Monthly Archives: April 2020

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

First published in 1974, The Bottle Factory Outing was Beryl Bainbridge’s fifth novel. It’s only the third of her books that I’ve read (my first was An Awfully Big Adventure, a darkly comic gem); but on the evidence of this, I should probably aim to read some more.

Ostensibly, The Bottle Factory Outing focuses on two mismatched young women, Brenda and Freda, who share a shabby bedsit while also working together at a local wine bottling factory. While Brenda is mousey and pessimistic, Freda is loud and outgoing, forever dreaming about the life she would like to be living – preferably that of a successful actress surrounded by friends and family.

In the opening paragraphs, Brenda and Freda are watching the early stages of a funeral with the removal of a coffin from another flat in their building. As they speculate on the deceased – an old lady who lived with her cat – the differences between the two women become increasingly apparent.

‘You cry easily,’ said Brenda, when they were dressing to go to the factory.

‘I like funerals. All those flowers – a full life coming to a close…’

‘She didn’t look as if she’d had a full life,’ said Brenda. ‘She only had the cat. There weren’t any mourners – no sons or anything.’

‘Take a lesson from it then. It could happen to you. When I go I shall have my family about me – daughters – sons – my husband, grey and distinguished, dabbing a handkerchief to his lips…’

‘Men always go first,’ said Brenda. ‘Women live longer.’

‘My dear, you ought to participate more. You are too cut off from life.’ (p. 2)

Twenty-six-year-old Freda is a force of nature, a tall curvy blonde who dresses flamboyantly, her cobalt blue eyeshadow and purple pantsuit adding considerably to her striking appearance. Brenda, on the other hand, cuts a dowdy figure in her dark stockings and shabby, over-sized coat. At thirty-two, Brenda already seems old before her time. Having fled an abusive relationship with her selfish husband, Brenda now wishes to hide from the world, far away from Stanley and his deranged mother.

The differences between the two girls are also noticeable at the factory – an establishment owned by Mr Paganotti, an enterprising Italian businessman who has built up the business from scratch. While at work, Freda spends much of her time chasing after Vittorio, the handsome trainee manager and nephew of Mr Paganotti. In truth, however, Vittorio shows only limited interest in Freda in spite of her persistent efforts to attract his attention. Nevertheless, there is nothing that Freda would like more than a romantic dinner for two with Vittorio, a situation she tries to engineer with mixed results.

He was a man of sensibilities and everything was against her – his background, his nationality, the particular regard he had for women or a category of womanhood to which she did not belong. By the strength of her sloping shoulders, the broad curve of her throat, the dimpled vastness of her columnar thighs, she would manoeuvre him into her arms. I will be one of those women, she thought, painted naked on ceilings, lolling amidst rose-coloured clouds. She straightened and stared at a chair. She imagined how she might mesmerise him with her wide blue eyes. Wearing a see-through dressing-gown chosen from a Littlewoods catalogue, she would open the door to him. (p. 40)

Brenda too faces her own particular challenges at work; in this instance, the difficulties involves Mr Rossi, a manager at the firm, who persists in trying to grope Brenda in the seclusion of the cellar. Far from calling out Mr Rossi for sexual harassment, Brenda is too timid to say anything, preferring instead to suffer in near silence. From a young age, Brenda was brought up to be deferential – drilled into saying ‘yes’ when what she really wanted to say was ‘no’ (and vice versa).  Now in her thirties, Brenda continues to remain passive while being taken advantage of by others, afraid to speak up for fear of causing a problem.

As you’ll have guessed from the novel’s title, the centrepiece of the story revolves around a staff outing, an event that Freda has arranged much to Brenda’s horror. (In truth, Brenda would much rather stay at home, content to remain invisible while others go off to enjoy themselves.) All the other employees are looking forward to the event, especially as Mr Paganotti – notable by his absence – has donated four barrels of wine to be enjoyed during the trip.

On the morning of the outing, the van booked for the trip fails to show up, much to Freda’s disappointment. Nevertheless, Rossi cooks up a new plan for the day (largely with the aim of seducing Brenda) by offering his own car together with that of a colleague as alternative transport. It’s at this point in the story that events begin to turn increasingly surreal, culminating in a demented drive through the wilds of Windsor Safari Park as the afternoon unravels.

I don’t want to give away too many details about the trip, save to say that it feels as if the reader is watching a slow-motion car crash, powerless to look away as the horror unfolds. The tone is darkly comic and farcical, a little like a cross between Willy Russell’s play Our Day Out and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party – maybe with a touch of Nuts in May thrown in for good measure. The off-the-wall touches are beautifully done, heightened by a sharp eye for detail and freakish imagery.

