Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.

The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald

It’s been a while since I last read anything by Ross Macdonald – an American writer who is now considered to be one of the leading proponents of hardboiled fiction. These novels typically feature a tough, unsentimental style of crime writing in which the protagonist – usually a private eye – battles against the systemic violence and corruption that exists within families, corporations and other powerful institutions. Several of Macdonald’s books feature Lew Archer – a detective with a conscience – a fundamentally decent man in pursuit of the truth, even though he’s almost certainly going to get roughed up along the way.

The Doomsters (1958) is book #7 in the Lew Archer series – a solid entry but probably not up there with the best. It does, however, contain some very interesting elements, enough to make it an essential part of the set for fans of the genre – more of this later. In addition, it also features several aspects that will be familiar to readers of the Archer novels. More specifically: twisted, dysfunctional families with dark secrets to hide; wayward children seemingly intent on manipulating situations for personal gain; highly damaged individuals with complex psychological issues; and finally, elements of greed, murder, blackmail and guilt.

As the novel opens, Archer is woken from his sleep by a caller at the door. The visitor is twenty-four-year-old Carl Hallman, an escapee from a mental institution who has been given Archer’s details by a mutual friend. While a pre-breakfast client is the last thing Archer needs at that particular moment, his curiosity gets the better of him and he invites the young man in.

Carl swiftly reveals that he was committed to the State Hospital shortly after the death of his wealthy father, Senator Hallman, some six months ago. Moreover, Carl’s elder brother, Jerry, doesn’t want Carl to be released – it turns out that Jerry, along with the family physician, Dr Gartland, was the driving force behind Carl’s incarceration. (While Carl’s wife, Mildred actually signed the relevant papers, the committal appears to have taken place following pressure from Jerry and Gartland.) According to Carl, it seems likely that Jerry and his wife Zinnie paid Dr Gartland to have him put away, possibly for the rest of his life, leaving Jerry free to benefit from the bulk of his father’s estate. There is even a suggestion that Jerry may have been involved in his father’s death – initially thought to have been due to heart failure, but the circumstances surrounding the incident could be considered suspicious.

Having digested all this, Archer persuades Carl to accompany him back to the hospital, leaving the detective free to do some digging. Tired and confused, Carl reluctantly agrees, only to overpower Archer en route, making off with the detective’s car in the process. With Carl on the run again, Archer finds himself embroiled in a complex web of manipulation and deceit. All too soon, Jerry is found dead – shot twice in the back with his mother’s old gun, a weapon thought to have been in Carl’s possession. Despite Carl being the chief suspect, Archer has enough sympathy for the young man to carry on investigating the situation – as far as Archer sees things, the powerful and corrupt may be trying to frame the damaged and vulnerable in this family.  

I won’t dwell on the plot for too long, save to say that for the most part it’s pretty compelling with a good level of intrigue along the way. That said, the resolution to the various crimes feels somewhat convoluted and laboured, requiring several pages of explanation in the form of a confession of sorts.

Nevertheless, what makes this such an interesting entrant in the series is the degree of self-realisation Archer experiences towards the end of the investigation. Firstly, there is a sense that our protagonist is coming to terms with the fact that not everything in this world is black and white; there are shades of grey in the fight against crime, just as there are in so many other aspects of life.

I was an ex-cop, and the words came hard. I had to say them, though, if I didn’t want to be stuck for the rest of my life with the old black-and-white picture, the idea that there were just good people and bad people, and everything would be hunky-dory if the good people locked up the bad ones or wiped them out with small personalized nuclear weapons.

It was a very comforting idea, and bracing to the ego. For years I’d been using it to justify my own activities, fighting fire with fire and violence with violence, running on fool’s errands while the people died: a slightly earthbound Tarzan in a slightly paranoid jungle. Landscape with figure of a hairless ape.

It was time I traded the picture in on one that included a few of the finer shades. (pp. 237–238)

Secondly, Archer must face up to an element of culpability or guilt, specifically in relation to the crimes that have just taken place. It transpires that Archer was approached three years earlier by someone from his past – a man Archer didn’t want to associate with as it reminded him of former transgressions, things he had hoped to leave well behind. Had Archer listened to this man at the time then maybe some of the tragedies involved the Hallmans could have been prevented. It’s an interesting twist, one that ends the novel on a contemplative note.

