Category Archives: Book Reviews

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

First published as an essay in Granta’s Summer 2009 issue, Lost Cat is a thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. Mary Gaitskill – an American writer whose work has recently been experiencing something of a revival – is perhaps best known for her short stories; but this slim memoir is wonderfully affecting. (Spoiler alert: I really adored it.)

While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten whom she names Gattino. The kitten is the runt of the litter – thin, one-eyed and desperately in need of attention. Nevertheless, under Mary’s supervision, Gattino grows stronger and more affectionate, seemingly returning his carer’s love and nurturing gestures.

In time, Mary and her husband, Peter, return to their home in New York, with Gattino in tow. At first, Gattino seems settled, continuing the progress that was made back in Italy. However, not long after Mary and Peter move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, prompting a tireless search for the cat in the immediate area. Over the next several months, Mary puts out food, lays traps, distributes flyers and stakes out car parks, all in an effort to find the elusive Gattino. Various potential sightings are reported, but none of these instances turn out to be genuine.

In her desperation to find the lost cat, Mary consults psychics and mystics, while continuing to worry away at various omens and superstitions – anything that might have some significance to Gattino’s whereabouts and situation.

Running through this profoundly moving memoir are various other strands that cut deep into Mary’s life. The loss of Gattino reawakens various emotions within Mary, releasing previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of her father. What emerges is a picture of Mary’s father, a ‘difficult’, truculent man who had suffered great pain from an early age, his own father and mother having died when he was a young boy. Moreover, Mary’s father endured a slow and painful death, a function of his terminal cancer and refusal to accept treatment. While Mary and her father were not particularly close, she and her sisters tended to him in his final months – albeit too late and somewhat inadequately.

Consequently, there is a sense that the loss of Gattino allows Mary to experience (and ultimately, to come to terms with) the pain of losing her own father. Not only the physical loss of a parent but a yearning for the life they might have had together too. In effect, Mary’s concern that she has failed to ‘protect’ Gattino opens the gateway of emotions related to other, potentially more painful regrets.

Human love is grossly flawed, and even when it isn’t, people routinely misunderstand it, reject it, use it or manipulate it. It is hard to protect a person you love from pain, because people often choose pain; I am a person who often chooses pain. An animal will never choose pain; an animal can receive love far more easily than even a very young human. And so I thought it should be possible to shelter a kitten with love. (p. 15)

Also of significance here are Mary’s feelings for two disadvantaged children, Caesar and Natalia, whom she and Peter met through a kind of fostering programme several years earlier. The children’s home life in the city is tough, with a mother who beats and belittles them routinely and no sign of a father on the scene. Perhaps unsurprisingly given this background, the siblings prove somewhat challenging to reach; nevertheless, Mary perseveres, recognising Caesar’s neediness and aggression to be a function of his situation.

I took Caesar’s aggression seriously – but for a long time I forgave it. I forgave because for me the aggression and need translated almost on contact as longing for the pure affection he had been denied by circumstance, and outrage at the denial. (pp. 40–41)

Holidays with Mary and her husband prove to be a release for the children, initially at least. Mary spends considerable time and energy supporting the pair, giving them pleasurable experiences to remember, helping Natalia with her homework, and paying for both children to attend a good school. Nevertheless, as the siblings grow older, disaffection sets in, and Mary’s efforts to nurture Natalia’s abilities fail to have the desired impact.

In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. Through her reflections on these issues, Gaitskill comes across as a very open person, someone with a desire to analyse and reflect on her experiences, laying bare her various anxieties along the way.

I can’t say offhand how many times, during the decades before I got married, I asked for or demanded some sort of relationship with someone who shut the door in my face, then opened it again and peeked out. I would – metaphorically – pound on the door and follow the person through endless rooms. Sometimes the door opened and I fell in love – before losing interest completely. I thought then that my feelings were false and had been all along, but the pain that came from rejecting someone or being rejected was real and deep. (p. 82)

There are points where Mary doubts or examines her reasons for intervening in these situations, particularly as far as Caesar and Natalia are concerned. Nevertheless, there is a sense that she was right to offer her love to Gattino – perhaps accompanied by the hope that one day he might return…

Lost Cat is published by Daunt Books. My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

The novels of Patricia Highsmith, with their focus on the darker side of the human psyche, continue to be a source of fascination for me. First published in 1965, A Suspension of Mercy is another of this author’s domestic noirs – probably not quite in the same league as the marvellous Deep Water or The Cry of the Owl, but still very enjoyable nonetheless.

The novel revolves around Sydney Smith Bartleby, an American writer of crime fiction, and his wife, Alicia, who dabbles in painting. The couple have been married for around eighteen months and live in a quiet neighbourhood near Framlingham in Suffolk – the idea being that a remote countryside cottage would prove a suitable environment for them to engage in their creative pursuits.

While the Bartlebys’ lifestyle may on the surface sound very appealing, it soon becomes clear that the marriage itself is far from ideal. Following a series of rejections from publishers, Sydney is struggling to finalise his latest novel; furthermore, the TV scripts he has developed with his writing partner, Alex Polk-Faraday, have also proved difficult to place. Moreover, Alicia has little faith in her husband’s ability to write successful fiction. This, together with the Bartlebys relatively meagre income – mostly the allowance Alicia receives from her devoted parents – means relations between the couple are somewhat strained.

