The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime – a themed anthology   

Over the past few years, the publishing arm of the British Library has been carving out a very successful niche for itself, reissuing a whole host of treasures from the Golden Age of crime fiction. The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime is part of their occasional series of anthologies, bringing together a range of short stories connected to Scotland. Some of the mysteries are by Scottish writers, while others are set in the country itself, ranging from city-based tales, such as the titular piece, to mysteries rooted in more remote areas such as the Highlands and Islands.

As ever with these anthologies, some entries are stronger than others; and while the quality of stories feels more variable here than in some of the BL’s other themed anthologies, the best stories are very good indeed. Hopefully this review will give you a flavour of what to expect, should you decide to read the book.

The titular story, written by Baroness Orczy, is one of the more compelling mysteries in the collection – a case involving the proposed transfer of a significant fortune, some property, and a particularly splendid set of diamond jewels. There’s also a whiff of disapproval about a forthcoming wedding, a match frowned upon by certain sectors of Edinburgh society.

“In Edinburgh society comments were loud and various upon the forthcoming marriage, and, on the whole, these comments were far from complimentary to the families concerned. I do not think that the Scotch are a particularly sentimental race, but there was such obvious buying, selling, and bargaining about this marriage that Scottish chivalry rose in revolt at the thought.” (p. 48)

This is a very absorbing murder mystery with a surprise or two up its sleeve, a most enjoyable and intriguing read.

While Josephine Tey’s Madame Ville d’Aubier is one of the shortest pieces in the collection, it certainly leaves a strong impression on the reader. In this enigmatic tale, a couple decide to get away from their home in Paris for the day, ultimately ending up in a sleepy village in the country. Tey excels at conveying the deeply unsettling atmosphere of her setting, a rather unwelcoming baker’s shop where they are met with a frosty reception.

And all at once I wanted to get out of the place. Something I did not understand was happening here. The air was thick with it, bulged with it as air does before an explosion. We were being crushed and pressed down by the potency of someone’s misery, and it was as if at any moment that pressure of misery might burst the thing that held it. I wanted to get away before something happened. (p. 160)

Michael Innes’ The Fishermen is one of those good old-fashioned ‘is-it-suicide-or-could-it-be-murder?’ mysteries featuring a small number of potential suspects, each with a possible motive for the deadly deed. Set during a fishing trip in the Scottish Highlands, this is an ingenious mystery with a theatrical flavour as the victim is a playwright. Another enjoyable tale and a worthy addition to the collection. 

Of the stories from lesser-known writers, J. Storer Clouston’s A Medical Crime is well worth highlighting – a neat little mystery involving a series of burglaries, each including the theft of a medically-related item. Carrington – Clouston’s shrewd private investigator – devises a clever way of identifying the perpetrator, complete with a little twist at the end for an extra flourish.

Augustus Muir’s The Body of Sir Henry is a particularly creepy story set on a dark, rainy night in a remote part of the Scottish Borders. There are some wonderfully atmospheric passages here, even if the tale’s outcome proves relatively easy to guess.

A woman sat there, with dark furs round her face, and I’ll never forget her expression. It was one of unspeakable horror. Beside her, a man lay huddled stiffly back on the cushions. Right up to his chin he was covered with a travelling rug. He was elderly and had thick grey hair. His skin was chalk white, and his eyes were wide open and staring straight upward. The light didn’t seem to dazzle them. It would have dazzled mine if I had hadn’t had my back to it. But one quick glimpse at him was enough to tell me the important thing. The man was dead. (p. 145)

P. M. Hubbard’s The Running of the Deer is an excellent story, one of my favourites in the collection. Set on a county estate in the Scottish Highlands, this is a story of jealousy, desire and a regulated deer cull that ends in tragedy – not just for the hinds but for a hunt supervisor too. This gripping mystery has a suitably ambiguous ending, raising crucial questions about the incident concerned.

The Scottish Highlands also feature in H. H. Bashford’s The Man on Ben Na Garve, another standout entry in this anthology. When Wentworth witnesses a seemingly innocent meeting between two men in a remote part of the Scottish countryside, he thinks little of it. A few months later, however, he chances upon a report of a man’s death in that very spot on the day in question – possibly related to the incident he observed, but possibly not. Should he tell the police what he saw that day or keep quiet? A dilemma that leaves Wentworth pondering what to do for the best. This is an excellent story, complete with a couple of unexpected twists at the end – I enjoyed this one a lot!

Also worthy of a mention is The Alibi Man by the Glaswegian writer Bill Knox, an utterly terrifying tale of revenge, kidnapping and dodgy alibis. Moreover, it all feels frighteningly plausible and contemporary, despite its 1960s setting. A very chilling little piece.   

For readers who prefer lighter mysteries, John Ferguson’s The White Line should fit the bill – a hugely enjoyable story of two rivals vying for a lady’s hand. With its cruise ship setting, this delightful tale offers much in the way of glamour, gossip and romance. Another winner.  

Less successful for me were the following stories, including some by relatively well-known crime writers. G. K. Chesterton’s The Honour of Israel Gow, which I didn’t particularly care for despite its spooky Castle setting, and Footsteps by Anthony Wynne, another mystery with a creepy atmosphere and promising premise, only for it to stumble with an overly complex plot. Cyril Hare’s forgettable Thursday’s Child and Margot Bennet’s rather slight The Case of the Frugal Cake could easily be skipped, while the style of Jennie Melville’s Hand in Glove didn’t particularly appeal.

So, while this collection is perhaps more uneven in quality than some of the BL’s other themed anthologies, the ten or so most successful stories are very good indeed, making it worth dipping into for the highlights alone. Moreover, these anthologies are a great way of sampling a wide range of vintage crime writers to see which styles appeal. There’s quite a variety of approaches here, so while some stories will hit their marks, others may not – which is all part of the fun, I guess!

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

While I’ve enjoyed several reissues of Natalia Ginzburg’s work in recent years, All Our Yesterdays feels like the one I’ve been waiting to read – a rich, multilayered evocation of Italian family life spanning the duration of the Second World War.

Through Sally Rooney’s excellent introduction to the novel, we learn how Natalia and her first husband, the Jewish anti-fascist activist Leone Ginzburg, were sent to Southern Italy during the war as a form of internal exile. In 1944, Leone was imprisoned, tortured and killed by the incumbent regime for his covert work on an anti-fascist newspaper. By the war’s end, Natalia was in her late twenties, a widow with three young children and a debut novella under her belt. As such, she channelled her experiences into her work, publishing All Our Yesterdays in 1952. It’s a brilliant novel, full of warmth, intelligence and humanity, punctuated by wry observations on the tangled business of life.

