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‘The Hidden Room’ by Stella Duffy ***

Stella Duffy is a prolific author, but before picking up her newest novel, The Hidden Room, I had shamefully never read any of her work.  She goes back to her roots, so to speak, with this title, returning to the genre of psychological thrillers after twelve years.

The Hidden Room has been wonderfully reviewed.  Crime writer Val McDermid writes: ‘Nobody turns the screw of tension tighter… 9780349007878[it] left me gasping’, and Alex Marwood adds: ‘Duffy roars back into crime writing with her trademark intensity.  The Hidden Room is spooky, atmospheric and as psychologically on point as it could be.  If you want to be disturbed, read this book.’

The novel follows a married couple named Laurie and Martha, who should, by all accounts, be incredibly happy.  They have three healthy teenage children, and live in an enormous house, a finished renovation project which they undertook together, in the middle of the Lincolnshire countryside.  After Laurie’s architectural career takes off, ‘Martha had become the prime carer by default, which had never been the plan, and had almost grown into a problem – until Martha had something else to occupy her thoughts, someone else.  Someone to think about when she was increasingly the only parent picking the kids up from a late practice or date, the only parent around to enforce Sunday-night homework.  Someone to make her feel a bit sixteen again, and a lot less thirty-nine.  A lot less almost forty.’

The novel’s opening paragraph sets up the creepiness and tension almost immediately:

‘Laurie lived in a community when she was a child.
Some people called that community a cult, and she was taken away when she was nine years old.
She didn’t stay in touch with anyone from there.
She never went back.
Nothing remains from that time in her life.

Laurie keeps secrets.’

Throughout, Duffy introduces a series of flashbacks which relate to Laurie’s early life, and the cult which she belonged to.  When still a child, she was ‘covenanted’ to a boy two years older than her.  After the ceremony, they ‘led the community in their dance that night.  They led stumbling, unsure, it was difficult to make the steps with their hands crossed and bound to each other, but they led anyway.  Exactly as Abraham often explained, they led because the others followed – he had dreamed the community into being, and it was a community only because they all surrendered to the dream.  The dream and the promise, all tied together in a long, thin strip of tired red cotton.’

When Laurie is alone in the house, she finds a small crawlspace in the attic, which she soon begins to refer to as her ‘hidden room’; it is ‘narrow, wide enough for a single bed with a very little space to move alongside, and just over six feet long.  It was definitively a part of the house, and it had once been a room, the bookcase had been nailed and drilled into place against what had been a door frame.’   She tells nobody about it, and when her past comes back to haunt her, it is to this space that she retreats: ‘So when she found the little room behind the bookcase she saw it as a gift.  She didn’t think Martha would have minded if she’d said she wanted a space, for her work, or even just to think.  But it wasn’t only a room that Laurie wanted, she wanted a secret, something of her own.’

Both the present and past stories which Duffy builds in The Hidden Room are engaging, and her often breathy prose sets the pace marvellously.  Whilst the novel was nowhere near as taut, nor as tense, as I was expecting, and whilst I did guess the twists, I found the novel compelling nonetheless.  Some elements were predictable, and others strange, but overall, the balance which Duffy has struck here works well.

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‘Keeping Henry’ by Nina Bawden ***

Keeping Henry by Nina Bawden – an author who is a firm favourite on the Modern Classics list – is one of the first of her books to be reissued by Virago for a younger audience, complete with new illustrations by Alan Marks.  First published in 1988, the Observer calls it ‘a subtle and many-layered story, one of Nina Bawden’s best’.  The aim of the new Virago series for children, which will expand to twenty titles at the end of 2017, is to publish ‘timeless tales with beautiful covers that will be treasured and shared across the generations’.  Other titles upon the list as it currently stands are a charming mixture, ranging from the likes of E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children, and Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did, to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beautiful The Secret Garden.

9780349009193Keeping Henry revolves around a young squirrel, who is found by a wartime family who have relocated from London to Wales, after the youngest son Charlie accidentally catapults him out of his nest.  Unable to be released back into the wild, the family keep the squirrel as one of their own, and swiftly name him Henry.  Keeping Henry is, in part, based upon Bawden’s own childhood, as she herself kept an abandoned squirrel as a pet, and was, like the family in the novel, evacuated to rural Wales during the Second World War.  The blurb plays upon this, describing Keeping Henry as a ‘winning combination’ between an evacuee and family story, and an ‘unlikely, mischievous pet’.  Indeed, the family within Keeping Henry were: ‘upturned from their old life just as Henry was “tipped out” of his nest.’