Sydney, however, has a very active imagination, perhaps too active given the nature of his fantasies. He is continually thinking up scenarios for the demise of both Alex and Alicia, the latter proving to be a particularly rich seam of morbid fabrications.

Alex had died five times at least in Sydney’s imagination. Alicia twenty times. She had died in a burning car, in a wrecked car, in the woods throttled by person or persons unknown, died falling down the stairs at home, drowned in her bath, died falling out the upstairs window while trying to rescue a bird in the eaves drain, died from poisoning that would leave no trace. But the best way, for him, was her dying by a blow in the house, and he removed her somewhere in the car, buried her somewhere, then told everyone that she had gone away for a few days, maybe to Brighton, maybe to London. Then Alicia wouldn’t come back. The police wouldn’t be able to find her. (p. 33)

The couple’s problems are evident to those closest to them, their quarrels having being observed by Alex and his wife, Hittie, during their occasional trips to Suffolk – and by Mrs Lilybanks, the gentle old lady who has just moved in next door.

Now and again, Alicia goes away on her own for a few days, just down to London or Brighton for a breather from Sydney. It is on her return from one of these trips that she wonders if a more extended break might be in order, particularly when she suspects Sydney of deliberately refusing to come to a party just to annoy her.

‘You’d really like to kill me sometimes, wouldn’t you, Syd?’

He stared at her, looking tongue-tied.

She could tell she had touched the truth. ‘You’d like me out of the way sometimes – maybe all the time – just as if I were some character in your plots that you could eliminate.’

He looked at the half-peeled potato in her left hand, the paring knife in her right. ‘Oh, stop being dramatic.’

‘So why don’t we pretend that for a while? I can be gone for weeks. Work as hard as you like—’ Her voice shook a little, to her annoyance. ‘And we’ll see what happens, all right?’

Sydney pressed his lips together, then said, ‘All right.’ (pp. 69–70)

Having floated the plan, Alicia insists that Sydney should not try to contact her while she is away; she will get in touch with him when she wants to, but not before. Somewhat nonchalantly, Sydney agrees.

With Alicia gone, Sydney is free to immerse himself in the mindset of a murderer – possibly for research purposes, possibly for more sinister reasons. Allowing his fantasies to play out to the full, Sydney imagines that he has killed Alicia by pushing her down the stairs on the day of her departure. Moreover, the following morning, Sydney gets up at the crack of dawn, carries a rolled-up carpet (large enough to conceal a body) to his car, drives five miles to a secluded spot of woodland and buries it in a shallow grave. All the while, he behaves as if the carpet contains Alicia’s body, stiff and heavy following a night in the house.

As the weeks go by, many of the couple’s friends begin to express concern at not having heard anything from Alicia – surely she would have called or written to them by now? At first, Sydney implies that his wife has probably gone to stay with her parents, the Sneezums, down in Kent; but it turns out they haven’t heard from her either. (Alicia, as it happens, is holed up near Brighton, happily playing ‘house’ with her new lover, Edward Tilbury, whom she first at met a party some months earlier.)

Mrs Lilybanks too has her doubts, particularly as she was birdwatching from her bedroom window on the morning of the carpet episode, something she hints at when she drops over to see Sydney one evening. In this scene, Mrs L is enquiring about the carpet that used to be in the Bartlebys’ lounge, the very one she’d seen Sydney take to the car the morning after Alicia’s disappearance.

Mrs Lilybanks sat down slowly on the sofa, watching Sydney. ‘I really quite liked the old one you had here. I’d buy that from you,’ she said, forcing a chuckle.

‘But we haven’t got it. I took it–’ he smiled. ‘I took that old carpet out and dumped it. We didn’t want to give it house-room, and I doubt if anyone would’ve given ten shillings for it.’

Mrs Lilybanks heard her heart pounding under her green cardigan. Sydney had turned a little pale, she thought. He looked guilty. He acted guilty. Yet her unwillingness to believe he was guilty was keeping her from labelling him guilty, definitely. Now he was watching her carefully. (p. 116)

Soon the police become involved, and the finger of suspicion falls squarely on Sydney. The Polk-Faradays and Mrs Lilybanks are questioned about the nature of the Bartlebys’ marriage and Alicia’s state of mind at the time of her disappearance. The deeper the police dig, the worse it begins to look for Sydney: reports of the couple’s quarrels emerge, the burial of the carpet – albeit empty – comes to light; and Sydney’s notebook is found, a book which contains all manner of macabre fantasies on how to do away with one’s wife.

That’s probably all I ought to say about the plot; to reveal any more would spoil it, I think…

What I like about this novel and this author’s work in general is the exploration of the characters’ psychology and motives. In her 1954 novel, The Blunderer, Highsmith considers the possibility that any of us might resort to murder if pushed far enough. There is perhaps an element of that here too, although Sydney is not quite the ‘everyman’ we see in The Blunderer. There is something unhinged about Sydney and his overactive imagination, a blurring of the margins between the fantasies of his crime fiction and the mundane realities of everyday life.

While I couldn’t quite rationalise some of Sydney’s behaviour – there are several opportunities when Sydney could put a stop to the game that he and Alicia are playing, and yet he refuses to do so – I ended up going with it, largely under the assumption of there being some troubling mental health issues at play. Alicia ends up getting out of her depth, too. There comes a point when she can no longer face the shame of admitting she has been living in sin for several weeks, knowing that it would ruin her reputation and cost Edward his job.

