Category Archives: Backlisted Writers

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…

My books of the year, 2020 – part 1, novellas and non-fiction

2020 has been a tumultuous year for obvious reasons. I’ve read somewhere in the region of 100 books – most of them in the first half of the year while on furlough during the national lockdown. A stressful time for many of us, I’m sure; but it did give me the chance to read some excellent books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.

This time, I’m spreading my books of the year across a couple of posts – novellas and non-fiction in this first piece, with my favourite novels to follow next week. With the exception of some of the memoirs, most of these books were first published several years ago – a factor that reflects the types of books I tend to enjoy reading. So, if you’re looking for the best *new* books published in 2020, this is not the place to come – there are many other literary blogs which cover that territory very thoroughly…

So, without further ado, here are my favourite novellas and non-fiction books from a year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Novellas

The Dig by Cynan Jones

A haunting, deeply moving book about death, grief, brutality and compassion, beautifully expressed in spare, poetic prose. The narrative focuses on Daniel, a recently widowed sheep farmer struggling to cope with the lambing season deep in rural Wales. In writing The Dig, Jones has crafted an enduring story of loss, isolation and savagery in a harsh, unforgiving world – and yet, there is great tenderness here too, a sense of beauty in the language, particularly in Daniel’s memories of times past.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

The gloriously off-kilter world of Muriel Spark continues to be a source of fascination for me. I loved this novella; it’s wonderfully dark and twisted, characteristically Sparkian in its unconventional view. Dougal Douglas is a particularly sinister character, a mercurial individual who brings chaos into the lives of those he encounters. There is a touch of the dark arts about this novella with its slyly manipulative protagonist. If you liked Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, chances are you’ll enjoy this too.

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

A haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty – a story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations. The narrator – a young woman who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Into her life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, a connection that waxes and wanes as the days slip by. The book’s enigmatic ending only adds to its sense of mystery.

The Harpole Report by J. L. Carr,

Earlier this year, I read Carr’s excellent ‘football’ novella, How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup in which a team of plucky underdogs overcome the mighty Glasgow Rangers to scoop the much-prized trophy. It’s a book that shares something with the author’s earlier novella, The Harpole Report, which takes another British institution – in this instance, a Church of England Primary School – as its focus for a most amusing satire. In essence, the book constructs a picture of a term at St Nicholas C of E, during which George Harpole – who has taught there for some time – is appointed as the school’s Temporary Head. This is a very amusing book that perfectly captures the preoccupations and absurdities of state-funded education in the early 1970s. A marvellous period piece imbued with nostalgia.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

This haunting, dreamlike story of a neglectful single mother and her eight-year-old son will almost certainly get under your skin. Right from the start of the book, there is a something of a disconnect between parent and child, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. The narrative unfolds over a bitterly cold night, during which these two individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. The ambiguous nature of the ending only adds to the unnerving feel of the novel as a whole. One for book groups and individual readers alike. 

Non-Fiction

Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

Ostensibly a memoir exploring Orr’s childhood – in particular the fractured relationship between the author and her mother Win, a formidable woman who held the reins of power within the family’s household. Moreover, this powerful book also gives readers a searing insight into a key period of Scotland’s social history, successfully conveying the devastating impact of the steel industry’s decimation – especially on Motherwell (where Orr grew up) and the surrounding community. This is a humane, beautifully-written book of how our early experiences and the communities we live in can shape us, possibly prompting us to strive for something better in the years that follow.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

A fascinating collection of mini-biographies, focusing on five female inhabitants of Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, including Dorothy L. Sayers, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf. What I love about this book is the way the author uses this particular location 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 short, an erudite, evocative and beautifully constructed book, highly recommended for anyone interested in London’s social/cultural scene in the 1920s and ‘30s.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

This is a terrific read – a compassionate, multifaceted discourse on what it means to feel lonely and exposed in a fast-moving city, a place that feels alive and alienating all at once. At the time of writing this book, Laing was living in New York, recently separated from her former partner, an experience that had left her feeling somewhat adrift and alone. During the months that followed, Laing found herself drawn to the work of several visual and creative artists that had captured something of the inner loneliness of NYC, a sense of urban isolation or alienation. Through a combination of investigation, cultural commentary and memoir, she explores the nature of loneliness, how it manifests itself both in the creative arts and in our lives. A fascinating book, beautifully written and constructed – a contemporary classic in the making.

