sometimes in these moods Edward would stride away, perhaps for days, wrestling with the devil that tormented his spirit.’
Helen’s writing is beautiful, filled with glorious and expansive descriptions. On their honeymoon spent in Wiltshire, she reflects: ‘We washed in rain-water… Outside the owls hooted about the cottage, and bats twittered, and starlings stirred in the thatch. No other sound was to be heard, no trams, no people, no traffic, nothing but the sounds that do not spoil silence, but rather deepen it, and a little breeze wandering through the wood, and a leaf flapping against our window.’
Myfanwy’s contribution is an excerpt from her longer memoir, One of These Fine Days. Myfanwy also contributed the preface to this volume, which was first collected together in 1988. She recollects that her mother wrote both volumes of her memoir ‘as therapy, to try to rouse [her] from the terrible lethargy and desolation which followed Edward’s death…’.
Under Storm’s Wing is a wonderful anthology, and I found it to be far more open than I would expect of a book written during this period. There is much written about the natural world, and Helen’s discovery of the countryside after spending her entire childhood in towns and cities. Under Storm’s Wing is a touching, moving, and thoughtful collection, and is a book to really linger over.
Peirene Press are one of my all-time favourite publishing houses. I love that they champion European novellas which would not otherwise be translated into English, and will always support what they do. I had not read any of their titles for quite some time, sadly, but was so intrigued by Georgian author Nana Ekvtimishvili’s The Pear Field that I got my hands on a copy as soon as I possibly could.
I was lucky enough to travel to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city, in January 2020, and have been keen to seek out literature from the country ever since. It has, however, proven rather difficult to get hold of books in translation, particularly which are still in print. I am therefore very grateful to Peirene for publishing this novella, and to Elizabeth Heighway for her flawless translation. Part of Peirene’s ‘Closed Universe’ series, The Pear Field was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021, and has also been longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.
The Pear Field is set in a ‘newly independent’ Georgia, free on the surface from Soviet influence, and takes place on the outskirts of the capital, Tbilisi. Here, a young woman named Lela lives at the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children; the locals cruelly refer to it as the ‘School for Idiots’. Lela is eighteen, and old enough to leave the school, but she has nowhere to go. She decides, early on in the narrative, ‘both for her own escape and for the future she hopes to give Irakli, a young boy at the school’ whom she has formed a close bond with. When a couple from the United States decided that they want to adopt a Georgian child, Lela is ‘determined to do everything she can to help Irakli make the most of this chance.’
Around the residential school, ‘… most of the streets have no names and… whole neighbourhoods consist of nothing but Soviet high-rises grouped into blocks, grouped in turn into microdistricts…’. We first meet Lela on ‘a sunny day in late spring, in the wash block of the School for Idiots’, which can be found at the end of a ‘forgotten, sun-scorched street’. The pear field of the novella’s title is on the same campus; it is permanently waterlogged, and the fruit inedible. It proves to be a point of horror for the children, who dream of crossing it to escape, but are fearful of what it may hold. Of Lela, the author writes: ‘… running onto the pear field fills her with terror, the fear that she might not make it across, as she imagines the branches taking hold, throwing her onto the ground, pulling her body into the soft boggy soil, the roots snaking around her and swallowing her up for ever.’
Lela ‘dresses like a boy and at first glance she looks like one too, especially when she’s running flat out. Up close, though, you can see her fine, fair eyebrows, her dark eyes, slim face and cracked red lips…’. She knows nothing of her background, or why she came to be placed in the home. For her, the future looks difficult. She has a tendency to be cruel, and her moods are quicksilver; I did not much warm to her at all. Ekvtimishivili tells us: ‘There’s no hope of her getting a job. After all, as Tiniko points out, if normal people can’t find work, what chance is there for a girl fresh out of a school for the intellectually disabled?’ Soon afterwards, however, Lela finds employment monitoring a local garage, which allows her to move from the school into a gatehouse.
In just 163 translated pages, Ekvtimishivili gives a sweeping and vivid view of twentieth century Georgian history. This was the element of the story which I found by far the most interesting. The wider social and cultural details really drew my attention. There is a lot of poverty, and much brutality and exploitation within the school system, and outside it, is exposed. Many dark, and sometimes shocking, themes are touched upon, although in some places it does not feel as if they have quite been explored in enough detail. The school building itself is dilapidated; the roof leaks, windows are broken; a balcony completely breaks off, and miraculously does not injure any of the children playing below it. There is the ever-pervading ‘smell of dirty children, or sometimes of clothes scrubbed clean with laundry soap; the smell of musty linen and hand-me-down bedding; the smell of paraffin lamps and, in winter, wood stoves; the smell of old armchairs and sticky tape covering cracks in the windows and Chinese mallow plants lined up on the sill.’
