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Five Great Memoirs

I have always delighted in learning about the lives of others, and have tried to incorporate as many memoirs into my reading as is possible.  I enjoy reading about individuals, particularly women, whose lives are very different to my own, and always find this a highly enriching experience.  With this in mind, I have gathered together five wonderful memoirs of women which I have read of late, and which I would highly recommend.  There are illness narratives, translated books, works set during wartime, and quiet meditations in the list, and I dearly hope that you find something new to pick up.

34104392._sy475_1. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs *****
An exquisite memoir about how to live–and love–every day with “death in the room,” from poet Nina Riggs, mother of two young sons and the direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the tradition of When Breath Becomes Air.  Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, the mother of two sons, ages seven and nine, and married sixteen years to her best friend, received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal.  How does one live each day, “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty?  Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, even as she wrestles with the legacy of her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs’s breathtaking memoir continues the urgent conversation that Paul Kalanithi began in his gorgeous When Breath Becomes Air. She asks, what makes a meaningful life when one has limited time?  Brilliantly written, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving, The Bright Hour is about how to love all the days, even the bad ones, and it’s about the way literature, especially Emerson, and Nina’s other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer. It’s a book about looking death squarely in the face and saying “this is what will be.”  Especially poignant in these uncertain times, The Bright Hour urges us to live well and not lose sight of what makes us human: love, art, music, words.

2. When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew by Hendrika de Vries 45480725._sy475_****
Born in the Netherlands at a time when girls are to be housewives and mothers and nothing else, Hendrika de Vries is a “daddy’s girl” until her father is deported from Nazi-occupied Amsterdam to a POW camp in Germany and her mother joins the Resistance. In the aftermath of her father’s departure, Hendrika watches as freedoms formerly taken for granted are eroded with escalating brutality by men with swastika armbands who aim to exterminate those they deem “inferior” and those who do not obey.  As time goes on, Hendrika absorbs her mother’s strength and faith, and learns about moral choice and forced silence. She sees her hidden Jewish “stepsister” betrayed, and her mother interrogated at gunpoint. She and her mother suffer near starvation, and they narrowly escape death on the day of liberation. But they survive it all—and through these harrowing experiences, Hendrika discovers the woman she wants to become.

50403465._sy475_3. The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War by Delphine Minoui ****
Award-winning journalist Delphine Minoui recounts the true story of a band of young rebels in a besieged Syrian town, who find hope and connection making an underground library from the rubble of war.  Day in, day out, bombs fall on Daraya, a town outside Damascus, the very spot where the Syrian Civil War began. In the midst of chaos and bloodshed, a group searching for survivors stumbles on a cache of books. They collect the books, then look for more. In a week they have six thousand volumes. In a month, fifteen thousand. A sanctuary is born: a library where the people of Daraya can explore beyond the blockade.  Long a site of peaceful resistance to the Assad regimes, Daraya was under siege for four years. No one entered or left, and international aid was blocked.  In 2015, French-Iranian journalist Delphine Minoui saw a post on Facebook about this secret library and tracked down one of its founders, twenty-three-year-old Ahmad, an aspiring photojournalist himself. Over WhatsApp and Facebook, Minoui learned about the young men who gathered in the library, exchanged ideas, learned English, and imagined how to shape the future, even as bombs fell above. They devoured a marvelous range of books–from American self-help like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to international bestsellers like The Alchemist, from Arabic poetry by Mahmoud Darwish to Shakespearean plays to stories of war in other times and places, such as the siege of Sarajevo. They also shared photos and stories of their lives before and during the war, planned how to build a democracy, and began to sustain a community in shell-shocked soil.  As these everyday heroes struggle to hold their ground, they become as much an inspiration as the books they read. And in the course of telling their stories, Delphine Minoui makes this far-off, complicated war immediate. In the vein of classic tales of the triumph of the human spirit–like All the Beautiful Forevers, A Long Way Gone, and Reading Lolita in TehranThe Book Collectors will inspire readers and encourage them to imagine the wider world.

4. These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards by Jean Sprackland **** 49569565._sy475_
Graveyards are oases: places of escape, of peace and reflection. Each is a garden or nature reserve, but also a site of commemoration, where the past is close enough to touch: a liminal place, at the border of the living world.  Jean Sprackland’s prize-winning book, Strands, brought to life the histories of objects found on a beach. These Silent Mansions is also an uncovering of individual stories: vivid, touching and intimately told. Sprackland travels back through her own life, revisiting graveyards in the ordinary towns and cities she has called home, seeking out others who lived, died and are remembered or forgotten there. With her poet’s eye, she makes chance discoveries among the stones and inscriptions: a notorious smuggler tucked up in a sleepy churchyard; ancient coins unearthed on a secret burial ground; a slow-worm basking in the sun.  These Silent Mansions is an elegant, exhilarating meditation on the relationship between the living and the dead, the nature of time and loss, and how – in this restless, accelerated world – we can connect the here with the elsewhere, the present with the past.

