My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

My Phantoms is Gwendoline Riley’s sixth novel, a brilliantly observed, lacerating portrayal of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship that really gets under the skin. This book has attracted a raft of praise recently, largely prompted by Andy Miller’s enthusiastic support for it on Twitter. It’s a deeply uncomfortable read, veering between the desperately sad and the excruciatingly funny; and yet, like a car crash unfolding before our eyes, it’s hard to look away.

The novel is narrated by Bridget, who is difficult to get a handle on, other than what she tells us about her parents, Helen (aka ‘Hen’) and Lee Grant. Lee, who features heavily in the early chapters of the book, is one of those awful men who delight in badgering anyone who happens to fall within their orbit, physically pinching or goading his daughters on a regular basis. Bridget and her sister Michelle employ various strategies to pre-empt and deal with his mockery – some of them successful, others less so. He is a truly dreadful character, but sadly all too recognisable. (I had an uncle in a broadly similar vein, a loudmouth who taunted me for going to university when I really ought to have been working to earn a proper wage.) 

He [Lee] could never hear enough about the inadequacy of people who weren’t him. And as with his boasting about his past, these things didn’t need to have actually happened for him to enjoy them. The fact that he enjoyed them somehow brought them into being, with each innocuous piece of news you shared with him somehow always ending up as a perfect illustration of some risible misstep. Between your mouth and his ear the facts got bent backwards. So he was neither a prospector nor a connoisseur of human shortcomings, really, but rather a sort of processing plant which turned all information into the same brand of thrilling treat: that someone had had a knock-back or that someone had looked a fool. (p. 21–22)

Hen is another complex, deeply flawed character, albeit in a completely different way to Lee. Now in her late sixties, twice-divorced and living alone in Manchester, Hen is constantly trying to join social clubs and groups without ever developing any real friendships or meaningful relationships with others. Any degree of emotional investment on Hen’s part is sadly lacking. Moreover, there is a sense of Hen doing these things without deriving any enjoyment or pleasure from them, going through the motions of a social life because it’s what people should do.

I’m not sure what she [Hen] would have done with friends. Friends who, one imagines, might have wanted to ask her how she was now and then; who might even have expected her to return the interest. I suppose it had just lodged in her mind that one should have them; that it was ‘what people did’. (p. 59)

Having put herself out there, Hen feels that life owes her something in return, someone she can go to the cinema with, maybe even share a life with, like other people do. In theory, Hen’s second husband, Joe, ought to have been able to fulfil this role, but his coarse, boorish nature and lack of interest in going anywhere at all put the kibosh on that. After two years, their relationship ended acrimoniously, prompting Hen’s move to Manchester to distance herself from Joe’s circle.

As far as Bridget sees it, Hen is fixated with a feeling of exclusion from normal life, that she is not getting her just rewards for playing by the rules and putting the effort in when required. Despite throwing herself into Wine Circle, volunteering, various tours and excursions, Hen remains largely unfulfilled – something that Bridget finally tackles with Hen, suggesting therapy as a potential solution.

‘Are you listening, Mum?’ I said. ‘Can I tell you what I think? You need to think about what you want. And why what you get seems to leave you so empty. This comes up a lot with you, this note of disappointed expectation. I think you feel like a bargain has been broken when you say you do what you’re supposed to do. You understand that a deal was never struck, don’t you?’ (pp. 144-145) 

For much of the novel, Bridget keeps contact with Hen to a minimum, speaking to her occasionally on the phone, meeting up once or twice a year, ultimately culminating in a strained annual birthday meal that typically feels like a confrontation. Mother and daughter don’t engage in conversations as such. Instead, their exchanges rely on Bridget feeding Hen tried and trusted prompts, ‘combustible material’ that the latter is sure to respond to.

That scrabble for combustible material … My instinct was that it was the best thing to do; that it kept something else at bay. But I did not feel good about it; about the way, for instance, I used to ask this routinely overlooked and ignored woman about men. ‘Any potential new boyfriends?’ I’d say, brightly, every year, knowing that that would take care of half an hour or so as my mother talked up her latest crush and I reacted and speculated, and asked for details, and made a show of considering what they might indicate. (p. 82)

In return, Bridget tries to avoid revealing too much in the way of happiness or enjoyment in her own life, fearing that this will upset her mother or prompt the wrong kind of response. Occasionally though, the temptation to provoke cuts through the façade as Bridget wrestles with her demons.

As the novel unfolds, we learn more about the boundaries that Bridget has put in place to protect herself – things the reader begins to question in conjunction with Hen. Why, for example, has Hen never been ‘allowed’ to meet Bridget’s partner, John? (Bridget’s home is another example of something that appears to be off limits to Hen. She actually turns up unannounced at one point, and it’s an agonising scene to observe.) And why do we get the sense that Bridget might be withholding information from the reader, presenting us with a partial version of events in her ‘charade’ with Hen? These questions and more haunt the narrative as it moves towards its unflinching conclusion.

My Phantoms is a fascinating character study, one that captures the bitterness, pain and irritation of a toxic mother-daughter relationship with sharpness and precision. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, some of the best I’ve read this year, especially for illustrating character traits. While I’m not sure that I’ve fully understood Bridget as a person in her own right, the novel itself contains so many relatable scenes, especially for those of us with complex or troublesome families. It’s a truly uncomfortable read, for all the right reasons.   

My Phantoms is published by Granta. My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

This Sweet Sickness by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith is one of my favourite writers. She has an uncanny ability to get into the mind of a delusional character, and she does this particularly well in her 1960 novel, This Sweet Sickness. This immersive story of obsession and desire centres on David Kelsey, a talented yet restless young chemist who lives in New York. The problem for David is that he’s embroiled in the ‘Situation’, a concept that Highsmith introduces in the enticing opening paragraphs…

It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tousled bed out of the dark and silent boardinghouse to walk the streets.

He had so long lived with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation. The Situation was the way it was and had been for nearly two years. No use bothering with the details. The Situation was like a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around in his chest day and night. (p. 1)

During the week, David lives in a room in Mrs McCartney’s crummy boarding house where he fends off unwanted enquires and attention from various other inhabitants – most notably Effie Brennan, a friendly young woman who appears to be smitten with him. His weekends, however, are spent elsewhere, at a house in the town of Ballard, which he has purchased under a different name – that of William Neumeister, an alias or alter ego David has invented for himself.