I felt a little detached from the characters throughout, and did not always feel as though they were presented in as much detail as I would personally have liked. This detachment is perhaps a consequence of the translation, as the matter-of-fact prose could well be, too. There are a lot of characters introduced in a very short span of time; many of them just appear, without explanation, and it often takes a while to work out the relationships between individuals.
The Pear Tree is Ekvtimishvili’s debut novel, and was first published in 2015. It was awarded a prestigious prize for best Georgian novel, and two others for the best debut soon afterwards. The novella had previously been translated into Dutch and German ‘to much critical acclaim’. It is not one of my favourite Peirene publications, not by a long way, but I do feel grateful to have finally been able to read a piece of Georgian literature without having to learn the language. Ekvtimishvili captures the essence of the school, and the wider surroundings rather well, but whilst this was certainly a readable book, I found it a little underwhelming.
I spotted Julietta Singh’s memoir, The Breaks, whilst browsing on Daunt Books’ website, and just had to read it. The book has been published by Daunt as part of their Originals list, and it has been incredibly well received. In its blurb, reviewers compare it to James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew, and herald it a tender, and ‘beautiful’ coming-of-age story.
The Breaks is an extended letter, written by Singh to her young daughter. Her aim is to ‘write towards a new vision of the world, inspired by her child’s radical embrace of possibility as a model for how we might live’. Wrapped up in the entire narrative is a commentary on the climate change which threatens our existence, and which she believes her daughter will experience the full effects of during her life. She says: ‘I am writing to you, and to future you. I am writing to the six-year-old girl you are now… I am writing to the becoming-being that you are, the one who will face a world in ruin and undoubtedly wonder over my place in all this destruction.’ Singh believes that if we are able, globally, to ‘survive the looming political and ecological disasters, we must break from the conventions we have inherited and begin to orient ourselves towards more equitable and revolutionary paths.’
Along with the ever-present threat of climate change, Singh also examines ‘the violent legacies of racism, patriarchy, and colonialism’, and the effects which all of these have already had in her daughter’s young life. The narrative opens with an account of her daughter being taught ‘a whitewashed story at school about how the first people of this land were happy to give their sacred spaces to the consumptive force of European men in the name of civilisation and progress.’ She proceeds to tell her daughter this story rather differently: ‘I will never forget the way you looked at me then, your head slightly tilted to one side, your eyes wide in bewilderment… This is not what my teacher told us, you said with unmistakable agitation. I know that for the first time you were confronting the existence of conflicting worldviews, a vital gulf between your formal education and your maternal one.’
Throughout, Singh has a real awareness of what ties herself to her daughter. She reflects, for instance: ‘Our blood is laced with modern histories of unbelievable violence. It is a strange and hybrid brew that you will feel in your body across your life, as I have always felt it in mine.’ Throughout, I really enjoyed her discussions about the physical body in the world, and the differing versions of history which can exist everywhere – in textbooks, in films and cartoons, and in the education system, to name just a few examples.
Another of the real strengths in The Breaks is the commentary Singh gives to the meaning of identity, and how difficult this can be to pin down. Her own family history is rich, and complicated. ‘Being as diasporic as we are,’ she says, ‘I find I have no traditional knowledge to bestow upon you, no single spiritual or cultural heritage that will reach back to precolonial ways of being and knowing.’ She writes about the ‘stolen lands’ where she was born, her father’s Indian heritage, her mother’s European one, and her experiences of growing up in Canada, before moving to the United States. For Singh, home is a concept which she has not often experienced; until she begins a deep friendship with a queer man, Nathan, who will become her daughter’s father. They live together, in a house converted to have two separate living spaces, and coparent. She writes: ‘I have only just begin to feel this home-feeling with you, with your father, in our everyday acts of collective world-making. For the first time, I wonder whether I need to stop drifting, not so much in body as in spirit… To live here, right where we are, and to articulate that living by learning who and how and when and why we have all come to live here, to belong here.’
Singh is open about the challenges of parenting her young daughter in their home in Richmond, Virginia. Early on in her memoir, she comments: ‘Learning to mother at the end of the world is an infinite toggle between wanting to make you feel safe and needing you to know that the earth and its inhabitants are facing a catastrophic crisis.’ She is also aware that one day, her relationship with her daughter will shift, inescapably; she writes: ‘It is less the inevitability of our break than it is the shape and force of it that haunts me. I know it is not just me you will need to break from, but the entire way of life that I represent… More than any other time in history, what you choose from the past will need to be meticulously studied and selected.’
These breaks which Singh talks about also manifest literally. Whilst writing her memoir, she was recovering from major surgery, when doctors found that the discs between her vertebrae had begun to ‘explode, making it appear… as though my body is being subjected to high-impact collisions.’
The Breaks is ‘both a celebration of queer family-making, communal living and Brown girlhood and a profound meditation on race, inheritance and queer mothering at the end of the world.’ Singh, as this quote on the book’s blurb suggests, encompasses so much within her book, but she does so with intelligence, and captures everything in beautiful, contemplative prose.
