Category Archives: Backlisted Books

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

Every now and again, a book comes along that captivates the reader with its elegant form and glittering prose. Maud Martha is one such book, the only novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. First published in the US in 1953, this exquisitely-written novella has recently been released in the UK for the first time, making it available to a much wider audience of readers than before.

Maud Martha comprises a sequence of around thirty short vignettes, each one an evocative prose poem presenting a snapshot of the titular character’s life from childhood to early adulthood. As the writer Margo Jefferson points out in her excellent introduction, Brooks – an African American woman from the working classes – drew on her own life to create Maud Martha, tweaking various elements, dialling them up or down to portray the story.

Like Gwendolyn Brooks herself, Maud Martha Brown was born in 1917 to a relatively poor African American family from Chicago. As such, the novella’s early chapters offer glimpses of Maud’s childhood in the city’s South Side, a tough, uncompromising environment punctuated by flashes of beauty in the day-to-day. Dandelions glitter like ‘yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress’ of the Browns’ back yard, while the beginning of class is heralded by the peal of a bell, ‘a quickening of steps’ and the ‘fluttering of brief cases.’ Right from the very start, the reader is struck by the author’s use of imagery to convey a glorious sense of wonder in the routine and mundane.

Over the course of the novel, we follow Maud Martha through childhood, her early romances as a teenager, to marriage and motherhood, moving seamlessly from the early 1920s to the mid-’40s. The girl is bright, virtuous and imaginative – not as pretty or dainty as her older sister, Helen, but virtuous nonetheless. She dreams of a life in New York with all its attendant glamour and culture – alluring but unobtainable, for the moment at least.

When Maud Martha meets Paul, her body sings beside him – this man who craves the pleasurable things in life, ‘spiffy clothes, beautiful yellow girls, natural hair, smooth cars, jewels, night clubs, cocktail lounges, class’. Marriage swiftly ensues, with the couple settling for a tiny kitchenette and a shared bathroom despite their aspirations for something more spacious. But, while there are moments of brightness – occasional trips to the cinema and other small pleasures – life is hard for the newly-married Maud, whose skin is darker than her husband’s, something of a barrier to maintaining his affections.

What I am inside, what is really me, he likes okay. But he keeps looking at my color, which is like a wall. He has to jump over it in order to meet and touch what I’ve got for him. He has to jump away up high in order to see it. He gets awful tired of all that jumping. (p. 56)

Brooks’ vignettes range from depictions of commonplace, quotidian activities (sparing a mouse; gutting a chicken; shopping for a hat) to more notable occasions (first beau; giving birth; her grandmother’s death). Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most affecting snapshots illustrate how Maud Martha navigates the casual prejudices and racism she experiences on a day-to-day basis. The telling looks, the unguarded remarks, and the more blatant, explicit injustices are all captured so carefully and subtly through Brooks’ poetic prose. For instance, in one early vignette, a trip to an uptown cinema – a place where people of colour are rarely seen – proves somewhat uncomfortable for Maud Martha and Paul, despite the beautiful setting.

When the picture was over, and the lights revealed them for what they were, the Negroes stood up among the furs and good cloth and faint perfume, looked about them eagerly. They hoped they would meet no cruel eyes. They hoped no one would look intruded upon. (pp. 49–50)

When Maud Martha takes a job as a domestic ‘help’ in the wealthy suburb of Winnetka, she realises just what Paul has to put up with in his service job – especially when her exacting employer, the insensitive Mrs Burns-Cooper, proceeds to rattle off a litany of boasts. Nevertheless, there is an admirable degree of dignity in how Brooks’ protagonist deals with this put-down and other similar incidents, a quiet seam of resilience in the face of hurtful slights.

Shall I mention, considered Maud Martha, my own social triumphs, my own education, my travels to Gary and Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio? Shall I mention my collection of fancy pink satin bras? She decided against it. She went on listening, in silence, to the confidences until the arrival of the lady’s mother-in-law (large-eyed, strong, with hair of a mighty white, and with an eloquent, angry bosom.) (p. 103)

Perhaps the most affecting example of racism occurs when Maud Martha takes her daughter, Paulette, to visit Santa at the local department store. While Santa welcomes the white children with smiles and open arms, Paulette is roundly ignored – to the point where her mother has to intervene. For the most part, Maud Martha is mindful of keeping the occasional ‘scraps of baffled hate’ hidden inside her, unvoiced and constrained, but in this instance, she can barely hold back the tears. It’s a deeply moving vignette, poignantly evoked through Brooks’ expressive prose.    

But despite the myriad of challenges for a young, black, working-class woman like Maud Martha, there is something wonderfully uplifting about this book, just like its protagonist’s attitude to life itself. The vignettes glow with evocative imagery – like jewels that shimmer as their facets catch the light.  

The Ball stirred her. The Beauties, in their gorgeous gowns, bustling, supercilious; the young men, who at other times most unpleasantly blew their noses, and darted surreptitiously into alleys to relieve themselves, and sweated and swore at their jobs, and scratched their more intimate parts, now smiling, smooth, overgallant, the drowsy lights; the smells of food and flowers, the smell of Murray’s pomade, the body perfumes, natural and superimposed… (pp. 53–54)

As we leave Maud Martha – pregnant with her second child, her brother, Harry, freshly returned from the Second World War – there’s a glorious sense of optimism in the air. Here is a woman with a world of possibilities ahead of her. ‘What, what, am I to do with all of this life?’, she muses, fearless and ready for anything, despite unsettling news of racially-motivated lynchings elsewhere.

In crafting Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks has created something remarkable, a celebration of resilience, grace, dignity and beauty – a powerful image of black womanhood that remains highly relevant today.

Maud Martha is published by Faber & Faber. My thanks to Andy Miller, whose rave on a recent episode of Backlisted pushed it up the reading pile – spot on again!

In Which Barbara Pym Gets a Glamorous Makeover, Courtesy of Virago Press!

Something a little different from me today, a little celebration of one of my favourite women writers, the inimitable Barbara Pym. I have written before about my love of Pym’s novels with their unassuming women, hapless clergymen and fusty academics, moving in a world that feels both strangely absurd and highly relatable.