Broken Greek by Pete Paphides

Ostensibly a childhood memoir, Broken Greek offers a moving account of Paphides’s upbringing in the suburbs of Birmingham in the 1970s and early ‘80s – ‘a story of chip shops and pop songs,’ as the subtitle accurately declares. In writing Broken Greek, Paphides has given us a tender, affectionate, humorous memoir, one that brilliantly conveys the power of music – not only for the emotions it stirs within us but as a means of deepening our understanding of life and humanity, too. I read this during lockdown, and it lifted my mood considerably.

How to Cook a Wolf by M. F. K. Fisher

Another excellent lockdown read, but for very different reasons to those for Broken Greek. Initially published in 1942 and subsequently updated in the 1950s, How to Cook a Wolf is a terrifically witty discourse on how to eat as well (or as decently) as possible on limited resources. In her characteristically engaging style, Fisher encourages us to savour the pleasures of simple dishes: the delights of a carefully cooked omelette; the heartiness of a well-flavoured soup; and the comforting taste of a baked apple with cinnamon milk at the end of a good meal. The writing is spirited and full of intelligence, a style that seems to reflect Fisher’s personality as well as her approach to cooking. A rediscovered gem to dip into for pleasure.

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

Harvey’s book is something of a companion piece to Insomnia, Marina Benjamin’s luminous meditation on the hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness. The Shapeless Unease brilliantly evokes the fragmentary nature of this interminable condition, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between seemingly disparate thoughts as the mind flits from one topic to another. Along the way, Harvey touches on a range of other subjects with her characteristic blend of insight and intelligence – topics ranging from loss, grief, childhood, writing, swimming and the distortion of our national values into the divisions wielded by Brexit. One to keep by the bedside for the long white nights when sleep fails to come.

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

I loved this thoroughly absorbing memoir by the journalist Hadley Freeman, a book that combines the personal and the political in an emotionally involving way. Ostensibly, House of Glass tells the story of Freeman’s Jewish grandmother, Sala, and her family, a narrative that spans the whole of the 20th century. It’s a book that asks searching questions about a whole host of issues including familial identity, integration, personal outlook, xenophobia and social mobility – topics that remain all too relevant in Europe and the wider world today, where instances of racism and nationalism are still very much in evidence.

So, that’s it for my novellas and non-fiction books of the year. My one regret is that I never found the time to write about Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling, a book I adored. Join me again next week when I’ll be sharing my favourite novels from a year of reading.

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant Nymph (1924) was Margaret Kennedy’s most commercially successful novel, spawning both a play featuring Noel Coward and a film starring one of my favourite actresses, Joan Fontaine. As a book, it shares much with another of my recent reads, Edith Wharton’s 1928 novel, The Children: a man who enters into a relationship with an underage girl; an unconventional family living a bohemian lifestyle; and a brood of rather engaging, precocious children to name but a few. While the Wharton explores these issues from the male perspective, Kennedy’s novel places a young girl at the centre of its narrative. The individual in question is Tessa, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Albert Sanger, a brilliant yet difficult composer who lives in a rambling chalet in the Austrian Alps.

As the novel opens, Lewis Dodd, a young English composer of some promise is travelling to Austria to visit the much-feted Sanger, whom he views as something of a mercurial genius. With his rather conventional upbringing, Lewis finds himself attracted to Sanger and his ‘circus’ – an assortment of children from various marriages, Sanger’s current wife, the beautiful but lazy Linda, and various hangers-on. Their lifestyles are free-spirited and unconventional with little regard for the customs of the broader society at large. For instance, it is Sanger’s eldest daughter, Kate, who manages the household, her desire for some degree of organisation far outweighing that of Linda.

Young Tessa is the constant nymph of the novel’s title, a wonderfully unfiltered, warm-hearted girl, who at fourteen is already wildly in love with Lewis and his passion for the arts. Lewis, for his part, is also attracted to Tessa with her wild, unfettered innocence, viewing her as the most interesting of Sanger’s daughters.