The book focuses on two Italian families living opposite one another in a small Northern Italian town, with the story opening in the late 1930s during the run-up to war. While one family derives its wealth from the town’s soap factory, the other is middle-class and relatively short of money, contrasting the fortunes of these neighbouring households. As the novel unfolds, Anna – the youngest daughter in the middle-class family – gradually emerges as the main protagonist, an ordinary, impressionable teenager alert to developments around her. With his wife no longer alive, Anna’s father (a former lawyer) devotes his time to writing his memoirs, a long, sprawling series of anti-fascist declarations that will fail to see the light of day.

While Anna’s older sister Concettina – an attractive girl who bemoans her flat chest – works her way through a sequence of fiancés, her brother, Ippolito, helps their father by typing up his memoirs late into the night. Completing the family are younger brother, Giustino, and an eccentric old maid, Signora Maria, a former companion to the children’s deceased grandmother.

With Mussolini in power and fascism on the rise, Ippolito becomes increasingly interested in politics, debating the issues of the day with Emanuele – the eldest son from the wealthy family opposite – and their principled friend, Danilo, one of Concettina’s many fiancés. Full of the exuberance of youth, the trio pore over newspapers and dream of revolution, drawing up plans that Anna begins to glean…

She seemed to understand about the sitting room, and the sentences in German, and Ippolito stroking his face, and his restless eyes that were always looking for something. They were talking politics in the sitting room, they were once again doing a dangerous, secret thing, as the book of memoirs had been. They wanted to overthrow the fascists, to begin a revolution. (p. 47)

Over time, a friendship develops between Anna and Emanuele’s younger brother, Giuma, a rather arrogant, insensitive boy who seems more interested in himself than anyone around him. At sixteen, Anna finds herself pregnant by Giuma, who subsequently abandons her with a 1000-lire note, sufficient money to cover an underground abortion.

She was alone, she was alone and no one said anything to her, she was alone in her room with her grass-stained, crumpled dress and her violently trembling hands. She was alone with Giuma’s face that gave her a stab of pain at her heart, and every day she would be going back with Giuma amongst the bushes on the river bank, every day she would see again that face with the rumpled forelock and the tightly closed eyelids, that face that had lost all trace both of words and of thoughts for her. (pp. 152–153)

As personal relationships in these families are forged and fragmented, the Germans continue their irrepressible march across Europe, advancing into Belgium and Holland – and then France. The boys are particularly aware of these developments, knowing full well that Italy will likely align itself with Nazi Germany. But while Emanuele remains relatively calm in the face of events, Ippolito is deeply unsettled, pacing his room at night and avoiding contact with others. Through their contrasting responses to the encroaching war, Ginzburg is showing us how the political seeps into the personal, highlighting the devastating impact on young, impressionable minds.

Concettina, too, is disturbed by the situation in Europe. Recently married to Emilio, the father of her baby boy, she fears for the family’s safety – consequently, her nights are haunted by dreams of fleeing should the Germans advance further. Ginzburg is particularly adept at highlighting how everyday life appears meaningless and futile in the face of war, especially when external factors feel uncertain and threatening.

But Concettina had not forgotten the war, and she looked incredulously at the cradle and the coverlet with the mushrooms on it that Signora Maria was embroidering, and she wondered how much longer the baby would sleep in that big cradle of blue taffeta, she already saw herself running away with the baby in her arms amongst tanks and the whistling of sirens, and she hated Signora Maria with her mushrooms and her futile chatter. (pp. 160–161)

Meanwhile, as Anna decides to seek an abortion, an unexpected lifeline appears in the shape of Cenzo Rena, a family friend who suddenly proposes marriage while agreeing to take on the baby. At forty-seven, Cenzo Rena seems like an unlikely match for Anna, but he is kind, thoughtful and generous – qualities to be admired irrespective of appearances.

They looked like two people who had been flung against each other by chance in a sinking ship. For them there had been no fanfare of trumpets, he said. And that was a good thing, because when fate announced itself with a loud fanfare of trumpets you always had to be a little on your guard. (p. 210)

Despite her family’s objections, Anna marries Cenzo Rena and moves to his house in the South, a strange collection of large, sparsely-furnished rooms adorned by the myriad of useless objects he has amassed from his travels abroad.

Cenzo Rena is an influential figure in the area, with several contadini calling on him for sound advice. And it’s here in the village of Borgo San Costanzo – an impoverished, insular community with multiple health problems – that the presence of war really makes itself felt. Jews from some Italian Northern cities are sent to the South, shunting them off to villages where they cannot ‘harm the war’. San Costanzo receives four Jewish internees under this initiative – three old women and a Turkish Jew, who ultimately becomes Cenzo Rena’s friend. A Polish Jew named Franz, a friend of Emanuele’s father, also makes his way to San Costanzo, further complicating the situation. In true Italian fashion, Franz is married to Emanuele’s sister, Amalia, having been involved with the siblings’ mother, Mammina, some years before. (The novel’s network of romantic entanglements is suitably complex but relatable – a delight to observe!)

Once again, the juxtaposition between the micro-level tensions of family life and the broader drama of world events is highly compelling, underscoring the radical sociopolitical changes unfolding across the country.

He [Cenzo Rena] looked out of the window at the refugees from Naples who were now going hither and thither about the lanes of the village, carrying mattresses and babies, he looked and said how sad it was to see all these mattresses carried about here and there all over Italy, Italy was now pouring mattresses out of her ravaged houses. And perhaps they too might soon be forced to run away, with their mattresses and the little girl and La Maschiona and the dog and the deckchairs, to run away to goodness knows where through the burning dust of the roads… (pp. 328–329)

Unsurprisingly, there is an eccentric cook/housekeeper here too, a rather foolish woman referred to as La Maschiona, whose devastating actions drive the novel’s denouement.

As the novel draws to a close, Anna is happy to be reunited with Emanuele and Giustino, reflecting on those who died during the war, a time of immense fear, confusion and uncertainty. However, she also understands that the future comes with its own challenges – a ‘long, difficult life’ full of all the things they don’t know how to do.

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.