The Breaks is intense, intriguing, and so worthwhile. The narrative, given that it was only published in 2021, is incredibly current; she references other challenges which we face on a global scale, such as the pandemic. The way in Singh she directs her articulate speech to her daughter throughout gives it a further sense of urgency. Singh is articulate, and gives voice to the many difficulties which the next generation are sure to face. The Breaks is heavily rooted in existentialism, and what it means to be alive today. Singh gives just as much thought, though, to how – and if – we can possibly move forwards.
I will end this review with something wonderful that Singh’s daughter said, as quite a young child. At the age of five, she declared: ‘If I was president… I would give everyone a place to live for free. I would make gardens all throughout the city that would grow food to feed us all. I would give everyone enough clothes to wear, and make sure their outfits suited their style. I’d make sure everyone had a friend.’ If the next generation is filled with wonderfully compassionate people like this, perhaps the world does have a chance to save itself, after all.
Malaysian anthropologist Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods: Overcoming Grief Through Nature is a meditation on grief, and how nature helped her to regain some of the joy in life. The memoir centres around the sudden death of her Norwegian husband, Eiolf Olsen, in 2010. The pair had been married for thirty-two years, when she received the news that Eiolf had collapsed at work in his Oslo office, and could not be resuscitated. Long was understandably bereft, ‘disoriented, aimless, lost.’ It is only when she chooses to wander ‘deep into the woods and attunes herself to Nature’s chorus that she learns how the wild might restore us to hope, and to life after death.’
I love blends of memoir and the natural world, and was immediately drawn to this tome. I have found a lot of solace in nature myself, particularly during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. I was particularly interested in the way in which Long found solace in learning about mushrooms, with the help of various Norwegian associations. She first signed up to an introductory mushroom-picking course run by the Natural History Museum in Oslo, where she meets others from all walks of life: ‘Like all other communities, mushroom pickets represent a microcosm of society as a whole, although I didn’t see this to begin with.’ Something was sparked within her to continue on her journey of learning. She took the ‘inspector’s exam’, which has existed in Norway since 1952, and she is now a certified mycology professional. For Long, passing this exam was a ‘rite of passage’.
At the outset of her memoir, Long writes: ‘My new interest in mycology brought joy and meaning to my life at a time when everything looked very dark.’ She goes on to write that her concept for the book underwent many changes before publication: ‘… the link between my exploration of the world of fungi and my wandering through the wilderness of grief seemed to be the most interesting story here. So this book tells of two parallel journeys: an outer one, into the realm of mushrooms, and an inner one, through the landscape of mourning.’ She tells us that the study of fungi ‘offered my fresh perspectives and led me, little by little, to a new standpoint.’
Long’s prose is beautiful, particularly when she weaves in her descriptions of the natural world: ‘It is very easy, I find, to be lured deeper and deeper into the dark forest and suddenly find one’s self alone and surrounded by huge trees, with no obvious way back. At such times, it is not hard to imagine that you can hear the trees whispering to one another that they are going to catch this little mushroom gatherer with their long branches.’ I also really enjoyed the calm which she portrayed; when looking for mushrooms, you have to use all of your focus, ‘turn off your mobile phone… and simply be there – in the woods.’
Throughout, Long speaks of her grief, and her disbelief about Eiolf’s death, with raw honesty. She says: ‘I wanted to suffer every ounce of the torment… It was confirmation that he had lived, that he had been my husband. I did not want that to be gone as well.’ Later, she adds: ‘Life doesn’t end in a single moment, with one last gasp for breath. Death is made up of thousands of little moments, divine in their banality. They are so precious and I treasure every one of them.’ Following Eiolf’s funeral, she painfully remembers the following: ‘I went willingly into an inner exile. My sorrow swelled until it took over my life. I was swamped by grief: I woke in the morning, but had no desire to get up. I viewed the world through one single, solitary peephole, that of loss and pain… The end of a great era in my life was a fact.’ Her grief prompts Long to ask endless questions of herself, even whether she should stay in Norway, where she has lived for the majority of her life. She asks such things as: ‘Who am I now? I can’t live the life I once had, but I don’t know how my new life should be… I don’t really know what I’m looking for.’
Long describes, in detail, the many effects of her grief, from the complete numbing of her senses and loss of appetite, to insomnia. She no longer has interest in things which used to bring her joy, like reading, or music: ‘The shock of Eiolf’s death had plunged me into a deep well and apathy settled over me like a thick blanket that I couldn’t kick off.’