The safari bus when it came was painted with black stripes like a zebra. It looked as if the whole pride of lions had hurled themselves at the rusty bonnet and ill-fitting windows and torn the tyres to ribbons. The driver was dressed in a camouflage jacket of mottled green and a hat to match, one side caught up at the side as if he were a Canadian Mountie. When he opened the double doors at the back of the van, Brenda saw he was wearing plastic sandals, bright orange and practically luminous, and striped socks. (p. 148)

The female characters are also particularly well observed, vividly brought to life by Bainbridge’s skills as a writer. At the time of publication, the book was praised in a review by William Trevor who described it ‘as though Muriel Spark had been prevailed upon to write an episode of The Liver Birds,’. (Warning: this excellent piece on Bainbrdge does contain spoilers.) It’s a great description as the novel has something of both the sharpness of Carla Lane’s writing and the savagery of Spark’s worldview. The observations on life on a low wage, social class, worker’s rights, and the harassment of women in the workplace are also keenly felt.

As the novel hurtles towards its startling denouement, the tone begins to change, shifting from black humour to deep pathos. It’s a testament to Bainbridge’s skills as a writer that this transition works so well, prompting the reader to feel some degree of sympathy for each of the characters concerned, in spite of their failings.

In essence, this is an excellent, well-crafted tragi-comedy, shot through with Bainbridge’s acute insight into human nature. It is the juxtaposition between the ordinary and the absurd that makes this such an unsettling yet compelling read.

For other perspectives on this novel, here are links to reviews by Max and Cathy. Thanks, both, for encouraging me to read this.

The Bottle Factory Outing is published by Abacus Books; personal copy.

Heat Wave by Penelope Lively

I bought a copy of this novel last year, attracted by the striking artwork on the front cover and the promise of a perceptive portrayal of ‘a fragile family, damaged and defined by adultery’. Fortunately, the book itself very much lives up to this impression, unfolding over a dry, claustrophobic summer underscored with a developing sense of tension.

Fifty-five-year-old Pauline – a freelance editor – is spending the summer at World’s End, her cottage in the English countryside. Residing in the adjacent cottage are Pauline’s daughter, Teresa, Teresa’s husband, Maurice, and their baby, Luke. Ostensibly, the family is there to enable Maurice – a writer of some promise – to complete his book on the history of tourism, a topic on which he holds fervent views.

At twenty-nine, Teresa is some fifteen years younger than Maurice, whom she loves very much. As Pauline looks on, she is reminded of the time when she was newly married to Teresa’s father, Harry, a rising star in academia back then, in demand both at home and abroad. While Pauline stayed at home to care for Teresa, Harry was free to play the field with various students, chalking up a string of affairs over the early years of their marriage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harry denied any suggestion of infidelity when first confronted, casting Pauline as the overly suspicious accuser while reminding her of his need to circulate for work.

Confrontation is self-defeating, she has come to realize. Harry is not so much defensive or evasive as perplexed. An invisible observer of such an exchange between them would see Pauline as the flailing accuser, resting her case on inference and conjecture, while Harry is the voice of sweet reason, explaining that he is a busy man, that he knows and sees many people, some of whom are indeed women, that these accusations are not reasonable, not sensible.

And all the time she knows, she knows. (p. 107)

In time, however, Pauline came to realise that her devotion to Harry was misplaced, prompting a split and ultimately a divorce.

From an early stage in the novel, there is a sense of the past being reflected in the present, of history threatening to repeating itself from one generation to the next. Like Harry before him, Maurice can cast a spell over those who surround him, coming across as genial, curious and magnetic. As Pauline observes Maurice, she wonders how faithful he will be, especially when Maurice’s editor, James, appears on the scene, accompanied by his attractive partner, Carol, who is also connected to the publishing industry.

She [Pauline] recognizes Carol. Not Carol personally but Carol as a species. She is a literary groupie – one of those who leech on to writers, who are passed from hand to hand among poets, and for whom publication and a degree of fame spell sexual magnetism. Pauline has worked with several Carols. They do not last long because they lack efficiency and ambition – they are only there for the pickings. They do not want to go to bed with a book, but with anyone who wrote one. (p. 61)

You can probably guess how some aspects of this story will play out – the relationship between Maurice and Carol is more than just a friendship or professional connection. Naturally, it is Pauline who sees and understands precisely what is going on between the two of them long before Teresa does. Having been a cuckolded wife herself, Pauline is well able to read the looks that pass between Maurice and Carol, signals that trigger painful feelings from her own troubled past.   

Maurice stands nearby – just waiting, it would seem. Pauline glances away from James and sees that Maurice’s look is upon Carol, who is absorbed still in this problem with the sandal. There is a concentration about this look – an intensity – that she has seen before. In Maurice’s eyes above a glass of red wine. In someone else’s eyes, at another time. She both sees the look and feels it like some chill shadow. (p. 60)

As the weeks go by, Pauline finds it increasingly difficult to control her anger at Maurice, fuelled by the frustration she once experienced with Harry (now living in California with his thirty-nine-year-old second wife). Drawing on the characters from the novel she is editing, Pauline hints at the options available to a woman in Teresa’s position, albeit somewhat pointedly. Nevertheless, there is a sense that what is left unsaid is just as important as what is explicitly conveyed, the exchange of looks and gestures being highly relevant here.