At his Ballard home, David fantasises about his future life with former girlfriend Annabelle Delany, the only woman he has ever truly loved. In his imagination, the couple drink martinis together, listen to classical music and plan their forthcoming holidays around the world, all in the surroundings of the house that David has furnished for his ‘partner’. Unfortunately for David, Annabelle is now married to Gerald Delaney, and the couple have a young child together. To David, however, these are trivial obstacles – so trivial in fact that he persists in believing that Annabelle will soon come to her senses and leave Gerald for him. Surely Annabelle will be powerless to resist such charm and devotion, qualities that David continues to express in his letters and phone calls to her? At least, that’s how David sees things. In reality, though, the reader will appreciate how foolish this seems…

His house had the tremendous virtue of never being lonely. He felt Annabelle’s presence in every room. He behaved as if he were with her, even when he meditatively ate his meals. It was not like the boardinghouse, where with all that humanity around him he felt as lonely as an atom in space. In the pretty house Annabelle was with him, holding his hand as they listened to Bach and Brahms and Bartók, making fun of him if he were absentminded. He walked and breathed in a kind of glory within the house. Sunlight was like heaven, and rainy weekends had their peculiar charm. (pp. 19–20)

At first, David’s work colleagues and fellow residents at the boarding house know nothing about the Ballard house and the existence of William Neumeister. Instead, they believe that David spends every weekend visiting his mother at a nursing home, far enough away to justify his absence for a couple of days. This is the yarn that David has spun them, despite his mother having been dead for a number of years. However, as the novel unfolds, two individuals in particular – David’s work colleague Wes Carmichael and fellow boarder Effie Brennan – become increasingly curious about their friend’s secretive behaviour and decide to check things out…

This is the type of novel where it’s best not to know too much about the main plot developments in advance, so I’m going to keep this review fairly brief. What I will say is that David’s dual life becomes increasingly messy as the novel progresses, with William Neumeister’s existence bleeding into David Kelsey’s in dangerous and unsettling ways…

He walked back through the slush to Mrs McCartney‘s, wondering how he would get through the evening, how he had gotten through the four or five hundred other evenings he had spent in his room. It was as if his wretched room itself had suffered an invasion. The Neumeister part of his life had entered the Kelsey Monday-to-Friday part, and like certain chemicals on mixing had set off an explosion. David was not used even to thinking about his weekend life during his working days and evenings. Now his weekend existence had, in fact, been destroyed. Slush-slush-slush went his shoes on the filthy sidewalks. (pp. 111–112)

What Highsmith does so well in this novel is to draw the reader into her protagonist’s mind. Even though the book is written in the third person, Highsmith’s depiction of David as an unhinged, delusional individual is utterly convincing, drawing the reader into the fantasy he has created for himself. By contrast, Annabelle is relatively lightly sketched, almost a cipher in some respects, to the point where I initially wondered if she might be a figment of David’s imagination. She isn’t, by the way – in fact she could be accused of encouraging David in his fantasies by not being firm enough with him from the start. Once again, there are some interesting psychological dynamics at play here that contribute to David’s delusions. Moreover, to complicate things further, there’s Effie Brennan, the persistent young woman who ends up following David while attempting to win his affections.

So, in summary, This Sweet Sickness is another very compelling novel from Patricia Highsmith, a psychological exploration of obsession, delusion and desire. Admittedly, the reader might have to suspend disbelief to accept a couple of key plots developments or devices; nevertheless, I found it a very addictive read, partly because the author builds a sense of dread so steadily and effectively.

This Sweet Sickness is published by Virago Press; personal copy. You can buy a copy of the book here via Bookshop.Org.

Winter reads – a few favourites from the shelves

A few weeks ago, I posted a piece on some of my favourite autumn reads, books such as R.C. Sherriff’s A Fortnight in September, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and an anthology of short stories, American Midnight – Tales of the Dark. Now that the weather has turned colder, it feels timely to look at winter reads – books that evoke the dark, snowy nights and crisp winter days. Here are a few of my favourites from the shelves.

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Set out of season in a quiet seaside town close, Winter in Sokcho is a haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty – a story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations. The narrator – a young woman who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Into her life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, a connection that waxes and wanes as the days slip by. The book’s enigmatic ending only adds to its sense of mystery. 

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Antonia Lloyd Jones)

Drive Your Plow… , the 2009 novel by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is quite a difficult one to describe. It is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth! This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. By turns arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic, Plow subverts the traditional expectations of the noir genre to create something genuinely thought-provoking and engaging. The eerie atmosphere and sense of isolation of the novel’s setting – a remote Polish village in winter – are beautifully evoked.

The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

A sequel to Lehmann’s earlier novel, Invitation to the Waltz, in which seventeen-year-old Olivia Curtis is captivated at her first society ball by the dashing Rollo Spencer. Ten years later, a chance encounter brings Olivia back into contact with Rollo, sparking a rush of conflicting emotions – more specifically, the desire to open up vs the tendency towards self-protection. This remarkable book expertly captures the cruelty, frustration and devastation of a doomed love affair in the most glittering prose, with the rain-soaked streets of London in winter providing a fitting backdrop for the novel’s tone. The modernity of Lehmann’s approach, with its passages of stream-of-consciousness and fluid style, makes it feel fresh and alive, well ahead of its time for the mid-1930s. 

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

This haunting, dreamlike story of a neglectful single mother and her eight-year-old son will almost certainly get under your skin. Right from the very start of the book, there is something of a disconnect between parent and child, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. The narrative unfolds over a bitterly cold night, during which these two individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. An interesting choice for book groups and solo readers alike – the novella’s ambiguous nature of the ending makes this a particularly unnerving read.  

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter, perfectly captures the confusing mix of emotions that characterise a young girl’s coming of age. The book’s central character, Katherine Lind, exudes a deep sense of loneliness and isolation; and while Larkin never explicitly states Katherine’s nationality, there are several hints to suggest she is German, possibly a refugee of Jewish descent. This quiet, contemplative novel explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. Larkin’s prose is sublime, equally impressive in its portrayals of the nostalgic atmosphere of an English summer and the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. An understated gem.

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes (tr. Jamie Lee Searle)

A beautiful, atmospheric novella, set in the Black Forest during the dark, eerie period between Christmas and Twelfth Night. As the book opens, Manfred is trekking through the snow, returning to the village of his youth after an absence of forty years. A longstanding feud exists between Manfred and his younger brother, Sebastian, who effectively inherited the family farm back then, despite his lack of aptitude or training for the role. Underpinning the narrative are themes of loss, regret, and the possibility of reconciliation. While the overall tone is nostalgic and melancholy, there are glimmers of hope amidst the heartache as Manfred hopes to reconnect with his brother.

This is a wonderfully evocative read for a dark winter’s night, one that will likely resonate with anyone who has loved and lost at some point in their life.