Mushrooms are used for so much in the modern world: as the basis for drugs essential for organ transplantation and cancer treatment; as natural dyes for yarn; as a source of inspiration for nature photographers; as food. The world of fungi is vast, and it is difficult even for experts to pinpoint the numbers of different species around the world. In Norway, Long imparts, 44,000 species have been recorded: fungi make up almost 20% of this total, whereas only 0.2% are mammals. There are such differences between them, too. As Long writes: ‘… fungi present a riotous cornucopia: mushrooms come not only in brown and white, but in every imaginable, and unimaginable, shape and hue. They may be stubby and springy, lovely and graceful, delicate and transparent, or so spectacular and bizarre that they seem like something from another planet.’
Long is open about how her new interest soon became a passion, and the positive effects which it had upon her. She is keen to share her experiences, telling us: ‘With each new mushroom I learned to identify, every new site I visited, and every new mushroom buddy I made, I gradually became more integrated into the community. And, although I didn’t know it, each of these experiences represented another tiny mouse-step towards the end of the black tunnel of mourning.’
The Way Through the Woods was originally published in Norwegian, and has been flawlessly translated into English by Barbara J. Haveland. The book was longlisted for the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in 2019, and contains a ‘mushroom register’ in its appendix, along with an extensive bibliography and notes section. There are also charming illustrations scattered throughout the narrative, all of which were drawn by the author.
The narrative has been cleverly arranged, split into more measured sections which focus heavily upon mycology, and other, more emotional chapters about her relationship with Eiolf, and her place in the world after his death. Both are shown in different fonts. Ideas between the two inevitably overlap, but I did find this to be an interesting technique.
The Way Through the Woods is highly expansive, both in terms of the memories it relates, and its nature writing. I found Long to be an utterly charming narrator, and particularly loved the scene in which she describes a mushroom which she has been seeking for a long time: ‘This discovery seemed totally undeserved, like being allowed to lap up the vanilla custard filling without having to eat the rest of the bun first.’ Long is an excellent writer, blending serious subjects, and a real keenness for the world around her, with humour. She shares with us moments big and lifechanging, and small and comforting. The mycology here is very specific, but other themes – death, loss, grief, healing – are universal.
Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was first published in 1950 and has been recently reissued by Virago, along with two of Comyns’ other novels. The introduction to this new edition has been penned by author Maggie O’Farrell, who tells rather a lovely story about her discovery of Barbara Comyns in a secondhand bookshop. She describes how, ‘as I have a habit of buying up any Virago Modern Classics I don’t already own, I decided to… make the purchase. It would prove to be the best fifty pence I ever spent. I began to flick through the pages as I walked away from the shop. Just five minutes later, I was so engrossed that I had to stop and sit down on a bench on the Cobb; I didn’t make it back to the holiday flat for some time’. She believes that Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a novel ‘in which you are never quite sure what will happen next’.
The novel is told through the eyes of twenty one-year-old Sophia Fairclough, who is embarking on a new life as a married woman. She begins with a striking passage: ‘I told Helen my story and she went home and cried. In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now’. After such introductions to our protagonist have been made, the story quickly shifts back to her impending marriage, some time in the past. She meets her partner, Charles, on a train journey and talks to him only because both are carrying portfolios. They soon decide to marry in secret. Despite this, the information leaks back to Charles’ relations, and she has to bear the wrath of them in all their beastly glory: ‘there was a great thumping at the door and when it opened in tumbled all Charles’s maternal relations. I tried to run up the stairs, but they just fell on me like a swarm of angry hornets. One woman in a stiff black hat gripped me by the arm… She said I was an uncontrolled little beast and when was I expecting the baby… Charles just looked very white and scared; he wasn’t very much help.’ Several weeks afterwards, Sophia and Charles find that they are going to become parents. Whilst apprehensive about the news herself, Charles is incredibly negative and dismissing, stating ‘How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram’, and telling his wife that ‘it was no use crying about something that was not going to happen for seven months, I might have a miscarriage before then’.
As a narrator, Sophia has a lightness of touch, and as such, the happy and sad elements of her life are delivered in the same chatty tone. Rather than add frivolity to the text, this serves merely to make the unhappy events all the more poignant and memorable. From the outset, she is a quirky heroine. She does such things as taking her pet newt to dinner with her and letting it ‘swim in the water jug’, and she believes that the reason she does not see her brother is because ‘they thought I was a bit “arty” and odd, but expect they hoped now I was becoming a mother I would improve’. She is also delightfully naive, which is the most endearing quality about her. On her wedding day, she is made to sit in a pew with Charles’ father, and comments ‘I felt a bit scared in case they married me to him by mistake’.
Comyns’ style is engaging, and her writing matches the story perfectly. Rather than portray a humdrum account of married life and early motherhood, she has made Sophia come to life on the first page. As a result, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a difficult novel to put down. She creates such sympathy for her protagonist, particularly during the scenes on the labour ward, where she goes to give birth to her son: ‘I longed to see the baby, but they said I couldn’t yet. It had stopped crying and I was worried in case it was dead. So I cried about that, too.’ Comyns illustrates the peaks and troughs of life as a parent and struggling to survive on uneven wages in bustling areas of London in the most marvellous manner. Every lover of literary fiction is sure to find a memorable friend in Sophia Fairclough.