49114654._sx318_5. Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul by Taran N. Khan ****
For most Indians, Kabul is a city that is near, yet far-familiar, yet unknown. When Taran N. Khan arrived in Kabul in the spring of 2006, five years after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, she was earnestly cautioned never to walk. Her instincts compelled her to do the opposite: to take that precarious first step and enter the life of the city with the unique, tactile intimacy that comes from being a walker. She didn’t stop until 2013, when she returned to India.  In Shadow City, Taran N. Khan paints a lyrical, personal, and meditative portrait of a city we know primarily in terms of conflict and peace. As a Muslim woman raised in a small town in India, Taran discovered that she had access to parts of Kabul uncharted by travellers before her. The result reads like an elegiac prose map of the city, rich with surprises-from the glitter of wedding halls that shine like a bizarre version of Las Vegas; to the mental health hospital where women are abandoned and isolated but exist in a rare space of freedom and solitude; to the bookseller behind The Bookseller of Kabul, who sued Åsne Seierstad for her portrayal of him and then published the rebuttal which he displays proudly in his shop window.

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‘The Choice’ by Edith Eger ****

I have wanted to read Edith Eger’s Holocaust memoir, The Choice, since it was first published in 2017, and picked up a cheap secondhand copy in a local branch of Oxfam before Christmas.  Eger’s memoir has been so highly reviewed, with many pointing to the courage which she showed even at her bleakest moments.  The New York Times Book Review goes one step further, urging everyone who cares ‘about both their inner freedom and the future of humanity’ to read it.

In 1944, sixteen-year-old ballerina, Edith Eger, was sent to Auschwitz.  She was immediately separated from her parents, and was later made to dance before notorious camp doctor, Josef Mengele.  Despite everything she went through, the book’s blurb insists that ‘the horrors of the Holocaust didn’t break Edith.  In fact, they helped her learn to live again with a life-affirming strength and a truly remarkable resilience.’

The Choice has been split into four distinct sections – ‘Prison’, ‘Escape’, ‘Freedom’, and 9781846045127‘Healing’.  She gives her account chronologically, and makes clear in her introduction that she only began to write her memoir in 1980, whilst working as a psychologist.  Of her troubled patient Jason, whom she also introduces here, she finds so much wholly applicable to her own past: ‘… despite our obvious differences, there was much we shared.  We both knew violence.  And we both knew what it was like to become frozen.  I also carried a wound within me, a sorrow so deep that for many years I hadn’t been able to speak of it at all, to anyone.’

Eger goes on to write about time and its healing process: ‘What happened can never be forgotten and can never be changed.  But over time I learned that I can choose how to respond to the past.  I can be miserable, or I can be hopeful – I can be depressed, or I can be happy.  We always have that choice, that opportunity for control.’

Eger was born in the town of Kassa, Hungary, which was renamed Košice and became part of Czechoslovakia.  At this point, Eger writes that ‘my family became double minorities.  We were ethnic Hungarians living in a predominantly Czech country, and we were Jewish.’  The town became part of Hungary again in 1938.  Throughout The Choice, she speaks about her childhood, her memories, and the relationship which she had with her parents and siblings.  Her father is taken to a work camp, and is only released eight months afterwards.  After this, Eger is captured and taken to Auschwitz, along with her mother and sister, Magda.  Her mother is taken immediately to the gas chambers.  Here, Eger touchingly reflects on the state which this left her in: ‘I am numb.  I can’t think about the incomprehensible things that are happening, that have already happened.  I can’t picture my mother consumed by flames.  I can’t fully grasp that she is gone.’

Throughout, Eger speaks so honestly about her own experiences.  There is, understandably, a lot of horror within her past, and she does not shy away from describing this to the reader.  She writes of the way in which she was able to hold onto her humanity, and the bravery which this took is quite astounding.  Eger says: ‘The words I heard inside my head made a tremendous difference in my ability to maintain hope.  This was true for other inmates as well.  We were able to discover an inner strength we could draw on – a way to talk to ourselves that helped us feel free inside, that kept us grounded in our own morality, that gave us foundation and assurance even when the external forces sought to control and obliterate us.’

The imagery which Eger relays is often haunting.  On their liberation, she reflects: ‘What are we now?  Our bones look obscene, our eyes are caverns, blank, dark, empty.  Hollow faces.  Blue-black fingernails.  We are trauma in motion.  We are a slow moving parade of ghouls.’  She tends not to write only about her experiences in the camps, and directly afterwards; rather, she focuses upon the ways in which she came to terms with it after her liberation.  Like the vast majority of survivors, she was left with major issues with her health, and had to come to terms with what it meant to live back in the world.  She was also forced to cope with the absence of her parents, and her boyfriend, Eric.

The second half of Eger’s memoir is focused upon her marriage, the career which she works so hard to have, and the patients whom she meets, all of whom seem able to teach her something about her own life and perspectives.  Occasionally, these recollections of patients do feel a little preachy, and overall, I feel as though I personally got a lot more out of the first half of the book than the second.

The Choice is a wonderful memoir, filled with sadness but also an unbreakable sense of hope, which carried Eger through into her present.  One cannot help but be moved by Eger’s words, and the attitude which she takes toward her past.  Her prose is engaging, and filled to the brim with emotion and compassion.  The Choice leans toward the philosophical at times, and certainly gives a lot of food for thought.