Lively’s descriptions of the natural world are so evocative, clearly reflecting the novel’s simmering tension through images of the scorched landscape withering in the blistering heat. What was once lush and furtive is now barren and arid, mirroring the process of decay in Maurice and Teresa’s relationship.

This is very much an interior, character-driven novel, giving a rich insight into Pauline as an individual, covering both her present life and earlier experiences. (There are several flashbacks to Pauline’s married life with Harry along the way, with Lively moving seamlessly between the two timelines.) The other characters are nicely fleshed-out too, from the vulnerable, trusting Teresa, to subtly manipulative Maurice, to the genial editor James – they all seem to ring true.

Alongside the main narrative, we also gain an insight into the nature of other marital relationships, each with their own specific challenges. Perhaps most notably there is Pauline’s client, Chris, an author whose wife ups and leaves him while he is trying to complete his book. We also see the quiet tragedy of another life, that of Pauline’s close friend and former lover, Hugh, who has stood by his housebound wife for several years despite her crippling mental health issues.

In some respects, Heat Wave reminded me of some of Anita Brookner’s novels, particularly Providence and Hotel du Lac. There is a similar tone or ‘feel’ to it, giving a window into emotions of jealousy, betrayal and frustration. Definitely recommended for fans of perceptive character-driven fiction that taps into these themes.     

Heat Wave is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

After Rain by William Trevor

Lately I’ve been reading quite a bit of William Trevor – the esteemed Irish writer, widely considered to be a master of the short story form. (I’ve previously written about some of his novels here.) First published in 1996, After Rain comprises twelve beautifully-crafted stories, not a dud amongst them. Like much of Trevor’s work, they centre on ordinary people – perhaps more specifically, the day-to-day developments that shape their lives in the most poignant of ways.

As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not planning to cover every piece; instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole.

The collection opens with The Piano Tuner’s Wives, a memorable story in which we gain an insight into an elderly man’s second marriage, a relationship tainted by resentment and jealousy. The man in question is Owen, a blind piano tuner, whose first wife, Violet, used to act as his eyes, describing the immediate world in all its glory. Two years after Violet’s death, Owen marries Belle – a woman he first knew many years ago before his previous marriage. In her determination to replace Violet in Owen’s mind, Belle describes people and places in ways that deliberately undermine the visions previously created by her predecessor, such is the sense of insecurity she feels in the marriage.

But even with the dog and the television, with additions and disposals in the house, with being so sincerely assured that she was loved, with been told she was good, nothing changed for Belle. The woman who for so long had taken her husband’s arm, who had a guided him into rooms of houses where he coaxed pianos back to life, still claimed existence. Not as a tiresome ghost, some unforgiving spectre uncertainly there, but as if some part of her had been left in the man she’d loved. (p. 12)

The real tragedy of this story is the fact that Owen knows precisely what Belle is up to; and yet he accepts her actions, however much it might pain him to do so.

Deception also plays a role in A Friendship, a story in which a bored, previously faithful wife, Francesca, embarks on an affair with an attractive man, aided by her footloose friend, Margy. When Francesca’s priggish husband, Philip, discovers the affair through a chance remark made at a party, he feels betrayed on two fronts – not only by his wife but by Margy too, particularly as the lovers have been meeting in Margy’s flat. As a consequence, Philip asks Francesca to end her lifelong friendship with Margy, something he knows will be a wrench for her. While forgiveness might be possible within the marriage, the same sentiment cannot be extended to the friendship – something that Margy is acutely aware of when she reflects on the change in their situation.  

Every time she [Margy] played with his children he would remember the role she had played that summer: she could hear him saying it, and Francesca’s silence. Every present she brought to the house would seem to him to be a traitor’s bribe. The summer would always be there, embalmed in the friendship that had made the deception possible – the key to the flat, the seaside house, the secret kept and then discovered. What the marriage sought to forget the friendship never would because the summer had become another part of it. (p. 33)

Trevor also writes brilliantly about the sense of duty and stigma that guides the lives of so many of his protagonists. In Widows, Catherine faces a dilemma when she is approached by a feckless trader following the death of her husband, Matthew – an upstanding member of the community. Mr Leary – a painter and decorator – had been employed to paint the outside of the couple’s house just a few months before Matthew’s death. Now that Matthew is no longer alive to represent himself, Mr Leary calls at the home – not just to pay his respects, but to state that the bill for the paint job was never paid. Catherine believes this to be a lie, particularly as she withdrew the money for the payment herself. However, no receipt or proof of payment can be found, prompting Leary to resubmit the bill. Catherine’s sister, Alicia (also widowed), knows that Catherine is being taken for a fool, and yet there is little she can do to change her sister’s mind.

