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‘Painter to the King’ by Amy Sackville ****

I adored Amy Sackville’s first two novels, Orkney and The Still Point. When I spotted a copy of her newest work in my local library, therefore, I picked it up and read its blurb with interest. Painter to the King is very different in its approach, given that it marks Sackville’s first foray into historical fiction, but as she is such an innovative writer, I fully expected to love it too.

Painter to the King gives a fictional account of artist Diego Velázquez, who, as a twenty three-year-old, was summoned to the court of King Philip IV of Spain. He arrived in Madrid to become the official ‘painter to the King’, a position which he would hold until his death.

Velázquez’s job gave him ‘an unparalleled view of palace life’, and it is this which Sackville has set out to explore. She examines his story through his own eyes, and in consequence, ‘… we see an intimate relationship that is not quite a friendship, between a king and his subject, between an artist and his subject.’ Sackville aims to expose ‘what is shown and what is seen, about art and death and life’, and dips into the spaces between.

When we first meet Velázquez, in 1622, he has ridden to Madrid from Seville: ‘He had a stipend for the journey and some pride, he arrives in style: he has paid for a horse. Just one attendant on a mule with the baggage, who has no features in the dark beyond the torchlight.’ He meets the King quite soon afterwards; at this point, Philip IV is not even twenty, seen as ‘a man of solid flesh, and the greatest monarch in the world.’ He has been the King of Spain for two years, much of that time spent mourning his late father. He would go on to rule Spain during the Thirty Years War.

The omniscient narrator of the novel speaks from a position of hindsight. When describing the King, for instance, the following is said: ‘… Now he is young and golden, and his people love him, and although he is melancholy by temperament he hasn’t yet known many of the many sadnesses that will later come to weigh him down and pull at the corners of his eyes and cast the court into muttering silence, chafing in the draughts; all this is to come and if anyone can see it they won’t speak, won’t see it, or won’t be listened to; only a fool would tell a truth like that one, that it’s all already ending -‘. The narrator also writes about experiences they have had viewing Velázquez’s paintings whilst on a trip to Madrid in the modern world; I found this a thoughtful inclusion.

I loved Sackville’s descriptions, and the importance of minutiae in her writing. Her prose is beautiful and rich, suffused with detail. I admired the way in which she tries to infiltrate the visions of the artist at the novel’s core. She writes: ‘The painter has faith in solid objects, arresting their motion through the world and preserving forever their thisness, the quiddity of matter and moisture and shine; transparency, opacity; the exterior that things present to the world, and how much of the world can be seen through them, distorted, distilled… he attends to all of this, plasticity, rigidity, fragility, damage and flaw, detail, surface and shape.’

Painter to the King is highly evocative throughout, and Sackville captures precise scenery, sights, and smells with such a deft hand. The writing here is often sensuous, particularly when Velázquez’s work is described, or when evoking the entire process of creating a new painting. When she describes El Corto, the area around the palace in which civilians live and work, she writes: ‘Everything here exists to serve the court, to bake its bread and cure its meat and weave and stretch its linens and sew its sleeves and tunics and undergarments; an ersatz city at the axis of a cross drawn through the country, and built upon a high dry plain across which hot winds in summer and ice winds in winter wander and gallop like madness.’

Sackville’s prose is relatively experimental, and there are some sections of stream-of-consciousness here. I really liked the fresh approach which she gives to the historical novel, a genre which tends to follow a similar writing style. Sackville’s rich vocabulary lends itself well to this work, and allows her to blend art and history in such a satisfying way. Painter to the King reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s playful historical novel Orlando at times. She sweeps through Philip’s reign, and Velázquez’s career with such authority.

Painter to the King was first published in 2018, but I only found out about it when browsing in my local library in the summer of 2020; even as someone who looks out for Sackville’s work, I do not find it reviewed often – or at all – and this is a great shame. I admired this interesting and unconventional work of historical fiction, but must admit that I did not find it as compelling or as breathtaking as her contemporary fiction. However, Sackville is a highly underrated writer, and one which I urge every reader to seek out. Whichever of her novels you choose to begin with, they are guaranteed to intrigue and surprise.

8

‘The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia’ by Laura Miller *****

I have never been a huge fan of the fantasy genre, but I could not get enough of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when I was a child. I remember, on a couple of occasions, finishing the last paperback in the series – a gorgeous boxed edition which my mother was given when she was a child, and passed on to me – and going right back to the beginning. I have read the series in adulthood, and found it almost as magical.

I was therefore very keen to read Laura Miller’s memoir, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, which charts her own experiences of reading the Chronicles, both in childhood and adulthood. She writes: ‘My relationship to Narnia would turn out to be as heady as any love affair, a story of enchantment, betrayal, estrangement, and reunion.’ Jonathan Lethem deems Miller’s book a ‘superb long essay’, ‘conversational, embracing and casually erudite’, and Karen Joy Fowler calls it ‘smart, meticulous, and altogether delightful’.