In summary, this is a very intriguing novel, one that explores the dangers of allowing one’s fantasies to play out in real life. Definitely recommended for fans of this writer’s work.

A Suspension of Mercy is published by Virago; personal copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

Tea is so Intoxicating by Mary Essex

First published in 1950, Tea is so Intoxicating is another recent reissue in the British Library’s excellent Women Writers series, and it’s probably my favourite so far. Ostensibly the story of a couple’s quest to open a tea garden in an insular English village, Essex’s novel touches on various areas of British life in the years immediately following the Second World War. More specifically, it is a book about class, social attitudes, the pettiness of village life, and perhaps most importantly of all, the failure to recognise one’s own limitations.

The couple in question are David and Germayne Tompkins, who are relative newcomers to Wellhurst in Kent, the sort of village where everyone knows everyone else’s business. David is one of those men with big ambitions but precious little skills or knowledge to put his ideas into practice. He is also something of a self-conscious snob, forever envying other, more successful individuals for their achievements and contentment with life.

While recuperating from a short illness, David develops an obsession with cooking, convincing himself that he can produce dishes of the highest order when in fact his efforts are little short of disastrous. This, coupled with his experience in the accounts department of the Dolly Varden Cosy Tea Shops, Ltd., leads David to the view that he should open a tea garden in the grounds of the couple’s cottage – a rather primitive, poorly-equipped property that the Tompkinses have unwisely purchased at a knockdown price. Germayne, on the other hand, is somewhat dismayed at the prospect, fearful in the belief that poor David is getting carried away with himself…

She [Germayne] was dubious about the success of the proposed tea-house. But, meanwhile, David had launched himself out into the thought of selling lunches packed ready to take on the road with you, teas in the garden, teas in the inglenook, teas you took away with you, or teas you took away inside you. In fact, it was a comprehensive plan, and it covered every line of resistance that man could offer. His flights of fancy took him into realms of the type of lunch that no hiker or biker wants, but that did not worry him in the least. He would educate them. (p. 34)

Naturally, the villagers are opposed to the idea, viewing the Tompkinses as outsiders (or ‘foreigners’) who have no right to be opening a commercial venture in their back garden – especially one with the potential to attract all manner of hikers and bikers to the village, increasing the levels of noise and congestion. Mr Perch at the Dolphin is not happy about the proposal, mostly because his wife serves teas in the pub’s garden. The fact that there’s only enough space for four people in the Perches’ tiny outdoor area is neither here nor there.

David went to elaborate efforts to hide his true intentions. He explained that there was no question of competition at all, because he was catering only for the better-class tea-seeker; his Cherry Tree Cot would appeal only to the more sensitive with its fine china, delicate sandwiches, and home-made cakes. Naturally this did not mollify Mr Perch, who knew privately that his wife’s teas were shockers, and that any kind of competition would be too much for him. (pp. 52–53)

David doesn’t exactly endear himself to the locals when explaining to Mr Perch how their respective tea gardens are aiming for very different sectors of the market, his snobbishness and lack of self-awareness coming firmly to the fore. To compound matters, there is also the question of the Tompkinses’ relationship, a source of significant scandal and gossip amongst the villagers.

As it turns out, David and Germayne were not married to one another on their arrival at Wellhurst, Germayne having left her first husband, the dull but dependable Digby, for the more entrepreneurial David. In time, a divorce was secured, allowing David and Germayne to get married on the quiet, away from prying eyes. Nevertheless, somehow or other, these developments have become common knowledge, giving the residents of Wellhurst something else to disapprove of alongside the tea garden itself.

As the novel plays out, we see just how much of a mess David gets himself into as preparations for the Cherry Tree Cot lurch from one catastrophe to another. His lack of common sense and inability to get to grips with the practicalities come together to form the perfect storm – almost literally. Meanwhile, Germayne is at the end of her tether, run ragged by David’s ineptitude and blinkered vision. Add to the mix a flirtatious baker from Vienna (Mimi) and Germayne’s precocious daughter, Ducks, from her marriage to Digby, and the stage is set for all manner of chaos.

Alongside the high jinks of the tea shop, Essex also has time to touch on the social changes sweeping through Britain at the time, largely accelerated by the Second World War. Mrs Arbroath at the Manor – another vociferous opponent of David’s tea garden – bemoans the progressive nature of developments under the Labour government, desperately hoping to cling to the world of the past. Albeit rather lonely and tragic at heart, Mrs A is another blinkered individual whose snobbish attitudes reveal themselves all too clearly…

Mrs Arbroath steeled herself against what was coming to the world, and she clung on to her previous glory with two clutching hands. […] Her income had started to drop, which was the fault of that miserable surtax, which she had always thought was thieving, and she had had to sell a few fields. Instantly there had sprung up a pale mushroom growth of awful little houses, with asbestos roofs, which made her groan. She could do nothing about it, though she tried… (p. 87)

The story of Germayne’s earlier marriage to Digby is also nicely woven into the fabric of the book, granting Essex the opportunity to reflect on the relative merits of Germayne’s matrimonial matches. There is a message here about the value of dull yet dependable individuals over more exciting, erratic ones, something that prompts Germayne to reflect on the life she gave up with Digby. In all reality, perhaps the grass isn’t greener on the other side after all…

In short, I loved this highly amusing novel, complete with its insights into the trials and tribulations of tea gardens and village life. There is more than a hint of Barbara Pym’s social comedies here, with their sharp observations on human relationship and women’s lives – especially when the women in question are long-suffering individuals, frequently taken for granted by others. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is another touchstone, particularly in its portrayal of the villagers’ territorial attitudes and resistance to outsiders heralding change.