All Our Yesterdays is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

The Pachinko Parlour by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

A couple of years ago, I read and loved Winter in Sokcho, a beautiful, dreamlike novella that touched on themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to societal norms. Set against the backdrop of a rundown guest house in Sokcho, the book centred on an intriguing relationship between a young French-Korean woman and a Frenchman staying at the hotel. Now Elisa Shua Dusapin is back with her second book, The Pachinko Parlour, another wonderfully enigmatic novella that shares many qualities with its predecessor.

As in her previous work, Dusapin draws on her French-Korean heritage for Pachinko, crafting an elegantly expressed story of family, displacement, fractured identity and the search for belonging. Here we see people caught in the hinterland between different countries, complete with their respective cultures and preferred languages. It’s a novel that exists in the liminal spaces between states, the borders or crossover points from one community to the next and from one family unit to another.

At first sight, the story being conveyed here seems relatively straightforward – a young woman travels to Japan to take her Korean grandparents on a trip to their homeland, a place they haven’t seen in fifty years. Dig a little deeper, however, and the narrative soon reveals itself to be wonderfully slippery – cool and clear on the surface yet harbouring fascinating layers of depth, a combination that gives the book a haunting or spectral quality, cutting deep into the soul. 

The novella is narrated by Claire, a young woman on the cusp of turning thirty, brought up in Switzerland, where she now lives with her boyfriend, Mathieu. It is summer, and Claire has travelled to Japan to stay with her Korean grandparents in the Nippori area of the city, home to the sizeable Zainichi community of exiled Koreans. But despite having lived in Japan for the past fifty years, Claire’s grandparents have not fully integrated into the Japanese community and culture, almost certainly because their move was prompted by the Korean Civil War in the early 1950s. A displacement process that forced Koreans to choose between the North and the South of the country, should they wish to keep their Korean identity while living in Japan.

The transition proved particularly challenging for Claire’s grandmother, who resisted assimilation into her adopted country by not speaking Japanese. Now in her nineties, she is showing signs of dementia, regressing into childhood as she plays with her dolls. Meanwhile, Claire’s grandfather must work till he drops, managing the faded Pachinko parlour (a legal, low-stakes gambling emporium) opposite the couple’s house. Aside from the Pachinko parlour – ironically named Shiny as it is anything but – the grandparents have virtually no social contact with other people, existing largely within their own limited, claustrophobic world.

With the proposed trip to Korea merely weeks away, Claire is struggling with the situation in Japan. Her grandparents are showing little enthusiasm for the trip, avoiding any discussions or preparations for the journey, despite their longstanding ties to the country. Communication seems to be a significant barrier for the trio, particularly as Claire is more fluent in Japanese than Korean, having studied the former at a Swiss university. Consequently, she spends much of her time lying on the ground floor in the suffocating heat, playing games on her phone or looking up Korea on the net. The atmosphere in the house is dizzying and oppressive as the noise from the nearby Pachinko parlours proves impossible to shut out…

The only respite for Claire is the time she spends with Mieko, a ten-year-old girl who lives with her mother – the rather cold and judgmental Mrs Ogawa – in an abandoned hotel. Mrs Ogawa – a French literature tutor by profession – has employed Claire to teach Mieko French during the school holidays, a task the mother shows little interest in helping with herself.

As the days slip by, a tentative friendship develops between Claire and Mieko – a slightly awkward yet touching bond born out of a shared sense of loneliness and loss. (Of significance here is Mieko’s father – no longer on the scene, having abandoned his family several years before.) The dialogue between this unlikely duo is beautifully expressed, perfectly capturing the awkwardness of the age gap between Claire and Mieko. Moreover, the young girl’s curiosity is also a factor, indicating a growing awareness of the mysteries of the adult world.  

Dusapin’s style is wonderfully pared back and minimalist, almost like a prose poem at times, leaving plenty of space for the reader to fill the gaps. Thematically and stylistically, the book is somewhat reminiscent of Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow, another haunting exploration of isolation and loss through a distanced family relationship. And yet, there is something unsettling here as well, echoing the signs of tension that run through Winter in Sokcho. In Pachinko, we find passing mentions of disturbing elements, from dying species and the presence of toxins in the earth to the shocking death of one of Mieko’s classmates. The story is punctuated with unnerving motifs, hinting at a troubled world where humanity must learn to coexist – both with itself and with the natural environment.

In Claire’s grandparents, we see people buffeted by history and events outside their control, wounded by the longstanding pain of Korean-Japanese history and the conflict of Civil War. Meanwhile, Claire is grappling with questions of identity and belonging herself, having grown up in Switzerland following her mother’s flight from the Zainichi community in Japan, largely for the opportunities that Europe could provide. As such, Claire too is caught between cultures, struggling to communicate across the societal and linguistic divides, prompting a sense of separation from her elderly grandparents. If anything, it is Mathieu – Claire’s absent boyfriend, busily working on his thesis in Switzerland – who seems to have the stronger relationship with the elderly couple, having bonded with them relatively easily during a previous trip.

As the novella draws to a close, there is a gradual increase in tension as the family’s departure draws near. Interestingly, just as in Sokcho, Dusapin ends Pachinko on an enigmatic note, prompting the reader to question the true meaning of the book. Whose journey are we witnessing here? Is it Claire’s grandparents’ pilgrimage – possibly the last chance to return to their homeland before illness or death intervenes – or is it Claire’s, a quest for attachment and belonging in a fractured, multicultural world?

I’ll leave you to figure that out for yourself – ideally by reading the book, which I highly recommend. This is a beautifully judged novella, a layered exploration of displacement, belonging and unspoken tragedies from times past. A beguiling read for #WITMonth and beyond.

The Pachinko Parlour will be published by Daunt Books on 18th August. My thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a proof copy.

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 book – engrossing, chilling and beautifully written, like a slow-burn thriller in the Patricia Highsmith vein.

In the novel, the narrative is conveyed through alternating chapters, giving readers an insight into both central characters – Henry Kent, a relatively good-looking man in his sixties with a background in gardening, and Daisy Langrish, a successful playwright, also in her sixties. Having separated from his wife, Hazel – a woman who always resented his lack of success – Henry is living from one day to the next, camping out on a dilapidated boat while its owners are abroad. With no money to speak of, Henry is on the lookout for a well-heeled woman, preferably someone middle-aged with no thoughts of having children. Of course, a faded beauty would be ideal, a neglected divorcee or widow just ripe for the picking; but most importantly, she must be comfortably off, wealthy enough to support Henry without his needing to work…

When Daisy Langrish (aka Redfearn) moves into a nearby cottage, she quickly becomes the target of Henry’s attention. With two bruising marriages behind her, Daisy is wary of getting her fingers burnt again. In particular, she was badly hurt by her second husband, Jason, a successful actor who left her for a much younger woman following two years of wedded bliss. Nevertheless, despite a few reservations, she agrees to let Henry sort out the garden for her when he calls to enquire.