The Magician’s Book chronicles – pardon the pun – Miller’s ‘long, tumultuous relationship’ with C.S. Lewis’ books. Just as I did as a young teenager, Miller discovered the wealth of Christian material which suffused the books; these seem obvious to me as an older reader, but as a child, they went right over my head. Miller’s experience from this point veered in a different direction to mine; I was still keen to submerge myself within the books, but the ‘Christian themes left [Miller] feeling betrayed and alienated from the stories she had come to know and trust.’

As an adult, Miller – who was working as a literary critic at the time – came to the stories from a different perspective. She decided to investigate the Chronicles, alongside Lewis’ life, ‘to see what mysteries Narnia holds for adult eyes’. She was thankfully enraptured by the stories once more, and was able to recapture some of the childhood love which she felt for them. She muses at length upon the Christian symbolism in the novels, explaining why she initially felt let down by this element, and how cleverly Lewis drew parallels between the two. She examines, too, the role of women and race within the novels, and the lack of distinct politics in Narnia, amongst so many other elements.

I loved the mixing of Miller’s own memoir alongside a quite detailed biography of C.S. Lewis himself. She visits the places in which he lived, in both England and Ireland, and travels to the specific Irish landscapes which inspired portions of the books. Miller found Lewis to be a man ‘who stands in stark contrast to his whimsical creation’. In her research, she was particularly interested in his all-engulfing friendship with Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as the influence which he has had upon a slew of modern writers, including Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Franzen. Miller gives a fantastic commentary regarding mythology and Medieval romance, and its influences on both Lewis and Tolkien.

The Magician’s Book opens with a reflection of Miller’s childhood, when the greatest love which she felt was for the Narnia stories. She writes in especially touching prose here, telling us: ‘I’m wishing, with every bit of myself, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again.’ Narnia showed the young Laura how she ‘could tumble through a hole in the world I knew and into another, better one, a world fresher, more brightly colored, more exhilarating, more fully felt than my own.’

Miller writes beautifully throughout about Narnia and its magic. She also details how formative reading the Chronicles were, and how they provided a sort of moral and educational primer for its child readers. She says, for instance: ‘To me, the best children’s books gave their child characters (and by extension, myself) the chance to be taken seriously. In Narnia, the boundary between childhood and adulthood – a vast tundra of tedious years – could be elided. The Pevensies not only get to topple the White Witch, fight in battles, participate in an earthshaking mystical event, and be crowned kings and queens; they do it all without having to grow up. Yet they become more than children, too. Above all, their decisions have moral gravity. In contrast to how most children experience their role in an adult world, what the child characters in these stories do, for better or worse, really matters…’.

I found The Magician’s Book fascinating. Miller offers a thorough, even intricate, work of literary criticism. I left with a renewed love for the Narnia books myself, as well as a list of a few other lists and authors to explore – something which I greatly appreciate. The Magician’s Book is, overall, a fantastic melding of a variety of genres and interests, and of themes and elements found within a children’s series which contains an awful lot of depth.

As Miller puts it so wonderfully herself, Narnia ‘mixed up classical and Northern mythologies, canonical fairy tales and slangy modern schoolchildren, myth and satire, all with such cheerful indiscrimination.’ This is a wonderful piece of literary criticism, and I can only hope that every fan of Narnia will have the chance to pick it up.

3

‘The Eternal Season: Ghosts of Summers Past, Present and Future’ by Stephen Rutt ****

The Eternal Season: Ghosts of Summers Past, Present and Future is naturalist Stephen Rutt’s third book. His newest effort is set against the background of the pandemic, which has so affected us all since the beginning of 2020. As with many of us, it stopped Rutt’s plans in their tracks, preventing him from travelling across Britain’s woods and forests, and following warblers, the intended initial focus of this book. A Suffolk-born resident of the Scottish market town of Dumfries, Rutt spent the first few months of the pandemic living with his partner’s family, during an ‘enforced stay’ in rural Bedfordshire.

Like many of us, Rutt turned to the constancy of nature during the first summer of the pandemic – and he found anything but. Wherever he was physically during this year, he spent his time noting ‘the abundance teeming in our hedgerows, marshlands and woodlands’. In his close communication with the nature around him, though, he began to notice ‘disturbances to the traditional rhythms of the natural world: the wrong birds singing at the wrong time, disruption to habitats and breeding, [and] the myriad ways climate change is causing a derangement of the seasons.’ What came out of lockdown for Rutt was The Eternal Season, in which he both celebrates the summer season, and observes the ‘delicate series of disorientations that we may not always notice.’

