The Years by Annie Ernaux (tr. Alison L. Strayer)

Broad in scope, evocative in detail, The Years is the French writer Annie Ernaux’s dazzling collective autobiography, in which the cultural and social history of a generation is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. It is a hugely impressive work, drawing on photographs, personal memories, cultural references, political history and social trends, threading together the perspectives of an individual (Ernaux), a generation (those who grew up in the aftermath of WW2) and a nation (France).

The underlying narrative running through the text is based on the trajectory of Ernaux’s life, from 1940, her birth year, to the mid-2000s, not long before the book was first published in French. Interestingly Ernaux uses ‘she’ rather than ‘I’ when conveying her own personal experiences, almost as if she is observing herself from a distance while writing the book. The collective experiences, however, are conveyed through the use of ‘we’, reflecting the ideas and perspectives of Ernaux’s generation and social class.

In fact, the question of how best to approach this style of memoir is one that Ernaux grapples with in the book. This is not the usual kind of autobiography, designed to convey an individual’s life history, story or analysis of the self. Instead, Ernaux envisages ‘a kind of woman’s destiny’, a text that will portray the passage of time, both individually and collectively – the blending of the personal with the universal referred to above.

She would like to assemble these multiple images of herself, separate and discordant, thread them together with the story of her existence, starting with her birth during World War II up until the present day. Therefore, an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of the generation. (p. 169)

By applying this approach to The Years, Ernaux recognises that our lives and experiences are influenced by the broader political, social and cultural environments in which we find ourselves. Moreover, our personal values and beliefs are reflected in our stances on these external dynamics, highlighting the relationship between the internal and external.

Over the course of the book, Ernaux focuses on key timepoints in her life: birth, childhood, adolescence, a move to college, early marriage and motherhood, the separation and divorce from her husband at forty, her relationship with a much younger lover at the age of fifty-seven. Each of these snapshots in time is introduced through the description of a photograph or a video clip. It’s an engaging way to open each section, cleverly blending imagery with glimpses of the author’s personal experiences and inner thoughts. In the photo described here, Ernaux – who is nineteen at this point – is posing with her college classmates, the philosophy class at the Rouen Lycée.

She is in the second row, third from the left. It is difficult to see in her the girl with the provocative pose from the previous photo, taken scarcely two years earlier. She wears glasses again, and a ponytail from which a lock of hair escapes at the neck. Frizzy bangs do nothing to soften her serious demeanour. Her face bears no sign of the events of the summer before, the boy’s invasion of her being, as semi-defloration evinced by the bloodstained underwear hidden between some books in her cupboard. No sign, either, of her actions and movements after the event: walking the streets after school in hope of seeing him; returning to the young ladies’ residence and weeping. Spending hours on an essay topic and understanding nothing. (pp. 73–74)

Feminism, sex and the female body are prominent themes in the book, highlighting their importance to Ernaux and her generation. Ernaux was a teenager in the mid-1950s, a decade too early to fully benefit from the sexual revolution at this point. It was a time when parents monitored their daughters very closely, scrutinising their clothes, make-up, movements and relationships. For Ernaux and her contemporaries, ‘shame lay in wait at every turn’, while the need to conform to societal expirations limited their freedoms and experiences. Nevertheless, like any enterprising teenagers, they managed to evade these restrictions now again, immersing themselves in the culture of the moment.

But we outsmarted the surveillance and went to see The Girl in the Bikini and Tempest in the Flesh with Françoise Arnoul. We would have loved to resemble the film heroines, possess the freedom to behave as they did. But between the films and books, on the one hand, and the dictates of society on the other, lay a vast zone of prohibition and moral judgement. To identify with anything we saw in the films or the heroines was forbidden. (p. 50)

Cultural and technological references also feature heavily in the book, with Ernaux conveying a picture of post-war French life, a world of rapidly evolving technologies, cultural trends and consumer behaviour. In terms of approach, the following passage gives a feel for Ernaux’s style, characterised as it is by the fusion of elements from various aspects of her world.

There would be the SS France, the Caravelle jetliner and the Concorde, school until sixteen, centres of arts and culture, the Common Market, and, sooner or later peace in Algeria. There were new francs, scoubidou bracelets, flavoured yoghurt, milk in cartons, transistor radios. For the first time one could listen to music anywhere, whether one was lying on the beach with the radio next one’s head or walking down the street. The joy of the transistor was of an unknown species. One could be alone but not alone, and have at one’s command the noise and diversity of the world (p. 76)

As one might expect, historical and political events cast their shadows over the lived experience – developments such as the Algerian war, the protests of May 1968, the election of François Mitterrand, the rise of the far right, AIDS, 9/11, etc. etc. As the years go by, we continue to glimpse moments from Ernaux’s life as her two sons grow up, leave home, find partners and have children of their own. Towards the end, there is a noticeable sense of melancholy, a growing awareness perhaps on the part of Ernaux of her own mortality, as the time she has ahead of her inevitably decreases. Not for any pressing reason – it’s simply the natural passage of time.

In summary, The Years is an evocative meditation on the lives of a generation, a beautifully written text that highlights the impact of collective history on personal memories and experiences. A fascinating book best experienced in person – I’ve barely scratched the surface of it here.

The Years is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; personal copy.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

This slim, beautifully constructed novella is an exploration of solitude, a meditation on aloneness and the sense of isolation that can sometimes accompany it. The book – which Lahiri originally wrote in Italian and then translated into English – is narrated by an unnamed woman in her mid-forties, who lives in a European city, also nameless but almost certainly somewhere in Italy. There’s a vulnerability to this single woman, a fragility that gradually emerges as she goes about her days, moving from place to place through a sequence of brief vignettes.

The titles of these individual chapters mostly refer to various physical spaces – ‘On the Street’, ‘In the Piazza’, ‘At the Ticket Counter’, ‘By the Sea’ etc. Nevertheless, the novella is as much a reflection of the narrator’s emotional mindset as it is of her physical location. The Italian title Dove Mi Trove (‘where you find me’ or ‘where I find myself’), can be interpreted in two different but closely connected ways, encompassing the narrator’s situation physically and emotionally. While three chapters carry the title ‘In My Head’, explicitly referencing the narrator’s inner thoughts, this emotional dimension is detectible throughout the book, like a thread or undercurrent running through the text.

As we follow this woman around the city, we learn more about her life – things are gradually revealed as she reflects on her solitary existence, sometimes considering what might have been, avenues left unexplored or chances that were never taken.

