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‘Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas’ by Matthew Hollis ****

Edward Thomas is one of my favourite poets, and when I spotted a copy of Matthew Hollis’ Costa Award-winning biography, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas in a secondhand bookshop in Ypres last year, I could not resist picking it up.  I had originally planned to read it over Remembrance Day but, as with a lot of my reading plans, this did not pan out.

Thomas was killed close to Arras, France, on the Easter Monday of 1917.  The book’s very short preface touchingly ends in the following manner: ‘Edward Thomas left the dugout behind his post and leaned into the opening to take a moment to fill his pipe.  A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart.  He fell without a mark on his body.’

In Now All Roads Lead to France, Hollis takes into account Thomas’ final five years, and ‘follows him from his beloved English countryside to the battlefield in France where he lost his life.’  Thomas’ friendship with American poet Robert Frost, who encouraged his writing, takes prevalence here, but we also learn about his upbringing, and strained, often absent, relationship with his three children and wife, Helen.  We hear about their relationship from its earliest days.
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Now All Roads Lead to France has been split into four distinct sections, all of which correspond to the places in which Thomas found himself – ‘Steep, 1913’, ‘Dymock, 1914’, ‘High Beech, 1915-16’, and ‘Arras, 1917’.  Each also includes a map of the corresponding place.

Hollis begins by outlining the changing face of poetry, from its stuffy, conservative Victorianism, to something new and bold, culminating in the Georgians and the Imagists.  The Georgians, writes Hollis, ‘looked to the local, the commonplace and the day-to-day, mistrusting grandiosity, philosophical enquiry or spiritual cant.  Many held an attachment to the traditions of English Romantic verse…  The style was innocent, intimate and direct; lyric in form, rhythmic in drive, it detailed short sketches of the natural world with larger meditations on the condition of the human heart…  It employed whimsy in the place of calculation…  its subject matter would be as everyday as a country lane or a village fence post.’  Imagism provided the rivalry to this Georgian movement.  The Imagists employed ‘direct treatment, a pared language a relatively free verse…  No sing-song rhythms or cloying subject matter, no abstractions, no ornament, no superfluous word; this was language stripped down to the bone…’.  Hollis, a poet himself, is of course adept in discussing these poetic movements, and commenting upon their importance in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War.

Hollis then goes on to introduce Thomas at a real point of crisis in his life.  In 1913, he is thirty-four, with ‘desperately low’ spirits.  A father of three, and married, his depressive episodes caused him to treat his family badly: ‘The only way he knew to break the cycle was to leave; sometimes his absences lasted days, at other times he could be gone for months.  At these moments, even to drag himself home for a weekend was more than he could manage… [and] he convinced himself that they could be happy without him.’  At this point in time, Thomas was an influential critic of verse, ‘and his brilliant, uncompromising articles were the making of many young reputations and the breaking of others’.  Although he had not yet embarked on his own poetic career, he had published over twenty works of prose, and ‘edited or introduced a dozen more’.  Throughout, the author has woven in excerpts from correspondence and diaries – not just Thomas’, but Helen’s too.

Hollis paints a fascinating and detailed portrait of Thomas.  I was particularly taken with the physical description which he crafts of the poet: ‘His expression was grave and detached, but his smile, when it came, could be coy, whimsical or proud.  He rarely laughed…  He spoke in a clear baritone, though often he kept his own counsel, and preferred the company of an individual to a group…  He dressed in a suit of tawny tweed, which was old, sunned and slightly loose, and which, he liked to say, smelt of dog whenever it was damp.  His jacket pockets were impossibly deep, and from these he would pull maps, apples and clay pipes in a procession as apparently endless as the scarves from a magician’s hand.’

Carol Ann Duffy writes that Now All Roads Lead to France ‘entranced’ and ‘inspired’ her, and moved her to tears.  I certainly did not feel that emotional whilst reading Hollis’ biography, but there are scenes which strike such empathy and sympathy from the reader. Now All Roads Lead to France is the author’s first work of prose, but it feels so well-established, and reads as though it has been penned by a master.  This biography is incredibly accessible, and brings together a wealth of research in a readable, measured prose style.

Throughout, Hollis is perceptive and aware of his subject, and charts both his writing process and his bouts of depression.  The cultural detail woven through the book has been clearly set out, and adds another, often important, dimension to the narrative.  Although Now All Roads Lead to France is not a strictly chronological biography, the structure works wonderfully, and the entirety feels well rounded.  Illuminating and exemplary, Now All Roads Lead to France is one of the best biographies which I have read in a long time.

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‘House of Glass’ by Susan Fletcher ***

Susan Fletcher is an author whose work I have always very much enjoyed.  My first encounter with one of her novels was in the glorious Harper Perennial edition of Eve Green, quite some time ago.  I have since read almost all of her other work, and when I saw that she had a new novel – House of  Glass – coming out in 2018, I borrowed it from the library just as soon as I could. 9780349007649

Many of the reviews of House of Glass mention its ‘darkly gothic’ tone, as well as the way in which it is such things as surprising, moving, and mesmerising.  Tracy Chevalier notes that whilst the novel ‘may start as a ghost story’, it ‘turns into something much more profound: a lyrical examination of how women carve lives out of a male-dominated society, even with a war looming that will change everyone.’

