Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality by John le Carré

Something a little different from me today. Less a review as such, more a sequence of observations on the early George Smiley novels from John le Carré. I’ve been reading (and in some cases re-reading) them recently, broadly in chronological order, although I’ve skipped The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a classic Cold War spy thriller which I read back in 2018.

For those of you unfamiliar with le Carré’s work, George Smiley is a career intelligence officer within the British overseas intelligence agency, commonly known as ‘the Circus’ due to its base in London’s Cambridge Circus. His first appearance comes in Call for the Dead (1961), a very enjoyable novella that serves as a good introduction to Smiley and certain elements of his backstory – in particular, the troublesome nature of his relationship with flighty ex-wife, Ann.

Following a routine security check by Smiley, Foreign Office civil servant, Samuel Fennan, apparently commits suicide, triggering a meeting between Smiley and Maston, the Circus’s head. All too soon, Smiley realises he is being set up to take the blame for Fennan’s death, something he finds both troubling and suspicious, particularly as his interview with the civil servant had ended quite amicably.

The arrival of a letter from Fennan to Smiley, posted shortly before the man’s death, adds to the mystery, suggesting that Fennan had something pressing to pass on to Smiley following their initial meeting. When Smiley is warned off the case by Maston, he begins his own investigation into Fennan’s network, bringing him into contact with the East Germans and their agents.

Le Carré clearly has things to say here about the intelligence agencies, the way they use people as pawns on a chessboard, illustrating a lack of humanity at the heart of the system. In this scene, Fennan’s widow is expressing her views to Smiley, not holding back in her perceptions of the institution.

The mind becomes separated from the body; it thinks without reality, rules a paper kingdom and devises without emotion the ruin of its paper victims. But sometimes the division between your world and ours is incomplete; the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that’s a terrible moment, isn’t it? The names have families as well as records, and human motives to explain the sad little dossiers and their make-believe sins. (pp. 20-21, Call for the Dead)

The third book in the series, The Looking Glass War is particularly strong on this theme – the way that agents can end up as collateral, ultimately viewed as expendable in the cut-and-thrust of the game.

The descriptive passages are excellent, something I had completely forgotten about until I went back to the first book. Moreover, there are some marvellous touches of humour in le Carré’s writing, another aspect of his craft that had temporarily slipped my mind.

The Fountain Café (Proprietor Miss Gloria Adam) was all Tudor and horse brasses and local honey at sixpence more than anywhere else. Miss Adam herself dispensed the nastiest coffee south of Manchester and spoke of her customers as ‘My Friends’. Miss Adam did not do business with friends, but simply robbed them, which somehow added to the illusion of genteel amateurism which Miss Adam was so anxious to preserve. (p. 26, Call for the Dead)

While Call for the Dead might not be le Carré’s most polished novel, it is still highly compelling and convincing. A well-crafted literary spy novel with some memorable moments of tension along the way. Plus, it’s a great introduction to Smiley with his quiet, perceptive disposition and expensive yet ill-fitting clothes! As something of a segue into the second novel in the series, here’s a description of the man himself, taken from a passage near the beginning of book two.

‘Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for. Had a very nasty war. Very nasty indeed.’

Well, he looked like a frog, right enough. Short and stubby, round spectacles with thick lenses that made his eyes big. And his clothes were odd. Expensive, mind, you could see that. But his jacket seemed to drape where there wasn’t any room for drape. What did surprise Rigby was his shyness. Rigby had expected someone a little brash, a little too smooth for Carne, whereas Smiley had an earnest formality which appealed to Rigby’s conservative taste. (p. 28, A Murder of Quality)

A Murder of Quality (1962) is somewhat atypical in style for a le Carré. In short, it is a murder mystery as opposed to a spy novel, the type of detective story that wouldn’t be entirely out of place amongst the British Library Crime Classics. The book can also be viewed as a barbed commentary on the English class system – in particular public boarding schools with their cruelty and elitist attitudes.