Now and then on the streets of my neighbourhood I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with. He always looks happy to see me. He lives with a friend of mine, and they have two children. Our relationship never goes beyond a longish chat on the sidewalk, a quick coffee together, perhaps a brief stroll in the same direction. He talks excitedly about his projects, he gesticulates, and at times as we’re walking our synchronized bodies, already quite close, discreetly overlap. (p. 5)

We learn about this woman’s childhood, the tensions that existed between her parents, the devastation she felt when her father died relatively suddenly some thirty years earlier – a loss that has left its mark on her life. While the narrator seems relatively comfortable with her solitary existence, knowing that she has chosen freedom and independence over a different type of path, there is a sense that she has disappointed her mother in some way – failing perhaps to live up to the traditional expectations of marriage and motherhood, the more expansive kind of life these experiences would have granted. Consequently, there is an unspoken sense of guilt or resignation in the narrator’s interactions with her mother – a somewhat oppressive elderly women who also lives alone.  

When I was young, even when my father was alive, she kept me close to her side, she never wanted us to be apart, not even briefly. She safeguarded me, she protected me from solitude as if it were a nightmare, or a wasp. We were an unhealthy amalgam until I left to lead a life of my own. Was I the shield between her and her terror, was I the one who kept her from sinking into the abyss? Was it the fear of her fear that’s led me to a life like this? (pp. 29–30).

I love the way Lahiri uses this collection of fragments – there are around forty-five in total – to build up a picture of her narrator’s life, her emotional frame of mind and quotidian existence. As a result, we get the sense of a woman who is aware of her solitude – her aloneness – without feeling weighed down or oppressed by it. Someone who feels resigned to living a solitary life despite the odd regret or tinge of anxiety.

Occasionally, there are social situations she finds stressful – overwhelming, even – inducing a kind of claustrophobia alongside the feeling of exclusion. It’s a state that Lahiri eloquently captures in ‘By the Sea’, which features a celebratory dinner for the baptism of a colleague’s child – a situation that prompts the narrator to seek solace on the adjacent beach, complete with the sea in all its restless magnificence. At other times, however, she takes comfort from her sense of separateness when surrounded by others, sometimes forging unspoken connections with like-minded souls.

In ‘At My Home’, we see how protective she can be about her privacy and how violated she feels if someone invades it. When an old school friend and her new husband come to visit, the narrator finds the latter arrogant – a pompous, self-centred man who looks through the narrator’s bookshelves, eats all the best pastries and bemoans the untidy state of the city. Later, after the family’s departure, the narrator discovers that the couple’s toddler has drawn ‘a thin errant line’ in ballpoint pen on her white leather couch. It’s as if the visitors have left an indelible mark on the narrator’s privacy, a violation that proves impossible to erase or cover up. 

At heart, the protagonist is a people watcher, a consummate observer of others, often wondering about their lives, their current preoccupations and concerns, maybe even their desires. In one fragment, which appears towards the end of the novel, she sees a woman who seems to be very similar to herself – their clothes and body movements are virtually identical, mirroring one another in a ghostly sort of way. Who is this other woman? she wonders. An alter ego, perhaps? A more purposeful or determined version of herself? A figure with ‘a sprightly step’ who ‘clearly knows where she is going’.

Has she always lived here, like me? Or is she just visiting? If so, why? Is she meeting someone? Is it something for work? Is she going to visit her grandmother, a woman in a wheelchair who can no longer come downstairs and sit in the piazza? Is she a woman with millions of things to do? Is she anxious or carefree? Married or alone? Is she going to ring the buzzer of a friend of hers? A lover? (p. 151)

It’s a passage that feels indicative of the slightly elusive nature of this central figure, conveying the air of mystery or privacy that surrounds her existence.

There is a luminosity to these vignettes, a beautiful dreamlike quality that runs through the text. Lahiri’s prose is precise, poetic and pared-back, a style that feels perfectly in tune with the narrator’s world. This is a quietly reflective novella, the sort of book that benefits from close attention and the focus of a single-sitting reading. I’d love to see it on the longlist for the International Booker Prize, which will be announced next March.

Whereabouts is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy.

Quicksand by Nella Larsen  

The American writer Nella Larsen was born in Chicago in the 1890s, the daughter of a Danish mother and a West Indian father. Her 1928 novella, Quicksand – inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – features a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world.

As the novella opens, Larsen’s protagonist, Helga Crane, is teaching at Naxos, a boarding school for black girls in the South. Helga has no real family to speak of, her Danish mother having died when she was a teenager, while her West Indian father is no longer on the scene. Right from the very start, it’s clear that Helga feels out of place in her surroundings, ill at ease in her own skin and with her position in society. Part white and part black, Helga is not entirely comfortable in either of these two racial groups, a situation that leaves her feeling stranded in a kind of hinterland or liminal space.

She could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity. (p. 7)

Her engagement to James Vayle, a fellow teacher at Naxos, is also a source of tension, especially for James’ family, who view Helga’s background and uncertain ancestry as undesirable complications.

Early in the book, Helga decides to leave Naxos (and James) because she feels uncomfortable with the institution’s ‘uplift’ philosophy which she views as hypocritical. Essentially the school’s belief that black people should try to fit into society by mirroring their white counterparts imposes limits on diversity and individuality – difficulties that Helga can see even if others around her cannot. As a consequence of her fundamental discomfort at Naxos, Helga quits her job at the school and travels to Chicago, where she hopes to find another role.

In Chicago, a long and fruitless search for a job ensues, hampered by Helga’s lack of references or personal sponsors. Nevertheless, just when things are looking particularly desperate, Helga manages to secure a temporary job as an assistant to a travelling female lecturer. It’s a role that opens doors for Helga, bringing her to New York, where she is introduced to Anne Grey, a well-connected, financially independent black woman who offers her a home.

For a while at least, Helga feels settled in Harlem. Her days are occupied by a secretarial role at an insurance company, while her nights are spent at parties and the theatre, activities that appear to blot out the isolation of her previous existence.

For her this Harlem was enough. Of that white world, so distant, so near, she asked only indifference. No, not at all did she crave, from those pale and powerful people, awareness. Sinister folk, she considered them, who had stolen her birthright. Their past contribution to her life, which had been but shame and grief, she had hidden away from brown folk in a locked closet, “never,” she told herself, “to be reopened.” (p. 45)

Larsen, however, remains alert to the hypocrisies that exist in this sector of society, primarily through the character of Anne Grey. While Anne models her life on the refined culture of white society and campaigns for racial equality, she also believes that integration between the two races is indecent – something to be discouraged for its transgressive associations.

After a year or so in Harlem, the glow begins to fade. Restlessness sets in, leaving Helga feeling isolated and estranged from those around her, particularly Anne with her inherent inconsistencies. As a consequence, Helga decides to travels to Denmark in the hope of reconnecting with her Aunt Katerina, whom she recalls fondly from her childhood.