House of Glass opens in June 1914, in which protagonist Clara Waterfield is ‘summoned’ to a large house in rural Gloucestershire, in order to fill a glasshouse with ‘exotic plants from Kew Gardens’ at the owner’s request.  The house is named, perhaps appropriately given the Gothic atmosphere, Shadowbrook.  When Clara arrives, the owner, Mr Fox, is absent, and she is soon informed that he rarely spends any time in the house.  Around this time, she begins to hear rumours, and to her, ‘something feels wrong with this quiet, wisteria-covered house.’  The blurb concludes by stating that over the summer, Clara ‘finds herself drawn deeper into the dark interior rooms – and into the secrets that violently haunt Shadowbrook.’

The novel opens with quite a vivid description of Clara’s disability, osteogenesis imperfecta.  It begins: ‘My structure is not quite right.  By this, I mean my bones – the part on which the rest of me is stretched, stitched into place…  My skeleton is frail.  I creak with any transference of weight.  In my childhood, I fractured so frequently – with small gestures, with the simple act of looking up – that doctors winced and shook their heads.  She is imperfect, they said.’  In consequence, her mother is ordered to keep Clara inside, sheltering her from the dangerous outside world – at least until she has stopped growing.  Clara thus spends the majority of her childhood reading, largely in the library of the house, which her parents converted from their old dining room for her benefit.  I felt that Fletcher’s depiction of Clara’s ailments was well-balanced, and did not feel dramatised in any way.  I also liked the way in which Fletcher used Clara’s own voice to describe herself.  The contrast between Clara’s past and present – in which she is able to leave the house and regain some independence – is well balanced. 

Clara was drawn to Kew Gardens quite by chance following the death of her mother, something which she was entirely unprepared for, despite the illness which ensued.  She is grieving and desperate, and walking is the only thing which helps to take some of the pain away.  She learns, in her own way, to navigate her own city, learning to board omnibuses which take her to distant parts of London.  On one such journey, she decides to alight at Kew: ‘And on a February morning, I stepped down from the bus in a place called Kew.  This was a name I knew.  For here, there were famous gardens, with rhododendron walks and glasshouses and pergolas.  I’d read of them in books.’  Spending around a decade indoors, with only glimpses of the outdoor world from windows, she is mesmerised by the wealth of plants she is able to wander amongst at Kew, now that she is older and her bones have ‘strengthened and settled themselves’.  Fletcher’s descriptions of the gardens are quite lovely; on a cold, ‘grey, desolate’ day, Clara finds an ‘extraordinary domed building of glass’ before her.  She enters, and ‘left February behind.  England, too, was gone.  For the Palm House at Kew contained canopies and ferns and damp wooden benches; palm leaves brushed my hair as I passed…  Now I wanted to be nowhere else.  I was done with crowds and London’s streets.  Here was a new beginning.’  This discovery, the comradely relationship which she strikes up with the keeper of the glasshouse, a man named Forbes, and the subsequent offer to travel to a new place in order to ‘establish a room of colour and scent and spectacle’, allows Clara to affirm her place in the world.  In this way, and given the alterations which Clara’s character undergoes, House of Glass can certainly be called a coming of age novel.

When she finds herself in Shadowbrook, after a long journey by train, Clara is met with ‘a house of pale stone.  Clematis grew on its walls.  Its courtyard was bordered with dark, leafy shrubs in which I could hear movement – nesting birds, or the scurrying of mice.  Two storeys to it, no more.  A small right-angled wing.’  At her point of arrival, Fletcher begins to introduce elements of oddness, or of ghostly occurrences.  The man who picks Clara up from the station, for instance, tells her not to worry about any noises which she might hear in the night, as old houses were prone to movement.  As she roams the grounds, and spends time within the house itself, she begins to notice something unsettling: ‘I had a curious sense of being watched; throughout the garden, I felt it.  It was as though I had entered a part of it – the orchard, the lime bower – at the very moment that someone else had risen and left; I felt that any metal chair might retain that person’s heat.  It was an unsettling notion.  I chastised myself for it – it was foolishness – yet I also looked down the lines of hedges.  On the croquet lawn, I turned in a slow, complete circle to see it all.’

Later, and unable to discover a rational solution, she muses over what the feeling of being watched, and screams and scratches in the night, could be the effects of.  After discussing the goings on with the members of staff at Shadowbrook, she says: ‘Ghost.  The word had not been said but we’d heard it even so.  It had hung above the kitchen table; it had circled us…  A thin, inconsequential, fictitious word.  It had no place in diagrams.’

In her other novels, two of Fletcher’s real strengths are her ability to create both atmosphere and realistic characters.  My experience with her newest book was much the same.  I very much admired the way in which she had not made Clara into a martyr, following the emotional and physical pain which she had to struggle with daily.  Rather, Clara was realistic; she had tempers, and spoke her mind quite wonderfully, particularly in those situations where she was challenged by other characters.  She felt entirely three-dimensional, holding within herself a myriad of worries and hopes, and a believable backstory.  Clara felt like a progressive, modern woman; she does not go to church, or believe in God, and does not allow her voice to be silenced by anyone.  She is opinionated and stubborn, and not at all a likeable character, but I found her quite fascinating.

