Two Recent Reads – On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Thoughts on a couple of recent reads – both excellent, both published this year.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming (2019)

I’ve been reading a few memoirs recently. Rather unusual for me as my preferences lean quite heavily towards fiction, often from the mid-20th-century. Nevertheless, I found myself drawn to this book when it came out earlier this year, prompted by a flurry of positive reports and reviews. Now that I’ve read it, I suspect it may well end up being one of the highlights of my reading year; it really is very good indeed.

In brief, On Chapel Sands is the story of Laura’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. Five days later, Betty was found safe and well in a nearby village. She remembers nothing of the incident, and nobody at home ever mentions it again. Another fifty years pass before Betty learns of the kidnapping, by now a wife and mother herself with a rich and fulfilling life of her own.

The book combines the threads of a tantalising mystery – who took Betty from Chapel Sands that day and why? – with elements of memoir. Together they provide a fascinating insight into the various members of Laura Cumming’s family, their personalities and motivations, their secrets and personal attachments. It also raises questions of nature vs nurture. How much of Betty’s character was there from birth, a sense of coming from within? And how much was shaped by the attitudes of her parents (in particular, her dictatorial father, George, with his controlling manner)?

The failings of human nature constitute another key theme here – a fear of shame and the desire to maintain appearances both play their part in dictating Betty’s path in life.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is the way Cumming uses her skills as an art critic to shed new light on the unanswered questions surrounding her mother’s childhood. More specifically, the importance of images, details, perspective and context, in addition to hard evidence and facts.

The mystery of what happened, how it changed her, and her own children, has run through my days ever since I first heard of the incident on the beach thirty years ago. Then it seemed to me that all we needed was more evidence to solve it, more knowledge in the form of documents, letters, hard facts. But to my surprise the truth turns out to pivot on images as much as words. To discover it has involved looking harder, looking closer, paying more attention to the smallest of visual details – the clues in a dress, the distinctive slant of a copperplate hand, the miniature faces in the family album. (pp. 12–13)

Only by repeatedly sifting these details, returning to them again and again, is Cumming able to come to some kind of resolution about the nature of her mother’s past. The need to consider all the alternatives, to view the situation from various perspectives, is crucial to unravelling the enigma at its heart.

When viewed as a whole, this book is a loving testament to Laura’s mother, a woman whose warmth, generosity and compassion shine through the text. This deeply personal story also conveys a vivid portrait of a small, close-knit community in the early 1930s, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business – except, perhaps, the central individual concerned. All in all, this is a remarkable story, exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

This book caught my eye when it ended up on the Booker shortlist, largely because it was one of two contenders that seemed to be attracting the most positive reviews at the time (the other being Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport). So, when Girl won the Prize itself – a controversial decision as we know – I felt I had to read it.

In short, Girl, Woman, Other is a vibrant portrayal of twelve different characters – mostly black, mostly women – who together offer an insight into a sector of British society over the past hundred years. Here we have women spanning a variety of ages and walks of life, from nineteen-year-old Yazz, a street-smart young woman just starting out at University, to ninety-three-year-old Hattie, keen to remain self-sufficient in her home on the family farm. In between there are mothers and daughters, cleaning entrepreneurs and theatre directors, teachers and bankers, many of whom are forging unfamiliar paths in life – hopefully for others to follow suit.

Over a sequence of thirteen chapters – one for each character and a final after-party scene – Evaristo teases out the connections between various characters, some clear and direct, others more tenuous.

These women are bright, dynamic, resolute and determined, largely irrespective of the hand they’ve been dealt by society at large. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many have encountered abuse and prejudice over the years, and yet they have managed to find their own ways through it, often with the aid of sheer grit and perseverance. I suspect there is more than a hint of Evaristo herself in Amma, a fifty-something director of ground-breaking feminist theatre. Having lived most of her creative life on the radical fringes, Amma now finds herself joining the establishment with her new play due to open at the National, hopefully to great critical acclaim.

What I love about this book is the way Evaristo prompts readers to look beyond the traditional stereotypes of black women typically presented to us in films, TV and other cultural media, encouraging us to see her characters for who they really are – rounded individuals with a multitude of thoughts and feelings.

Yazz wishes the play had already opened to five-star universal acclaim so that she can watch it stamped with pre-approval, it matters because she’ll have to deal with the aftermath if it’s slagged off by the critics and Mum’ll go on an emotional rampage that might last weeks – about the critics sabotaging her career with their complete lack of insight into black women’s lives and how this had been her big break after over forty years of hard graft blah di blah and how they didn’t get the play because it’s not about aid workers in Africa or troubled teenage boys or drug dealers or African warlords or African-American blues singers or white people rescuing black slaves

guess who’ll have to be on the end of the phone to pick up the pieces?

she’s Mum’s emotional caretaker, always has been, always will be

it’s the burden of being an only child, especially a girl

who will naturally be more caring. (pp. 49 – 50)

The narrative explores many themes of relevance to our society over the past century, delving into class, race, gender, sexuality, feminism and social mobility, with some of the dialogue in the novel offering a vehicle for raising key issues and prompting debate.