The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy

The setting for Brophy’s glittering novella is a grand house in London where various guests have gathered for an 18th-century costume ball on New Year’s Eve. Central to the narrative are Anna K, a fortysomething divorcee attending the ball as Mozart’s Donna Anna, and another guest (identity unknown) who is dressed as a masked Don Giovanni. It’s a playful, seductive book, shot through with a captivating sense of wit. In essence, Brophy is riffing with the themes of Mozart’s celebrated opera Don Giovanni, reimagining the relationship between the titular character, DG, and the young woman he tries to seduce, Donna Anna. Despite my lack of familiarity with Mozart’s opera, I found this an utterly captivating read, accentuated by some beautiful descriptive prose. This is a highly imaginative novel of seduction, ageing, mortality and Mozart – the perfect read for a literary New Year’s Eve!

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading any of them in the future. Perhaps you have a favourite winter book or two? Please feel free to mention them in the comments below.

Murder by the Book – Mysteries for Bibliophiles

It’s always a pleasure when one of these British Library Crime Classics anthologies drops through the door, especially in this instance given its literary focus! Murder by the Book is a collection of sixteen short stories that qualify for the genre of ‘bibliomysteries’. More specifically, each of these stories revolves around something bookish. For instance, a mystery featuring a book or someone who works in the book trade – a writer, bookseller, publisher or librarian, perhaps. Alternatively, the crime might take place in a bookish location such as a library or bookshop. All of these permutations are valid, and many of them are showcased in this entertaining collection.

As ever with these anthologies, some entries are stronger than others, so I’ll focus on some of my favourites for this review. Luckily, there are several very enjoyable stories here, more than enough to keep lovers of vintage mysteries interested and engaged. There’s also a good mix of well-known writers – E. C. Bentley, A. A. Milne, Edmund Crispin and Ngaio Marsh – and less familiar names – Philip MacDonald, Roy Vickers and Marjorie Bremner. In fact, some of my favourite stories were written by *new* authors (i.e. new to me), which came as a very pleasant surprise. 

Some of the best stories in this anthology feature crime writers, perhaps unsurprisingly given their penchant for crafting mysteries. In A Lesson in Crime, by husband-and-wife-team GDH and M. Cole, a rather self-satisfied but sloppy crime writer gets a taste of his own medicine when a stranger starts chatting to him during a train journey to Cornwall.

“Now in that book,” the stranger went on, “you call the heroine Elinor and Gertrude on different pages. You cannot make up your mind whether her name was Robbins with two b’s or with one. You have killed the corpse in one place on Sunday and in another on Monday evening. That corpse was discovered twelve hours after the murder still wallowing in a pool of wet blood… (p. 19)

While it’s relatively easy to work out where this one is heading, the premise and the quality of the writing make it a pleasure to read.

Crime writers also feature in Victor Canning’s excellent story A Question of Character, which opens as follows:

The real reason why Geoffrey Gilroy decided to murder his wife was not just that he wished to marry another woman with whom he had fallen in love. No, that may be the kind of motive which forces a man to the point of thinking about murder. But to take him over the edge into action it needs more than that. Plenty of men would like to murder their wives—and the other way round, I suppose. But that so far as it gets. No, the thing which determined Gilroy was his vanity. (p. 227)

Geoffrey Gilroy and his wife Martha are both crime writers. However, in recent years, Martha’s success has outstripped her husband’s, leaving Geoffrey feeling eclipsed by his wife and her skills with characterisation. While Geoffrey has always had a talent for plotting and building suspense, his insights into character leave something to be desired…

As Geoffrey sets about plotting the perfect murder, we see his strengths and weaknesses as a crime writer being laid out before us. It’s a very cleverly crafted story that dovetails beautifully with these characters’ personalities. A wonderfully gripping tale that reminds me a little of Patricia Highsmith and her talent for domestic noir.

Philip MacDonald’s Domestic Malice is another excellent story in this vein, also featuring an author as the central figure in the action. When the writer Carl Borden experiences severe stomach pains, his close friend Dr Wingate begins to suspect that something rather sinister is wrong. Carl has been married to his wife, Annette, for nine years, and although the couple seemed happy at first, their recent behaviour suggests a more troubled or unsettled relationship.

This is one of those stories where you think you’ve got it all worked out, only for the writer to drop in a sudden volte-face at the end of the narrative to catch you off-guard. A devilishly clever story with a real sting in its tail.

In a slight variation on the mysteries-featuring-writers theme, Marjorie Bremner’s Murder in Advance has a playwright as the murder victim, a man with no known enemies or competitors. At first, Inspector Dacre is puzzled by the apparent lack of motive, but the reason for the killing ultimately emerges. It seems the playwright had been planning to expose a blackmailer by writing a play about his crime; however, before the script could be written, the blackmailer murdered the playwright to avoid a scandal. But who is the blackmailer/murderer? That’s what Inspector Dacre must work out…

I also really enjoyed Edmund Crispin’s We Know You’re Busy Writing… in which a freelance writer struggles to get any work done due to the continual stream of interruptions from callers and timewasters. It’s a brilliant little story that will likely resonate with anyone who has ever worked from home, particularly on a freelance basis.  

Other mysteries hinge on clues that appear in particular books. E. C. Bentley’s Trent and the Ministering Angel is a great example of this – an excellent story in which the victim leaves clues to the identity of his murderer in his rock garden, firm in the knowledge that one of his solicitors will link them to the relevant books. Julian Symons’ The Clue in the Book is another enjoyable tale that uses a similar device.

Also of note here is Roy Vickers’ terrific mystery, A Man and his Mother-in-Law, in which a rather selfish man, Arthur Penfold, decides to get rid of his wife’s former guardian, Mrs Blagrove, to avoid any disruption to his cosy life. (Penfold’s dutiful wife, Margaret, is about to leave him to go and live with Mrs B. as she is now in need of constant care.) Again, this is a really compelling story where we know the culprit’s identity upfront – the enjoyment, however, is more in the telling, particularly when Penfold slips up.

In summary, this is another delightful anthology from the British Library, ideal for armchair sleuths with an interest in all things bookish. As ever, the collection comes with an excellent introduction by Martin Edwards, who also provides helpful background notes on each writer. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. (If you’d like to buy a copy of the book, you can do so here via Bookshop.org)

Blitz Spirit: Voices of Britain Living Through Crisis, 1939-1945 by Becky Brown  

In this fascinating book, the anthologist, editor and literary agent Becky Brown presents various extracts from the diaries submitted as part of the British Mass-Observation study during the Second World War. Founded in 1937, Mass-Observation was an anthropological study, documenting the everyday lives of ordinary British people from all walks of life. The initiative aimed ‘to tell a truer, fuller version’ of life in Britain than was available in the newspapers or recorded in history books. As part of the project, a volunteer group of 500 people across the UK – from factory workers to shop assistants, from writers to teachers, from housewives to office clerks – submitted their personal diaries on a monthly basis from August 1939 onwards. It’s a remarkable resource, full of striking insights into the diarists’ day-to-day lives during this extraordinary time.

