Monthly Archives: July 2017

#WITMonth is coming – some suggestions of books by women in translation

As in previous years, Meytal at the Biblibio blog will be hosting Women in Translation (#WITMonth) throughout the month of August. It’s a celebration of translated literature by women writers – you can find out more about it here. I’ve reviewed quite a few books in this category over the years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read next month, here are a few of my favourites.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

A quintessential summer read, Bonjour Tristesse is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions, all set against the blistering heat of the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel – I’ll be reading Sagan again this year, this time in an Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these individuals as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. All in all, this is a delightfully entertaining read.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was just twenty-three when her debut novel, Nada, was published. It’s an excellent book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. Here we see the portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. This is a wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. Truly deserving of its status as a Spanish classic.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940, Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. This was a standout read for me.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson)

By turns satirical, insightful, artful and poignant, this is a fascinating collection of short stories and sketches, notable for the sheer variety in tone. What makes these stories particularly intriguing is their connection to various aspects of Teffi’s own life and experience, from her time in Russia prior the Revolution to the years she spent as an émigré in Paris. Her first-hand account of Rasputin – a highly perceptive piece – is worth the entry price alone.

La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

When Elisa realises her husband, Gilles, has become entangled with Victorine, her attractive younger sister, she is devastated. Beautifully written in a sensual, intimate style, this is a very compelling novel with a powerful ending. The writing is spare but very emotive – Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to Elisa’s point of view giving us near-complete access to her inner thoughts and feelings. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of writers like Simenon and Jean Rhys.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the stories in this volume of forty-two stories drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of her pieces point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. An unusual and poetic collection of stories that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. A good one for dipping into, especially if you’re in the mood for something different.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

More short fiction, this time from Japan, Revenge comprises eleven interlinked short stories, elegantly connected via a set of recurring images and motifs threaded through the individual narratives. Characters flow from one story to the next; we revisit specific locations and scenes from earlier tales, only to see things from a different viewpoint as our perspective changes. It’s all very cleverly constructed. In Revenge, we meet characters who seem isolated or detached from society in some way; many live alone, their lives infused with sadness and loneliness. Ogawa has a real talent for exploring some of the disquieting parts of the human psyche, the acts of darkness that can lurk just beneath the surface of the everyday. An excellent collection of unsettling stories.

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

To be honest, highly autobiographical books aren’t my usual my cup of tea, but NHBtN is so good that it warrants inclusion here. Virtually impossible to summarise in a couple of sentences, this remarkable story focuses on a woman’s quest to gain a deeper understanding of her mother following the latter’s death by suicide. A genuinely absorbing and compelling book, beautifully written in a sensitive style – de Vigan’s prose is simply luminous.

And finally, a special mention for a fairly recent read:

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal (tr. Jessica Moore)

In this highly unusual, utterly compelling novel, we follow Simon Limbeau’s heart for twenty-four hours – from the young man’s death in a freak accident one morning, to the delicate discussions on organ donation with his parents, to the transfer of his heart to an anxious recipient in another city later that evening. De Kerangel explores the clinical, ethical and the emotional issues at play with great sensitivity. Superbly written in a fluid, lyrical style, this is a novel that will stay with you long after the final page has been turned. (A cliché, I know – but in this case, it’s actually very apt.)

This book has already been widely reviewed across the blogosphere, so I’m not planning to cover it in more detail here. Instead, I can point you towards a couple of thoughtful posts that I recall seeing – this one by Grant at 1streading and this one by Marina Sofia. It’s definitely worth considering.

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 one or two of them next month. Maybe you have plans of your own – if so, what do you have in mind? Or perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? Please feel free to mention it here.

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

First published in 1953, Black Wings Has My Angel is now regarded as something of a noir fiction classic, aided no doubt by the publication of the NYRB Classics edition at the beginning of 2016. As a novel, it has all the hallmarks of a top-flight noir: a damaged soul driven by lust, desire, frustration and greed; a manipulative femme fatale who turns out to be more rapacious and unhinged than the protagonist himself; and an unstable situation that proves a catalyst for their ultimate self-destruction.

