2

‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ by Sally Rooney **

There is hardly an author more hyped in modern British society than Sally Rooney, it seems. I very much enjoyed her first two novels, her debut Conversations with Friends, and 2018’s Normal People, which I thought pitch-perfect. I was quite looking forward, then, to picking up her newest effort, 2021’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, and joined my library’s reservation queue before it got too long.

I was not sure what to expect from Beautiful World, Where Are You, and feared that it would be a rehash of her first two books. Let’s face it, these novels are filled with similarities already, from their Irish setting, to the hapless individuals who don’t really know where they’re going in life. If I’m honest, the blurb of Beautiful World, Where Are You didn’t hold much appeal for me. Had this just been a random tome from an unknown author which I’d picked up in the library or a bookshop, I doubt I would have chosen to read it. This perhaps should have been an indicator for me of what was to come.

The novel deals with four people approaching the end of their twenties. Novelist Alice has just rented an enormous house somewhere on the coast of the Republic of Ireland, and meets warehouse worker Felix there on a Tinder date. This encounter is one of the most awkward and cringeworthy interactions which I have read in a novel for quite some time. Felix is incredibly shifty, and I still do not understand the motivations for Alice inviting him on a work trip to Rome, when she has only met him three times – on said awkward date, on an equally awkward encounter in a local shop, where he spends a lot of time hitting a ready meal against his leg (?), and a ‘party’ at his house, which she practically invites herself to anyway – and he really does not seem to like her. The odd relationship which then ensues between the pair is so convoluted as to be unbelievable.

Alice’s best friend from college, Eileen, at least has some real-world problems to deal with, on her very low salary, with prickly parents who seem to favour her older sister, and living with a married couple in a barely adequate flat in Dublin. Her relationship with the slightly older Simon, whom she was friends with as a child, is on-again, off-again, and becomes quite exhausting to follow. I did like Eileen on the whole, though; perhaps this is just because she appeared very favourable in comparison to the quite loathsome young author in this novel.

Beautiful World, Where Are You had so many five-star reviews on Goodreads far before it had been released; that’s the kind of author Rooney is. It feels a little odd to add my meagre two-stars to the list, but I pride myself on being honest in my reviews, and I cannot rate it any more highly. I read most of the novel feeling bored at the lack of direction in the plot, and at the infuriating characters. Alice particularly – whom many have indicated is a version of Rooney herself – is not at all likeable.

I still can’t make up my mind as to whether I actually enjoy Rooney’s writing. In Conversations with Friends and Normal People, her style felt fresh, and exciting. Here, the author is clearly trying to come across as more mature and worldly-wise. The prose, in consequence, is both far too matter-of-fact and pretentious, in an imbalanced combination which soon feels rather jolting to read. I did not like this new departure much at all, and whilst there is a marked improvement in the last hundred pages or so, I felt like there was a lot of wading to do before I reached the more readable sections of the novel.

There is a vast detachment throughout from the characters, and some of them do not feel like realistic constructions at all. Even after finishing the novel, I do not really see what the point of Felix was; he was flat, rude, and came with a set of actions and speeches which made no sense in the context of the whole. There is also a real lack of emotion throughout, even through those parts of the narrative which should contain a lot more feeling – for instance, when Alice talks about her time in a psychiatric hospital.

Something which Rooney has been so strong at in her previous work is in writing about the relationships between people, particularly as they change over time, and shift with circumstance. Sadly, this strength seems to be very much lacking in Beautiful World, Where Are You. The relationships between the four – perhaps with the exception of Alice and Eileen toward the end of the novel – just do not feel feasible. The long, drawn-out, and repetitive emails, which Alice and Eileen write to one another throughout, I found ridiculous. These are filled with so much existential angst, and ramble on for pages and pages, constantly repeating their themes. If I received something similar from one of my friends, I think I’d be a bit worried about them.

For me, Beautiful World, Where Are You felt very lacklustre, even vapid. In some places, the novel has far too much to say, and in others its narrative feels rather lost. There are a lot of the same themes to be found here as in Rooney’s previous two novels, but I do not feel as if they are explored quite as well. The style of Rooney’s newest book was not as readable for me, and I found myself having to force my way through some of the chapters – particularly those with Alice and Felix at the fore. I’m honestly not sure that I’ll pick up any of Rooney’s other books in future, so underwhelming did I find this one. Of course, it is great that the author wants to grow, and to change her style to something more mature, but it just wasn’t something that I enjoyed.

4

‘In the Kitchen: Essays on Food and Life’

Any reader of my reviews will already know that I am consistently drawn to themed anthologies. I am also a huge fan of food, both of preparing and eating it. It was inevitable, then, that I would pick up In the Kitchen: Essays on Food and Life, which brings together original pieces by many different authors. The gorgeously designed book has been released by the publishing arm of Daunt Books, and it looks to be part of a small series of anthologies on specific themes. I have already read and loved At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond (review here), and hope to be able to pick up In the Garden very soon.

The book’s blurb declares that food ‘can embody our personal histories as well as wider cultural histories. But what are the stories we tell ourselves about the kitchen, and how do we first come to it?’ The collection aims to explore whether food, and the process of cooking, can be ‘a tool for connection’, both in the physical space of the kitchen, and in the wider world.

In the Kitchen features work from new-to-me authors, as well as those whom I have read and enjoyed before – Daisy Johnson, Ruby Tandoh, and Nina Mingya Powles, to name but three. There are thirteen essays in total, and each considers various aspects of cooking and eating, and ‘the possibilities and limitations the kitchen poses.’ Throughout, the authors discuss their experiences of cooking in a particular kitchen, or simply being present in one. Almost every essay is bound up with memories; they seem inextricable from the process of using the kitchen as an adult.

I love the way in which each of the included pieces are so very different. In ‘A Life in Cookers’, Rachel Roddy writes about the ovens which she has lived with, from ‘the heavyweight comforter’ of an Aga in her childhood home, to ‘a cream and green electric cooker with hot plates like liquorice whirls’ owned by her grandparents. On said cooker, her grandmother ‘boiled tongue for hours and made pan after pan of a minced beef and potato stew called tattie hash, the smell of which clung to the wallpaper like a pattern, along with worry and love.’ In Ella Risbridger’s essay, the author details the sensuality which often strike her when she is in the kitchen: ‘There is something about the kitchen that invites intimacy. I suppose kitchens are a space for intimacy because I will touch with my hands the things that will go in your mouth; I will taste what you taste; I will work for you, or you will work for me. I will make this for you because I love you, because you need it, because you want it.’

