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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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One From the Archive: ‘The Last Summer’ by Judith Kinghorn ****

First published in May 2012.

The Last Summer is Judith Kinghorn’s debut novel. It is told from the first person perspective of Clarissa Granville. The story begins in the summer of 1914 when she is just sixteen years old. Clarissa states from the outset that the ‘spell’ of her languorous childhood was broken as soon as she laid eyes upon Tom Cuthbert, the only son of the family’s housekeeper.

Clarissa resides at Deyning Park, the grand house she has lived in all her life, with her parents and three older brothers, Henry, George and William. The house was ‘built in the neoclassical style from honey-hued stone’, complete with coach house, several cottages for the servants and a vast garden which touches the edge of ‘six hundred acres of landscaped parkland [leading] to the South Downs in the distance’. The Granville family is built upon a wealth of secrets which they try to keep from one another.

Despite studying at Oxford, it is made clear from the outset that Tom is below Clarissa’s standing. The sheer disparity between the social classes is outlined, Tom telling her on many occasions that she is ‘unattainable’ to the likes of him. Despite this, they carry on with their clandestine relationship, trying desperately to hide their feelings from those around them.

Clarissa exhibits many childish qualities and sees herself as ‘naïve and innocent’. She has built up a vivid imagination to stop herself from being lonely: ‘I’d languished in a daydream… floating through the house and about the grounds, inventing people, places and events’. She is an inquisitive character, determined to break from the bounds of her sheltered life which has protected her from the world. Despite the way in which she longs to know about everything around her, she seems a little too naïve to be believed at first.

Tom’s growing presence in Clarissa’s life alters her character somewhat. She becomes distracted, focused only upon the young man who thinks her ‘quite dangerously beautiful’. Their relationship is strained throughout, beginning with a childish quarrel and fraught with absences from one another. On the outbreak of war, Clarissa’s brothers join up, as does Tom. The enormous shifts in the lives of these characters are dealt with sensitively, as is Clarissa’s growing loneliness.

The narrative style seems rather chatty and even colloquial at times. It is very informative, however, allowing us to learn a lot about Clarissa and her family from the outset. Sadly, some of the dialogue seems a little lacklustre and is not always reminiscent of real-life conversations. The upper class characters are often colloquial in their speech, an aspect which is not historically accurate. The sheer volume of commas throughout does make the prose seem a little disjointed in places. Both of these elements let the book down a little in consequence.

Kinghorn’s writing is very descriptive from the outset. Grass is described as ‘lambent green’ and the lawns an ‘undulating soft carpet’. A few of the sentences do seem a little repetitive in their style, but on the whole the writing is of a high standard and it definitely improves as the novel progresses.

Elements which were of importance or were commonplace at the time have been included. A good example of this can be seen with regard to the vast social expectations which differed between men and women, a factor which Kinghorn has illustrated well. Whilst boys were able to be educated, ‘it was different for a girl’ as ‘marriage and children, a tidy home and manicured garden were a foregone conclusion’. Kinghorn has also made use of the social history of the period, detailing the suffragettes, the changing political climate of Europe and the threat of war. It is clear that the book has been well researched. Factually accurate details of the war have been woven into the narrative, which makes the story more believable as well as historically grounded.

It is essentially a love story, but Kinghorn’s use of other characters and the time period makes it more than that. The Last Summer is an impressive and absorbing tale which effectively shows the boundaries firmly put in place during the time period and the ways in which they could be broken.

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Classics Club #22: ‘Rilla of Ingleside’ by L.M. Montgomery **

Rilla of Ingleside is number 619 upon the Virago Modern Classics list, and is another addition to the children’s literature which the publishing house is introducing to a whole new generation of readers.  This particular L.M. Montgomery novel is recommended for those from the age of nine onwards.  I decided to add it to my ‘Classics Club’ list as I already had a copy on my bookshelf, and it looked like a nice easy read with which to balance out some of the heavier novels which I had already chosen.

‘Rilla of Ingleside’ (Virago)

Rilla of Ingleside, first published in 1921, is the last book in Montgomery’s famous Anne of Green Gables series, and can be read as a standalone book.  It takes place when title character Anne Shirley is an adult with her own grown-up children, almost all of whom have flown the nest.  The only one who remains within her care is her youngest daughter, fourteen-year-old ‘high-spirited’ Rilla.  Just as Rilla’s life is at the height of her enjoyment, it is announced that Britain has declared war on Germany, and will be fighting for the full four years of the First World War.  This affects Rilla more than she imagines at first, and serves to alter her landscape entirely: ‘… as her brothers go off to fight in the Great War and Rilla brings home an orphaned newborn baby in a soup tureen, she is swept into a drama that tests her courage and will leave her changed forever.’

