Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop is set in 1959 in the fictional Suffolk town of Hardborough, where Florence Green, a middle-aged widow of limited means wishes to open a bookshop, something the town has not seen for several years. Florence has decided to buy the Old House, a run-down historic building in the centre of Hardborough, with a view to converting it into a viable business. She trusts her previous experience in the book trade will stand her in good stead.

At an early stage in the story, it becomes clear that Florence is not the only party interested in the Old House. Violet Gamart, one of Hardborough’s most powerful residents, has her eye on it for an arts centre. Hardborough must secure its place on the cultural landscape of Suffolk; it must keep pace with the likes of Aldeburgh.

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Undeterred by a thinly-veiled warning from Mrs Gamart, Florence presses ahead. With the aid of a loan from the bank, she acquires the Old House, a modest damp-infested property which comes complete with its own poltergeist (or ‘rapper’ to use the local term). In time she acquires a supply of stock and opens The Old House Bookshop for business.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this novel was Fitzgerald’s descriptions of Hardborough and its inhabitants. Here’s a short but effective description of this rather insular place:

The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold. (pg. 8)

Hardborough is the kind of microcosm where everybody knows everyone else’s business, ‘who was in financial straits, who would need larger family accommodation in nine months, and who was about to die.’ Fitzgerald presents several instances of how things work in Hardborough, but the following example is one of my favourites. Alongside the books for sale, Florence feels obliged to offer her customers a lending library facility, but the open collection system means that each borrower can see everyone else’s reservations. The Life of Queen Mary is much in demand, and several customers would like to borrow it; if only Mrs Thornton would come and collect her reservation. In the meantime, everyone else can see Queen Mary languishing on the shelf – a source of frustration for other borrowers, especially those who are desperate to get their hands on it. And to make matters worse, Mrs Thornton is rumoured to be a slow reader:

In point of time, Mrs Thornton had been the first to put it on her list; and Florence, confident in the justice of her method, placed the Thornton ticket in it. Every subscriber had a pink ticket, and the books were ranged alphabetically, waiting for collection. This was a grave weakness of the system. Everybody knew at a glance what everybody else had got. They should not have been poking about and turning things over in the painfully small space which had been cleared for the library, but they were unused to discipline. (pgs. 56-57)

In its first six months of business the bookshop does a fairly respectable trade; sales are modest, but not spectacular. One day, Florence receives a visit from a local resident, the rather slippery Milo North, who suggests that she order several copies of a recently-published novel, a book with the potential to sell like hot cakes. Florence is keen to ensure it is a good novel, one that is suitable to offer for sale to the inhabitants of Hardborough. With this in mind, she orders an inspection copy and asks her ally, the book-loving Mr Brundish, to give an opinion on its merits. On reading the novel, Brundish offers Florence the following view:

It is a good book, and therefore you should try to sell it to the inhabitants of Hardborough. They won’t understand it, but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy. (pg 101)

Florence forges ahead and orders 250 copies, she is pleased to make it available to her customers – the novel in question is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

As you can probably guess, the arrival of Lolita prompts a bit of a furore in Hardborough. Florence’s window display alone draws quite a crowd, enough to create a temporary obstruction on the highway. Violet Gamart lodges an objection, and a series of rather pointed letters pass between Florence and her solicitor. The other High Street traders are upset; Florence, however, is quietly determined to carry on:

Not one of the throng in the High Street had come into the dressmaker’s, still less bought a watercolour. Nor had they looked at the wet fish offered by Mr Deben. All the tradespeople were now either slightly or emphatically hostile to the Old House Bookshop. It was decided not to ask her to join the Inner Wheel of the Hardborough and District Rotary Club. (pg. 109)

It is fairly clear from an early stage in this novel that Florence is going to be up against it at every turn as she tries to make a success of the Old Bookshop. I don’t want to say too much about the closing stages of the book, but the final paragraph will leave you with an unforgettable image of Florence. My sympathies were with her right to the bitter end.

The Bookshop is a brilliant book, so finely observed and incisive. Fitzgerald’s prose is precise and economical, her sentences perfectly balanced – her style reminds me a little of Elizabeth Taylor’s (of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont fame). Like Taylor, Fitzgerald has a wonderful way of describing characters. Here’s an early description of Florence:

She was in appearance small, wispy and wiry, somewhat insignificant from the front view, and totally so from the back. She was not much talked about, not even in Hardborough, where everyone could be seen coming over the wide distances and everything seen was discussed. (pg. 2)

Perhaps the most telling insight into Florence’s character comes on the opening page:

She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation. (pg. 1)

Milo North, on the other hand, ‘was tall, and went through life with singularly little effort.’ ‘His fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage.’ (pg. 22)

Hierarchies and class systems play an important role in the novel. The future of Christine Gipping, Florence’s young assistant, rests on the outcome of her Eleven Plus. A pass would secure her entry to Grammar school and, in time, the possibility of marriage to ‘a white collar chap’ – a bright future for Christine. Failure would see her consigned to the Technical – if this were the case she wouldn’t ever be able to look above ‘a labouring chap or even an unemployed chap’.