The diary extracts are presented chronologically, offering readers the opportunity to follow the war as it unfolds from the end of August 1939 to August 1945. Each chapter covers a period of six months and is prefaced by a brief summary of the key developments – both historical and emotional, using the diary entries as a ‘temperature gauge’ or touchstone resource.

Interestingly, the book does much to debunk the nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the British public during the war, a nation all pulling together in one united effort. As the diary entries clearly demonstrate, people experienced a wide variety of human emotions, from the novelty and excitement of facing something new, to the fear and anxiety fuelled by uncertainty and potential loss, to instances of selfishness and bickering, particularly as restrictions kicked in. Moreover, Brown has clearly taken a lot of care to select a wide variety of extracts, offering us entries that range from the mundane and virtuous (e.g. digging up the garden to grow vegetables, as in the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign) to the dramatic and terrifying (e.g. scrambling to hide in a cupboard during an unexpected bombing raid).

While many of the entries are sobering and poignant, there are some lighter moments too, especially in the early stages before the actual conflict begins.

To Rectory afternoon for bandaging practice. The Rector’s wife amuses me rather. She speaks as if the village were going to be strewn with casualties in the near future. (p. 22, Oct. 1939)

Another diarist notes the popularity of war-like flourishes in women’s fashions, with long military-style coats and jackets featuring brass buttons and shoulder straps appearing in the local town. Others, however, are more unsettled by the sense of uncertainty, their emotions changing from one week to the next as the situation in Europe worsens…

The war was, for a few days, terrible and exciting. Then it was only fitfully so. Now, after being merely a bore for a while, it grows more fearsome. It becomes personal and menacing. (p. 37, Jan 1940)

One of the most striking things about these diaries is just how much they resonate with the way many of us were feeling (and behaving) during the first year of the recent pandemic. Pre-emptive stockpiling in the early stages of the war drives a degree of panic buying, just as we saw with flour, dried pasta and loo rolls at the start of COVID. By December 1939, shop assistants are already bearing the brunt of customers’ anger at shortages in the shops, frequently resulting in outbursts as they try to deal with the situation.

Women have so insulted shop assistants that the rule – that assistance may not be rude to customers or ‘answer back’ – has been relaxed, by the manager of a big store here. The girls are often in tears, & the men greatly upset, by selfish customers who blame assistants when they can’t get what butter or sugar they think they want. (p. 30, Dec. 1939)

Some diarists quote examples of neighbours or acquaintances who flout the rules, obtaining food or petrol illegally on the black market or indulging in unnecessary travel when they should be keeping journeys to a minimum. Others report shopkeepers (or those in positions of authority) profiting from the shortages, hiking up prices to benefit from the increased demand. If anything, class divisions exacerbate the situation, undermining the sense of everyone being equal or ‘in it together’.

Interestingly, anti-maskers are not simply a 21st-century phenomenon, as this 1941 entry from a Belfast-based diarist neatly demonstrates!

All the propaganda recently about gas & gas masks doesn’t seem to have had much effect. I was down-town for an hour this morning, & during that time saw one woman carrying a mask; & she was obviously English. Schoolchildren carry them when going to school, (because compulsory) but not at other times. (p. 100, Apr. 1941)

Naturally, there are also touching acts of kindness, examples of friends and neighbours looking out for one another, sharing essentials and provisions or ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort – e.g. taking in evacuees, knitting garments for soldiers or driving ambulances during the Blitz.

Frustration with the government’s handling of the situation is detectable in several of the dairies – people want to hear the truth, not some jingoistic propaganda being peddled by the media. They also want to be treated as grown-ups – trusted partners in the war effort, not subordinates who must simply do as they’re told with no explanations. 

Even at quite an early stage in the war, people are becoming desensitised to the constant stream of bad news, as one tragedy follows another with little pause for thought about the impact of lives lost. In some respects, this chimes with the current situation in the UK where our negligent government seems to regard the loss of 1,000+ lives per week to COVID as an ‘acceptable’ cost of the pandemic.

This war feels more and more like a continuation of the last one. I think we felt more grief then at the loss of life. The modern world does not seem to care about lives being lost (3000 lost on the roads in two months). (p. 24, Nov. 1939)

It’s astonishing too how one takes the most astounding piece of news in one’s stride now, as it were, as much that would in normal times have supplied us with a year’s sensations, we swallow in a week without great comment. I suppose our minds have reached saturation point. All we hear and read now has little further effect. (p. 78, Oct. 1940)

As the war rumbles on, the later years usher in increasingly high levels of fatigue, scepticism, flagging morale and uncertainty about the future, even when the prospect of victory seems to be in sight. While the war has thrown up new opportunities for some – particularly women who have been able to work in new areas – others are less positive about their prospects. Meanwhile, some appear to expect an immediate return to ‘normal’ life, possibly with certain advances, while in reality any changes are likely to be gradual. As one diarist reflects:

It will not be something definite and spectacular like Lights Up, Bananas for all, unlimited fully fashioned real silk stockings at 2/6d a pair and everyone with a job they like and able to afford their own plot and bungalow. (p. 272, Oct. 1944)

The detrimental impact of the war on children is uppermost in some diarists’ minds, with the loss of normal childhood experiences being a particular concern – another issue that will resonate with many of us as we emerge from COVID restrictions.

What a reflection on our present mode of life it is that children have hardly known what it is to be able to spend their few pennies on ices and sweets. They can only remember queues and crowds, sirens and shelters, and have never eaten a toffee-apple! These children have lost five years of their life, and we must try to make it up to them. (p. 264, Aug. 1944)

In summary, then, Blitz Spirit is a fascinating insight into the day-to-day lives of ordinary people living through extraordinary times. There is real stoicism and resilience here, alongside the less desirable aspects of human behaviour, much of which will resonate with our recent experiences of the pandemic. I found it a thoroughly illuminating read, an excellent addition to the accounts of Home Front life during WW2.

Blitz Spirit is published by Hodder & Stoughton; personal copy.

Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell

Back in October, the Belfast-born writer Lucy Caldwell won the BBC National Short Story Award with All the People Were Mean and Bad, a story of motherhood, chance encounters and the randomness of life. It’s a superb piece – probably the standout in Caldwell’s remarkable collection of stories, Intimacies, published by Faber earlier this year – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

All eleven stories in Intimacies are concerned with motherhood, mostly featuring young mothers with babies and/or toddlers, while a few focus on pregnancy and mothers to be. Consequently, the collection has a feeling of interconnectedness, a sense of synergy or cumulative effect as the reader moves from one piece to the next.