Rilla of Ingleside starts in a charming way – ‘It was a warm, golden-cloudy, lovable afternoon’ – before it introduces the character of Susan Baker and the historical context which the story is set against: in the newspaper, she sees that ‘some Archduke Ferdinand or other had been assassinated at a place bearing the weird name of Sarajevo, but Susan tarried not over uninteresting, immaterial stuff like that; she was in quest of something really vital’.  The historical details have been set out in such a way that they are easily accessible to Montgomery’s intended younger audience.  Each child reader, whilst being swept into the story, is sure to learn a lot from the novel.

Montgomery is an incredibly perceptive author, always ensuring that her readers are able to see exactly what she imagined a particular person, scene or setting to look like.  On the whole, her characters are wonderfully drawn, and their differences help to make them distinct beings.  A few of the characters introduced in the novel’s beginning, however, felt rather flat and lacklustre.  Throughout, Montgomery’s writing is gorgeous; it feels as though she set out to weave a spell of enchantment each and every time she sat down to write.  The storyline which has been crafted fits its historical setting very well indeed.

There were several flaws within the novel which let it down for me, however.  Rilla herself was an issue; I found her at once almost entirely vacuous, and yet a little endearing.  The shallow and self-important elements of her character did irk me almost immediately, and I was prevented from liking her in consequence: ‘There’s five of us going to college already. Surely that’s enough.  There’s bound to be one dunce in every family.  I’m quite willing to be a dunce if I can be a pretty, popular, delightful one.  I have no talent at all, and you can’t imagine how comfortable it is’.  The entire plot took a long while to get going, and was more involved with frivolities such as dancing and courting than anything else in places.  I closed the final pages of Rilla of Ingleside believing that I had not read a book with so little substance within it for quite a while.  I’m hoping that my next Classics Club read will be more enjoyable!

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‘The Fires of Autumn’ by Irene Nemirovsky ****

The Fires of Autumn is essentially the prequel to Nemirovsky’s most famous work, Suite Francaise.  The novel sets the historical and political scene which Suite Francaise then builds upon. The Fires of Autumn was completed in 1942, and was published posthumously in 1957, after Nemirovsky’s death in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Fires of Autumn, the eleventh novel of Nemirovsky’s to be translated into English, is split into three separate parts, covering the period between 1912 and 1941, and following the Brun family, ‘Parisians of some small private means’.  The opening scene uses a meal eaten by the whole family as its backdrop – a simple technique, but a wonderful way in which to introduce multiple characters.

As with her other fiction, Nemirovsky’s descriptions are beautiful.  Madame Pain, the elderly mother-in-law of patriarch Adolphe Brun, has ‘hair that looked like sea foam’, and a voice ‘as sonorous and sweet as a song’.  Each member of the family is constructed of different characteristics – for instance, twenty seven-year-old Martial is ‘overly modest’ and focuses almost solely upon his studies and marrying his young cousin Therese, two of the mothers touched upon are either anxious or ambitious, and young Bernard is a dreamer, forever envisioning his future.  When viewed as a familial unit, the Bruns feel realistic.  Generationally, The Fires of Autumn is interesting too; each character is at a slightly different point in his or her life.

The view of Paris and her suburbs is built up over time, and Nemirovsky uses all of the senses to ensure that it stands vividly in the mind of her readers.  Her use of light and darkness illuminate each scene: ‘Even this dark little recess was filled with a golden mist: the sun lit up the dust particles, the kind you get in Paris in the spring, that joyful season dust that seems to be made of face powder and pollen from flowers’.  Nemirovsky’s inclusion of social and political material ensures that The Fires of Autumn is historically grounded.  Spanning such a long period also works in the novel’s favour.

As with many of Nemirovsky’s novels, The Fires of Autumn has been translated by Sandra Smith, who has such control over the original material and renders it into a perfectly fluid and beautiful piece.  She is the author of the book’s introduction too, and believes that it offers ‘a panoramic exploration of French life’.  Indeed, The Fires of Autumn is a beautiful piece of writing, which encompasses many different themes and marvellously demonstrates the way in which Paris altered over several decades, and how this drastic change affected families just like the Bruns.

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