It’s such a joy to see this delightful novel back in print as part of the British Library’s Women Writers series, and I hope to see more of Mary Essex’s work coming through in the future. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

My books of the year, 2020 – part 3, short stories

As if you weren’t fed-up of seeing books-of-the-year lists by now, here I am, back again with another instalment of my own! But before we get to the books themselves, a little explanation… My original intention, with these annual round-ups, had been to post two pieces – the first on my favourite novellas and non-fiction from a year of reading and the second on my favourite novels. Nevertheless, as I was looking back at my choices earlier this week, I noticed that I had neglected to include any short stories in my final lists. Not because they weren’t good enough to make the cut – I read some truly excellent collections in 2020 – but for some reason they’d been squeezed out, mostly by other, more prominent books.

So, in an effort to redress the balance, here are my favourite short story collections from a year of reading – all highly recommended indeed. While a couple of these collections are relatively recent publications or reissues, the vast majority of the stories themselves hail from the mid-20th-century – a pattern that reflects my general reading preferences. A longing perhaps for a simpler, less manic world, despite many of the difficulties encountered by women in those less enlightened times.

As ever, I’ve summarised each book below, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links. Hopefully, you’ll find something of interest in the mix.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

A collection of seventeen of Jackson’s stories, several of which first appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and other publications in the 1960s. As the title suggests, the tales themselves are rather creepy and unnerving, illuminating the sense of darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of suburban society. Confinement and entrapment are recurring themes, from the explicit physical state of being trapped in a room to the more subtle psychological sense of being constrained within the limits of domesticity. In some respects, Jackson was highlighting the relatively limited roles woman were allowed to play in society at the time – wife, mother, homemaker and supporter, with precious little opportunity for personal fulfilment. An excellent selection of stories with a serious message.

After Rain by William Trevor

Once again, William Trevor proves himself to be an incredibly astute chronicler of human nature. Here we have stories of bittersweet regrets and missed opportunities, of the acceptance of life’s disappointments and duties, of crushed hopes and dashed dreams. Moreover, Trevor writes brilliantly about the sense of duty or stigma that guides his protagonists’ lives. Like much of the best short fiction, these pieces leave enough space for the reader to bring their own reflections to bear on the narratives, opening up the possibilities beyond the words on the page. What is omitted or left unsaid is just as important as what is explicitly expressed. A superb collection of stories, possibly up there with Eleven Kinds of Loneliness as an all-time favourite.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier

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. She also excels at building atmosphere and tension, a style that seems particularly well suited to the short story form.

The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant

In short, these stories are excellent. The very best of them feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the narratives to expand in the reader’s mind on further reflection. Several of Gallant’s protagonists – typically women – seem lost; cast adrift and unmoored in the vast sea of uncertainty that is life. Here we have stories of terrible mothers and self-absorbed fathers, of isolated wives and bewildered husbands, of smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves. Central themes include the failings of motherhood, the heartache of adolescence, the emptiness of false happiness and domesticity, and ultimately, a sense of isolation and abandonment. These are marvellous stories, beautifully observed. I loved them.

Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War

A fascinating anthology of stories by women writers, most of whom were writing during the Second World War (or the years immediately following its end). When viewed as a whole, this collection offers a rich tapestry depicting the different facets of women’s lives during this period – from stoic mother and caregiver, to headstrong Land Girl or factory worker, to intrepid journalist or correspondent. We see individuals anxiously awaiting the return of loved ones; women grieving for lives that have been lost, and marriages that have faded or turned sour. The mood and atmosphere on the Home Front are vividly conveyed, through stories of nights in the air raid shelters and the emotional impact of the Blitz. Plus, there are glimpses of Europe too, from the ravages of war-torn France to the tensions in Romania as the conflict edges ever closer. Includes pieces by Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning, Barbara Pym and many more.

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

What to say about this collection of fifteen of Mansfield’s short stories, other than to highlight its brilliance? A much-anticipated garden party is tainted by news of a fatal accident, for one member of the family at least; a man longs to be alone with his wife following her return from a trip, only for their closeness to be disturbed by the shadow of a stranger; a lady’s maid remains devoted to her employer, forsaking the offer of marriage for a life in service. These are just a few of the scenarios Mansfield explores with great insight and perceptiveness. Moreover, there is a beautiful fluidity of emotion in these stories, as they move seamlessly from happiness and gaiety to sadness and loneliness in the blink of an eye.

Saturday Lunch at the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer

Mortimer drew on some of her own experiences for this collection of sharply unnerving stories of motherhood, marriage and family relation – many of which uncover the horrors that lie beneath the veneer of domestic life. There are similarities with the Shirley Jackson and the Daphne du Maurier, particularly in the opening story, The Skylight, where much of the horror in this chillingly tense tale stems from the imagination. There is a strong sense of foreboding in many of these stories, a feeling that flashes of rage, violence or cruelty may erupt at any moment. Nevertheless, Mortimer also has a sharp eye for humour, something that comes through quite strongly. In summary, these are pitch-perfect vignettes, subverting traditional images of marriage and motherhood with a spiky precision.

So that’s it from me for 2020. I wish you all the very best for 2021, wherever you happen to be.