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‘Transcription’ by Kate Atkinson *****

Kate Atkinson has been one of my absolute favourite authors since I was in my mid-teens and, like many other readers, I was eager to pick up a copy of her newest standalone novel, Transcription.  Here, as in her other books, she focuses upon a cast of unusual and realistic protagonists, using her characteristically intelligent and quirky prose.  The Sunday Telegraph comments that ‘no other contemporary novelist has such supreme mastery of that sweet spot between high and low, literary and compulsively readable as Kate Atkinson.’  I could not agree more.

9780857525895The heroine of the piece, Juliet Armstrong, is ‘reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage’ during the Second World War.  ‘Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying.’  Once the war finishes and Juliet’s contract is terminated, she tries to put the experience firmly behind her.

When she is working as a producer at the BBC some ten years later, however, she is ‘unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past.  A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat.’  At first, Juliet is taken, along with many other young women, to work at Wormwood Scrubs prison, but she is soon transferred to a residential flat, where she has to transcribe conversations between a man posing as German Intelligence, and the Fascist sympathisers who come to speak to him.

We first meet Juliet in 1981, when she is sixty years old.  In this brief introduction, she has just been hit by a car, and confusedly reflects upon her life and achievements: ‘… it had probably been a long enough life.  Yet suddenly it all seemed like an illusion, a dream that had happened to someone else.  What an odd thing existence was.’  Atkinson then moves back in time to 1950, when Juliet is employed by the BBC, working in the ‘Schools’ department.  From this point onward, Juliet’s dark humour is apparent: ‘The girls on Schools reception came and went with astonishing rapidity.  Juliet liked to imagine they were being eaten by something monstrous – a minotaur, perhaps, in the many bowels of the building – although actually they were simply transferring to more glamorous departments across the road in Broadcasting House.’

I very much enjoyed the tangents which Juliet embarks on.  When eating in a local cafe on her lunch break, for instance, she notices a ‘trollish’ man who looked ‘as if he had been put together from leftovers…  A hunched shoulder, eyes like pebbles – slightly uneven, as if one had slipped a little – and pockmarked skin that looked as if it had been peppered with shot.  (Perhaps it had been.)  The wounds of war, Juliet thought, rather pleased with the way the words sounded in her head.  It could be the title of a novel.  Perhaps she should write one.  But wasn’t artistic endeavour the final refuge of the uncommitted?’  Juliet is plucky and rare; her quirks and character traits are so memorable.  She feels fully formed, and we learn a great deal about her as the novel goes on.

I find it such a treat to meet new Kate Atkinson characters, and warmed to Juliet almost immediately.  The transitions made between different periods in her life felt fluid, and Atkinson’s prose has such command, as well as a wonderful tone.  Each era is deftly set, and characters seem to spring to life against the wonderfully crafted backgrounds.  There is such intrigue throughout, and the plot twists have been carefully placed; some of them I did not see coming at all.  A variety of literary devices and changes of scene throughout keep everything moving along nicely, and help to sustain both interest and surprise.

Transcription is, as I expected, an immensely readable and wonderfully written novel, which feels realistic from the start.  Atkinson’s writing is controlled, and humour is thrown in at just the right moments.  I found Transcription transporting.  The bulk of its action takes place during wartime, as I expected, but each time period really comes to life.  As in all of Atkinson’s work, this is a novel which has an awful lot to say, and which explores many different themes through its central character.  There are elements of the coming-of-age novel, as well as the thriller.  Transcription is both plot and character-driven, and the balance between the two is perfect.  Gripping and well tied together, I absolutely loved this novel of espionage, and can’t wait to read Atkinson’s next standalone.

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‘Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves’ by Rachel Malik ****

I have wanted to read Rachel Malik’s debut novel, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, since its 2017 publication.  I have seen relatively few reviews of the book, but my interest was piqued by the praise on its cover.  Penelope Lively calls it ‘a skilful recreation of a time and a climate of mind, enriched by persuasive period detail’, and Elizabeth Buchan says that it is ‘quietly gripping and intriguing’.  The novel is loosely based upon the life of the author’s grandmother, who left her family home and three children to become a Land Girl during the Second World War.

9780241976098The protagonists of the piece are two women, Rene Hargreaves and Elsie Boston.  Rene is billeted to the rural Starlight Farm in Berkshire, far from her home in Manchester, in the summer of 1940.  At first, she finds Elsie ‘and her country ways’ decidedly odd.  However, once the women come to know one another, a mutual understanding and dependence is formed.  Their life with one another is quiet, almost idyllic, until the peace is shattered by the arrival on Starlight Farm of someone from Rene’s past.  At this point, they face trials which endanger everything which they have built, ‘a life that has always kept others at a careful distance.’

The prologue, in which the figure of a solitary woman standing at a window is captured, is beautifully sculpted, and sets the tone of the rest of the novel.  Malik writes: ‘Closer, and you would see that she is waiting.  There is something of that slightly fidgety intensity, that unwilling patience.  A good deal of her life has been spent waiting, one way and another. She’ll carry on waiting, but from today the waiting will be different.’  Chapter one then opens with Elsie’s preparations for her new guest, and Rene’s journey.