Fletcher’s prose is rich and sensuous from the outset of House of Glass.  Of Clara’s confinement, she writes: ‘Ours became a house of cushioning.  Of velvet and goose down, embroidered pillows, Persian rugs and silk.  There was, too, a globe.  A rocking horse that I could touch but not ride.  And they’d bring home what they thought I might miss from the blustery world: fir cones and pigeon feathers, the scent of horses on my mother’s red gloves which I’d inhale, eyes closed.  Tales of how the river had looked at twilight.  How the carol singers sang, despite the rain.’  The descriptions of the library share gorgeously vivid imagery: ‘There was a chaise long which was, at first, the colour of moss.  But in time – as I read more, studied more maps – this deep, velvety green became the shade of hummingbirds’ wings or Othello’s envy or the gems which hid in equatorial soil.  The green of a tiny jungle frog.’

Whilst not my favourite of Fletcher’s novels – an accolade which must go to Oystercatchers and Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – I did enjoy many elements of House of Glass.  Whilst there is far less commentary on the outbreak of the First World War than I was expecting, I found that the period was very well evoked, and the novel itself was both immersive and atmospheric.  

At no point, however, was I entirely captivated by the story, and despite the real strengths in character building, I felt as though the denouement of the novel was a little disappointing, and something of an anticlimax, and the ending was drawn out.  The story does come together, but I did not find the twists to be overly clever or original.  I also found the pace a little awkward in places, and the tension which Fletcher had striven to create was not as heightened, and therefore not as successful, as it could have been.  Whilst there are many things which I admired in House of Glass, I have to say that it is probably my least favourite of Fletcher’s books to date.

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‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker *****

I have been meaning to read Pat Barker’s Regeneration – the ‘classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men’ – for such a long time, but only got around to it very recently.  Probably her most famous novel, Regeneration has been considered a modern classic since its publication in 1991, and is the first book in a trilogy of the same name.  The book has been highly praised.  Margaret Forster calls it ‘a novel of tremendous power’, the Sunday Times ‘brilliant, intense, subtle’, and, fittingly, Time Out heralds it ‘a fine anthem for doomed youth’. 

9780141030937Set in 1917 at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in southeast Edinburgh, Regeneration takes as its focus three very well-known figures – Dr W.H.H. Rivers, who pioneered shellshock treatment for soldiers, and two war poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.  Robert Graves also makes odd appearances throughout.  Barker has also created, alongside these figures, the character of Billy Prior, unable to speak and only able to communicate on paper, who feels just as realistic.  Rivers’ job is to make the men in his care healthy enough that they can be returned to the Front.  ‘Yet the closer he gets to mending his patients’ minds,’ the blurb continues, ‘the harder becomes every decision to send them back to the horrors’ which await them.

Regeneration opens at the point at which Sassoon has expressed his objections to the war in writing, in a piece which he calls ‘an act of wilful defiance of military authority’.  In consequence, he is sent directly to Rivers, who receives the news of his arrival as follows: ‘Can you imagine what our dear Director of Medical Services is going to say, when he finds out we’re sheltering “Conchies” as well as cowards, shirkers, scrimshankers and degenerates?  We’ll just have to hope there’s no publicity.’

Justine Picardie writes that ‘what gives the novel its authenticity is Pat Barker’s impressive ability to capture her characters’ voices and moods.’  Indeed, Barker has a wonderful understanding of each of her characters, whether historical figures, or invented ones.  Her interpretation of them made them feel highly realistic, and at points in conversations – particularly those between Owen and Sassoon – I had to remind myself that I was not reading a piece of non-fiction.

There is such humanity to Barker’s examination, and I very much enjoyed the little glimpses of surprise in the behaviour of her characters, which often seem to be at odds with their public personas.  When Sassoon first arrives at Craiglockhart, for instance, Barker writes that he ‘lingered on the drive for a full minute after the taxi had driven away, then took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and ran up the steps.’ The descriptions which Barker gives of her characters do not just remark on the superficial; rather, they tend to have a lot of depth to them, and often err on the chilling.  She describes Sassoon in the following way: ‘Light from the window behind Rivers’s desk fell directly onto Sassoon’s face.  Pale skin, purple shadows under the eyes.  Apart from that, no obvious signs of nervous disorder.  No twitches, jerks, blinks, no repeated ducking to avoid a long-exploded shell.  His hands, doing complicated things with cup, saucer, plate, sandwiches, cake, sugar tongs and spoon, were perfectly steady…  So far he hadn’t looked at Rivers.  He sat with his head slightly averted, a posture that could easily have been taken for arrogance, though Rivers was more inclined to suspect shyness.’

Other reviewers have commented upon the language used in the novel, believing it to be too simplistic.  However, this was not the impression which I received.  There are a lot of poetic descriptions, and the dialogue particularly is filled with nuances and undercurrents.  The more stark, matter-of-fact language which has been used at odd times serves to highlight the horror of wartime.  Given the nature of the book, I felt as though the balance which Barker struck between these descriptions and the examination of her characters was perfect.  The moments of dark humour, which can be found from time to time, also worked very well.