He has always thought her the pick of the bunch. She was an admirable, graceless little baggage, entirely to his taste. She amused him, invariably. And, queerly enough, she was innocent. That was an odd thing to say of one of Sanger’s daughters, but it was the truth. Innocence was the only name he could find for the wild, imaginative solitude of her spirit. The impudence of her manners could not completely hide it, and beyond it he could discern an intensity of mind which struck him as little short of a disaster in a creature so fragile and tender, so handicapped by her sex. She would give herself to pain with a passionate readiness, seeing only its beauty, with that singleness of vision which is the glory and the curse of such natures. He wondered anxiously, and for the first time, what was to become of her. (p. 68)

Tessa longs for a time when she is grown-up, a point when it will be possible for her to enter into a more fulfilling relationship with Lewis; and while nothing is explicitly said, there is a sense that Lewis understands this too, casting an air of destiny over their connection.

Nevertheless, when Albert Sanger dies, this idyll is fractured, and the family is at risk of being split up. The two eldest children, Caryl and Kate, are old enough to fend for themselves, leaving their younger siblings – Tessa included – to be catered for elsewhere. As a consequence, Florence and Robert Churchill – who are related to Sanger’s second wife, now deceased – travel to Austria with a view to bringing the children back to England.

With her traditional breeding and refined lifestyle, Florence is enchanted by the young Sangers. Nevertheless, their wild, unconventional existence proves something of a surprise, prompting Florence to decide that the children should be sent to boarding school where they will receive a proper education.

In a further unexpected twist, Lewis is drawn away from Tessa by the beautiful Florence with her sophisticated lifestyle and strong standing in society. Florence, for her part, is seduced by Lewis’s artistic temperament and role as a musician. However, their sudden marriage is not a great success, primarily as a consequence of unrealistic expectations and subsequent frustrations for both parties. While Lewis feels constrained by the conventions of London society, Florence finds her new husband rather challenging to fashion. It’s a conflict captured in the following passage, which touches on the balance between art and civilisation/humanity – one of many sets of opposing forces in the novel.

[Florence:] “Your attitude is completely wrong. You put the wrong things first. Music, all art…what is it for? What is its justification? After all…”

[Lewis:] “It’s not for anything. It has no justification. It…”

“It’s only part of the supreme art, the business of living beautifully. You can’t put it on a pedestal above decency and humanity and civilization, as your precious Sanger seems to have done. Human life is more important.” (p. 209)

Meanwhile, Tessa and her siblings are also finding it difficult to adapt to a new life, highlighting the tension between an ordered, conventional lifestyle and an unstructured, bohemian one. The constraints of boarding school prove unbearable for Tessa and her sister, Paulina, prompting them to run away with their brother, Sebastian. The relationship between Lewis and Tessa is rekindled when the latter returns to the Dodds’ London home, a move that reveals the intensity of Florence’s jealousy towards her young cousin.

As the novel’s denouement plays out, Tessa must try to reconcile her love for Lewis – something she views as her destiny – with other complicating factors, most notably her ties to the family and the constraints of a conventional society. By the end of the narrative, Tessa is only fifteen, a factor that dictates society’s view of any sexual relationship she may wish to have with Lewis.

While Kennedy has created a very interesting moral dilemma here, I feel she could have gone a little further in exploring the psychology of her characters, particularly in the case of Lewis. It’s something Wharton delves into quite deeply with The Children, probing Martin Boyne’s state of mind in her characteristically incisive style. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s central characters are recognisable, believable and beautifully drawn, factors that add an extra layer of poignancy to the novel’s ending which I would rather not reveal.

There is some terrific humour here, too. Kennedy has a sharp eye for an amusing scene, highlighting the absurdities of the Sangers’ unfettered existence and the moral outrage of Florence’s family at the prospect of her marriage to Lewis.

[Robert:] “I can’t think what her father will say. If he’s got any sense, he’ll forbid it! He’ll forbid it! But I suppose he’ll blame me. How could I have prevented it? How could I have foreseen it? Who could have thought that Florence, FLORENCE, a sensible woman like Florence, not quite a young girl either, would dream of doing such a thing. A delicate-minded, well-bred girl, to take up with a wretched mounteback, a disagreeable, ill-conditioned young cub, with the manners of…of…well, he hasn’t got any manners. And goodness knows if he ever washes.” (p. 154)

Tessa’s siblings are another source of joy, especially Paulina, whose wonderfully unfiltered letter to Lewis on the trials of boarding school life is one of the book’s most amusing highlights.

If you’re interested in hearing more about this novel, the marvellous Backlisted team covered it in one of their recent podcasts, which you can find here. It’s well worth a listen to hear more about some of this novel’s rather controversial elements, particularly the depiction of an underage relationship and the anti-Semitic sentiments the book contains. (Very much a reflection of the era in which it was written, but it’s certainly something for contemporary readers to bear in mind.)