Elsie has been alone in her familial home for some time; her parents and three brothers ‘died such a long time ago’, and her sisters have variously married and moved away.  The arrival of the Land Girl fills her with dread and uncertainty: ‘She was seeing everything double and she didn’t like it, it put her all at sea.  She pulled off her scarf and and rubbed her hands through her hair, trying to clear her thoughts.’  When Rene arrives, her first impressions of the place leave her a little doubtful too: ‘She found it hard to imagine a woman, or a man, living here on their own.  It seemed a little strange.  Yet she liked the soft red brick of the house, and the orchard with its shrunken fruit trees.’  Interesting dynamics are apparent between the protagonists as soon as they have become acquainted: ‘Rene found herself thinking back to that first afternoon.  She had offered her hand to Elsie, and Elsie had reached out hers but it wasn’t a greeting – Elsie had reached out as if she were trapped and needed to be pulled out, pulled free.’

As time goes on, and their anxiety settles, Malik writes of the women’s growing relationship with one another: ‘Elsie wasn’t quite like other people, but that didn’t matter to Rene.  Elsie, who had been to the pictures only twice, so long ago, and hated it; Elsie, who didn’t know how to gossip, who had never been to a dance or ever seen the sea; none of it mattered to Rene one bit, because she had fallen hook, line and sinker for Elsie’s lonely power.’  The friendship between Rene and Elsie grows quickly; they come to reveal things about themselves in embarrassment at first, and then with real feeling.  Both characters are unusual and believable.

Throughout, I enjoyed Malik’s writing; in the early few chapters, many of the gloriously structured sentences are filled with curious information about her characters.  I really liked the gentle way in which she introduced new topics into the story, particularly when these connected with the problems in the wider world.  She writes, for instance: ‘As is common when fates are being decided, the two women had no sense of gathering storm clouds.’  The sense of place which Malik crafts, and the way in which this has been woven throughout the novel, feels almost like a point of anchorage: ‘Elsie had known the canal all her life.  It was already falling into disrepair when the Bostons came to Starlight.  Now, for long stretches, the canal was a memory, an imprint: some overhanging branches where shape suggested a curve below, a patch of bricked walkway of a sudden uneasy flatness in the view ahead; Rene could pick out the weeping willows. And then you came upon the soft red curve of a broken bridge, a sudden hole-punched hole of black water, visible only for a moment.’  Malik’s authorial touch is gentle at times, and firm at moments of crisis; there is a lovely balance struck between the two.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a novel which has a quiet power.  A few reviews have mentioned that it starts almost too slowly, but I did not personally feel that this was the case.  Malik simply takes a great deal of care in setting her scenes and building the complex relationships between her main characters.  I found Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves a lovely, thoughtful, and immersive novel.  It is not a happy book, and it took a series of turns which I was not expecting, but this made it all the more compelling.

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‘As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War’ by Emma Smith ***

I had read two of Emma Smith’s books – one written for adults (The Far Cry) and the other for children (No Way of Telling) – prior to picking up one of her memoirs.  Whilst As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War (2013) is not chronologically the first of her autobiographical works, it highly interested me, and was also available in my local library.

9781408835630Elspeth Hallsmith, as Emma Smith was born, moves with her family from Newquay in Cornwall to a Devonshire village named Crapstone.  Soon afterwards, her father suffers a nervous breakdown, and the family are left to deal with the far-reaching consequences.  There is also the outbreak of the Second World War to contend with, and Smith’s crisis that she has no idea how to help the war effort.  Her elder sister joins the WAAF, and her brother enlists with the RAF after a period of flirting with pacifism.  At this point, Smith is only sixteen years old.  She goes to secretarial college, which ‘equips her for a job with MI5’, but which she finds stuffy and dull.  She ‘yearns for fresh air and joins the crew of a canal boat carrying much-needed cargoes on Britain’s waterways.’  After the war ends, and her freedom is returned to her, Smith travels to India, moves to Chelsea in London, falls in and out of love, and writes, of course.

Smith has used a structure of short vignettes, which follow particular episodes in her life – for instance, travelling to London to be a bridesmaid; making a best friend at school; horseriding; playing sports; dancing classes; being left behind when her sister grows up and begins to study at art college; her father’s bad temper and fits of rage; and the longing which she often has to be alone.  When her family move to Devon, Smith describes her delight at being able to attend a ‘proper school’ with her sister, which comes with a uniform requirement: ‘And the fictitious girls in such Angela Brazil novels as I succeeded in borrowing from Boots’ Lending Library – they too wore gymslips on the illustrations I pored over, and now I shall be able to feel I am the same as those heroines.’

Of her father’s breakdown, she reflects: ‘Almost the worst part of the anguish is the sense of there being nobody I can share it with.  I don’t know how much the Twins are troubled, or indeed if they are troubled at all, by the blight that has fallen on our family.  I don’t know what either of them is thinking.  Pam has become uncommunicative, barely exchanging a sentence with me; Jim has deserted to the group of his cheerful friends… and Harvey – Harvey is only six.  I put my arms around him, hugging him tightly for comfort – my comfort, not his.  He wriggles free.’

In Smith’s fiction, I have been struck by her narrative voice, and I imagined that I would be here too.  Whilst some of her writing is certainly lovely, and sometimes revealing, other parts are comparatively simplistic.  There was no real consistency here.  I did feel at times as though Smith was holding back somewhat.  There was a sense of unexpected detachment in As Green As Grass, and it did not always feel as though there was sufficient explanation as to the many characters which flit in and out of its pages.