In ‘The New Thing’, Juliet Annan – who taught herself to cook using often vague Penguin paperbacks – details some of the questionable menus which she made for friends in the late 1970s: ‘… October 14 is Whiting and Fennel Soup, followed by Stuffed Cabbage, followed by Apple Steamed Pudding; very heavy. It makes me wonder about central heating – did we not have any? – but even on a summer’s day I see the menu was: Lettuce and Hazelnut Soup, Spiced Chicken with Tomato Salad and New Potatoes and then Baked Alaska and Fruit Salad.’ Annan goes on to remark: ‘… I was cooking dinners like this at least twice a week: the suet pudding years, and I was turning into one.’

Daisy Johnson writes about rituals surrounding food, such as her family’s tradition of making pizzas from scratch on Christmas Eve. She says that this tradition is ‘older than I am and has changed as my siblings and I have grown.’ Johnson goes on to comment that writing about food is ‘almost impossible’, and difficult to capture: ‘I would like to write about the ritual of food. I would like to write about how food rituals grow and about the ones that I have grown with my family and friends. I would like to write about how these rituals have come about seemingly without discussion and are now almost impossible to break.’

In ‘Steam’, Nina Mingya Powles talks about the foods bound up with her Asian heritage, and the almost endless variations of the same dish which can be found from one country to another. She tells us, in her rich and careful prose: ‘My most treasured childhood foods are steamed: dumplings, bao, parcels of sticky rice wrapped in leaves, silky cheung fun. Somehow, steaming feels more alchemical than other ways of cooking.’ As with Powles, for many of these authors, food is deeply connected to their treasured memories, and to fostering a sense of community at different points in their lives. Powles captures this beautifully when she writes: ‘In the kitchen, memories live in the body, just under the skin and under the tongue. Scents and residues from childhood rub off on our hands.’

Rebecca Liu takes a different tack, exploring the recent phenomenon of recipe boxes in her essay. Laura Freeman ponders over the diets of famous writers; for example, Iris Murdoch’s ‘surprise pudding’, which she served to her friends, and which turned out to be ‘a single Mr Kipling cake’. Ruby Tandoh writes of Doreen Fernandez, who ‘travelled widely across many of the 7,641 islands that comprise the Philippines, documenting the ways in which multiple cultures (and multiple colonisers) have… often synthesised to create the diverse and endlessly inventive foods of the country.’ The essayists draw their inspiration from a wealth of different sources – films, literature, love affairs, or the country of origin of a former partner, for example.

The separate essays have been arranged into three sections, entitled ‘Coming to the Kitchen’, ‘Reading and Writing the Kitchen’, and ‘Beyond the Kitchen’. So many of the authors have been wonderfully inventive and, as I have demonstrated above, have gone in very different directions in what they have explored here. A loose structure, such as the one which the separate sections gives, is effective.

I found In the Kitchen both immersive, and highly entertaining. I was awed by the variety which it contained, and took something particular from every single piece. Every essay made me contemplate something, and – as well as making me feel very hungry! – connected me with a lot of memories in the various kitchens which I have known during my lifetime. I can only hope that Daunt Books expand this as-yet small collection, and in the meantime, I look forward to reading much more of the publishing house’s back catalogue.

If you are a self-confessed foodie, like I am, In the Kitchen will be an incredibly valuable addition to your reading life. I relish books like this, which push me in the directions of different cuisines which I am not as familiar with as I would like to be, recipes which I have not yet tried, and techniques which I have not explored in my cooking. I very much look forward to implementing everything which I have learnt from this excellent collection in my own kitchen.

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‘Love Lessons’ by Joan Wyndham ****

I had had my eye on Joan Wyndham’s Love Lessons: A Wartime Diary for quite some time, and borrowed a gloriously musty second edition copy from my local library. First published in 1985, at the urging of Wyndham’s daughter, these diaries, which span the first two years of the Second World War, begin in August 1939. At this point, she is a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in the capital, but it closes down just as war is declared. Along with its sequel, Love Is Blue, Love Lessons recounts Wyndham’s life during wartime.

At the outset of war, sixteen-year-old Wyndham lives with her mother and ‘her religious companion, the enigmatic Sid’. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and her father is a bristling, sometimes absent figure, in her life. Wyndham is described in the blurb as a ‘teenage Catholic virgin… [who] spent her days trying to remain pure and unsullied and her nights trying to stay alive.’ One critic rather memorably called its young author ‘a latterday Pepys in camiknickers’.

Wyndham is open in that she falls for people incredibly quickly. When she visits her local first-aid post for the war effort, she makes a friend, and comments on the 4th of September 1939: ‘At the moment, Laura and I are enjoying a gentle lesbianism of the mind, but I’m afraid it won’t last and soon I shall be in love with her properly.’ There are similar situations with various men, some of whom treat her very badly; many of them seem intent only upon taking her virginity.

Wyndham can be quite fickle, in the tradition of adolescents; she shifts admiration and adoration from one individual to another, and is often momentarily heartbroken between. She does impart wise comments upon her condition and position at times, though, and seems very aware of her own self. In April 1940, she writes: ‘What an extraordinary thing this love is that comes and goes, making a completely different person of you while it lasts… You have to be terribly careful when you are young.’

Nothing about this journal is typical, particularly given the time in which it was written, and I feel as though this account would probably shock a lot of her contemporaries in its frankness. From the very first, Love Lessons is wonderfully evocative, rather amusing, and quite risqué. In the first entry, for instance, Wyndham remarks: ‘Granny is a bit of a bore, always chasing me to wash my hands and wear a dress – but luckily she’s in bed a lot of the time, wearing a chin-strap and a little circle of tin pressed into the middle of her forehead to keep the wrinkles at bay – it’s hard work being an ageing beauty.’ She has a lot of affection for her Aunt Bunch, of whom she comments: ‘Mummy says she takes drugs and goes around with Negroes, but I don’t care.’