In the context of most Barbara Pym novels, the most pressing concerns are what to serve the new vicar when he comes over for tea and how to dress for the forthcoming church fete. (If only real life were like that, everything would be so much simpler!) On the surface, they may appear to be light social comedies, amusing sketches of village life; but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a satisfying amount of depth. Pym wrote insightfully about unrequited love, often based on her own experiences of relationships and middle-class life. Through her engaging fiction, she championed women who were taken for granted by men, those ‘excellent’, capable gentlewomen, always ready to rally the troops with endless cups of tea and consoling words of sympathy.

While many mid-20th century writers have fallen in and out of fashion over the past seventy years, Pym has always enjoyed the ardent support of various literary luminaries, including Philip Larkin, Lord David Cecil, Jilly Cooper, Anne Tyler and Alexander McCall Smith – even during the wilderness years. Moreover, while the social context of the world has changed hugely in that time, Pym’s astute observations on human emotions and behaviours have continued to endure.

Now, as we approach what would have been her 109th birthday (she was born on 2nd June 1913), Pym is set to experience another renaissance, courtesy of a series of nine fabulous reissues in the Virago Modern Classics imprint. They really are beautifully designed, marrying the enduring ‘vintage’ feel of Pym’s fiction with a wonderfully stylish new look.

The Virago team very kindly offered me a couple of review copies, A Glass of Blessings and An Academic Question, both of which I’ve yet to read. But in the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to put together a brief round-up of Pym’s other Virago novels with links to my previous reviews, just to give you a few ideas. Whether you’re a Pym newbie or a more seasoned reader of her work, there’s almost certainly something in the range for you!

Crampton Hodnet

Published posthumously in 1985, Pym actually wrote this delightful comedy of manners in the late 1930s, just after the outbreak of the Second World War. Set in the respectable circles of North Oxford, Crampton Hodnet introduces us to a world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date, a novel that deserves to be much better known.

Some Tame Gazelle

This is vintage Pym, a great introduction to her recurring preoccupations and themes. The central characters – Belinda and Harriet Bede – are loosely based on Barbara and her elder sister, Hilary. In essence, Pym imagines their lives in thirty years’ time, both sisters unmarried and living together in a house in a quiet village in the countryside. In this early novel, she demonstrates such a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy, adding genuine texture and depth.

Excellent Women

One of Pym’s most popular, best-known novels and rightly so. I revisited this at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and it turned out to be the perfect lockdown read – charming, comforting and thoughtful, with enough insight into its protagonist’s world to elevate it into the literary sphere. The novel is narrated by the quintessential Pym heroine, Mildred Lathbury, a sensible, diplomatic and accommodating spinster in her early thirties. Marriage is a central theme in this book, set as it is in a period when society placed a great deal of value on the institution of marriage. The novel explores whether a woman like Mildred can live ‘a full life’ if she remains unmarried, a central concept that makes it a very satisfying read.

Jane and Prudence

Another sparkling addition to Pym’s oeuvre, Jane and Prudence is a charming story of unrequited love, the blossoming of unlikely relationships, and the day-to-day dramas of village life. Once again, Pym shows her keen eye for a humorous scenario and an interesting personality or two. Her trademark descriptions of food and clothing – hats in particular – are also in evidence. As the story plays out, there are some unexpected developments, one or two of which show us that we can find solace and a form of love in the most unlikely of potential partners. Possibly my favourite Pym to date.

Less Than Angels

Pym drew on her own experiences of life at the International African Institute in London for this thoughtful novel set within the world of a group of anthropologists. On the surface, Less Than Angels seems a more serious, more reflective novel than some of Pym’s other early works, certainly judging by those I’ve read to date. There is a poignant note to the central character’s story, which only reveals itself as the book draws to a close. Nevertheless, Pym’s trademark dry humour is never too far away. Probably best suited to seasoned Pym readers rather than newbies, I think.

No Fond Return of Love

This very enjoyable novel features two rather mismatched young women, Dulcie and Viola, who meet at a conference for proofreaders and indexers. While that might sound a little dry as a set-up, in Pym’s capable hands it is anything but! There are some wonderful set-pieces here, all played out in the familiar Pym world of afternoon tea, jumble sales, church gatherings and various learned organisations. As one might expect, each scene is very keenly observed. There’s also some gloriously furtive stalking on the part of Dulcie as she spies on the object of her affection, the editor Dr Aylwin Forbes. Definitely a novel I’d like to re-read.

Civil to Strangers

Published posthumously in 1987, Civil to Strangers comprises the titular novel, three unfinished novels/novellas and four short stories. While the novels and novellas are minor Pyms in the grand scheme of things, there is much for the completist to enjoy in this lovely collection of work. The short story Goodbye Balkan Capital is particularly strong. It’s quintessential Pym, a beautifully observed tale of two spinster sisters sharing a house together, protagonists reminiscent of the Bede sisters from Some Tame Gazelle.

So, there we have it. A whistle-stop tour of my thoughts on these Pym reissues from Virago. I’m sure they’ll be a runaway success, especially given the stunning new designs!

Let me know what you think of these novels in the comments below, especially if you’ve read any of them – and your thoughts on the updated editions, of course. Or maybe you have plans to (re-)read some of them soon? If so, feel free to mention them below.

The new editions will be published in the UK on 2nd June (Pym’s birthday!), and you can pre-order them here from my Bookshop.Org affiliate site. My sincere thanks to Virago Press for kindly providing copies.

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns continues to be a source of endless fascination for me, a distinctly English writer with a very particular style. Her novels have a strange, off-kilter feel to them, blending surreal imagery and touches of dark, deadpan humour with the harsh realities of day-to-day life. There’s often a sadness too, a sense of melancholy or loneliness running through the texts.

First published in 1959, The Vet’s Daughter is the sixth Comyns I’ve read, and after a couple of false starts it may well turn out to be my favourite. This Virago edition (kindly sent to me by Liz) contains an introduction by the author herself, a sort of potted history of her life up to the time of the novel’s release. There are hints of an eccentric home life in the Comyns household: a fiery, unpredictable father, an invalid mother with a pet monkey; a succession of governesses with few qualifications; and little mixing between the family and the outside world. It’s a background that seems to feed directly into The Vet’s Daughter, a striking coming-of-age novel with a distinctive narrative voice.