Caldwell writes so insightfully about the fears young mothers experience when caring for small children. With a rare blend of honesty and compassion, she shows us those heart-stopping moments of anxiety that ambush her protagonists as they go about their days. Moreover, there is an intensity to the emotions that Caldwell captures in her stories, a depth of feeling that seems utterly authentic and true.

Some of the most memorable stories rest on ‘what if’ or ‘what might have been’ moments, opening up the possibility of multiple outcomes for these characters – glimpses perhaps of alternative futures, some of which seem exciting, while others appear terrifying or weighed down by guilt.

In Like This, a busy mother, with a toddler and baby in tow, stops at a café for a brief respite. When the toddler wants to use the toilet – too large for the baby buggy to squeeze into – a friendly lady at a nearby table offers to watch the young woman’s baby. While the mother hurries her toddler along in the cubicle, the foolishness of her actions hits hard. How could she have left the most ‘helpless, precious thing’ she owns with a complete stranger, albeit another mother? Of course, this other woman said she has children of her own; but even so, what sort of mother would take the risk?

When the young woman emerges from the toilet, she is relieved to see that the buggy is still there; the stranger and the baby, however, are nowhere to be seen. In the minutes that follow, Caldwell’s protagonist begins a panic-stricken search for her child as the horror of a future blighted by tragedy plays out in her mind…

The fear and devastation of loss are also detectable in The Children, a fascinating story where a breastfeeding mother finds a lump in her breast. It could be nothing; but then again, it could be something – it’s so hard to tell. As such, we follow the young mother as the lump is investigated, with Caldwell skilfully switching between her protagonist’s medical appointments and work-related preoccupations as she awaits the results. The young mother is researching a story on the social reformer and author Caroline Norton, who found herself trapped in an abusive marriage and assailed by traumatic dreams. Reading Norton’s letters, the protagonist is reminded of her own anxiety dreams and how much she stands to lose, should the lump turn out to be cancer.

Since they were born, I’ve dreamed of losing my babies too. I dream that I’ve left my daughter in a Left Luggage unit and there are hundreds of dully gleaming lockers and I don’t have a key. […] I am dying, and I’m scared, and they tell me to keep calm and hold the hands that reach out for me, and I do, and feel myself pulled from my body. A moment’s relief, then the agony of realising I will never hold my children again. (p. 92)

Fears of a different kind assail the protagonist in Mayday, in which a female student is using some pills procured on the internet to terminate her unwanted pregnancy. (The story is set in Northern Ireland where accessible termination services are still to be commissioned following the legalisation of abortion in October 2019.) As she waits for the medication to work, the young woman experiences a mix of terror, sadness and relief – an overriding belief that she is making the right decision at this point in her life, despite the inherent risks.

She waits for the guilt to start, the regret, but it doesn’t. What does she feel? She tests out emotions. Scared, yes. Definitely scared. She’s deleted her browsing history seventeen, eighteen times. But they have ways of finding these things out, and somewhere, etched onto the Internet, is her name, her address, her PayPal account: what she did. When, where and how. She, or anyone who helps her, could be jailed for life. So, scared. (pp. 19–20)

In interviews, Caldwell has described her interest in writing about liminal or ‘in-between spaces’ (e.g. cars, airports and planes), where ‘time seems to stop, or is elsewhere for a while’, where alternative outcomes or different life paths open up, albeit momentarily. This is particularly true of the prize-winning story, All the People Were Mean and Bad, in which a young mother is on a night flight from Vancouver to London – the journey home from her cousin’s funeral. She is accompanied by her daughter – a toddler too young to have her own seat but too old to sit comfortably on her mother’s lap. The story’s title comes from a book about Noah’s Ark, which the mother hates but reads to her daughter, giving in to the child’s need to be occupied during the flight.

As the night unfolds, the mother gets chatting to the man in the adjacent seat, a fifty-six-year-old divorcee with children of his own – now fully grown. The man is kind and helpful, sympathetic to the young mother’s situation, travelling on her own with a restless child in need of comfort and distraction.   

This beautifully crafted story explores the gaps between who we are now and who we thought we would become, say ten or twenty ago. How our lives invariably turn out to be quite different from the futures we once imagined, often without clearly defined plans or conscious decisions on our part.

How time as a measure is, for a while, entirely meaningless, in this time out of time, and how distance is too, and about the distances we travel, between where we come from and where we end up, between who we thought we were and who we turn out to be. (pp. 126–127)

You have Riedel wine glasses and Dartington Crystal champagne flutes yourself now, and Japanese knives and a proper knife-sharpener, and sometimes, even peonies in vases, or at least in a vase. Where has it all come from? How have you graduated, almost without noticing, from novelty shot glasses and wine glasses nicked from pubs, thick-rimmed and engraved with measures, to this? […] And yet: you can’t shake the sense that it has all crept up on you without your wanting or asking for it, without your feeling any different than you did at twenty-nine, twenty-seven, or, yes, twenty-four (p. 124)

It’s also about the possibility of taking a different path in the future, how our lives can turn on the tiniest moments – split-second decisions that open up the possibility of excitement and desire alongside danger and guilt. There is a frisson of attraction between these two travellers, adding a degree of tension, a sense of will-they-or-won’t-they, to the scene when they should part.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of this luminous collection of stories, but hopefully it’s given you a flavour of what to expect. Caldwell writes beautifully about motherhood, womanhood, life-changing moments and alternative futures. By zooming in on her protagonists’ hopes, fears, preoccupations and desires, Caldwell has found the universal in the personal, offering stories that will resonate with many of us, irrespective of our personal circumstances.

Mamma by Diana Tutton

This is another excellent entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series (they’ve yet to reissue a dud), the sort of novel that’s a pleasure to sink into for its subtlety and understanding. Its author, the British writer Diana Tutton, was interested in fiction focusing on families and relationships – particularly those that were frowned upon by society. While Mamma was published in 1956, it was written a few years earlier – possibly the early ‘50s, a time when societal attitudes were beginning to loosen and change.  

On the surface, Mamma tells the story of a forty-one-year-old widow, Joanna Malling, who develops feelings for her son-in-law, Steven – a man of thirty-five. However, in truth, the novel is more an exploration of Joanna’s inner world and her position in society than a salacious love triangle. There is a degree of restraint in the writing – a subtlety that makes the story all the more immersive. It reminded me a little of Dorothy Whipple’s novels Someone at a Distance, perhaps, albeit with less melodrama. Either way, I would definitely recommend it.