Chaze’s novel is narrated by a man who calls himself Tim Sunblade, a small-time con on the run following a breakout from Parchman Penitentiary, Mississippi. Having amassed some ready cash by roughnecking it on a drilling rig in the Atchafalaya River for a few months, Tim is just about set to hit the road for Denver where he hopes to make a big killing. His ultimate aim is to carry out a heist on an armoured vehicle full of cash, a plan originally hatched by Jeepie, a fellow inmate at Parchman who was shot during the escape.

As the novel opens, Tim is relaxing in the bath in some two-bit hotel in Louisiana when the bellhop brings him a ten-dollar prostitute for the night, a shapely number by the name of Virginia. But, as we soon discover, Virginia is no ordinary small-town hooker; she’s a classy lady, leggy and beautiful – ‘a slender, poised thing with skin the colour of pearls melted in honey’. It’s pretty clear that Virginia is somewhat out of place in this joint. There are hints of money about her person – good clothes, expensive-looking luggage, and a general desire for the high life. If truth be told, Virginia is actually a five-hundred-dollar-a-night call girl on the run from a messy situation in New York, something involving the city’s District Attorney – a revelation that emerges a little later in the story. At this stage in the game, Tim knows that something is up; he just doesn’t know what exactly. Nevertheless, after a few days of wild sex, he finds himself attracted to Virginia, so he decides to take her on the road with him, at least for a while.

Going across the Red River bridge, I sailed my Mississippi tags over the iron railing and saw them hit the water with a splash, forty feet below. She watched me, leaning back in her padded-leather corner, smoking quietly. Nothing seemed to surprise her: the car, the tags, the business of taking an unchartered trip with an unknown man. The wind whipped her bright hair the way it does in the soft-drink advertisements, co-operatively, beautifully. The cross-stripes of tar on the white highway thumped faster and faster beneath the wheels until the thumping became a buzzing. The air was soft, yet not dead. And over all of it lay the very good feeling of going somewhere. (p. 13)

At first, Tim convinces himself that he’s going to dump Virginia at a filling station on the way to Denver – a woman like her is always going to attract a lot of attention, and that’s the last thing he needs if he’s going to get away with the heist. But the robbery is a two-person job, and he needs an accomplice to pull it off. So, after a few cat fights along the way, Tim decides that Virginia is cool enough and tough enough to help him out with the raid. Plus, by this point, he’s fallen for her, which means there’s more than one reason to keep her around.

On their arrival in Colorado, the pair begin to make plans. They rent a house in a decent neighbourhood in Denver where they pose as newlyweds, just an ordinary, respectable couple going about their business like any other. Tim gets a job in a sheet metal plant, a role that gives him access to the tools and other resources he needs to prepare for the heist. On his days off work, he follows the bank’s armoured car, monitoring its movements in detail to establish the driver’s routine when making the pickups. By doing so, Tim uncovers a habit that the driver’s sidekick has fallen into, something that will give him an ‘in’ when it comes to pulling the heist.

Meanwhile, back at the house, Virginia is getting impatient, eager as she is to get her hands on the money with the aim of hightailing out of Denver, away from the monotony of a life posing as a contented housewife. As a consequence, she begins to turn up the heat on Tim…

All of a sudden I was mad and sick. I loathed the sound of the knife on the oilstone. I wanted to throw it in her face and get out of the car and start running, anywhere, just running. […] I was going downtown to kill a man who hadn’t done a damned thing to me, to kill an old guy whose only fault as far as I knew was throwing chewing gum wrappers in the street. I was going to kill him because I wanted money more than I wanted him to live and I was going to kill him filthily. Or maybe I wasn’t. Maybe he was going to kill me and go on the rest of his life with the gum wrappers. I know now that I would have probably backed out of it if it hadn’t been for Virginia and the desire to remain a big bad lad in her eyes. Anyway, I didn’t want any mushy farewell business with Virginia, no sentimental sendoff. Not for a thing like this. (p. 115)

I’ll leave it there with the plot, save to say that Tim and Virginia’s story doesn’t end with the heist. In a gripping denouement, two cruel twists of fate come together, developments that ultimately prove to be the couple’s undoing. It’s as if Tim and Virginia are chasing a dream that will never bring them any real happiness or sense of satisfaction in life, a dream as hollow and empty as Virginia’s lavender-grey eyes.