The story is narrated by Alice Rowlands, the titular vet’s daughter, who lives in south London with her domineering father, Euan, and her sickly mother. Euan Rowlands is a violent man, essentially bullying Alice and her mother with his sudden outbursts and demands. Alice, on the other hand, is fully alive to the world around her, sensing the danger that her father duly presents. She is an innocent, imaginative girl at heart, qualities that come through in her childlike tone of voice.

I didn’t look after Father as well as Mother used to, and he often hit me because the bacon was burnt or the coffee weak. Once, when I had ironed a shirt badly, he suddenly rushed at me like a charging ball in a thunderstorm, seeming to toss the shirt in some way with his head. I held on to the kitchen sink, too afraid to move. He came right up to me, and I saw the whites of his eyes were all red. (pp. 17-18)

With her mother desperately ill upstairs in bed and no siblings to help out, Alice is little more than a maid – shopping for the household and looking after her mother, particularly at night. There is some support for Alice in the shape of Mrs Churchill, a straight-talking woman who comes over during the day; but when Alice’s mother dies, the future seems increasingly uncertain. Euan disappears for three weeks, leaving a locum vet, Henry Peebles, in charge of the practice. By contrast to Euan, Henry is a kindly chap, the first man to treat Alice with due care and consideration – in Henry (aka ‘Blinkers’), Alice has found a true friend for life.

When Euan reappears, Mrs Churchill is shocked to find him accompanied by Rosa Fisher, a rather brash woman who helps out behind the bar at the local pub. While Euan positions Rosa as the Rowlands’ new housekeeper, even Alice can see what she really represents. In effect, Rosa is Euan’s mistress – a careless, brazen woman who ultimately neglects Alice, endangering her well-being in the most deplorable of ways.

Alice turns to daydreams as a means of escape, vividly imagining a lush, exotic world where creatures roam freely, released from their restrictive constraints. In short, she uses these fantasies as a coping mechanism, blunting some of the sadness and brutality in her life.

Sometimes the life I was living seemed so hopeless and sad I would try to imagine I was in another world. Then all the dreary brown things in the kitchen would turn into great exotic flowers and I’d be in a kind of jungle, and, when the parrot called from his lavatory prison, he wasn’t the parrot, but a great white peacock crying out. (p. 60)

A respite ultimately comes in the form of Blinkers, who takes Alice to live in the Hampshire countryside as a companion to his elderly mother, Mrs Peebles. At first, Alice is enchanted by her new surroundings, taking comfort from the beauty of the natural world, alive with the signs of winter.

In the early morning, when I looked out of my bedroom window, the trees and fields were white with hoar frost and the glass in the window was beautifully patterned with it. I’d never loved the frost before but now it enchanted me. Besides the beauty, there were the sounds: the snap of a stick, the hard rustle of a frozen leaf, the crack of breaking ice–-even the birds’ winter cries seemed to be sharp and intensified. (p. 125)

Nevertheless, Alice’s new environment comes with its own set of challenges. The house is dark and in poor repair; and Mrs Peebles herself is also being preyed upon by bullies – in this instance, Mr and Mr Gowley, a rather dubious pair of housekeepers with their eyes on the family silver. It is here in the countryside that Alice becomes fully aware of her magical gift, an unusual ability only she seems to possess. It would be foolish of me to say too much about this, but it’s not dissimilar to Laura’s secret in Lolly WillowesSylvia Townsend Warner’s marvellous novel of a woman’s liberation, which I read in 2018.

Before long, circumstances conspire to dictate another change for Alice, prompting her return to Euan, who is back with the hideous Rosa. When Euan learns about his daughter’s unusual gift, he immediately seeks to exploit it for monetary gain, setting up a denouement with a shocking conclusion. It’s an ending that will prove hard to shake, somewhat reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s work – We Have Always Lived in the Castle immediately springs to mind.

The Vet’s Daughter has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: an enchanting, innocent child caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, often with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-matter-of-fact tone of voice that belies the horrors within. As ever, this author excels in her use of symbolism, skilfully establishing a somewhat surreal tone to the narrative right from the start.

The door was propped open by a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it, and I looked through. (p. 3)

Perhaps the most striking elements of the story stem from the violence and cruelty meted out to Alice, particularly at home. The novel has much to say about the tyrannical behaviour of fathers and the exploitation of the more vulnerable members of our society – especially children, the elderly and those who are ill or infirm. While Comyns blends elements of fantasy and magic realism with the stark realities of day-to-day life, she never lets us forgets the horrors of Alice’s existence, complete with its constraints.

This is a wonderful, magical novel with a dark, highly distinctive flavour. Barbara Comyns may not be to every reader’s taste, but she is a true original with a unique view of the world’s cruelties. A highly imaginative writer who deserves to be widely read.

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

Over the course of her career, the English writer Elizabeth Jenkins produced biographies of several leading figures, including Henry Fielding, Lady Caroline Lamb and Jane Austen. There is more than a touch of Austen in The Tortoise and the Hare, Jenkins’ 1954 novel about the slow, stealthy disintegration of a marriage. It’s an exquisitely written book, a masterclass in precision and understatement, currently in print with Virago with an introduction by Hilary Mantel.

While Jenkins’ story takes place in a particular sub-sector of the British class structure – the upper-middle-class ‘home counties set’ in the mid-1950s – its themes and emotions are universal, broadening the novel’s relevance beyond the sphere in which it is set.

Central to the story are the Gresham family – fifty-two-year-old Evelyn Gresham, a successful barrister of the highest rank, his beautiful wife, Imogen, and the couple’s ten-year-old son, Gavin. At thirty-seven, Imogen is fifteen years younger than Evelyn – an age difference that mattered little when the couple married, but now, twelve years into their relationship, the gap is beginning to show. While Evelyn was initially attracted to Imogen’s ingénue-type character, his needs have changed over time. Now Imogen must devote herself to making Evelyn’s home life as efficient and unruffled as possible, a task she finds challenging in light of her husband’s exacting standards. At heart, Imogen is a sensitive, compassionate young woman, but efficient management and organisation are not her strongest suits.

By contrast, Blanche Silcox – the Greshams’ nearest neighbour – is the polar opposite of Imogen. At fifty, Blanche is the living embodiment of the home counties ‘country type’, complete with her dowdy tweeds and forbidding hats. While Imogen is quiet, graceful and unassuming, Blanche is plain, practical and direct, a leading figure in the local community through her roles on various committees.

