Category Archives: Dale Celia

Books of the Year, 2022 – my favourite ‘older’ books from a year of reading

This year, I’m spreading my 2022 reading highlights across two posts. The first piece, on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, is here, while this second piece puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books I read this year, including reissues of titles first published in the 20th century.

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

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977, at the height of Pym’s well-documented renaissance, Quartet in Autumn is a quietly poignant novel of loneliness, ageing and the passing of time – how sometimes we can feel left behind as the world changes around us. Now that I’ve read it twice, I think it might be my favourite Pym! The story follows four work colleagues in their sixties as they deal with retirement from their roles as clerical workers in a London office. While that might not sound terribly exciting as a premise, Pym brings some lovely touches of gentle humour to this bittersweet gem, showing us that life can still offer new possibilities in the autumn of our years.

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam

This is a really lovely book, a thoroughly engaging coming-of-age story in the style of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – maybe with a hint of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle in the mix for good measure. Set in a coastal town in North Yorkshire in the early years of the Second World War, Verona is narrated by Jessica Vye, a precocious schoolgirl with an utterly captivating voice. As the novel unfolds, we follow Jessica as she tries to navigate her way through adolescence, negotiating various formative experiences along the way. What Gardam does so well here is to capture the conflicting emotions of being a teen, from the surety of knowing one’s own mind to the agony of being misunderstood and not fitting in.

Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

A quietly devastating story of three generations of women, confined and subsumed by the men who surround them. There are similarities with Anita Brookner’s novels here – both thematically and stylistically – as Carvalho goes deep into the inner lives of her female protagonists, conveying them unflinchingly for the reader to see. The story centres on Dora Rosário – a widow we follow over the course of ten years – while also touching on her forthright mother-in-law, Ana, and her progressive daughter, Lisa. Carvalho explores these women in depth, showing us how they have been failed by the men who supposedly love them, with betrayal, duplicity, selfishness and abdication of responsibility all playing their respective parts.

Other People’s Worlds by William Trevor

As a writer, William Trevor has an innate ability to convey the tragedies of our lives, how individuals can be worn down by their fates and circumstances. It’s a quality that’s very much in evidence here in this tale of deception, collateral damage and a questioning of faith. The novel revolves around Francis Tyte, a thirty-something bit-part actor who sweeps into other people’s lives, leaving wreckage in his wake. As the story opens, Francis is preparing to marry Julia, a forty-seven-year-old woman who lives with her widowed mother, Mrs Anstey, in their Gloucestershire home. Mrs Anstey has some nagging doubts about Francis, which she tries to voice to her grown-up grandchildren to little avail. But with preparations for the wedding well underway, Francis’s past begins to close in on him, and the story soon unravels from there. Fans of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye might well enjoy this one!

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

I loved this exquisitely written novel about the slow, stealthy disintegration of a marriage. It’s a masterclass in precision and understatement, all the more impressive for its subtlety and refusal to submit to melodrama. Central to the story are the Gresham family – fifty-two-year-old Evelyn Gresham, a successful barrister of the highest rank, his beautiful wife, Imogen, and the couple’s ten-year-old son, Gavin. Imogen is a sensitive, compassionate young woman at haert, but efficient management and organisation are not her strongest suits. By contrast, Blanche Silcox – the Greshams’ nearest neighbour – is the polar opposite of Imogen. At fifty, Blanche is the living embodiment of the home counties ‘country type’, complete with her dowdy tweeds and forbidding hats. The real strength of this novel lies in the precision and clarity Jenkins brings to her portrayal of Imogen, particularly the lack of agency she feels when faced with Blanche as a competitor for Evelyn’s heart. Another quietly devastating book with the power to endure.