I found this section of the book particularly distressing to read because of the way Helga is treated by Katerina and her husband, Herr Dahl. While Katerina seems welcoming and well-meaning on the surface, in truth she is intent on parading Helga around as if she is some kind of pet – an exotic curiosity to be stared at and admired for her distinctive appearance and otherness.

Helga herself felt like nothing so much as some new and strange species of pet dog being proudly exhibited. Everyone was very polite and very friendly, but she felt the massed curiosity and interest, so discreetly hidden under the polite greetings. The very atmosphere was tense with it. (p. 70)

She liked the compliments in the men’s eyes as they bent over her hand. She liked the subtle half-understood flattery of her dinner partners. The women too were kind, feeling no need for jealousy. To them this girl, this Helga Crane, this mysterious niece of the Dahls, was not to be reckoned seriously in their scheme of things. True, she was attractive, unusual, in an exotic, almost savage way, but she wasn’t one of them. She didn’t at all count. (p. 70)

This fetishisation of black culture and individuals remains a problem in modern-day society, so it’s fascinating to read a novel from the 1920s that highlights these issues so clearly. Nevertheless, while it’s refreshing to see these subjects being explored by Larsen with insight and humanity, the novel also indicates how little has really changed. (I couldn’t help but be reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s 2013 novel, Americanah, in which a white woman’s well-meaning attempts to establish a connection with a young black woman – a potential employee named Ifemelu – come across as misguided and patronising.)

The Dahls persist in dressing Helga in glamorous, eye-catching clothes, clearly designed to attract attention – a practice that Larsen uses to highlight issues of objectification and the white male gaze. Interestingly (and somewhat disturbingly), the previous quote also makes it clear that Danish women do not consider Helga a personal threat despite her natural beauty. To them, she is an outsider with limited status or agency, easily dismissed as an exotic curio or ‘peacock’ without being allowed to enter their society.  

In the final section of the narrative, Helga changes direction again, which chimes with Larsen’s use of ‘Quicksand’ as the novella’s title. It’s a powerful ending that feels somewhat surprising yet also sadly inevitable in a tragic kind of way.

Larsen manages to pack quite a lot into this slim novella. Alongside the central themes relating to race and segregation in society, the author touches on identity, female desire, religion, poverty, objectification and self-loathing. Ultimately though, there is an air of tragedy surrounding Helga as she struggles to find a sense of belonging in this highly segregated society, where her mixed-race ancestry creates barriers to self-expression and emotional fulfilment. She is a complicated character who frequently adopts a self-sufficient, standoffish manner to repel those around her. In essence, this is a protective mask, something she learned to embrace from a young age as a way of guarding her inherently sensitive nature.

There is a richness to Larsen’s prose at times, drawing on the use of colour and evocative descriptions to help bring Helga’s story to life. As a result, there are some wonderful descriptive passages in this striking, thought-provoking book – a text that remains highly relevant today. (I’ve yet to read Passing, Larsen’s companion novel, but hope to do so before Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation is released.)

Quicksand and Passing are published by Serpent’s Tail; my thanks to the publishers and Independent Alliance for a reading copy.

Guilty Creatures, a Menagerie of Mysteries – Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton and many more

It’s always a joy to receive one of the latest British Library Crime Classics releases through the post, and this clever anthology of short stories, Guilty Creatures – a Menagerie of Mysteries, is no exception to the rule. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.) Included here are fourteen vintage mysteries, each featuring an animal, bird or invertebrate of some description as an integral component in the case. As Martin Edwards notes in his introduction:

Animals play an extraordinarily wide variety of roles in crime stories. They may be victims, witnesses, even detectives. (p. 8)

Moreover, they can also provide – or indeed uncover – vital clues in the investigations, as illustrated by some of the best stories showcased here.

As ever with these anthologies, part of the joy of reading them comes from the mix of authors included, ranging from the well-known (Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton and Edgar Wallace) to the somewhat less familiar (Christianna Brand, Mary Fitt and Clifford Witting). Also of note is the seam of darkness running through this collection, with several of the stories channelling a rather sinister vibe not always associated with ‘cosy crime’ fiction from this era. It’s something that gives this anthology an interesting edge, very much in line with the predatory characteristics one might observe within the animal kingdom itself. On that ominous note, I’ll start with some of the gentler stories here and work my way up to the more ruthless end of the spectrum…

In Arthur Morrison’s The Case of Janissary – one of my favourites in the anthology – Janissary, a much-fancied horse, is the intended victim of a crime, destined to be ‘nobbled’ in advance of a key race to fix the outcome. The Redbury Stakes has attracted significant interest from the betting fraternity, with sizeable amounts of money riding on Janissary as the pre-race favourite. Needless to say, an attempt to sabotage the frontrunner is launched, only to culminate in a very interesting twist. This delightful story features Horace Dorrington, a Raffles-like scoundrel who combines investigation with crafty trickery in rather unexpected ways.

Mary Fitt’s The Man Who Shot Birds is another excellent story, a very clever puzzle involving a jackdaw, a valuable diamond star, a gold watch of sentimental value, and—of course—a man who shoots birds. This is my first encounter with Mary Fitt (aka the classical scholar Kathleen Freeman), but I’d be interested in reading more on the strength of this piece. A bird also features in F. Tennyson Jesse’s story, The Green Parrakeet, a sinister little tale in which the titular creature acts as a bit of a smokescreen for the true nature of a tragedy.

Headon Hill’s The Sapient Monkey is a lovely story involving a performing monkey, some banknotes and a case of false accusation – a charming little piece with a satisfying conclusion. Also very enjoyable is The Oracle of the Dog, one of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories from the early 1920s. In this tale, the term ‘armchair detective’ is particularly apt, with the investigator solving a seemingly impossible murder from the comfort of his own home. It appears that Colonel Druce has been stabbed to death with a stiletto-like implement while sitting alone in his summer house. The fact that several other people could see the garden at the time makes the incident appear all the more mysterious. This is a story in which the behaviour of the victim’s dog is crucial to the resolution, with actual doggy-like traits trumping any suggestions of a sixth sense.

Cats feature prominently in Clifford Witting’s domestic mystery, Hanging by a Hair. There is a touch of Patricia Highsmith (in the vein of A Suspension of Mercy)about this story, in which Arthur Marstead is caught between his critical, self-centred wife, and his timid yet clingy lover, Violet.

He walked towards the house, a tall man in the middle thirties, with a premature stoop, untidy hair, eyes peering through horn-rimmed spectacles, and a general area is absent-minded anxiety. He stepped into the room, to find that his wife had summoned him to close the windows because Rufus has sneezed in his sleep.