A disappointment rose in Alicia, bewildering and muddled. The death of her own husband had brought an end, and her expectation had been that widowhood for her sister would be the same. Her expectation had been that in their shared state they would be as once they were, now that marriage was over, packed away with their similar mourning clothes. Yet almost palpable in the kitchen was Catherine’s resolve that what still remained for her should not be damaged by a fuss of protest over a confidence trick. The Guards investigating clothes sold at a jumble sale, strangers asked if a house-painter’s wife had bought this garment or that, private intimacies made public: Catherine was paying money in case, somehow, the memory of her husband should be accidentally tarnished. (pp. 112–113)

Alicia knows the concerns over Matthew’s reputation will grind Catherine down, almost certainly giving rise to new worries and eccentricities. Much to her annoyance, she knows the situation must play out to its natural conclusion. Like many other pieces in this collection, this is a very affecting story, beautifully observed.

The desire to avoid any scandal or shame is also present in The Potato Dealer, one of my favourite stories in the collection. In terms of setting, atmosphere, style and tone, it feels very similar to Trevor’s 2009 novel, Love and Summer, a book I adored. In The Potato Dealer, a young girl, Ellie, falls pregnant following a summer romance, forcing her relatives to arrange a marriage of convenience, thereby avoiding the shame of an illegitimate child. The proposed husband is Mulreavy, a local potato dealer known to the family.

The narrative explores various aspects of the situation: the complex nature of the dynamics within Ellie’s family, Ellie’s relationship with Mulreavy whom she does not love, and Mulreavy’s feelings towards Ellie and her daughter. This is a subtle, nuanced story, one that delves into various aspects of human nature from duty and honour to pride and self-esteem. Once again, it’s perfectly judged.

The longest story in the collection is also the most shocking. Set in a close-knit community in Northern Ireland, Lost Ground tells of a young Protestant boy, Milton, who receives visitations from a woman claiming to be a Catholic saint. When Milton decides to preach about his experiences in the towns of Armagh, his Protestant family are horrified, intervening quite radically as the situation escalates. This is a powerful, heartbreaking story, shot through with the undeniable threat of tension that exists between opinionated groups of different faiths.

In summary, After Rain is a superb collection of stories, up there with Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (by Richard Yates) as one of my all-time favourites. There are definite similarities too with Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection – particularly in terms of setting, tone and insight into character.

Once again, Trevor proves himself to be an incredibly astute chronicler of human nature. These are stories of bittersweet regrets and missed opportunities, of the acceptance of life’s disappointments and duties, of crumbled hopes and dashed dreams. Like much of the best short fiction, these pieces leave enough space for the reader to bring their own reflections to bear on the narratives, opening up the possibilities beyond the words on the page. In many instances, what is omitted or left unsaid is just as important as what is explicitly expressed.

All in all, this is very highly recommended indeed, especially to lovers of character-driven fiction. 

After Rain is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

The Blackbirder by Dorothy B. Hughes

I’ve written before of my fondness for the novels of Dorothy B. Hughes – most notably, her noir classic In a Lonely Place (published in 1947) and her ‘wrong place, wrong time’ thriller The Expendable Man (1963). If anything, The Blackbirder (1943) falls somewhere between the two with its noirish atmosphere and breakneck pace. It’s also very good indeed, a gripping thriller set in the midst of WW2 as a young woman tries to figure out who she can trust in a shadowy, uncertain world.

The novel opens in New York, where Julie Grille (aka Juliet Marlebone) is currently residing following her flight from occupied Paris and her Nazi-sympathiser uncle some three years earlier. In essence, Julie is an illegal immigrant; her entry into the country by way of Cuba, making her status precarious to say the least. Consequently, she has been trying to keep a low profile, possibly until the war is over or the situation settles down.

One night, after a concert, Julie spots an old acquaintance, a man names Maxl whom she knew a little in Paris. Unfortunately for Julie, her attempts to hide from Maxl prove fruitless, and she is drawn into a conversation with him in the lobby of Carnegie Hall. Right from the start, there is a strong sense of tension to the narrative as Maxl coerces Julie into joining him for a drink. Can Julie trust him? It’s hard for her to tell…

The door was there now but she didn’t step through it. Maxl’s yellow pigskin glove restrained her arm.

‘You must have a drink with me. Talk over other days – the good days…’

The walk on this side of 57th Street was crowded. Buses and cabs blocked the street. The pigskin glove swerved her to the corner. Unbelievably, there was an empty cab. She didn’t know if the meeting were accidental. If it were, it would direct suspicion if she refused. No one was suspicious of her in New York. No known person. (p. 3)

At the bar, Julie becomes increasingly convinced that the waiter is observing her. Once again, our protagonist is unsure as to whether she is really being watched or if it’s just her natural sense of suspicion kicking in.