Tove Jansson and Tuulikki ‘Tooti’ Pietilä’s collaborative Notes From an Island was my most anticipated release of 2021. The beautifully designed large-format hardback, filled with beautiful writing and gorgeously evocative paintings, was published in its first English translation by the wonderful Sort Of Books, who have brought so much of Jansson’s work to an English-speaking audience. Notes From an Island pulls together snippets of writing from Tove, in the form of both diary entries and vignettes, extracts from ‘maverick seaman’ Brunström’s log, and Pietilä’s artwork, 24 ‘copperplate etchings and wash drawings’ which she made during the 1970s.
When she was in her late forties, Jansson, most famous for her delightful Moomin stories, ‘raced to build a cabin on an almost barren outcrop of rock in the Gulf of Finland’, on an island named Klovharun, located at the edge of the Pellinge archipelago. For the next ‘twenty-six summers’, Jansson and her life partner, Pietilä, ‘retreated there to live, paint and write, energised by the solitude and shifting seascapes.’ They remained there until their mid-seventies, eventually relinquishing their beloved cabin in 1991. Notes From an Island, which came out in its original Swedish in 1996, is ‘both a memoir and homage to the island the two women loved intensely.’
The short introductory publisher’s note states the differences between Jansson’s previous summer home, which she shared with her mother and brother on the ‘leafy and welcoming’ island of Bredskär, and the ‘stark’ Klovharun, ‘the preserve of warring gulls and terns’. The note goes on to praise this ‘moving homage to a tiny, rugged island and to a profound and enduring relationship.’
Jansson begins by writing about Bredskär, where, she says: ‘We had everything, albeit in miniature – a little forest with a woodland path, a little beach with a safe place for the boat, even a little marsh with some tufts of cotton grass.’ She goes on to tell us that Klovharun is between just 6- and 7,000 square metres; it is ‘shaped like an atoll’, divided by a lagoon in its middle. Both Jansson and Pietilä ‘relished the storms that would lash the granite rocks, marooning them for days.’
One of my favourite things about Jansson’s work – and there are many! – is the way in which she captures the natural world. Notes From an Island begins: ‘I love rock – sheer cliffs that drop straight into the ocean, unscalable mountain peaks, pebbles in my pocket. I love prising stones out of the ground, heaving them aside and letting the biggest ones roll down the granite slope into the water! As they rumble away, they leave behind an acrid whiff of sulphur.’ She writes with such care, especially regarding colour, texture, and scents: ‘On some of the blasted surfaces’, she tells us, when their cabin is being constructed, ‘the rock has an unusual colour, like oxblood or Pompeiian red, a hard colour to capture. Also the rainwater in the little hollows at the bottom of the pit is red or cadmium yellow.’ Later, she writes of quite a spectacle, when the sea ice breaks up before her eyes: ‘When we woke up, the whole ocean was full of broken ice. Unbelievable tabernacles floated by, driven by a mild south-west breeze, statuesque, glittering, as big as trolleys, cathedrals, primeval caverns, everything imaginable! And they changed colour whenever they felt like it – ice blue, green and, in the evenings, orange. Early in the morning they would be pink.’
Jansson’s notes are occasionally quite matter-of-fact, but I still found that they expressed a great deal; for instance: ‘Tooti is building shelves in the cellar. / It’s starting to get cold.’ She captures comedic scenes, particularly with regard to sailor and general handyman, Brunström, and his escapades. She writes of the time when he found ‘a huge ship’s mast, pitch-black, and with all the fittings still in place’. Brunström was determined to use this in the construction of the cabin, and had real trouble towing it ashore, almost destroying his boat in the process. There are moments of childish delight, too. On visiting one March, Jansson writes: ‘We were exhilarated by change and expectation and ran headlong here and there in the snow and threw snowballs at the navigation marker. Tooti made a toboggan out of thin strips of wood, and we rode it again and again from the top of the island far out across the ice.’
Thomas Teal’s translation is truly excellent, and he captures so much of Jansson’s glee, as well as the often amusing brevity from Brunström’s log. On the 14th of October 1964, for instance, he writes: ‘Jansson shot an eider by mistake this morning and the ladies boiled it for three hours but it made a lousy dinner.’ Teal evokes Jansson’s artistry, and her keen eye for noticing: ‘Sometimes we build things to be solid and lasting, and sometimes to be beautiful, sometimes both.’
Notes From an Island comes together wonderfully. The matter-of-fact entries of Brunström contrast wonderfully with Jansson’s beautiful eye for detail. Both are complemented by Pietilä’s full-page artwork, which makes masterful use of light and shadow using only brown tones. I loved the collaborative approach taken here; it is something I see quite rarely when reading, and I really appreciated the level of detail which it brought to the book. At just 94 pages, this is one to really linger over. Notes From an Island is entrancing; it is a glorious celebration of nature, of solitude, of collaboration, of love.