I also found it a little strange that Smith had largely employed the present tense with which to set out her memories.  Whilst As Green As Grass is certainly readable, and Smith’s voice is warm and engaging, I must admit that I was a little put off by the use of present tense, which made the whole seem imagined and exaggerated rather than truthful.  Had Smith approached this memoir from the perspective of herself as an adult looking back, I’m almost certain that I would have enjoyed it more.

Smith’s work is highly praised, but does not appear to be widely read, which is a real shame.  Whilst there were elements of As Green As Grass that I wasn’t overly keen on, I found it interesting overall.  However, I must say that As Green As Grass was not quite the book which I had hoped it would be, and I was made to feel a little uncomfortable by some of the antiquated and racist language which she uses – ‘native-born Indians’, for example.

Whilst As Green As Grass is by no means amongst the best war memoirs which I have read, I did enjoy the recollections of Smith’s childhood and teenage years.  The parts on the canal boat, which I expected to really enjoy and get a lot out of, were quite repetitive.  To date, I have enjoyed her fiction more, but I’m still relatively keen to pick up another of her memoirs; I am particularly intrigued by her recollections of her Cornish childhood in Great Western Beach.

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‘Avenging Angels: Soviet Women Snipers on the Eastern Front (1941-45)’ by Lyuba Vinogradova ***

As anyone who knows me only vaguely will be aware, I am absolutely fascinated by anything to do with Russia, and am particularly keen on Russian history.  I was therefore most intrigued by Lyuba Vinogradova’s Avenging Angels, which features many different accounts of women who worked as snipers for the Russian Army during the Second World War.  The book has been translated from its original Russian by Arch Tait, and features an introduction written by Anna Reid.  First published in 2017, Avenging Angels is the author’s third book.  It is supposed to act as a companion volume to Vinogradova’s Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler’s Aces, but I do not feel as though reading one before the other is necessary; this book does not even reference the author’s previous work.

9780857051998The Irish Independent calls the book ‘a powerful and moving account of women rising up to take arms, free their country – and, paradoxically, assert their common humanity.’  The Times believes it to be ‘well-written, engaging and enlightening’.  Certainly, the existence of such a tome is invaluable, reflecting as it does the huge war effort which the Soviet Union made during the 1940s.  In her introduction, Reid cites: ‘The Soviet Union sent more women into combat during the Second World War than any other nation before or since.’

The women who were trained as snipers ‘came from every corner of the U.S.S.R. – factory workers, domestic servants, teachers and clerks, and few were older than twenty.  With their country on its knees, and millions of its mean already dead, grievously wounded or in captivity, from 1942 onwards thousands of Soviet women were trained as snipers.’  Indeed, the estimated figures of the numbers of Soviet women who worked in some capacity for the war effort are astonishing, ranging between 579,000-800,000 serving in the Red Army, and rising to over a million when one considers female partisans, volunteers, and civilian militias.  Many women began by taking jobs in factories, or in the realm of civil defence.  After the ‘full-scale conscription of women into the military’ began in March 1942, women became ‘fully integrated into all services.’  Those who chose to bear arms were a ‘substantial minority’, writes Reid.

Many countries were sceptical about the women’s role in the war effort, but in Russia, a positive consequence of Communist rule was that everyone was, essentially, viewed as equals.  Vinogradova writes: ‘… it did not see strange to anyone that an extensive mobilisation of women for the army should take place.’  Russia’s women snipers were so numerous that they formed many platoons, consisting of around thirty individuals each.  They were subsequently sent to ‘accompany regular units’ on the battlefield.

Here, the focus of the book is on the ‘interviews with women who took on some of the war’s most high-profile combat roles – as fighter and bomber pilots, and as snipers.’  Vinogradova assert that it is not her attention ‘to assess their contribution to the war effort, nor to Soviet gender politics, but to capture their individual stories, the particular lived experiences that are left out of conventional’ history writing about wartime.  She goes on to say of the women she interviewed: ‘My heart went out to them, I pitied them in their old age and infirmity, but all the while I was listening out for an answer to one particular question: were they tormented by the thought of the lives they had taken?’  As well as the interviews which she herself conducts, Vinogradova also includes fragments of letters and diaries, which add depth to the whole.

Vinogradova discusses at points how Russia was viewed by the wider world during the Second World War, which I found fascinating.  She tells us: ‘Russia, which until very recently had been considered a rogue state, a secretive, backward, aggressive colossus that had made a pact with the Germans and attacked neighbouring countries in order to seize territory, was now being viewed quite differently.  It was a land desperately fighting a powerful and ruthless aggressor…  Russia was on everybody’s mind and many families identified closely with the victories of the Red Army.’

The stories of so many women have been factored into Avenging Angels.  Sadly, whilst some are rather in-depth studies of what the entire war was like for a particular woman, others are mentioned only once, or take up just one or two paragraphs.  This created a feeling of imbalance in the book.  Clearly though, the author is both passionate and understanding toward them, and whilst she occasionally poses questions about the effects which war, and seeing friends and comrades killed, must have had on the young women, she never appears judgemental of their choices.