Black Wings Has My Angel is a very good noir, a highly compelling story powered by strong emotions of desire, greed, suspicion and general debauchery. The characterisation is excellent, both credible and convincing. The love-hate relationship between Tim and Virginia is very well drawn; at times the sense of repulsion they exhibit for one another is as strong as the feeling of mutual attraction. Virginia is painted as a rather hard, voracious and impulsive woman, someone who is prepared to stop at nothing to get what she wants. Tim, on the other hand, has a little more depth to his personality. He is a veteran of the Second World War, irrevocably damaged by the brutality of conflict and the soul-destroying experience of life in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp where he was held for almost three years.

I told her how it’d been spending thirty-four months in the Japanese prison camp on the Island of Luzon, clamped there in the heat and filth with ten thousand others, and how they buried the weak ones alive, some of them who were too weak to work, too weak even to throw off the dirt and sit up in their graves. I told about getting my honourable discharge button and going home and selling office supplies until I blew my cork and landed in Parchman [jail] with Jeepie and Thompson and the others, and how at Parchman I’d decided I was through with being locked up and through being poor. (p. 55)

As a consequence of these experiences, Tim is frustrated by the mind-numbing nature of civilian life in post-war America; the prospect of sweating it out in a dead-end job seems utterly pointless to him.

This novel has been compared to the work of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, classics like The Postman Only Rings Twice and The Getaway. If you enjoy this style of noir fiction, chances are you’ll take to this. The writing isn’t quite in the same league as Cain’s or Thompson’s, but the storyline definitely stands up to the comparison.

I’ll finish with a final quote on Virginia, one that captures something of her presence and something of Chaze’s style. It’s textbook noir.

I wanted Virginia. She was a creature of moonlight, crazy as moonlight, all upthrusting radiance and hard silver dimples and hollows, built for one thing and only one thing and perfectly for that. (p. 177)

Guy has also reviewed this book here.

Black Wings Has My Angel is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

First published in 1945 but set largely in the interwar years, Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love is a wonderful novel about a young woman’s search for true love, complete with all the delights and disappointments such a quest entails.

While Mitford’s novel focuses on the amorous adventures of Linda Radlett, everything we see and hear is filtered through the lens of Linda’s cousin, the sensible and level-headed Fanny. Having been abandoned by her mother – known within the family as ‘the Bolter’ for her tendency to run off with a sequence of lovers – Fanny has been raised by her kindly Aunt Emily in a small but comfortable home in Shenley. Childhood Christmas holidays are spent with the rather eccentric Radletts at their estate in the Cotswolds, a large manor house by the name of Alconleigh. The Radlett family is headed by Fanny’s Uncle Matthew, a large blustering man whose favourite sports are catching Germans with his entrenching tool, hunting of any description (including the pursuit of his children around the grounds), and stomping about in search of an outlet for his many frustrations; then there is Aunt Sadie (Emily’s sister), who does her best to maintain some semblance of order within the household; and finally, the six Radlett children, most notably Linda, Fanny’s cousin and closest friend. Mitford does a great job in conveying the various idiosyncrasies of this unconventional upper-class family – we are privy to their passions and beliefs, their rather silly preoccupations with outmoded social conventions, and their various peccadillos and habits.

The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives. (p. 9)

Fanny and Linda spend much of their time chatting together about girlish things, hiding out in the linen closet (or ‘Hons’ cupboard’ as it is called), the only warm place in the house. It is here that the hopelessly romantic Linda talks of finding true love, one that is lasting and passionate, the sort that only comes along once in a lifetime. In particular, she is entranced by the glamour and sophistication of the smart set of bright young things she meets by way of her neighbour and advocate, the cultured Lord Merlin.

By the time of her coming-out ball, Linda is ripe for the taking. Much to Uncle Matthew’s dismay, she falls in love with an attractive young banker, Tony Kroesig, whose family originally hailed from Germany, albeit several generations ago. In this scene, Uncle Matthew lets rips to Davey, Aunt Emily’s delightful but rather sensitive husband. As you can see, his language is gloriously unfiltered, very much a reflection of his bombastic nature and the prevailing attitudes of the day.