The situation rapidly escalates when Maxl accompanies Julie to her home in a taxi. Moments after being dropped off, Julie finds Maxl’s body on the ground outside her apartment. He has been shot dead, murdered by an unknown assassin in the blink of an eye. Julie knows she will be a suspect in the case, and with her status as an illegal immigrant she can ill afford to get tangled up with the police. As a consequence, Julie searches Maxl’s body for any papers, finds his notebook, and heads off as quickly as she can, leaving all her possessions behind in a flight for freedom. Following a change of clothes and her appearance in general, Julie heads by train to Albuquerque, eventually landing in Santa Fe where she hopes to find the Blackbirder, a man who traffics individuals across the border between the US and Mexico – Mexico being seen as something of a safe haven in light of the developments.

In essence, Maxl’s murder acts as a catalyst in the novel, propelling Julie on an adrenaline-fuelled journey across the US, during which she feels under threat from both the Gestapo and the FBI. It’s a story in which the central protagonist can trust no one, where it remains virtually impossible for her (and the reader) to distinguish clearly between friend and foe.

When Julie meets a man named Blaike on the train to New Mexico – a man who also claims to have known her in Paris – she is unsure of his integrity. Is Blaike a former RAF officer as he claims? Is he a Gestapo agent, looking to use Julie as a way of infiltrating the resistance network? Or does he work for the FBI, an organisation likely to be on the Blackbirder’s trail? Once again, it proves difficult to tell, especially as this individual’s motives seem far from black or white.

There are other shadowy individuals in the mix, too. In Maxl’s notebook, Julie finds a reference to someone named Popin, also located in New Mexico. Could this be the same Popin who helped Julie’s cousin, Fran, a man currently being held in an internment camp after being framed by the Gestapo? Julie is determined to find out. Then there is Schein, a man who knows Julie was with Maxl on the night of his murder – he is, in fact, the waiter from the bar where the pair had their drink. Julie strongly suspects Schein to be a Nazi, so his presence at Popin’s house proves all the more disturbing.

What is so impressive about this novel is the sense of tension Hughes creates, capturing the intense feelings of paranoia and uncertainty that must have been prevalent at that time. The pace rarely lets up as one development after another propels the story forward.

She took another peer backward. No car was following. Their own, piloted by the silent young Indian, moved on and on into the night and the storm. Again she felt that frightening isolation from all of remembered reality. Actually where was she? Where was she going? (p. 93)

The characterisation too is very impressive – particularly Julie, who is portrayed as sharp and quick-witted yet also afraid for her life. She is immensely engaging; someone the reader can relate to in a time of crisis.

Moreover, the novel successfully captures the various nuances at play – in terms of both the characters and the situations they face.

This was why the F.B.I. was searching for the Blackbirder. They couldn’t chance the entrance of dangerous aliens among honest refugees. Nor the escape of dangerous aliens over the same route. Somehow she hadn’t thought of it that way. The Blackbirder to her had been only a shadowy figure of refuge. He was still that but a sinister blackness darkened his shadow. His helping wings could be abused. She shook away the tremor. (p. 146)

In summary, this is an absorbing, fast-paced thriller in which individuals’ motives are never entirely transparent; Ms Hughes will keep the reader guessing right to the very end.  

The Blackbirder is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, the perfectly executed stories of human nature, the small-scale dramas of domestic life, typically characterised by careful observation and insight. First published in 1949, A Wreath of Roses is one of Taylor’s earliest novels – and quite possibly her darkest too with its exploration of fear, loneliness, mortality and lies. It also feels like one of her most accomplished works, a novel in which the characters seem credible and fully realised in light of the interactions that take place during. (In short, I adored it.)

As the novel opens, Camilla – an unmarried secretary at a girls’ school – is travelling by train to Abingford where she will spend the summer with her friend, Liz, and Liz’s former governess, Frances. The holiday is an annual tradition, hosted by Frances – now a mature spinster – in her cottage in the country.

The novel’s unsettling tone is evident right from the start when a horrific incident occurs at the station as Camilla is waiting for her train. As a consequence, Camilla is drawn into conversation with a stranger – also a witness to the event – even though he is the type of man she would generally avoid. Their exchange is prickly, somewhat terse in fact; and yet Camilla finds herself strangely attracted to this man with his air of mystery and good looks.

The stranger is Richard Elton, a man who claims to be travelling to Abingford on a sort of nostalgia trip, having visited the location as a child. The reader, however, will soon begin to doubt the veracity of Elton’s account, peppered as it is with clues to the man’s true background and persona. While Camilla doesn’t like Elton, she is drawn to him – enough to make a mental note that he will be staying at The Griffin pub during his visit.

Once the two friends – Liz and Camilla – are installed in Frances’ cottage, it becomes clear that the lives of all three woman are in flux. Concerned that she has wasted too much of her life teaching children, the aged Frances is preoccupied with thoughts of the transience of life and her impending mortality.

‘No one ever came to me,’ she [Frances] thought. ‘I never lay in bed and talked to anyone. But I felt tenderness for people, and love. Hid it, though, with my prim ways as soon Camilla will, and from the same motives, fear and pride. Pride does not come before a fall. Nothing happens after pride. It closes the way. Life does not come to us. Or comes too late…’ (p. 144)

Painting remains a significant interest for Frances, something she has cultivated for many years. Recently, however, her style has changed dramatically from the gentle portraits and scenes of still life to more ferocious, abstract works. Camilla is particularly worried about the degree to which Frances has aged over the past year, now viewing her host as rather frail and diminished in spirit.