I am a keen crafter, and have had my eye on Alanna Okun’s essay collection, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater, for quite some time. I was grateful to be able to purchase a copy with some Christmas money, and settled down to read about another woman who shares similar enthusiasms to myself. I was in two minds as to whether I should review this essay collection, as it is rather a niche topic, but I do not feel as though Okun’s thoroughly entertaining book has received anywhere near the amount of attention which it deserves, especially in the UK.
Let me begin by writing about the so-called ‘curse of the boyfriend sweater’ of the book’s title. It is a superstition within the crafting community that soon after you begin knitting your significant other an item of clothing – usually a jumper, or sweater – they will end your relationship. I have knitted my boyfriend several things throughout the years we’ve been together, and we’re still very much an item, so I can’t say I believe in the ‘curse’ myself. However, I do find it interesting that it has become such a widespread view amongst knitters, crocheters, and the like. Okun includes an entire chapter detailing different things she has knitted, crocheted, or embroidered, for previous boyfriends.
Okun is honest throughout, talking about her experiences with mental health. Her crafting has helped her to make it through periods of ‘anxiety, grief, heartbreak, ecstatic joy, [and] total boredom.’ She writes that ‘even when we can’t control anything else, we can at least control the sticks, string, and fabric right in front of us.’ This is exactly the reason why so many of us turned to crafting during the many Covid lockdowns we faced globally in 2020 and 2021; making something is a comfort, and it does give us an element of power, however small and tentative, in such uncertain times. As Okun says: ‘Making anything feels like seizing control, like defiant reversal in the face of grief; this thing is yours, the way you would like it to be, and it exists where before there was nothing.’
The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is largely based on knitting, my craft of choice, but Okun does dabble in other things throughout – crochet, embroidery, and dabbling in ‘most fibery pursuits’. In a lovely nod to the craft, the initial chapter is titled ‘Casting On’, and the final, ‘Casting Off’. The feelings which she captures in her opening chapter are so familiar to me: ‘You can’t really know what a project is going to be until it’s done,’ she says. ‘You could start it as a gift only to find you want to keep it for yourself, or the reverse. You could realize it looks nothing like what you intended and either despair or delight. Or, as so often happens, you could reach a place of peaceful ambivalence and decide to just keep pushing through, even though you’re not sure, even though you don’t know what it will be after you’ve invested all those hours and all that yarn. You can trust the project to reveal itself to you, outside of your control.’
I loved the way that Okun spoke about the skill needed to craft, something which I feel is still relatively underappreciated in the wider world. She writes: ‘The fact remains that knitting and its cousins aren’t innate skills. They’re taught and they’re learned and reinforced and passed down, in an interlocking series of leaps that builds and layers just like the crafts themselves.’ This legacy of crafting is so important to me; I was taught to knit by my grandmother and mother, and to sew by my mother. Yes, I have picked up skills in both crafts along the way, many of which have come from practice, or from watching many YouTube tutorials, but the foundations which I had sparked a lifelong interest. Both have been crafts which have ebbed and flowed in my life, but for the last three years, I have always had a knitting project on the go, however big – shawls, jumpers – or small – socks, reusable cotton washcloths. I identified so much with Okun when she described the period after her grandmother had taught her how to knit, and the way in which the craft has been a constant for her in adulthood: ‘I get better, I lose interest, I regain it, I improve. I get a boyfriend, I get into college, I get a job, I knit. I am anxious, I am joyful, I am lonely, I knit.’
Okun writes so honestly about crafting, and the fact that not every project embarked on is a success. Just like the author, I have done my fair share of frogging the initial wonky scarves, and projects where I had little knowledge, and selected a wildly inappropriate yarn for a pattern. As with everything though, confidence grows with skill; the more I have practiced left- and right-leaning increases, Icelandic bind-offs, and German short rows, the better I have become. Okun does not profess to be an expert in anything, which I found really refreshing. The author is the first to own up to mistakes which she has made, and points out things which she does differently to other crafters.
I was internally cheering when reading parts of The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater; for instance, when Okun writes: ‘I want people to ask me about my sweaters and tank tops; I want them to know that’s the sort of person I am, that I have this extremely minor superpower even if they think it’s weird or dorky. This is how I choose to spend my time and my brain space, and I want my physical being to reflect that, at least every once in a while.’
Throughout, I felt as though I was having a conversation with a very like-minded crafty friend. Okun is unfailingly bright, and I appreciated the informal tone which she used throughout. She writes at length about friendships and relationships, to the extent that I think those without crafting backgrounds could still very much enjoy her writing and perspectives.