‘Who is that sewer with Linda?’

‘Kroesig, Governor of the Bank of England, you know; his son.’

‘Good God, I never expected to harbour a full-blooded Hun in this house – who on earth asked him?’

‘Now, Matthew dear, don’t get excited. The Kroesigs aren’t Huns, they’ve been over here for generations, they are a very highly respected family of English bankers.’

‘Once a Hun always a Hun,’ said Uncle Matthew, ‘and I’m not too set on bankers myself. Besides, the fellow must be a gate-crasher.’

‘No, he’s not. He came with Merlin.’

‘I knew that bloody Merlin would start bringing foreigners here sooner or later. I always said he would, but I didn’t think even he would land one with a German’ (p. 56)

At first, both families are dead against the match, albeit for very different reasons. Uncle Matthew has an intense hatred of all foreigners, irrespective of their standing and tenure in Britain. The Kroesigs, on the other hand, consider landed gentry such as the Radletts to be feckless and no longer of any great relevance in the modern world. Moreover, they would prefer young Tony to concentrate on his career for a while, with the hope that he might also go on to marry the daughter of one of the other big banking families in the city, thereby creating a union of great worth. Nevertheless, in spite of this initial opposition, the Kroesig-Radlett wedding goes ahead, and Linda and Tony begin their rather ill-fated life together.

As Fanny quite rightly intuits, the marriage turns out to be a failure almost right from the start. Tony is soon revealed to be a frightful bore, a pompous, self-centred ass whose only interests revolve around money and politics – shortly after the wedding he gains a comfortable seat as a Tory MP. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Linda proves a disappointment to the Kroesig family who consider her eccentric, distracted and extravagant. Tony’s work and political activities are of no interest to Linda whatsoever, a point which becomes patently obvious for all to see. By the time her daughter Moira is born, Linda has fallen totally out of love with Tony; his many shortcomings are simply too ingrained to overlook, those first flushes of love have long since gone.

The young man she had fallen in love with, handsome, gay, intellectual, and domineering, melted away upon closer acquaintance, and proved to have been a chimera, never to have existed outside her imagination. Linda did not commit the usual fault of blaming Tony for what was entirely her own mistake, she merely turned from him in absolute indifference. This was made easier by the fact that she saw so little of him. (p. 88)

Then one day at her in-laws’ home, Linda meets Christian Talbot, a handsome Communist full of energy and ideas. Entranced by this young man, his passions and beliefs, she runs away from Tony in the hope of finding true love with husband number two.

Linda was a plum ripe for shaking. The tree was now shaken, and down she came. Intelligent and energetic, but with no outlet for her energies, unhappy in her marriage, uninterested in her child, and inwardly oppressed with a sense of futility, she was in the mood either to take up some cause, or to embark upon a love affair. That a cause should now be presented by an attractive young man made both it and him irresistible. (p.98)

But once the initial excitement dies down, Linda discovers that her new life with Christian isn’t all she had hoped it would be. All too soon, during a trip to France to support the refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War, Christian reveals himself to be a rather hopeless husband. Concerned as he is with the major revolutions of the day, Christian remains oblivious to the feelings and emotions of others, especially those closest to him; it is radical ideas and left-wing causes that interest Christian, not individual people and their emotional needs. All of a sudden this becomes apparent to Linda – and so she packs her suitcase and leaves, forsaking another husband in the process.

Then, just when Linda is at her lowest ebb, stranded in Paris with insufficient money to make it home to England, a dashing stranger appears and comes to her rescue. The man in question is Fabrice, a wealthy duke and bon viveur, the man who turns out to be the one great love of Linda’s life. At long last, there is a chance of true happiness for our heroine; but the question is, will it last?