On Rufus were lavished the love and care that he himself should have enjoyed. He disliked Rufus—disliked him above all other cats except one, which was Tiggles, Violet’s blue Persian. With Rufus the antagonism with mutual and Rufus held aloof, but Tiggles—like Violet—maddened him with cloying attentions. (pp. 227–228)

When Violet is found dead, murdered with a spanner, suspicion falls on Arthur as the chief suspect – however, as with the Chesterton, the animals provide the solution here, leaving vital clues for the investigators to discover in this partly sinister, partly humorous domestic entanglement.

There are touches of humour and darkness too in Christianna Brand’s excellent story The Hornet’s Nest, in which Harold Caxton, a horrible little man, snuffs it during the wedding breakfast for his second marriage. 

Harold Caxton waited for no one. He gave a last loud trumpeting of his nose, stuffed away his handkerchief, picked up the spoon beside him and somewhat ostentatiously looked to see if it was clean, plunged spoon and fork into the peach, spinning in its syrup and scooping off a large chunk he slithered it into his mouth, stiffened—stared about him with a wild surmise—gave one gurgling roar of mingled rage and pain, turned first white, then purple, then an even more terrifying dingy dark red, and pitched forward across the table with his face in his plate. (p. 289)

This is a very clever mystery in which the finger of suspicion falls on each of the four main suspects with a link to Caxton: his new wife, Elizabeth; his adult son from his first marriage, Theo; his adult stepson, Bill; and his physician, Dr Ross. While hornets do not actually appear in this story, they are highly significant as a metaphor in this meticulously planned murder, providing inspiration for the solution to this case.

Finally, the most malevolent stories in the collection seem to feature invertebrates and reptiles. In The Man Who Hated Earthworms, a man must take drastic action to prevent a worldwide catastrophe, while in H. C. Bailey’s The Yellow Slugs, the titular creature provides a vital clue to some sinister goings-on. Perhaps the most brutal of all, though, is Garnett Radcliffe’s Pit of Screams, probably best avoided by anyone with an aversion to snakes!

In summary then, this is another fascinating anthology from the British Library Crime Classics series — definitely worth considering for its diversity of twisty stories, nicely linked together by an interesting theme.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

This is a lovely novel, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for – a throwback perhaps to simpler times. Its author, the English writer R. C. Sherriff – best known for the play Journey’s Endhad the idea for The Fortnight in September during a seaside holiday at Bognor:

I watched that endless stream of people and began to pick out families at random and imagine what their lives were like at home; what hopes and ambitions the fathers had; whether the mothers were proud of their children or disappointed in them; which of the children would succeed and which would go with the tide and come to nothing. (From Sherriff’s 1968 autobiography, No Leading Lady)

Consequently, Sherriff felt inspired to develop a story centred on one of these families by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual holiday at the seaside resort. On the surface, the premise seems simple, yet the apparent simplicity is part of the novel’s magic. It is a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life.

The novel is focused on the Stevens family, who we first see in their Dulwich home on the eve of the holiday. As we join the story, which takes place in the early 1930s, preparations are underway for the Stevens’ annual trip to the Seaview boarding house in Bognor, where the family has holidayed for the past twenty years. While Mr Stevens is looking forward to a fortnight away from the office, Mrs Stevens is secretly apprehensive about the trip, harbouring various worries about the journey and the holiday itself. In truth, Mrs Stevens finds it difficult to enjoy herself while away, preferring instead those quiet moments when she can be alone. Nevertheless, she realises the importance of the break for the rest of the family and is careful not to let her own reservations spoil everyone else’s fun.

Also anticipating the holiday are the Stevens’ children: nineteen-year-old Mary, a seamstress; seventeen-year-old, Dick, who has just started work as a clerk; and ten-year-old Ernie, an excitable boy who will not be separated from his toy yacht.

Interestingly, Sherriff devotes the first 100 pages of the novel to the family’s holiday preparations and train journey to Bognor; and while this might sound a little tedious in principle, these activities prove remarkably revealing, especially in terms of character. Mr Stevens is very well-organised, listing and allocating various tasks to individual family members, thereby maximising the chances of everything running smoothly. That said, there are moments of tension too, especially for Mrs Stevens, whose anxieties at the change of trains at the dreaded Clapham Junction prove quietly gripping.

“Plenty of time,” he said. “They’ve got to get the trunk out.”

Yes, thought Mrs. Stevens—but supposing they don’t get it out!

Mr. Stevens could see that his wife was agitated, and although far from being a selfish man, he could not help a little secret satisfaction. His own coolness would have been thrown away and wasted if she also had been cool. He saw the unspoken questions in her pale face : he saw her hands trembling, and he gave her a smile of encouragement and understanding. (p. 67)

On their arrival at Bognor, the Stevens make their way to their usual boarding house, ‘Seaview‘, which the recently widowed Mrs Huggett manages. In truth, Seaview is struggling to compete with the newer, more glamorous residential hotels with their fairy lights and entertainments. Nevertheless, to Mr and Mrs Stevens, this somewhat shabby boarding house is a home from home, familiar and comforting, despite its tawdry appearance and lack of excitement. Now the holiday can really begin in all its freedom and liberation!        

The early morning and yesterday evening, exciting though they had been, were shaded by those ominous little clouds that inevitably hang over the beginning of a holiday. The anxiety of leaving home : the burden of the luggage : the bogeys of Clapham Junction and the worries about seats—they were things of the past now : things to joke about—and ahead lay the holiday—basking under a clear, untroubled sky—stretching away to the far distant horizon of Sunday fortnight—so far away that you could scarcely measure its distance in terms of tightly packed minutes of sunlit days and starlit nights. (p. 99)

In one sense, very little happens during the fortnight away – the family bathe, play cricket on the beach, attend concerts etc. – and yet, on another level, there are fundamental developments and reflections taking place. For instance, a long walk on the Downs gives Mr Stevens time to contemplate his career, putting to bed earlier disappointments and setting himself straight for the year ahead. Dick, too, experiences a moment of clarity about his future when he finally identifies the cause of his unhappiness at work. On realising that his talents lie elsewhere, Dick vows to train as an architect, a role that he hopes will offer more fulfilment and satisfaction.

For Mary, the holiday brings a fleeting romance in the shape of Pat, a dashing actor in a touring theatrical group. It’s a welcome opportunity for Mary to spread her wings a little, to experience something of the adult world and the sense of anticipation such uncertainties can bring. Even Mrs Stevens finds a greater degree of contentment this year, a quiet hour every evening when she can be alone with her memories.