As the novel opens, Smiley is contacted by a former colleague, Ailsa Brimley (aka Brim), who now runs a small journal, The Christian Voice. Ailsa is worried about a letter she has received from a loyal subscriber, Stella Rode, in which Rode claims that her husband intends to kill her. The fact that the Rode family have supported the Voice for several years only adds to Ailsa’s feelings of responsibility towards Stella. Consequently, Ailsa asks Smiley to investigate what’s behind the letter before she alerts the police.

When Smiley contacts Carne, the public school where Stella’s husband works, he discovers that the murder has already been committed. All the more reason for Smiley to pay a visit to the school to uncover the events surrounding Stella’s death…

What le Carré captures so brilliantly here is the snobbishness that exists within the school environment, the internal politics between the masters and, perhaps more tellingly, between their wives. It seems that Stella Rode did not conform to Carne’s traditional conventions and high standards. In short, she had lowered the tone with her doyleys and china ducks, much to Shane Hecht’s dismay.

‘…Stella Rode was such a nice person, I always thought…and so unusual. She did such clever things with the same dress…But she had such curious friends. All for Hans the woodcutter and Pedro the fisherman, if you know what I mean.’

‘What is she popular at Carne?’

Shane Hecht laughed gently: ‘No one is popular at Carne…but she wasn’t easy to like…She would wear black crêpe on Sundays…Forgive me, but do the lower classes always do that?’ (p. 93, A Murder of Quality)

There is some nice development of Smiley’s character in this book, with the retired intelligence office emerging as a man with a conscience, someone who can find it difficult to reconcile the means with the end. He also knows the value of being able to assimilate, to blend into the background without being noticed. His quiet, perceptive manner coupled with an innate insight into human nature and motivation makes him an excellent spy – a keen observer of people, alert to signs of danger and duplicity. His understated investigative style is a pleasure to see in action, laying some of the groundwork for the subsequent novels.

This is a very well-written, satisfying mystery with just enough intrigue to keep the reader interested – needless to say, there is more to the case than meets the eye. Moreover, it’s a darkly humorous book – worth reading for the satirical sideswipes at the upper classes, particularly the public-school set.

The George Smiley novels are published by Penguin; personal copies.

Potterism by Rose Macaulay

There has been something of a revival of interest in Rose Macaulay’s work in recent years. Firstly, the Virago reissues of Crewe Train (1926) and The World My Wilderness (1950) in Feb 2018; then, last summer, the British Library’s publication of Dangerous Ages (1921) a novel focusing on women at various stages of the lifecycle; and last but not least, the release of two Macaulay titles by Handheld Press in November 2020.

Potterism (1920) is one of the two Handheld Press reissues, beautifully produced with a stylish cover design – very much in line with the book’s early 20th-century setting. In essence, the novel is a satire, one that allows the author to cast a critical eye over many subjects including socialism, spiritualism, religion, the ethics of war and, perhaps most importantly, the powerful nature of the newspaper industry.

Central to the novel are the Potter family, whose lives and experiences are explored in the years immediately following the First World War. Heading up the household is Percy Potter, the influential newspaper magnate and the chief proponent of ‘Potterism’ – a term coined by its opponents to describe the type of communications or ‘spin’ founded on fear, suspicion and the protection of specific interests. The parallels with our current media culture are both immediate and alarming.

They’re up against what we agreed to call Potterism – the Potterism, that is, of second-rate sentimentalism and cheap short-cuts and mediocrity; they stand for brain and clear thinking against muddle and cant; but they’re fighting it with Potterite weapons – self-interest, following things for what they bring them rather than for the things in themselves. (p. 57)

Percy and his wife Leila – a romantic novelist with an interest in spiritualism – have four children, three of whom play important roles in the novel. The eldest daughter, Clare, is a fairly conventional young woman, sharing something of her mother’s outlook and romanticism. Her affection for Oliver Hobart – who works for one of Percy’s newspapers, the Daily Haste – plays a key role in the novel’s narrative.

The twins, Johnny and Jane Potter, are bright young things – ambitious, greedy and rather competitive, especially with one another. Complete with their Oxford educations and socialist leanings, the twins are heavily involved in the anti-Potterite movement, a faction that aims to fight against the views being touted by the Potter press – and it is through this association that they come into contact with Arthur Gideon, the leader of a rival newspaper, the Weekly Fact.