I shall end this review with a lovely piece of wisdom which Okun imparts in one of her essays. She writes: ‘Projects, even the kind that are not so emotionally loaded, always feel smaller when they’re done, when you’re not obsessing over individual components anymore. The same is true for spans of time: happy periods, mourning periods – all of them flatten when you can look back on them from arm’s length, when you can hold them in your hands and stick them to the wall, when you can look at them in the context of your life.’
I have been meaning to read Fred Uhlman’s work for ages, but as with so many things, I hadn’t got around to doing so. It was a ‘currently reading’ status update on my Goodreads feed that prompted me to seek one of Uhlman’s books out. I felt that Reunion, the title which he is best known for, was a great choice to begin with.
Reunion is incredibly short; the Vintage edition which I read comes in at just 74 pages. It includes an introduction by the translator of the English edition, Jean d’Ormesson, and a short afterword by author Rachel Seiffert. D’Ormesson begins his introduction as follows: ‘I remember as if it were yesterday my first encounter, some twenty years ago, with this small volume, brought to my attention by a friend.’ He goes on to write of the ‘literary perfection’ of Reunion. Sadly, he does give quite a lot of the plot away of this very short book.
Reunion begins on a grey afternoon in the German city of Stuttgart, in 1932. Here, a classroom at a prestigious boy’s school is ‘stirred by the arrival of a newcomer’, Konradin von Hohenfels, the son of a Count. Our narrator, a middle-class pupil named Hans Schwarz, is ‘intrigued by the aristocratic new boy’. After some time, the pair embark on ‘a friendship of the greatest kind, of shared interests and long conversations, of hikes in the German hills and growing up together.’ The intense friendship between Hans and Konradin is set against the tumultuous backdrop of 1930s Germany, and the rise of Nazism.
Reunion opens: ‘He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again.’ Hans goes on: ‘I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair.’ When Konradin is introduced to the class, Hans comments: ‘… our eyes were concentrated on the Newcomer. He stood motionless and composed, without any sign of nervousness or shyness. Somehow he looked older than us and more mature, and it was difficult to believe he was just another new boy.’
We soon learn that before Konradin’s arrival, Hans was friendless. He comments that there was no single boy in his class whom he ‘believed could live up to my romantic ideal of friendship, not one whom I really admired, for whom I would be willing to die and who could have understood my demand for complete trust, loyalty and self-sacrifice.’ Hans is, of course, a Romantic, yearning for meaningful relationships with those around him, and dreaming of a career as a great poet. This can be seen particularly when he describes elements of his early friendship with Konradin. He narrates: ‘I can’t remember much of what Konradin said to me that day or what I said to him. All I know is that we walked up and down for an hour, like two young lovers, still nervous, still afraid of each other…’.
The novella is a Bildungsroman, centered around the friendship, of course, but also the political situation which eventually engulfs Hans. The building of their relationship has been well balanced, and religion, and the rise of Nazism, are well handled. Whilst both are ever-present threats in the story, they do not overshadow the more personal details in Hans’ life. As things begin to change around him, Hans recounts: ‘From outside our magic circle came rumours of political unrest, but the storm-centre was far away – in Berlin, whence clashes were reported between Nazis and Communists. Stuttgart seemed to be as quiet and reasonable as ever.’
There is an element of idolatry here; Hans goes out of his way to please Konradin, and there are moments as the narrative goes on where their friendship feels fraught with inequality and contradictions. The influence of Konradin’s parents, particularly his incredibly vocal anti-Semitic mother, has an impact upon him, of course, and his behaviour and disloyalty feels very disappointing. The novella is so vivid that we can feel Hans’ disappointment and hurt on every page. Uhlman’s prose builds such a realistic picture of Hans, and of his surroundings, that once I’d finished reading, I felt like I’d been with the narrator for a very long time.
Reunion was written in 1960, and although the author biography preceding it stresses that it is ‘not an autobiographical book’, it ‘contains autobiographical elements’. These are specifically about the academic element of the book, the school, teachers, and pupils. They have been based upon the oldest and most famous grammar school in Württemberg, which Uhlman attended. There is also an element of autobiography which can be found in the main character, Hans; he is the son of Jewish parents, and is sent away before the Second World War begins. Uhlman himself, a practicing barrister and an anti-Nazi, was of Jewish descent. He fled Germany for Paris in 1933, before moving to London in 1936, and establishing a career as a painter.
Reunion is an expansive novella, which seems to contain far more than one would expect in such a short story. It evokes so much, despite its brevity, and presents a friendship between two very different boys, which was fated to fail from the outset. Both the story and the translation have been excellently handled, and I very much look forward to picking of another of Uhlman’s books at some point in future.
I have wanted to read Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World for quite some time. I was reminded of Rapp’s memoir when reading Heather Lanier’s Raising a Rare Girl, which tells of her experiences with her daughter’s very rare condition, Wolf–Hirshhorn syndrome. Rapp’s book revolves around her young son, Ronan, who was diagnosed with a degenerative, and always fatal, disorder named Tay–Sachs disease when he was less than a year old. In The Still Point of the Turning World, Rapp recounts her ‘journey through grief and beyond it’.