Her thoughts, when they came, could scarcely be termed thoughts in the strictest meaning of the word : they were memories really, mingled with the pleasant happenings of each passing day, flecked sometimes with stray chinks of light that crept in from the future. (p. 293)

While this is a gentle novel about the small things in life, there are moments of genuine tension or apprehension amid the undoubted quietness. Somehow Sherriff manages to make the most everyday occurrences seem quite suspenseful; for instance, the securing of a coveted beach hut with a balcony – something that could make or break the Stevens’ holiday – is invested with a degree of anxiety usually reserved for mysteries. And yet, somehow it works!

Alongside everything else, this is also a novel about the passing of time, the need to adapt as we grow and develop. For Dick and Mary, this might be the last time they holiday with the family as they find their own ways in the adult world. There may even come a time when for Mr and Mrs Stevens, the downsides of staying at Seaview outweigh their loyalty to Mrs Huggett, whose financial struggles are all too apparent.

In focusing on the minutiae of everyday life, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can invest in the characters’ inner lives. A gem of a book – very highly recommended, especially for lovers of quiet, contemplative fiction.

The Fortnight in September is published by Persephone Books; personal copy.

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

First published in 1931, Father has recently been reissued by the British Library as part of their excellent Women Writers series – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. While it isn’t as well-known as some of von Arnim’s other novels, there is much to enjoy here, not least the author’s skills in exploring the limitations of women’s lives with humour and compassion. In essence, it is a story of domestic tyranny revolving around two oppressive relationships – one between a thirty-three-year-old spinster and her dictatorial father, the other between a mild-mannered clergyman and his selfish older sister.  

The novel’s central character is Jennifer Dodge, who at thirty-three has devoted much of her adult life to keeping house for her widowed father, the successful writer Richard Dodge (referred to throughout as ‘Father’). In addition to her domestic duties, Jennifer also acts as Father’s unpaid secretary, diligently typing his manuscripts in their claustrophobic Gower Street home. Right from the very start of the novel, von Arnim leaves the reader in no doubt about the nature of Father and his attitudes towards his daughter. He is a selfish prig, content for Jennifer to pander to his every whim while simultaneously viewing her as something of a burden.  

It was her duty to make the best of herself, if only because his eyes so frequently were obliged to rest on her face. Besides, it was every woman’s duty to make the best of herself, and Jennifer’s not doing so no doubt accounted for the fact that she was still on his hands. Off those hands she ought, of course, to have been long ago; yet if some man had reft her from him before he was ready, as now, for her to go, it would have been extremely awkward, father knew; he couldn’t have run his house without her; his work would have suffered considerably; In fact he was unable to imagine what would have become of him. (p. 8)

When Father suddenly marries a much younger woman in secret, Jennifer sees an opportunity to escape from his clutches, envisioning a new life for herself in the freedom of the countryside. With Father and the nineteen-year-old Netta safely packed away on a month-long honeymoon, Jennifer travels to Sussex, determined to rent a cottage to establish her new life. There is a previous inheritance of £100 a year for Jennifer to live on – not much, granted, but just about enough if she is prudent and resourceful.

She was, she was sure, infinitely flexible, able to fit into the humblest little corner and enjoy herself in it, if only she could she be in it alone. Freedom, personal freedom, the right to be alone, was what she wanted, and what she now so miraculously had got; the power to behave naturally, to make one’s own arrangements, to decide (it seemed a little thing but was, she was certain, the whole difference between vigour and wilting) what one would do next. (p. 22)

After a farcical incident with a coat at the first prospective property, Jennifer strikes lucky at the second, securing a rather run-down cottage in Cherry Lidgate for a minimum of six months. The property is managed by the local vicar, twenty-seven-year-old James Ollier, whose older sister, Alice – also a spinster, but very different in mindset and temperament to the amiable Jennifer – is the other tyrannical character in the novel. While Jennifer sets about furnishing her new home, enjoying the freedom to do as she pleases, Alice starts to ponder the security of her own position. What if James were to develop a fondness for Jennifer? Where would that leave Alice, dependant as she is on her younger brother for a home?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, James and Jennifer do find comfort in one another’s company, each viewing the other as a kindred spirit of sorts. Consequently, Alice tries her best to monopolise her brother, spiriting him away to Switzerland on the pretence of a holiday – a trip that proves exasperating for James, strengthening his determination to forge a future with Jennifer.

As Simon Thomas highlights in his excellent afterword to the novel, both Jennifer and Alice are largely dependent on men for their livelihoods. While Jennifer is attempting to break free, her position remains somewhat precarious, especially once it transpires that Father expects her to live at home, despite his new marriage. Netta, it seems, is incapable of managing the household, leaving Father fearful of domestic chaos and disorder. Alice too is dependent on a man for her existence, although the power dynamics in this relationship are quite different to those between Jennifer and Father. Alice rules her brother with a rod of iron, dismissing him rather curtly with her regular cries of ‘bosh’. Nevertheless, despite her selfish, belittling tactics towards James, Alice realises that she would be exposed without him, reduced to a position lacking money, security and authority.

And quite apart from the fact that she owed her comfortable home and position, and her freedom from money cares to James, having ruled him since he was a baby he had now become necessary to her very existence—something to care for and to bully, to goad and to guard, something belonging to her, an object in life. What she would do without James, Alice, in her softer moments, couldn’t imagine. (p. 117)

Alongside the options for unmarried women, von Arnim explores other themes within the novel – freedom, selfishness, love and perhaps most importantly, the tension between individual desires and familial responsibility – all with her characteristic blend of insight and wit. There are some wonderfully farcical scenes here, particularly between James and Alice – a tussle over a basket of apricots seems to typify the tensions between the two siblings, signalling their opposing positions towards Jennifer’s presence in the cottage. Moreover, it is a testament to the author’s skills with character that even the most unlikeable individuals will elicit the reader’s sympathy – to some degree at least.

At heart, Father is a charming novel that uses wisdom, humour and playful ridicule to convey some of the challenges faced by unmarried women in the early 20th century. While understandable from a technical point of view, the ending feels a little too neat, but that’s a minor quibble in the scheme of things. It’s a delight to see it back in print.

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

The Cost of Living – a luminous meditation on marriage, womanhood, writing and reinvention – is the second part of Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ trilogy, which commenced in 2014 with Things I Don’t Want to Know. I’m not quite sure why I started with this middle volume, first published in 2018 – maybe its focus on a significant turning point in the author’s life particularly appealed. Whatever the reason, now that I’ve read Cost, my investment in the trilogy as a whole is well and truly sealed.