Even the books for Florence’s lending library come with their own pecking order:

The books available on loan were divided into classes A, B, and C. A were very much in demand, B acceptable, and C frankly old and unwanted. For every A she borrowed, she must take three Bs and a large number of Cs for her subscribers. If she paid more, she could get more As, but also, a mounting pile of Bs and the repellent Cs, and nothing new would be sent until the last consignment was returned. (pg. 55)

Fitzgerald writes with great insight about life’s failings and disappointments, but she is a humorous writer too. I’ll draw to a close with a favourite quote, one that illustrates one of the challenges of life as a provincial bookseller – how to deal tactfully with requests from local authors. Their books came with titles such ‘On Foot Across the Marshes’ or ‘Awheel Across East Anglia’ for what else is there to do with flatlands but to cross them?

She vividly imagined their disillusionment, wedged behind the table with books and a pen in front of them, while the hours emptied away and no one came. ‘Tuesday is always a very quiet day in Hardborough, Mr ––, particularly if it is fine. I didn’t suggest Monday, because that would have been quieter still. Wednesdays are quiet too, except for the market, and Thursday is early closing. The customers will come in and ask for your book soon – of course they will, they have heard of you, you are a local author. Of course they will want your signature, they will come across the marshes, afoot and awheel.’ The thought of so much suffering and embarrassment was hard to bear, but at least she was in a position to see that it never took place. (pg. 69)

This is the second Penelope Fitzgerald I’ve reviewed, both are gems. The Bookshop is the more direct of the two, The Beginning of Spring the more mysterious. I can wholeheartedly recommend both.

The Bookshop is published in the UK by Fourth Estate. Source: personal copy. Book 15/20 in my #TBR20.

Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile (review)

Medardo Fraile, an eminent Spanish writer of short stories, was born in Madrid in 1925. Following a period of work in the theatre, he turned to short-story writing and his first collection of stories was published in Spanish in 1954. In the 1960s, he left Spain for the UK eventually settling in Scotland to teach at the University of Strathclyde. Things Look Different in the Light consists of twenty-nine of his stories taken from a range of collections first published between 1954 and 2010. This book represents the first selection of Fraile’s stories to be translated into English and what a little gem it is.

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Several of Fraile’s stories focus on the everyday: small occurrences that take on a level of significance; fleeting moments with the power to resonate and live long in the memory.

In Restless Eye, we follow a married couple over the course of one Saturday night. As they walk home from the cinema, the woman seems happy yet wistful, ‘filled by a pleasant sensation, by the playful, flickering flame of a vague desire, the savour of a different world, a world of carefree amusing people.’ As the couple approach their apartment, the woman hears the footsteps of a lone man following close behind. While her husband unlocks the door, she grasps the grille of the street door and looks out towards the pavement. It is as if she is transfixed by the sight of this stranger. He seems to represent a sense of freedom, excitement, perhaps even danger…something different to life with her husband:

The man following behind passed at precisely that moment. He was a dark, stocky young man, who, oblivious to her presence, glanced casually in through the door. She was standing motionless behind the grille, nonchalant, apparently distracted, a glint of boldness and fear in her restless eyes, following the man as he passed, following the wake left behind by his slow, deliberate swaying walk, by the sound of his sudden rasping cough. She felt the cold iron beneath her hand and saw the closed door. There was Saturday striding off down the street. She realized that her husband was holding the glass-panelled door open for her to pass… (pg 105)

Fraile manages to convey a range of moods through his stories. Several are sad or melancholy in tone. In other stories the mood shifts from one moment to the next; what starts as a happy occasion turns into an uncomfortable one. In Berta’s Presence, the opening story in this collection, a young man, Jacobo, is visiting friends as they celebrate their baby’s first birthday. The baby likes Jacobo, and she gurgles away as he produces a box of sweets from his pocket. But the situation changes when a young woman named Berta joins the gathering. Berta is imaginative and assured – she knows how to talk to children. Her mere presence appears to disturb Jacobo’s equilibrium; he worries that his efforts to amuse the baby will seem stilted and pointless by comparison.

In the title story from the collection, a painter is working underground on a sign for a metro station. Despite a lack of help from his surly boss, the man takes pride in his work, and he leaves the tunnel believing he has done a good job. His emergence into the sunlight signals a change in mood – his anger and frustration with the foreman are replaced by a more cheerful aura.  But there’s a twist in this tale; things really do look different in the light, but to say any more would only spoil this simple yet memorable story.