As for Camilla’s relationship with Liz, there are worrying signs of change here too. Much to Camilla’s annoyance, Liz is wrapped up in the care of her baby, a new arrival on the scene since the friends’ last holiday together the previous summer. To make matters worse, Camilla has taken a dislike to Liz’s husband, Arthur, whom she views as rather boring and self-important, especially as he seems to be more interested in the women of his parish than in Liz.

In truth, the two friends are opposites of one another. While Liz is warm, outgoing and capricious, Camilla is cold, sarcastic and self-contained. In her defence against life’s disappointments, Camilla has surrounded herself with a kind of protective armour, a shell that accentuates her withdrawal from the world. If she is not careful, Camilla may end up like Frances – a rather forthright older woman preoccupied with her artworks.

In her youth, discipline, over-niceness had isolated her [Camilla]. Shyness, perhaps, or pride, had started her off in life with a false step, on the wrong foot. The first little mistake initiated all the others. So life gathered momentum and bore her away; she became colder, prouder, more deeply committed; and, because she had once refused, no more was offered. Her habit now was negative. A great effort would be needed to break out of this isolation, which was her punishment from life for having been too exclusive; she must be humbled, be shamed in her own eyes, scheme and dissemble for what she wanted or it would be too late. (p. 82)

It is against this background – the sense that life is passing her by, a feeling of jealousy and exclusion from Liz’s new life – that Camilla falls prey to the charms of the sinister Richard Elton. Taylor is brilliant at capturing the deceptions we create for ourselves, the degree of tension in our emotions as they shift and change. There is a sense that Camilla is at least partially aware of Elton’s shortcomings, his insincerity and shallowness; and yet, she persists in making a play for him to counteract her loneliness. In part, she views her attraction to Elton as something of an adventure, a much-needed element of excitement in her life.

Others, however, are more suspicious of Elton, viewing him as a potentially dangerous influence on Camilla (and other women too). Perhaps the most significant individual here is the perceptive Morland Beddoes, a longstanding admirer of Frances’ paintings (and the artist herself), who has come to Abingford to meet the object of his desire. Mr Beddoes keeps bumping into Elton around the town, observing his behaviour with interest and suspicion. It is Beddoes whom Elton is most worried about, fearing him to be a member of the authorities or the police.  

He [Elton] had always told lies, always invented sources of self-pity. If he had an audience, he was saved. When he was alone, he was afraid. He had banished reality and now it was as if he were only reflected back from the mirrors of other people’s minds.

And he was frightened of Mr Beddoes. He felt him to be more than a match for him, with his quiet waiting game. But he would escape him. In two days, three days, he would slip away. And tonight the thought of meeting Camilla offered a temporary safety. (p.190)

There is a sinister undercurrent running through this novel, largely due to Richard Elton and our fears of his psychopathic tendencies. (It is clear – to the reader at least – that Elton is on the run from something terrible, possibly serious enough to be reported in the newspapers.)

Alongside this darkness, there is some brightness too, especially in Taylor’s slyly humorous portrait of Mrs Parsons, Frances’ gossipy charlady. Taylor is particularly good on chars, and Mrs Parsons is one of the best examples, replete with her worries over daughter, Euniss, being ‘in trouble’ – either as a consequence of her intended, Ernie, or the man who came to read the gas meter (name unknown). There are also some lovely descriptive passages in the portrayal of Abingford, a typically English town during a hot and oppressive summer.

Alongside the leading players, the minor characters are fully realised, too – most notably Morland Beddoes, Frances’ thoughtful admirer. Taylor’s insights into the ‘smallness’ of Beddoes’ life are beautifully observed, conveying a sense of the things this man has missed out on over time. Nevertheless, Frances’ paintings have been a source of great pleasure for Mr Beddoes, enabling him to see the beauty in life either differently or more clearly.

In summary, then, A Wreath of Roses is a brilliantly realised novel of deceptions, fears, loneliness and unsuitable attachments. The ending is especially unnerving, opening up a new seam of darkness in Taylor’s writing for me. As a consequence, this novel is right up there with my other favourites by Taylor: A View of the Harbour, The Soul of Kindness and, of course, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont – any of which I would be happy to revisit at some point in the future.

A Wreath of Roses is published by Virago press; personal copy.  

Recent Reads – The Memory Police; Square Haunting; Excellent Women

One of the perverse by-products of the current lockdown is the fact that I have more time to read and write at the moment, even if my ability to concentrate isn’t the best. So, in the spirit of trying to keep a record of my reading, here are a few brief thoughts on some of the books that have captured my imagination over the past few weeks.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (1994), tr. By Stephen Snyder (2019)

A haunting, beautifully-written novel about memory, loss and the holes left in our hearts when memories disappear.