Regeneration is very well situated historically, and scenes are vividly set in just a few sentences.  One of Barker’s particular strengths here are the comparisons which she makes between wartime and civilian life, particularly with regard to way in which she shows how quite ordinary things can be triggers for what soldiers had experienced in the trenches.  When a character named Burns is travelling on a bus, to give one example, she writes: ‘A branch rattled along the windows with a sound like machine-gun fire, and he had to bite his lips to stop himself crying out.’  She also demonstrates an impressive emotional range in her explorations of isolation and freedom, wellbeing and mentality, nightmare states and hallucinatory moments, and the profound effects which each of these things can cause.

There is, of course, much in the novel about medical experimentation, and how best to treat such troubled men.  Thoughts of, and explorations around, masculinity, have been cleverly woven in.  Barker makes it clear from the outset that the methods which Rivers has adopted in his radical treatment plan go quite against the moral, ‘manly’ values instilled in him, of demonstrating only strength and valour.  He, and too his patients, were not expected to show any signs of weakness.  Of this, Barker observes: ‘… he was already experimenting on himself.  In leading his patients to understand that breakdown was nothing to be ashamed of, that horror and fear were inevitable responses to the trauma of war and were better acknowledged than suppressed, that feelings of kindnesses for other men were natural and right, that tears were an acceptable and helpful part of grieving, he was setting himself against the whole tenor of their upbringing.’  She goes on to write: ‘The change he demanded of them – and by implication of himself – was not trivial.  Fear, tenderness – these emotions were so despised that they could be admitted into consciousness only at the cost of redefining what it meant to be a man.’

I had a feeling that I might regret leaving it so long to pick up Regeneration, and I am.  It is a stunning novel, compelling from the outset, and filled with moments of harrowing beauty, and poignant reflections on conflict and its worth.  I already have the second book in the trilogy, The Eye in the Door, on my to-read pile, and am very much looking forward to continuing with it sooner rather than later.  I imagine that it will be just as moving as Regeneration proved to be, this wonderful mixture of fact and fiction, in which Barker is constantly aware of the significance of every tiny thing.

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‘Despised and Rejected’ by Rose Allatini *****

Rose Allatini’s 1918 novel, Despised and Rejected, is one of Persephone’s new titles for Spring 2018.  Allatini was an highly prolific author, publishing books under several pseudonyms; Despised and Rejected was first released under the name of A.T. Fitzroy.    Rereleased in Persephone’s distinctive dove grey covers a century after its original publication, Despised and Rejected is set during the First World War, and is described as a ‘gay pacifist novel’.  Persephone have highlighted its importance, calling it ‘one of the pioneering gay novels of the twentieth century.’  39693554

Despised and Rejected takes two characters as its focus: ‘a gay conscientious objector and his relationship with a young woman who (as he realises but she does not) is a lesbian.’  Composer Dennis Blackwood is the former of these, and Antoinette de Courcy, a young woman of French descent, the latter.

Of course, to the queasy and old-fashioned men of yesteryear, Despised and Rejected was deemed scandalous, although for its anti-war stance rather than its depictions of homosexuality.  Upon its publication, the novel sold eight hundred copies before it was deemed ‘morally unhealthy and most pernicious’.  The publisher, C.W. Daniel, was put on trial, fined, and ordered to surrender the remaining print run of two hundred copies.

The novel is constructed using a three-part structure; the first of these takes place just before the war, and the second and third during it.  Despised and Rejected opens in the Amberhurst Private Hotel in an undisclosed location; here, the Blackwood family are holidaying, and their son Dennis meets Antoinette.  The two are drawn together almost immediately, although Antoinette’s focus is firmly placed upon a secretive woman also staying at the hotel named Hester.  Like Dennis, Hester realises that Antoinette is sexually attracted to women, but Antoinette herself is naive in this respect.  Antoinette is just twenty-one.  As with Dennis, we are given hints and clues that she is attracted to her own sex, but she is unaware that there is a reason for her gravitation toward them, and the lack of feeling which kissing men inspires within her.

From the beginning, Allatini demonstrates that Dennis’ relationship with his father is fractious: ‘Dennis said nothing and set his lips tightly, as was his way when Mr Blackwood jarred upon his nerves more exquisitely than usual.  He disliked his father, disliked the whole coarse overbearing masculinity of the man.  There was between them an antagonism that was fundamental, and quite apart from the present source of grievance’.  His mother sets out to protect him at all times, but their relationship too is, in ways, problematic.  Dennis, she writes, ‘was always on the defensive, even with his mother.  Perhaps with his mother most of all, because he felt that she was most akin to him, and might at any moment come to touch the fringe of that secret world of his…  a world that must remain secret even from the mother who loved him as perhaps no other woman on earth would ever love him.’  This is the first hint given in the novel about Dennis’ homosexuality, something which is continually aware of within himself, but which he has never articulated to anyone around him.  Allatini shows that Mrs Blackwood realises there is something a little different about Dennis, but cannot quite connect the dots: ‘Perhaps he had nothing to tell.  Perhaps she only imagined that he wasn’t happy.  Artists were sometimes peculiar – she clutched at that – and her boy was an artist: perhaps that accounted for it.  Her reason, working in a peculiarly narrow despisedandrejected_newspaper_for_websitecircle, round and round, round and round, accepted this as the solution, and was at peace.  But her instinct, less narrow, more subtle, blindingly groping, refused to be thus pacified.  There must be – something.  But what?  What…?’