Given the title of this collection, it is perhaps not surprising that a number of these stories feature light, or more specifically, the ability of light to enliven or to enhance a particular mood. In Child’s Play, one of my favourites in the collection, two elderly sisters combat the darkening of their world by dialling up the light in their sitting room. As the sisters grow old, their desire for light increases; they need a little more each day to erase the years, to recapture the shine in their hair and the sparkle in their eyes. They continue to add more pendants and bulbs to their crystal chandelier. As the installation grows, the furniture has to be reduced in size to make room for the fittings. The chandelier seems to have assumed a life of its own:

So vast and intricate was the crystal chandelier that its arms touched the four walls of the room and nearly reached the floor, stopping only half a metre away. In the evening, it was a veritable forest of glinting crystals, a bag of light, a labyrinth, a hanging city. It had to be secured to the ceiling by five chains when it reached its prime, its peak, when Flora and Martita were old, too old, and sat beneath the chandelier like two transparent raisins filled with light. (pgs. 51-52)

Full Stop (another favourite) is one of the most poignant stories in the collection. This tale features a teacher who sets his class a dictation exercise based on a passage from one of his own letters. One student is asked to note the text on the classroom blackboard while the others must write the passage in their exercise books. Once the exercise is complete, the pupils seem eager to clear the board – they are in a rush to move on to the next thing. As he watches his words disappear from the blackboard, the teacher becomes aware of the transient, impermanent nature of life itself. It’s almost as if his own life has been erased:

He was left alone, putting on his gloves. He thought: “They didn’t even erase me slowly.” He was looking at the black rectangular board, like a precise, deep, dark hole. The now silent blackboard. He had been written on that board and now he had been erased. And with such rancour, such haste! His heart, he sensed, was clouding over. “How many others like me,” he thought, “lie behind that board, forgotten, lost, erased for ever, just like that?” (pg. 137)

Fraile grew up in Madrid and lived through the siege of the city during the Spanish Civil War. This experience appears to have seeped into An Episode from National History, one of the most powerful stories in the collection. Set in Madrid, it features a young boy of twelve and his school friend, Plácido. One day in 1938, Plácido and his mother call at the boy’s apartment in search of refuge. The boy is out at the time, and his stepmother and aunt turn Plácido and his mother away. It’s a poignant story tinged with sadness and regret; I wondered if it was semi-autobiographical or inspired by someone known to Fraile at the time.

It’s not all heartache and sorrow though; some of these stories are playful or humorous in tone. This passage from What’s Going On in That Head of Yours?, for instance, offers a glimpse of Fraile’s talent for wry humour. (The narrator is describing his time at University):

It was a curious world full of very pompous people, whom one gradually got used to. The girls weren’t like that. They were ordinary and pretty and often burst into tears. Generally speaking, the girls led a life of leisure in the afternoons, quite different from ours. We gave ourselves over to scepticism, getting chilled to the bone and talking. Many of us spent the afternoons recovering from colds. Everyone hated the textbooks. (pg. 28)

Things Look Different in the Light is an excellent collection, one of the best I’ve read for a while. Fraile’s stories are subtle, nuanced and beautifully observed. I love how they highlight situations or moods that turn on the tiniest of moments. Fraile’s focus is in the minutiae of everyday life, but these are no ordinary stories – they sparkle, refracting the light like the crystal chandelier in Child’s Play.

I must thank Grant at 1st reading and Scott at Seraillon for introducing me to the delights of Fraile’s writing – just click on the links to read their reviews.

Things Look Different in the Light (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa) comes with an excellent foreword by Ali Smith.

Published by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy. Book 13/20 in my #TBR20.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Last year I read so many good books that I struggled to find space for them all on my end-of-year round-up. When the time comes to compile my 2015 list, I shall have to find a place for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as it’s such a brilliant novel: heart-rending and touching, so sharply observed and full of insight.

First published in 1971, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont features a recently widowed elderly lady, Laura Palfrey. In need of somewhere to live, Mrs Palfrey moves into the Claremont Hotel, a respectable establishment on the Cromwell Road, South Kensington, where she is likely to remain until a move to a nursing home or hospital can no longer be avoided. On her arrival at the Claremont, Mrs Palfrey joins a small group of elderly women and one lone man who have also moved to the hotel out of necessity. All are no longer able to manage on their own.

The Claremont is reasonably clean but somewhat lacking in atmosphere. At first, Mrs Palfrey wonders if she has made a terrible mistake in moving there, a feeling only reinforced by her initial impressions at dinner:

At other tables sat a few other elderly ladies looking, to Mr Palfrey, as if they had been sitting there for years. They were waiting patiently for the celery soup, hands folded in laps and eyes dreamy. (pg. 5)

Mrs Palfrey knows, however, that she must soldier on, and having made it through her first night, she decides to make the best of her new life. Over the course of the first few days, she is able to pinpoint the long-term residents, and a picture of each one soon emerges.