In his introduction, Rutt writes: ‘Birds have always been the focus of my passion for nature and they always will be. But the summer does not belong to them alone; there is a full spectrum of life to consider that can seem largely absent from the winter months: the butterflies and dragonflies that add colour to the days; the moths that haunt the warm nights and the swooping bats that pick them off; the unforgettable arachnids and amphibians that lurk in ignored corners.’ He goes on, commenting: ‘Our summer wildlife is the filter through which we can see what’s really happening in our seasons’, as it tends to have a far-reaching knock-on effect. As Rutt sets out, ‘A bird you look at is no longer just a bird but one of an intertwined series of forces, capable of being expressed as statistics, that explain the terribly restless, indecent state of the world.’

One of the real strengths of The Eternal Season regards the way in which Rutt writes of his surroundings. On his ‘allowed daily exercise’, as he walks in a Bedfordshire wood, he recounts: ‘A muntjac disappeared through a brief blizzard of blossom, driven from the blackthorn by the breeze. Cowslips and primroses and their hybrid, the false oxlips, spangled the edge of the track with stars of lemon and butter. Leafwards, I slipped into a green hypnosis.’

As a ‘locked-down naturalist’ trying to make the best of things, he turns to the Internet, exploring by way of Google and Ordnance Survey maps. He writes at length about the challenges climate change has already wrought in Britain, and muses about what it may mean for our native and visiting species in the future. He makes one continually aware of ways in which things are changing, and how something which alters somewhere else in the world can have such a serious knock-on effect in Britain. Everything is connected, and the ruin of one thing could bring about the ruin of all. Throughout, Rutt quotes the results of surveys, as well as a wealth of other naturalists, and even novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Each chapter here focuses on a single species, from the little owl to the natterjack toad. He notices the species around him changing, along with their abundance. Throughout, there are stark warnings, and mixed feelings. On the walks which he takes around the Bedfordshire countryside, he comments: ‘It was the first cuckoo I had seen in two years. The first yellow wagtail in three, corn bunting in four… And this feeling is incredibly complicated for me. I’m excited, as birds always make me; I’m delighted to be seeing these species when I had begun to wonder if I would ever see them again. But here is the kicker: it’s one pair of yellow wagtails, one individual cuckoo, a few pairs of corn bunting… The species might be here but their numbers are low, the birds being spread even thinner. And it feels as if I’m writing my own archive of loss, walking through a living museum before it’s sealed off behind the glass case of history, a display of the future dead and gone.’

Rutt’s prose is intelligent and accessible, and it is clear to see that he is a rising star in the world of nature writing. The Eternal Season is a book for every single person who has sought out the nature around them in the last, strange year; who has mused upon the species which they have seen in their local parks; and who are more aware than ever of which species exist, and which thrive, around them. Rutt is acutely aware of what we may stand to lose, and what may have been lost already. A feeling of hope, however, suffuses the whole – and what more do we need after the last year, but hope?

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‘The New Wilderness’ by Diane Cook ****

I had been seeing Diane Cook’s latest novel, The New Wilderness, everywhere before receiving a review copy. The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2020, and television rights have already been purchased by Warner Brothers. The New Wilderness has been highly praised everywhere I have looked; Lemn Sissay deems it ‘the environmental novel of our times’, and Emily St. John Mandel applauds it as a ‘virtuosic debut, brutal and beautiful in equal measure.

Cook’s dystopian novel is about a future in which climate change has ravaged our cities, making them unlivable. She has focused upon the relationship between a mother, Bea, and her daughter, Agnes. When Agnes is five, she is gravely ill, as a consequence of the damaged world. She is wasting away, ‘consumed by the smog and pollution of the over-developed metropolis they call home.’ Bea knows that if they stay in the city, where medical treatment is difficult to find, Agnes is sure to die. They have no choice but to join a social experiment, pioneered by Bea’s husband, Glen; they will move to the last remaining wilderness – the ‘unwelcoming, untamed’ Wilderness State – to join a group of volunteers. They travel here simply ‘because there was no other place they could go’.

This experiment, overseen by a series of Rangers and officials who fill the Wilderness space, ‘took almost a year of working and waiting to get the permission to place humans into what was essentially a refuge for wildlife, the last Wilderness area left… It was risky. It was uncomfortably unknown. It was an extreme idea and an even more extreme reality.’ The family slowly learn how to survive in their new surroundings, which are unpredictable, and often fraught with danger. Their experience quickly becomes a disorienting one; they stop measuring days, and have only vague maps on which to mark their journeys and location. They are nomads, really; they traverse the land, not permitted to stay in any one place for more than a week.

From its very beginning, The New Wilderness is vivid, and plays to our collective visceral fear of the world changing irreversibly. In the first scene, Bea gives birth to a baby daughter, who is stillborn. Cook writes of this in prose which sets the largely bleak tone for the whole novel: ‘The body emerged from Bea the color of a bruise. Bea burned the cord somewhere between them and uncoiled it from the girl’s slight neck and, though she knew it was useless, swept her daughter up into her hands, tapped on her soft chest, and blew a few shallow breaths into her skinny mouth.’ The reader is quickly given an insight into Bea’s state of mind; she reflects that she did not want to bring a baby into this new world, and doing so would have been wrong.