In summary, this is a thoroughly absorbing, cleverly-constructed novel featuring a myriad of interesting voices – by turns exuberant, striking, funny and poignant. There is a richness of experience on offer here which makes it feel highly pertinent to our current times. In spite of the diversity of modern multicultural Britain, Evaristo shows us that maybe, just maybe there is more that connects us as individuals than divides us. A thoroughly inspiring story in more ways than one.

On Chapel Sands is published by Chatto and Windus, Girl, Woman, Other by Hamish Hamilton; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing reading copies.

19 thoughts on “Two Recent Reads – On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

  1. A Life in Books

    How disquieting it must have been to hear of that kidnapping. I can see why Cumming felt the need to investigate and think abput its effects.

    I’m looking forward to the Evaristo. Very much enjoyed Mr Loverman.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I do recall seeing a lot of praise for Mr Loverman when it first came out. Maybe the success of Girl will spark some more interest in Evaristo’s backlist. It’s certainly catapulted her into the spotlight, that’s for sure.

      Reply
  2. gertloveday

    I really loved On Chapel Sands and the gradual exposure of the family secrets. And so amazing that her mother had a career as an artist after such difficult beginnings.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I loved that aspect of her story. The fact that she was able to carve out a role for herself as an artist after such a restrictive childhood – possibly as a means of expression. That was heartening to see. I thought the book was beautifully written – as you say, very carefully constructed to reveal the intricacies of the mystery.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Both of these sound absolutely marvellous, Jacqui. I must admit to being very drawn to Chapel Sands – I love a book that digs into a mystery of the past and dissects and discovers; and it reminds me a little of The Day That Went Missing, which I read and reviewed a while back. Memory can be a slippery thing – I sometimes suspect I’ve forgotten more about my life than I remember… :s

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is indeed. What I loved about Chapel Sands was the link between Cumming’s skills as an art critic and her approach to unravelling the intricacies of her mother’s disappearance. It made me think about how we interpret paintings, imagining the lives of the individuals depicted and the stories they represent, Sometimes the devil is in the detail, a point that comes through quite clearly from this memoir.

      Oh, and thanks for mentioning Th Day That Went Missing. I may well have seen your review on that but will pop back to yours again for a reminder!

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    On Chapel Sands sounds so good, I’m glad you have put that on my radar. I shall look out for it. Girl, Woman other will possibly make my books of the year list. I loved the voices of the women in it so much, and I loved the feeling of connectedness.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that feeling of connectedness really comes through, especially towards the end…the sense that almost anyone could be a relative however remote or distant the link may be. It’s such a cleverly constructed sequence of stories, brought to life with real vitality and verve. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it too.

      Oh, and On Chapel Sands is wonderful, definitely a book I would recommend to you with your interest in women’s lives and social history. I’m pretty sure it will end up in my books of the year, barring any last-minute adjustments!

      Reply
  5. Liz Dexter

    I adored Girl, Woman, Other and it will definitely make my top ten for the year. I keep seeing On Chapel Sands and not being sure about it but I think I will pick it up if I come across it now – thank you.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great. I loved On Chapel Sands so much. It’s such a compelling book, and the way Cumming teases out the different stands of her mother’s story is expertly done. As for the Evaristo, I’ve yet to hear a bad word about it. I’m sure it will appear on several ‘best of’ lists at the end of the year!

      Reply
  6. Caroline

    Hmmm. You baddie you. Now I have to add these to my wish list. I read more nonfiction these days and memoir has always been a favourite genre. It sounds so well done. So does Evaristo’s novel. I seem to remember a similar novel I read in the 90s by American writer Gloria Naylor. The British perspective seems new.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you would love Chapel Sands. It’s so beautifully written and very carefully constructed, gradually revealing the nuances of Betty’s story in a way that never feels forced or manipulated for effect. I’m so glad I decided to read it. Definitely one of my favourite books of the year.

      Reply
  7. buriedinprint

    I’m looking forward to reading Evaristo’s novel too. It’s just become available in PB here in Canada. She’s one of those authors whose works I’ve happily collected over the years, but which I’ve not gotten to properly exploring yet. Well, you know how THAT goes. So many aspirations!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting to hear. I’ve only really come across Evaristo in the last two or three years, probably around the time of publication of her previous novel, Mr Loverman. Girl, Woman, Other has certainly raised her profile in the UK, so hopefully the same is true in Canada and the US. I’ll be interested to see what you think of it once you read it, particularly the themes of identity and position in society.

      Reply

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