I found Wyndham’s entries immediately compelling, and her tone refreshing and quite modern. I was not expecting the explicit sexual content which crops up here from time to time, but it feels authentic to show just what a modern woman Wyndham was, and the shifting world in which she became an adult. She offers comments on everyone, and everything. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so frank from this period, and it certainly opened my eyes a little. As a teenager, she ‘strayed into London’s Bohemian set’, meeting rather eccentric characters at every turn. One of her friends from drama school has a ‘sugar daddy’, and becomes ‘the first of my friends to go over the edge’ by losing her virginity. Another friend, Prudey, ‘married a Greek don who seduced her in every field in Cambridge. He used to make noises like a wolf and got very enraged if she wouldn’t bleat. When she was unfaithful to him he was so amazed he had her put into a lunatic asylum, but she ran away to Greece and got herself three lovers.’

She and her friends discuss taboo subjects with regularity, and she seems to recount each of these episodes. In May 1940, she writes, for instance, of a married male acquaintance, Leonard: ‘I think he would have kissed me, but I gracefully freed myself and ran down the steps, because it’s rather embarrassing to kiss a man smaller than yourself standing up. I think I’m becoming the most awful bitch.’

Of the war, which is of course all around her, Wyndham writes of her confusion in May 1940: ‘I don’t seem to be able to react or to feel anything. I don’t know what’s real any more. I don’t think I’m real or that this life is real. Before this last winter everything seemed real, but since then I seem to have been dreaming.’ When the air raids in London become too much, her mother has her ‘evacuated’ to the Kent town of Tunbridge Wells, to stay with her aunt. Although Wyndham is only here for a couple of weeks in the end, when she is first sent away, she recounts her discontent: ‘This morning was zero hour – the place, the country, seemed unbearably remote, cut off from the warm stream of life.’

I had only read the first two weeks of entries in this book before requesting Love is Blue from the library. Throughout Love Lessons, Wyndham gives important commentary about being a young woman in the context of wartime London, whilst being really very funny about it. There are some serious moments here, of course, but her sense of humour really shines through. Wyndham is warm and witty, charming and candid, and readers are sure to have so much fun with her highly readable accounts of wartime life.

4

‘The Conscientious Objector’s Wife’, edited by Kate Macdonald ****

I came across The Conscientious Objector’s Wife: Letters Between Frank and Lucy Sunderland, 1916-1919 whilst browsing a list of Handheld Press’ publications. The book really caught my eye, and after a quick peruse of my local library’s catalogue, I had found and reserved a copy. The Conscientious Objector’s Wife is part of Handheld’s Research collection, and the letters within have been collated and edited by Kate Macdonald, a literary historian, and the company’s director.

Frank and Lucy Sunderland were English pacifists, vegetarians, and ‘fervent supporters of Labour politics and the New Town movement.’ They had moved from London to Letchworth, the first Garden City, to give their three children – Dora, Chrissie, and Morris – a healthier lifestyle. The pair were highly involved in local politics and schemes; in 1917, for instance, Lucy began to run the committee at the town’s Adult School.

In November 1916, the couple were separated for almost three years, when Frank, who refused to be conscripted into the British Army during the First World War, was sentenced to hard labour for being a conscientious objector. He was first incarcerated in Wandsworth Prison in London, before being moved to Bedford. Frank was finally released in April 1919, at which point the letters in this edition stop.

Letchworth, in Hertfordshire, was a town ‘designed for social and environmental harmony’; it was predominantly Quaker, and many were pacifists. Almost all of its inhabitants supported the family, in contrast to the attitudes of their families in London, who viewed Frank’s ‘stance as unpatriotic’. During Frank’s incarceration, Lucy had no option but to support her family financially. She took over Frank’s work in collecting insurance premiums, and also took in sewing, and the odd lodger.

As well as strong contemporary details about what it was like to live in Britain during the First World War, these letters demonstrate ‘how their shared ideology of a socialist pacifism upheld the couple in separation, planning for a better future in a more equal society for all.’ Perhaps one of the saddest parts is the outbreak of scarlet fever which occurred in 1917; although all of their children pulled through, they did have to be hospitalised, and took rather a long time to recuperate. Due to the strict rules regarding how many letters conscientious objectors could receive, Frank did not find out about their illness at the time.

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife includes an introduction written by Macdonald. Here, she sets out her aim to ‘reframe’ histories of the First World War, which so often exclude women. She writes about Frank’s belief ‘in a universal brotherhood of men and women, which gave him the strength of purpose to resist incorporation’ into the Army. Macdonald goes on to comment that the Sunderland family ‘lived very familiar lives, making this… a human story of value to us all.’

The letters themselves are heartfelt and, particularly given the circumstances, they tend to be quite moving. On the 9th of November 1916, when Frank has been held in a barracks awaiting trial, Lucy writes: ‘I feel your spirit always with me. It helps me throughout the loneliness of the night. I haven’t time to feel lonely during the day.’ When Frank is sentenced, she sends the following: ‘I really feel quite at peace because I am sure we are taking the right stand. If our thought is too advanced for the present state of civilization we cannot help that, but must be true to ourselves… but all new teaching must have pioneers and its martyrs although we little dreamt in talking about our future that you would be one.’

There is some joviality here, too; on the 11th of November 1916, Frank writes: ‘You might let me have the interpretation of Morris’s letter as I can’t make head nor tail out of it.’ Like Lucy, he can be incredibly tender too. In February 1917, when his initial sentence is increased by two years, Frank writes: ‘… I assure you of my true Love to you and I feel that though we are parted in the flesh, Love leaps all boundaries of flesh and we are still together. Be brave little woman and I’ll try also, and together we shall gather strength to walk through the maze of sorrow and tribulation. I have written just as I feel knowing that you will be able to read my heart.’

Frank and Lucy wrote freely to one another; some of the letters read almost as streams of consciousness. Each one, however brief, is engaging. The couple recorded what was going on around then, as well as their hopes and dreams for a better future, lived together. Lucy does not shy away from writing of the loneliness which she feels, and the money troubles which often plague her.

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife is an accessible collection, which is worthy of so much attention. I was rather saddened when I went to rate it on Goodreads, and saw that I was the only person who had read it. The letters really give one a feel for how fraught things were during this period. The strength of both Sunderlands, and the way in which they took every difficulty in their stride, is inspiring. I also admired the way in which Frank and Lucy’s letters were turned into a family project, with different generations typing and collating everything which they wrote to one another, and the intention to turn the letters into a published book when the opportunity arose.