Dennis is revealed in the fragments of letters which he writes to Antoinette; this use of his own voice adds more depth to the novel.  He is frightfully ashamed of his own difference, and of his desires.  Allatini writes, ‘He must be for ever an outcast amongst men, shunned by them, despised and mocked by them.  He was maddened by fear and horror and loathing of himself.’  This element of the novel, which deals with Dennis’ feelings, is achingly human, as are his convictions when it comes to refusing to fight in the First World War.  With regard to this, ‘The thought of war inspired in him none of those feelings with which convention decreed that ever true Briton should be inspired…  The whole thing was damnable, and stupid, and cruel…  pretended that it was a noble thing, a glorious game, a game which every Englishman should be proud to be playing.’

Allatini’s descriptions are both vivid and charming.  Of a small, unnamed village in which Dennis and his friend Crispin stay whilst travelling through Devonshire, she writes: ‘… it has an old-world triangular village green, planted with giant oak trees, and enclosed on two sides by dear little thatched cottages with trim little gardens; and it has an ivy-clad church and the usual combination of Post Office and all-sorts shop, in which you may revel in the complex odour of boots, cheese, liquorice, soap, sawdust, biscuits, Fry’s chocolate and warm humanity.’  In one of his letters, Dennis writes to Antoinette, ‘We’re zig-zagging about the country in the most amazing style.  And I wish I could collected all the things I’ve loved most and bring them back to you.’

Despised and Rejected is a highly immersive novel, and an incredibly moving one at that.   Allatini’s writing is intelligent, stylish, and heartfelt.  She writes with clarity and sensitivity, in a way which which feels marvellously balanced.  She has such a deep understanding of her characters, and the problems which their true selves cause for them.  Allatini presents an incredibly strong, measured, and rousing argument for pacifism, discussing the horrors and futility which war brings, and the way in which they often create more problems when they solve.

Despite being published a century ago, Despised and Rejected feels like a novel of our time; it, above all, demonstrates the need for equality and understanding, as well as peace, both within the world and individually.  It is a book which we can learn an awful lot from.

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‘We That Are Left’ by Juliet Greenwood *****

One of my favourite things about reading historical fiction is that feeling of immersion; that I am right there with the characters in any given and realistically evoked time period.  We That Are Left is one of the most immersive reading experiences which I feel I have had in a long while; I could barely tear myself away from Juliet Greenwood’s beautiful and harrowing story which unfolds at the outbreak of World War One.9781906784997

Greenwood’s novel centres around protagonist Elin Helstone, a young, married woman who lives in her childhood home in Cornwall with her husband, Hugo.  They are relatively well off, and live a comfortable life, but this offers no escape from Hugo’s experiences in the Boer War, which continue to haunt him.  When the outbreak of the First World War is announced, and he has to travel to the Front, Elin learns to cope with running the Hiram estate on her own.  Her cousin Alice and incredibly rich friend Lady Margaret, known as Mouse, also make their own choices, and end up feeling great pride with regard to the sacrifices they consequently make for others.

The realistically constructed women who people We That Are Left demonstrate the unfairness of their position throughout, even before war is announced.  Each is forward thinking, and make tiny rebellions when they are able to.  They realise that there will be a dearth of men during the war, and they need to make an effort on a personal level to keep things ticking over at home; they know that the barriers, for a little while at least, will be torn down, and they can go out to work without being scorned.  Alice, for instance, when reminded that as a woman, she should want little more than marriage and motherhood, measuredly replies: ‘Why should everyone be the same?  Why should every woman who ever lived wish to be a mother?  Especially when the experience is quite likely to kill her…  I have so many things I wish to do with my life.  So many places I want to see.  Oh, I love children and enjoy their company.  But that does not necessarily mean I have a burning desire to have my own.  Not when it would cost me so much.  I would far rather have my independence.’

I will happily read any novel set during the First World War or thereabouts, as I have studied the period in detail over the years, and find it absolutely fascinating.  Throughout her novel, Greenwood highlights the great change which has already come to England and Wales, but focuses upon the world as it was for women; wearing trousers instead of a skirt was frowned upon, even for those doing manual work, and women were prohibited from taking University examinations purely on account of their sex.  Greenwood’s characters make things of themselves during the war; Alice almost immediately goes to work in a nearby hospital with the war wounded, and Mouse decides to go off to France to help the soldiers there.  Greenwood’s characters are brave, and feel realistic both as individuals and as an entire cast.

We That Are Left is incredibly well informed with regard to both the social situation and the war.  Greenwood has such an understanding of the complexities and shifts of feelings and emotions.  The descriptions, particularly those of the natural world, are breathtakingly beautiful.  Entirely captivating and so well written, We That Are Left swept me away, and I cannot wait to read more of Greenwood’s work in future.