When we first meet Joanna, she has just arrived at her new home in Tadwych, a suburban town somewhere in the south of England. Tutton wastes little time in establishing Joanna’s position in society. Widowed at the age of twenty-one, Joanna has remained unattached since then. While she had hoped to remarry in her twenties, no suitable partners subsequently emerged, ushering in the prospect of permanent widowhood – a state Joanna has grown used to over the years.

After twenty years of widowhood […] she had quite expected to marry again, but in the five years after Jack’s death she had had only one proposal, and that one so unsuitable as to be almost an insult. She had politely rejected a solicitor, twenty-four years older than herself, and had settled down to perpetual widowhood. (p. 4)

On arriving at her new house, Joanna learns that her daughter, twenty-year-old Libby, has just got engaged to Steven Pryde, a soldier whom Joanna has never met. At thirty-five and a Major in the army, Steven is significantly older and more mature than Libby. In truth, he is much closer in age to Joanna than to her daughter – and this closeness becomes increasingly apparent as the novel unfolds.

At first, however, the dynamics between Joanna and Steven are rather awkward. Joanna is somewhat disappointed by her prospective son-in-law with his dominant moustache and slightly stiff manner. Libby, however, is very much in love with her man, and plans for the imminent wedding are soon underway.

Following the wedding, Libby hopes for a glamorous posting abroad, envisaging her new life as a Major’s wife in various exotic locations. The reality, however, turns out to be much closer to home. When Steven is appointed to a role in Tadwych, a shortage of suitable housing prompts the newlyweds to move in with Joanna, necessitating much rearrangement of the furniture and various living arrangements to accommodate the couple.

Libby – a rather excitable, childish young woman at heart – is delighted to be living with her mother, relishing the chance for Joanna and Steven to really get to know one another. Joanna, however, is acutely conscious of the need to give the newlyweds their own space. Steven too is also far from thrilled at the prospect of living with ‘Mamma’, especially when Libby seems determined to fuss over him in front of her mother. Steven is also recovering from a bout of pneumonia, and Libby in her naivety is determined to mollycoddle him – something Joanna hopes to counteract.

Poor young man! thought Joanna. If he is to be fattened up after his illness it must not be done so tactlessly in future. She wished that Libby would not, with rather over-weight humour, keep reverting to the subject of nourishing food, and speaking of a conspiracy “between you and me, Mummy” to control Steven. “I need your support, you know, Mummy, because he’s most obstinate and naughty.” (p. 100)

Gradually though, Joanna and Steven warm to one another, recognising a shared interest in poetry and other related pursuits. In truth, Steven is a lot closer to Joanna in age, outlook and cultural attitudes than he is to Libby – a situation that becomes all too apparent to Joanna as the weeks slip by. This closeness is something Steven feels too, especially when a tragedy in his family sparks a moment of connection. Rather tellingly, Steven refers to Joanna by her Christian name at this point, momentarily seeing her as the woman she truly is, not the ‘Mamma’ she has been until now. As the story plays out, Joanna must try to reconcile her conflicting emotions – her attraction to Steven vs her loyalty to Libby – a tension that Tutton handles with a degree of subtlety and sensitivity.

One of the most impressive things about the novel is Tutton’s use of this premise to explore Joanna’s situation. At forty-one, Joanna had resigned herself to passing through life as a widow, consumed by her passion for gardening in the absence of a partner or family. Steven, however, has disturbed this equilibrium, reawakening in Joanna feelings she had thought of as consigned to the past. Rather than dwelling on the possibility of a scandalous relationship, Tutton leaves us with the idea that this is, in part, a liberating experience for Joanna, paving the way perhaps for a future romantic relationship – albeit with a man who is more available than Steven, someone society would view as a respectable match.

There are also some very interesting contrasts in the novel, which Tutton skilfully uses to highlight various contradictions or hypocrisies in society. As Libby’s closest friend, Janet Mortimer, intuits at one point, Libby (or Elizabeth as she is sometimes called) has likely married without the benefit of any sexual experience, leaving her somewhat exposed in the physical aspects of the relationship. Steven, on the other hand, is expected to be more practiced in the art of lovemaking – nevertheless, he is giving nothing away on that count, certainly as far as Janet can decipher.

She suspected that their sexual relationship still left much to be desired. Probably Elizabeth was not yet fully awakened; but she would be all right in a year or two, and would probably—when her troubles were over and done with—tell Janet all about them. It was, of course, a thousand pities that Elizabeth should have been so inexperienced. Janet, herself a virgin at twenty-one, intended to change her condition in a year or two, and to marry when she was twenty-five. She sincerely hoped that Steven was able to make up for poor Elizabeth’s ignorance, but on this subject Liz was unexpectedly reticent, and her own study of Steven’s character had so far told her nothing. (p. 69)

There are a few hints throughout the novel that Libby is finding Steven sexually demanding – another reason perhaps for the latter’s attraction to Joanna as the more ‘natural’ partner.

Hierarchies of class and sophistication also play their part in the novel – from the wealthy, self-assured Mortimers with their active city lives, to Joanna and Libby in their homely middle-class abode, to the rather coarse Mrs Holmes, Joanna’s gossipy charwoman, accepting money for sexual favours while her husband is away at night.

This another fascinating novel, an interesting companion piece to Rose Macaulay’s Dangerous Ages (1921) in its exploration of early middle age. At forty-one, Joanna is very similar in age to Macaulay’s Neville, a married woman of forty-three, whose children are now grown up. While the two women have very different personalities, it’s interesting to consider them together given the similarity in stage of life.   

(My thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy.)

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy    

Part morality tale, part family saga/social comedy, Margaret Kennedy’s delightful novel, The Feast, has recently been reissued by Faber in a beautiful new edition – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy. This very cleverly constructed story – which features a large cast of memorable, idiosyncratic characters – unfolds over the course of a week, culminating in the titular ‘feast’, an event that proves to be momentous in more ways than one!

The novel – which is set in Cornwall in the summer of 1947 – opens with a short prologue, in which Reverend Bott of St. Sody’s is deliberating over a funeral sermon he has to write. The previous month, a local cliffside hotel, The Pendizack, collapsed into the sea, killing all those who were inside the building at the time. Those who perished in the tragedy remain buried under the rocks and rubble, with no possibility of recovery – hence the need for a ceremony as an act of remembrance. Luckily, however, several of the hotel guests and members of staff escaped with their lives, having been out on a picnic – the titular feast – at the time of the cliffside collapse. Their stories, and the events of the week leading up to the disaster, are revealed in the remainder of the book. Tantalisingly, Kennedy only reveals the name of one of the seven dead at this point – Dick Siddal, whose wife Barbara managed the hotel – leaving the reader in the dark about the identity of the other six victims until the very end…

At this point, Kennedy takes us back to the Saturday before the tragedy, introducing us to the main players in the story: the staff and various guests. The hotel, it seems, is home to the Siddal family, who have turned the property over to paying guests for financial reasons. Dick Siddal, a former lawyer, lives in the boot-room behind the kitchen, only to emerge now and again to pass commentary on the state of the world. Mr Siddal has a sharp, perceptive mind, but offers nothing in the way of practical help in running the hotel. That operation is left to his wife, Barbara, who has settled into the role of a martyr, helped considerably by her eldest son, Gerry, whose heroic efforts to assist with all manner of jobs go largely unnoticed. The Siddals’ other sons, Robin and Duff, are the apples of their mother’s eye, with the money to finance their education being a major priority.