I found parts of Avenging Angels fascinating, particularly with regard to the rigorous training which Vinogradova details: ‘In the barracks there was theory, which included ballistics and the characteristics of their equipment.  The girls spent a lot of tim outdoors, whatever the weather.  They were taught to dig different types of foxholes, to camouflage themselves and sit for long periods (as they might ahead of an ambush), to navigate terrain and crawl…  There were lessons in the additional skills needed for sniping: observation and the ability to commit the details of the landscape around them to memory, sharpness of vision and keeping one’s hands steady.  They were also taught unarmed combat techniques and how to throw a hand grenade.’

Of course, inevitable comparisons will be drawn between Vinogradova’s book and The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich.  I read Alexievich’s quite masterful work several months before picking up Vinogradova’s, and must say that I enjoyed it far more.  I felt that Alexievich’s work was better structured and more linear in its approach, which made a real difference in the reading experience.

I found Avenging Angels rather muddled at times; individuals were focused upon in one paragraph, and then Vinogradova switched very quickly to giving a barrage of facts about the general state of the war, only to come back to the individual again a while later.  This approach meant that reading Avenging Angels was a little jarring.  I also do not feel as though the introduction added anything to the volume.  Reid seemed to repeat chunks of what was in Vinogradova’s narrative, sometimes quoting figures and phrases verbatim.

I feel as though Avenging Angels would have been far more successful had it been set out in a different way, perhaps using each woman as a kind of case study, where everything about them could have been set out in one place.  This would have made it far less confusing, particularly as Vinogradova has a habit of referring to a woman she has mentioned once or twice by only her first name later on in the book.  The sheer number of women included here is staggering; it perhaps might have been better had Vinogradova paid attention to just a handful of them instead.  Another qualm is the quite odd way in which the author often introduces the woman in question; she almost always begins with the ‘good and bad’ points of a woman’s physical appearance, which, of course, has no bearing on her experience or ability as a sniper, and thus seemed rather redundant.

As I was reading, I was constantly aware, too, that Avenging Angels is a translated book; some of the phrasing is odd, or clumsy.  There are also occasional slips from the past to the present tense, which added to this.  My feeling is that the translator could have done more in order to make the work a more fluid, and therefore less confusing, piece.

It took a while, certainly, for me to get used to what felt like quite a haphazard approach in places, but I did find that it became a more immersive book as I continued to read.  To conclude, Avenging Angels is a fascinating and very worthy research topic, but it has been flawed in its execution.  Its epilogue also ends very abruptly, and seems to cut off with no real conclusion.  This made it feel somewhat as though the book had been rushed, which was a real shame, and which did, along with the other elements which I have pointed out in my review, dull my enjoyment levels.

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One From the Archive: ‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli ****

First published in 2013.

Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter is heralded as ‘a miniature masterpiece’ in its blurb, and tells ‘the story of three soldiers who capture a Jewish prisoner and face a chilling choice.’  It was first published in France in 2012, and has been translated from its original French by Sam Taylor, recent translator of Laurent Binet’s excellent novel HHhH.  It is Mingarelli’s first work to appear in English.

A Meal in Winter is set during the Second World War in the depths of the Polish countryside.  It begins in the following way: ‘They had rung the iron gong outside and it was still echoing, at first for real in the courtyard, and then, for a longer time, inside our heads’.  The entirety of the novella is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed German narrator.

‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli

Three soldiers, including the narrator, are sent out on a mission at dawn, ‘before the first shootings’.  Their mission is to capture a Jew and take him back to their base, where he or she will be dealt with.  The narrator’s fellow soldiers are named Bauer and Emmerich, the only two protagonists in the novella to have been given names.  The entire novella has been split into quite short chapters, and is quite simple in its prose style, which contrasts rather chillingly at times with the futility which it presents.  It is tinged throughout with memories from the pre-war past of the soldiers, as well as strange foreshadowings of the future.

In the story, the soldiers find a tiny hidden dwelling in the countryside, spotting a ‘chimney which was barely raised above the ground’.  A man emerges from the depths: ‘We didn’t see anything in his eyes either – no fear, no despair…  All we could see of his face were his eyes…  They were ringed with dirt and fatigue, but not enough to hide his youth.  Despite the tiredness they showed, they still shone with life’.  This man is referred to from this point onwards as ‘the Jew’.  This, and other elements within the novella, are harrowing in terms of the impersonal way in which Jews were viewed by the German soldiers: ‘We were no longer allowed to kill them when we found them, unless an officer was present to vouch for the fact.  These days, we had to bring them back’.  The narrator goes on to say, ‘We’d only caught one, but he smelt bad enough for ten’.

Whilst walking in the countryside with the Jew in tow, the men find a closed-up house and break in.  They begin to burn the furniture in order to warm up and cook a meal – a soup which is savoured.  Mingarelli’s setting has been developed well, and some of the scenes which he has crafted are incredibly vivid.  It feels as though he has broken the constraints of the narrowed view that all German soldiers viewed Jews with scorn, and has included some shreds of compassion for the prisoner, however small.  In this way, Mingarelli demonstrates both the good and evil which wartime situations can produce.  A Meal in Winter is most interesting with respect to the ways in which the language barrier causes them to communicate using different methods.  Mingarelli has crafted a novella which is very dark in places, and is quite unsettling in the foreboding which it builds.