Macaulay uses a very interesting structure to convey her story to the reader. The novel is bookended by two sections ‘told by RM’, presumably the author herself; while the intervening parts are given over to Gideon, Leila, and a couple of other characters who are able to observe various developments from the sidelines. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gideon is especially insightful on the language politicians and journalists use to encourage particular sentiments amongst their audiences, drawing on feelings on nationalism and patriotism to suit the messages they wish to convey.

What one specially resented was the way the men who had been killed, poor devils, were exploited by the makers of speeches and the writers of articles. First, they’d perhaps be called ‘the fallen’, instead of ‘the killed’ (it’s a queer thing how ‘fallen’ in the masculine means killed in the war, and in the feminine given over to a particular kind of vice), and then the audience, or the readers, would be told that they died for democracy, or a cleaner world, when very likely many of them hated the first and never gave an hour’s thought to the second. (p. 58)

The character of Lelia – Percy Potter’s silly yet influential wife – enables Macaulay to draw attention to the heinous nature of anti-Semitic views, beliefs that were not uncommon in this country at the time. Arthur Gideon is a Jew of Russian descent, his grandparents having perished in the Odessa pogrom some years earlier – and it is in Leila’s views of Mr Gideon and his heritage that these prejudices come out. While not as damaging as Percy and his newspaper empire, Leila has her own sphere of influence through her cheap novels – a situation that has contributed to her inability to distinguish fiction from fact.

As the narrative unfolds, there are some very interesting developments involving Jane, Gideon, Oliver and Clare. A shocking death occurs, the circumstances of which give rise to suspicion, gossip and unhelpful conjecture. For a while, these characters find themselves caught up in a rather sinister mystery – a situation that is only fuelled by the sensationalist Potter press. What Macaulay does so well here is to allow various characters – both reliable and unreliable – to give their individual perspectives on these events, thereby enabling the reader to construct the picture as they go along.

In summary, Potterism is a fascinating piece of writing with much to say on topics that remain all too relevant today. We have seen how certain elements of the popular/tabloid media helped to whip up jingoistic sentiments amongst the British public during the recent Brexit campaign. The damaging nature of fake news and inflammatory political ‘spin’ are all too familiar to us from our current communications culture. In crafting Potterism, Macaulay has written a timely and rather prescient commentary that continues to resonate one hundred years on.

The story goes that when anyone told old Pinkerton [aka Percy Potter] he was wrong about something, he would point to his vast circulation, using it as an argument that he couldn’t be mistaken. If you still pressed and proved your point, he would again refer to his circulation, but using it this time as an indication of how little it mattered whether his facts were right or wrong. Someone once said to him curiously, ‘Don’t you care that you are misleading so many millions?’ To which he replied, in his dry little voice, ‘I don’t lead, or mislead, the millions. They lead me.’ (p. 76)

Potterism is published by Handheld Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes (tr. Jamie Lee Searle)

First published in German in 2018, Twelve Nights is the first work by the Swiss writer Urs Faes to be translated into English. It’s a beautiful, atmospheric novella set in the midst of the Black Forest during the dark, eerie period between Christmas and Twelfth Night. A lovely wintry read, exquisitely produced by Harvill Secker as part of their ‘Leopard’ series of translated literature. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.)

As the book opens, Manfred is trekking through the snow, returning to the village of his youth after an absence of forty years. A longstanding feud exists between Manfred and his younger brother, Sebastian, who effectively inherited the family farm back then, despite his lack of aptitude or training for the role.

At the time, Manfred felt betrayed by his parents’ and brother’s actions, prompting a dreadful act of revenge which still haunts him to this day. Also relevant here is Minna, the love of Manfred’s life, who went on to marry Sebastian as a consequence of this sequence of events. Minna is no longer alive; but once again, her presence hangs heavy over Manfred as he seeks some kind of redemption – ideally a reconciliation – with his brother.

There is a timeless feel to this haunting, dreamlike novel that draws on elements of folklore and superstition to augment the shadowy atmosphere. The period between Christmas and Epiphany is rumoured to be one of peril, where dark forces and spectral figures have the potential to usher in disaster. As Manfred makes his way across the landscape, he is reminded of his mother and her time-honoured rituals for banishing evil spirits.