The ‘Henry’ sections of the book are written in the first person, giving the reader full access to his thought processes right from the very start. Consequently, we can see how quickly Henry sizes Daisy up, pinpointing her vulnerabilities and planning his strategy accordingly. He knows he needs to win Daisy’s trust, carefully disarming her as gently as possible.

Trust. I could clearly recall that the first time our eyes met hers were full of wary defence; she was not accustomed to trusting people. I must disarm her, but so gradually that she would be hardly aware of it. (p. 70)

Almost immediately after their initial meetings, Daisy has to go the US for a couple of months, much to Henry’s dismay. While abroad, Daisy breaks her shoulder and foot during a trip to Mexico – an accident that leaves her hospitalised in the US for several weeks as she recovers from the injuries. Meanwhile, Henry is eager to discover more about Daisy, viewing this as a way of bolstering his chances. As far as Henry sees it, the more he knows about his target, the deeper the connection he can forge. So, he breaks into the cottage and rifles through Daisy’s belongings, reading her diary and personal letters – all of which give him an insight into her painful break-up with Jason.

Armed with this information and a few sob stories of his own, Henry starts writing to Daisy in hospital, gradually developing their relationship while she is vulnerable and alone. Moreover, when Daisy is finally well enough to return to the UK, Henry makes himself invaluable to her recovery, fetching groceries and keeping an eye on her as she settles back into the cottage.

Slowly but surely, Henry inveigles his way into Daisy’s life, steadily planning his advancement with the ultimate goal of marriage. At first, Daisy remains on her guard, fearful of a degree of intimacy that she certainly doesn’t want. For years now, she has kept herself emotionally closed down, fearful of opening up as a means of self-protection. Nevertheless, she has to acknowledge Henry’s attentiveness – his tenderness, even. It’s almost as if he can anticipate her needs without encroaching too far on her privacy. Maybe, just maybe, he actually loves her? Could this be her last chance of happiness, an opportunity to come first in someone else’s affections? As Henry works his magic, Daisy begins to wonder…

She was touched by his candour and his courage. Here she stopped. Was she not more than touched, more than grateful? For over two weeks now he had tended her with a delicacy and kindness that was surely unusual in any man, only credible, indeed, if some kind of love was involved. Perhaps he did love her, actually love her. The possibility, the faintest chance, that this might be so, might actually be real… (p. 268)

Something that Howard does so well here is to show us the relationship from two different perspectives, illustrating the true intentions behind Henry’s actions – and how Daisy is ultimately taken in by this technique. While the ‘Daisy’ sections are mostly written in the third person, some passages are presented as letters or diary entries, giving us direct access to her thoughts. Her gradual surrender is incredibly painful to observe, especially as we know just how devious and manipulative Henry can be. At first, one might consider him a fantasist, the sort of man who feeds off his own delusions; but as the narrative gradually unfolds, his psychopathic tendencies become increasingly clear…

My abstinence I intended her to interpret as my extreme love for her, and this was entirely successful; indeed, I had every kind of success and it was a sweet triumph to see her at ease, looking up at me with a kind of grateful radiance. I told her that she was beautiful and that I loved her (one cannot do this too often), and she answered that I made her feel beautiful. I knew then that I had accomplished much; was more than halfway to her becoming mine. (p. 307)

Howard also gives the reader just enough information to piece together Henry’s disreputable past as the story goes along. Slowly but surely, we learn of his underlying personality and habits – more specifically his short fuse and tendencies towards violence, his dislike of interference from those he considers outsiders, and his lack of any social contacts or real friends. He really is a very nasty piece of work.

Howard is such an astute observer of human nature, exploring her characters’ motivations with insight and understanding. The supporting players are beautifully drawn too, particularly Daisy’s agent, Anna, who is suspicious of Henry from the start. Even Daisy’s somewhat distanced daughter, Katya, has some nagging doubts about her mother’s lover, exacerbated perhaps by her own marital problems.

In short, this is a thoroughly engrossing novel, a compelling exploration of just how easy it is to be seduced when we are vulnerable and alone. My thanks to Andrew Male, who recommended this book to me as one of Howard’s late masterpieces. He was absolutely right, of course. (How could he not be?) It’s a brilliantly unsettling read – my favourite EJH to date.

Falling is published by Picador; personal copy.

The Colony by Audrey Magee

This is a superb novel, probably one of the most assured and layered narratives I’ve read in recent years. Recently longlisted for the Booker Prize, The Colony is a thought-provoking exploration of the damaging effects of colonisation – touching on issues including the acquisition of property (in its broadest sense), the demise of traditional languages and ways of living, cultural appropriation and exploitation and, perhaps most importantly, who holds the balance of power in the resultant society. I found it timely, thoughtful and utterly compelling, a certainty for my reading highlights at the end of the year.

The novel is set on a small, unnamed island to the west of Ireland in the summer of 1979, deep in the midst of the Troubles, a political and nationalistic conflict over the status of Northern Ireland, fuelled by historical events. The island community has declined over the years, leaving twelve families to maintain the old traditions, heavily reliant on fishing (plus rent from the occasional visitor) to make a basic living.

As the summer gets underway, the island must steel itself for the intrusion of two visitors, a volatile combination that seems set to unsettle the community, possibly irreversibly. First to arrive is Lloyd, a fussy, punctilious artist from London who fancies himself as a modern-day Gaugin, keen to capture the island’s cliffs – and possibly the island’s inhabitants – in all their natural beauty. Following a ridiculous journey by rowing-boat, Lloyd further annoys the islanders by complaining about his accommodation, insisting on a rearrangement of the furniture to make the most of the dwelling’s light. While solitude and silence are crucial to his work, Lloyd is repeatedly interrupted by James; at fifteen, he is the youngest member of the local family that provide the visitor’s meals.

The second visitor arrives just as Lloyd settles into a rhythm, capturing the island’s landscape in traditional charcoals and oils. The man in question is JP Masson, a French linguist nearing the end of a five-year longitudinal study on the evolution of the island’s language, a traditional Gaelic dialect in danger of dying out. Compared to the demanding Englishman, Masson is well-liked by the islanders, his arrival heralded with a full tea and spread.