I feel grateful that I have been able to read these sometimes very private letters between a loving husband and wife. They reveal much about a still relatively little known group of people, who stood up for their pacifist beliefs. The Conscientious Objector’s Wife provides a window onto an important piece of social history, and I can only hope that more readers pick it up in future.

4

‘Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead’ by Barbara Comyns *****

I was absolutely thrilled to get my hands on a brand new edition of Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, after having spent more than a decade trying to find an affordable secondhand copy. Thankfully, the wonderful Daunt Books have reissued the novel, and I am most grateful.

I so enjoy Barbara Comyns’ work; it is wonderfully strange, and sometimes a little horrifying, but it is always compelling, and surprising. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, which was first published in 1954, fits all of this criteria. The novel is set in a small Warwickshire village and, set over a short span of time, the story encompasses many strange things. After the river floods excessively in early summer, the villagers begin to change, exhibiting odd and frightening behaviours; these range from a ‘mad miller’ who drowns himself, to the village barber, who cuts his own throat in full view. These nasty and unforeseen ends are attributed to a peculiar illness, which spreads like wildfire through the village.

Overseeing this pandemic are Emma and Hattie Willoweed, part of a sprawling family living in the home of their formidable grandmother. The characters are curious, and unpredicable. The girls’ father, Ebin, veers between mild interest and indifference, and their younger brother, Dennis, provides some much-needed comedy. Once the flood occurs, Comyns describes the mild horror which comes when Ebin fixates on taking Hattie out after her lunch to find drowned bodies; he reasons that she is ‘always game for anything.’

I found the Willoweed children particularly endearing. When Hattie and Dennis are left to their own devices in their father’s room whilst he is supposed to be schooling them, for instance, they rip up a copy of Macaulay’s History of England, and proceed to turn its pages into many paper hats and boats. At the same time, eldest sister Emma has been tasked with mending a great deal of ripped sheets: ‘She had mended several with the aid of a small and ancient sewing machine; but to her horror, the patches were coming off already because the machine was only capable of a rather charming chain stitch and she had forgotten to secure the ends of the thread.’

Grandmother Willoweed is an enigma. She is starkly judgemental, particularly with regard to the staff she employs in her household; she is often found shouting ‘slut!’ after her maids, for no reason one can discern. The groundskeeper, Old Ives, has an unhealthy rivalry with her: ‘Ives was a year older than Grandmother Willoweed, but considered that he had the better chance of survival: he thought she would die from overeating.’ In response to the birthday gift of food which he proffers her, Grandmother aptly responds: ‘”Ah, Ives, I’m afraid, when it’s your birthday, I shall be bringing clovers for your grave.”‘

She is an extremely keen gossip, although Comyns explains that this comes with problems of her own making: ‘Her audience was rather limited because for many years she had not left her own house and garden. She had an objection to walking or passing over ground that did not belong to her…’ Grandmother also has a fearful reputation, which precedes her: ‘Most of the village children had never seen her and she had become a terrifying figure in their minds. They thought she could hear everything they said wit her ear trumpet, and that instead of a tongue she had two curling snakes in her ugly mouth. When the children grew up and some of them became maids in Willoweed House they were always disappointed to discover she wasn’t so strange as they expected…’.

From the outset, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead mesmerises. Comyns begins the novel: ‘The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in.’ In this manner, Comyns sets the scene of the flood quite wonderfully. She goes on: ‘Ebin Willoweed rowed his daughters round the submerged garden. He rowed with gentle ineffectual strokes because he was a slothful man, but a strong vein of inquisitiveness kept him from being entirely indolent. He rowed away under a blazing sun; the light was very bright and the water brilliant.’ Comyns is an excellent writer, and she creates some gorgeous, lingering imagery within the novel. She writes a scene, for instance, in which Emma and Norah, one of the family’s maids, ‘went down to the garden together to pick peas for supper, and to dream their dreams in the summer dusk.’

There is not a great deal of cheer to be found here, as I am sure one can discern from my review, but I expected as much from Comyns’ work. There is a real morbidity to be found within the novel, in fact, especially that displayed between Ebin and Grandmother; the pair are nothing short of bloodthirsty at times. When the miller drowns himself in the river, for example, Grandmother insists that she is taken to see his body ‘dragged out of the water’. When Ebin ‘heard what all the commotion was about, he was not at all averse to seeing the drowned miller himself, and offered to take his mother.’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is a deceptively easy read, which becomes more and more unsettling as it progresses. There is a palpable tension, and nothing is shied away from.

Whilst I must admit that it did feel strange to read a book about a pandemic whilst in the midst of one, I absolutely adored this odd and beguiling novel, and cannot recommend it highly enough. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is darkly amusing – deliciously so – and I was pulled in from the outset. This is a novel to really savour, from an author whose work I find so much to admire within. As with her other novels, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead feels at once highly modern and wonderfully old-fashioned. It held me in its grip from start to finish, and I am sure that the same effect will be felt by its every reader.

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‘Small Bodies of Water’ by Nina Mingya Powles *****

Nina Mingya Powles is an author whose work I have been interested in since reading her excellent essay in At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond (review here). Her first full-length work of non-fiction, Small Bodies of Water, appealed to me on so many levels. Even had I not heard of Powles before, the quotes written by Robert Macfarlane, Amy Liptrot, and Jessica J. Lee on the book’s cover – all non-fiction authors whom I highly admire – would have drawn me to it. Small Bodies of Water won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize in 2019, and was published in full in August 2021.

Powles was born in New Zealand, partly grew up in China and the United States, and now lives in London. She has also spent an extensive time in Malaysia, where her grandparents live. As she so aptly writes, ‘Home is many people and places and languages, some separated by oceans.’

Small Bodies of Water is an exploratory memoir, about what home and family mean, and about belonging. The book presents a series of interlinked essays, woven together from ‘personal memories, dreams and nature writing’. The topics which she writes about are many and varied. Powles weaves in her own experiences of swimming around the world with myths and legends, earthquakes, food, wildlife, other literature which has struck her, notions of pain, waves and tidal movements, her difficulties in communicating with her grandparents, music, and Miyazaki movies, amongst many other things.