We learn a lot about Bea’s approach to motherhood, as well as her constantly shifting relationship with her daughter, as the novel progresses. Early on, it is revealed that Bea ‘loved Agnes fiercely, though motherhood felt like a heavy coat she was compelled to put on each day no matter the weather.’ Bea soon learns that as Agnes grows healthier, and becomes more independent, their new life will threaten their relationship in a very real way.

The boundaries between the human and animal worlds are wonderfully blurred in The New Wilderness; indeed, I believe that this is one of the elements which Cook handles most impressively. The human group often finds itself trespassing into habitats which animals have called home for centuries. Of course, they rely on the animals being around them as a source of food and clothing, amongst other things, but Cook makes it clear that the animals themselves are disappearing at an alarming rate; they are becoming rare. The characters’ primal instincts are also often compared to animal counterparts, which I found to be an interesting touch: ‘Like an animal, Agnes froze when fearful and bolted when endangered. Bea imagined that as Agnes grew up this world would change. She might feel less like prey and more like a predator.’

Descriptions of the natural world are plentiful here. The environment in which the group lives is recognisable, but their circumstances are so out of the ordinary. Cook builds a believable scenario very early on, and her world-building is competent and thorough. We do not know where exactly the novel is set, or in which year, but it provides a scary glimpse into what the future really could hold, unless we as a civilisation drastically change our ways. The reader quickly gets a feel for their environment, and the way in which they are forced to live within it.

There are, as one might expect, many trigger warnings in this novel, from death and violence particularly. Also shocking, if perhaps inevitable, is the approach which the members of the group take toward death: ‘They had seen a lot of death. They had become hardened to it. Not just the Community members who had perished in grisly or mundane ways. But around them everything died openly. Dying was as common as living. They worried about one another, of course, but when one of them ceased surviving for whatever reason, they closed ranks and put their energy into what remained alive.’

The New Wilderness draws together a lot of elements which interest me in fiction – dystopias, complex relationships, growing up – and Cook handles each so well. I found The New Wilderness to be a compelling and highly readable novel, which holds a few surprises along the way. The plot moves along very well indeed, and the characters and their actions are convincing.

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‘The Changeling’ by Joy Williams ****

It pleased me when I saw that Joy Williams’ rather forgotten novel, The Changeling, was back in print after forty years, having first been published in 1978. The New York Times declares Williams ‘one of the great writers of her generation’, an opinion which has been echoed by many.

The Changeling is a novel steeped in mystery and magical realism. Our focus is Pearl, a young mother trapped inside her marriage to Walker. At the outset of the novel, she has fled to the anonymous bar of a Florida hotel, with her infant son, Sam: ‘She was running away from home, from her husband… She had boarded a plane and traveled twelve hundred miles in three hours. The deception that had been necessary! The organization! People were always talking to her at home, on her husband’s island. She couldn’t bear it any more. She had to have a new life.’ This soon proves to be an unsuccessful escape, however, as Walker suddenly appears to force her home.

On her return, the unnamed island off the coast of the United States is ‘transformed into a place of madness and pain’. Pearl soon ‘slips into the delirium of motherhood and alcoholism’, becoming convinced that Sam is not her baby. The Changeling is unsettling throughout, and there is a lot of tension between its characters, as well as between Pearl’s physical body and her mind.

The reissued novel has an introduction by author Karen Russell, whose work I very much enjoy. She writes that the novel ‘feels at once unprecedented and eerily familiar’, and goes on to say: ‘Every great book shapeshifts with its reader. The Changeling, however, does something wilder still: it generates its own autonomous magic, one that feels wholly independent of the reader and her moment. The spirit inside it is not the human spirit – it is far vaster than that.’

Russell, who says that she has read The Changeling on numerous occasions, comments that Williams’ sentences ‘have a cartilaginous magic. They come glinting out of profound and mysterious depths, slipping quickly through the deadening nets of any easy understanding.’ In a particularly beautifully phrased observation, she writes: ‘This is a young tale; its landscape is the womb of the world, its language is perennially green, and the only thing I can say about it with absolute conviction is that your encounter will surely be very different than my own.’

In the very first chapter of the book, whilst Pearl sits in the Florida bar, Williams captures such an atmosphere, something which goes on to suffuse the entire novel. She also gives us a real insight into the state of Pearl’s mentality: ‘The heavy white air hung visibly in layers. Pearl could see the layers very clearly. The middle layer was all dream and misunderstanding and responsibility. Things moved about at the top with a little more arrogance and zip but at the bottom was the ever-moving present. It was the present, it had been the present, and it was always going to be the present. Pearl was always conscious of this. It made her pretty passive and indecisive usually.’