The Constant Nymph is published by Virago Press; personal copy.

Recent Reads – 20th Century Women: Daphne du Maurier and Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Another of my round-up posts – this one focusing on two short-story collections, both from the mid-20th century.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier (1959)

Aside from Rebecca (which I love), I probably prefer du Maurier’s stories to her novels. There’s something about the short form that seems to suit this author’s style, a heightening of the creeping sense of dread that runs through much of her work.

The Breaking Point is a characteristically unsettling collection of eight stories, many of which blur the lines between the real and the imaginary. They’re wonderfully creepy, often tapping into our deepest fears and suspicions, our latent sources of restlessness and anxiety. As the title suggests, each story pivots on a moment of crisis in an individual’s life, a time when the protagonist’s emotions are stretched to the extreme. Whether that person snaps or survives remains the critical question, something du Maurier leaves for the reader to ponder and decide.

In The Alibi – one of my favourites in the collection – we meet James Fenton, a middle-aged man who feels trapped in the routine of his marriage, desperate to break free from his conventional lifestyle. Suddenly, out of the blue, Fenton is seized by the forces of evil, prompting thoughts of violence and murder. With this in mind, he picks a house a random, posing as a respectable man looking to rent a room. Luckily for Fenton, the occupant is Anna, a poor refugee desperately in need of money to support her young son, Johnnie – little does Anna know what might be in store for her when Fenton makes his request.

‘What would you want the room for?’ she asked doubtfully.

There was the crux. To murder you and the child, my dear, and dig up the floor, and bury you under the boards. But not yet.

‘It’s difficult to explain,’ he said briskly. ‘I’m a professional man. I have long hours. But there have been changes lately, and I must have a room where I can put in a few hours every day and be entirely alone. You’ve no idea how difficult it is to find the right spot. This seems to me ideal for the purpose.’ He glanced from the empty house down to the child, and smiled. ‘Your little boy, for instance. Just the right age. He’d give no trouble.’ (p.6)

This is a brilliant story, one that takes the narrative in unexpected directions. (I couldn’t help but think of the excellent film, 10 Rillington Place, as I was reading it.) As with many of the pieces here, the reader experiences a looming sense of dread, fearful of what might happen to the occupants as the tale unfolds. Over time, Anna becomes increasingly dependent on Fenton, a development that sparks another kind of crisis in our protagonist’s life.

The Blue Lenses is another highlight, a particularly unnerving story that plays with the mind. Marda West is recovering in a nursing-home following an eye operation – a procedure considered very successful by the surgical team. The time has come for Marda’s bandages to be removed and temporary lenses fitted – the blue lenses that represent the first step in her recovery. Marda has been told to expect things to look a little different with the lenses. She will be able to see everything, but not in full colour – the effect is akin to wearing sunglasses on a bright day. However, when Marda finally opens her eyes, she is horrified by the sights that greet her. The blue lenses have the effect of exposing people for who they really are, revealing to Marda their true personalities. 

Now she was certain that what was happening was real, was true. Some evil force encompassed the nursing-home and its inhabitants, the Matron, the nurses, the visiting doctors, her surgeon – they were all caught up in it, they were all partners in some gigantic crime, the purpose of which could not be understood. (pp. 64-65)

This is a rather alarming story, one that plays on some of our deepest fears and paranoias, not to mention our fascination with conspiracies.  

Du Maurier is brilliant at building atmosphere and tension – qualities that are evident in The Pool, the tale of two siblings who are spending the summer with their grandparents. This is a dreamlike story, one in which the girl, Deborah, is enticed into a secret magical world with frightening results.

Chaos had come. There were no stars, and the night was sulphurous. A great crack split the heavens and tore them in two. The garden groaned. If the rain would only fall there might be mercy, and the trees, imploring, bowed themselves this way and that, while the vivid lawn, bright in expectation, lay like a sheet of metal exposed to flame. Let the waters break. Bring down the rain. (p.152)

In The Lordly Ones, a young, near-mute boy, brutally abused by his cruel parents, finally finds his voice, only by being placed in the most precarious of positions. This tale of brutality and heartbreak takes places in the wilds of the moors, a setting du Maurier chillingly evokes.