Ronan, the only child of Rapp and her husband, lived a happy early life in New Mexico. However, his parents became concerned that he was not meeting his developmental milestones. Ronan’s paediatrician believed that it might be a simple issue with his vision. During a trip to the ophthalmologist, ‘cherry-red spots on the back of his retinas’ were found; this is a red-flag for Tay–Sachs. His parents were given his diagnosis when he was nine months old, and were heartbreakingly told that there was no cure, and no treatment for his condition. The disease stops nerves from working properly, and those diagnosed rarely live past the age of four. There are many stages of the disease: ‘… paralysis, blindness, deafness, spasticity, seizures, death.’
Rapp describes, in vivid prose, her panic at this moment: ‘The situation didn’t fit; it wasn’t right. My brain was broken; my heart was stopped. How could I still be alive, in this room, having been given this knowledge? It was grotesque and absurd and could not be happening.’ Later, she recalls: ‘I stopped wailing, except at night, when I would cry myself into a pit and then sleep there, shallowly. When I woke up, I felt as if I’d spent the night in a cold, skinny ditch by the side of some lonely road. Every morning the sky was bright blue… the trees along the walking trail outside our house still bare, everything brown. The world blue-brown but black, like a bruise. We felt beat up, pressed down. The world had a wild, new, terrifying clarity.’
Rapp begins her memoir: ‘This is a love story, which, like all great love stories, is ultimately a story of loss.’ Prior to his diagnosis, she tells us, she had many expectations for her son, and what he would go on to achieve in his long and healthy life: ‘Like his father, he would complete crossword puzzles in record time. Like me he would be physically fearless and an adventurous eater. He’d be fun but levelheaded, loyal and fair and smart… Maybe he would invent something world changing or build space rockets or become a fashion designer who made clothes from recycled trash.’
Throughout, Rapp displays all of her vulnerabilities. She writes with such honesty and clarity, despite her immense pain: ‘My time with Ronan was short and beautiful and shot through with light, laughter and, above all, a kind of love that stripped me to the bone.’ She describes at length the impossibility of reconciling her happy baby with his lack of future. She reveals: ‘Even though I loved being with Ronan, it was also true that when I looked at him, I felt myself sliding into the place where crying would only dig a deeper, darker pit.’ The way in which she describes her son, and her grief following his diagnosis, is beautifully evoked: ‘I allowed myself to imagine Ronan in a landscape of light and continuous revelation, his life lived as a series of singular moments.’
Throughout, I really admired Rapp’s prose style. Her writing is open and honest, highly intelligent, philosophical, and raw. She describes her life as: ‘A constant tug of war: wanting to remember, wanting to forget; wanting this to be over, and of course never wanting Ronan’s life to end.’ Rapp also discusses at length the value and quality of life, and whether either can be truly quantified, as it all depends on circumstance and situation. ‘But what did that mean,’ she asks, ‘life is about living? What did it mean really? Was I saying that when my child could no longer think, that he was no longer a person? That, too, was a complicated question.’ She goes on: ‘Our family faced gruesome choices: how would we know when Ronan’s quality of life had diminished to the point where letting him go was the more humane option? Was it when he stopped swallowing and vocalizing, when he could no longer see us or experience our loving touch?’
Rapp discusses everything not just from a personal standpoint, as a mother trying to process the imminent death of her baby, but also from a wider, ethical one: ‘These decisions are made more emotionally complicated by the fact that the medical community in this country [the USA] has become expert at prolonging life to the point of being unwilling or unable to engage in any nuanced discussion about what it is they’re saving.’ She also touches upon religion, and the end-of-life stage.
Some of Rapp’s phrasing, whilst clearly relating to her own and her son’s situation, is applicable to our lives in the modern world, no matter what we may face: ‘We want will; we think relentless self-improvement will literally improve our lives, allowing us to literally control our happiness; we want to believe we have power over our own destinies. We, quite simply, do not have any control, not really, and this is perhaps the hardest lesson to learn.’ She is quick to emphasise, too, that this kind of shocking diagnosis can happen to anyone: ‘The geneticist told us that if we all had our DNA analysed, we’d freak out. We’d be horrified by the many possibilities…’. Later, she writes: ‘Grief, I realized, is watery and trembling and always exists beneath the surface of real life; just a gentle touch and it’s spilling everywhere.’
An element which I found very revealing in The Still Point of the Turning World was the way in which both friends and strangers would react to Ronan’s disease, and to her as his mother. She found those who had been excellent friends turning away from her, and forged strong relationships with support groups for families faced with Tay–Sachs diagnoses.
Lyrical, moving, and tender, The Still Point of the Turning World is a beautiful memorial to a son lost to a brutal disease.