There are whole sections devoted to swimming, something which I personally love to read about. Focus is placed upon the ‘small bodies of water’ which ‘separate and connect us’ in which Powles has spent time. She learnt to swim close to her grandparents’ home in Borneo, where her mother was born, and where her grandfather studied the island’s freshwater fish for a living. Throughout her life, there have been many more bodies of water, from the ‘wild coastline of New Zealand’ to the Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath, northwest London.

Throughout, Powles’ descriptions are evocative and expansive. In the first essay, she recalls the act of swimming with her cousin in Malaysia: ‘I hover in a safe corner of the deep end, waiting to see how long I can hold my breath. Looking up through my goggles I see rainforest clouds, a watery rainbow. I can see the undersides of frangipani petals floating on the surface… I straighten my legs and point my toes and launch myself towards the sun.’ I love the way in which she writes about water, and its constant movement. Later, she describes: ‘Underwater everything was different, bathed in holy silence and blue echoes. The slanted windows cast wavering lines a liquid light beneath the surface, across our bodies. We felt the way our limbs moved, lithe and strong and brand new.’ As she grows, she considers the way in which the water was sometimes the only place in which she did not feel self-conscious about her changing body. She also writes that water is something which always makes her feel grounded, no matter where in the world she finds herself: ‘The heat can’t touch me: a girl swimming is a body of water.’

Food is something which also makes her feel at home. Whilst she writes about this in far more detail in her excellent short pamphlet, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, here, she writes about eating and cooking in sensuous language. Food is a way to connect for Powles, and to have something of a communal experience even in a new place where she is alone: ‘In the Vietnamese restaurants on Kingsland Road in east London, we – all of us women in our twenties and thirties, all of us slurping pho in the middle of the day – warm our cheeks in the steam that rises from our bowls and coats the windows, shielding us from the gaze of passers-by. We don’t speak to each other, or to anyone else. We wrap scarves around our faces and step out into the melting snow.’

Powles discusses cultural identity with a great deal of insight, and muses about the meaning of belonging from the outset. She asks poignant questions, such as: ‘Where is the place your body is anchored? Which body of water is yours? Is it that I’ve anchored myself in too many places at once, or nowhere at all? The answer hits somewhere between. Over time, springing up from the in-between space, new islands form.’ Later, she tells us: ‘Home is not a place but a collection of things that have fallen or been left behind…’.

She goes on: ‘My markers of home are rooted in plants and weather. Wind that tastes of salt, the tūī’s bright warbling call, the crunch of shells underfoot, a swaying kōwhai tree. As time passes, these pieces of home begin to feel unstable, shifting further away. Long after I’ve moved away from Wellington, after my parents moved out of our house by the sea, after the garden has gone wild, a kōwhai tree grows in a garden in London: some small proof that although my pieces of home are scattered, I will always find my way to them.’

I was thoroughly impressed throughout by the scope of Powles’ prose. She writes in a manner both detailed and poetic, and notices every single thing around her. She explores at length not just what it means to belong, but what it means to be a woman, and to be believed, and to have mixed heritage. Of the latter, she asks: ‘Some like to talk in terms of fractions: one-quarter, one-eighth, one-sixteenth. I can feel all the pieces of myself getting smaller and smaller. How do I carry them all?’

I loved the structure in Small Bodies of Water. Each essay is composed of short, vignette-like sections, which work wonderfully here. Powles adds so many layers to her memoir throughout. She considers what it means to write, and the effects which it has upon her: ‘I think of my own writing and how sometimes, making a poem means making something exist outside of my own brain, my own skin. The poem contains parts of me and I still contain parts of it, but it’s separate from myself, distinct, new.’

Small Bodies of Water sings. Powles has created such a beautiful and thoughtful work of non-fiction, which will stay with me for such a long time. I admired the huge variety of topics which have been included, and the way in which she considers each with such attention. The author has so much to say, and does with astonishing beauty. Small Bodies of Water is tremendous, and I found something to ponder on every page. I cannot wait to read whatever Powles brings out in the future.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Small Widow’ by Janet McNeill ****

First published in May 2019.

Irish writer Janet McNeill seems to be unjustly underappreciated.  Whilst a prolific author, publishing ten novels for adults and penning a whole host of radio plays, it is her children’s books for which she is most well known – and for those, she seems to be barely remembered.  She has intrigued me ever since I saw her single title, Tea at Four o’Clock, represented on the Virago Modern Classics list.  Whilst I was unable to find a copy of the aforementioned in time for my book club’s monthly author selection, I got my hands on a copy of The Small Widow, and am so pleased that I did.

9780957233652Fortnight writes of McNeill’s work favourably, and draws parallels between her and ‘English novelists such as Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner and, more particularly, Elizabeth Taylor.  What their writing shares… is a subtlety which makes demands of its readers.’  These three are all novelists whom I very much enjoy reading, and I have adored everything of Taylor’s which I have read to date.  I was therefore most excited to begin The Small Widow.

The novel’s protagonist is a middle-aged woman named Julia, who has been left a widow after the death of her husband Harold.  She is ‘alone and struggling with grief as well as her new life.’  She is a mother to four children, none of whom she feels overly comfortable in interacting with, as their relationships have shifted so much since their childhoods.  For the first time, she ‘has to learn independence, she needs to discover who she is when she is no longer a wife and is now a mother to children who do not need her.’  The central question which the novel asks is this: ‘As a widow can Julia find a freedom, an identity, which has never existed in her life before?’

The novel opens with Harold’s funeral: ‘The car slowed, they were approaching the gates.  Julia’s throat tightened, the impossible thing is happening now…  She ached to escape from the pressure of her daughters’ hips, the inevitability of shared warmth and the threat of shared emotion.’  The funeral scene is vivid: ‘The mourners formed into an untidy procession and started in the direction of the grave, trying to find a pace between a stroll and a trot.  The raw wind robbed them of any attempt at dignity.  It plucked their hair and their clothes, snatched the breath out of their mouths and ruffled the tufts of frozen grass.  Only the humped shapes of the dead were undisturbed.’  McNeill goes on to probe Julia’s conflicting emotions about her sudden loss.  At this point in time, when everything is raw and new, she sees her children as ‘… four relentless and dedicated orphans, demanding a formal come-back from her, the Mother Figure, whom they had discarded years ago.  It wasn’t fair.  Julia felt that she needed protection from them.’