In essence, this fascinating memoir conveys Levy’s reflections on finding a new way to live following the breakdown of her marriage after twenty or so years. Levy is fifty at this point, and the book starts with her realisation that she no longer wishes to live with her husband, to be part of the traditional societal view of the woman as wife and mother – roles designated to women by a longstanding patriarchal society. But, to paraphrase Levy herself, why mortgage one’s life to someone else’s fear? It takes immense amounts of time, care and generosity to build a family home, to be the ‘architect of everyone else’s well-being’. However, when we no longer feel a sense of belonging in our family home, it is time to move on – to step out of the old story and invent a new one. 

It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it, had come to an end. Femininity, as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twenty-first century. What would it cost to step out of character and stop the story? (p. 85)

It was time to find new main characters with other talents. (p. 87)

Consequently, Levy and her two daughters move from their dark, well-furnished Victorian house to a small but airy flat in a dilapidated North London building with poor heating and darkly ominous communal corridors, which Levy ironically calls ‘The Corridors of Love’. Here, Levy begins a new phase of her life, sometimes writing at night on the tiny balcony amidst the silvery sky and stars.

We were living with the sky from dawn to dusk, its silver mists and moving clouds and shape-shifting moons. (p. 24)

Many of the author’s reflections are intensely personal, offering the reader an insight into the emotions they inevitably trigger. Levy writes movingly her mother’s death from cancer, a tragedy that occurs within a year of the breakdown of the author’s marriage. We hear something of the mother’s backstory, too – a bright, glamorous, resourceful individual who worked hard to keep the family together when Levy’s father, an anti-apartheid activist, was imprisoned in the 1960s for his political beliefs.

In many cases, it is the details that make Levy’s vignettes feel so vivid, often imparting a note of ironic humour amidst the undeniable poignancy. For instance, when her bag breaks, the chicken Levy has bought for dinner is run over by a car, leaving an indelible impression, both on the bird and on the reader’s mind. Each day, as her mother’s life is coming to an end, Levy diligently buys a particular brand of ice lolly (the only food her mother can consume) from a newsagent’s shop run by three Turkish brothers. During each visit to the shop, Levy clears the top of the brothers’ freezer of various assorted goods – mushrooms, shoe polish batteries etc. – to reach the treasured ice lollies, preferably the lime ones which her mother prefers. One day, however, the usual flavours have gone with only the bubblegum lollies remaining – a variety her mother subsequently rejects. The frustration Levy displays towards the Turkish brothers is both heartbreaking and wryly amusing – an entirely understandable outlet for the depth of her pain.

There are several brighter, more playful moments, too – like shards of light amidst the darkness of winter. For example, we learn how Adrian Mitchell’s eighty-year-old widow, Celia, offers Levy the use of her husband’s old shed as a writing retreat – a rather spartan habitat that Levy shares with her friend’s spare freezer. In relaying this and other stories, Levy has a wonderful ability to see the absurdity in day-to-day situations, frequently peppering her reflections with irony and self-deprecating humour.

Of course I wanted to instal a wood-burning stove in the shed (what was I to do with the freezer?) and live a romantic writer’s life – preferably Lord Byron’s life, writing poetry in a velvet smoking jacket, waiting for inspiration to ravish me as the fragrant wood crackled and popped, etc. (pp. 49–50)

Nevertheless, in spite of a few challenges, Celia’s shed proves to be a welcome refuge for Levy, enabling her to write with a new sense of liberty.

Reflections on various literary figures are threaded through the memoir, often entwined with Levy’s own thoughts on writing, womanhood and ways of living. Her artistic touchstones range far and wide from Emily Dickinson to Simone de Beauvoir to Margarite Duras. Duras feels particularly crucial in this context, offering inspiration on motherhood, our perceptions of ourselves and the general creative process.

Levy’s ideas on various social constructs form key elements of the text, particularly those on the perception (and suppression) of women in 21st-century society. She highlights how men often fail to mention a woman by name when referring to her in conversation, defining the woman by their relationship (e.g. my wife) or simply leaving her nameless, like spectral figure in the shadows. A chance encounter with a man at a party is particularly telling, signalling a lack of interest in women’s voices on the part of this writer whose specialism is military biographies. On introducing himself to Levy (who has only just arrived), this tall, silvered-haired author asks her to pass him a canapé – a request she shrewdly ignores while proceeding to change her shoes.    

He was tall and thin, possibly in his late sixties, and seemed to desire my company. He talked about his books for a while and how his wife (no name) was unwell at home. He did not ask me one single question, not even my name. It seemed that what he needed was a devoted, enchanting woman at his side to acquire his canapés for him and who understood that he was entirely the subject. (pp. 66–67)

Above all though, The Cost of Living is about discovering a new way to live – to move away from the life that someone else has imagined for us and embrace disruption as a means of reinvention. It is heartening to read of Levy whizzing around London on her e-bike – a sort of metaphor for liberation itself – navigating the challenges this break from marital security presents. Especially so when we see how wise and perceptive Levy is in her reflections on life – her honesty and unassuming nature really do come through.

This is an eloquent, poetic, beautifully structured meditation on so many things – not least, what should a woman be in contemporary society? How should she live?

The Cost of Living is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This is such a beautiful, evocative novella, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

The story takes place in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. Right from the start there is a particular ‘feel’ to the sister’s neighbourhood, a quietness and slower pace of life compared to the buzz of the inner city.

As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story emerges, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a hidden relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man named Marc Hermann, whom she met at her husband’s office. Very little seemed to happen between Claire Marie and Marc at the time – they met one another in secret a few times, mostly walking in the local parks and forests – and yet one senses a deep connection between them, despite the somewhat sinister edge.

She was almost sure that he was lying to her about a great many things, but she felt certain that he was alone and that his solitude was complete, so dense that she could perceive the space it occupied around him, and that solitude touched her heart. (p. 103)

At first, the story seems a relatively simple one; but as the narrative progresses, additional layers begin to emerge, enhancing the air of mystery surrounding these characters. There’s a sense of unspoken desire here, of missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. Both Jane Eyre and Chekhov are referenced in the novella, acting as touchstones for Barbéris’ story. Nevertheless, I don’t want to say too much about what developed between Claire Marie and Marc – in many respects, it’s probably best for readers to discover this for themselves.

What hopes, what expectations remained to her? What could still happen? Would the passing hours simply ‘wound’ her, one by one? (p. 74)

Barbéris excels in capturing the languid feel of a Sunday in the Parisian suburbs – the heaviness in the air; the dusky light as the afternoon slides into the evening; the appearance of raindrops on windows; the vivid colours of the trees with their autumn foliage.