She would put juniper berries in the incense burner, adding fir and spruce needles, an activity that seemed to calm her, as though it gave her stability and certainty. No misfortune could strike her then, neither her nor her family (p.8)

Underpinning the narrative are themes of loss, regret, and the possibility of reconciliation. While the overall tone is nostalgic and melancholy, there are glimmers of hope amidst the heartache as Manfred hopes to reconnect with his brother.

The prose is spare yet evocative, perfectly capturing the magic of the natural world at the mid-point in the season.

Outside, through the window, the snow was falling once more, in dense flakes on this early evening; a creeping dusk blurred the contours, turning the trees into wizened forms, the stream to a taffeta-grey ribbon, the farmhouses to shadowy distorting mirrors. The street could no longer be seen in the leaden gloom, which was tinged blue towards the forest, black down into the ravine. (p. 11)

This is a wonderfully atmospheric read for a dark winter’s night, one that will likely resonate with anyone who has loved and lost at some point in their life. There is a degree of ambiguity to the ending that might frustrate some readers, particularly those who like a tidy resolution to events; nevertheless, the mood conveyed in the story is likely to endure.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

I have written before about my love of Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, the beautifully-observed stories of the minutiae of middle-class life, the loneliness, insecurities and poignancy that often accompanies such an existence, especially for women. The Sleeping Beauty – a loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale – is no exception to this rule. In style, it feels very much in line with much of Taylor’s other work, ensemble pieces like A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, with the focus moving from one individual to another as their lives intertwine.

The setting for this novel is Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s. Vinny – a rather smooth man in his late forties – is visiting an old friend, Isabella, whose husband has just died in a boating accident. At first sight, Vinny might appear to be a kindly, compassionate individual, coming to comfort Isabella in her hour of need. However, Isabella’s adult son, Laurence, has other ideas, viewing Vinny’s apparent sympathy towards his mother with resentment and suspicion.

While staying in Seething, Vinny spots a beautiful woman walking along the beach, and he is instantly captivated by her aura. The woman in question is Emily, the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ of the novel’s title, whose situation, he subsequently discovers, was fundamentally altered by a devastating car accident some years before. Previously outgoing and sociable, Emily now lives a very narrow and secluded life, effectively tied to the guest house owned by her embittered sister, Rose, whose husband died in the incident.

Also living at the guest house is Philly, Rose’s disabled daughter, whom Emily effectively cares for while her sister adopts the role of martyr in charge of the family business. While Emily is still a very beautiful woman, her appearance was fundamentally altered as a consequence of the accident, something she has yet to come to terms with alongside other changes in her life. (The fact that Emily’s former fiancée deserted her while she was recovering in hospital has only added to the air of tragedy.)

Vinny is a romantic, with a tendency to live in the past and future as opposed to the present, someone who gives the impression that they are not the marrying type.

Inability to cross the gap from wooing to lovemaking and many unconcluded love affairs, had left him [Vinny] with a large circle of women friends. They bore him no ill-will, valuing his continued attention—presents, compliments; their pique soon vanished. They married, loved, elsewhere. Only very stupid husbands resented Vinny. (pp. 68–69)

Nevertheless, Vinny is so smitten with Emily that he wishes to propose marriage, hopeful of freeing her from the imprisonment imposed by Rose. Isabella, on the other hand, is looking forward to being the beneficiary of Vinny’s affection. Not that she wants to marry him, of course; rather, she is hoping to bask in an ongoing glow of attention – regular lunches in town, a well-chosen gift or two, and the pleasure of demurring to his annual proposals.

The thought of her gay and tender rejection had been her chief comfort in the last few weeks: it had been constantly rehearsed. She [Isabella] had daydreamed of a future secure in his gallantry and affection; with occasional luncheons together; always his wistful teasing; the proposal renewed on every—say—St Valentine’s Day, half as a private joke, but nevertheless with true pleading. He would shore up her pride and look at her through kindly eyes. (p. 79)

As the narrative plays out, we see different sides to these characters as their insecurities and anxieties come to the surface, and their flaws and imperfections are gradually revealed. Rose is fearful of losing Emily to Vinny, thereby disturbing the caretaker role she has carefully cultivated over the years. This desire prompts Rose to disrupt the blossoming of Emily and Vinny’s relationship as far as possible – and yet there are times when the reader might feel a smidgen of sympathy for Rose as certain facts about her deceased husband become clear.