I read this excellent collection for Ali’s Daphne du Maurier event – running this week. There are shades of Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales here, another disquieting collection of stories to unsettle the soul. Highly recommended indeed.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans, 1989)

The Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe has been enjoying something of a mini-revival in the last few years. In 2014, Daunt Books reissued her excellent novella, La Femme de Gilles (1937), a timeless story of the pain that desire and self-sacrificing love can inflict on a marriage. Another novella soon followed: Marie (1943), also available from Daunt, an intimate book in which we gain a deep insight into a young woman’s inner life. 

A Nail, A Rose – published here in a beautiful new edition from Pushkin Press – is a collection of eight short stories written throughout Bourdouxhe’s literary career. (The earliest pieces first appeared in the 1940s, while the most recent ones came much later in the ‘80s.) As is often the case with a collection of this nature, certain stories resonate more strongly than others. Nevertheless, Bourdouxhe’s best pieces are very good indeed, particularly those based on some of her own personal experiences.

The standout story here is the novella-length Sous Le Pont Mirabeau in which a young woman attempts to journey from Belgium to France at the time of the German invasion in 1940. Like Bourdouxhe herself, the central character has just given birth to a baby girl, leaving her little option but to set out with the infant in her arms. It’s a very affecting account, threaded through with striking images of a nation at war.

The streets were full of people who were strangely silent, and the big balloons looked fixed in the sky; she felt heaviness and oppression in the air. Turning away she went on walking up and down. The soldiers weren’t talking, they were lined up in the café benches as if they were storing sleep, gathering their strength. She felt very alone, caught up in the great apparatus of war. She tried to find a single face on which to rest her gaze. The baby raised one arm and uttered a little cry; she quietened her by leaning against her face. They stayed like this, their faces buried in each other’s. (pp. 195–196)

Virtually all of Bourdouxhe’s stories are focused on women, several of whom seem trapped in the confines of domesticity. One of the best of these is Blanche, in which the titular character ignores her husband’s cries for a clean shirt, hiding it in a cupboard while longing for some peace. This is an imaginative story, one that ultimately grants Blanche a brief taste of freedom – an escape to the forest where she can dream of an imaginary lover.

Some of the stories are quite abstract in style or contain elements of fantasy. Pieces like Clara which explores themes of communication and mortality, and René in which a hairdresser’s thoughts and actions drift into somewhat surreal territory.

In summary, then, these are stories of discontent and disaffection, of ordinary women yearning for more fulfilment in life. An interesting collection, if somewhat uneven.

My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. You can find Guy’s review here.

How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup by J. L. Carr

The British writer and publisher J. L. Carr is undoubtedly best known for his masterpiece, A Month in the Country (1980), a book I truly adore. Nevertheless, this author is much more than a one-book wonder as his excellent 1975 novella, How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup, clearly demonstrates.

I loved this tale of the plucky underdogs – titular non-leaguers Steeple Sinderby Wanderers – overcoming all the odds to beat the mighty Glasgow Rangers, scooping the much-prized FA Cup in the process. Although very different in style to Carr’s most famous work, How Steeple Sinderby… shares something of that novella’s tone, an air of wistfulness and longing for halcyon times past.

In short, the book charts the progress of a village football team who, through a combination of talent, discipline and determination, achieve their dream of going all the way to cup final and snatching victory in the game’s closing minutes.

And then the truly magnificent Slingsby, who had withstood this assault like a rock, gathered the ball and, on the turn, squeezed a fierce low kick from the scrum. And one wondered… one wondered if this had been plotted months ago when this village side was still lost in the obscurity of the midland plains. It had been All or Nothing. Nothing if McGarrity had scored, Nothing if Wilmslow hadn’t risen from the earth… If, if, if… (p.111)

Crucial to the team are its key players: centre forward Sid Smith, a once-promising striker now lured out of retirement; Monkey Tonks, the local milkman whose strength and agility make him an ideal candidate for goalkeeper; and last but not least, Alan Slingsby, whose earlier career at Aston Villa was cut short due to his wife’s need for round-the-clock care.

The story is narrated by a local man, Joe Gidner, who is tasked with documenting the official history of the Wanderers’ triumph. As such, the novella comprises Gidner’s reflections on the season, intercut with extracts from newspaper reports on crucial matches, along with the occasional summary of committee meetings at the Club. Several of the press reports are penned by Alice (Ginchy) Trigger, a staff reporter from the East Barset Weekly Messenger. Ginchy – whose remit covers funerals, inquests, weddings and all sport – is one of a cast of idiosyncratic characters who give Carr’s novella its wonderful sense of place, rooted as it is in a somewhat eccentric rural community, quintessentially English in tone. At one point, Ginchy is asked to provide a running audio commentary on one of the games, for broadcast to an orchard full of restless Hartlepool fans who were unable to gain entry to the ground. It’s gloriously eccentric, full of partisan enthusiasm for the plucky home side.  