As ever with Macdonald, there is some nice characterisation, especially with the female members of the family. In this scene, Archer is observing Mildred, Carl’s birdlike wife.

She listened with her head bowed, biting one knuckle like a doleful child. But there was nothing childish about the look she gave me. It held a startled awareness, as if she’d had to grow up in a hurry, painfully. I had a feeling that she was the one who had suffered most in the family trouble. There was resignation in her posture, and in the undertones of her voice: (p. 38)

The sense of place is evocative too, capturing the cultural ‘feel’ of the Southern California setting. (Archer’s world-weary demeanour is also conveyed here, particularly at the end of the passage.)

The Red Barn was a many-windowed building which stood in the center of a blacktop lot on the corner. Its squat pentagonal structure was accentuated by neon tubing along the eaves and corners. Inside this brilliant red cage, a tall-hatted short-order cook kept several waitresses running between his counter and the cars in the lot. The waitresses wore red uniforms and little red caps which made them look like bellhops in skirts. The blended odors of gasoline fumes and frying grease changed in my nostrils to a foolish old hot-rod sorrow, nostalgia for other drive-ins along roads I knew in prewar places before people started dying on me. (p. 174)

So, in summary – not a perfect entrant in the Lew Archer series, but an intriguing one nonetheless. One for completists, perhaps?

The Doomsters is published by Vintage Crime / Black Lizard; personal copy.

Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride

Back at the end of February (before the current guidance on social distancing came into place), I was lucky enough to attend an evening hosted by Faber & Faber, a showcase for recently published and forthcoming books. Eimear McBride was there, and she read a passage from her latest novel, Strange Hotel, a book I’d already been thinking of picking up before the reading. McBride introduced it by saying – and I’m paraphrasing from memory here – ‘if you want to know about hotels, this is not the book for you’. A very apt statement as it turns out…

Strange Hotel is not a typical ‘hotel novel’, the type of story peppered with interactions between various characters (frequently odd or idiosyncratic), thrown together for the duration of their trips. Instead, it’s a somewhat abstract or enigmatic work, the type of book where inner thoughts and self-reflections are more prominent than narrative and plot.

As the novel opens, the central character – an unnamed female protagonist in her mid-thirties – is checking into a hotel in Avignon, the first of five anonymous rooms we see during the novel, each in a different city. While the specific reason for these visits is never made explicit, there does seem to be a guiding principle or ‘plan’ underpinning the woman’s actions. She drinks wine, toys with the idea of a one-night-stand with a fellow guest, even goes as far as the act of sex itself – just as long as there are no requirements for either party to linger around afterwards.

For the protagonist, there is a degree of enjoyment in the dance, a sense of pleasure from reading the signals correctly – sometimes taking things to their natural conclusion should she feel so inclined. Nevertheless, in certain instances there is frustration too, especially if the man she decides to go to bed with doesn’t seem to understand the unwritten rules of the game.

She thinks she was as explicit as she could’ve been from the earliest on so she cannot attribute it to a lack of communication. He’d seemed bright enough not to arrive with any inexplicable assumptions and, initially, gave no indication he had. As far as she’s concerned, the first stage was fine. Both bodies performed exactly as planned. In fact, in every way as well as she’d hoped. He had also seemed happy enough. It was only afterwards things took a turn for the worse. She hadn’t intended to hurt his feelings. To be honest, she’s not even sure if she has. Well, obvious interpretations of knitted brows and the snatching-up of discarded clothing aside, how could she be? She is also without inclination to press. She has absolutely no interest in violating what is private, his feelings are his business alone. She just wishes he hadn’t presumed she possessed quite so many of her own. (pp. 53–54, Faber & Faber)

As the woman travels from city to city – alighting in Avignon, Prague, Oslo, Auckland and Austin – little hints of her backstory gradually begin to emerge. There are glimpses of an earlier relationship, once happy and contented, but now very much in the past. She envies other people’s optimism, their faith in a future that seems reasonable and alive, emotions she recalls experiencing herself some years earlier, only for this existence to shatter and disappear. The old life must remain where it belongs; otherwise it may well prove fatal, breaking her will and desire for self-protection.

No.

Stop.

Turn.