Keeping Henry, which is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed girl, opens in the following manner: ‘My brothers, Charlie and James, have always blamed me for what happened to Henry.  Even now, years and years later, Charlie still says it was my fault.’  Her ‘sharp-eyed’ brother ‘had spotted the nest high in the tree by the brook; who watched for a while, several days, and then fetched his friends, Tommy and Stan, and his big brother’s catapult.  A lucky shot for a little boy only seven years old, though not as lucky, of course, for the squirrels.’  Thankfully, the boys’ mother is accommodating, and does not mind looking after stray or lost creatures: ‘She was mad about animals.  Sometimes I thought that she preferred them to people.  Except for Charlie, of course; her baby, her favourite.’

As one familiar with Bawden’s work may have come to expect, Keeping Henry does include a level of psychological insight about the family, and their circumstances.  Charlie particularly is shown as being troubled by their uprooting to rural Wales: ‘Charlie had heard the bomb fall, and although it was three years now since we had left the city to live on this farm in the country, he still jumped and went pale when a tractor backfired or Mr Jones, the farmer, was out shooting rabbits’.  Whilst such occurrences are not shied away from, there are some wonderful evocations of the countryside within the pages of Keeping Henry.

Children are set to learn information about red squirrels as they read, and will come to care immensely for the animated Henry and his fate.  Bawden’s children’s books add something a little different to the genre; they are sweet but also witty, a little quaint at times but not old-fashioned, and as knowledgeable as they are perceptive.  Bawden characteristically deals with a lot of issues in Keeping Henry, but the main thread here is displacement; the children are away from their home and their father, who is in the Navy, just as Henry has lost his family and his nest.  Marks’ whimsical illustrations are comical and sweet, and fit well with the text.  Keeping Henry is sure to delight both nature-loving and thoughtful children, and to charm adults just as much.

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One From the Archive: ‘Up the Junction’ and ‘Poor Cow’ by Nell Dunn **

Up the Junction and Poor Cow, both better known works of Nell Dunn’s, have recently been republished by Virago.  As there are many elements which the books have in 9781844089826common, and as both share the same author preface, rather than address them separately, I have decided to write about them both together.  Nell Dunn’s introduction is like a story in itself, and tells of her life in Battersea from the late 1950s.  It includes such details as, ‘There were still a lot bomb sites, and my two-year-old son would be taken by the big girls and boys to play King of the Castle on the mounds of building debris’, ‘The night of Princess Margaret’s wedding everyone got drunk’, and ‘I bought my first pair of tight white jeans off a rail in the market’.  This introduction in a sense serves to ground the stories which follow it.

Up the Junction, first published in 1963, is made up of a series of short stories set in South London.  It was awarded the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize, and has also been turned into a film.  The tales in the collection are all heavily involved in the sense of a community and the mundanities of life in 1960s London.  This is clear from the titles of the stories alone, which range from ‘Out With the Girls’ and ‘Out With the Boys’, to ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Wash Night’.  The book’s blurb states that the stories ‘are unhibited, spirited vignettes of young women’s lives in South London in the sixties [where] money is scarce and enjoyment must be grabbed while it can’.  To further set the scene, one supposes, all of these stories have been told by way of dialect heavy conversations between its characters – for example, ‘It’s me birthday tomorrer’ and ‘It’s better to marry an ugly man what’s got god ways than a good-looker what’s sly’.  It is not often clear who is speaking, so in consequence, the reader learns next to nothing about any of the characters who fill its 130 odd pages.

Three protagonists are followed in Up the Junction, Sylvie, Ruby and Lily, all of whom work at a local sweet factory.  The entirety of the book, on the surface of it, looks to be heavily involved with sexual politics, but as one reads on, the fixation upon aesthetics becomes clear.  Each of the characters seems to place much emphasis upon their own appearances, interrupting even important conversations to ask if their hair looks nice, or if their new item of clothing suits them.  Examples of this can be found in sentences such as this one: ‘[Pauline] was pretty in the dirty cafe; full ashtrays and dripping sauce bottles; sugar-bowls with brown clotted lumps in the white sugar’.

The stories are evocative of bygone times – there is lots of dancing, ‘snoggin”, institutionalised racism, National Health glasses, the pawning of furniture when money is tight, illegal abortions and the WVS.  Stories take place in the factory where the protagonists work, the local pub, the Old Kent Road, and various dwellings around the area.  Whilst interesting enough, these stories are relatively similar, and in consequence, nothing really stands out amongst them.  Sadly, the majority also do not feel well-developed enough to have any lasting effect upon the reader.  ‘Sunday Morning’, for instance, would have been far better with further explanation of the situation.  The illustrations, drawn by Susan Benson, are randomly scattered through the pages and rarely match the writing which surrounds them.  It does not feel as though there is much within Up the Junction which the modern reader will be able to identify with.  The simplistic writing style also takes away any atmosphere which the stories could feasibly have had.