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

There are hints of Comyns’ own troubled childhood in The Vet’s Daughter, a striking coming-of-age novel with a dark, highly distinctive flavour. The story is narrated by Alice Rowlands, the titular vet’s daughter, who lives in south London with her domineering father, Euan, and her sickly mother. Euan Rowlands is a violent man, essentially bullying Alice and her mother with his sudden outbursts and demands. Alice, on the other hand, is fully alive to the world around her, sensing the danger that her father duly presents. She is an imaginative girl at heart, a quality that comes through in her childlike tone of voice. All the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel are here: an enchanting, innocent child caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, often with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact tone of voice that belies the horrors within. A magical novel by a highly imaginative writer.

The Trouble with Happiness by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

These short stories – many of which are superb – explore the suffocating nature of family life predominantly from the female perspective, the overwhelming sense of loneliness and anxiety that many women (and children) feel due to various constraints. Here we see petty jealousies, unfulfilled desires, deliberate cruelties and the sudden realisation of deceit – all brilliantly conveyed with insight and sensitivity. What Ditlevsen does so well in this collection is to convey the sadness and pain many women and children experience at the hands of their families. Her characters have rich inner lives, irrespective of the restrictions placed on them by society and those closer to home. The writing is superb throughout, demonstrating the author’s skills with language and a flair for striking one-liners with a melancholy note.

Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard

First published in 1999, when Elizabeth Jane Howard was nearing the twilight of her career, Falling was inspired by real-life events. When Howard was in her seventies, she fell for the charms of a con man – a seemingly attentive man who took advantage of the fact that she was unattached and vulnerable yet receptive to admiration. At first, Howard was flattered by the attention, but the affair proved devastating when her lover’s true intentions became clear. Having been badly bruised by these events, she channelled her experiences into Falling, a fictionalised version of the story that feels horribly real. It’s an excellent novel – engrossing, chilling and beautifully written, like a slow-burn thriller in the Patricia Highsmith vein.

All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Angus Davidson)

This rich, multilayered narrative follows two very different neighbouring Italian families during the Second World War, charting the various challenges this uncertainty presents. Ginzburg has written a truly remarkable novel here, a story of ordinary people living through extraordinary times, beautifully told with a warmth and generosity of spirit that reflects the Italian character. There are some lovely touches of dry humour throughout as the author maintains a wry sense of detachment from life’s absurdities, despite the gravity of events. It’s also clearly a novel informed by personal experiences and memories, written by a woman who lived through the turmoil of a country at war – a point that adds a genuine sense of poignancy and authenticity to the story as it unfolds.

A Helping Hand by Celia Dale

There is something deeply unnerving about a crime novel featuring an ordinary domestic setting – the type of story where sinister activities take place behind the veil of net curtains in the privacy of the protagonist’s home. The English writer Celia Dale was clearly a master of this genre, especially if her 1966 novel A Helping Hand is anything to go by. It’s an icily compelling tale of greed and deception, stealthily executed amidst carefully orchestrated conversations and endless cups of tea. In essence, the plot revolves around an outwardly respectable middle-aged couple, Maisie and Josh Evans, who take under their wing an elderly lady named Mrs Fingal. At first sight, the Evanses seem ideally placed to take care of Mrs Fingal – Maisie is a former nurse, and Josh seems equally attentive – but as the story gets going, the reader soon realises that something very underhand is afoot…

Latecomers by Anita Brookner

The English writer and art historian Anita Brookner is well known for her exquisitely-crafted novels of loneliness and isolation, typically featuring unmarried women living quiet, unfulfilling lives while waiting for their married lovers to make fleeting appearances. Latecomers – Brookner’s eighth – is somewhat different from the norm as it features two male protagonists, Hartmann and Fibich, who came to England as Jewish refugees via the Kindertransport evacuation in WW2. While the adult Hartman is optimistic, content, and at ease with his life, Fibich is anxious, melancholy and self-effacing – constantly burdened by the weight of history. Essentially, the novel follows these two men over their adult lives, tracing this unwavering friendship through their business partnership, respective marriages and the growth of their children, all set against the backdrop of the spectre of war. It’s a remarkably moving book, right up there with Brooker’s best.