Also living at the hotel is the housekeeper, Dorothy Ellis, a lazy, spiteful woman who cannot resist poking her nose into everyone else’s business. One gets the sense that her loyalty to Mrs Siddal is pretty thin, especially given her opinion of The Pendizack (as revealed in a letter she writes to a friend).

Well this is not a hotel at all, only a boarding house—all falling down and the roof leaking, you can see there has been nothing spent on it for years and only one bathroom. They have lost all their money, so she got the bright idea to turn this into a boarding house because of course her darling boys have got to go to posh schools just the same—but she does not know the first thing about running a hotel and can’t cater for toffee. (pp. 15–16)

Of more practical use to Mrs Siddal is the housemaid, Nancibel, a sprightly, intelligent girl who worked in the ATS during WW2. Nancibal – who has the full measure of Dorothy Ellis – is nursing a broken heart, determined to move on after class differences scuppered her chances with former sweetheart, Brian. 

Much of the novel’s engaging humour is provided by the hotel guests, particularly through the clashes in social class and attitudes to life this environment throws up. Lady Gifford writes ahead to Mrs Siddal, laying out her extensive list of dietary requirements, despite the difficulties posed by rationing. 

I see I’ve said nothing about fish. I’m allowed everything except kippers, but I don’t think plaice agrees with me very well, nor haddock, unless cooked with plenty of butter. Crab and lobsters are not verboten which is very convenient, as I expect you get plenty of them and so many people can’t eat them. (p. 13)

There is definitely a whiff of scandal surrounding the Giffords’ financial affairs, especially given Lady G’s desire to move to Guernsey for tax purposes. As Kennedy’s omniscient narrator observes, the Giffords are ‘the kind of people who feed in the Black Market,’ and ‘who wear smuggled nylons…’. The Giffords’ four children – three of whom are adopted – are led by Hebe, a rather bossy, selfish child who proves to be a dangerous influence over other youngsters in the Pendizack’s orbit. More specifically, the three Cove girls, whose desperately mean mother confiscates their sweet rations and other ‘valuables’ to sell on to the highest bidder. Mrs Cove, a seemingly impoverished widow, ultimately reveals herself to be a nasty piece of work – so much so that one cannot help but hope she perishes in the hotel’s collapse. 

Also staying at the Pendizack are Paleys, a middle-aged married couple who tragically lost their daughter in heartbreaking circumstances. Consequently, an air of profound sadness surrounds this couple, particularly Mr Paley whose sense of pride clouds any decisions.

The Paleys always gave off this suggestion of a violence momentarily suspended. They would eat their breakfast every morning in a sombre, concentrated silence, as though bracing themselves for some enormous effort to be sustained during the day. (p. 24)

Further amusement is provided by Anna Lechene – a capricious writer – and her chauffer-secretary, Bruce, who also aspires to write. Last but not least, we have the formidable Canon Wraxton and his timid daughter, Evangeline. As Mrs Siddal reveals to her son, Gerry, the Wraxtons have already left another hotel in the area due to dissatisfaction on the part of the Canon.

‘They’re all right as regards money. They paid for a week in advance, though they only stayed two nights. But she says he has the most awful temper; he quarrelled with everybody and objected to cards and dancing in the lounges. And he was very rude to the staff.’

‘Oh Mother…don’t let’s have them.’ (p. 42)

Poor long-suffering Evangeline is reduced to grinding up glass in her room, storing it in pill box, possibly with the intention of slipping it into her father’s food. Only then can she hope to be free of his tyrannical influence.

What Kennedy does so well here is to weave an immersive story around the perils of the seven deadly sins, skilfully illustrated through the loathsome behaviours of her characters. In the week leading up to the feast, we see examples of pride, wrath, envy, greed, gluttony and sloth on display -possibly lust or wantonness too, although that’s perhaps a little more tenuous than the other sins. Interestingly, each individual seems to be nursing a disappointment or difficulty of some sort, which Kennedy reveals as the narrative unfolds.

In terms of action, there are plenty of developments to entertain the reader including various romances, the theft of a potentially valuable object, an outburst in church and a dramatic coastal rescue. The novel’s finale is a fancy-dress party of sorts, an evening picnic feast to give the impoverished Cove girls a holiday to remember.

In summary, The Feast is a wonderfully clever, engaging novel with some serious messages at its heart. At certain points, Kennedy encourages the reader to consider how strengths can sometimes become weaknesses when pursued to the extremes. Mr Paley is great example of this, a man whose self-respect has tipped into a crippling sense of pride. Similarly, for Evangeline, a heroic degree of patience with the domineering Canon Wraxton has inevitably given way to submission. There is much to contemplate here as the reader races towards the denouement where the survivors’ identities will be revealed.

The Past by Tessa Hadley

This is a wonderfully nuanced novel of family relationships and tensions, written with real skill and psychological insight into character. My first experience of Hadley’s fiction, but hopefully not my last…

The Past revolves around four adult siblings – Harriet, Alice, Fran and Roland – who come together for a three-week holiday at the Crane family home in Kington, deep in the English countryside. The siblings have joint ownership of the house, and one of their objectives during the trip is to decide the property’s fate. In short, the time may have finally come for them to sell before the upkeep on the house becomes too much.

Harriet (the eldest I think), is the most restrained of the Cranes. Despite her worthwhile job and interest in activism, Harriet feels that other, more emotional aspects of life have passed her by – a realisation that becomes increasingly apparent as the narrative progresses. Alice, a romantic, expressive individual at heart, has brought along her ex-boyfriend’s son, nineteen-year-old Kasim, seemingly on a bit of a whim.

Fran is the most grounded and well-organised of the siblings. A schoolteacher by profession, she is accompanied by her two children, the curious and watchful Ivy (aged nine) and the suggestible Arthur (aged six). Both of these characters are brilliantly realised, fleshed out in ways that remind me of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s and Penelope Fitzgerald’s fictional children. Fran’s husband, Jeff, has cried off at the last minute – clearly a source of frustration for Fran, who is left wondering whether her marriage is worth salvaging. Finally, Roland arrives with his third wife, Pilar, a highly-strung Argentinian lawyer, and Molly, his sixteen-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage.