Slowly but surely, Blanche begins to encroach on Imogen’s territory, worming her way into the Greshams’ marriage in the stealthiest of ways.

She [Imogen] could not have said exactly when she had become aware of how often their neighbour Blanche Silcox’s name occurred in Evelyn’s conversation as that of a woman immensely knowledgeable on rural topics, whose opinions on the ethics of tied cottages, drainage and poultry-keeping for profit called forth respectful agreement. To all such topics Imogen herself could only listen in silence. (p. 39)

Before long, Evelyn is spending an increasing amount of time with Blanche, popping over to see her on a daily basis, taking phone calls at all hours, and accepting lifts from her when he travels from Berkshire to London for work. (Unfortunately, Imogen cannot drive, putting her at a disadvantage to Blanche when it comes to chauffeuring Evelyn around.) Moreover, whenever Imogen dares to comment on her husband’s closeness to Blanche, Evelyn rationalises the relationship by reiterating the latter’s qualities – how nice or helpful it is of Blanche to support him in these ways, thereby implying that Imogen is being unreasonable when she questions these kindnesses.

Sadly for Imogen, her role as Gavin’s mother is also under threat. As far as Gavin is concerned, Imogen is weak-willed and useless, and he barely suppresses his contempt for her tendency to fuss. Blanche, on the other hand, is a more natural fit for the young boy, arranging for him to have riding lessons and access to her land to fish. In short, Gavin is turning into a junior version of Evelyn, following in his father’s footsteps, disregarding Imogen’s feelings while suiting himself.

Imogen does have some support, albeit from outside the family circle. For instance, her closest female friend, Cecil (who occasionally visits from London), has the measure of Blanche from the very start.

Cecil meanwhile had used the opportunity to study Blanche Silcox. Imogen had described the latter to her with great earnestness but the description had conveyed little of what Cecil now found to be the reality. Imogen had said that Blanche Silcox was obviously much attracted by Evelyn, and that she was so thoroughly kind and useful to him it was only natural that he should appreciate it. There was nothing in it on his side, naturally. When Cecil had the people concerned before her eyes, she began to doubt the truth of this judgement immediately. (p. 98)

Cecil is so struck by the sense of magnetism surrounding Blanche that she that likens the effect to the ‘indrawing draught of a furnace’, clearly spotting the danger that Imogen is trying her hardest to dismiss. In Cecil’s eyes, Blanche should not be underestimated – underneath that dowdy appearance is a woman of quiet determination, a force of fire and heat.  

The real strength of this novel lies in the precision and clarity Jenkins brings to her portrayal of Imogen, particularly the lack of agency she feels when faced with Blanche as a competitor. Slowly but surely, Imogen’s self-confidence ebbs away as she forces herself to come to terms with Evelyn’s infidelity. Deep down, it’s something that Imogen has known for a while, but it takes a gossipy acquaintance to reveal the depth of Blanche’s involvement in Evelyn’s life, much to Imogen’s distress.

The revelation of the degree of Blanche Silcox’s intimacy with Evelyn – ‘all those late meals, as he hates restaurants’ – yet did it tell her anything she did not know? Did it not merely fill in the details of a picture she had unconsciously drawn for herself? But she had never known until this moment that in a state of jealous agitation each separate detail is as painful as the whole: The comings and goings, the telephone calls, the brief visits paid by car between the two houses, the evenings in London, the constant, close intimacy filling every hour that she herself was not there, and now this monstrous arrangement of the holiday in Scotland: it was like some closed book she was wild with curiosity to read, although the meaning was known to her already. (p. 157)

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is its quietly subversive nature, how it goes against some of our traditional assumptions and expectations in affairs of the heart. For instance, in a love triangle of this nature, it is more usual for the man to be seduced away from his wife by a younger, more attractive model, leaving the older, more faded woman in the shade. But in this case, the conventions are reversed, with the beautiful, graceful Imogen potentially losing out to the frumpy but capable Blanche – a woman who matches Evelyn very closely in terms of age. This might lead us to think of Blanche as the Tortoise in this scenario, slowly but stealthily triumphing over Imogen the Hare. Nevertheless, in the novel’s excellent afterword, the publisher Carmen Callil argues for a different interpretation of these labels, viewing Imogen as the Tortoise – the one with the most to gain, especially if she chooses to break free from the pain of her marriage. It’s an interesting interpretation, albeit somewhat hard to discuss without revealing the novel’s ending, which I would rather not do.

All four leading characters – Imogen, Evelyn, Blanche and Gavin – are brilliantly drawn, fully painted on the page with all their individual habits, preoccupations and failings. There’s strong support too from the secondary players, perhaps most notably from Imogen’s perceptive friend, Cecil, and Evelyn’s school friend, Paul – a compassionate man who is more than a little in love with Imogen and caught up in a somewhat mismatched marriage himself. Also of note is Gavin’s friend, Tim, a gentle boy whom Imogen takes under her wing, partly due to his rather chaotic homelife.

All in all, this is a superb book, a devastating portrayal of the erosion of a marriage, all the more impressive for its subtlety and refusal to submit to melodrama. My slightly early contribution to Karen and Simon’s #1954Club, which is just about to kick off!

On Rereading: Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard

A couple of months ago, the Backlisted team covered Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1969 novel Something in Disguise for their Halloween episode of the podcast. It’s a book I had read before, with somewhat mixed feelings; however, Andrew and Laura’s impassioned case for it being a rather sly, perceptive novel about the horrors of domestic life prompted me to revisit it with a fresh pair of eyes. Naturally, they were right! (How could they not be?) On my second reading, I found it much more chilling from the start, partly because I already knew just how painfully the story would play out for some of the key characters involved…

So in this post, I’m jotting down a few things that particularly struck me on this second reading – largely for my own benefit, but some of you might find it interesting too.

As the Backlisted discussion touches on, the novel’s title has multiple meanings. Not only are certain individuals in the story concealing things from those closest to them, but the novel itself is also ‘something in disguise’. In essence, this is a domestic horror story masquerading under the cover of a family drama/whirlwind romance, complete with a breezy ‘women’s fiction’ style jacket to misdirect the reader; and while I’d picked up some of this domestic horror (particularly Alice’s miserable marriage to the insensitive, overbearing Leslie) on my first reading, I’d missed some of the early warning signs about Herbert’s true intensions. More on these red flags a little later in the post.

