Category Archives: Gardam Jane

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 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. I read it at the crossover point between 2021 and 2022, making it a delightful way to start the new year with an author I’ve long wanted to try.

First published in 1971, A Long Way from Verona was Jane Gardam’s debut novel – a book the author originally intended for children. But like the Dodie Smith, Verona can be enjoyed just as much, if not more, by adults – partly for the quality of the writing and partly for the sheer entertainment value.

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.

I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine. I will make this clear at once because I have noticed that if things seep out slowly through a book the reader is apt to feel let down or tricked in some way when he eventually gets the point. (p. 3)

When Jessica is nine, the author Arthur Hanger comes to her school to give a talk on how to become a writer, should any of the pupils be harbouring such ambitions. Jessica, who has been writing things down for as long as she can remember, is inspired by the session – so much so that she thrusts all of her writings at Mr Hanger, just as his train is leaving the station. Mr Hanger agrees to read them, and several months later he comes good on his word, returning the texts to Jessica with an encouraging note:

JESSICA VYE YOU ARE A WRITER
BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT! (p. 9)

By this point, it is clear to the reader that Jessica is a born writer. Possibly a semi-fictionalised version of Gardam herself, she is bright, knowing and outspoken – a marvellously forthright companion who feels fully-formed on the page.

Most of the novel takes place when Jessica is in the early years of adolescence, between twelve and thirteen. Every day, she commutes by train from her home in Cleveland Sands to the girls’ school in Cleveland Spa, where she must face various challenges. With her uncanny talent for reading people’s minds and her inability to keep quiet (even when it will land her in trouble), Jessica is not terribly popular with the other pupils – or with the teachers, for that matter. Several members of staff feel she is getting above herself and needs to be taught a lesson, while others are a little more sympathetic to the girl, especially given her talents.

Jessica has a small coterie of friends – Florence Bone, Helen Bell, and the marvellously named Cissie Comberbach – all of whom are delightfully sketched by Gardam, who excels in capturing their body language and banter. In a hilarious early scene, Jessica insists on the girls taking a trip to the local tea room to mark the end of term. The trouble is, Elsie Meeny’s tea shop is virtually deserted – a sleepy, down-at-heel establishment somewhat diminished by the war.

‘They think I’m crazy at home,’ Helen said. ‘I’ve told them to keep my tea hot.’

‘But this is your tea. Proper tea. Little eclairs and things. Afternoon tea.’

‘Where?’ asked Helen.

‘Well, in a minute,’ I said.

‘Are you crazy?’ Cissie Comberbach said (she hardly ever spoke). ‘There’s a war on.’

‘It’s not been on that long. If there’s still tea shops there’s still teas. You just don’t know round here anything about it. It used to be marvellous in places like this, people in coloured hats eating ices, and flowers hanging and lovely fat chocolate biscuits and the sun!’ Helen turned her face away and picked her gas mask up and swung it about as if she would soon be going, and I suddenly felt absolutely fed up with her. (pp. 15–16)

The girls do eventually get their ‘shilling tea’, but it’s something of a disappointment – especially compared to the version served to the tea shop’s regular customer, the rather eccentric Mrs Hopkins.

‘Look at her tea,’ Helen said. ‘Crippen, just look at her tea.’

On the tray were little cress sandwiches and egg ones – even egg ones – three slices of fresh bread and butter, thin and curled like cornflakes, quite fresh, and a chocolate eclair in pale green paper. There was a tiny glass dish with blackcurrant jam in it. We sat and we looked. We looked and we looked and we went on looking. (p. 20)

As the novel unfolds, we follow Jessica as she tries to navigate her way through adolescence, negotiating various formative experiences along the way. She attends a frightful party hosted by terrible snobs – an event only redeemed by the presence of a dreamy boy, Christian Fanshawe, who becomes her first crush. During a trip to Shields East, Christian and Jessica get caught in an air raid, narrowly escaping a bomb that wipes out a whole street. It’s an incident that throws them into shock, even if Jessica doesn’t realise it at the time, such is her determination to carry on as normal. There’s also a sinister encounter with a disturbed man in the woods – an Italian who proceeds to leer at Jessica when she chastises him for destroying the dahlias. Later she discovers that the man is an escaped prisoner, a dangerous ‘maniac’ on the run from a nearby farm.

What Gardam does so well here is to capture the conflicting emotions of adolescence, from the surety of knowing one’s own mind to the agony of being misunderstood and not fitting in. We see everything through Jessica’s eyes, sharing her passion and determination to succeed alongside the inevitable moments of despondency and pain as she tries to express herself creatively. Parts of the novel are conveyed through the letters that Jessica writes to Florence Bone, her closest friend and confidante from school – messages that are at once both painfully honest and highly amusing, all expressed in her distinctive, idiosyncratic style.  

The secondary characters are wonderful too, from Jessica’s father, a schoolmaster-turned-parson who proves popular with parishioners, to her mother, a fish-out-of-water whose disorganised nature is apparent to all. Also of note is the elderly Miss Philemon, one of the few teachers who seems to understand Jessica, treating her with a combination of kindness, maturity and empathy.

This is a warm, funny, thoroughly enjoyable novel that captures the trials of adolescence so engagingly. The mundanity and routines of a small-town school are perfectly evoked – a life of shoe bags, pointless essays, order marks for poor conduct, and bland, unidentifiable school dinners. Yet despite the sense of loss, ‘making do’ and awkwardness that underscores Jessica’s adolescent life, the novel ends on a positive note with the recognition of her writing talents. It’s a fitting outcome for Gardam’s story, a validation of Jessica’s abilities – a way of channelling her experiences into writing and creativity.

A Long Way from Verona is published by Abacus; personal copy.