She should and should not think of this. If the past comes in it will wring her neck. So, she prevails upon her memory to recollect it as though from far away. And it is far away. Now, very far away. (p. 71)

There is an unsentimental directness to the protagonist’s encounters with men, a refreshing lack of expectations or underlying emotions in these transient pairings. It is only during the final vignette in the book – a one-night-stand with a man in Austin – that any deeper feelings threaten to break through. As memories from the past are stirred and resurrected, the woman tries to distance herself from them, attempting to re-establish the barrier designed to prevent emotional involvement. There is no room in her life for impulse or attachment now. These notions are part of her earlier life, elements that should remain hidden or suppressed.

She is certain of the rightness of all of this. So, she ushers herself back towards the listlessness that has, for all these years, kept her in the manner which she wishes she preferred. Collected. Other side of the glass. But she liked his face. She liked his laugh and the weird way their bodies kept insisting on contact. This, however, does not alter the fact that the only place for impulse is in her past. She knows this. She has made it like that so everything occurring, after the old life stopped, would simply be an again. A kind of repeat. Nothing new. Pathetic really, when she thinks of it. If she allowed herself to, she might admit she’s grown tired of her own loneliness, which she really doesn’t want to have yet. Because it has come to be all I know. (pp. 124–125)

Running through the book is a strong sense of self-reflection, mostly stemming from the explorations of the protagonist’s inner thoughts, her hypotheses and rationalisations. It’s a style I found very compelling despite the degree of ambiguity in the narrative – for instance, the significance of the cities and the reasons for the individual visits are never explicitly revealed. Plus, the protagonist herself remains somewhat mysterious, almost tantalisingly out of reach. (By the end of the book, she is in her late forties, prompting questions about what may have happened in the intervening years.) This adds to the elusive feel of the novel, making it an intriguing, hypnotic read – one where the subject matter and literary style seem to be working together in perfect harmony.  

McBride also excels at capturing the abstract nature of hotel rooms, liminal spaces that seem to be located between the boundaries of existence, enabling us to exist in a kind of alternate reality. They are places where we can adopt different personalities, act out our fantasies or simply step away from the pressures of life – for a day or two at least.

In summary, Strange Hotel is an immersive, enigmatic novel, one that explores themes of identity, self-reflection and some of our strategies for distancing ourselves from the past. I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone looking for an intriguing, somewhat abstract read.

Strange Hotel is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.

The Love Department by William Trevor

I’ve been on a bit of William Trevor kick over the past few years, starting with his early novels, The Boarding-House (1965) and The Old Boys (1964), both excellent; then moving on to his final novel, Love and Summer (2009), a book I absolutely adored. The Love Department (1966) is another of Trevor’s early works, and while I didn’t find it quite as satisfying as the others, there’s still a great deal to enjoy here.

Like its predecessors, The Love Department is something of an ensemble piece, set in England in the mid-1960s. The central character is Edward Blakeston-Smith, a rather innocent young man who has just left a monastic retreat after a period of recuperation for a nervous condition. In his eagerness to prove he is no longer a child, Edward applies for a job with the ‘love department’, a hugely popular agony aunt service run by a leading newspaper based in London. Heading up the service is Lady Dolores Bourhardie, an eccentric figure who believes in the preservation of love within marriage, largely irrespective of a woman’s dissatisfaction with her husband.

Following a brief yet unsuccessful trial in the love department office, Edward is enlisted to perform a special mission in the field. He is to track down Septimus Tuam, an infamous trickster who has been stirring up trouble in the suburbs of Wimbledon, preying on vulnerable ladies with the ultimate aim of tapping them up for money. In short, Edward must find this enemy of love, follow him as he goes about his business and report back in full to Lady Dolores, preferably with a comprehensive dossier of Tuam’s targets and movements. At first Edward is rather reluctant to take on this mission, preferring the relative safety of the office to life in the wild; however, needs must when the devil drives, so he sets off with the aim of finding his prey.