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó (tr. George Szirtes)

Set in Hungary in the early 1960s, Iza’s Ballad is a heartbreaking portrayal of the emotional gulf between a mother and her daughter, two women with radically different outlooks on life. When her father dies, Iza decides to bring her elderly mother, Ettie, to live with her in Budapest. While Ettie is grateful to her daughter for this gesture, she struggles to adapt to modern life in the city, especially without her familiar possessions and the memories they represent. It’s a novel of many contrasts; the chasm between the different generations; the traditional vs the new; the rural vs the urban; and the generous vs the self-centred. Szabó digs deep into the damage we inflict on those closest to us – often unintentionally but inhumanely nonetheless.

So, that’s it for my favourite books from a year of reading. Do let me know your thoughts on my choices – I’d love to hear your views.

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead – may it be filled with lots of excellent books, old and new!

A Helping Hand by Celia Dale

There is something deeply unnerving about a crime novel featuring an ordinary domestic setting – the type of story where sinister activities take place behind the veil of net curtains in the privacy of the protagonist’s home. The English writer and book reviewer Celia Dale was clearly a master of this genre, certainly if her 1966 novel A Helping Hand is anything to go by. It’s an icily compelling tale of greed and deception, stealthily executed amidst carefully orchestrated conversations and endless cups of tea. An absolute shoo-in for my end-of-year highlights, I devoured this brilliant, terrifying novel in my eagerness to reach the end.

Central to the novel are former nurse Maisie Evans and her husband Josh, a middle-aged couple living quiet lives in the heart of suburbia. As the story gets underway, we find the Evanses on holiday in Italy, ostensibly as a bit of a break following the death of Auntie Flo, whom the couple had been looking after in their home before the old lady’s death. With Maisie’s background in nursing, the couple like to offer ‘a helping hand’ here and there, acting as caretakers to people in need, especially those with no relatives or other support.

During their break, Maisie and Josh attach themselves to another pair of British holidaymakers – the elderly widow Cynthia Fingal and her rather selfish niece, Lena. Right from the very start, Dale hints at the Evanses’ true motivations for befriending these fellow Brits, with Maisie targeting Lena while Josh works his magic on Mrs F. With her beloved husband, Stanley, long deceased, Mrs Fingal has missed the little attentions of a male companion – a role that Josh is only too willing to pick up. So, while Maisie accompanies Lena on various shopping trips around town, Josh begins to charm Mrs Fingal, flattering her with the attentiveness and conversation she is eager to lap up.

As Maisie soon discovers, Lena feels she has been saddled with taking care of her aunt – a burden she so clearly resents as it prevents her from living a more exciting life. In truth, Lena is selfish, irritable and impatient – qualities that Maisie soon turns to her own advantage by listening to Lena’s woes. Moreover, Mrs Fingal is equally unhappy with Lena, viewing her as common, self-centred, and hard – a perception she duly shares with Josh.

‘…I can’t talk like this to Lena. She shuts me up. She can’t see outside herself, you see. And she’s common. There’s never any conversation, she hasn’t the patience to listen to anyone but herself.’ (p. 55)

One of the things Dale does so well here is to let the reader in on what the Evanses are up to, slowly but surely as the narrative unfolds. For instance, we see them sizing up Mrs Fingal’s situation, working out how much the old lady might be worth and establishing whether there are any other living relatives besides Lena. It really is quite calculated and cold…

By the end of the holiday, a plan is in place for Mrs Fingal to go and live with the Evanses – an arrangement that seems to suit everyone concerned. After all, with Maisie’s training in nursing, the Evanses are perfectly placed to accommodate Mrs F in their spare room – the one previously occupied by ‘Auntie’ Flo. Lena, for her part, is delighted to have an opportunity to offload her aunt onto someone else, leaving her free to focus on her work and entertaining men, while Mrs F can look forward to mild flirtations with Josh and some much-need company to stave off her loneliness. It’s the perfect solution all round, or so it appears on the surface…

At first, all is sweetness and light at the Evanses following Mrs Fingal’s arrival; but slowly and stealthily, the tone beings to change. In essence, Maisie treats the old lady like a child, confining her to bed for long periods and scolding her for the little accidents and spillages that occur.