In my previous write-up of the novel, I’d noted the following points about the family’s matriarch, May, whose first husband had been killed many years earlier in the Second World War. “May is now married to Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, a pompous, penny-pinching bore who spends most of his spare time in London, dining at his club and visiting a ‘lady friend’ for sexual favours. Meanwhile, May must amuse herself at home, a rather staid old house in Surrey which she finds both cold and unwelcoming.”

May and Herbert’s Surrey house is almost a character in its own right, such is EJH’s talent for describing settings, furnishings and rooms. Herbert appears to have pushed May into buying it with the proceeds of an inheritance, somewhat against her better judgement. It’s a terrifying place – cold, dark and oppressive, the type of dwelling that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Shirley Jackson short story.

The floors of the wide, dark passages were polished oak, which, as Herbert had pointed out, obviated the need for carpets. The staircase was also oak – no carpet there, either, which made it slippery and a nightmare to negotiate with heavy trays. The hall, with its huge, heavily-leaded window – too large to curtain – was somehow always freezing, even in summer, and dark, too, because here the oak had crept up the walls to a height of about nine feet, making any ordinary furniture and look ridiculous. There was also a tremendous stone fireplace in which one could have roasted an ox; and, as Oliver had pointed out, nothing less would have done either to warm the place or to defeat the joyless odour of furniture polish. ‘It really is a monstrous house,’ she thought… (p. 83)

As the novel progresses, May begins to feel increasingly unwell, but no specific illness can be identified, with the doctors ultimately putting her condition down to age or the stress of Alice’s wedding. (At the beginning of the novel, Herbert’s daughter, Alice, marries Leslie – the first man to pay her any attention – chiefly as a means of getting away from her hideous father.) Moreover, the Colonel’s self-centred, duplicitous manner becomes increasingly apparent, leaving May to take the full strain of his selfishness, with no-one else in their Surrey home to offer support.

It’s hard to talk about how the May-Herbert storyline ends without getting into spoiler territory, but it definitely takes a very sinister turn. On my previous reading, I hadn’t fully grasped Herbert’s intentions until the closing scenes; however, this time I noticed just how many clues about his true colours are dropped in along the way. Instances such as the following when May’s daughter, Elizabeth, and her older lover, John, turn up unexpectedly at the Surrey house.

…they had arrived without warning at the innocuous hour of tea time, but this had so enraged the colonel that May had thought he was going to have a stroke. They had ‘broken in’ on him when he was in the greenhouse mixing something up for the lawn; no common courtesy left – he’d looked up from measuring something because he thought he’d heard a sound behind him, and there was this giant stranger without so much as a by-your-leave standing over him – enough to give any honest feller a heart attack. He’d lost his temper: not for long, but enough to make everyone feel intensely embarrassed… (p. 247)

And here, where Elizabeth wonders if men are largely responsible for the terrible things that happen to women. Perhaps John is responsible for his ex-wife’s drink problem and his daughter’s petulant behaviour? Maybe even Herbert – or Daddo as Elizabeth thinks of him – has a villainous streak? Sometimes it’s hard to tell…

And Daddo! She [Elizabeth] thought, with exactly the same hectic alarm; supposing he was wicked and just masquerading as stupid and dull! There was absolutely no reason, she went on, wildly, why on earth stupid people shouldn’t be wicked: it was far more likely, when you came to consider it. It was supposed to be far easier to be wicked than to be good…(p. 128)

This re-read also reinforced how trapped Alice must have felt in her marriage to Leslie – another self-absorbed bore with no regard for his wife’s feelings. In my previous post, I’d quoted an excruciating passage from Leslie and Alice’s wedding night (which you can read via the link). However, during this reading I highlighted a section from later in the novel when Alice is pregnant, desperately battling a combination of loneliness, isolation and nausea, to which Leslie seems oblivious.

By the time Leslie returned she was just beginning to feel sick again, but gave the appearance of having been at wifely occupations all day. He would make himself a drink, switch on the television and tell her about his day in a raised voice over it, while she struggled with nausea and supper.… When, eventually, they went to bed, Leslie left her alone which was the single best thing about being pregnant, she decided. He would kiss her forehead, pat her hand, sometimes – maddeningly – stroke her belly, but he seemed to regard sex as unnecessary. (p. 199)

Also worthy of a mention before I finish is Alice’s marvellous cat, Claude, who steals the whole show – quite literally in this scene – as he tucks into a pair of salmon trout that Herbert has held back from the catering for Alice and Leslie’s wedding.

He [Claude] had known for ages how to open the larder door, but had not advertised the fact, largely because there was hardly ever anything there worth eating; but he was extremely fond of fish. He inserted a huge capable paw round the lower edge of the door and heaved for several minutes: when the gap was wide enough he levered it open with his shoulder and part of his head. The fish lay on a silver platter on the marble shelf, skinned and garnished. He knocked pieces of lemon and cucumber contemptuously aside, settled himself into his best eating position and began to feast. He tried both fish – equally delicious – and when he could eat no more, he jumped heavily off the shelf with a prawn in his mouth which he took to the scullery for further examination. (pp. 21–22)

Claude really is quite the character – the sort of pet that does as he pleases, as many cats are inclined to do!

So, a fascinating reread for many different reasons, some of which I’ve noted above. I still feel that John is a little bit too good to be true. His whisking Elizabeth away to a life of luxury in the South of France seems like a fantasy – too idealistic or fantastic to buy into completely. But maybe that’s a deliberate decision on Howard’s part; I’m curious to hear any views.

Something in Disguise is published by Picador; personal copy.

My favourite books from a year of reading, 2021 – part two, older books

This year, I’m spreading my highlights from a year of reading across two posts. The first piece focused on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, while this second one puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books from my 2021 reading, most of which were written in the 20th century.

These are the backlisted books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, this unsettling collection of Wharton’s Ghost Stories is a veritable treat. Characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety, Wharton’s narratives are rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors. The fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul are all in evidence here. As one would expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn, with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing. A wonderfully chilling collection of tales, tapping into the dark side of American history and human relationships.