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.

Barbara Pym – Unfinished Novels and Short Stories

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Civil to Strangers, an early novel by Barbara Pym – written in 1936 but published posthumously in 1987. My copy of the book also contains three novellas/unfinished novels (edited down by Pym’s biographer, Hazel Holt) and four short stories.

In this post, my aim is to give you a flavour of the unfinished novels and stories – the former run to around 40-50pp each while the stories clock in at 10-15pp per piece. Even though some of these pieces are minor works, everything is beautifully observed in typical Pym fashion; she has a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy here and there, qualities which give the reader much to enjoy.

Unfinished Novels/Novellas

My favourite of these pieces is Home Front Novel, a story set in a small-town community at the beginning of WW2. This is textbook Pym, a delightfully comic sketch of individuals adjusting to the arrival of a group of evacuees for the duration of the war. As is often the case with Pym, the vicarage is the centre of the community, with the ladies diligently practising their Red Cross demonstrations.

Spinster cousins Agnes and Connie share a house together and will be taking in four evacuees. While Connie is meek and subservient, Agnes is bossy and controlling, traits that soon become apparent as the cousins consider the practicalities of the situation.

“It will mean a lot of extra work, having evacuees here,” said Agnes. I think I’ll tell Dawks tomorrow to dig up the front lawn.”

“Whatever for?” asked Connie.

“To plant vegetables, of course. Now, let me see. The vicarage has a very big lawn and there is that herbaceous border at the Wyatts’.”

By the time they had finished their work in the kitchen, Agnes had already, in imagination, commandeered all the gardens in the village and planted them with vegetables. “Oh God,” prayed Connie that night, “don’t let there be a war.” But at the back of her mind was the thought that a war might be rather exciting. It would certainly make a difference to the days that were so monotonously the same. (pp. 225–226)

What a pity Pym didn’t develop this novel further as the opening is full of potential. There are hints of love blossoming between the charming spinster, Beatrice Wyatt, and the local curate, Michael Randolph. Moreover, the cast of idiosyncratic supporting characters points to some trouble ahead.

So Very Sweet sees Pym dipping her toes into spy story territory, as Cassandra Swan – an excellent woman in typical Pym fashion – follows a trail of clues left by her friend, Harriet, a brilliant individual who works for the Foreign Office. The plot is quite absurd, but no less enjoyable for that – a little bit like the Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes (1938), with upstanding ladies practising their bandaging skills for good measure.

Perhaps the slightest of these unfinished works is Gervase and Flora, a story of unrequited love set in Finland amongst the British ex-pat community. There are hints of something autobiographical in this story of Flora Palfrey, a young woman who has been love with Gervase Harringay, an English lecturer from Oxford, for the past few years.

Flora often wondered what would become of her. She had been in love with Gervase for so long that she could not imagine a life in which he had no part. Nor, on the other hand, could she imagine a life in which he returned her love. That would somehow spoil the picture she had made of herself. It was an interesting picture, very dear to her, and she could not bear the idea of it being spoilt. Noble, faithful, long-suffering, although not without its funny side, it was like something out of Tchekov, she thought. (p. 192)

Short Stories

I’ve already written about Goodbye Balkan Capital as featured in Wave Me Goodbye – a marvellous anthology of short stories about WW2, all by women writers. However, this is such a great piece that it warrants another mention here. It’s quintessential Pym, a beautifully observed tale of two spinster sisters sharing a house together, the protagonists reminiscent of the Bede sisters from Some Tame Gazelle, another early work.

As Laura listens to news of the war on the radio, she is reminded of a night spent in the company of Crispin, a dashing young man who captivated her heart at a ball back in her youth. While Laura has not seen Crispin since that event, she has followed his successful career in the Diplomatic Service over the years, his most recent role having taken him to the Balkans.

As reports of the Germans’ advance across Europe come in, Laura envisages Crispin fleeing his office at the British Legation, possibly travelling to Russia and beyond via the Trans-Siberian Express. The excitement Laura experiences vicariously by way of these imaginings contrasts sharply with the mundane realities of her life in the village. Nevertheless, her role as a volunteer in the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) unit makes Laura feel useful and valued and – much to the annoyance of her sister, Janet, always the more formidable of the two. In fact, the sight of Laura in her new tin hat proves almost too much for Janet to bear…

Janet seemed rather annoyed when she saw it. It made Laura look quite important and professional. “I should think it must be very heavy,” she said grudgingly. “I’ll leave the thermos of tea for you, though I suppose you’ll get some there.”

“Well, expect me when you see me, dear,” said Laura, her voice trembling a little with excitement. Going out like this and not knowing when she would return always made her feel rather grand, almost noble, as if she were setting out on a secret and dangerous mission. The tin hat made a difference, too. One felt much more splendid in a tin hat. It was almost a uniform. (p. 349)

There are some lovely scenes of ordinary folk pulling together here – disparate individuals brought together by the camaraderie of ARP duty, sharing tins of biscuits and slabs of chocolate with their night-time cups of tea.

So, Some Tempestuous Morn is another favourite, a charming story of matchmaking and romantic introductions featuring three characters from Pym’s late ‘30s novel, Crampton Hodnet. The individuals in question are the formidable Miss Doggett, her paid companion, Jessie Morrow, and her nineteen-year-old niece, Anthea. Miss Doggett is on the lookout for a suitable young man for Anthea, however previous candidates have fallen somewhat short of the mark.