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Two Novellas About War: ‘The Sojourn’ and ‘Kaddish for an Unborn Child’

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak **
9781934137345I read Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn for the Slovakian component of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. It is a slim novel, set during the First World War, and following the story of a young man named Jozef, who decides to sign up and fight. I did find Krivak’s prose a little difficult to get into, as many of his sentences were unnecessarily long, and seemed to lose the initial thread on several occasions. The Sojourn is certainly a literary novel in terms of its prose, but at times it felt highly, and unnecessarily, overwritten. It was nowhere near as engaging as I was expecting it to be. There were many flaws with the protagonist too; at only two points in the entire novel did he have any compassion for his fellow man, seeming to view battle as a game, and calling those he murdered his ‘kills’. The Sojourn has clearly been well researched, but its characters are wholly one-dimensional, and there is very little of a character arc to speak of, despite the novel being a formative one. The Sojourn was definitely readable, but the entire human aspect, which I would have expected to be a major factor in the plot, seemed to be missing in action.

 

Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertesz **** 9780099548935
Previous to picking up Imre Kertesz’ Kaddish for an Unborn Child for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, I had read one of his novels, Liquidation, which I bought whilst in Budapest. As with Liquidation, this novella is a meditation on the Holocaust, and also features literary translator B. as its protagonist. In the highly autobiographical Kaddish for an Unborn Child, B. ‘addresses the child he couldn’t bear to bring into the world, [and] takes readers on a mesmerising, lyrical journey through his life, from his childhood to Auschwitz to his failed marriage.’

My high hopes for this novella were met; whilst it was rather difficult to read due to its terribly long and sometimes convoluted sentences, it proved to be one of the most powerful and haunting works on the Holocaust which I have yet read. The dense and complicated prose was sometimes exhausting to read, especially given its subject matter, but the stream-of-consciousness style fitted so well with the points which Kertesz brought to the fore. The core idea here is both beautiful and unsettling, and it is sure to linger in the mind for weeks after the final page has been read. The full concentration which you have to allow this novella is entirely worth the effort.

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One From the Archive: ‘Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers’ by Mari Strachan **

First published in 2012.

Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers follows Strachan’s wonderful début novel The Earth Hums in B Flat. The novel takes place two years after the end of the First World War in a relatively small town in the Welsh countryside.

The protagonist of the novel is twenty nine-year-old Rhiannon Davies, known to all as Non. She is the wife of Davey, a man who fought in the war and returned to Non in an almost unrecognisable state: ‘The War has taken her husband as surely as if it had killed him, and returned a stranger to her in his place’. 9781847675316

Non wakes one morning to find Davey crouched beneath the kitchen table, ‘shouldering an imaginary rifle’ and reliving the terrors which he was catapulted into during his time in the trenches. She desperately tries to keep this occurrence from their children – teenagers Wil and Meg from Davey’s first marriage, and seven-year-old Osian, a ‘shadow child’, taken in by the family when his young mother died. Osian shows little emotion and does not communicate with those around him, a fact which Non and Davey try greatly to ignore. Wil is kindly and compassionate, always trying to make those around him as happy as possible, but Meg seems his antithesis in many ways. She is a selfish girl, seen by others as ‘too young, and too cross and too silly’.

The novel has an impressive scope, seemingly aiming to highlight the effects of war upon a multitude of different people. Since the war began, the lives of the Davies family have altered greatly. Davey, once softly spoken and kind is snappy and headstrong on his return, and Non holds many secrets. Her situation is sad at times: ‘… she has no idea how to begin to fight back, how to begin to find the Davey who loved her’, but she is not always a likeable character. She is judgemental of everyone around her and is rather cruel and selfish at times.

A third person present tense perspective has been used throughout Dead Man’s Embers. Although this technique gives Strachan the ability to follow several characters and highlight their thoughts and feelings, Non is the sole focus of the narrative. Other characters are included only when they interact with her, making them flat and unrealistic in consequence. Every last one of the characters seems lacking, not fully developed enough to be believed. A good example of this can be found when one takes Davey’s mother, Catherine Davies, into account. She is referred to by her full name without fail throughout, and is consequently seen as a remote character. This third person perspective is distancing and the reader is unable to know any of the characters because of it.

Strachan evokes a somewhat chilling atmosphere from the outset. She perfectly captures the fear which has so encompassed Davey and the way in which his new persona has affected him and his family. Although the novel starts off in an intriguing manner, the rest of the story falls flat in comparison. Throughout, Strachan does bring in many questions and observations appropriate to the period, including Ireland’s fight for independence, the role of women following the war, and politics. Rather than being expanded upon, however, these elements are merely touched upon and lack any real significance when placed into the story.

Elements of the novel seemed a little far-fetched and do not really work with the story, and the novel’s twists are both unexpected and unrealistic. Some of the included scenes are rather tedious, particularly with regard to the filling in of the census form. The dialogue is not as good as it could be. Some of the exchanges seem a little too modern in their structure and are not reminiscent of the period in which the novel is set. Grammatical mistakes can be found in several places throughout the novel which detracts from the writing style.

Sadly, Dead Man’s Embers does not come alive as The Earth in B Flat does. The writing is not as spellbinding and the story is not as well executed. The prose does not sparkle and seems rather mundane in many instances.

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One From the Archive: ‘A Hilltop on the Marne: An American’s Letters from War-Torn France’ by Mildred Aldrich ****

First published in May 2014.