But she was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love. Twice in her life she had mistaken something else for it; it was like seeing somebody in the street who you think is a friend, you whistle and wave and run after him, and it is not only not the friend, but not even very like him. A few minutes later the real friend appears in view, and then you can’t imagine how you ever mistook that other person for him. Linda was now looking upon the authentic face of love, and she knew it, but it frightened her. That it should come so casually, so much by a series of accidents, was frightening. (p. 139)

The Pursuit of Love is an utterly charming novel. It is by turns hilarious, artful, touching and poignant, peppered as it is with Mitford’s sparkling dialogue and wit. The author has drawn heavily on her own family here, particularly in the portrayal of Uncle Matthew, a thinly-veiled version of her father, Lord Redesdale. The characterisation is fabulous throughout, from the privileged, whimsical Linda, to the indomitable Uncle Matthew, to the pitch-perfect minor characters of Davey and Lord Merlin, both of whom remain ardent supporters of Linda in her quest for personal fulfilment. Even the infamous Bolter makes a cameo appearance at one point – another memorable character, vividly sketched.

For all its wit and satirical humour, this novel also conveys a strong sense of humanity. In spite of her many mistakes and failings, Linda is always welcomed back into the family fold, supported by Fanny, Aunt Sadie and even Uncle Matthew. There is a sense of real support and affection here, a family sticking together despite what life may throw at it.

As the story draws to a close during the turmoil of WW2, Mitford also reminds us of the fragility of our existence. This was not a time for the frivolous pleasures of love; rather the focus was on survival and the preservation of life. While the closing section is rather poignant, the novel ends on a fitting note. All in all, this is a great book, fully deserving of its status as a modern classic. I enjoyed it immensely.

The Pursuit of Love is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Last year I read and really enjoyed Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel Memento Mori, a darkly comic exploration of ageing and mortality. In the hope of building on this positive experience, I recently turned to another of her early works, the wonderfully titled The Girls of Slender Means. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a great success. It’s a mercurial novel. Deceptively light at first sight, there are some genuine elements of darkness lurking just beneath the surface, all of which come together to make it a really interesting and surprising read.

Set mostly in the summer of 1945, The Girls of Slender Means centres on the May of Teck Club in Kensington, a hostel for the ‘Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.’

At an early stage in the novel, Spark maps out the social hierarchy that has developed within this large boarding house, once a private residence back in Victorian times. The ground floor houses the staff offices, dining room, recreation room and drawing room (the latter freshly papered in depressing shades of sludge-like brown), while the first floor accommodates the youngest members of the club, girls between the ages of eighteen and twenty, recently released from boarding school and used to living in communal dormitories, not unlike the curtained-off cubicles in this part of the building.

The girls on this floor were not yet experienced in discussing men. Everything turned on whether the man in question was a good dancer and had a sense of humour. The Air Force was mostly favoured, and a D.F.C. was an asset. (p. 27)

For those with more money, the second floor offers a little more privacy: shared rooms for two or four residents, mostly occupied by young woman in transit and those looking for flats or bedsits. The third floor is home to a mix of girls, either prim and pretty young virgins destined for a life of near-celibacy, or bossy women in their late twenties who are too sharp to fall for the charms of any man. Finally, the most attractive, sophisticated and lively girls are to be found on the top floor of the house, typically those with interesting jobs or lovers, and active social lives to boot.

As they realised themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means. (p. 9)

Also residing at the May of Teck are three spinsters in their fifties, women who have somehow managed to sidestep the usual rules of the establishment that require members to move on once they reach the age of thirty. These elderly residents provide some nice comic moments in their interactions with one another, and in those with the younger residents of the club.

By 1945 they had seen much coming of new girls and going of old, and were generally liked by the current batch, being subject to insults when they interfered in anything, and intimate confidences when they kept aloof. (pp. 14-15)

The novel focuses on a handful of the girls who reside at the May of Teck – mostly those on the top floor of the building – offering glimpses of their daily preoccupations and concerns as they try to go about their lives as best they can. While the timeline moves backwards and forwards throughout the novel, the majority of the action takes place over three months: the period between VE day in May and VJ Day in August 1945.