Elizabeth Taylor is very adept at describing people; she seems to have an innate ability to convey the sense of a character in just a few sentences. Here she is on three of the Claremont’s residents: the blustering Mr Osmond, the lively Mrs Burton and the rather bitter and brittle Mrs Arbuthnot:

Mr Osmond drank wine. He sat very still with the glass beside him as if it were keeping him company. He waited for the manager, who occasionally looked in. He could not hide his annoyance when Mrs Burton came down to his part of the lounge and kept pressing the bell for whiskies. She spent a great deal of money on whisky, which was a marvel to the other ladies – throwing money down her throat, Mrs Post said. She had other extravagances, such as mauve-rinsed hair, and what Mrs Arbuthnot always referred to as chain-smoking, although it was not. Mrs Arbuthnot, perhaps because of her arthritis, found it in her nature to be disparaging. (pgs. 11-12)

Each one of these characters has their own idiosyncrasies, their own habits and mannerisms, and Taylor captures these perfectly. What they all share is a feeling of loneliness and boredom, a need to adapt to constraints of old age, a reliance on others to brighten their days. All remember happier times: the lives they shared with their spouses; the ability to entertain family and friends; the comfort of the own homes.

Time drags at the Claremont; the days are long and drawn out, punctuated by mealtimes, walks and the occasional visiting relative. One day, on her return from the library, Mrs Palfrey slips on the pavement and falls. Luckily for Mrs Palfrey, a considerate young man named Ludo emerges from his basement flat and comes to her aid. As a thank you for his kindness, Mrs Palfrey invites Ludo to dinner at the Claremont the following Saturday, a day when ‘there is usually a rather better menu’. Ludo, an impoverished aspiring writer, is also rather lonely and willingly accepts her offer of a decent meal. Further, Mrs Palfrey sees an opportunity for Ludo to help her out of a tight spot with the other residents. In order to save face, she persuades him to stand in as her grandson, Desmond, who has resolutely failed to visit her. Thinking it will be a lark, Ludo agrees.

Taylor, an acute observer of social situations, is very aware of the little condescending remarks people make with the aim of needling others. Sometimes it’s not just what they say, but the tone of voice they use too (Taylor’s prose somehow manages to give a real sense of this). It’s a little difficult to appreciate the full effect here, but when Mrs Arbuthnot overhears Mrs Palfrey informing the waiter that a guest will be joining her for dinner she cannot resist the following slight:

‘So your grandson is coming to see you at last,’ Mrs Arbuthnot had said on her slow way past Mrs Palfrey’s table and, for some reason searched for later, Mrs Palfrey let her go without a word. (pg. 32)

On the evening itself, Ludo manages to stand up to the scrutiny of Mrs Arbuthnot. The dinner is a success and Mrs Palfrey regains a sense of dignity. Ludo gains something from the evening too, not just a hot meal but an opportunity to do some research for his novel ‘They Weren’t Allowed to Die There’, a title inspired by Mrs Palfrey’s own words.

He drank his soup, ate his veal with a kind of hungry concentration, which was a great pleasure to Mrs Palfrey. She was doing something for him, as he was doing something for her, and when he lifted his glass to her, she felt – for the first time since she came to the Claremont – that she was envied and respected, knowing herself watched form the other tables. (pg. 39)

An unlikely and touching friendship develops between the two, but it is also tinged with uncertainty. They get along very well, but there are times when they are unsure as to what to say to each other or how to react. The scenes of the two of them together are charming, and it is clear that Mrs Palfrey would love to have someone like Ludo as her real grandson. He also encourages her to do one or two things she would never have contemplated before. In one of my favourite passages from the novel, Ludo invites Mrs Palfrey to share a simple dinner in his threadbare flat, an outing that brightens her evening no end.

Mrs Palfrey is a melancholy story, and Taylor describes the loneliness and vulnerability of old age so well. In this scene, Mrs Palfrey decides to visit Ludo. She wishes to deliver a jumper she has knitted for him and feels sure he will be at home on a Saturday afternoon. The fall, however, has left her feeling increasingly frail:

She realised that she never walked now without knowing what she was doing and concentrating upon it; once, walking had been like breathing, something unheeded. The disaster of being old was in not feeling safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of reach.

Her fall had deepened her uncertainty. And there was no husband to take her arm across a road, or protect her from indignity when she failed. I can have a little rest when I get there, she promised herself. And perhaps he will offer me a cup of tea. (pg. 73)

I find that quote very poignant, especially Mrs Palfrey’s wish for a little rest and a cup of tea when she arrives at Ludo’s flat. She longs for a few moments of relief and hospitality to break up the day.

This probably sounds like a very sad book, and it is sad, but Mrs Palfrey is also peppered with humour. Taylor has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and there are some priceless exchanges between the Claremont’s residents. The novel also contains a marvellous set piece, a cocktail party given by a temporary resident of the hotel, Mrs de Salis, following her move to a new flat. This next passage captures Claremont resident Mrs Post’s memories of the party (one of the guests is an actress; Willie is Mrs de Salis’s much-trumpeted son):

Mrs Post had lain quietly down and switched off the bedside lamp. Her head was like a magic-lantern into which slides were thrust noisily, one after the other. Mrs Darling of Peter Pan, opened and shut her mouth, but nothing came out of it – a pity, for Mrs Post had hoped to remember some of this conversation for her cousin; there had been sausages, she thought, certainly peanuts; Mrs Burton had sung loudly, rather disgracing them, but that was earlier on; Willie had rather disappointed.