Because the trees in the park were veterans planted long ago, they held up better. Their autumn foliage, with the shiny red, the buttercup yellow, the brilliant russet of certain varieties – exactly the same colour as the dried stems of the chrysanthemums people would leave in pots in cemeteries or decorate crossroads with – made patches of fantastic light when the shadows were settling in. (p. 60)

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is a haunting, dreamlike novella – intimate and hypnotic in style. There is a sense of time expanding and then contracting again as Claire Marie recounts her story, a tale that very much reflects her passive, indecisive personality. As the narrator returns home late on Sunday evening, we are almost left wondering whether the afternoon was a dream, with Claire Marie representing an alter-ego of sorts, another side to the narrator’s life. There is an otherworldly aspect to the Ville-d’Avray suburb, a dreamscape that gives the novella an enigmatic feel throughout. Either way, it’s an absorbing read, ideal for a lazy Sunday afternoon as the light begins to fade.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers and Independent Alliance for a reading copy. (I read this book for Biblibio’s #WITMonth event, which is running throughout August.)

Circles & Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists by Caroline Maclean

There seems to have been a mini trend towards the publication of group biographies over the past couple of years. Perhaps most notably Square Haunting, Francesca Wade’s luminous account of five fascinating women who found themselves living in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square during the first half of the 20th century. Wade’s biography is focused on two central aspects: a specific geographical area (the aforementioned Square) and a common theme (a quest for independent living and ‘a room one’s own’).

Like its Bloomsbury counterpart, Caroline Maclean’s group biography, Circles & Squares also zooms in on a particular area of London (in this instance, Hampstead) and a unifying theme (here it’s modernism). While Circles isn’t quite as eloquent as the Wade, it remains a fascinating read – not least for the array of modernist artists, architects and writers we encounter on the page.

The book is structured such that each chapter focuses on two or three individuals (typically featuring a romantically involved couple) working in a similar artistic space. So, in the opening chapters we have the sculptor Barbara Hepworth and the painters Ben and Winfred Nicholson, with other associated luminaries such as Henry Moore, Paul Nash and Walter Gropius following in subsequent sections.

Maclean opens in September 1931 with the coming together of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth during a fortnight’s holiday in Happisburgh, a small village on the Norfolk coast. It’s an engaging opening, capturing the carefree mood generated by the freedom to work, interspersed with swimming, dancing and playing games on the beach. Ben (married with three young children at this point) and Barbara (also married) fall in love, sparking a relationship that continues for the next eighteen years.  

One of the things Maclean does particularly well in Circles is to capture the fluidity of these artists’ lives, the sense of like-minded souls gravitating towards one another, irrespective of the collateral damage to marriages and other relationships. For Winifred, the breakdown of her marriage with Ben gives rise to conflicted feelings, painful at first, although these wax and wane somewhat over time. By contrast, Ben holds onto his own ‘subjective truth’ throughout, viewing himself as the centre of things and morally correct.

Winifred’s unhappiness is painfully apparent, and it is not surprising that she felt conflicted at times. Ben, on the other hand, believed that by staying true to his feelings, everyone else would be happy, eventually. A close friend described how they ‘thought they were freeing themselves’ from bourgeois constraints, and ‘they thought there was no such thing as jealousy’ but ‘it didn’t seem to work out that way’. (p. 24)

For a while, Ben shuttles between Barbara in Belsize Park and Winifred (in various locations), with both women showing considerable patience and grace during a very trying period. Eventually however, Ben and Barbara move in together, mostly settling in Belsize Park, although Paris also features heavily here. Triplets come along in 1934, cementing their relationship further, and the couple finally marry in 1938, less than a year before the start of WW2.

Meanwhile, in the early ‘30s, another modernist movement is beginning to take shape in Belsize Park, focusing on architecture as the enabler of a new way of living.

Designed by the architect Wells Coates, a modernist white block of flats that looked a bit like an ocean liner was built over the winter of 1933 and the spring of 1934. The Lawn Road flats, known as the Isokon, were built to free people from the clutter of daily life, to release them from household chores. They did not need to cook or clean so that they could focus on more important things like art, politics or love. (p. 51)

The Isokon building (which some of you may be familiar with) is born out of a vision developed by the charismatic architect Wells Coates and the forward-thinking engineer Jack Pritchard. It’s another fascinating development – not only for its contribution to the British modernist movement but also for its ambition to facilitate an alternative lifestyle. The Pritchards, perhaps more than any other couple in the book, display a nonconformist approach to living. Their marriage is an open one (with Coates actively involved in an affair with Jack’s wife, Molly); and their attitudes to child-rearing are equally, if not more, progressive.

Maclean is mindful of conveying the various tensions involved in the development of the Isokon, ranging from the multitude of financial issues to the more ideological or emotional ones. As the author rightly points out, there is a degree of irony here, nicely captured in the following quote.

There was an irony in the fact that Molly, Jack and Wells wanted to free people from the chaos of their lives when their own lives were far from simple. (p.76)

Subsequent chapters focus on other key players in the modernist movement, all of whom coalesce around Hampstead at some point in the 1930s, leading to some sharing of inspiration and ideas. For example, the sculptor Henry Moore and his wife, Irina – both of whom were present during the pivotal Happisburgh holiday in September 1931 – spend the 1930s living in Parkhill Road, Belsize Park, just around the corner from the Nicholsons. Other British artists and writers who feature prominently include Paul Nash, John Piper, W.H. Auden and Myfanwy Evans/Piper (editor of the abstract art magazine Axis). The rise and fall of various artistic movements are covered too – most notably Unit One, a group of sculptors, artists and architects looking to ‘bring together a diverse range of abstract modernism and surrealism’.

The tensions between the different facets of modernism that develop during the 1930s, particularly those pitting abstraction and surrealism, are also captured in the book. While Moore is something of a moderator, adopting an open-minded outlook on both schools of art, Ben Nicholson is highly singular in his approach, viewing abstraction as the only form of modernism worth supporting. (In reality, Nicholson wishes to ‘squash surrealism’; Moore, on the other hand, regards it as restoring a much-needed element of romanticism to art.)

It’s also interesting to note how many European émigrés in the modernist movement spend time in Hampstead during the decade in question. Architects such as Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of design, and Marcel Breuer, another Bauhaus leading light, also feature prominently – as do the artists Piet Mondrian and László Moholy-Nagy. 