[Mrs Fingal:] ‘Not go out? Oh, but I must go out.’

[Maisie:] ‘What d’you have to go out for? Oh, look what you’ve done, spilled egg on my nice clean tray cloth!’

‘Oh, surely not? I mean…’

‘And on the sheet too. You are a mucky pup and no mistake. We’ll have to give you a bib.’ (p. 96)

Gradually we release the horror of what’s unfolding here. By prescribing extensive periods of bed rest for Mrs Fingal, Maisie is deliberately pursuing a plan to weaken the old lady’s muscles, whittling away her independence in the process. Moreover, Maisie does everything in her power to carefully discourage any contact between Lena and Mrs Fingal, citing the desire for stability as a cover for her actions. After all, the Evanses don’t want Lena getting a whiff of what’s actually happening back at the house in case she disturbs things. Better to leave Auntie Cynthia alone to avoid upsetting her routine…

[Lena:] ‘We haven’t talked much about Auntie.’

[Maisie:] ‘There’s not much to say. You get on with your life and leave the worrying to me – when there is any.’

‘D’you think I ought to come over?’

‘Frankly, dear, I don’t. It would only unsettle her. She’s settled into our little home so well that I think it’s really only kind to leave her to her own little ways and routines. You know what old folk are, they get used to things being just as they like them, just as they’re used to. She’s as happy as a sandboy with me and Josh knowing just what she likes, and anything coming in new from the outside might only upset her again.’ (p. 118)

While Maisie proceeds to wear down Mrs Fingal by restricting her movements, Josh can be equally sinister in his own chilling way, neglecting his charge for other, more interesting activities. As such, Mrs Fingal is left feeling lonely and confused, declining mentally and physically under the Evanses’ ‘care’.  

[Mrs F:] ‘Is it night-time?’

[Josh:] ‘No, it’s not long gone five. I’ll bring you your tea in a minute.’

I thought I’d had my tea. When you didn’t come, I thought it must be night but then I heard voices and I thought it was strangers…’

‘You think a lot, don’t you…’ (pp. 148–149)

Just as the Evanses’ plan is ticking along nicely, another player comes into the mix in the shape of Graziella – a sweet-natured Italian waitress from their holiday – in need of a place to stay. While Maisie is somewhat reluctant to have an outsider in the house, potentially disrupting their treatment of Mrs F, Josh is more willing, particularly given the girl’s attractiveness. (In truth, Josh has a hideously lecherous side to his personality, an unsavoury edge that Dale gradually reveals through the book.)

As Graziella bonds with Mrs Fingal, encouraging the old lady to build up her strength by walking again, she senses that something is decidedly off. While the Evanses may be in charge of Mrs Fingal’s wellbeing, they don’t seem to care for her, not in the way Italian families would…

‘It’s just a feeling. They take care of her, there’s no one else, poor thing. But I don’t know why they do it. They seem kind, they take care of her – but they don’t care for her.’ (p. 214)

A Helping Hand is a remarkably compelling slice of suburban horror, ideal for fans of Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson – it really is that good. What Dale does so well here is to subtly reveal to the reader the true malice behind the Evanses’ actions. A little hint dropped here, a calculated word or two there – it’s all very cleverly done. As the narrative unfolds, the reader can clearly see how the tone of Maisie’s behaviour towards Mrs Fingal changes over time, from gentle chivvying and chiding to downright bullying and neglect. And yet, everything is so carefully orchestrated to seem caring in front of others – this is where the skill really comes in.

In summary, then, an icy, utterly terrifying domestic noir that will chill you to the bone. All the more haunting for its grounding in apparent normality – the flat, characterless feel of the suburban setting is brilliantly evoked.

A Helping Hand is published by Daunt Books. My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.