‘I’m glad I went,’ she thought defiantly, ‘but I shouldn’t like to have to go again tomorrow.’ (pg. 162)

I don’t want to reveal anything else about the story, save to say that we follow Mrs Palfrey for the best part of a year. It’s a beautiful, poignant and thought-provoking novel, one that 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, the desire to feel valued.

Taylor’s characters are nuanced and so finely observed she makes us care about these people. Our feelings for Mrs Palfrey are a given, and the seemingly insufferable Mr Osmond has a softer, more compassionate side. Even Mrs Arbuthnot elicits some sympathy as her flashes of cruelty seem born out of frustration.

This is my first experience of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, and I definitely want to read others in the future (I’ve dabbled with her short stories, but it’s been a while). Her prose style is very precise and economical, she makes every word count. The writing is superb.

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Finally, a few words about my edition, which comes with a rather staid and cosy cover. Please don’t let it put you off this book as the writing is anything but sentimental and cosy. This is a sharp and perceptive novel – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Caroline (at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat), Ali (at Heavenali), Karen (at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Caroline (at book word) have also reviewed Mrs Palfrey.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 11/20 in my #TBR20.

Academy Street by Mary Costello

Costello’s debut novel, Academy Street, focuses on the life of Tess Lohan, a girl born and raised on a farm in rural Ireland. The novel opens in the mid-1940s with the death of Tess’ mother, a life cut short by tuberculosis.

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Tess is considered too young to attend her mother’s funeral – she must stay at home for the day. Tess is seven at the time, and we get the sense that her family have told her very little about her mother’s death. When she sees the coffin being manoeuvred down the stairs Tess realises her mother has gone:

The stairs sweep up and turn to the right and it is here on the turn, by the stained-glass window, that her uncle’s back comes into view. Light is streaming in. Her heart starts to beat fast. She sees the back of a neighbour, Tommy Burns, and her other uncle, struggling. And then she understands. At the exact moment she sees the coffin, she understands. (pg. 5, Canongate)

This pivotal event in Tess’ childhood sets the tone for the decades that follow. Life on the farm is very quiet and Tess retreats into herself.  She is deeply affected by the loss of her mother. Tess’ father is strict and taciturn; her closest friends are her older sister, Claire, and farm hand, Mike Connolly.

The remainder of the first third of the novel touches on key moments in Tess’ childhood, most notably an encounter which renders her unable to speak for several months. We follow Tess as she moves to boarding school and then to Dublin where she trains as a nurse. During her time as a nurse, she is kind and polite to her colleagues but retreats into the shadows wherever possible:

She goes to the cinema with a girl from Cork, but mostly avoids social gatherings and nights out. The shyness she feels among others, and the terrible need to fit in, cause her such anxiety that when the evening arrives the prospect of going among people renders her immobile, disabled, sometimes physically sick. Whenever possible, she opts for night duty, the low lights and the hush of the ward offering the closest thing to solitude available in a working life. (pg. 52)

By this stage in Tess’ life her beloved sister, Claire, has moved to New York. Each time Tess returns to Easterfield, the family home, she notices the changes: Mike Connolly has moved on, too old and ill to tend the farm any longer; the family’s dog has passed away; her younger brother, Oliver, has grown up. Tess realises there is little left for her in Ireland, so she decides to follow in Claire’s footsteps by moving to America. (By now we are in the early 1960s.)

The remainder of the novel concerns itself with Tess’ life in New York. She moves in with her Aunt Molly and another boarder, Fritz. As the months pass, Tess begins to get accustomed to the rhythm of the city. She finds a nursing job at the hospital; she seeks solace in books. New York buzzes with vitality, but as Tess goes about her days the shadow of loneliness that has characterised her life continues to accompany her.

In time, Tess befriends another Irish nurse, Anne, and the two women rent an apartment together. When Tess joins her flatmate on a picnic, she meets a young Irish lawyer named David. He reminds Tess of a quieter, brighter version of her brother, Oliver, and for the first time in her adult life she feels the pull of attraction:

She was aware of every breath, the flex of every muscle, where his eyes fell, his hands. To be this watchful, this attuned to a man, a stranger, excited and confused her. (pg.71)

Tess longs to see David again. We get a sense that she is wrestling with the uncertainty of these strange new feelings, torn between the possibility of love and a natural tendency to withdraw.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the intensity of feeling Costello brings to Tess’ story. The prose is spare and controlled but the reader feels a sense of closeness to Tess – it’s as if we have near complete access to her thoughts and emotions. This next quote should help illustrate the style – Tess and David are alone together at Anne’s wedding reception:

He looked out across the lawn, into the twilight. In the silence that ensued she arrived at a complete understanding of him. Recalling this moment later she could not say how she had come to this understanding, only that she had, she had fathomed something deep in him. It was more than fellow feeling. It was as if she had perceived all the joy and fear and pain that had ever entered his heart, and he had let her. For an instant he had let her love him. (pg. 83)

This is quite a difficult novel to review without revealing key aspects of the plot, and to say any more might be a step too far.