Masson is keen to protect the island’s language, fearful of any erosion by the encroachment of English phrases and intonations with the potential to disturb. Consequently, he is resentful of Lloyd’s presence on the island – surely a contaminating influence on the Gaelic dialect he wishes to preserve. Likewise, Lloyd is equally annoyed by Masson, viewing him as a disturbing presence to the silence required for his art. These tensions are only exacerbated when Masson discovers that Lloyd’s cottage is directly adjacent to his own, subtly highlighting one of the central issues of colonisation as the men divide up their territory, flinging turf around as they go.

He [Masson] picked up the turf straddling the dividing line and threw it into his basket. Mine, Lloyd, for I was here first. The whole yard is mine. Always has been. And damn you, anyway. For being here. For intruding. […] An Englishman. In this, my final summer. He shouldn’t be here, not on this island, not in this yard, for this is my place, my retreat,… (p. 87)

Mealtimes with James’ family prove particularly stressful for everyone, with Masson insisting the islanders speak Gaelic – a language Lloyd does not understand – while Lloyd prefers English, replete with its own troublesome associations. Deep-seated divisions soon emerge, questioning the validity and ownership of a dying language in a modern, English-speaking world.

It’s theirs to kill, said Lloyd. Not yours.

Masson shook his head.

You can’t speak on this. You have spent centuries trying to annihilate this language, this culture.

[…]

This is about Ireland, said Masson. About the Irish language.

And do the Irish have a say, said Lloyd, in your great plan for saving the language?

The English don’t, said Masson. (pp. 94-95)

Central to Masson’s study is the multigenerational O’Neill/Gillan family. At fifteen, James is the youngest, the only bilingual member, fluent in Gaelic and English, having been schooled on the mainland. The boy’s elders are pressuring him to become a fisherman, following in the footsteps of his father, uncle and grandfather, who drowned in a fishing accident when he was a baby. James, however, has other aspirations; he is a talented artist with a natural eye for composition – more promising than Lloyd, who is struggling to capture the island’s birds and subtle natural light.

As James starts producing his own paintings of island life, Lloyd ‘borrows’ the boy’s ideas, indulging in a form of artistic appropriation to further his own career. With Lloyd dangling the promise of a joint exhibition of their work in London, James hopes to use his creative talents as a possible means of escape. Anything to get away from fishing, the burden of providing for his family, not to mention continuing the Gaelic language as per Masson’s insistent wishes.

…because if I smell of something other than fish, of paints and oils, they might all see that I should leave, that I am not a fisherman, not a proper island boy, but something that has to be elsewhere, somewhere other than here looking after my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and now they’re giving me the mother tongue to look after as well, to save that mother too, to save it all and the other mothers. I don’t want so many mothers. (p. 148)

One thing that Magee does particularly brilliantly here is to move the point-of-view from one character to another – often within the same paragraph or sentence – showing us the richness of each person’s inner world despite the limited nature of their existence. James’ mother, Mairéad, for instance – a woman who mostly speaks in Gaelic but has a reasonable understanding of English, enough to know what is being discussed at the table. As Mairéad knits a jumper for James, she ponders her grandmother’s attitude to knitting, another illuminating passage on the enduring pain of colonisation.

They take our land, she says, starve us and then to alleviate the poverty, to assuage their guilt, they set us up with knitting. Make jumpers this way and sell them, they said. Earn your living that way, they said. Earn your rent that way, they said, though, we liked earning our living the other way, from the land that was our land, the sea that was our sea. But they told us to knit, so now we knit. Well, I’m not knitting, says Bean Uí Fhloinn. Not that knitting. Their knitting. Their Scottish, English, Irish knitting. I’ll do my own knitting. Knit as my mother did. As my grandmother knitted. (pp. 163–164)

While still pining for her drowned husband, Liam, Mairéad treads a dangerous path, sleeping with Masson in the dead of night, then walking to the cliffside hut at dawn, where she poses semi-nude for Lloyd in the style of a Rembrandt muse. There is no sexual attraction for Mairéad in these sessions with Lloyd; only a desire for her essence to be captured in oils, then taken away from this deadly island – the place that has claimed her holy trinity of men – to hang in a gallery for posterity as an image to endure. Also relevant here is Liam’s temperamental brother, Francis, who ‘waits in the long grass’ for his widowed sister-in-law, Mairéad, the woman he desperately wants to possess.

Bean Uí Néill – James’ grandmother and Mairéad’s mother – is another woman scarred by loss and erosion. Wary of the islander’s visitors, she is fearful that Lloyd will paint the islanders – which he does, having already promised to stick to the cliffs. The presence of one outsider (Masson) on the island feels manageable for this matriarch, but two at the same time spells trouble – a prediction that ultimately comes to pass.

While Bean Uí Néill turns a blind eye to Mairéad’s visits to Masson’s bed – written off as a tolerable summer fling – she knows nothing of her daughter’s sessions with Lloyd. Bean Uí Fhloinn, on the other hand, misses nothing. Fully immersed in the Gaelic language, James’ great-grandmother is Masson’s prime subject, the source for his dissertation and subsequent book, which are sure to be a great success. Yet, in his own way, Masson is just guilty as Lloyd of cultural exploitation, using the islanders’ language to further his progression while casually sleeping with Mairéad. Interestingly, Magee adds another layer to her portrayal of Masson, exposing his own colonial heritage. Born to a brutal French father and a misguided Algerian mother, Masson was forced to learn Arabic in secret as a child, a practice that deepened the divisions within an already fractured household.

For a novel concerned with the preservation of language, Magee’s prose is suitably stunning, demonstrating a poetry and fluidity as it flows from one character to another, blurring the margins between observation, dialogue and inner thoughts and feelings.

He looked at the sky and began to draw

gulls

swirling and twisting

hovering, banking

across

cloudless blue (p. 11)

There’s some gorgeous descriptive writing here too, deftly capturing the play of light on the beautiful coastal landscape, complete with its active birdlife.