They’re all around Monkey Tonks and he’s trying to push them away as he can’t see. And everybody’s running into one another and the ball’s knocked two of theirs down. HE’S RUNNING! BILLY SLEDMER’s RUNNING! There’s nobody in front of him but their goalie and he’s coming out crouching. HE’S SCORED! We’ve got THREE. THEY CAN’T WIN US NOW! (pp. 69–70)

Mr Fangfoss, the formidable Club Chairman, is also worthy of a mention here, a confident, outspoken man who sees off all-comers – the meddling Club President included – with the most marvellous of put-downs.   

The Club’s tactical guru, the Hungarian Dr Kossuth, is another highly memorable character. Here he is with his beautiful, breathtaking wife, arriving at the ground for a pre-tournament match.

On this particularly fine April day she was wearing her expensive leopard skin coat with a little fur hat perched on her heaped-up hair and long leather boots. And the Doctor was wearing a long black Central European overcoat with the astrakhan collar which marked him as having seen better days. Naturally, I refused to take their 5p admission. (pp. 11–12)

En route to the final, the Wanderers must face all manner of opposition, from the confident Barchester City – the first of the Big Boys in the qualifying rounds – to the much-fancied team from Manchester, complete with a coterie of fans who run riot through the village.

There is a wonderful comic tone running through this novella, from the descriptions of the Wanderers’ preparations to the observations on their various opponents. I love this passage on Barchester, a town much despised by its neighbours for the smugness of its residents. 

Barchester has a cathedral and, until they built the Discount Hyper-Market, this was its biggest attraction. On fine Saturdays the City draws about 250 paying spectators, augmented by between 20 and 30 Pensioners who are driven out for air from the Cathedral Almshouses by the Warden Canon. But, in cold, wet weather, they get no more than 70 or 80 – including the full tally of Pensioners – all huddled in their ‘grandstand’, which is very interesting architecturally because it tones in with the Cathedral and is the only football building mentioned in the Professor Pevsner’s ‘Buildings of England’. (p. 43)

The spirit of village league football is also beautifully conveyed – an endeavour where belief and enthusiasm are all important, irrespective of the ramshackle nature of the set-up.

What strikes me about this marvellous novella is some of the aspects it shares with A Month in the Country despite the apparent difference in focus. As in Country, the fleeting nature of happiness is a key theme here, a sense that what has passed can never be recaptured, however much we wish it could be. Probably the best we can do is to cherish the memories, keeping them alive in our hearts and minds.

The book also has some interesting things to say about the nature of life in a rural community, almost as if there is something broader going on here alongside the touching tale of wish fulfilment.

People don’t know about rural England between the last Mystery Autumn Foliage Coach Trip and the Mystery Blossom Journey into Spring. Mud, fog, dripping trees, blackness, floods, mighty rushing winds under doors that don’t fit, damp hassocks, sticking organ keys, stone floors and that dreadful smell of decay. (p. 11)

For a novella first published in 1975, it also feels somewhat ahead of its time in terms of insights into the modern game – perhaps most notably, the importance of sports psychology and European-style methods of football management. Moreover, Carr is also aware of the negative impact of commercialisation within the game, particularly when the Club comes under pressure to convert to a limited company with sponsorship deals being touted as incentives.

So, in summary, How Steeple Sinderby… is very highly recommended indeed, even if you have absolutely no interest in football. Trust me, the writing is more than good enough to transcend any concerns on that front.

How Steeple Sinderby… is published by Penguin; 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.

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr (1980)

What can I say about this classic novella that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot, other than it to reiterate just how wonderful it is. A masterpiece in miniature – I loved it.

Set in small Yorkshire village in the heady summer of 1920, Carr’s novella is narrated by Tom Birkin, a young man still dealing with the effects of shell-shock following the traumas of the First World War. A Southerner by nature, Birkin has come to Oxgodby to restore a Medieval wall painting in the local church – much to the annoyance of the vicar, Reverend Keach, who resents the restorer’s presence in his domain. In reality, there is another purpose to Birkin’s visit: to find an escape or haven of sorts, an immersive distraction from the emotional scars of the past.