As the narrative unfolds, we gain an insight into Tuam’s modus operandi, a technique which usually involves the ‘accidental’ laddering of a woman’s stocking with the tip of his umbrella. In this scene, Tuam – a rather attractive young man – is in the midst of setting up a potential victim, a smartly-dressed young woman whom he spots in a café. When Tuam offers to buy the lady a new pair of stockings, his target is rather reluctant to accept…

‘My dear, we cannot say goodbye like this. I have utterly ruined your beautiful stocking. I do insist, I really do, that you step across the road to Ely’s and see what they have for sale. I’m well known in the store.’ Septimus Tuam had taken the liberty of seizing the woman’s elbow, while she, feeling herself propelled from the café and on to the street, was thinking that a hatchet-faced young man whom she had never seen before had paid for her coffee and was now about to buy her stockings.

‘I must ask you to release me,’ she said. ‘Let go my elbow: I do not intend to go with you to Ely’s.’

‘Oh, come now.’

‘Please. You are greatly embarrassing me.’

‘Nonsense, my dear. My name is Septimus Tuam. And may I be so bold –’

‘Excuse me,’ said the woman to two men on the street. ‘I am being annoyed.’

The men turned on Septimus Tuam and spoke roughly, while the woman, glancing haughtily at him, strode away. He felt humbled and depressed and then felt angry. He crept away with the sound of the men’s voices echoing in his ears, hating momentarily the whole of womankind, and reflecting that his failure had cost him two and sevenpence. (pp. 28–29)

Edward’s investigations into Tuam bring him into contact with a wide range of characters, most notably Eve and James Bolsover who have been married for ten years. The Bolsovers’ marriage has eroded over time, something that Eve finds herself reflecting on as she goes about her days. While James is wrapped up in his work and the deteriorating health of his father, Eve is bored and frustrated in her role as a wife, the spark having gone out of their relationship through a gradual process of decay. As ever with Trevor, there are some poignant insights into the small tragedies of life throughout the novel, particularly in relation to the erosion of love.

Eve wondered if these wives loved their husbands now; and what the history of love had been in the marriages. She wondered if Mrs Linderfoot in Purley had woken one morning and seen that there was no love left, and had climbed on to a sofa and stayed there. She wondered if the Clingers ever spoke of love, or how Mrs Poache and the Captain viewed their wedding day. She looked across the room and saw her husband, his head bent to catch what Mrs Poache was saying. He was still a handsome man; the decay was elsewhere. (p.116)

The novel has a similar tone to Trevor’s other early works, one of black comedy – in this instance, a darkly humorous satire pitting the protectors of love within marriage against the threats to its preservation. There is a marvellous set-piece in the middle of the book when the Bolsovers host a dinner party for three of James’ work colleagues and their wives – all the men are members of the board. The Clingers turn up with their pet monkey, which is confined to a separate room. Unfortunately for the hosts, the monkey ends up attacking Mrs Hoop, the Bolsovers’ disgruntled charwoman, who milks the situation for everything she can get. To make matters worse, old Beach – Mrs Hoop’s drinking partner – turns up brandishing a broom, adding considerably to the fuss and mayhem. Even poor Edward is dragged into the fray through a bizarre coincidence, one of several in the book. (If I had a criticism, I would say that some of these seem a bit forced or contrived, more so than in Trevor’s other early novels.)

While the narrative is rather farcical at times, the individual scenes are never less than well observed. The characterisation too is excellent, from the sinister Septimus Tuam, a confidence trickster who shows no remorse at abandoning a woman who proves burdensome, to Mrs Hoop, a woman who despises her employer for her apparent lack of concern.

Trevor has a great affinity for life’s eccentrics, for people on the fringes of society, expertly capturing the pain and loneliness of an existence on the margins. His books are full of insights into the human condition, our hopes and dreams, our failings and foibles. Probably not the best place to start with this author, but a very diverting read nonetheless!

(I read this book for Cathy’s Reading Ireland month which is running throughout March. For another take on this novel, please see Kim’s review.)

The Love Department is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

This is such a charming book, a wonderful novel in which a young woman sets out on her own, hoping to find her way in the world of work before getting married. First published in 1933, the novel is being reissued by Handheld Press (publication date: 23rd March) in a beautiful new edition complete with drawings by Ann Stafford, the illustrator in the writing partnership of Oliver and Stafford.