He attached paper to the easel and lifted a pencil to sketch long lines up and down the page, a low hum slipping through his lips as his fingers and hand moved across the sheet, hunting to recreate that first encounter, his first sighting of that ferocious beauty, page after page of light and dark, of unshaded and shaded, working late into the night and again in the early morning, relishing the stillness of the village, of the island, his doors and windows open to flood the cottage with light, with the sounds of the sea and the songs of the birds. (pp. 51–52)

As the novel draws to a close, there is a notable escalation in tension, a factor present throughout in the island’s power dynamics. Alongside these palpable pressures, Magee punctuates the narrative with radio bulletins on the Troubles – short, factual reports of terrorist incidents on the mainland, offering no judgements or opinions, just the cold, hard facts of death and sectarian violence. With the summer turning to autumn, the visitors finally prepare to depart, having planted emotional hand-grenades of their own with the potential to explode…

In a wise move, Magee doesn’t overplay the novel’s denouement, eschewing high drama for a more understated ending – still devastating in its own way, but quietly so, pregnant with uncertainties as to what the future will hold. We fear for these islanders – their traditions, their livelihoods, and ultimately their safety – lives disrupted by the self-centred interlopers, men who have sown the seeds of discontentment and potential violence for many years to come. 

The Colony is published by Faber; personal copy.

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

First published in 1956, The Fountain Overflows is a novel I’ve been meaning to read for a long time – a wonderfully immersive depiction of childhood, inspired by West’s own family and early life. As Andrea Barrett explains in the introduction to the NYRB edition, West’s father, Charles Fairfield, was a brilliant political journalist, a compulsive gambler who conducted numerous affairs, culminating in his abandonment of the family in 1901. Fairfield’s wife, Isabella, assumed sole responsibility for raising the couple’s three daughters, one of whom was Rebecca or Cicily as she was known back then – her pen name of Rebecca West came later, in honour of a character from one of Ibsen’s plays.

Charles and Isabella are clearly the inspiration for two of the central characters in The Fountain Overflows: Piers Aubrey, the charming but irresponsible political pamphleteer, and his wife, Clare, a gifted pianist whose primary focus is to nurture the musical talents of her daughters – the twins, Rose and Mary, and their elder sister, Cordelia. Just like their mother, Rose and Mary are promising pianists, while Cordelia seems oblivious to the fact that she has no aptitude for the violin whatsoever, unable to distinguish good music from bad.

As the novel opens, Piers has just been appointed as the editor of a suburban newspaper based in London, prompting the family to relocate from Edinburgh, where they have been sub-letting their flat. The new job appears to be the latest in a sequence of false dawns for Piers – an earlier stint in South Africa did not quite work out – and his tendency to gamble away any earnings on foolish investments is widely known. While Rose, the novel’s narrator, is still quite young, she seems fully aware of her father’s shortcomings, having learned to anticipate misfortune and to support her mother accordingly.

Papa was always happy when he was engaged in certain activities. Of these the one which gave him greatest pleasure was his lifelong wrestling match with money. He was infatuated with it though he could not get on good terms with it. He felt towards it as a man of his type might have felt towards a gipsy mistress, he loved it and hated it, he wanted hugely to possess it and then drove it away, so that he nearly perished of his need for it. (p. 61)

Despite the family’s lack of financial resources, Rose enjoys a relatively happy and loving childhood, surrounded as she is by her sisters, her delightful younger brother, Richard Quin, and her cousin / close confidante, Rosamond. Rosamond’s mother, Constance, is married to Clare’s cousin, Jock, another unreliable father with scant regard for his familial duties. Constance and Clare are great friends, their relationship stretching back to childhood, broadly akin to the bond that begins to develop between their daughters, Rosamond and Rose.

While this is not a plot-driven novel as such, we are treated to a glorious sequence of incidents, all of which come together to form a vivid picture of life in the Aubrey household, complete with its various ups and downs. There’s a little bit of everything here: family Christmases brightened by homemade dresses and toys; debt collectors knocking at the front door while Piers slips out the back; and Cordelia hopelessly scraping away at the violin, misguidedly encouraged by one of her teachers, the eccentric Miss Beevor. Unfortunately, Miss Beevor is convinced that Cordelia is a musical genius, a belief that strengthens Cordelia’s determination to perform in public, much to her family’s dismay.

Murder, poltergeists and political lobbying also play their parts in the story, lending the narrative a wonderfully immersive yet unpredictable air. And yet, despite the lack of structure in the girls’ life, there is an overriding sense of optimism that everything will turn out okay in the end, irrespective of the Aubreys’ shortcomings.

I felt sure, of course, that in the end we would be all right. Mary and I never doubted that we would we would be all right. But we would have to have a framework in which to be all right, and about that I was no longer certain. (pp. 166–167)

This is an absorbing, richly rewarding novel, full of jewel-like detail, from the sharply defined portraits of minor characters to the beautifully descriptive images on family life. In this passage, Rose is recounting the children’s efforts in procuring Christmas presents for their parents despite a lack of regular pocket money.

Mary had practised considerable deception over the money given her for milk and buns at eleven, and had gone to a junk shop we passed on our way to school and bought Papa a little eighteenth-century book about the sights of Paris with pretty coloured pictures and Mamma a water-colour of Capri, where she had spent a wonderful holiday when she was young. I had a painted a wooden box to hold big matches for Papa to keep in his study and had made a shopping bag for Mamma out of plaited straw. Richard Quin had given the matches to put in my match-box and to Mamma a bright pink cake of scented soap which he had chosen himself. (p. 82)

What’s also impressive here is the lightness of touch West brings to some of the broader themes in the novel – for example, her views on Europe and the various political developments that occurred during the 20th century. Rather than labouring the point on the foolishness of war, West introduces the topic in a very interesting way. When Piers is asked to write a pamphlet on Britain’s foreign policy and the future of Europe, the parliamentary group who commissioned the piece are extremely reluctant to publish it, viewing it as the ramblings of a madman who has taken leave of his senses. If only the politicians had more foresight and intelligence in these matters…perhaps those warnings on the dangers of a state-controlled society might not seem so crazy after all.

And he goes on to say the most extraordinary things about the wars we are going to have after the criminals have taken over. He says there will have to be wars, because when these criminals have wiped out all the resistance in their own countries they will need some other excuse for killing, and they will get it in war; and they will be pressed by economic need because once they had stolen all the wealth honest men had stored up in their countries, there would be nothing more being accumulated, honest men would be reluctant to go on working just to lay up loot for a criminal government, and they will be forced to make war to get at the wealth of other countries. Really, Mrs Aubrey, did you ever hear anything so extraordinary in your life? (pp. 327–328)

In summary, The Fountain Overflows is a beautifully written novel by one of Britain’s leading critics and writers, a wonderful evocation of family life that captures its inherent tensions with insight and elegance. There is genuine warmth, intelligence and compassion in this book, typified by the characters of Rose and Clare – the latter doing her best to protect the Aubreys from rack and ruin.