When, on the way back to the island, Pearl is involved in a plane crash, she becomes convinced that her son has been swapped with another baby. She is uncertain around him, afraid. When he gets older, this feeling still remains; he is a constant reminder to Pearl that something is not quite right. ‘He seemed,’ writes Williams, ‘all the disorder of her heart. She saw the infant in his face still. His other face, his boy’s face, was harder for her to recognize. He didn’t speak to her as the other children did. He kept away. She had no real sense of his purposes. Were not his purposes rooted in her responsibility? But she was an irresponsible woman, removed from everything, floating through space, exercising longing.’

There are some deeply unsettling, nightmarish scenes throughout The Changeling, and elements of strange eroticism. In one particularly chilling example, Williams includes a hallucination which Pearl has: ‘She was having a baby in a large, freshly cut field. There was blood on the grass but it may not have been her own… Her thighs were spread. Her arms were spread. She was going to have a baby. She knew that those around her were going to cut open her stomach and fold back the flaps of skin and unfold the baby from her like a bridal gown. She knew that they would abandon her there, her terrible dark wound a nest for the dying creatures of the night.’

Pearl’s mania develops as the novel goes on, and its scenes become all the more unnerving: ‘In the night, demons chattered in her aching head, not voices at all but comprehensible all the same. Terrible things. Creeping or winged, dark and avenging, carving a woman like her out of carrion, out of mold. Carving this woman out with their sharp beaks.’

Nothing about The Changeling feels at all dated. Rather, it is fresh and original, a modern fairy tale written in lyrical prose, which holds so much surprise. The novel is beguiling and disturbing in equal measure, and it reads as though one is in a dreamlike – or nightmarish – state. There is a real claustrophobia to it, in both its tension and atmosphere, and I found it incredibly creepy.

Williams has authored three other novels and three short story collections; I can only hope that these will become readily available, and soon. I imagine that, like with The Changeling, I will be thinking about each of her stories for a long time to come.

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‘Awayland: Stories’ by Ramona Ausubel ****

Ramona Ausubel is one of my absolute favourite authors, but her work has proven to be rather difficult to find in the United Kingdom. When I spotted a copy of her newest publication, a short story collection entitled Awayland, for an affordable price on AbeBooks, I just had to order it. This gorgeously designed paperback has been well received, with the San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, writing that it ‘astounds for its daring visionary scope and compassion.’

Eleven tales make up Awayland, and these have been subsequently split up into different sections, something which feels rather rare in the form of a short story collection. They introduce us, says the blurb, ‘to a geography both fantastic and familiar’, and to the ‘tangle and thump of her characters’ inner worlds and emotional truths’.

The first rather humorous story in the collection, ‘You Can Find Love Now’, takes us through the dating profile of a Cyclops; he calls himself Cyclops15 online, as ‘Cyclops 1 through 14 were taken’. In ‘Freshwater from the Sea’, a woman in Lebanon is nearing the end of her life, and is beginning to disappear. Ausubel writes: ‘Where she had once been a precise oil painting, now she was a watercolor.’ Her state is continually changing, and as we near the end of the story, her daughter observes: ‘She looked more and more like weather, like a brewing storm.’

‘Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species’ is set in the ‘shittiness’ of a town in northern Minnesota, where the residents are failing to reproduce. The narrator of the story observes: ‘It is as if their lives are so boring, so deeply muddy that it hardly even occurs to two people with enough feeling to create anything other than a disappointed sigh.’ The town’s mayor puts into place a ‘designated sex day’, which culminates in the prize of a free car for whichever couple gives birth first on a chosen date.

‘Departure Lounge’ is a story about a group of astronauts, in training in a remote part of Hawaii: ‘We lived in a bubble on a crater on a mountain on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but where we imagined we lived was Mars.’ The chef of the group, who narrates the story, later reveals her loneliness, and her sadness at the way in which her own plans have been put on hold in order to take part in the experiment: ‘I would be a good mother. I would be generous and interested in all the side-roads of childhood – superheroes and princesses and dinosaurs and bugs and minor weaponry and animal rights. I would mean it, if only someone would join me in my little life.’

There is much in Awayland about bodies changing, both in terms of ageing, and from flesh into other states. Many of the stories contain pregnancy, and what it means to move into the state of motherhood. Ausubel also reflects at length on what it means to confront one’s own mortality. Throughout, Ausubel’s prose is layered, and unusual. In ‘Remedy’, for instance, protagonist Summer is described as ‘the smell of fire and the smell of pine forest and the smell of a storm’.

I find Ausubel’s work wondrously inventive, but I must admit that Awayland is my least favourite of her publications to date. Whilst there are undoubtedly some great and original ideas to be found here, I did not feel as though the sense of creativity and imagination which normally suffuses her stories was as strong as it perhaps could have been. The tales are not as memorable as I was expecting, either.

There is whimsy here, something which Ausubel usually excels with, but this sometimes feels a little overshadowed by other elements. There is also a great deal less magical realism than can be found in earlier stories and novels. Regardless, Ausubel definitely deserves a great deal more attention, and I wholeheartedly look forward to her next book – whatever that may be.