Naturally, the project brings Birkin into contact with other residents in the village, many of whom are intrigued by his work. There is Moon, an archaeologist and fellow veteran of the war, a point that gives him some understanding of Birkin’s mental condition; Alice Keach, the vicar’s beautiful young wife who seems somewhat out of place beside her husband at the vicarage; and the Ellerbecks, a kindly local family who befriend Birkin, providing him with homemade food to supplement his meagre supplies.

I don’t want to reveal much more about what happens in the novel, other than to give a flavour of some of the keynotes. There’s a touch of romance in the air, an element of mystery in the story behind the painting, and a gradual renewal of sorts for Birkin – a sense of restoration, both creatively and emotionally.

Standing up there on the platform before a great work of art, feeling kinship with its creator, cozily knowing that I was a sort of impresario conjuring and teasing back his work after four hundred years of darkness. But that wasn’t all of it. There was this weather, this landscape, thick woods, roadsides deep in grass and wild flowers. And to south and north of the Vale, low hills, frontiers of a mysterious country. (p.83)

Above all, this is a beautifully written novel imbued with a strong sense of longing, a nostalgia for an idyllic world. (Birkin is narrating his story from a point of distance, looking back nearly 60 years to the summer in question.) It also perfectly captures the ephemeral nature of time – the idea that our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments, the most fleeting of chances to be grasped before they are lost forever.

People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvelous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies. (p.104)

A sublime, deeply affecting book about love, loss and the restorative power of art – one I would wholeheartedly recommend if you haven’t read it already. (For more detailed insights, do take a look at these excellent posts by Max and Caroline. The wonderful Backlisted team also covered the book on one of their podcasts, which you can find here.)

My copy of A Month in the Country is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Perceptive, engrossing and enigmatic, Look at Me – Anita Brookner’s third novel – is something of a minor masterpiece, probing as it does the inner life of a lonely young woman who experiences a brief period of renaissance, only to be scarred by the torrid experience.

The woman in question is Frances Hinton, a spinster who works in the reference library of a medical research institute, organising and cataloguing images of various mental conditions and abnormalities of human behaviour. Highly analytical and orderly by nature, Frances is a keen observer of her colleagues and visitors to the institute, studying and recording her observations as potential material for short stories, or possibly even a novel. In her spare time, of which there is ample, Frances aspires to be a writer, viewing her writing as a means of expression, of reminding other people that she exists. In short, it is her one way of saying: ‘Look at me. Look at me’.

After work, Frances returns to the large, outmoded flat in Maida Vale she has inherited from her recently-deceased mother. There she is looked after by the family’s elderly maid, a steadfast yet loyal Irish woman by the name of Nancy, who ministers to Frances as if she were still a child, serving her the same bland meal each evening out of habit and routine.

There are times, especially at night, when Frances wonders if this is to be her lot, with Nancy shuffling along the corridor in her worn slippers, carrying the same old-fashioned tray with the same meagre dinner ad infinitum; for while she is used to her own company, Frances longs for a little enjoyment and excitement in her life.

Sometimes I wish it were different. I wish I were beautiful and lazy and spoiled and not to be trusted. I wish, in short, that I had it easier. Sometimes I find myself lying awake in bed, after one of these silent evenings, wondering if this is to be my lot, if this solitude is to last for the rest of my days. Such thoughts sweep me to the edge of panic. For I want more, and I even think I deserve it. I have something to offer. (p. 19) 

Then, just when she is least expecting it, Frances finds herself being drawn into the seductive world of Dr Nick Fraser, a charming yet shallow researcher at the institute, and Alix, his alluring, self-confident wife. In many ways, Nick and Alix appear to be the golden couple – glamorous, bohemian and flamboyant. Almost like the product of some form of natural selection, they attract various devotees and followers, drawing in admirers wherever they go. Naturally, Frances is intrigued by the Frasers’ sophisticated lifestyle, their spontaneity and ease with one another, and she clings to their company in the hope that some of the glamour and vitality will rub off.

Nevertheless, while Frances is fascinated by Nick and Alix, she also recognises that there is something a little repellent about them – more specifically, their need to show off or exhibit their relationship, as if she is there to serve as an audience for their performance, not as a friend or companion. 