Academy Street is a poignant novel, the deeply moving story of a quiet life. The tone is achingly melancholy, but there are moments of intense beauty amidst the heartache.

Costello has a great eye for detail, aspects that add a sense of authenticity or something extra to the narrative. To give you an example, there is a telling moment as Tess leaves the family home to fly to America. She turns her head to the lone ash among a group of beech trees and sees for the first time ‘a band of barbed wire embedded in the trunk, the flesh forced to grow over the spikes in pained little folds and swellings.’ A reflection, perhaps, of the hurt in her life. Religion and Biblical references also feature in the novel, particularly the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

I’ll end with a favourite quote from this notable debut novel. Tess has never enjoyed a particularly close relationship with her father. Prior to flying to America, there comes a moment when Tess reaches an understanding with him, and she catches a glimpse of everything he has suffered:

A peaceful lull falls on the kitchen and she looks at him. ‘Will I cut your hair?’ she asks. He turns his head towards her, and she waits to be denounced. He looks at her, baffled, stunned, as if he has suddenly found himself somewhere else. His chin begins to quiver, and he looks down. She is flooded with tender feelings for him. She sees for the first time all he has endured. (pg. 54)

I read Academy Street to participate in Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books.

Several other bloggers have reviewed this novel – they include Naomi (The Writes of Women), Eric (Lonesome Reader), Kim (Reading Matters), Susan (A Life in Books) and Clare (A Little Blog of Books).

Academy Street is published by Canongate. Source: personal copy (eBook). Book 14/20 in my #TBR20.

Run River by Joan Didion (review)

Joan Didion was born and raised in Sacramento, a place that provides the setting for her debut novel Run River published in 1963.

The novel opens in the blistering heat of the summer of 1959. Shortly after midnight, Lily McClellan hears a gunshot outside her home, the ranch she shares with her husband, Everett, and two teenage children. At first she remains untroubled as if there was a sense of inevitability about the shooting. When she searches for her husband’s gun in the drawer of the bedside table, she finds it is missing; somehow she knew it wouldn’t be there.

Fifteen minutes later Lily finds Everett down by the river that runs past the McClellan ranch where he has shot and killed her lover, Ryder Channing. Everett had known that Lily was due to meet Channing by the dock that evening, but he got there before her.

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Even in these early scenes there’s a sense of detachment, a feeling that captures something of the tone of Lily and Everett’s marriage. It’s almost as though they are observing rather than participating in their own lives:

Now that it was done, now that Channing lay dead between the river and where they stood, it seemed to Everett that none of them, least of all Lily, could have been involved: that all of them, he, Lily, and Channing, had simply been spectators at something that happened a long time ago to several other people. (pg. 19)

This could have been a book about the aftermath of the shooting. Instead though we move back in time, and the majority of the novel focuses on the story of Lily and Everett’s relationship from 1938 to 1959. Lily has been studying at Berkeley for a year when Everett shows an interest in her. A shy and uncertain seventeen-year-old, Lily has struggled to form any meaningful relationships at college and seems reluctant to return. She falls in with Everett as it seems like the easy thing to do. Their families come from similar stock: both own and run agricultural ranches in Sacramento; both are descended from pioneers who made their way to California in the 19th century.

Lily agrees to marry Everett, but she seems reluctant to announce their engagement. In the end, Everett drives her to Reno and they marry in secret, another scene that hints at Lily’s sense of detachment from what is happening in her life:

The ceremony was witnessed by the wife and son of the justice: the son pulled on blue jeans, the fly open, over his maroon-striped pajamas; the wife, roused unwillingly but dutiful, smiled drowsily and patted Lily’s hair. Not quite eighteen, Lily had the distinct impression throughout the ceremony that her lie about her age would render the marriage invalid, nullify the entire affair, no tears, nothing irrevocable, only a polite misunderstanding among good acquaintances. (pg. 66)

The couple return to the McClellan ranch in Sacramento to live with Everett’s father, but despite the arrival of two children, Lily feels isolated in her marriage. She has no real friends to speak of, only Everett’s somewhat flighty sister, Martha, and her attempts to host luncheons and social gatherings seem to lack any sparkle. There is something very fragile about Lily, almost as if she might snap in two at the slightest touch. I felt sad for her, especially when I read the following passage:

Well, she had at least given Everett what he wanted. Even Martha could scarcely have given him two children. But she could not escape the uneasy certainty that she had done so herself only by way of some intricate deception, that her entire life with Everett was an improvisation dependent upon cues she might one day fail to hear, characterizations she might at any time forget. (pg. 94)

At this point, I should tell you a little about Everett’s younger sister, Martha. She is very protective of her relationship with Everett, perhaps unhealthily so. It’s as if she believes that no other woman would ever be good enough for Everett, and if she can’t have him then no one else will:

“You’ve got no right to my brother,” Martha whispered, standing up unsteadily. “No right.” (pg. 119)

Martha is somewhat unstable, self-interested and prone to drinking and bouts of depression. (She reminds me a little of Cassandra Edwards from Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding, a novel that made my end-of-year list in 2014.) When Everett enlists in the war, Martha arrives at the train station where she takes centre stage gatecrashing Lily and Everett’s final moments together. Martha appears wearing a dirty raincoat over her nightgown; it’s a scene that captures the nature of her character:

Martha shrugged and got out of the car. “All right, you’re not a bit strong. It’s your act, Lily baby, you play it any way you want. Anyway,” she added, “you’re strong enough to make people take care of you.”