Although very little happens in terms of plot, there is a discernible undercurrent of unease running through the narrative, which adds a degree of tension to this beautifully constructed book.

Not long after their arrival, Alice crosses a boundary with Roland, and her desire to reflect nostalgically on the past prompts an eruption from Pilar, who is still very much a newcomer to the group.

They were all affected by Pilar’s new presence among them – it had the effect of making their talk at the table seem false, as if they were performing their family life for her scrutiny. Alice and Fran were noisy, showing off; Fran exaggerated the drama of Jeff’s selfishness, his dereliction. Ivy spilled her drink, Arthur picked out all the cheese from his sandwich, then left the crusts; Kasim when he appeared wouldn’t sit down for lunch – he said he wasn’t hungry and then carved himself huge hunks of bread, ate them sitting on the grass at the bottom of the garden. Pilar didn’t contribute much to the conversation, the conversation, her remarks were rapid and forceful like her concentrated, liquid glances, as if she closed the discussion instead of opening it up. (p. 41)

Family, it seems, is not always a source of comfort, especially to someone like Pilar, who was raised during Argentina’s Dirty War and the era of the ‘disappeared’. Pilar begins to bond with Harriet during the holiday, viewing her as a potential confidante for her personal history and concerns. It’s another relationship where boundaries are ultimately overstepped, forcing a sequence of events that threaten to derail the holiday.

Elsewhere, the self-confident Kasim has designs on Molly, hatching a plan to seduce her in a nearby derelict cottage – a place that also holds a fascination for Ivy and Arthur, mostly as a secret hideaway where they can escape from the adults.

In a nod to Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris (which I’ve yet to read), Hadley divides her novel into three sections, The Present, The Past and The Present. It’s a structure that enables her to show how earlier events can seep into the here and now, albeit in subtle and surprising ways. The middle section focuses on the siblings’ mother, Jill, who in 1968 is back with her parents in Kington, wondering what to do with her life following a break-up with her philandering husband, Tom. A brief dalliance between Jill and a local man at the abandoned cottage hints at a potential secret in the Crane family, something that may or may not come out in The Present. It’s to Hadley’s credit that she never pushes this and other connections too far, favouring nuance and subtlety over thrills and shocking revelations – a degree of control she maintains throughout.

In summary, The Past is a very absorbing novel, full of subtle, understated observations. The inner lives of these characters are richly imagined, with Hadley moving seamlessly from one individual’s perspective to another throughout the novel. Everything is beautifully described, from the characters’ preoccupations and concerns, to the house and the surrounding countryside. The abandoned cottage and its mysterious secrets are particularly vividly realised, adding to the sense of unease that pulses through the narrative.

Highly recommended, especially for lovers of subtle, character-driven fiction – it reminded me a little of Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave, a novel I very much enjoyed last year.

The Past (first published in 2015) is published by Vintage; personal copy.

Autumn reads – a few favourites from the shelves

A few weeks ago, Trevor and Paul released a podcast on some of their favourite fall/autumn books, including a few they hope to read this year. It’s a fascinating discussion, which you can listen to at The Mookse and the Gripes podcast via the usual platforms. Their conversation got me thinking about my own seasonal reading, particularly books with autumnal settings or moods. So, with a nod to Trevor and Paul’s selection, here are a few of my favourite autumn reads.

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

This beautiful, evocative novella is set 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. 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 secret relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man whom she met at her husband’s office. What emerges is a story of unspoken desire, missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. This haunting, dreamlike novella is intimate and hypnotic in style, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

A Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. This premise seems simple on the surface, yet the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magic and charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for – a throwback perhaps to simpler times.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party offers readers a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. The novel follows the final twenty-four hours of a three-day shoot, a landmark event in the social calendar of the Nettlebys and their immediate set. As the story unfolds, we learn more about the main characters, their distorted moral values and the rarefied world in which they circulate. What Colegate does so well here is to shine a light on the farcical nature of Edwardian society, the sheer pointlessness of the endless social whirl and the ridiculous codes that govern it. Fans of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy The Shooting Party, a superb novel that deserves to be better known.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

What can I say about this widely-acclaimed Gothic classic that hasn’t already been said before? Not a lot, other than to reiterate how brilliantly unsettling it is. The novel’s narrator, Merricat Blackwood – an eighteen-year-old girl with a distinctive, childlike voice – lives with her amiable older sister, Constance, in a large isolated house on the outskirts of a New England village. However, the girls have been ostracised by the local townsfolk, primarily due to an infamous poisoning in the family six years ago. As such, the book has much to say about outsiders – more specifically, how as a society we treat people who seem strange or different from the ‘norm’, and how our suspicions and prejudices can lead to fear – and ultimately to violence. An atmospheric, unsettling, magical book, shot through with touches of black humour, ideal for Halloween.

American Midnight – Tales of the dark short story anthology

Also making a strong claim for the Halloween reading pile is American Midnight is a wonderfully chilling short story anthology released in 2019. The collection comprises nine tales of the dark and supernatural, all penned by American authors and originally published in the 19th or 20th century. The featured writers include Edith Wharton, Edgar Allen Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Shirley Jackson (again!). One of the best things about the selection is the diversity of styles across the ranger – from gothic folk horror to classic ghost stories, there’s something for virtually everyone here. American Midnight is a wide-ranging collection of unsettling stories, shot through with striking imagery and a palpable sense of unease, exploring some of the mystery and darkness in America’s chequered past. For more unnerving short stories, check out Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales, Daphne du Maurier’s The Breaking Point and Edith Wharton’s Ghost Stories – all come with high recommendations from me.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

At first, this might seem an unusual choice; however, I’ve chosen it because the novel’s heroine, Mrs Palfrey – a recently widowed elderly lady – is in the twilight of her life. As the book opens, Mrs Palfrey is in the process of moving into London’s Claremont Hotel (the story is set in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, when this was not unusual for those who could afford it). Here she joins a group of residents in similar positions, each likely to remain at the hotel until they can no longer avoid a move to a nursing home or hospital.

To save face in front of the other residents, Mrs P persuades a kindly young man, Ludo, to play the role of her grandson, and an unlikely yet deeply touching relationship between the pair soon develops. This beautiful, bittersweet novel prompts the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of old age: the need to participate in life; the importance of small acts of kindness; and the desire to feel valued. Taylor’s observations of social situations are spot-on, and there are some very amusing moments alongside the undoubted poignancy. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is an understated gem – a wise, beautifully-observed novel that stands up to re-reading.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading any of them in the future. Perhaps you have a favourite autumnal book or two? Please feel free to mention them in the comments below.