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

A thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten, whom she names Gattino. Not long after Mary and her husband move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, thereby reawakening various emotions, previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of Gaitskill’s father. In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. While the Daunt Books edition came out in 2020, this powerful extended essay first appeared in the Granta literary journal in 2009.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

This loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale is another of Taylor’s marvellous ensemble pieces, very much in line novels such as A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, where the focus moves from one individual to another as their lives intertwine. The novel is set in Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s, and as ever with this author, the characters are brilliantly observed. What I love about this her work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and veracity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication. Possibly underrated in the Taylor oeuvre, but for me it’s a gem.

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

This is a glorious book – an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and, perhaps most significantly of all, repressed female desire. A small group of Anglican nuns set out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains, a place steeped in beauty and mystery. As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under the setting’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. Tensions – both sexual and otherwise – abound in this sensual novel, stepped in lush visual imagery. In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, even for devoted fans of the Powell and Pressburger film, such as myself!

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with his others from the 1970s, and is something of a bridge between The Boarding-House and The Children of Dynmouth, both of which I loved. The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families – one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous characters I’ve encountered this year: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.

The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a darkly evocative coming-of-age narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Matute excels in her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting, drawing on striking descriptions of natural world to reinforce the impression of danger. It’s a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions. As this visceral novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her. A unsettling summer read.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

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

Passing by Nella Larsen

Larsen’s 1928 novella Quicksand – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry – both of whom are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances. Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. A superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. I loved Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation too, currently steaming on Netflix.

Finally, a few books that almost made the cut – all very highly recommended indeed.

  • Meeting in Positano – Goliarda Sapienza’s gorgeous novel of female friendship, set in the glamorous world of 1950s Italy.  
  • The Visitor – Maeve Brennan’s piercing novella of resentment, bitterness and the loneliness of isolation.
  • Family Happiness – Laurie Colwin’s beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to be loved.   
  • Tea is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex’s delightfully amusing comedy on the pettiness of village life and the failure to recognise our own limitations.
  • The Feast – Margaret Kennedy’s joyous novel, set in post-war Cornwall. Part morality tale and part family saga/social comedy, it’s an escapist delight!

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead. Let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than the last two have been…

Autumn reads – a few favourites from the shelves

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

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

This beautiful, evocative novella is set in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story emerges, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a secret relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man whom she met at her husband’s office. What emerges is a story of unspoken desire, missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. This haunting, dreamlike novella is intimate and hypnotic in style, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

A Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

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

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

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

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

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

American Midnight – Tales of the dark short story anthology

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

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

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

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

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

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton – subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined.

I have long been a fan of Edith Wharton, a fascination that started with Ethan Frome, Wharton’s brilliant yet brutal novella of the fallout from an intense love triangle. The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth are favourites too, along with the New York Stories which I wrote about in 2019.

Wharton’s Ghost Stories – collected together in this beautifully-produced book from Virago’s Designer Collection – are probably closest in style to some of the more unsettling pieces in the New York book, characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety. Here we have narratives rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors – the fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul. As one might expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn – with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing.

The book opens with The Lady’s Maid’s Bell, one of the most unnerving tales in this excellent collection. Narrated by the maid herself, it is a classic ghost story in which the protagonist is haunted by the appearance of a spectre, the identity of which becomes clear as the story unfolds. There are several familiar elements here: a dark gloomy house; a feverish young lady of the manor; servants who refuse to speak of the maid’s predecessor; and a ghostly image that only the protagonist herself is able to detect. However, perhaps the most frightening element of the story is Wharton’s use of sound – the terrifying ring of the maid’s bell after hours, piercing the intense silence of the house as it rests at night.

Silence also plays a key role in All Souls, another highlight and possibly the most terrifying story in the collection. It tells the tale of a widow, Sara Clayborn, who believes she has spent a horrific weekend at her home, Whitegates, a lonely, remote house in the wilds of Connecticut. Having spotted an unknown woman heading towards her house, Sara breaks her ankle and is confined to bed for the night. On waking she discovers that the servants are nowhere to be found. The house appears to be deserted; an eerie silence having replaced the normal bustle of activity during the day. In this story, it is not the unexplained creaks and groans that strikes terror into the heart of the protagonist; rather, it is the ominous lack of any sound at all, especially as the house appears to be completely deserted.

More than once she had explored the ground floor alone in the small hours, in search of unwonted midnight noises; but now it was not the idea of noises that frightened her, but that inexorable and hostile silence, the sense that the house had retained in full daylight its nocturnal mystery, and was watching her as she was watching it; that in entering those empty orderly rooms she might be disturbing some unseen confabulation on which beings of flesh-and-blood had better not intrude. (p. 348)

It’s a tale in which Sara begins to doubt her own sanity and perception of reality, with time appearing to expand and contract before the servants finally reappear.

Afterward is another highlight, a vividly-imagined story that feels all too believable and real. The Boynes, and American couple living in England take a country house in Dorset as their home – a property already known to their friend, Alida Stair. When the Boynes enquire about the possible presence of a ghost, they are told by Alida that there is a ghost, although its appearance does not become clear to the house’s inhabitant until ‘afterward’, whatever that may mean. At first, the Boynes take this conjecture in their stride, laughing it off in a light-hearted manner. It is only once a mysterious figure is seen approaching the house that the supernatural happenings swing into action…

Then of a sudden she was seized by a vague dread of the unknown. She had closed the door behind her on entering, and as she stood alone in the long silent room, her dread seemed to take shape and sound, to be there breathing and lurking among the shadows. Her shortsighted eyes strained through them, half-discerning an actual presence, something aloof, that watched and knew; and in the recoil from that intangible presence she threw herself on the bell rope and gave it a sharp pull. (p. 91)

Once again, the fear of the unknown is crucial here, the abject terror that stems from the zealous nature of our own imaginations. Overall, this is a very nuanced story, one that alludes to a sense of retribution – a kind of reckoning for past misdemeanours and nefarious deeds.