There are secrets too in Vinny’s life which Isabella discovers by accident, circumstances that put a completely different complexion on the acceptability of her friend’s behaviour.

As ever with Taylor, the minor characters are wonderful – fully fleshed-out and lifelike on the page. Vinny’s mother, Mrs Tumulty, is an excellent case in point, a forthright woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly – someone who values briskness over beauty, as evidenced by her responses during a trip to Seething.

She was pleasurably suspicious of Vinny’s seaside weekends and intended to sort things out, especially the women. Isabella she had met once before and thought her a poor, silly creature. Rose had made a better impression; Emily a much worse one. Mrs Tumulty had no especial grudge against beauty, as long as it did not detract from liveliness. Anything passive she abhorred, and Emily’s dead-white skin, her lack of expression, about which Vinny had found no words to forewarn her, no heart to explain or discuss, annoyed and repelled her. (pp. 53–54)

As Vinny’s relationship with Emily develops, Mrs Tumulty realises that she has been used as a patsy, something to justify Vinny’s continued visits to the guest house where she is staying.

Isabella’s son, Laurence, is another interesting character, somewhat directionless in life following the death of his father. There is much sly humour when Laurence receives a visit from his friend, Len – a bit of a ladies’ man who knows just how to play up to Isabella with a combination of showy attentiveness and flattery.

Alongside other entanglements there is Laurence’s burgeoning romance with Betty, a nursemaid who works for one of the families at Rose’s guest house. A tea party hosted by Isabella turns out to be an uncomfortably amusing set-piece as Laurence finds himself the target of his mother’s needling, much to the detriment of Betty. In short, Isabella behaves abominably, like a spoilt child at a party, something that Vinny points out to her once the others have departed.

While many other readers would not name The Sleeping Beauty as one of their favourite Elizabeth Taylor novels, I found it utterly involving. What I love about this author’s work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and validity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication.

As a writer, Taylor implies that she visualises her stories as scenes, writing from the perspective of situation as opposed to narrative or plot. It’s an approach that rings true for this novel along with her other ensemble pieces – the action, such as it is, stemming from the sequencing of these scenarios.

It would be unfair of me to reveal how the relationship between Vinny and Emily progresses, you’ll have to read the novel for yourself to find out. Nevertheless, given that this is also considered to be Taylor’s most romantic novel, I’ll finish with a quote about love, one that highlights the disruption it can trigger, especially within others. It’s a riposte to the idealised vision of this emotion and all its rose-tinted associations.

Love is a disturbing element, as Isabella had said–disruptive, far-reaching. The world cannot assimilate it, or eject it. Its beauty can evoke evil: its radiance corrupts… (p. 149)

The Sleeping Beauty is published by Virago; personal copy.

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

All Among the Barley – the third novel from the writer, critic and columnist, Melissa Harrison – is a beautiful evocation of rural life, rich in the English countryside’s rhythms and traditions during the interwar years. It is also an absorbing coming-of-age story in which the novel’s central protagonist is intrigued by the arrival of a visitor to the community, the spirited Constance (Connie) FitzAllen.

The novel is narrated by Edie Mather, a fourteen-year-old girl who lives at Wych Farm with her parents, George and Ada Mather. Also living at the estate to help with the farm work are Edie’s brother, Frank, their paternal grandfather and two farmhands, John and Doble.

A preoccupied, bookish girl at heart, Edie is something of a loner, one who prefer books to the company of other children. She is also interested in superstitions – witch marks, curses, forms of protection and the like – drawing on an active imagination fuelled by folklore.