Central to the novel is Jane Wright, who in 1945 is working for a slightly dodgy publisher, checking out the financial status of aspiring authors and trying to uncover their weak spots for her employer to exploit when negotiating contracts. Also featuring prominently are the beautiful Selina Redwood, a rather statuesque girl who values poise and elegance above all else, Dorothy Markham, the impoverished niece of Lady Julia Markham, chairwoman of the club’s management committee, and Anne Baberton, the owner of a fabulous Schiaparelli gown that is loaned out to the other girls on the top floor whenever the occasion demands. This suitably glamorous dress causes a quite stir wherever it makes an appearance…

‘You can’t wear it to the Milroy. It’s been twice to the Milroy…it’s been to Quaglino’s, Selina wore it to Quags, it’s getting known all over London.’

‘But it looks altogether different on me, Anne. You can have a whole sheet of sweet-coupons.’

‘I don’t want your bloody sweet-coupons. I give all mine to my grandmother.’

Then Jane would put out her head. ‘Stop being so petty-minded and stop screeching. I’m doing brain-work.’ (p. 35)

(Jane is constantly seeking peace and quiet to concentrate on her important ‘brain-work’.)

Finally, and perhaps most notably, there is Joanna Childe, the self-sacrificing daughter of a country clergyman in the High Church. Young Joanna, who firmly believes that her one great chance for love has already passed her by, now devotes herself to giving elocution lessons to the other occupants of the house in exchange for payment or extra ration coupons. She is a lover of poetry, and her recitations of famous lines and stanzas are threaded through the novel adding an extra element of hilarity and interest.

Most of the chatter among the girls revolves around everyday issues: the men they are dating; their food rations and diets; the trading of clothing coupons and other luxuries; who gets to wear the posh frock when they have an important date, and so on. Nevertheless, against this light-hearted backdrop, there are signs of darker forces at play, mentions of notable events from 1945 are dropped in every now again – most worryingly perhaps, the emerging threat from the deployment of the atomic bomb.

Spark also inserts another strand into the story, one which adds a somewhat unsettling note. In the opening pages of the novel, a death in the present day (presumably some point in the 1960s) acts as the catalyst for the flashbacks to 1945. The missionary, Nicholas Farringdon has been killed in an uprising in Haiti, news of his death having reached Jane by way of a Reuters bulletin – she now works as a successful reporter for a leading women’s journal. Back in the 1940s, Jane had introduced Nicholas – then an aspiring author and intellectual whom she had been tasked with investigating – to the May of Teck Club. He was said to have been an anarchist, albeit a most unlikely one. No one could quite believe it of him at the time.

He was said to be an anarchist. No one at the May of Teck Club took this seriously as he looked quite normal; that is to say, he looked slightly dissipated, like the disappointing son of a good English family that he was. (p. 32)

Winding back to 1945, Jane is rather attracted to Nicholas and his somewhat bohemian lifestyle. He takes her to parties and poetry gatherings, introducing her to other writers in the process. Ultimately though, Nicholas gets mixed up with the glamorous Selina, spending hot summer nights with her on the May of Teck’s roof.

Nicholas had decided to do everything nice for Jane, except sleep with her, in the interests of two projects: the publication of his book and his infiltration of the May of Teck Club in general and Selina in particular. (pp. 65-66)

Elements of Nicholas’ ultimate fate are revealed in present-day conversations between Jane and the other former members of the May of Teck. Like Joanna’s recitations, these snatches of dialogue are threaded through the novel, a feat Spark pulls off to good effect.

The tone of the novel is by turns sharp, witty, touching and poignant. As the story heads towards its dramatic conclusion, Spark introduces a development that turns out to be both gripping and devastating. It is perhaps no surprise that the earlier elements of humour segue into a sense of imminent tragedy. In a clever twist, the phrase ‘of slender means’ in the novel’s title has a double meaning. On the one hand, it refers to the girls’ limited financial resources, while on the other it also relates to their physical build and hip measurements. Only the slimmest girls can slip through the narrow slit-window of the top-floor washroom to gain access to the May of Teck roof for a spot of sunbathing. Selina and Anne can manage it, but not the others, especially not Jane who is rather plump. The ability (or not) to slip through this aperture plays an important role in the closing stages of the book, but I had better not say too much more about this for fear of revealing any spoilers.