Anthea would marry, naturally, but it must be a suitable marriage. There had already been one or two disappointments, not only in Anthea’s failure to impress the young men, but in the young men themselves. Canon Bogle’s son had turned out to be a grubby young man in corduroy trousers; Lady Dancy’s nephew was too small and apparently interested in nothing but archaeology. That had been a great disappointment; even Miss Doggett could see that there was little future in dry bones and fragments of pottery. (p. 334)

In The Christmas Visit, two friends who were at Oxford together meet up again after thirty years, having taken radically different career paths in the interim. It is a story of uneasy reunions, the awkwardness of people with little in common coming together to spend Christmas under the same roof.

The collection is rounded off with Finding a Voice, a transcript of a radio talk given by Pym in 1978, in which she reflects on the development of her literary style. It’s a fitting end to a delightful collection of works.

My hardback copy of Civil to Strangers was published by Macmillan, but the book is currently in print with Virago. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald

A few weeks ago, I posted a piece about Natalia Ginzburg’s Happiness, As Such, a novella about love, happiness and the messy business of family relationships in 20th-century Italy. Innocence – the sixth novel by the British writer Penelope Fitzgerald – taps into similar themes, set as it is in Florence in the mid-1950s. It’s a captivating book – exquisitely written, as one might expect from this most graceful of writers.

Central to the novel is Chiara, the eighteen-year-old daughter of Giancarlo, the head of the once-wealthy Ridolfi family. However, before we dive too far into Chiara’s story, Fitzgerald takes us back in time to the middle of the sixteenth century when all the Ridolfis were midgets as a consequence of a particular genetic condition. At the time, the family go to great lengths to protect their youngest daughter from the knowledge that she might be ‘different’ from other girls by surrounding her with other, similarly-sized individuals. They hire a companion for the girl – a dwarf named Gemma. But when Gemma experiences a sudden spurt of growth, the Ridolfi daughter pities her, viewing her size as a freakish abnormality. As a consequence, she devises a well-intentioned plan to ‘correct’ her companion’s size, one that results in grisly consequences for young Gemma herself…

The moral of this fable is concerned with the inadvertent consequences of our actions – the fact that sometimes, despite our best intentions, we actually end up hurting someone when we had intended to do good.

Moving forward to 1955, the Ridolfis are no longer midgets, the genetic condition having dissipated over the years; however, they do retain a degree of eccentricity, a quality that sometimes manifests itself as naivete, hence the nod to the opening parable.

18yo Chiara has fallen for Salvatore, a Neurologist who hails from a poor family in the south. At thirtyish, Salvatore is considerably older than Chiara, and also quite different in terms of social class and personality. While Salvatore is somewhat prickly and intemperate, Chiara is changeable and alert, demonstrating an intriguing mix of eagerness and diffidence. It’s a somewhat misguided match, something that Salvatore reflects on when he recalls their initial encounter at a concert.

Salvatore, who was not a temperate person, intensely regretted having gone to this particular concert. What irritated him as much as anything else was that his mother had repeatedly predicted that if he went north to practise in Milan or Florence he would be got hold of by some wealthy, fair-haired girl who would fasten on him and marry him before he knew what he was doing. Now, in point of fact this girl was badly dressed and not fair-haired, or anyway only in certain lights, for example in the artificial light of the auditorium and the rainy twilight outside would anyone have called her a blonde. His mind chased itself in a manner utterly forbidden to it, round thoughts as arid as a cinder track. (p. 45)

As the novel unfolds, we follow the couple’s courtship leading up to their marriage – an event that takes place at the vineyard belonging to Chiara’s cousin, Cesare. The relationship between the young lovers seems driven by a series of misalignments – vigorous quarrels ensue, many of which are predicated on false impressions and misjudgements. And yet, despite knowing very little about one another before tying the knot, Chiara and Salvatore clearly love one another – even if they harbour rather different understandings of what constitutes love and happiness.

When Salvatore’s temper rose Chiara became not frightened but reckless, as when driving through the city’s traffic. They knew each other, to be honest, so little, and had so few memories in common (the concert, the limonaia, the wedding) that they had to use them both for attack and defence. They loved each other to the point of pain and could hardly bear to separate each morning. (p. 253)

Alongside Chiara and Salvatore, there are some marvellous secondary characters – most notably, Barney, Chiara’s forthright schoolfriend who hails from England. When called upon by her friend, Barney travels to Florence, subsequently aiding and abetting Chiara in her relationship with Salvatore.

Innocence is not a plot-driven novel, and yet it is wonderfully absorbing, immersing the reader in what feels like a pitch-perfect evocation of 1950s Florence. Naturally Fitzgerald’s prose is exquisite, conveying a strong sense of the Italian culture in the first half of the 20th century, including the differences between the north and the south. In particular, the novel is alive with the sights and sounds of the city, qualities that make it such a pleasure to read.