The novel focuses on twenty-seven-year-old Hilary Fane, who has just become engaged to Basil Rainford, a busy surgeon based in Edinburgh. To support herself in the year before marriage, Hilary sets off to find a temporary job in London, something she hopes will be relatively easy given her degree-level education and experience as a librarian. However, the search for work proves challenging and time-consuming, more so that one might anticipate for someone with Hilary’s qualifications. (Several employers appear to be looking for a ‘Woman of Personality’, although it is never quite clear what this really means in practice!) In time though, persistence pays off, and Hilary is offered the role of a clerk at Everyman’s department store on Oxford Street – something she dare not turn down even if the work itself sounds rather dull and boring.

A clerk: it sounds dreary, but I daren’t refuse. It may lead to something, after all. (I wonder how many people get themselves landed for incredible years by that hope and by being too scared afterwards to throw up one job and look for another?) Anyway, I took it. I may have been a fool. I know there’s precious little prospect of advancement unless one’s head and shoulders better than the other people. But if I am, and if someone who matters notices it in time, I shall have my chance. (p. 23)

The story is told through a series of letters – mostly from Hilary to her parents or Basil – coupled with the occasional interdepartmental memo from the Everyman’s store. In short, the letters chart Hilary’s progress in London, the highs and lows of working life and the practicalities of surviving on a lowly 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. While there is clearly a safety net at hand – returning home to Edinburgh is always an option – Hilary is determined to stick it out, if only to prove Basil wrong in his dismissal of her efforts as some kind of misguided folly.

At first, Hilary is tasked with writing address for labels for books to be sent out to the store’s customers, filling in for a girl who is recovering from appendicitis. In a lucky break, Hilary comes into contact with Mr Grant, one of the store’s directors, whom she promptly impresses with her initiative when resolving a customer issue. As a consequence, Mr Grant arranges for Hilary to be transferred to the Book Department where her skills might be better utilised as a member of the sales team. The actual recommending and selling of books comes naturally to Hilary, playing to her strengths of patience, determination and attentiveness. It’s just the mental arithmetic that lets her down –something she finds difficult to do in a hurry, especially when under pressure. Nevertheless, Hilary sticks with it, and a transfer to the Library soon follows.

It is here in the Library that Hilary really begins to come into her own, taking charge of Fiction C, the least important of Everyman’s subscription services in the hierarchy of plans. Through Hilary’s observations on these services, we see the petty snobberies and prejudices inherent in certain parts of society at the time, where an individual’s subscription plan becomes a direct reflection of their class and social status.

The best people don’t have Fiction C subscriptions, because they only cost 10/– a year and provide the copies that other people have spilt tea over or dropped in the bath. The titled or indolent send menials to Miss Rivington for Fiction A or to Miss Landry for A Select. All the A subscribers come under the Rational Reading scheme, but the Fiction C pariahs appear unobtrusively in person and carry their books away in leathercraft satchels or string bags. (p. 103)

It is also here where Hilary must negotiate the thorniest aspects of staff politics through her dealings with Miss Sparling, a woman who resents Hilary’s presence in the Library and the subsequent impact this creates. At the request of Mr Grant, Hilary is to review the library process and systems with a view to making recommendations for improvement, a project she carries out with great efficiency and success. One of her changes results in the introduction of a more democratic system for customers, negating the need for Fiction C subscribers to stand in a separate queue to their Fiction A and B counterparts – thereby making the process feel much more equitable and humane.

In time, Hilary progresses to the role of Assistant Staff Supervisor, a job she relishes for it plays to her excellent organisation skills. In a neat parallel, this rise through the ranks at Everyman’s is mirrored in other areas of life. As her career flourishes, Hilary moves from a basement room in a boarding house to more spacious flat – a place she furnishes with the support of a generous aunt. 

In terms of tone, the novel is shot through with some wonderful comic touches, from the somewhat pretentious interdepartmental memos, to Hilary’s refreshingly witty observations as she documents her experiences at Everyman’s.

Aren’t people odd? What happens to them the instant money leaves their hands? Sell your best friend a packet of biscuits or a toothbrush or a silk handkerchief or a library subscription, and the most angelic personality is immediately submerged by the obsession of Getting one’s Money’s Worth. I didn’t read through many files: it was too indecent. I went to quickly on to my pile of letters from fulminating Colonels in Bedford and Bath and Harrogate who complain that they got nothing but ‘pert novels by pups’, and the women who are ‘quite at a loss to understand…’ (p. 129)

Throughout the book, the story touches on various aspects of working e.g. adapting to change, office politics, managing finances, and supporting colleagues – at one point, Hilary helps a young member of staff who must deal with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy, highlighting once again the societal attitudes of the day.