2

‘The Paper Cell’ by Louise Hutcheson ****

Louise Hutcheson’s debut novel, The Paper Cell, was a highly anticipated read for me, after seeing snippets of reviews sprinkled around the Internet, but not much more. The Paper Cell was published in 2017, and is part of the Contraband Pocket Crime Collection – which provides ‘distinctive diversions for discerning readers’. I received a copy of the lovely miniature Contraband hardback edition for Christmas, and dug in on Boxing Day.

In the London of the 1950s, a publishing assistant named Lewis Carson ‘finds fame when he secretly steals a young woman’s brilliant novel manuscript and publishes it under his own name’. Two days later, the woman’s body is found on Peckham Rye Common; she has been strangled to death. The blurb posits, rather intriguingly, ‘did Lewis purloin the manuscript as an act of callous opportunism, or as the spoils of a calculated murder?’

The Paper Cell begins in 1953, in a London-based publishing house. When Fran Watson, the young author in question, first pays him a visit, Hutcheson immediately sets the scene, showing how manipulative Lewis can be: ‘Lewis shifted behind his desk, aiming to look uncomfortable and achieving it. He affected a grimace as her eyes flitted up, then down. It was a pleasing dynamic, he thought. Though she had arrived when he was at the height of a bad temper, her obvious defects made him feel rather good about himself by comparison.’

At this point in time, Lewis has not read Fran’s manuscript, but rejects it – and her – regardless. After she has left, he then spends the next two hours ‘pored over its pages – once, twice, three times – returning compulsively again and again to the first page with a growing sense of horror.’ In London, Lewis belongs to a ‘ramshackle writers’ group with not one published piece between them and a tendency to get drunk before they get constructive’.

The narrative then shifts forward in time, and we move to Edinburgh. Here, an ageing Lewis is living, and in 1998, he is about to give his first interview for over a decade, to a sharp newspaper journalist. The novel which he stole was published under the title of ‘Victory Lap’, and is highly regarded as a classic of the twentieth century.

One of the real strengths of The Paper Cell is the control which Hutcheson has over her scenes and characters. She showcases a lot of emotions which flash and seethe within her cast. I very much enjoyed the vintage setting, which feels realistic; several period details are signposted throughout the novel, which embed it in time and place. Most of the narrative takes place in 1953, and the portions which occur in 1998 are, of course, heavily concerned with the earlier period. I really enjoyed Hutcheson’s descriptions, many of which are brief, but almost tangible; she writes, for instance, ‘The faintest whisper of daylight was beginning to creep through the drapes, but the room was mostly dark, and heavy with cigarette smoke.’

Hutcheson writes throughout with a practiced hand, and The Paper Cell, in consequence, feels like a very polished debut novel. It is not quite what I was expecting, and takes a lot of wonderful twists and turns as it goes on. The LGBTQ+ element to the plot was well handled too, and the entirety moves along nicely. Despite the brevity of the story, I felt that I really got to know the characters and their world. I was so enthralled by the novel, in fact, that I read it in a single sitting.

I have been careful not to give too much away in this review, as I very much enjoyed coming to The Paper Cell and knowing very little about it, aside from the stolen manuscript element of the plot revealed on its blurb. In my opinion, The Paper Cell is a book best to read without knowing the entire plot; it offers up many surprises in consequence, and there is far more to it than initially meets the eye. I very much look forward to reading more of Hutcheson’s work in future, as it certainly seems as though she has a promising writing career ahead.

1

‘Lucy’ by Jamaica Kincaid ****

Jamaica Kincaid is an author who has been on my radar for over a decade. Before a family holiday in Antigua, taken in 2008, I searched high and low for some of her novels, wanting to read at least one Antiguan author whilst away. However, my search was sadly a fruitless one.

It has, surprisingly, taken me the intervening twelve years to find a single copy of one of her books, as they never seem to be available in any bookshops which I peruse, or any of the several county library systems which I have used since. I finally found an affordable copy of her third novel, Lucy, which seemed like a great title to begin with, on AbeBooks, and began to read it almost as soon as it dropped through my letterbox.

Our named protagonist, nineteen years old and already world-weary, has left her home in the West Indies behind to become an au pair to ‘four small girls’ in the United States. She has left her ‘much loved, much hated mother, [and] her childhood self’ behind.

The novel begins in mid-January, when Lucy is trying to settle into a quite bewildering life in a big city. Everything is different, and new – using lifts, having a refrigerator, and staying in an apartment to name but three examples. Lucy comments: ‘… I could not see anything clearly on the way in from the airport, even though there were lights everywhere. As we drove along, someone would single out to me a famous building, an important street, a park, a bridge that when built was thought to be a spectacle. In a daydream I used to have, all these places were points of happiness to me; all these places were lifeboats to my small drowning soul…’.