Into Edie’s life comes Constance FitzAllen, a forthright, engaging young woman from the city who has come to document the countryside’s age-old traditions to aid with their preservation. At first, Ada Mather is suspicious of this stranger; however, she is soon won over by Constance’s willingness to listen and to modify her behaviour.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Constance’s presence awakens something in Edie – a feeling that she is being seen in a new light. Here is someone who appears to be interested in the impressionable young Edie as a person, viewing her as an individual with her own thoughts and opinions, not just another member of the Mather family.

I smiled back, and realised that I was going to see her. I felt as though she perceived me more clearly than my family did, for they all took me for granted, whereas she seemed curious about who I was and what I thought. Although I did not know her well yet, I felt more real, more interesting even, when I saw myself through Constance’s eyes. (p. 75)

Running through the book is the need for farmers to balance the preservation of traditional methods with the drive for progression and change. As Constance begins to spend more time with the Mathers, her views on certain political and financial principles begin to emerge. While George Mather shares some of Constance’s beliefs on the benefits of protection, John, the experienced farmhand, takes a more open view, sowing the seeds for future tensions to emerge.

‘You can’t trust politicians, George. They lie and lie,’ Connie said. She had stayed on to eat with us, although I wasn’t quite sure if she’d been invited or had simply not left. ‘They’ll tell you the sky is green if they think it’ll win them a vote. We should have proper import controls to protect our native English formers – it’s the only way…’ (p. 113)

‘But this country must be able to feed itself without relying on imports,’ Connie said, ‘and that means ensuring decent honest Englishman like you, George, can continue to farm. (p. 114)

As the narrative progresses, we begin to realise – even if Edie remains blind to it – that Constance’s interest in the traditions of English life extends to holding prejudices against outsiders. In short, Miss FitzAllen harbours anti-Semitic views, beliefs that play a key role in the novel’s dramatic denouement.

Where the novel really excels is in its evocation of rural life in the 1930s – the book is set in the fictional Suffolk village of Elmbourne, an environment alive with the beauty of the natural world as the year passes from one season to the next. There is a lyricism in Harrison’s descriptions of the environment which manages to be both detailed and evocative.

In October, Wych Farm’s trees turned quickly and all at once, blazing into oranges and reds and burnished golds; with little wind to strip them the woods and spinneys lay on our land like treasure, the massy hedgerows filigreed with old-man’s-beard and enamelled with rosehips and black sloes. Along the winding course of the River Stroud the alder carrs were studded with earthstars and chanterelles and dense with the rich, autumnal stink of rot; but crossing Long Piece towards the Lottens the sky opened and into austere equinoctial blue, where flocks of peewits wheeled and turned, flashing their broad wings black and white. (pp. 5–6)

The rhythms and rituals of farming are also beautifully portrayed, augmenting the novel’s captivating sense of time and place. Moreover, the novel captures the sense of loss inherent in the community as a consequence of the Great War. Some fifteen years on, the signs remain. From the empty pews at the church to the tools left idle in barns to the poorly stacked ricks due to a lack of skilled men, these silent absences are deeply felt.

All Among the Barley is an evocative hymn to a lost way of life, a slow-burning narrative that will draw patient readers in – particularly those with an interest in nature. It’s an excellent novel that touches on some important aspects of rural life. More specifically, the balance between tradition and progression; the stealthy rise of nationalism in the early ‘30s; the lack of opportunities for women in a male-dominated society; and perhaps most poignantly, societal attitudes towards women who experienced mental health issues at that time.

The novel’s epilogue is very affecting, a section in which seventy-year-old Edie contemplates her current situation – a life marked by events that took place during Constance’s visit. No spoilers, but it casts the remainder of the book in a somewhat different light, illuminating the tragic consequences of the visitor’s beliefs and actions. There are some very interesting points for discussion here – a great choice for book groups and solo readers alike. Plus, if you need any more persuading about the quality of this novel, I can point you in the direction of Max’s reading highlights for 2020 where it features prominently – there’s a link here

All Among the Barley is published by Bloomsbury; 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). 

I’m hoping this piece will qualify for Karen and Lizzy’s Reading Independent Publishers Month, which you can read about here.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

I have long wanted to read Marghanita Laski, the British writer and broadcaster who came to prominence in the 1940s and ‘50s. (Five of her novels are currently in print with Persephone Books.) My original intention had been to start with her 1949 novel, Little Boy Lost, which focuses on a man’s search for his lost son in post-WW2 France. But then, back in December, the Backlisted team featured Laski’s 1953 novella, The Victorian Chaise-Longue, on an episode of their podcast, and the decision was made for me.