Even if Lily had been able to think what to say it would have been too late: Martha was already running up the walk, her hands over her face, running and stumbling on the lace hem of the pale blue nightgown, last year’s Christmas present from Everett, picked out by Lily, extravagantly expensive, handmade at Maison Mendessolle in the St. Francis Hotel. (pg. 104)

With Everett away, Lily begins an affair with one of her neighbours, Joe Templeton. She doesn’t love him though; it’s a relationship going nowhere, born out of a sense of loneliness in Lily’s marriage and Joe’s need for a break from his alcoholic wife. The affair ends in pain for Lily and Everett, but they remain together despite a lack of understanding of what they really want from each other.

Lily meets Ryder Channing through Martha – she and Channing ride out a turbulent relationship for the best part of five years. Everett dislikes him from the get-go. He sees Channing as a player; someone who could turn any situation to his advantage. Someone who has no business being around Martha. Channing is a figurehead for the new money flooding into California in the form of property investment and development. We know from the novel’s opening chapters that Lily has an affair with Channing, but I’ll leave it there to avoid revealing anything else about the plot.

I loved the melancholy tone of this story. There is a sense of things dying here: Lily and Everett’s relationship; the traditional rancher’s way of life; people die too. I can’t imagine it being set anywhere other than California. In some ways, it’s a lament for a period that has all but disappeared.

This is my first encounter with Didion, and I definitely want to read more of her work. Her prose is lucid and insightful. The book feels mature and assured for a debut novel – as if it’s been written by a more experienced author.

Didion captures Lily’s character perfectly: the feeling of isolation in her relationship with Everett; the sense that he doesn’t know how to connect with her; the feeling she is acting out a part. There is something elusive, possibly unknowable, about Everett’s character…deliberately so, I think.

I didn’t want this book to end; I wanted to stay with these characters and learn more about their lives. I’ll finish with a quote that seems to convey the disintegration that characterises the final stages of Lily and Everett’s relationship – during a brief trip to Salinas they stop at a hotel:

It did not seem to matter any more who had first resented whom, or for what. It did not seem to matter what either of them did any more: it could begin out of nothing. It could begin when they were trying hardest to keep it away, could tear apart all their tacit promises, could invade even the cunningly achieved anonymity of motel rooms with wall-to-wall tweed carpeting, rooms in which they had thought they might begin again; rooms in which she could feel, in the first glow of the first drink, that Everett was someone she did not know at all, someone to whom she might seem the gifted, graced, charmed woman she had wanted to be. (pp. 240-241)

Emma at Book Around the Corner has also reviewed Run River, and it was her excellent billet that prompted me read this book (number 10/20 in my #TBR20).

Run River is published by Vintage International. Source: personal copy.

A Heart So White by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

I often reread a favourite book during the dark days of winter. It’s usually something like The Great Gatsby, but this year I chose A Heart So White by Javier Marías (first published in Spanish in 1992) with a view to writing about it here.

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A Heart So White is narrated by Juan, a translator and interpreter living in Madrid with his new wife, Luisa, also a translator/interpreter. The novel has one of the most intriguing openings I can recall from my recent reading. Here’s how it begins:

I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests. (pg. 3)

Juan is talking about the death of his father’s wife, Teresa, shortly after the couple’s honeymoon some forty years ago. Juan’s father, Ranz, was not present at the moment of Teresa’s death, and at the time, no one appeared to know why she took her own life. Following his wife’s suicide, Ranz married Teresa’s sister, Juana (Juan’s mother).

At this point in the novel, we don’t know exactly when or how Juan learned of the circumstances surrounding Teresa’s death, and this hints at one of the book’s main themes: our desire to keep secrets from those closest to us.

This theme is developed as Juan reflects on his own wedding day. (The timeline moves backwards and forwards over the course of the novel but many of the scenes are set within the first year of Juan and Luisa’s marriage.) Juan has never had a particularly close relationship with his father, and when Ranz calls him to one side after the ceremony to offer a little advice, the conversation turns to secrets:

“…The world is full of surprises and of secrets. We think we know the people close to us, but time brings with it more things that we don’t know than things we do, comparatively speaking we know less all the time, there’s always a greater area of shadow. Even if the illuminated area grows larger too, the shadows still win…” (pg. 84)

At first Juan wonders if his father has discovered something terrible about Luisa only to reveal it after the wedding, but this does not appear to be the case. If anything Ranz appears helpless and a little fearful. Once Ranz recovers his composure, he leaves his son with the following advice but fails to offer any explanation for this enigmatic statement:

“I’ll just say one thing,” he said. “If you ever do have any secrets or if you already have, don’t tell her.” And smiling again, he added: “Good luck.” (pg. 89)

When Juan and Luisa return from their honeymoon, a family ‘friend’ lets slip that Teresa took her own life all those years ago. This revelation raises questions about Ranz’s relationship with Teresa, but when Juan asks his father about his past, he chooses to remain silent. Ultimately, it falls to Luisa to encourage Juan’s father to talk.