Alongside Hilary’s adventures, the novel also offers a marvellous insight into the world of retail in the 1930s. The day-to-day workings of a busy department store are lovingly brought to life in a way that feels both charming and authentic.

Overall, this is an absolutely delightful novel, likely to appeal to fans of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Diary of a Provincial Lady and 84 Charing Cross. Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for readers interested in British social history. 

Business as Usual is published by Handheld Press, my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.  

Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

One of my current aims is to read more memoirs, largely prompted by some critically-acclaimed releases such as Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands, a book that made my end-of-year highlights in 2019. Motherwell: A Girlhood is a memoir by the late Deborah Orr, the esteemed Guardian journalist who died from breast cancer last year. Rather than documenting Orr’s career in journalism, Motherwell focuses on the author’s childhood, mostly spanning the period from the mid-1960s through to the 1970s and early ‘80s, a time of significant social change in some regions of the UK. Moreover, the book’s title has a dual meaning, representing both the Scottish town near Glasgow where Orr grew up – Motherwell – and the nature of the relationship between Orr and her mother, Win – the latter prompting the question as to whether Win was able to ‘mother well’ when caring for Deborah and her brother, David.

Ostensibly, this memoir is an exploration of Orr’s fractured relationship with Win, the formidable woman who held the reins of power within the Orr household, much to the frustration of Deborah if not the rest of the family. A series of memories and reflections emerge, several of which are connected to ‘the bureau’ an imposing cabinet housing various objects and documents controlled by Win, a serial hoarder. (It is a highly symbolic object, an heirloom ultimately inherited by Deborah and installed in her London home.)

The bureau, like all three of my childhood homes, was the unchallenged domain of my mother, scrupulously well organised and governed by a surprisingly complex web of boundaries. […]

John [Deborah’s father] never delved behind the flap in the bureau. Win handled all the household’s paperwork, writing in her neat, cursive script or her neat block capitals. He would add his impressive signature where she told him to put it.

The rules were Win’s – and the power – but John tended to be their enforcer. (pp. 4-5, W&N)

As the book unfolds, the subtle nuances of Deborah’s relationship with Win become increasingly apparent. For the most part, Win is tenacious and terrifying, a woman obsessed with the need to keep up appearances; and yet she is also spirited and sociable, hailing from a large, working-class family with traditions of its own.

Having moved to Scotland from Essex at the time of her marriage to John, Win has experienced much suffering during her life, a point that becomes clear as her backstory is revealed. Furthermore, there is the sense that Win is unable to break that pattern of hardship with her own daughter, thereby implying that Deborah must bear a similar burden and conform to the expectations of the local community and society as a whole. The principle of conformity looms large in Motherwell, a town with the power to crush individuality and aspiration, notions it considers to be either shameful or fanciful.

Motherwell was a difference engine with a difference, calculating everything that might make a person unlike the other persons, then roaring into the sacred work of driving that devil out of them. Conformity was absolutely everything. Failure to conform to the fearlessness of the steelworker had torpedoed my dad’s self-esteem. Failure to be Scottish was a problem for my mum in Motherwell, just as failure to be English had been a failure for my dad in Essex. In both places I was a chimerical beast, an oddity. (p.43)

Unsurprisingly, Deborah longs to break free from the restrictions imposed by Win and by the town of Motherwell itself. In truth, Win would like nothing better than to keep Deborah with her in Motherwell, almost as an extension of herself – like an extra limb or appendage, the removal of which would lead to major trauma and grief.

Nevertheless, for all her pride, prejudices and other faults, Win is capable of occasional moments tenderness where a more loving relationship emerges between mother and daughter. There are recollections of shared experiences, instances of Win and Deborah lying in bed together, just like the members of any ‘normal’ family might do.

John, too, is anything but black and white. Initially seen as the more playful and supportive of the two parents (the young Deborah idolises him), John has his own demons in the form of drink, gambling and a capacity for occasional violence – factors that prompt a reassessment of his personality over time. As with other sections of the book, there is a striking sense of honesty in the way Orr writes about these aspects of family life, the gradual process of realisation that someone close to you may not be quite so perfect after all.