Poor Cow was first published in 1967, and was Dunn’s second work of fiction.  Margaret 9781844089819Drabble, whose introduction to the story has been reprinted in the new edition, calls it ‘Touching, thoughtful and fresh…  A tour de force’.    In her introduction, Drabble states that after her move to London, Dunn ‘was soon to be writing of the lives of working-class women in a way that struck the same chords as the plays and novels of Sillitoe, Osborne and John Braine…  Nell Dunn felt she had discovered a world where women did not depend on male patronage, where they went their own ways, sexually and financially, where there was plenty of work’.

The novella tells the story of Joy, ‘twenty-one, with bleached hair, high suede shoes, and a head full of dreams’.  When the story opens, Joy is making her way down Fulham Broadway on her ‘slum-white legs’ with her new baby in tow, ‘his face brick red against his new white bonnet’.  ‘Her life seems to be a catalogue of disasters, which follow naturally and inevitably from the first false step of letting herself get pregnant’, Drabble says.  She adds that Joy’s husband, Tom, is a thief, ‘which translates her into a nice close-carpeted flat in Ruislip’.  Neither Joy nor her husband are content with their lives: ‘He always wanted more out of his life than what he had’.  When Tom is caught in a stolen car by the police, he is hauled in and sentenced to four years in prison: ‘… course he had only to do two years out of that you see…  But I hadn’t even the heart to sell the furniture, I just walked out and went to live with my Auntie Emm’.

The story is told in a variety of narrative styles, which chop and change at whim.  Joy’s own narrative voice is written in a similar dialect to that captured in Up the Junction: ‘Terrible when you ain’t got fuck all, you ain’t got nothing’.  As with Up the Junction, it is not always clear here who is speaking.  Poor Cow is not overly engaging, and the uncertain style of its writing and narrator let the story down somewhat.

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The ‘Tin Toys’ Trilogy by Ursula Holden ****

The three novels which make up Ursula Holden’s ‘Tin Toys Trilogy’ have been reprinted in a lovely edition by Virago. Holden, sadly a relatively forgotten author in the twenty first century, is heralded on its cover by fellow Virago published Molly Keane, who states that the ‘Tin Toys Trilogy’ is ‘extraordinarily good’. Holden has been compared to both Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark, and this alone makes her a perfect candidate for the Virago list. 9781844088270

Lisa Allardice, the author of the book’s introduction, tells us that the three sisters whom all three novels focus upon are rather different in their temperaments: ‘the eldest beautiful and mild-mannered, the middle grave and thoughtful, the youngest innocent and watchful’. It is, essentially, a coming of age trilogy, in which we see these three sisters grow and mature despite the adversity which surrounds them. ‘It is the archetypal fairy-tale set up,’ Allardice tells us, ‘three sisters and a wicked mother – and as in all fairy tales there is much darkness, randomness and cruelty’. Allardice’s introduction is very informative, but be warned – it does throw up a couple of spoilers from time to time.

The novels are set before, during and after the Second World War, and each is told from the perspective of or with its focus upon a certain sister. The first, Tin Toys, is told by lonely Ula, the youngest, Unicorn Sisters takes the perspective of the eldest, Bonnie, and The Bubble Garden is partially narrated by middle sister Tor.

In Tin Toys, the girls’ baby brother, Bruno, dies of exposure just weeks after his birth, and Ula is sent to Ireland with the family’s cook as a result. Ula is six years old when Tin Toys begins and, as one might expect, childish elements of life shine through in her story. She tells the reader, in retrospect, how she so enjoyed the dance classes of this troubled time: ‘I could be certain of happiness on Saturday mornings because of my dancing class… I hopped to Miss Dance’s playing and forgot that I had two older sisters and an awful brother wrapped in a shawl’. Ula’s narrative voice is engaging from the outset, and is filled throughout with a sense of childlike joy and hope. When meeting a new, mysterious girl named Lucy at her aforementioned class, she states: ‘We hadn’t spoken to each other but I thought she was spellbinding. I had never seen anyone touch their nose with their tongue’.

At home, Ula’s life is troubled. Following the death of their father and with a largely absent mother who flits in as and when she wishes, the girls are separated from one another, and Ula is largely brought up by her nurse. ‘I longed to be friends with my sisters,’ Ula tells us, ‘to share their sisterly world, but they neither needed nor wanted me’. Her only comfort in the dark world in which she inhabits is the kindly Irish cook, Maggie, who understands her situation: ‘Is it any wonder Ula likes it downstairs with me. She gets a laugh and a cuddle down here’. A sense of pity is struck for our protagonist at the first.