Snow, too, is new to Lucy. She arrives in the United States during a very cold winter. She remembers that ‘the snow was the color and texture of a half-cooked egg white, making the world seem soft and lovely and – unexpectedly, to me – nourishing. That the world I was in could be soft, lovely, and nourishing was more than I could bear, and so I stood there and wept, for I didn’t want to love one more thing in my life, didn’t want one more thing that could make my heart break into a million little pieces at my feet.’

Throughout, Lucy tries to reconcile her new life, which she had so yearned for, with her old one. She reflects: ‘What a surprise this was to me, that I longed to be back in the place that I came from, that I longed to sleep in a bed I had outgrown, that I longed to be with people whose smallest, most natural gesture would call up in me such a rage that I longed to see them all dead at my feet.’ She feels exiled from her past, and from her own country: ‘I looked at a map. An ocean stood between me and the place I came from, but would it have made a difference it had been a teacup of water? I could not go back.’

I loved the poetic prose in Lucy, and enjoyed the authentic first person perspective throughout. I really appreciated the somewhat cynical tone which suffuses the novel, and found Lucy a wonderfully unusual and unpredictable young woman. She often surprises with her comments and observations; she sees a lot of things in quite unexpected ways. She is unflinchingly honest; of her own position, she says: ‘I was not a man; I was a young woman from the fringes of the world, and when I left my home I had wrapped around my shoulders the mantle of a servant.’

I quite enjoyed the geographical vagueness; we only know that Lucy has moved from one unnamed country to an unnamed city in another, and many of the landmarks with which the reader could identify both have been removed. Lucy comments: ‘I was born and grew up in a place that did not seem to be influenced by the tilt of the earth at all; it had only one season – sunny, drought-ridden. And what was the effect of growing up in such a place? I did not have a sunny disposition, and, as for actual happiness, I had been experiencing a long drought.’

The novel is slim yet powerful. It is structured as a series of short vignettes, which over time reveal our protagonist to us. Kincaid is a perceptive author, particularly with regard to the relationships formed between characters.

Lucy is a highly readable and transporting story, and I cannot wait to build up a collection of Kincaid’s work as soon as I can find more copies of her books. I can see that she could very quickly become a favourite author of mine.

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‘Small Pleasures’ by Clare Chambers ****

Reliant as I have become upon my local library for the few new releases which I want to pick up straight away, I have become accustomed to waiting for quite a long time for my reservations. I was not prepared for the waiting list for Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures, though; I sat as patiently as I could for months, and found that over twenty people were lined up for the same copy once I’d finally finished with it.

I am so pleased to report that Small Pleasures was worth the few months it took to get to me, and I am thrilled that the novel is getting so much attention. Small Pleasures was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021, which is probably why so many people are longing to read it. Before this, the buzz about Small Pleasures was spread largely through word of mouth, and the incredibly positive reviews which have appeared in all manner of publications, as well as the staggering number of ‘Best Books of 2020’ lists which it appeared on.

In 1957, in the suburbs of the southeast of London and Kent, our protagonist Jean Swinney works as a journalist for a local newspaper, the North Kent Echo. She is ‘trapped in a life of duty and disappointment from which there is no likelihood of escape’. She lives in a small house with her demanding mother, who has not left the house very often in years, and feels tired with the drudgery of everyday life. Things change, however, when a young woman named Gretchen Tilbury sends a letter to the newspaper, claiming that her daughter, Margaret, is the result of a virgin birth, ‘without the involvement of any man’. Of course, the investigation becomes Jean’s responsibility; she is described as ‘features editor, columnist, dogsbody and the only woman at the table’ in the newspaper office.

When the women first meet one another, Jean asks Gretchen how her pregnancy occurred. Gretchen replies: ‘”I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. I’m not religious like my mother. I only know what didn’t happen.”‘ She goes on to explain that for a four-month stretch, she was bedridden in a hospital, and later found out that she had become pregnant during this time. Jean, on the receiving end of this news, ‘was unable to hide her surprise at this revelation. It seemed to provide an unexpected level of corroboration to Mrs Tilbury’s account. Her claim had suddenly become much harder to dismiss and to Jean’s surprise, she was glad. For reasons that were not just to do with journalistic hunger for a good story, she wanted it to be true.’

From the very beginning, one of Chambers’ real strengths is clearly the way in which she so effectively sets the scene and period. Early on, when Jean is running errands after work, Chambers writes the following, capturing so much detail: ‘By the time she reached home, a modest 1930s semi backing on to the park, her cheerful mood had evaporated. Somehow, in transferring the waxed paper package of liver to her tartan shopping bag she managed to drip two spots of blood on the front of her dust-coloured wool skirt.’

I love novels with mysteries at their heart, and Small Pleasures held every iota of my attention throughout. There is a wry humour which suffuses the whole, which I very much enjoyed. The entirety of the novel is highly readable, and I was pulled right into Jean’s world. I love the way in which the relationship between Jean and the Tilburys unfolded, and not wishing to give anything away, will be leaving the rest of the details of the plot out of this review. Needless to say, some elements are rather predictable, and others took me entirely by surprise. For Jean, being noticed by the family meant so much: ‘It was impossible not to be flattered and charmed by their interest, to blossom and expand in their company and become the interesting woman they thought her.’