While West had originally intended the book to be the opening part of a trilogy, she remained somewhat unsatisfied with the two sequels, The Real Night and Cousin Rosamund, and chose not to publish them in her lifetime. Luckily both are now in print, published posthumously in the mid-1980s, and available for us to read.

Green for Danger by Christianna Brand   

It’s always an unexpected joy when one of these lovely British Library Crime Classics drops through the door, especially if it’s as enticing as this. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

First published in 1944, Green for Danger – the second book in Brand’s Inspector Cockrill series – is set at Heron’s Park, a military hospital in Kent in the midst of WW2. As Martin Edwards notes in his excellent introduction, the novel is an example of a classic ‘closed circle’ mystery in which the culprit is one of a small pack of potential suspects the author shuffles during the story, shifting the focus from one person to another until the perpetrator is revealed.

Brand cleverly introduces her cast of suspects in the opening chapter through their acceptance letters for positions at Heron’s Park. So, we have Gervase Eden, a Harley Street surgeon, the type with a string of women falling at his feet; Jane Woods (Woody), a rather plain woman of forty who has given up a life of gaiety to volunteer as a V.A.D. nurse, mostly to assuage her conscience for past misdemeanours; Esther Sanson, a young woman whose life has been dominated by a needy, hypochondriac mother – if nothing else, nursing will give Esther some sort of training and a life away from home.

Mr Moon, another surgeon, is a kindly, mature man (almost Churchillian in appearance), still mourning his son, who was killed in a road accident. The sensitive anaesthetist Dr (Barney) Barnes remains troubled by the unfortunate death of a patient on the operating table while in his care. Nothing untoward was found in the inquiry, but the patient’s family have their suspicions – hopefully the move to Heron’s Park will offer Barney a fresh start. Finally, we have Frederica Linley (Freddi), a cool, detached young woman who views volunteering as a V.A.D. as a way of escaping her dreadful stepmother; and Sister Marion Bates, who seems to be on the lookout for a husband on the hospital wards.

Once all the main characters have been introduced, we fast forward to a point in time when the team has been working together for a while, steadily dealing with the casualties in its care. The hustle and bustle of hospital life is brilliantly conveyed, oscillating between periods of high activity and quieter moments when the staff get a chance to chat.

One day, a recently admitted patient – Joseph Higgins – dies while undergoing a seemingly routine operation, much to the team’s distress. At first, the outcome is put down to a bad reaction to the anaesthetic; but given Barney’s history of a previous unexplained death, the surgeons decide to call on Detective Inspector Cockrill to give the incident the once over. The hope is that this will nip any potential gossip about foul play in the bud, but when Cockrill takes a look, his suspicions are soon aroused…

Initially, there appears to be no clear motive for the murder of Higgins, a postman who had been working as an air-raid warden during the war. But as the novel unfolds, more details about the hospital staff emerge for the sharp-eyed reader to spot. Brand does a terrific job in raising subtle doubts about each of her key players as the story progresses, shifting our suspicions from one person to the next – and occasionally back again, just to confuse things further. There’s even a second murder to add to the mix when a stabbing in the operating theatre makes for a rather macabre twist!

Brand – who spent time with V.A.D.s during the Blitz – captures the inner working of a military hospital so well, from the layouts and daily routines of the wards to the anaesthesia procedures in the operating theatre. Right from the very start, there’s a strong sense of authenticity (and a somewhat sinister atmosphere!) to the descriptions of these scenes.

The men slept uneasily on their improvised beds, humped under rough brown army blankets, their arms, outflung in sleep, lying supine across the dusty floor. Here and there a pair of bright eyes gleamed, open and aware; here and there a face was coloured vividly green or purple, where the skin specialists were trying out some new treatment; once she almost collided with a blue-clad figure, its eyes dark hollows in a huge, white-bandaged face. (p. 106)

Some of the most enjoyable aspects of this novel stem from the lively interpersonal dynamics between various characters. There are lots of romantic entanglements here, with people falling in and out of love on a fairly regular basis, possibly as a distraction from the war. While Freddi seems happily engaged to Barney, she cannot help having a little crush on Gervase – a most unlikely Don Juan, especially given his rather dull appearance.

Esther said thoughtfully: “What people can see in Gervase, I never could understand. I mean, he’s nice and he’s funny, but he’s as ugly as anything, so thin and grey and, well, he must be at least forty…”

“Thanks very much,” said Woods.

“Well, I don’t mean that, darling, you know what I mean. He’s not a glamour boy; and he never seems to try to make women like him.”

“Ah, but you’re a lady icicle, Esther.”

“Well, I must be, because I seem to be the only female in the hospital who can see Gervase Eden without swooning at his feet…” (pp. 45-46)

Sister Bates remains madly in love with Gervase following an earlier brief affair. Gervase, on the other hand, is no longer interested in Marion, as his affections ultimately lie elsewhere…

Meanwhile, the war rumbles away in the background, but everyone seems to take things in their stride, particularly the V.A.D.s – Jane, Esther and Freddi – who share a small cottage on the site.

The whole place rocked with the deafening roar of the guns, but the bombs seemed fewer and the flares were dying down. They sat very comfortably with their feet on the fender, drinking cups of cocoa, in defiance of all orders that nobody was to remain in their quarters after black-out, during a raid. (p. 45)

So, in summary, this excellent mystery ticks a lot of boxes for me. The characters are interesting, engaging and really well-drawn. We have an atmospheric WW2 setting with plenty of tension, and there’s just enough detail on the medical front for the drama to feel realistic. Plus, it’s a devilishly clever mystery to boot. The solution, when it comes, is a very ingenious one – not something I would have worked out for myself without or Inspector Cockrill’s explanation, but perfectly possible nonetheless!

The 1946 film adaptation (same title) is excellent too, with Alastair Sim perfectly cast as Inspector Cockrill, a no-nonsense, old-school detective with a cigarette permanently on the go. Trevor Howard also features as Barney, with Judy Campbell (mother of Jane Birkin) as Sister Marion Bates. Very highly recommended indeed – both the book and the film!

The 27th Kingdom by Alice Thomas Ellis

Back in May, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Alice Thomas Ellis’s 1980 novel, The Birds of the Air, a very well-observed tragicomedy featuring a wonderfully dysfunctional family. It was part of a set of four Penguin editions of this author’s early novellas that I’d found in a charity shop, each featuring a charming cover image by the artist Ian Archie Beck.