Alongside the author’s reflections on the nature of motherhood and family, there is another, equally compelling side to Motherwell, one of broader significance. In writing this remarkable book, Orr has given us a searing insight into a key period of Scotland’s social history, successfully conveying the devastating impact of the decimation of the steel industry – particularly on Motherwell and the surrounding community. At its peak, the steelworks employed more than half of Motherwell’s adults, many of them stationed at Ravenscraig, the beating heart of the local manufacturing trade. After years of financial starvation, Ravenscraig closed in 1992, with the demolition of its the iconic cooling towers following in 1996 – an eerie event witnessed by Deborah and her immediate family.  

Motherwell is the town I was born and bred in, a coal and steel town on the lip of the Clyde Valley. By the time I was thirty years old, it wasn’t a coal and steel town any more. Motherwell lost its identity in the industrial restructuring of the 1980s, along with wave after wave of redundant workers. Personal identities were shattered. But group identity was shattered too. The people of Motherwell were used to being part of something much, much bigger than themselves. When it went, so quickly, Motherwell became a town without a purpose. I couldn’t stand the place, even when it was still in its pomp. But I loved it too. Still do. (pp. 1-2)

Also running through the book is the theme of narcissism, acting as a kind of lens or filter through which several elements are viewed. The spectre of narcissism is present in many aspects of Deborah’s life, from the relationship with ex-husband, Will Self, to the politics within the Orr household during childhood, to some of the ongoing failings of wider society itself.

Because here’s the thing. Once you know how to spot it, narcissism is everywhere. Narcissism explains many aspects of human society. It is, I believe, the psychological motor behind patriarchy, behind racism and behind most, if not all, prejudice. The need to feel better than others, or that others are no better than you, whether in a family, a group or in the whole wide world, is a need that many people feel, especially in this age of individualism. (p. 208)

In short, Motherwell is a staggeringly good memoir – poignant, beautiful and ultimately heartbreaking. (I couldn’t help but feel some element of compassion for Win despite her terrible failings.) Orr weaves together all the different strands so brilliantly, moving seamlessly from memories of her upbringing to expressions of anger about the devastation of the steel industry to pertinent asides on the toxic nature of narcissism and its power to destroy. She is so candid in her analysis of a difficult childhood, unsparing in the visceral act of self-exploration. This is a powerful, humane and 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.

Motherwell is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.

The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald

This collection of eight short stories by Penelope Fitzgerald – one of my all-time favourite writers – was first published in 2000, the year of her death. Interestingly, the settings range from the historical (19th century Brittany and 17th century Australia) to the more contemporary (Britain in the 1950s/’60s and Scotland at the end of the 20th century). In this respect, the book could be viewed as a kind of bridge between Fitzgerald’s early novels and her later, historical works.

As with other story collections I’ve reviewed, I won’t cover all of the individual pieces; instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole.

In The Axe – one of the standout stories in this collection – a middle manager is tasked with the job of making a number of his staff redundant to reduce resources. While some employees seem happy to move on or take early retirement, others may prove more reluctant to leave, especially if they have worked for the company for several years. The manager is particularly worried about his clerical assistant, Mr Singlebury, a rather apologetic, fastidious individual who appears to have no real life outside of work.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he [Mr Singlebury] wore a blue suit and a green knitted garment with a front zip. On Tuesdays and Thursdays he wore a pair of grey trousers of man-made material which he called ‘my flannels’, and a fawn cardigan. The cardigan was omitted in summer. He had, however, one distinguishing feature, very light blue eyes, with a defensive expression, as though apologizing for something which he felt guilty about, but could not put right. The fact is that he was getting old. Getting old is, of course, a crime of which we grow more guilty every day. (p. 26)

The Axe is conveyed in the form of a written report from the manager to his superiors, recounting his experiences with the redundancies and Mr Singlebury in particular. At first, Singlebury seems to take the news reasonably quietly, much to the manager’s relief. Nevertheless, just before his departure, Singlebury invites the manager to dinner at his home – a suitably sad and depressing room in a boarding house – where he confesses his concerns as what will happen once the job ends. Consequently, the manager is left dreading the prospect of Singlebury’s return, fearing his assistant may take it upon himself to turn up to work as if nothing has happened.