I really enjoyed this novel with its cast of interesting, well-crafted characters. Spark manages to pack so much into these 140 pages; it’s really quite remarkable. The period detail is excellent too, very evocative of the time, as evidenced by this passage from the opening page. I’ll leave you with this description of London, a city still in the early stages of recovery from the devastation of WW2.

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit. (p. 7)

The Girls of Slender Means is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Anderby Wold by Winifred Holtby

Along with many other readers, I first discovered Winifred Holtby through her connection with Vera Brittain, whose memoir – The Testament of Youth – is considered a classic for its depiction of the impact of the Great War on the British middle classes, particularly the women. Holtby and Brittain were at Oxford together; after graduating the pair shared a flat in London where they went on to pursue their respective literary careers. Anderby Wold was Holtby’s first novel – an absorbing story of traditional Yorkshire farming folk grappling with the challenges of financial survival in an environment poised on the brink of great social change. I enjoyed it a great deal, especially the portrayal of the novel’s central character, Mary Robson, the rather headstrong joint-owner of Anderby Wold farm, situated in the East Riding region of Yorkshire.

When her errant father, Ben, died some ten years earlier leaving a multitude of debts, Mary married her steady but desperately unexciting cousin, John Robson, in order to secure a stable future for her family’s farm. It was a union borne out of necessity rather than passion or desire, especially given the large gap in their ages – Mary was just eighteen when she married John, a placid man in his early forties at the time. Now, after ten years of hard work on the farm and much scrimping and saving, the couple have made the final payment on the mortgage; thus Anderby Wold is financially secure, at least for the moment.

Anderby was hers. The mortgage was paid. That was worth anything; worth unlovely dresses made in the village, worth the constant strain of economy, worth the ten years’ intimacy with a man whose presence roused in her alternate irritation and disappointment. (p.23)

As the novel opens, John’s older sister, the formidable Sarah Bannister and her henpecked husband, Tom, are travelling to Anderby for a celebratory tea party to be hosted by the Robsons. Sarah – initially portrayed as a bitter and twisted woman – has always resented Mary for blighting John’s life. She considers Mary a selfish and conceited individual with little regard for John’s wishes and desires, especially given the fact that John had virtually given up work on his own farm at Littledale all those years ago in order to come to her aid at the Wold. Mary makes all the major decisions concerning the farm, with mild-mannered John deferring to the better judgement of his wife in virtually all matters. There is also a sense that Mary has let John down by failing to produce a child, someone to carry on the family name and tradition – a feeling that emerges a couple of times in the story. In this scene, we are privy to Sarah’s uncensored thoughts as her cart approaches the Robsons’ estate.

In a quarter of an hour they would be at Anderby Wold. That was where Ben had died over ten years ago, and where John had called to see if he could do anything for Mary – eighteen-year-old Mary, left alone to cope with her father’s debts. Oh, but she was clever! She knew that John was capable of managing two farms as well as one. Six month’s tribute had been paid to decorum before she had married him – poor John being too guileless to understand her cleverness. And, for the hundredth time since the marriage, Sarah had to enter John’s house as his wife’s guest. It was hard. (p. 6) 

Various aunts and uncles, cousins and other family members have come together to toast the Robsons’ achievement in paying off their mortgage. Holtby does a great job in drawing out the family tensions, particularly those between Mary and her cousin, Sarah. Nothing that Mary can do will ever be good enough for Sarah, the woman who thinks she knows John better than anyone else in the family fold. Nevertheless, as the story progresses, the reader can see that Sarah cares very deeply for her rather sensitive brother – ultimately, a slightly softer side of her personality emerges as it becomes clear that she only has John’s best interests at heart.

The Robsons are conventional folk, and their families have worked the land in pretty much the same way year in year out for several centuries. They believe in traditional values and morals, treating their workers with respect and consideration, paying them a modest wage augmented by generous hospitality at the end of each harvest. While John works on the farm, Mary busies herself with a variety of charitable work in the village. She organises whist drives and social events in aid of the local school, visits the sick and infirm, and offers support where it is needed. In short, Mary likes to think of herself as absolutely indispensable to the community of Anderby.