In summary, then, Circles & Squares offers a fascinating insight into the bohemian world of modernism flourishing in Hampstead during this influential decade. By using Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth as focal points for her treatise, Maclean explores the lives of the various luminaries who find themselves in the couple’s orbit. As these artists, architects and designers continue to push the boundaries of modernism in their work, new ways of living begin to emerge, defining a movement that goes beyond the conventional boundaries of art and creativity. With the outbreak of WW2 fast approaching, the momentum behind the group begins to dissipate in the final years of the decade, leaving us to reflect on what might have been had the war not taken place…

Karen has also reviewed this book, and I’m in agreement with her on its relative strengths and limitations – in particular, the downsides of trying to focus on a wide range of individuals. In addition, a little more coverage of the actual art or architecture itself wouldn’t have gone amiss. For example, at one point, we get a tantalising glimpse of Barbara piercing a hole in an abstract sculpture of pink alabaster to make her legendary Pierced Form. It’s a ground-breaking move that transforms certain aspects of 20th-century sculpture, opening up the form ‘to involve interior space’ – and yet, artistic details such as this are relatively few and far between.

Nevertheless, Circles offers some fascinating insights into this dazzling period of cultural history – definitely worth reading if you’re a fan of the modernist movement. 

Circles & Squares is published by Bloomsbury; my thanks to Karen for passing on her review copy.

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Cusk’s latest novel, recently longlisted for the Booker Prize, is narrated by M, a female writer – probably in her late thirties or early forties, certainly at a pivotal point in her life. M and her husband, Tony (the strong, silent type), live amid a remote, rural landscape within touching distance of the marshlands – somewhere in France, I think. The couple’s land also includes another property, the titular ‘second place’ representing one interpretation of the novel’s title (but perhaps not the only meaning of the term). Having demolished the original building and rebuilt it brick by brick, M and Tony now see the second place as a creative retreat, the kind of setting where writers and artists can hopefully find inspiration while choosing to remain distanced, should they so desire. 

Early in the novel, it becomes clear that M wishes to invite a male artist, L, to spend time in the second place. While M has not met this artist in person before, she feels deeply drawn to his work. Some fifteen years earlier, a chance encounter with L’s paintings at a Paris exhibition catalysed a moment of revelation for M, prompting her to leave her first husband and father of her daughter, Justine – now in her early twenties and living at home.

I felt myself falling out of the frame I had lived in for years, the frame of human implication in a particular set of circumstances. From that moment, I ceased to be immersed in the story of my own life and became distinct from it. (pp. 12-13, Faber)

M writes to L, inviting him to spend some time at the retreat – and in time, following a few false starts, L accepts, suddenly confirming his arrival like a bolt from the blue. M’s hope seems to be two-fold: firstly, that L will be able to capture the essence of the marshlands, a place of ‘desolation, and solace and mystery’ (other artists have tried in the past without complete success); secondly, that L will unlock something at the centre of M’s soul, a recognition perhaps of her individuality.

However, when M and Tony go to collect L at the harbour, a surprise awaits. L has brought a companion with him, a beautiful young English woman named Brett, who immediately unsettles M with her barbed, penetrating comments and invasion of personal space. To M, Brett also represents a rival for L’s attentions / affections, particularly with her liberated attitude and ‘ravishing’ looks.

While L presents as self-centred and cushioned from the realities of the world, he also evokes a sense of mystery and allure. For the narrator, the presence of L (and Brett as an uninvited interloper) destabilises her existence, causing M to question some fundamental self-perceptions, most notably her self-control and usual ability to reign everything in. Yet, while the emotions M experiences are deeply unnerving, there is a recognition of some potential positives, too – the opening up of new possibilities, a new form of liberty, perhaps.  

But I had already understood that this was to be the keynote of my dealings with him, this balking of my will and of my vision of events, the wresting from me of control in the most intimate transactions, not by any deliberate act of sabotage on his part but by virtue of the simple fact that he himself could not be controlled. Inviting him into my life had been all my affair! And I saw suddenly, that morning, that this loss of control held new possibilities for me, however angry and ugly and out of sorts it had made me feel so far, as though it were itself a kind of freedom. (p. 61)

As the scenario unfolds, a battle of wits plays out between these two individuals. M is confronted by the ‘compartmentalised nature’ of her personality, how she keeps things in separate chambers, ultimately deciding what to show to other people and what to conceal. L, it seems, has a knack for making others see themselves without being able to do very much about what is revealed. There is a sense that M’s self-perception of a life ‘built on love and freedom of choice’ is being challenged here, potentially revealing a weak kind of selfishness underneath. Throughout this dance, M vacillates between craving L’s affection and trying to protect herself against him, ultimately to the risk of her relationship with Tony.

There is much to admire in this elegantly constructed novel of discontentment, control and freedom – in particular, what ‘freedom’ represents for men vs women. (To M, L’s paintings convey an ‘aura of absolute freedom’, a freedom that is ‘elementally and unrepentantly male’.) Cusk’s prose is precise and beautifully judged, her observations on the psychological dynamics are sharp and insightful. And yet, reflecting on this novel as a whole, I’m not entirely sure what it’s trying to say. There are several very funny scenes here, not least given the tensions sparked by Brett and her presence in the mix. For instance, within minutes of meeting her hosts, Brett is touching M’s hair, declaring it to be ‘quite dry’ and suggesting ways to camouflage the grey discretely. Ouch!

Justine’s boyfriend, Kurt, is another source of amusement with his attempts to be a writer, complete with black velvet housecoat and red tam-o’-shanter hat. However, to view it as merely a social comedy or a standard novel of mid-life, middle-class discontentment might be too simple a reading. There seems to be something deeper going on here, more threatening in certain respects.

Perhaps Cusk is asking us as readers to consider our own lives, replete with their inherent facades and misconceptions? Prompting us to turn the mirror on ourselves, as M might be hinting here through her questions to Jeffers (the intended recipient of M’s narrative account).

Why do we live so painfully in our fictions? Why do we suffer so, from the things we ourselves have invented? Do you understand it, Jeffers? (p.7)

Interestingly, the novel is set against the backdrop of some kind of recent global crisis. The economy has collapsed, resulting in a devaluation of L’s art, together with the disappearance of Justine’s and Kurt’s former jobs. Travel has also been severely restricted, possibly suggesting a nod to the current pandemic, although the specific nature of the catastrophe is never fully revealed.

At the end of the book, Cusk explains that her novel ‘owes a debt to Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the time D. H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico’. In her version, Cusk has chosen to cast a painter (L) in the notional role of Lawrence, but the book is intended to be a tribute to Luhan’s spirit. As I understand it, Luhan and Lawrence had a fractured relationship, with Luhan oscillating between devotion and a form of retreat. The sense of emptiness she experienced in his absence was keenly felt. As a consequence of the visit, Lawrence threatened to ‘destroy’ Luhan – and this element of danger is mirrored in the Cusk.

Dorian has also written about the book here – a perspective that is well worth reading, particularly given his familiarity with D. H. Lawrence’s life and work.

Second Place is published by Faber; personal copy.