This is a terrific story with a creeping sense of dread, particularly towards the end. As with the rest of Fitzgerald’s work, the central character of Singlebury is drawn with great insight and sensitivity. Here we have an ‘invisible’ man, beavering away at his role without any real credit or recognition, tossed aside with little thought in the name of economy. It’s a very striking story, brilliantly told.

In Beehernz – one of the contemporary stories set in the wilds of Scotland – an artistic director is dispatched to the remote island of Reilig to persuade a reclusive maestro to come out of retirement.

Iona is three miles long and one mile wide, and Reilig looked considerably smaller. The blue sky, cloudless that day, burned as if it was as salt as the water below them. There was no sand or white shell beach as you approached, and the rocky shoreline was not impressive, just enough to give you a nasty fall. (p. 60)

The director, Hopkins, is hoping Beehernz will agree to conduct a couple of Mahler concerts at a forthcoming festival, something the maestro has shied away from doing over the past 40 years. However, once Hopkins comes face-to-face with his target, any potential sense of influence begins to slip away.

On this island of Reilig he felt authority leaving him, with no prospect of being replaced by anything else. Authority was scarcely needed in a kingdom of potatoes and seabirds. (p. 66)

Beehernz is another beautifully observed story – this one underscored with Fitzgerald’s trademark dry wit.

There is humour too in Not Shown, a story of small-mindedness and petty jealousies. It features Fothergill, ‘the resident administrator, or dogsbody’ at Tailfirst Farm which sits in the grounds of a large country house. While the farm is open to the public during the summer, the house itself is not – the latter being home to Lady P, the somewhat dismissive head of the manor.

Assisting Fothergill at the farm are two local women: Mrs Fearne, formerly of The Old Pottery Shop, and Mrs Twine, who used to be a dinner lady at the village school, both lovingly described in the following passage.

So far there had been worryingly few visitors, but he disposed carefully of his small force. Mrs Twine couldn’t stand for too long, and was best off in the dining-room where there was a solid table to lean against; on the other hand, she was sharper than Mrs Feare, who let people linger in the conservatory and nick the tomatoes.

Mrs Feare was more at home in the shop with the fudge and postcards, and her ten-year-old son biked up after school to work out the day’s VAT on his calculator. Mrs Twine also fancied herself in the shop, but had no son to offer. (pp. 101–102)

This peaceful unit is soon disturbed by the arrival of Mrs Horrabin, who takes it upon herself to replace Mrs Feare and Mrs Twine, claiming ‘these two old boilers standing in the corners of the room’ will scare off the visitors. After all, members of the public just want to have a good nose around; ‘they want to see the bedroom and the john’, not all the other padding. As it turns out, Mrs Horrabin has designs on other aspects of Tailfirst, not least Mr Fothergill himself. Like many of the stories in this collection, Not Shown has an ending that leaves much to the reader’s imagination, opening up several possibilities of what might happen to these characters in the days and weeks that follow.

Overall, I found Fitzgerald’s contemporary/20th-century stories more satisfying than her historical ones, possibly because they chime more strongly with my general reading preferences per se. Nevertheless, one or two of the historical pieces certainly warrant a mention here.

The titular story, The Means of Escape, is perhaps one of the most striking pieces in the book – the tale of a Rector’s daughter who develops feelings for an escaped convict she finds hiding in her father’s church. The sense of time and place – 17th century Tasmania – is brilliantly evoked, from the details of the church and Rectory to the language and dialogue at play. This is a very memorable story with a surprising twist at the end. Definitely a highlight of the collection.

Other historical stories feature a group of artists on a painting trip to Brittany, and a couple who must rely on two homing pigeons for communication at a vital time (their home being on a remote farm in Auckland, miles from the nearest town). Irrespective of the period and setting, Fitzgerald is able to create characters and worlds that feel entirely credible and believable, such is her perception and attention to detail.

As ever, Fitzgerald displays great sympathy towards her characters, particularly when they are at their most vulnerable or damaged. These stories offer glimpses into strange, mysterious worlds, conveyed with sensitivity, credibility and intuition. All in all, a very worthwhile read.

The Means of Escape is published by 4th Estate; personal copy.