The Small Widow is told using the third person omniscient perspective, which has been interspersed with Julia’s opinions and concerns.  In this way, McNeill makes us party to Julia’s innermost thoughts, and the secretive, one-sided conversations which she imagines with her husband: ‘I’ll do my mourning for you later, Harold.  Just now I am getting through this the best way I can.  You could have coped magnificently with my funeral, Harold.  I don’t know how to cope with yours.’  These asides continue throughout the book, and are particularly poignant when Julia considers her children.  Of her son, Johnnie, who lives in an outbuilding on her property, and runs a small bookshop, she thinks: ‘To him I’m not a person in the ordinary sense of the word.  I was typecast the minute the cord was cut.  I have been drained and diminished by motherhood.  I am a collection of attitudes, a pocket-sized matriarch whom it is traditional to have around…  It doesn’t help these self-made creatures to remember they are the children of my body.  I have done my job.  I am allowed, expected, to love them still, but at a decent distance.’

Julia’s concerns do not just affect her family.  Some of them are deeply personal, and seem trivial at first to outsiders.  She therefore keeps her grievances private, sometimes excruciatingly so.  She is forced to make all sorts of adjustments, and get used to the absence of things which she has grown so accustomed to throughout her long marriage.  For instance, ‘During the day the uninhabited area of the bed made her embarrassed.  One didn’t think of bereavement as posing problems like this.  One expected anguish, not embarrassment.  (I shall feel anguish in a week or two, Harold, just now there isn’t anything much that I feel.  It was puzzling to know what to do about the space here and all through the house that Harold used to occupy.  Presumably time would spill over and close the gaps, like the bark of a tree when it has been cut.’  She develops coping mechanisms; if she does not move from her place on the sofa or in bed for the entirety of the day, for example, ‘she wouldn’t notice that she was by herself.’

The Small Widow was first published in 1967, and was the only book which McNeill wrote whilst living outside Northern Ireland.  In the novel, she ‘anticipates many of the concerns of the 1970’s women’s movement in its awareness of the restricted role of women in the traditional family and marriage.’  I liked the way in which McNeill pushed against these limitations, giving Julia a voice and authority of her own, which built as the novel went on.  I found myself rooting for our central character, who rises above the opinions which others around her hold of women in her particular position, and the demands which they often make upon her.  The Small Widow feels far more modern, in many ways, than it is; Julia’s concerns are still prevalent in today’s society, particularly with regard to loneliness, and the shifting relationships between parents and their grown children.  The familial relationships here are revealing, and have a complexity to them; they shift both with time, and as a consequence of Julia finding her voice.

As a character portrait, The Small Widow is striking.  Throughout, Julia has a great deal of depth to her, and I found her surprising rather than predictable.  Her character arc alters  believably due to her circumstances.  On the basis of this well-sculpted novel, it is evident why one of her books has been published by Virago; it is just a shame that more haven’t followed suit.

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‘If I Had Your Face’ by Frances Cha ****

I have wanted to read Frances Cha’s debut novel, If I Had Your Face, since it was published in 2020. It is a novel which I have seen everywhere since, and it has been, almost without exception, incredibly well received. Helen Oyeyemi, for instance, deems it ‘glittering, engrossing’, and Nell Zink ‘troubling, kaleidoscopic and highly enjoyable’.

If I Had Your Face is set in contemporary Seoul, South Korea. It focuses upon four young women, who are ‘struggling to survive’, and are ‘balancing on the knife-edge of survival’ on the fringes of the city. Seoul is a place where ‘plastic surgery is as routine as getting a haircut… and [where] ruthless social hierarchies dictate your every move.’ The novel circles around the concept of physical beauty, which can affect your life in South Korea just as much as a premium education does; unless you are lucky enough to attend one of the premium universities in the country, it is almost impossible to work for a top company, or to progress to an executive level. At the heart of If I Had Your Face is the competitiveness which is found at every level of society in Seoul, and the way in which it captures and suffocates people.

Kyuri works at a ‘room salon’, where wealthy businessmen go to be ‘entertained after hours’. Her ‘hard-won status’ at the salon is affected, around the halfway point of the novel, when she makes a mistake with a client, which reverberates through the salon. Miho, Kyuri’s flatmate, is an orphan, given a scholarship to a prestigious art school in New York. Here, her life ‘became tragically enmeshed with the super-wealthy offspring of the Korean elite’, something which follows her when she moves back to Seoul after graduating. Ara, their neighbour, is a hair stylist, obsessed with a K-pop band, and mute following a traumatic incident. Their downstairs neighbour, Wonna, is a little older than these young women; she lives in the same cheap office-tel building with her husband, as they cannot afford much more on their combined salaries, and is expecting a baby after a series of miscarriages.

Kyuri works at a ’10 percent’ room salon, deemed as she is to be in the top 10 percent of the prettiest girls in the industry. She is recognised everywhere she goes for her beauty, although much of this has been augmented, or completely altered, by plastic surgery. Ara describes her as ‘electrically beautiful’, going on to comment: ‘The stitches on her double eyelids look naturally faint, while her nose is raised, her cheekbones tapered, and her entire jaw realigned and shaved into a slim v-line.’ Room salon workers like Kyuri are expected to get their hair and makeup done by professionals every single day.

Cha writes at length about the widespread use of plastic surgery in Seoul; it is given to very young women, and is something which many aspire to have. Ara recalls that, whilst at high school, every girl in their class was offered half-price eyelid surgery by the husband of one of their teachers. Cha reveals just how much emphasis is placed upon beauty by society, and how every woman is expected to conform to such exacting standards; the other skills and talents of women tend to pale in comparison to how they look. The operations which women continually put themselves through are brutal, and unnecessary. Ara’s flatmate, a twenty two-year-old woman named Sujin, wishes to become a room salon girl. During her initial appointment at a plastic surgery clinic, the doctor tells her that as well as double eyelid surgery, she also ‘needs to get both double jaw surgery and square jaw surgery, desperately’, alongside a cheekbone reduction, and liposuction on her chin.