The wash of tourists and visitors was beginning to recede, leaving behind it the rich fertilizing silt of currency. The shops and small businesses which had faintheartedly shut in the August heat now reopened, those which had stayed open closed and the owners left for the country. Dense piles of hazel-nuts, with their leaves, appeared in the Central Market, and large mushrooms covering the counter with their wrinkled yellow dewlaps, just as earlier that morning they had covered the tree-trunks. Festoons of satchels and fountain pens hung in UPIMs windows. At the last possible moment, the names of the books to be studied in the coming academic year were given out, and the parents went humbly to queue in the scholastic bookshops. These could be considered as beginnings of a kind… (p. 93)

Regular readers of Fitzgerald will recognise many of her signature features. Two vivid, deeply-flawed characters that feel credible and believable; an innate understanding of the foibles of human nature; the beautiful descriptive passages, rich in finely-judged detail; and an air of strangeness or eccentricity that adds a touch of mystery. There’s a wonderful playfulness here too, a seam of dry wit running through the novel, adding humour to the blend of beauty and intelligence. Like the masterful The Beginning of Spring (which I read a few years ago), Innocence feels at once both straightforward and elusive, blending the directness of a love story with the slipperiness of a mystery or allegory. Another captivating novel from this highly accomplished writer.

Innocence is published by Fourth Estate, personal copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

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. It’s 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.

The novel is narrated by Calista, a fictional figure looking back to the days of her youth to a time when a chance encounter with Wilder during a backpacking holiday in America shaped the direction of her life. She is now a composer of music, predominantly for film – a passion fuelled by a lucky break, courtesy of Mr Wilder.

Rewinding to the late ‘70s, Calista – an intuitive musician who also speaks multiple languages – is hired by Wilder’s production team to act as a translator for the Greek leg of the Fedora shoot. The role brings her into close contact with Wilder and his inner circle – most notably Iz Diamond, Billy’s longstanding writing partner and friend.

Through the lens of Calista, Coe portrays the relationship between these two men with great warmth and affection. Like every great couple, Billy and Iz have their differences, blowing hot and cold with one another throughout the shoot. While Iz favours the bittersweet comedy of their earlier films, Billy is keen for Fedora to be a more serious drama, one with a melancholy, poignant tone. And yet the film should also retain a sense of elegance and beauty, qualities that seem to be falling out of fashion with the US studios as a new wave of directors begins to emerge.

[Billy:] ‘… I know that this picture, the one I’m making now, it’s one of my most serious pictures, of course – I want it to be serious, I want it to be sad – but that doesn’t mean, when the audience comes out of the cinema, they feel like you’ve been holding their head down the toilet for the last two hours, you know? You have to give them something else, something a little bit elegant, a little bit beautiful…’ (p. 214)

With the focus shifting in favour of the ‘kids with beards’ (the new generation of brash filmmakers including Spielberg and Scorsese), the Hollywood studios have refused to back Fedora, forcing Billy and Iz to make the film in Germany. This is not something that Billy is entirely comfortable with, particularly given his family history. As an Austrian Jew, he moved to the US in 1933, where his work as a screenwriter went from strength to strength. Nevertheless, this success was tinged with sadness as Billy lost touch with his mother, stepfather and grandmother – all of whom most likely perished in the concentration camps during WW2. While Billy is mostly portrayed as a genial, wisecracking figure – albeit one underscored with a discernible seam of tragedy – there is a steeliness to some of his humour, a degree of seriousness that can pierce and bite.

[Billy:] Well, you know, it was difficult to raise the money for this picture in America. So I was very glad when my German friends and colleagues stepped in. And now, I think it puts me in a kind of win-win situation.’

[Reporter:] ‘What do you mean by that?’ the woman asks.

‘I mean,’ Billy says, ‘that with this picture I really cannot lose. If it’s a huge success, it’s my revenge on Hollywood. If it’s a flop, it’s my revenge for Auschwitz.’ (p. 183)

Commercially, Fedora ultimately turns out to be the latter, but that’s somewhat by the by. It’s clear from this novel that Coe holds a great deal of affection for the film, a feeling reflected perhaps in Calista’s thoughts on Fedora as she looks back from the viewpoint of middle age.

So it’s a film I struggle to see clearly. But when I do see it clearly, it remains, for me, a thing of great beauty. Great beauty and determination. Billy’s urge to create, to keep on giving something to the world – a fundamentally generous impulse – had been as strong as ever when he made it. And, as I had tried to convince him at the time, the film shows such compassion for its characters: for its ageing characters, in particular – be they men or women – struggling to find a role for themselves in a world which is interested only in youth and novelty. (p. 240)

At the heart of the novel are themes of ageing, transition and a heartfelt longing for times past – some of which are echoed in Fedora itself which features Marth Keller as an ageing movie star at the end of her fame.

What Coe does so well here is to convey a portrait of Wilder in the twilight of his career, a man who clearly feels a deep sense of disappointment that the film world has moved on, no longer valuing the style of work he wants to create. It is also a love letter to old Hollywood, to values of elegance, beauty, romance and soul – the kind of qualities embodied in Wilder’s films. There is even a sort of homage to Wilder and Iz’s scripts, as a vignette from Billy’s past is presented as a mini screenplay within the book. It’s a poignant, evocative piece, perfectly capturing the cultural milieu in which Billy circulated in the early ‘30s.

A CAPTION reads: ‘BERLIN, 1933’.

The camera takes in the whole interior of the café – waiters as in tuxedos weaving their way between busy tables, old guys, playing chess, businessmen reading newspapers, friends exchanging gossip and young couples lost in each other’s company – before zooming in on one table near the window, where a boisterous group of young men are engaged in a loud discussion. The air is clouded with cigarette smoke and the steam from innumerable coffee cups. (p. 127)

You’ve probably gathered this by now, but if not – I loved this novel. There is so much warmth and generosity here, qualities that seem lacking in many aspects of our external world right now. It’s also a real treat for fans of Billy Wilder, with nods to some of his other movies such as Sunset Boulevard and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Finally, it offers an insight into the world of a creative genius, reminding us of the lasting value of art, irrespective of the fads and fashions of the day. A wonderful book, very highly recommended indeed.