A Hilltop on the Marne, which was first published in 1916, presents a far-reaching account of Mildred Aldrich’s experiences during the First World War.  Aldrich, a retired American journalist who worked for several papers in the Boston area before moving to France in 1898, had just moved to an idyllic hamlet in France’s Marne Valley before World War One was declared.  In Huiry, a ‘little hamlet less than thirty miles from Paris’, she found herself adjusting to life in wartime, volunteering such services as hosting tea for and providing water to local forces.  Her farmhouse soon became ‘a safe port in a storm for the various troops stationed in the village’. 

Aldrich’s first letter in the volume is dated the 3rd of June 1914, and her correspondence goes through to the end of the war.  We do not know who she writes to, and as none of her letters carry her signature or anything of the sort, A Hilltop on the Marne feels more like a diary in consequence.  She urges her correspondent, who is evidently trying to coerce her into returning ‘home’ to the United States, to allow her to be content.  In her first letter, she states, quite frankly: ‘I did not decide to come away into a little corner in the country, in this land in which I was not born, without looking at the move from all angles.  Be sure that I know what I am doing, and I have found the place where I can do it’.  She goes on to show how headstrong she is in her decision making, writing in August 1914: ‘I have your cable asking me to come “home” as you call it.  Alas, my home is where my books are – they are here.  Thanks all the same’.

Throughout A Hilltop on the Marne, Aldrich writes beautifully; each letter is long and has been penned with such care.  Through her words, one gets the impression that she was an incredibly warm and witty woman, who valued honesty above all else.  Sincerity weaves itself into each sentence which she crafts, and it feels throughout as though her utmost wish is for her reader to understand the things which she does, and the choices which she makes.  We learn of such things as the layout of her home, the way in which she fills her days, the history of the Marne region, and the characters who live in the hamlet of Huiry.  A Hilltop on the Marne is as rich as a novel in some respects, filled with such a wealth of detail as it is.

Aldrich evokes small-town life in France marvellously.   When war begins and she is able to meet some of the soldiers stationed in her area, she begins to reflect upon what battle means for the men in the region, and in France as a whole: ‘It is not the marching into battle of an army that has chosen soldiering.  It is the marching out of all the people – of every temperament – the rich, the poor, the timid and the bold, the sensitive and the hardened, the ignorant and the scholar – all men, because they happen to be males, called on not only to cry, “Vive la France”, but to see to it that she does live if dying for her can keep her alive.  It’s a compelling idea, isn’t it?’  She goes on to write: ‘I have lived among these people, loved them and believed in them, even when their politics annoyed me’.  Aldrich exemplifies the way in which her community carries on regardless, women taking over the ‘male’ tasks like baking bread and seeing to crops.  She tells of preparations for battle, the lack of news which reaches the hamlet, the unreliability of the postal service, refugees being sent into France from Belgium, and how wounded soldiers are treated.  She touches upon the requisition of weapons, evacuations of entire French towns, and the British cutting telegraph wires.  In this way, Aldrich has presented a far-reaching account of life in wartime from a most interesting perspective.

One of the wonderful things about A Hilltop on the Marne is its versatility; it can be dipped in and out of, or read all in one go.  It is an important work of non-fiction, particularly in this, the centenary year of World War One’s beginning.  It is a chronicle of war in a rural hamlet, which is sure to both charm its readers, and make them think.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Absolutist’ by John Boyne **

First published in August 2012.

The Absolutist begins in Norwich in September 1919, a period in which the country is still coming to terms with the aftermath of the First World War. The novel’s opening line is both gripping and intriguing: ‘Seated opposite me in the railway carriage, the elderly lady in the fox-fur shawl was recalling some of the murders that she had committed over the years’. Despite this, however, the novel gets off to rather a slow start and seems to meander along, filling space for the sake of it rather than enticing the reader.

Tristan Sadler, a former soldier, has travelled from London to Norwich to meet Marian Bancroft, the sister of one of his comrades in the trenches. Tristan describes how he and Marian’s brother Will ‘were in the same regiment so we knew each other well. We were friends’. He then goes on to say ‘no matter what anyone says, he was the bravest and kindest man I ever knew and there were plenty of brave men out there, I can promise you that, but not so many kind ones’. His aim in visiting Marian is to return the many letters which she sent to her brother during the war, all of which have been bundled together and rather touchingly tied with a strand of red ribbon.

The second section of the novel goes back to Aldershot in 1916, where the soldiers about to be sent to the front, all of them ‘stinking of sweat and bogus heroism’, are being trained up in the town’s military barracks. The relationship which unfolds between Will and Tristan here is rendered sensitively, and the sadness regarding Will’s execution for refusing to fight is moving in places. He is the ‘absolutist’ of the novel’s title, one who is said to do nothing ‘except sit on his hands and complain that the whole thing’s a sham’.

Whilst no details of Tristan’s war experiences are released at the outset of The Absolutist, it is clear that he has suffered from his time in the trenches. He describes his ‘spasmodic right hand’ and ‘trembling index finger’, and is unwilling to talk about his experiences, even when he is pressed to do so. Memories of his pre-war past are occasionally touched upon but are sometimes not fleshed out convincingly enough. We learn a little about his fractured relationship with his family and his father’s last words uttered in anger before Tristan left for war: ‘it would be best for all of us if the Germans shoot you dead on sight’.