The stark reality of trying to live in Seoul is revealed by Wonna; she reflects: ‘Unless you are born into a chaebol family or your parents were the fantastically lucky few who purchased land in Gangnam decades ago, you have to work and work and work for a salary that isn’t even enough to buy a house or pay for childcare, and you sit at a desk until your spine twists, and your boss is somehow incompetent and a workaholic at the same time and at the end of the day you have to drink to bear it all.’ Wonna had a difficult childhood with her cruel grandmother, whilst her father worked in South America. ‘It was the greatest irony in the world,’ Wonna remembers, ‘that she had taken in the child of the son who humiliated her the most, she often said to me.’

I liked the way in which all of the women lived in the same apartment block; this is a simple yet effective tool to tie their different stories together. Their rent in the office-tel is ‘dirt cheap’, but only because they live on the fourth floor, a number which promotes superstition in Asian cultures. Cha has made her narrative voices distinctive, and it is easy to differentiate between them. I liked the way in which each of her characters are on different trajectories, working in different industries, and struggling with myriad problems. I really enjoyed the approaches which Cha took throughout If I Had Your Face; she gives an awful lot to think about, whilst providing a cast of compelling and believable characters, and introducing Western readers to the stark realities which exist in Seoul.

I hadn’t read much about the ‘dark side’ of Seoul before picking up If I Had Your Face. The concept of the room salon was new to me; they are largely seedy establishments, from the research which I have done since, which are bound up with prostitution. Ara’s character describes the room salons like so: ‘… now that I know what to look for, I see one on every side street. From the outside, they are nearly invisible. Nondescript signs hang above darkened stairways, leading to underground worlds where men pay to act like bloated kings.’ The Korea which Cha reveals feels a completely different world, and I admit that I found it quite shocking at times.

If I Had Your Face is a rich and accomplished first novel. Cha gives a lot of commentary about different worlds colliding, particularly the rich with the poor, the disparities between different generations, and the grave inconsistencies to be found between Korea and the West. My only criticism is that I feel that the physical city of Seoul could have been made better use of; much of the narrative here is focused upon character rather than place, and a great deal of the action occurs in bland interiors, rather than out in the city. Regardless, I was so interested throughout in each of the characters and their perspectives, and believed entirely in their realistic cares and worries. One really comes to understand each woman here, and Cha gives her readers a great deal to think about. I very much enjoyed this satisfying novel, and look forward to whatever Cha turns her hand to next.

3

‘Of Cats and Elfins: Short Tales and Fantasies’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner ****

I received a copy of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Of Cats and Elfins: Short Tales and Fantasies from a dear friend for Christmas. We studied Townsend Warner’s fantastic masterpiece of a novel, Lolly Willowes, together whilst postgraduate students, and have both retained a fondness for her inventive work. I was unaware that this collection, printed by Handheld Press, had been published, so it was a lovely surprise to open.

The pieces within Of Cats and Elfins are previously uncollected, and range from between 1927 and 1984, spanning Townsend Warner’s entire writing career. It is, says its blurb, a ‘forgotten collection of fantasy stories and folk tales about human bravery and dispassionate animals, written in the darkest days of wartime Britain’. It includes Townsend Warner’s 1927 essay, ‘Elfins’, and the entirety of her Cat’s Cradle book, which was originally published in the United States in 1940, and the United Kingdom in 1960. Of Cats and Elfins is intended as a companion volume to Kingdoms of Elfin, a collection of Townsend Warner’s fantasy stories, which were published by Handheld Press in 2018.

Of Cats and Elfins features a meticulous introduction by fantasy author Greer Gilman. She writes of the diversity collected here: ‘Fantasy ran underground with Warner, flashing out like a hidden river, each time in a new landscape: witchlore; myth; folktale; invisible kingdoms. What they share is Warner’s worldview, her inimitable voice.’ Greer goes on to give a lot of specific critique of the pieces collected here.

The first piece in this collection is ‘The Kingdom of Elfin’, which sets out Townsend Warner’s imagined fantasy world. Here, she writes: ‘It is a sad fact, but undeniable; the Kingdom of Elfin had a very poor opinion of humankind. I suppose we must seem to them shocking boors, uncouth, noisy, ill-bred and disgustingly oversized.’ There are several Elfin stories to be found here, all set in a vividly imagined and expansive land, which is redolent almost of that in The Lord of the Rings. Townsend Warner’s worldbuilding is faultless; there is such a thoroughness to it. I enjoyed this part of the collection to a point, but I did find it a little difficult at times to suspend my disbelief, and feel that I would have got more out of it if I had read Kingdoms of Elfin previously.

Townsend Warner’s wicked sense of humour is displayed throughout the Elfin stories, and can also be found at times in her animal stories. These tales have an almost Aesop’s Fables-style feel to them; some could be construed as moralistic. There are echoes of the fairytale here too, but Townsend Warner makes the genre something all her own. The unexpected lives in each of these stories, which follow many different animal species – magpies, foxes, phoenixes, a tiger who learns the meaning of ‘virtue’… In ‘Introduction’, as an example, the many cat characters can interact – in clever flourishes of speech, and witty asides – with the humans they live alongside. This piece is my favourite in the entirety of Of Cats and Elfins; I found it quite delightful.

Entwined throughout is the wonder of the natural world, something which feeds into each of these stories. Her descriptions are exquisite. In ‘Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain’, for instance, she crafts: ‘But in the shadow of the wood, where the sun had not penetrated, the thorn trees were at the perfection of their bloom. They were very old trees, gnarled, and tufted with greenish-grey moss, dry and dead-coloured. It did not seem possible that these angular boughs should have pit out the lacework of milky blossoms: each a blunt star, each with its little pointed pink star within it. It seemed rather as though light had rested upon the dead boughs and turned it into blossom.’ In ‘Introduction’, the first piece in the Cat’s Cradle collection, she writes: ‘The house was handsome too, its good looks sobered by age and usage – a seventeenth-century house with a long façade… It gave an impression of slenderness, of being worn smooth and thin like an old spoon… the general tint of the house was that of a ripening pear with streaks of vague rose and pale madder flushing its sallow skin.’

I must admit that I am not really a fan of fantasy, and it is a genre which I rarely – if ever – reach for. Townsend Warner is a firm favourite of mine, however, and I will gladly read all of her work. This sounded both intriguing and charming, and it was; there is a real otherworldly quality to it. It was a joy to reacquaint myself with Townsend Warner, and I was struck once again by her inventiveness, and the myriad ways in which she was well ahead of her time.