4

‘The Lost Garden’ by Helen Humphreys *****

I had read and enjoyed two of Helen Humphreys’ books prior to picking up her quiet masterpiece, The Lost Garden.  This short novel, which is set in Devon in early 1941, is described variously as ‘a haunting story of love in a time of war’, and ‘both heartrending and heart-mending’.    In 1941, Humphreys writes, ‘the war seems endless and, perhaps, hopeless.’  The focus of her third novel is to explore the effects of war upon the population on the Home Front.

9780393324914The protagonist and narrator of the novel, Gwen Davies, is a horticulturalist.  She has moved from her London home, where she has been studying the effects of disease upon parsnips for the Royal Horticultural Society, in order to escape the Blitz.  She has volunteered for the Women’s Land Army, and finds herself travelling to a country estate named Mosel in a remote part of Devon, in order to lead a team of women gardeners.  Also billeted on the estate are a regiment of Canadian soldiers, who are awaiting orders to travel to the Front.  Of course, the paths of the women cross with various soldiers, but, says the blurb, ‘no one will be more changed by the stay than Gwen.  She falls in love with a soldier, finds her first deep friendship, and brings a hidden garden, created for a great love, back to life.’

From the first, Gwen is a fascinating character.  She is described as ‘shy and solitary’, and finds it difficult to move from her previous existence as a quiet, almost isolated scientist, to having to guide the ‘disparate group of young women’ whom she finds herself in charge of.  I immediately came to understand her thought process, and warmed to her instantly: ‘What can I say about love?  You might see me sitting in this taxi, bound for Paddington Station – a thirty-five-year-old woman with plain features – and you would think that I could not know anything of love.  But I am leaving London because of love.’  Gwen is immediately likeable; she details that she takes hardly any articles of clothing with her on her trip, knowing that a uniform will await her, but says: ‘my books are so many that it looks as though I am on my way to open a small lending library.’  There is such depth to Gwen; her worries and perceptions make her feel so realistic.

From the outset, Humphreys’ prose is both luminous and mesmerising.  The novel opens: ‘We step into lamplight and evening opening around us.  This felt moment.  Our brief selves.  Stars a white lace above the courtyard.’  The descriptions of Gwen’s adopted London home are poignant, particularly with regard to the devastation which war has already wreaked at this point in time.   As she passes once familiar sights in a taxi, Gwen muses: ‘The wild, lovely clutter of London.  Small streets that twisted like vines.  Austere stone cathedrals.  The fast, muddy muscle of the Thames, holding the city apart from itself…  I have stood beside the Thames and felt it there, twining beneath my feet like a root.’

As in her novel Coventry, Humphreys sparingly captures the atrocities of war, and the changing face of the city: ‘Houses became holes.  Solids became spaces.  Anything can disappear overnight.’  Humphreys’ writing is very human, particularly when she articulates the displacement which Gwen feels, with all of the sudden changes, and with such volatility around her: ‘I do not know how to reconcile myself to useless random death.  I do not know how to assimilate this much brutal change, or how to relearn this landscape that was once so familiar to me and is now different every day.  I cannot find my way back to my life when all my known landmarks are being removed.’

Juxtapositions quickly come into play when Gwen explores the peaceful Devon garden, which has been left uncared for for many years.  On her first foray into the garden, she observes: ‘There is the cheerful song of a bird in a tree by the garden well.  When was the last time I heard a bird in London?  Here, the war seems not to exist at all…  Was there a wold like this before the war?  A quiet world.  A slow garden.’  The descriptions continue in this sensual manner; for instance, Gwen touches, smells, and tastes the earth of the garden, whilst observing its red colour.

The Lost Garden has been well built, both culturally and socially.  On the day on which Gwen leaves London, for example, she spots a fellow train passenger’s newspaper, which has an article presuming that the missing author Virginia Woolf has been drowned in the River Ouse in Sussex.  We feel Gwen’s grief when her death is later announced – in fact, part of the novel reads like a love letter to Woolf – as well as her grief at the ways in which London has been lost to her.  The descriptions of war and loss here are often moving, as are those passages in which Gwen begins to come to terms with the war: ‘The thing with war is this – we cannot change ourselves enough to fit the shape of it.  We still want to dance and read.  We hang on to a domestic order.  Perhaps we hang on to it even more vigorously than before.’  Later, she says: ‘And I realize that we haven’t left our lives.  They have left us.  The known things in them.  The structure of our days.  All the bones of who we are have been removed from us.  We have been abandoned by the very facts of ourselves, by the soft weight of the old world.’

The Lost Garden is essentially a coming-of-age novel, with a protagonist a little older than one might expect to find in such a story.  There is a wisdom to Humphreys’ prose, and everything about it has been so well measured.  The story here feels simplistic on the face of it, but the writing is absolutely stunning, and I was immediately pulled in.  Gwen is an utterly realistic construct; she is flawed and unpredictable, and filled with a wealth of doubts and insecurities.  Other characters, too, are sharply defined, and have believable pasts which reflect upon their present lives.  The novel is gorgeously layered, and has been so well constructed.  The Lost Garden is a transporting novel, and one which I would urge everyone to read.

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3

‘Henrietta’s War’ by Joyce Dennys ****

I had wanted to read Joyce Dennys’ Henrietta’s War: Notes from the Home Front, 1939-1942 for such a long time before I finally got my hands on a copy.  I have seen many favourable reviews of it over the years, and am now adding my own into the mix.  The book’s blurb greatly praises Dennys, saying as it does: ‘Hundreds of small towns in England underwent dramas similar to those enjoyed or bravely borne by the citizens of this one…  But none of those other small towns sheltered an observer with such an eye for comedy, who was equally deft with pen and pencil.’