The entirety of the book is told from the first person perspective of twenty-one-year-old Tristan. His narrative voice feels rather simplistic throughout and, in consequence, seems lacking. This is perhaps due to it not being overly poetic in its style, or with regard to the way in which the vocabulary used exudes an air of arrogance. Indeed, for at least the first half of the novel, Tristan is not a likeable character. Something about his general demeanour is difficult to warm to. He seems very sure of himself and spends time making up details about each person he meets, an act which renders him incredibly judgmental. He weaves these fabrications into the narrative, following each instance of them with ‘I decided’. As a consequence, we as readers do not really get to know the rest of the characters, and only see Tristan’s sometimes skewed interpretations of them. Throughout, the complete strangers which Tristan encounters seem to be too familiar with him. They seem to give him their entire life story whilst learning barely anything about his life or character in return. This seems a rather unlikely turn of events, and one which does not lend itself well to the novel.

Boyne has included rather a lot of social commentary about conditions at the time – war work for women, the ‘morality’ regarding homosexuals, teenagers signing up to fight – but none of these subjects has been dealt with in detail and have been merely touched upon in rather a fleeting manner. Some of Boyne’s writing, though, is startling and even incredibly powerful at times: ‘The barracks were filled with ghosts… It was as if we died before we left England’. The author is certainly at his best when describing the horrors of the trenches, and he renders a definite sense of poignancy in stark phrases such as ‘the sooner everyone’s killed, the sooner it’s all over’.

The majority of the character descriptions throughout are written well and with much precision. The woman on the train is ‘a sharp combination of lavender and face cream, her mouth viscous with blood-red lipstick’, a young man who runs a boarding house with his mother in Norwich has a moustache which is ‘teased into a fearful line across his upper lip’, and a former soldier encountered on the train platform has one of his eyes ‘sealed across as if he had recently been in a fight’.

Particularly with regard to the first quarter of the book, much of the dialogue feels a little too modern to fit with the period in question. Marian Bancroft’s discourse, however, is pitch perfect for the majority of the exchanges in which she features, and this is one of the definite strengths of the novel.

To conclude, the final three quarters of The Absolutist seem to be rendered with far more strength and skill than that which can be found in the beginning of the novel. The reader does feel some sympathy for Tristan as his story unfolds, and he becomes a more lifelike character in consequence. The unpredictable intricacies woven deftly into the plot render The Absolutist a sad, poignant and unsettling read, but the final section of the book which is told in retrospect does sadly detract from the overall power of the book.

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The Gregory Peck-a-long: ‘In Falling Snow’ by Mary-Rose MacColl ***

The third book on this week’s project list is Australian author Mary-Rose MacColl’s In Falling Snow.  Neither Belinda nor I had heard about it before we decided to purchase copies (which we rather awesomely did at around the same time).  When we found out about our literary coincidence, we decided to incorporate it into our readathon.

First published in 2013, the premise of the novel appealed to me immediately.  In 1978, an elderly widow named Iris Crane, who lives in a quiet part of Brisbane, is invited to a World War One reunion in France, and is quickly ‘overcome by memories of the past’.  As a young woman, Iris travelled to France at the start of the First World War, following her younger brother, Tom, who joined up and left home.  Her intention at first is solely to bring him back to the safety of Australia, but she soon finds herself working at a field hospital at an old Abbey in Royaumont.  She is tasked under the capacity of being a personal assistant of sorts to the sometimes formidable Miss Ivers, merely due to her competence in French.

Part of the present-day story which runs alongside Iris’ memories deals with her granddaughter, Grace, a doctor and mother of three.  Interestingly, Iris’ tale makes use of the first person perspective, while Grace’s is told by an omniscient third person narrator.  This technique worked well to break up the plots and different generations of characters, but Grace’s portion of the plot did also feel rather detached in consequence.  I found myself far preferring Iris’ part of the story; whilst Grace’s had some interesting elements within it, it seemed a little lacklustre, and I could not make myself like her as a person.  Some of the decisions which she made did not seem at all rational for an educated woman in her position, and she did not come across as a believable protagonist.  The only character whom I felt endeared to in In Calling Snow was Grace’s young son, Henry; for the most part, he felt like a realistic construct.  He was also the least predictable of MacColl’s creations, and I believe that this helped towards my liking him.

There is real strength in some of MacColl’s prose, but the conversations let it down somewhat for me.  They did not feel quite balanced, and at times were either unnecessary or unrealistic.  Some of the descriptive phrasing was nice enough, but a lot of the prose lacked depth, particularly given the emotion which should have been packed into every page of such a novel.  I was reminded in part of Kate Morton’s work in In Falling Snow, both in terms of the dual storylines and familial saga aspects of the plot, but I do not think that MacColl quite pulled off the story as well as Morton could have done.  I did find a couple of discrepancies within the plot too – with regard to Henry’s age, for example.

I really liked the general premise of In Falling Snow, but it fell a little flat for me.  Some elements were perhaps not executed as well as they could have been.  The denouement was also quite precitable.  Iris’ gradual memory loss was handled sensitively, however, and I admire MacColl for being able to put this element of the plot, and her sympathy for Iris’ situation, across so well.

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