The entire trilogy, in fact, is filled with sadness – the absence of parents, the death of a sibling whom none of the sisters really knew, bullying, unfairness and growing understanding of their plight. Perhaps the saddest element of all is their mother’s lack of compassion: ‘She disliked children, she’d had them for him [her husband]. The boy was born, she’d not cared… She had accommodated three lost souls who cared for her children [in the guise of a governess, cook and nurse]. She had time now for herself’. Later on, after baby Bruno’s death, their mother returns to the house: ‘She had come for some clothes, she repeated. She had enrolled at a school of acting. Three children in Sussex wouldn’t prevent her… Nothing would stop her career’.

Much is battled against in Tin Toys, and the case is similar in Unicorn Sisters, in which the sisters are packed off to a second rate boarding school ‘out of reach of Hitler’s bombs… Mamma was relieved to be getting rid of us so conveniently. War was declared. We must go at once’. Mamma happily goes off to entertain the troops, sending the girls to boarding school a day early in the hope of getting rid of them. Here, they face challenges of monumental importance to such young girls, and are forced to grow up quite against their will. Again, in the last novel of the trilogy, A Bubble Garden the girls move over to Ireland with their mother and her new husband, a situation which throws up problems of its own.

With regard to the novels themselves, the first half of Tin Toys is incredibly strong, but it does seem to lose momentum somewhere towards the novel, and the situations which Holden introduces are far too convenient to be believed. Unicorn Sisters, Bonnie’s tale, is the strongest of the trilogy, and is a difficult book to put down. Bonnie’s narrative voice is the strongest of the three, and her maturity adds to the more wonderful elements of the book. A Bubble Garden is told partly from the perspective of Tor, along with a third person narrative perspective. As a novel, it is by far the weakest of the three, and does end on rather a tragic note. There seems to be far too much sadness crammed into its pages, and comes across as rather a pitiful and depressing end to the trilogy on the whole.

The characters in all three novels are not constant, and they are continually changing as a result of the circumstances which they find themselves in. Holden has clearly put a lot of thought into how her characters act and react in a whole host of different situations, and she seems to know their minds incredibly well. Although they seem realistic, very few of the characters are likeable. If you want a cheerful read, this is certainly not the book for you, but if you want to see the human psyche masterfully created in all its many guises, then this is perfect reading material.

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Two Non-Fiction Reviews: ‘It’s Not Yet Dark’ and ‘The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner’

It’s Not Yet Dark by Simon Fitzmaurice **** 22340465
The very fact that It’s Not Yet Dark exists is phenomenal, when one thinks about it; the entirety was written using an eye computer.  In his memoir, Simon Fitzmaurice charts his decline after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a rare form of neurological disease, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Motor Neurone Disease.

Fitzmaurice’s writing is beautiful, and he goes back and forth in time throughout, creating a wonderfully lucid, and incredibly touching reflection of a life well lived.  Never does one get the impression that Fitzmaurice is pitying himself; rather, he demonstrates that he has so much to live for.  It’s Not Yet Dark is heartfelt and brave, and really makes you think about what it means to be alive.  A lovely, thoughtful, poignant, and achingly sad musing upon life, and how drastically it can change.

 

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman ****
9781853818851“One need not write in a diary what one is to remember for ever.” (22nd September 1930)

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman, has been pared down from 38 distinctive diaries found after Townsend Warner’s death.  I adore what I have read of Townsend Warner’s prose to date (Lolly Willowes is a firm favourite of mine), and hoped that I would feel just the same when reading about her own life.

The original diaries span a fifty-year period, beginning in 1927, and stretching to 1972; throughout, Townsend Warner unsurprisingly writes about an England which is dated and archaic, but still ultimately recognisable.  Her writing is sometimes quite matter-of-fact, but at others it is beautifully poetic.  It begins to almost sparkle when her enduring relationship with Valentine Ackland is at first revealed; it feels almost as though a new Townsend Warner has been revealed.  She talks less about her writing than I had anticipated; she mentions her work largely in passing, and not all that often.

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner is a lovely tome to dip in and out of.  Each entry is rich and deftly crafted.  There is a frankness here which seems surprising when one considers the dates in which the entries were written; in the late 1920s, for instance, Townsend Warner mentions masturbating, and ‘rollicking in bed’ with her female lover, Valentine.  Her diaries provide a lens into the life of a fascinating woman, who was really rather ahead of her time.