Mr Wilder and Me is published by Viking, Penguin Random House; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

Happiness, As Such by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Minna Zallman Proctor)

Last August, for Women in Translation Month, I read Voices in the Evening (1961), an episodic, vignette-style novel by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. It’s one four books by this writer recently reissued by the publishing arm of Daunt Books (you can find more details here). While Happiness, As Such is a later novel than Voices, it explores similar themes – centred as it is on the lives and loves of the members of an Italian family in the mid-20th century. If anything, I think it’s an even stronger (better integrated?) work than Voices. Nevertheless, both books are well worth checking out, especially if you’re interested in the messy business of families and the insights into humanity novels can offer us.

Set in the early 1970s, Happiness, As Such takes the form of a series of letters interspersed with brief passages of exposition written in the third person. Central to the novel is Michele, the grown-up son of an Italian family, his parents having separated some years earlier. Michele – who appears to have been actively involved in politics – has fled to England leaving several loose ends in his wake. His mother, Adriana, writes letters to her son, berating him for various things – not least the fact that his former lover, Mara Martorelli, has turned up with a son who may or may not be his. The default tone of these letters is passive-aggressive, highlighting Adriana’s disenchantment with her former husband as well as her son.

If this Martorelli baby is yours, what will you do, you don’t know how to do anything. You didn’t finish school did you. I don’t think your paintings of owls and falling-down buildings are that good. Your father says they are and that I don’t understand painting. They look to me like the paintings your father did when he was young, but not as good. I don’t know. Please tell me what I should say to this Martorelli and if I need to send her money. She hasn’t asked but I’m sure that’s what she wants. (pp. 8–9)

Mara for her part is a bit of a mess – careless, unreliable and promiscuous, she flits from one place to another, unable to settle or establish any degree of stability.

When Michele needs to call in various favours, he writes to Angelica, his long-suffering sister and closest confidante within the family. At various points in the narrative, there are books to be sent, papers to be procured and guns to be disposed of – the later adding to the possibility that Michele’s disappearance may well have been politically motivated.

Also in the mix is Osvaldo, Michele’s close friend and possibly lover – there several reflections on the ambiguity surrounding Osvaldo’s sexuality throughout the book. Through his relationship with Michele, Osvaldo is drawn into the extended family, supporting Mara by finding her a job and a place to live, neither of which last very long due to Mara’s inherent fickleness and instability. Furthermore, Osvaldo proves himself to be a strange kind of comfort for Adriana when her former husband dies, particularly as Michele fails to return home for his father’s funeral.

Like Voices, Happiness, As Such can be though of as a novel of tensions – in this case between former lovers and the different generations of an extended family. On the surface, Ginzburg’s prose seems unadorned and straightforward, but this apparent simplicity belies the complexity of emotions running underneath. Evasion, resentment, grief, spitefulness, confession and compassion all come together to form a richly textured, multi-faceted narrative. Moreover, the nature of the largely epistolary form means that many of the novel’s key incidents and conversations take place outside of the letters, requiring us to read between the lines of the various missives to piece together a more nuanced picture of the family dynamics.

While Ginzburg’s tone is often very amusing – there is a wonderfully rich vein of wry humour running through the book – the impression we are left with is one of palpable melancholy. There is a sense that we are all fragile and at risk of finding ourselves stuck in a form of stasis, unable to break free without assistance.

[Letter from Angelical to Michele:] Your friend Mara has left Colarosa. She wrote to me from Novi Ligure where she is staying with her cousins’ maid. She’s not doing well, she doesn’t have anywhere to live, and has nothing to call her own, except for a black kimono with sunflower embroidery, a fox-fur coat and a baby. But I feel like all of us are vulnerable to the gentle art of ending up in terrible situations that are unresolvable and impossible to move out of by going either forward or back. (p. 153)

At the heart of the book are various reflections on happiness, particularly the idea that we may not be cognisant of this feeling as and when it is happening to us. Happiness is often fleeting and best appreciated in retrospect when we can look back on events from a distance. In other words, ‘we rarely recognise the happy moments while we’re living them. We usually only recognise them with the distance of time.’

In creating Happiness, As Such, Ginzburg has crafted a beautiful, wryly humorous, deeply melancholy novel of family relationships. Her characters are complex, flawed and nuanced – qualities that make them feel real and humane as they navigate the difficulties of family life. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates something of the book’s biting humour as Adriana passes judgement on her sisters-in-law, Mathilde and Cecilia, following the death of their brother, Michele’s father.

[Letter from Adriana to Michele:] Your father left you a series of paintings, the ones he did between 1945 in 1955, and the Via San Sebastianello house, and the tower. I get the impression your sisters are going to come out of this with much less than you. They’ll get those properties near Spoleto, many of which have been sold off, but there are some left. Matilde and Cecilia are going to get a piece of furniture, that baroque, Piedmontese credenza. Matilde immediately observed that Cecilia gets the better end of that deal because Matilde wouldn’t know what to do with a credenza. Can you just imagine. What joy will half-blind, decrepit Cecilia get from a credenza? (pp. 94–95)

My thanks to the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).