What interested me far more, although I also found it repellent, was their intimacy as a married couple. I sensed that it was in this respect that they found my company necessary: they exhibited their marriage to me, while sharing it only with each other. […] I was there because some element in that perfect marriage was deficient, because ritual demonstrations were needed to maintain a level of arousal which they were too complacent, perhaps too spoilt, even too lazy, to supply for themselves, out of their own imagination. I was the beggar at their feast, reassuring them by my very presence that they were richer than I was. Or indeed could ever hope to be. (p. 57) 

Alix, in particular, is rather careless and unfeeling, treating Frances as a kind of toy or plaything for her personal amusement, tossing her aside whenever she is bored. And yet, Frances puts up with Alix’s supposedly good-natured taunts, submitting to being referred to as ‘Little Orphan Fanny’ even though she claims to dislike the use of this pet name.

As her association with the Frasers continues, Frances also becomes involved with James Anstey, another researcher at the institute, who on the surface seems reliable and considerate. As a consequence, they begin to see one another, albeit in a fairly chaste and innocent fashion. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Frances starts to imagine a different kind of future for herself, far away from that of her predecessor at work, the bitter Miss Morpeth, who now faces a relatively bleak retirement; or that of Mrs Halloran, a regular visitor to the library who ekes out her days with the help of substantial quantities of drink. 

Beginnings are so beautiful. I was not in love with James, but now there was something to get up for in the mornings, other than that withering little routine that would eventually transform me into a version of Miss Morpeth, although I had no niece in Australia who might brighten my last years. Nor would I turn into Mrs Halloran, still game, but doomed to hopelessness. No glasses of gin for me, no bottle in the wardrobe of a room in a hotel in South Kensington, no evenings lying on the bed dressed in a housecoat too young and too pink, casting superior horoscopes for those who fear the future. With what thankfulness did I register my deliverance from this dread, which had possessed me for as long as I could remember. (pp. 85-86) 

Naturally, as this an Anita Brookner novel, the aura of happiness that surrounds Frances is somewhat short-lived. All too soon, Alix is berating Frances, accusing her of stringing Nick along and selfishly taking advantage of him – this seems a bit rich coming from Alix, who has to be one of the most heartless, self-absorbed characters you are ever likely to encounter. 

I felt that I was being hurried along a path that I had not originally wanted to take, or at least not with so much dispatch, so much secrecy. I had wanted the company of my friends to sustain my golden enjoyment and my new future, but those friends had turned into spectators, demanding their money’s worth, urging their right to be entertained. And I no longer wanted to be available for that particular function. (p. 105) 

It all ends rather badly, of course, with a shattering dinner at the restaurant frequented by Alix and Nick. Before the night is out, Frances is subjected to another haunting experience as she combs the streets of London in a state of shock, fear and disorientation. 

Look at Me is a very accomplished novel. What impresses me most about it is how cleverly Brookner controls the narrative. There is something incredibly compelling about Frances’ voice, the carefully-constructed reflections and insights into her complex personality. Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner, and this has to be one of her best, most nuanced explorations of these themes.

While Frances isn’t a classic unreliable narrator as such, there is something slippery and elusive about her story. She frequently contradicts herself or claims to desire things that are pulling in opposite directions. For example, Frances is fatally drawn to the Frasers and their alluring lifestyle; and yet in her heart of hearts, she knows there is something repulsive about them, something unsavoury and possibly dangerous. Moreover, she declares a lack of love for James, and yet she also persists in dreaming of some kind of life with him. There are instances when Frances seems at once both childlike and old before her time – and for someone so analytical in nature she lacks self-awareness, failing to recognise how others perceive her. There are also some oblique references to a previous relationship in her life, a painful, damaging affair, almost certainly with a married man.

As the novel draws to a close, there is a sense that Frances realises she was out of her depth with the Frasers, destined for a brief flirtation with their gilded lives without every truly taking part. Her only consolation is that she now has ample material for her novel, the various characters and scenarios seem fully formed.

I have quoted very extensively from this novel, partly because of the flawless nature of Brookner’s prose – not a word wasted or out of place. I’ll finish with one last passage from the final section, Frances forever the outsider, always looking in. 

I could not even side against them. I was not of their number, that was all. The moment at which I recognized this difference was the ultimate sadness, and I felt all my assumed certainties dropping away from me as if they had been fashionable clothes which I had perhaps tried on in a shop and then regretfully laid aside, as being…not suitable. (p. 181)

Look at Me is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publisher for providing a copy.