It’s a difficult book to say very much about without revealing key elements of the premise; so, if you’re thinking of reading it and would prefer to know as little as possible before going in, look away now. What I will say upfront is that the experience of reading this novella feels somewhat akin to being trapped in a terrifying COVID fever dream from times past. Ideal lockdown reading for the more sensitive among you!

The premise of this chilling story is a simple yet highly effective one. In the early 1950s, Melanie, a young mother recovering from tuberculosis, falls asleep, only to wake up in the body of her alter ego, Milly, some ninety years earlier.

As Melanie realises that she is trapped, effectively imprisoned in the body of a dying woman, she begins to doubt various ‘truths’ about her existence – more specifically, her identity, her sanity, and perhaps most troubling of all, her ability to return to the life she once knew.

Given that this is a short book, it would be unfair of me to reveal anything else about the plot – I’ve probably said more than enough already. Instead, I’ll try to convey something of the story’s tone and underlying themes.

A little like the woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Melanie (in the 1950s) finds her freedoms restricted by a patronising doctor and an equally paternalistic husband – both of whom treat her like a child. Nevertheless, after a long period of recuperation in bed, Melanie is to be allowed a slight change of scenery in the afternoons – a move to the drawing-room where she can lie on the chaise-longue, an antique piece from the Victorian era. It is while lying on this couch that Melanie falls asleep, setting the eerie nightmare in motion…

A common voice, a cruel voice, assured and domineering. Not a voice to be conquered with superior strength but the nightmare voice that binds the limbs in dreadful paralysis while the danger creeps and creeps and at last will leap. I am asleep, said Melanie, ordering her wakened brain to admit this and be still, her closed eyes to see not even the ugly green and scarlet and yellow patterns under too tightly pressed eyelids, and then there was a heavy weighted rattle and almost simultaneously another, and consciousness of light shot through the close lids and forced them open. (p. 43)

Milly’s situation in the 1860s is even more restricted than Melanie’s, something that invites comparisons between what is deemed acceptable for a married woman in the 19th century vs the 20th. Laski is very skilled in her use of language, drawing on all the senses to convey the horror of her protagonist’s position – from the ‘bumpy hardness’ of the couch and the harsh woollen blanket covering the woman’s body to the fetid smell enveloping her surroundings.

Melanie folded the bread-and-butter and tried to eat it. The butter was nasty, over-salt and slightly rancid, seeming to have absorbed some of the room’s foul smell of which she was continually aware. But I must eat, she told herself, I must overcome this sick dizziness and feel strong. If this body is dead, I am still, for the moment, imprisoned within it. (pp. 92–93)

There is also the question of what constitutes the ‘present’ vs the past and the future. Is Melanie trapped in a terrifying dream, or has she somehow gone back in time to an earlier incarnation of her life?

I must always have been Milly and Milly me. It is now that is present reality and the future is still to come. But if I have to wait for the future, if it is only in time to come that I shall be Melanie again, then that time must come again too when Sister Smith leaves me to sleep on the chaise-longue, and I wake up in the past. I shall never escape – and the eternal prison she imagined consumed her mind, and she fainted or dozed off into a nightmare of chase and pursuit and loss. (p. 97)

Seeking a potential release from entrapment through prayer, Melanie even wonders whether she has been set some kind of challenge by God, possibly as a penance for past sins. The acceptability of a woman experiencing desire and ecstasy are also questioned as confusion kicks in, with Melanie’s mind going into overdrive.

In summary, this is a very unnerving story, one that relies on our fears of entrapment – a feeling augmented by the loss of personal agency and any grip on reality. It captures the terror of feeling helpless and imprisoned, when everything we previously believed about our existence is destabilised and undermined. In short, a psychologically disturbing read for a dark winter’s night.

My copy of The Victorian Chaise-Longue was published by The Cresset Press, but the book is currently available from Persephone Books.

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.