The novel is set on an unnamed island where specific objects have been vanishing from day-to-day life for several years. Birds, perfume, bells, stamps – these are some of the things that have been ‘disappeared’, no longer in existence either as physical objects or as memories in the minds of the islanders.

The disappearance of the birds, as with so many other things, happened suddenly one morning. When I opened my eyes, I could sense something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air. The sign of a disappearance. […] I got up, put on a sweater, and went out into the garden. The neighbours were all outside, too, peering around anxiously. The dog in the next yard was growling softly.

Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump, with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast. I had just begun to wonder whether it was one of the creatures I had seen with my father when I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird” – everything. (p. 10)

The disappearances are enforced by the Memory Police, an authoritarian group who go around looking for any remaining traces of ‘disappeared’ items. Moreover, the Police also play a role in tracking down any islanders who can recall erased items, rounding them up for further investigation.

The novel’s narrator is a writer; and her editor, R, is one of the few individuals with the ability to remember some of these things – namely, the existence of emeralds, perfume and other forgotten items. As the narrative unfolds, we follow the narrator’s attempts to conceal her editor from the authorities while simultaneously trying to work on her novel – the premise of which has a certain resonance with the broader story. 

Ogawa’s thoughtful, meditative novel has been widely reviewed elsewhere, so rather than wittering on about it here, I shall direct you to various other posts – particularly those by Claire, Eric and Grant – which cover it in more detail. When I think about this book, what strikes me most is how poignant it feels right now, at a time when so many of the things we have taken for granted for years are no longer accessible to us – at least for the foreseeable future. It’s a very thought-provoking read, particularly given the current global crisis – definitely recommended reading.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade (2020)

I’ll keep this one brief, not because of any concerns about the book – it’s actually incredibly good! – but for other, purely personal reasons. In short, I’ve always found it harder to write about non-fiction than fiction, especially when a book is as meticulously researched as this.

Square Haunting is a fascinating collection of mini-biographies, focusing on five female inhabitants of Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, primarily covering the interwar years. The women in question are:

  • Hilda Doolittle (H. D.) – modernist poet, in residence 1916-18;
  • Dorothy L. Sayers – writer of detective fiction, in residence 1920-21;
  • Jane Ellen Harrison – classicist and translator, in residence 1926-28;
  • Eileen Power – historian, broadcaster and pacifist, in residence 1922–40;
  • Virginia Woolf – writer and publisher, in residence 1939-40.

What I really like about this book is the way the author uses Mecklenburgh Square as a prism through which to view the lives of these pioneering women, painting a rich tapestry of life within London’s cultural milieu from the end of WW1 to the beginning of WW2. In addition to presenting a snapshot of each woman’s life, Wade also enables us to glimpse other notable figures of the day – writers such as D.H Lawrence and Lytton Strachey, for example – on the edges of various social circles. There are some surprising connections between the lives of the various inhabitants of Mecklenburgh Square, relationships that make this location seem all the more intriguing.

In summary, Square Haunting is an erudite, evocative and beautifully constructed book. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in London’s social/cultural scene in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Excellent Women by Barba Pym (1952)

Finally, for this post at least, I’ve been revisiting Excellent Women, a novel I first wrote about back in 2016. The Backlisted Podcast team will be covering it in their next episode – due to land on Monday 13th April – hence the reason for my recent reread.

Once again, I’ll keep this brief – you can read my initial impressions of the book by clicking on the link above. What I will say is that it’s perfect lockdown reading. Reassuringly comforting and familiar, but with enough insight into the world of its protagonist to elevate it into the literary sphere.

In short, the novel is narrated by Mildred, a spinster in her early thirties, one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea when needed. The trouble is, Mildred ends up getting drawn into other people’s messy business, particularly as it is often assumed that she has no real life of her own.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (p. 1)

It’s a charming novel, one in which the most pressing concerns involve flower arranging and making plans for the forthcoming church bazaar. If only real life were as simple as this; we can but wish…Anyway, do tune into Backlisted once the podcast is up; it’s bound to be a good one.

The Memory Police is published by Harvill Secker; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy. Square Haunting is published by Faber & Faber, and Excellent Women by Virago Books; both personal copies.

The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns

The novels of Barbara Comyns continue to be a source of fascination for me, from the wonderfully matter-of-fact Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – widely considered to be a lightly fictionalised account of the author’s first marriage – to the evocative Mr Fox, a poignant tale set in the midst of WW2. My latest discovery is The Skins Chairs, first published in 1962 but sadly currently out of print. It’s vintage Comyns, shot through with a clever blend of the macabre and the mundane that characterises her work. Needless to say, I absolutely adored it.