Also very impressive is Pomegranate Seed in which Charlotte Ashby, a newly-married young woman, is haunted by the spectre of her predecessor – her husband having previously been widowed following the death of his first wife. In this piece, the haunting comes as a series of mysterious letters, always enclosed in grey envelopes and addressed in the faintest of hands. As a consequence, Charlotte is left shaken; it would appear that the first Mrs Ashby retains an unhealthy hold over her husband, something that Charlotte is determined to break. There are shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca here, albeit with a more supernatural element. (Interestingly, Wharton’s story actually predated the du Maurier, first appearing in 1931, a good seven years before the publication of Rebecca.)

Finally, a mention for The Triumph of Night, which shares something with the opening story, The Lady’s Maid’s Bell. This is another story in which a spectral presence makes itself known to one individual in particular – in this instance, Faxon, a man who is offered shelter by a fellow traveller when his carriage fails to show. Over dinner with his benefactor’s family, Faxon realises that the ghostly figure is fixated on the young man, the very one who invited him to stay. As a consequence, Faxon’s hold on reality begins to slip, a development that is brilliantly conveyed in the following passage.

The glass was so full that it required an extraordinary effort to hold it there, brimming and suspended, during the awful interval before he [Faxon] could trust his hand to lower it again, untouched, to the table. It was this merciful preoccupation which saved him, kept him from crying out, from losing his hold, from slipping down into the bottomless blackness that gaped for him. As long as the problem of the glass engaged him he felt able to keep his seat, manage his muscles, fit unnoticeably into the group; but as the glass touched the table his last link with safety snapped. He stood up and dashed out of the room. (p. 162)

This is a very unnerving story, one that explores themes of guilt, manipulation and the preying on others’ weaknesses – a sobering tale with a tragic twist.

Other pieces in the collection feature mysterious individuals who are not quite what they seem; the dead seemingly brought back to life; and an eerie pack of dogs who reputedly appear on a certain day of the year.

These wonderfully chilling stories are subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, tapping into the darker side of American history and human relationships. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

I have long wanted to read Marghanita Laski, the British writer and broadcaster who came to prominence in the 1940s and ‘50s. (Five of her novels are currently in print with Persephone Books.) My original intention had been to start with her 1949 novel, Little Boy Lost, which focuses on a man’s search for his lost son in post-WW2 France. But then, back in December, the Backlisted team featured Laski’s 1953 novella, The Victorian Chaise-Longue, on an episode of their podcast, and the decision was made for me.

It’s a difficult book to say very much about without revealing key elements of the premise; so, if you’re thinking of reading it and would prefer to know as little as possible before going in, look away now. What I will say upfront is that the experience of reading this novella feels somewhat akin to being trapped in a terrifying COVID fever dream from times past. Ideal lockdown reading for the more sensitive among you!

The premise of this chilling story is a simple yet highly effective one. In the early 1950s, Melanie, a young mother recovering from tuberculosis, falls asleep, only to wake up in the body of her alter ego, Milly, some ninety years earlier.

As Melanie realises that she is trapped, effectively imprisoned in the body of a dying woman, she begins to doubt various ‘truths’ about her existence – more specifically, her identity, her sanity, and perhaps most troubling of all, her ability to return to the life she once knew.

Given that this is a short book, it would be unfair of me to reveal anything else about the plot – I’ve probably said more than enough already. Instead, I’ll try to convey something of the story’s tone and underlying themes.

A little like the woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Melanie (in the 1950s) finds her freedoms restricted by a patronising doctor and an equally paternalistic husband – both of whom treat her like a child. Nevertheless, after a long period of recuperation in bed, Melanie is to be allowed a slight change of scenery in the afternoons – a move to the drawing-room where she can lie on the chaise-longue, an antique piece from the Victorian era. It is while lying on this couch that Melanie falls asleep, setting the eerie nightmare in motion…

A common voice, a cruel voice, assured and domineering. Not a voice to be conquered with superior strength but the nightmare voice that binds the limbs in dreadful paralysis while the danger creeps and creeps and at last will leap. I am asleep, said Melanie, ordering her wakened brain to admit this and be still, her closed eyes to see not even the ugly green and scarlet and yellow patterns under too tightly pressed eyelids, and then there was a heavy weighted rattle and almost simultaneously another, and consciousness of light shot through the close lids and forced them open. (p. 43)

Milly’s situation in the 1860s is even more restricted than Melanie’s, something that invites comparisons between what is deemed acceptable for a married woman in the 19th century vs the 20th. Laski is very skilled in her use of language, drawing on all the senses to convey the horror of her protagonist’s position – from the ‘bumpy hardness’ of the couch and the harsh woollen blanket covering the woman’s body to the fetid smell enveloping her surroundings.

Melanie folded the bread-and-butter and tried to eat it. The butter was nasty, over-salt and slightly rancid, seeming to have absorbed some of the room’s foul smell of which she was continually aware. But I must eat, she told herself, I must overcome this sick dizziness and feel strong. If this body is dead, I am still, for the moment, imprisoned within it. (pp. 92–93)

There is also the question of what constitutes the ‘present’ vs the past and the future. Is Melanie trapped in a terrifying dream, or has she somehow gone back in time to an earlier incarnation of her life?

I must always have been Milly and Milly me. It is now that is present reality and the future is still to come. But if I have to wait for the future, if it is only in time to come that I shall be Melanie again, then that time must come again too when Sister Smith leaves me to sleep on the chaise-longue, and I wake up in the past. I shall never escape – and the eternal prison she imagined consumed her mind, and she fainted or dozed off into a nightmare of chase and pursuit and loss. (p. 97)

Seeking a potential release from entrapment through prayer, Melanie even wonders whether she has been set some kind of challenge by God, possibly as a penance for past sins. The acceptability of a woman experiencing desire and ecstasy are also questioned as confusion kicks in, with Melanie’s mind going into overdrive.

In summary, this is a very unnerving story, one that relies on our fears of entrapment – a feeling augmented by the loss of personal agency and any grip on reality. It captures the terror of feeling helpless and imprisoned, when everything we previously believed about our existence is destabilised and undermined. In short, a psychologically disturbing read for a dark winter’s night.

My copy of The Victorian Chaise-Longue was published by The Cresset Press, but the book is currently available from Persephone Books.

My books of the year, 2020 – part 2, the novels

Last week, I published part 1 of my favourite reads of 2020, a post focussing on novellas and non-fiction. (If you missed it, you can find it here.)