Henrietta’s War is a fictionalised series of wartime letters, which first appeared as a regular magazine feature in the United Kingdom, in the now defunct Sketch.  They were not published together until 1985 however, after Dennys uncovered them in a drawer during a particularly thorough spring clean.  She sought a publisher for them only after being urged to do so by her friends.

2509405There is a highly autobiographical element to these letters, and many similarities can be drawn between Dennys and Henrietta.  The blurb points out that Dennys ‘recreated’ a facsimile of herself here, but makes clear that the rest of the characters are pure inventions.  Not all of the letters have been collected together and published in this volume; rather, a selection has been made of the originals.  They have been placed chronologically, as one might expect, and span the period between the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, and the Christmas of 1941.

Henrietta’s War ‘purports to the wartime letters to a friend serving overseas, written by a doctor’s wife who lives in a seaside town’ named Budleigh Salterton in Devonshire.  The recipient is Robert, described as a ‘middle-aged colonel on the Western Front’, who has known Henrietta since both were small children.  The blurb describes the way in which: ‘The world she invented to counteract the glooms of wartime is a perfect one of dogs and gardens and tea parties, inhabited by bumbling vicars, retired colonels and fierce tweedy ladies who long for Hitler to land on their beach so they can give him what-for.’

The book’s blurb boasts that it is ‘as fresh as the day it was written’.  Certainly, the tone is chatty and amusing; Dennys’ series of accounts have such a warmth and affection to them, as well as an overriding intelligence.  There is such understanding here, too.  In the first letter, for instance, Henrietta writes: ‘I think there is a tendency in our generation to adopt a superior, know-all attitude towards this war just because we happen to have been through the last one, which the young must find maddening.’

One cannot help but draw comparisons between Henrietta’s War and E.M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady series, in terms of their general themes, standpoints, humour, and wartime settings.  As with The Provincial Lady, the trivial is often discussed in rather a lighthearted way – the wearing of trousers by fellow ‘slack-minded’ female villagers, for instance – alongside the more serious elements of living in wartime – her husband not wanting to be called up is one poignant example.  Asides are made even with such serious things; in this instance, Henrietta tells Robert that ‘we are expecting a shower of white feathers by every post.’  After the test of an air-raid warning, she writes: ‘I haven’t seen this place so gay since the Coronation.’  She later says, of the effect of the war upon her: ‘I find that I grow more and more absent-minded, and I blame the war.  We are so constantly urged to concentrate on keeping Bright, Brave and Confident, that it doesn’t give a woman a moment in which to realise that she hasn’t put on her skirt that morning, or that she is walking down the High Street in her bedroom slippers.’

Henrietta’s War proved to be the perfect holiday read; there is a seriousness to it, of course, given the wartime situation in which the characters have to cope, but it is filled with amusing anecdotes, and its tone is lighthearted enough to make the whole feel joyous.  Dennys’ accompanying illustrations are quite charming.  Stylistically, they have a humour all of their own.  Henrietta’s War is filled with character, and is highly entertaining from start to finish.

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‘Hannah Goslar Remembers: A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank’ by Hannah Goslar and Alison Leslie Gold ****

Hannah Goslar, a friend of Anne Frank’s and a survivor of the Holocaust, tells her story here in tandem with Alison Leslie Gold. The two met in Israel in 1993, where Goslar now lives, and Gold transcribed what Goslar told her. ‘We did the interviews in English,’ Gold writes, ‘which Hannah had learned as a schoolgirl over fifty years ago. Because I wanted the book to sound like Hannah, sometimes the style is a little cryptic.’  Hannah Goslar Remembers: A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank is, says its blurb, ‘a moving testimony to a girl who survived a terrible ordeal and another who did not.’ 9780747592242

This particular Holocaust memoir is very much aimed at younger readers; it presumes that one knows very little about the Holocaust in its introduction, or of Anne and her diary. The book uses an omniscient voice, in which Goslar herself appears as a character rather than a narrator. This narrative style sometimes verges on the simplistic.

The Goslar and Frank families, both of whom had moved from Germany during the Nazi Party’s rise to power in the late 1930s, were neighbours in Amsterdam for almost a decade, and became very close friends. The account which Goslar provides here begins in 1942, when she found out that the Franks had left their home. They did so under the guise of going to neutral, and therefore safe, Switzerland, and brought this up with various friends and neighbours before they went into hiding in the annexe of Otto Frank’s workplace.

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Anne Frank and Hannah Goslar, Amsterdam, May 1940

A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank feels, in tone and style, as though it would be the perfect accompaniment to the likes of Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and its sequels. It is a compelling memoir, filled with such sadness, but also a great deal of hope. Of course, it tells of Goslar’s own experiences more than it does Anne Frank’s; we learn about Goslar before, during, and after she and her family were transported to Westerbork, in Eastern Holland. Goslar later met up with Anne Frank again when both were moved to Bergen-Belsen, where Anne sadly died shortly before the camp’s liberation. A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank is moving, and gives an insightful portrait of a childhood friendship, and the war and persecution which tore it apart.