The novel is narrated by Frances, a ten-year-old girl with just the right mix of wide-eyed innocence and active curiosity about the world around her. As the story opens, Frances – one of six children – is sent by her mother to stay with the Lawrences, a family of ‘horsey’ relatives who live in Leicestershire. Aunt Lawrence is a spiteful, domineering woman, intent on belittling Frances and her rather impoverished family, making light of their father and his work for a mattress company. (Frances’ father is in fact a legal adviser to the firm, a role that Aunt Lawrence appears to have forgotten, preferring instead to imply he is a lowly labourer. There is quite a lot snobbery in this novel, particularly amongst the Lawrences.) The Lawrence girls – eighteen-year-old Ruby and thirteen-year-old Grace – are little better than their mother, adding to the bleak atmosphere at the rather gothic Tower Hill.  It is only once Frances’ father dies that the Lawrences begin to show a degree of sympathy for the girl.

While the novel contains a certain amount of plot – mostly revolving around Frances’ return to her family and their quest to scrape by in reduced circumstances – it is perhaps more concerned with Frances as an individual and her experiences of the things she encounters. There is such pleasure to be gained from seeing the world through this young girl’s eyes, complete with its inherent strangeness and curiosities. Naturally, Comyns conveys this vision with the most wonderful turns of phrase, ranging from the striking to the humorous to the downright surreal. At one point in the story, Ruby takes Frances to the General’s house to the see the ‘skin chairs’, a collection of artefacts brought back from the Boer War. As it turns out, five of the chairs were made from the skins of black men and one from white…

One chair certainly was lighter than the rest and I carefully sat on it, expecting something strange to happen; but it was exactly like sitting in any other uncomfortable chair. My bare arms touched the back and, remembering what it was made of, I stood up and wiped my arms with my handkerchief. With a feeling of awe I gazed at the chairs thinking of the poor skinless bodies buried somewhere in Africa. Did their souls ever come to see what had happened to their skins or had they forgotten all about them? How had the General brought the skins back? And did the workmen who covered the chairs know what gruesome work they were doing? (p. 19)

The narrative is studded with grotesque images, from the infamous skin chairs to the details of Frances’ nightmares to the General’s contorted face following a severe stroke. All these elements add to the rather morbid feel of the novel as the spectre of death is never far away.

Alongside the eerie imagery, there are various surreal touches dotted through the novel – weirdly off-kilter observations that feel so striking to the reader, particularly given the unvarnished nature of Frances’ tone of voice. As with Sophia in Our Spoons, it is the matter-of-factness of Frances’ delivery that makes these reflections seem so arresting. In the following passage, Frances is thinking about Mrs Alexander, an eccentric lady with ‘a kind of ravaged, fabulous beauty, like some old and exotic doll in a museum, glittering and dusty’. Mrs Alexander has taken a shine to Frances, much to the young girl’s concern, particularly given the unsettling nature of the Mrs A’s claustrophobic home.

There was a lot about monkeys: her house was full of them. And she had once kept a bear, but people had complained because it used to break into church during the services, and it had to be given to a zoo. ‘I sometimes wonder why I ever returned to England, so many unpleasant things happen here.’ (pp. 106-107)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Lawrences consider Mrs Alexander to be quite mad; but in truth she is a lonely, unconventional lady, albeit one with outlandish ideas.

What Comyns captures so well in this novel is the way in which children can often be excellent, intuitive judges of character without fully understanding the complexities or underlying motivations at play. Frances knows that Vanda – a somewhat frivolous and careless young widow who lives nearby – is neglectful of her undernourished baby and yet she is not quite old enough to appreciate why this might be the case. Consequently, Frances grows quite attached to young Jane (and vice versa), visiting and helping to take care of her when she can.

Several of the adult characters are pretty frightful, from the venomous Aunt Lawrence with her pretentious ideals to the feckless Vanda whose disregard for Jane results in near tragedy. The most striking exception to this rule is Mr Blackwell, a kindly man who befriends Frances following his move to Springfield (the property once occupied by the General). Mr Blackwell’s friendship is a source of much brightness for Frances and her family, easing their money worries following several years of poverty.

Alongside the poignancy and dark humour, there are some beautiful descriptive passages here, packed full of detail on the intricacies of Frances’ world. In the following passage, Frances reimagines each room in her childhood home, a technique she uses to stave off the horrific nightmares after her father’s death.

To keep myself awake and to calm myself I would go through each room at home so that it almost seemed as if I was there. I tried to recall everything they contained: the yellow rug in the drawing-room, which we used to cut pieces from to make dolls’ wigs; the faded morning-room curtains with monkeys climbing up them – it was always a sign that summer was coming when they were hung; the enormous brass bedstead in the spare room, all draped in chintz curtains, with its feather mattress – sometimes we slept there when we were ill, because it was on the sunny side of the house, and Father used to thump the mattress to make a hollow for us to lie in. (p. 30)

In short, this is a magical novel in which a bright, curious girl must navigate some of the challenges of adolescence. It is by turns funny, eerie, poignant and bewitching. A spellbinding read, one that reminds me a little of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I can’t recommend it more highly than that.

The Skin Chairs was published by Virago Books (currently out of print); personal copy.