I must admit that despite Small Pleasures being Chambers’ seventh novel, I had never heard of her before picking this up. It is her first publication in a decade, so perhaps she just passed me by beforehand. I have read some of the blurbs of her other books, and feel that she is an author whose other work I could really enjoy too, so I will definitely be picking some of them up in future. Chambers, with her acute observations on everyday life, and her sharp humour, put me in mind of Anita Brookner and Barbara Pym – a very high compliment, indeed.

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‘Greenbanks’ by Dorothy Whipple *****

Like, I imagine, the vast majority of Persephone’s devoted readers, I number Dorothy Whipple amongst my all-time favourite authors. I have loved all of Whipple’s books which I have been privileged enough to read this far, and it is a great delight for me to settle down with one of her new-to-me books. I began Greenbanks with much anticipation and, as I jolly well expected to, I absolutely adored it.

As many of Whipple’s books do, Greenbanks centres around a family, and deals in particular with the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter. Matriarch Louisa, the head of the household, is very close to spirited Rachel, her favourite of rather a large bunch of grandchildren, and just four years old when she is first introduced.

We first meet the Ashtons at the tail end of 1909, as they are gathering together at Greenbanks, the Lancashire family home, to celebrate Christmas. Here, Whipple has used the simple but effective prop of an old family photo album to show their considered backstories; the Ashton daughters, for instance, attended a convent school in Belgium, with ‘long skirts, ribbons from the back of their hats, crosses on their breasts and freckles on their noses.’

The opening paragraph of the novel demonstrates much of why I so adore Whipple’s work – beautifully constructed sentences, the level of intricate detail, and the interesting viewpoints from which she looks at a scene, or a character. It begins: ‘The house was called Greenbanks, but there was no green to be seen to-day; all the garden was deep in snow. Snow lay on the banks that sloped from the front of the house; snow lay on the lawn to the left, presided over by an old stone eagle who looked as if he had escaped from a church and ought to have a Bible on his back; snow lay on the lawn to the right, where a discoloured Flora bent gracefully but unaccountably near a piece of lead piping which had once been her arm.’

Time moves quickly in this novel; months pass quietly from one chapter to the next. In this way, we see the characters develop, and Rachel particularly grow up over the duration of the novel. We are also made aware that despite the large country house, the Ashtons have a far from idyllic life; almost every single character has their own personal tragedies to deal with, some of which are collective.

Whipple does so many things wonderfully in her fiction, but I particularly love the way in which she reveals her characters, and the perhaps more secretive elements of their personalities. She is a wonderful observer, who is always so aware of thoughts, feelings, reactions, and expectations. The conversations between characters are sharply observed, and their relationships are always shifting – often difficult, and sometimes even tumultuous.

Whipple has such knowledge of what it means to be young, and learning. When Rachel is sent to a school in close proximity to Greenbanks so that she can spend more time with her grandmother, for instance, Whipple writes: ‘When the bell rang at eleven o’clock and the little girls went out into the garden to play, Rachel found it possible to run into Greenbanks and get biscuits from the glass barrel on the dining-room sideboard. She climbed on a chair to do this, and if Auntie Laura came into the room she complained about the upset and the crumbs, but Grandma never minded.’

Another quite lovely, and rather amusing, section of the novel comes when Louisa takes Rachel with her on a trip to London. Rachel has never been before, and asks her father what she can expect. Whipple comments: ‘He gave her a great deal of information; so much, indeed, that she went to bed in a muddle, not sure whether London stood on the Tower or the Thames, or if Big Ben lived in the Houses of Parliament, or why the King sat on a scone to be crowned, or why London had a tube in its inside like Dennis Thompson when he had appendicitis; but sure, all the same, that London was a place full of strange and marvellous things.’

There are dark and serious scenes which unfold in Greenbanks, too. When the First World War begins, and her sons go off to enlist, Whipple observes: ‘Yes, thought Louisa, it’s different for women. They don’t do; they bear what others do; they watch them come and go, they are torn and healed and torn again…’. I cared deeply for all of the characters here, but especially for Louisa and Rachel. They are women living in a world which was firmly in the grasp of men; it takes Rachel months to convince her father that she wishes to continue her education, even with her excellent grades. The character arcs here are so realistic, and so true to their historical context.

Although first published in 1912, there is something marvellously modern about Greenbanks; at junctures, the modern seems to butt against the old. Whipple’s prose is highly nuanced, and as ever, there is a startling clarity to her work here. She has a marvellous wit, and is incredibly knowing. Reading a new Whipple novel is like being reunited with an old friend, and I thoroughly enjoyed the time which I spent with her, at lovely Greenbanks. This is an exceptional novel, and one which I would recommend to every reader.