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‘The Virago Book of Women Travellers’, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O’Connor ****

9781860492129‘Some of the extraordinary women whose writings are including in this collection are observers of the world in which they wander; their prose rich in description, remarkable in detail. Mary McCarthy conveys the vitality of Florence while Willa Cather’s essay on Lavandou foreshadows her descriptions of the French countryside in later novels. Others are more active participants in the culture they are visiting, such as Leila Philip, as she harvests rice with chiding Japanese women, or Emily Carr, as she wins the respect and trust of the female chieftain of an Indian village in Northern Canada. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure or escape from personal tragedy, all of these women are united in that they approached their journeys with wit, intelligence, compassion and empathy for the lives of those they encountered along the way. Features writing from Gertrude Bell, Edith Wharton, Isabella Bird, Kate O’Brien, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and many others.’

I am an enormous fan of Virago, as anyone who knows even a little of my reading habits can probably discern.  To my delight, I spotted The Virago Book of Women Travellers online at a ridiculously low price, and decided to treat myself (another of my favourite things in life is travelling, after all!).  I had originally intended to read it over the Christmas holidays, but true to form at such busy times, I did not really get a chance to do so.  I thus picked it up in February, just before a wonderful trip to The Netherlands.

The selection of extracts here is extensive and varied, and encompasses an incredible scope of geographical locations.  Societally and historically it is most interesting, and some extracts – Beryl Markham’s about elephant hunting, for instance – are very of their time (thankfully so, in this case!).  Some of my favourite authors were collected here – Vita Sackville-West, and Rebecca West, as well as Rose Macaulay.  As ever with such collections, there were several entries which I did not quite enjoy as much as the rest, but each was undoubtedly fascinating in its own way.  I very much enjoyed the ‘can do’ attitude which every single one of the writers had, regardless of circumstance or destination, and very much liked the way in which this singular thread bound all of them together.  The chronological ordering made for a splendid reading experience.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers is a marvellous volume in which to dip here and there, to reconnect with old favourites, and to discover new writers to find, and new women to admire.  I adore the idea of thematic travelogues, and there is something really rather special and inspiring about this one.  It has brought some marvellous women, both in terms of personality and writing ablity, to my attention, and I can only conclude this review by saying that it is a joy for any women traveller to read.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ by Elizabeth Jenkins ****

First published in March 2014.

As I am sure lovely readers of The Literary Sisters know by now, I am currently working through the Virago Modern Classics list.  A few years ago now, some beautiful ‘Designer Collection’ books were issued by the publishing house, and I just cannot resist them.  I can only hope that Virago choose to release more of them in the near future (hint, hint).

‘The Tortoise and The Hare’ by Elizabeth Jenkins

Without further ado, I chose to purchase the beautiful The Tortoise and The Hare last time I placed a book order, as Elizabeth Jenkins is an author whom I have wanted to read for a very long time.  The introduction to this novel has been written by Hilary Mantel; she states that it is ‘exquisitely written’ and goes on to say that ‘Jenkins has provided a thoughtful and astringent guide to the imperatives of sexual politics – and one of which is of more than historical interest’.  The novel has received some stunning reviews on the various book blogs which I hold in high esteem, and Jenkins is very well respected in terms of the stunning and perceptive books which she authored.

The Tortoise and The Hare is rather a quiet novel, as many of the Viragos tend to be, but that purely means that more focus is placed upon the beautiful writing and well drawn characters.

The novel’s blurb is quite intriguing:

“In affairs of the heart the race is not necessarily won by the swift or the fair.

Imogen, the beautiful and much younger wife of distinguished barrister Evelyn Gresham, is facing the greatest challenge of her married life. Their neighbour Blanche Silcox, competent, middle-aged and ungainly – the very opposite of Imogen – seems to be vying for Evelyn’s attention. And to Imogen’s increasing disbelief, she may be succeeding.”

It is a book about love and hate, about the very emotions which are liable to tear us, and the relationships which we have tried so very hard to build, apart.  In this respect, Jenkins has done a marvellous job, highlighting the ease with which facades can slip, and the way in which single actions can destroy what is so taken for granted.

Throughout, I found the majority of the characters so very intriguing.  I did not like many of them, as such, but I did become fond of Imogen towards the very end of the novel, and Tim Leeper, the young friend of Imogen and Evelyn’s son, was a real sweetheart.  It is clear that Jenkins respects her characters, and everything which she envisioned has been so well set to paper.

Whilst The Tortoise and The Hare is not my favourite on the Virago list, it is a thought-provoking novel, both intelligent and witty, which I will be sure to pick up again in the future, and which I will heartily recommend.

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