By the end of the novel the uncertainties surrounding Teresa’s suicide are resolved, but as with The Infatuations (Marías’s most recent book), A Heart So White offers so much more than a conventional mystery. It seems (at least in part) to be a meditation on some of Marias’s favourite themes: truth, secrets, relationships, communication and death.

During the course of Heart, Marías touches on the nature of marriage, whether it signals the end of an abstract future and a curtailment of choice. Despite his love for Luisa, Juan is troubled by feelings of doubt both during and after the honeymoon. There is a sense that Juan initially sees marriage to Luisa as an ending as opposed to the beginning of a new phase. It is entirely possible that he is experiencing some kind of existential crisis, a deep feeling of unease precipitated by his conversation with Ranz at the wedding ceremony:

I realized that I found it very difficult to think about her and utterly impossible to think about the future, which is one of the greatest conceivable pleasures known to anyone, if not the daily salvation of us all; to allow oneself to think vague thoughts, to let one’s thoughts drift over what will or might happen, to wonder without too much exactitude or intensity what will become of us tomorrow or in five years’ time, to wonder about things we cannot foresee. On my honeymoon it was if the future had disappeared and there was no abstract future at all, which is the only future that matters because the present can neither taint nor assimilate it. (pgs. 11-12)

Another of Marías’s themes concerns itself with how relationships lead to obligations and coercions, how these feelings may influence our actions. These ideas prove central to the mysteries surrounding Teresa’s death (as do the novel’s title and epigraph which come from Shakespeare’s Macbeth):

“Everyone obliges everyone else, not so much to do something they don’t want to do, but rather to do something they’re not sure they want to do, because hardly anyone knows what they don’t want, still less what they do want, there’s no way of knowing that .” (pg. 175)

All this might sound rather deep (and it is), but there is humour in this novel too. In particular, Marías has great fun with the world of translators and interpreters, an arena that Juan and Luisa know very well. During the course of his work Juan must travel to New York, Geneva and other cities where he spends eight weeks at a time in the company of organizations ‘gripped by a veritable translational fever.’  Here’s Juan on his role as an interpreter at a typical international congress or meeting:

Some idiot has only to fire off some idiotic remark to one of these organizations for it to be instantly translated into all six official languages, English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabic. Everything gets turned into French and into Arabic, into Chinese and Russian, be it the foolish thoughts of some enthusiast on the sidelines or some other idiot’s bright idea. Even if nothing is ever done about them, they get translated. (pg. 49)

The novel also includes a very funny scene where Juan deliberately mistranslates and twists the words of a high-ranking Spanish politician during a private meeting with his British counterpart. (The British politician is almost certainly Margaret Thatcher.)

At first this topic might seem unconnected to the novel’s other themes, but I think Marías is drawing a link between the process of translation and the communication of information – how secrets are never revealed or translated, and the real truth remains concealed:

…the only truth is that which is known to no one and which remains un-transmitted, that which is not translated into words or images, that which remains concealed and unverified, which is perhaps why we do recount so much or even everything, to make sure that nothing has ever really happened, not once it’s been told. (pg. 186)

Heart is a novel to sink into and savour. Marías’s themes are deep, and there’s a philosophical, meditative quality to his writing. His long, looping sentences seem to capture a person’s thought process by giving us their initial perceptions or ideas, sometimes followed by qualifications or even an alternative theory. I love the writing in Heart and The Infatuations: the style is reflective and the tone quite seductive at times.

I feel this review is somewhat disjointed, and it might be a reflection of the episodic nature of Heart’s plot. The experience of reading Heart feels a little like observing a sequence of scenes from a play – each one conveying a very vivid picture, a scene from a life, but the narrative itself is not straightforward.

Particular images and ideas recur and reverberate throughout the novel: the image of man observing a woman from a distance; a man watching an apartment window; murmurs and whispers overheard in part; a hand on a shoulder; a head on a pillow…there are more, including the repetition of certain phrases or passages of prose. Each time an image or passage recurs, the context is different, but we know the scenes are connected in some way. For instance, there are parallels between an adulterous couple Juan and Luisa encounter on their honeymoon and other relationships in the narrative. It’s a novel brimming with reflections.

The plot is very cleverly constructed; it feels layered, and I noticed additional connections on this second reading. In the closing chapters, Marías goes for a resolution, and Juan discovers the reason for Teresa’s suicide. It’s a great ending and a very satisfying one.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I absolutely love this book, and Marías is fast becoming one of my favourite writers.

Other bloggers have reviewed this novel – they include Richard (at Caravana de Recuerdos) and Tony Malone.

A Heart So White (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa) is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 9/20 in my #TBR20.