Today, I’m back with part 2, my favourite novels from a year of reading. My reading has been somewhat erratic in 2020, following the ebb and flow of the lockdown-release cycle we’ve been navigating this year. Nevertheless, I have managed to read some truly excellent books. So, without further ado, these are the novels I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. As ever, I’ve summarised each one below, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

This is such a charming book, a wonderful novel in which a young woman, Hilary Fane, sets out on her own, hoping to find her way in the world of work before getting married. The story is told through a series of letters – mostly from Hilary to her parents and fiancé – coupled with the occasional interdepartmental memo from the London department store where she works. In short, the letters chart Hilary’s progress in London, the highs and lows of working life and the practicalities of surviving on a meagre wage. What comes through so strongly here is the narrative voice, revealing Hilary to be bright, realistic, witty and self-deprecating; in other words, she is an absolute joy. If you loved Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day or The Diary of a Provincial Lady, chances are you’ll enjoy this.

The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns

The novels of Barbara Comyns continue to be a source of fascination for me, characterised as they are by her unique world view, a surreal blend of the macabre and the mundane. The Skin Chairs 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. What Comyns captures so well here is how children can often be excellent intuitive judges of character without fully understanding the complexities or underlying motivations at play. 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!

A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

Regular 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 features one of the most striking openings in literature, a genuinely unnerving scene that sets a sinister tone right from the start. A Wreath of Roses is right up there with Mrs Palfrey and The Soul of Kindness for me, top-tier Taylor for sure.

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

The centrepiece of this somewhat surreal novel, which takes place in the 1970s, is a staff outing for the employees of a wine-bottling factory. Observing this ill-fated trip feels somewhat akin to watching a slow-motion car crash, with the reader powerless to divert their attention 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. In essence, this is an excellent, well-crafted tragi-comedy, shot through with Bainbridge’s characteristically acute insight into human nature. It is the juxtaposition between the ordinary and the absurd that makes this such an unsettling yet compelling read.

The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning

How to do justice to such a deeply rewarding series of novels in just a few sentences? It’s nigh on impossible. All I can do is to urge you to read these books for yourself if you haven’t done so already. Ostensibly a portrait of a complex marriage unfolding against the backdrop of the looming threat of war, this largely autobiographical series is rich is detail and authenticity, perfectly capturing the tensions and uncertainties that war creates. As ever, Manning excels at creating flawed and nuanced characters that feel thoroughly believable. A transportive read with a particularly vivid sense of place.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers

Set in the summer of 1946, just after the end of the Second World War, The Offing tells the story of an unlikely friendship that develops between two very different individuals, both of whom experience a kind of transformation as a result. In writing this novel, Myers has given us such a gorgeous, compassionate book, one that demonstrates the power of human connection in a damaged world. Alongside its themes of hope, individualism and recovery, this lyrical novel is an evocative paean to the natural world. Fans of A Month in the Country and The Go-Between will likely enjoy this.

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (tr. Archibald Colquhoun)

A beautiful, elegiac novel set in 19th century Sicily, a time when the principality was caught in a period of significant change, one ushered in by the Risorgimento, or unification of Italy. It’s a novel that highlights the need for us to adapt if we want certain aspects of our lives to remain the same. The language is especially gorgeous here – sensual, evocative and ornate, frequently tinged with an aching sense of sadness for a vanishing world. Another transportive read, albeit one with an undeniable sense of melancholy.

The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

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

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

My fascination with the work of William Trevor continues apace with his 1976 novel, The Children of Dynmouth, the story of a malevolent teenager and the havoc he wreaks on the residents of a sleepy seaside town. It’s an excellent book, one that veers between the darkly comic, the deeply tragic and the downright unnerving. What Trevor does so well here is to expose the darkness and sadness that lurks beneath the veneer of respectable society. The rhythms and preoccupations of small-town life are beautifully captured too, from the desolate views of the windswept promenade, to the sleepy matinees at the down-at-heel cinema, to the much-anticipated return of the travelling fair for the summer season. One for Muriel Spark fans, particularly those with a fondness for The Ballad of Peckham Rye.

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

As this brilliant novel opens, Edith Hope – an unmarried writer of romantic fiction – has just been packed off by her respectable, interfering friends to the Hotel du Lac, a rather austere hotel of high repute in the Swiss countryside. Right from the start, it is clear that Edith has been banished from her sector of society, sent away to reflect on her misdemeanours, to become herself again following some undisclosed scandal. (The reason for this exile is eventually revealed, but not until the last third of the book.) Central to the novel is Edith and her consideration of the kind of life she can carve out for herself. It’s a truly excellent book, one that throws up so many questions and points for debate – especially on the options open to women in the 1970s/’80s and how these have changed. My third reading of this book, and at last I feel that I’ve *got* it.

The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Caravaners is a satire of the highest order, not least because the novel’s narrator – the German baron, Otto von Ottringel – is a colossal ass; a pompous, insufferable individual with absolutely no self-awareness. The novel focuses on a caravanning holiday through the countryside of Kent, ostensibly to mark Otto’s silver wedding anniversary. What von Arnim does so well here is to let the reader see how Otto is perceived by those around him, even though the novel is narrated entirely through the baron’s own eyes. In short, this is a brilliantly-written book, one that casts a sharply satirical eye over such subjects as misogyny, class differences, power dynamics in marriage and Anglo-German relations during the early 20th century – not to mention the delights and follies of caravanning in the inclement British weather.

Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe

I have long had a fondness for the work of Billy Wilder, the Austrian-born American filmmaker who moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s. The Apartment (1961) is my all-time favourite film – I watch it at least once a year, often on New Year’s Eve – while Double Indemnity (1945) and Some Like It Hot (1960) would almost certainly make my top ten. So, a novelisation of Wilder’s quest to make his 1978 movie, Fedora was always going to be literary catnip for me. This is a wonderfully charming, warm-hearted book – at once a gentle coming-of-age story and an affectionate portrayal of one of Hollywood’s greatest directors – a compassionate, bittersweet novel about ageing, creativity and what happens when an industry changes, leaving a respected artist somewhat high and dry.

So there we have it, my favourite novels from a year of reading. All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead; let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than 2020…