Of Cats and Elfins collects together a full bibliography of Townsend Warner’s published work; it reminded me both that I have hardly explored her oeuvre to date, and that a lot of her work is sadly very difficult to get hold of, particularly for an affordable price. This collection is wonderful to have; it provides such wonderful escapism, and I very much appreciated the lively unpredictability of her work.

Of Cats and Elfins is undoubtedly odd, but rather enchanting. It reminded me throughout of Scottish author Naomi Mitchison, whose work has so enchanted and – I admit – mildly confused me in the past. The collection is highly memorable, and whilst I was perhaps a little less enraptured by the Elfin stories than many readers will be, I will certainly be thinking about them in future. I would like to revisit this collection, particularly if I do pick up the Kingdoms of Elfin tales at some point – although unless I make a dramatic U-turn in my reading life and start enjoying fantasy novels, I’m not sure that this will be at the top of my to-read list.

Regardless, Of Cats and Elfins is highly recommended, whether you are a fan of fantasy, or just of Modernism. There is so much to admire here, and a great deal to consider. If you have never read Townsend Warner, and my comments here have enticed you to pick up one of her books, I would point you towards Lolly Willowes as a starting point. Of Cats and Elfins, though, would be a good choice to follow her most famous novel with.

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‘Maman, What Are We Called Now?’ by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar *****

Persephone Books are a real treat for me. I love that moment when I open one of their beautiful dove grey covers for the first time, and always take a moment to admire the undoubtedly beautiful endpapers, before embarking on a story which I’m always certain I will enjoy. I was lucky enough to be able to reserve a copy of Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar’s Maman, What Are We Called Now? from my local library, as it’s a copy I’ve had difficulty picking up elsewhere.

Maman, What Are We Called Now? collects together a short journal and articles written by Paris resident, Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar, during the Second World War, and directly afterwards. First published in its original French in 1957, and in English in this translation by Francine Yorke in 2015, the book is the 115th title on the Persephone list. It also includes a long, and highly informative preface written by biographer Caroline Moorehead, in which she provides a lot of information about both their families, and their backgrounds. I really appreciated both the specific context, and the personal details which she gives; they certainly add to the whole.

Mesnil-Amar’s original journal was written between July and August 1944, and begun on the day she learnt that her husband was missing. Moorehead contextualises this well, commenting: ‘In the last frenzied weeks of the German occupation of Paris her husband André had disappeared. She wanted to record her thoughts, her fears, her desperate hopes, her memories, along with a description of Paris itself… When she abandoned her diary, five weeks later, Paris was free and André, miraculously, was alive.’

Both Jacqueline and André were Jewish, but were ‘totally assimilated’, seeing themselves as French citizens first, and Jewish second. André joined the Jewish resistance, which had begun in Warsaw in 1942. After being tricked by the Gestapo, he was sent to Auschwitz on the last deportation train, on the 17th of August 1944. Astonishingly, he managed to escape from the moving train, and walked the 50 kilometres back to Paris. After being reunited with his wife and young daughter Sylvie, he and Jacqueline helped to set up a vital network of information for deported Jews, helping them to locate their families after the Holocaust.

Throughout Mesnil-Amar’s heartrending journal, the reader is made party to her extreme anxiety, uncertainty, and grief. On the 25th of July, just a week after André’s disappearance, Mesnil-Amar writes: ‘I was straining to hear the slightest sound, longing for the familiar rapid footsteps outside the door, bur they never came. A thousand times I thought I’d heard one of the sounds that are so much a part of the man I love – the jangle of his keys, the click of the door handle, his little smoker’s cough, the rustle of a newspaper – and the sound of his cheerful voice calling out his pet name for me from the other end of the flat. But nothing. Complete silence. Always the same all-enveloping silence we endured after the others were arrested.’ On the same day, she writes of the clash of information which she has been given by others: ‘Everything just adds to the confusion and the horror, it’s all black and shadowy… I will sell my rings, I will sell my soul, I will sell my life, but I can’t believe even that would be enough.’

Throughout the journal portion of Maman, What Are We Called Now?, Mesnil-Amar lays her panic and vulnerability bare. She writes briefly of members of her family, all of whom are in hiding across the city. She writes, sometimes at length, of the incredibly brave and selfless people around her, and how they have provided herself and Sylvie with help, and with hope. She addresses sections of her journal directly to André, and these are fervent and sincere.

Something which she comes to realise is the disconnect which her husband’s disappearance creates. On the 26th of July, Mesnil-Amar reflects: ‘This endless walk took me through every part of Paris, so many different cities, each one a part of me, my avenues, my streets, the loveliest and the ugliest, the oldest and the newest, and I walked with my eyes half-closed, all of a sudden a stranger in my own city, separated from it by my grief and yet forever bound to it.’ She questions her faith, wondering whether she does believe in God: ‘Not every day, alas. And especially not every night… I no longer know who or what to hold on to, what god, what human face, which of the values that used to give meaning to my life.’

Under the rather lovely pen name of Delphine, Jacqueline contributed articles, theatre reviews, and ‘light-hearted sketches of society life’ to various magazines. After the war, the tone and topics of her writing, unsurprisingly, shifted. Moorehead notes that in these later articles, ‘the light-hearted Delphine of the pre-war years had been replaced by a more serious, sadder figure.’ One can notice a shift in tone even between the journal and the articles written afterwards; there is a gaping sadness, and a despair which is almost palpable. Both her prose and the translation are fluid and beautiful, and throughout, Jacqueline is astute and highly observant of everything around her. She questions herself relentlessly about why people were resigned to standing by and watching, as the whole of Europe was decimated, and much of its Jewish population was murdered before their very eyes.

I always feel incredibly grateful when I come to read a diary, particularly one as illuminating as Mesnil-Amar’s. For me, they provide, by far, the best insight into the author’s present. They record details which may otherwise be lost to the annals of history, or perhaps might not be picked up by future historians. Maman, What Are We Called Now? – something which Mesnil-Amar’s daughter asked her, picking up as she did on the grip of Nazi Germany, and the deportation of friends – is such an important document, and one which is an absolute privilege to read.