The government of a kingdom was not always easy. Mary hated to be disliked. She loved to imagine herself the idolized champion of the poor and suffering, the serene mistress of bountiful acres, where the season was always harvest and the labourers worthy of their hire. Coast and Waite were somehow out of the picture. (p. 88)

While many of the villagers and farm workers appreciate Mary’s efforts, others remain somewhat immune to her charms. There are frequent disagreements with the local schoolteacher, Mr Coast, a man who resents Mary for having blocked his application for a more prestigious role outside of the village. The pair clash again when Mary refuses to sell a piece of land to the County Council, partly for sentimental reasons and partly to annoy Mr Coast who wishes to turn the ground into a playing field for the children. These interactions highlight a stubborn, dogmatic steak in Mary’s nature, a facet which makes her character seem all the more human and believable – naturally, we all have our own particular flaws and shortcomings, and Mary is no exception.

Perhaps above everything else, Mary is determined not to end up like the older women in the Robson family who gather together on Wednesday afternoons in nearby Market Burton, their lives revolving around banal talk of ailments, general gossip and the best methods for darning holes in socks. From one generation to the next, the elders have moved to the town after retiring from their farms, simply to wither away and die like old trees starved of a sense of life and vitality.

Then, into the relative stability of the Robsons’ world comes young David Rossitur, an enthusiastic socialist full of radical ideas for the implementation of social change in the valleys of East Riding. Rossitur favours a more generous living wage for all farm labourers over a reliance on the philanthropy or goodwill of their employers come harvest time. He stirs up everything in Mary’s world on both a professional and a personal level, encouraging her workers to join a labourers’ union to fight for their rights. Here’s a brief excerpt from one of Rossitur’s feisty but good-natured debates with Mary.

‘You stand for an ideal that is, thank Heaven, outworn. The new generation knocks at your door – a generation of men, independent, not patronized, enjoying their own rights, not the philanthropy of their exploiters, respecting themselves, not their so-called superiors. You can’t stop them, but they may stop you. You can’t shut them out, but they may shut you in.’ (p. 118)

Even though Rossitur ardently disagrees with everything Mary and her class represent – in particular, their strong beliefs in time-honoured principles and traditions – he finds himself captivated by her spirited personality. Mary, for her part, is equally attracted to Rossitur, stuck as she is in a stagnant marriage utterly devoid of any spark of excitement.

David regarded her across the table. She was maddening, with her amused complacency, her indifference to all his arguments. And yet kind, and intelligent too in a way, and not without a sense of social responsibility. Clearly a convert worth making. (p. 109)

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot. You can probably guess how the story plays out, but it’s fair to say that Holtby throws in a few surprises along the way. My only quibble relates to certain events towards the end of the novel, some of which feel a little contrived and heavy-handed – engineered to force a conclusion to the story.

The novel does a fine job of exploring various timely themes, including the balance between tradition and progression, the need to let go of the past, the rights of workers vs employers, the dynamics between the different social classes, and the tensions arising from family obligations. For a debut, it’s pretty good – well-written and engaging, with plenty of scope for further development of the relevant themes in subsequent novels. Holtby brings a strong sense of authenticity to this story, an element which stems from her knowledge and experience of the community she portrays here. For the most part, the main characters feel real and sufficiently fleshed out, their personalities are sketched in shades of grey rather than purely black or white. Mary, in particular, is fully realised on the page. While there are times when she is kind and considerate, there are occasions when another side of her character emerges, one that reveals a somewhat stubborn, selfish and self-protective streak to her nature. Nevertheless, I found it easy to warm to Mary in spite of her failings.

All in all, Anderby Wold is an interesting and convincing portrait of a community wrestling with the prospect of significant social change. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures something of the dilemma that Mary faces as she contemplates an uncertain future ahead.

Between the generation that was passing and the one coming forward was a great gulf fixed – Mary and John were on one side. For a moment rebellion seized her. Why could she not relinquish this – the dim hills before her, the bearded figure beside her, the responsibilities that preyed upon her? Why not escape to the other side? (pp. 154-155)

Anderby Wold is published by Virago; personal copy.