The 27th Kingdom was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1982, and I do wonder how it would be received by the equivalent panel now. In truth, it’s a rather peculiar book, to the point where my feelings about it oscillated quite markedly throughout. On the upside, there are some wonderfully eccentric characters here – most of them thoroughly unlikeable, which always makes for interesting reading. The setting and premise also promise much in the way of potential drama, although I think Ellis could have gone a little further with her ideas in the end. Most troublesome though is the dialogue, some of which feels clunky and cliched, even considering the period. More on that later as we get into the book…

This story – which takes place in 1954 – revolves around Aunt Irene, a rather eccentric middle-aged émigré who shares a home with and her adult nephew, Kyril. The dwelling in question is Dancing Master House, a small boarding house in London’s Chelsea – an environment that immediately ticks one of my boxes for interesting fiction. Kyril, an art dealer by trade, is a particularly unlikeable character – handsome, sardonic and vindictive, the type who enjoys stirring up trouble just for the thrill of it. Unsurprisingly, his chief target is Mr Sirocco, a timid little man who boards at Irene’s house.

He [Kyril] was fed up with little Mr Sirocco, who had turned out to be resolutely virtuous and very earnest in a dim and blundering fashion, and had quite refused to produce any free samples from the firm of wine shippers where he worked. ‘You must give up taking in deserving cases,’ he said [to Aunt Irene]. ‘They’re boring.’ (p. 13)

Aunt Irene is no paragon of virtue herself, viewing the boarders as an appreciative audience for her artistic talents, ‘raw materials to dispose of and manipulate’ as the fancy takes her. There are hints of dodgy activities too – possible tax evasion and the receipt of black-market goods – things that Irene’s charlady, the sharp-eyed Mrs Mason, has noticed over the years.

Mrs Mason, rolling up the sleeves of her cardigan, thought Aunt Irene looked like one of those backyard hydrangeas. It was significant that she had so many clothes – not all of them pre-war by any means and nothing Utility. Mrs Mason was absolutely convinced that Aunt Irene had traded with Mrs O’Connor in black-market clothing-coupons throughout the Duration. Her face grew lined and set with jealousy and she wished the taxman would come back – she could tell him a few more things. (p. 89)

Mrs Mason is a marvellous character who features prominently in the book’s wittiest passages, showcasing Ellis’s talents for a dry style of humour. The tensions between Mrs Mason and her employer are particularly well-observed.

Neither of these ladies were satisfied with the other, each being aware with a different degree of resentment that Mrs Mason was not designed by nature or nurture to be a char. (p. 16)

In truth, Mrs Mason is somewhat resentful of the need to work as a cleaning lady, a task she mainly undertakes to placate her dreadful husband, Colonel Mason, an abusive alcoholic who spends most of his time down the pub.

Early in the novel, Irene receives a letter from her sister, Berthe, the Reverend Mother of a Convent in Wales. Berthe wants Irene to take in Valentine, a postulant (or apprentice nun) as a sort of test of the girl’s faith. In truth, Berthe is somewhat unsettled by Valentine’s unusual powers, which have proven somewhat difficult to rationalise or pin down – in other words, she may or not be a saint. After a certain amount of hesitation, Irene duly accepts, welcoming Valentine to Dancing Master House, where she is installed in Mr Sirocco’s room. As such, the downtrodden Mr Sirocco is casually ejected, ultimately ending up in a depressingly barren room in the house next door.

Valentine is tall, beautiful and black, a composed young woman whose presence in the house should be rather calming. That said, Kyril is somewhat flummoxed by this new arrival when she fails to rise to his taunts. It’s a response he’s never encountered before, a development that leaves him rather perplexed.

While various peculiar things happen in the book – Irene hosts a party, someone dies, and a strange man is seen watching the house – this is not a plot-driven novel as such. Instead, the primary focus seems to be on the characters as they dance around one another, exposing their flaws and failings as various tensions ensue. In addition to the main characters already mentioned, there are some interesting supporting players here – perhaps most notably Focus, Irene’s wonderfully fluffy cat.

Focus found the atmosphere lowering and asked to be let out of the front door.

‘Well, be careful,’ warned Aunt Irene. ‘Some awful person might make you into a muff. Don’t leave the garden.’

Normally Focus wouldn’t have dreamed of leaving the garden. He would sit under the magnolia daring its blossom to compete with his beauty, and watching the birds, but he was no different from anyone else when it came to being ordered about. He didn’t like it. (p. 123)

Where the book falls down (for me at least) is in its depiction of the O’Connor family, a bawdy band of tricksters who specialise in house clearances and black-market goods. It’s here that the characterisation feels thin and cliched – especially in the cockney dialogue, which quickly begins to grate.     

‘Valentine, nip roun’ Peabody Buildin’s and look for a pram, ‘n’ when you’ve foun’ one fin’ out ‘oose it is and make ‘er give you the baby’s orange juice. Tell ‘er it’s a matter of life ‘n’ deaf. ‘S the only fing,’… (p. 96)

Sadly, there are some rather unfortunate examples of casual racism here too, such as the use of ‘half-caste’ and ‘piccaninnies’ by one of the characters to describe Valentine and her family. While Aunt Irene clearly disapproves of this behaviour, it doesn’t make these passages any easier to read.

So, in summary, there’s quite a lot to enjoy in this novel, even if the cliched dialogue and casual prejudices take the shine off it somewhat. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Valentine’s tragic past, an event that ties her to one of the secondary characters in the story. At one point, I wondered whether the book was heading down a Lolly Willowes-ish route, with its flashes of tragedy, spiritualism, absurdity and levitation, but it doesn’t entirely take off in that fashion. Something of a missed opportunity, perhaps, at least in part…

Nevertheless, I’ll finish with a final passage that points to Ellis’s flair for a wicked touch. There are some wonderfully mordant images here, hinting at the small savageries of family life.

On the table were some warlike scarlet tulips in a Chinese bowl writhing with dragons. It was a room for the night time and looked at once wicked and pitiful in the dawn light… (p. 25)

Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (tr. Natasha Wimmer)

The publishing arm of Daunt Books has been on quite a roll over the past few years, issuing books by some of my favourite women writers in translation – Natalia Ginzburg, Madeleine Bourdouxhe and Elisa Shua Dusapin, to name but a few. Now I can add Nona Fernández to that list, courtesy of her remarkably powerful novella Space Invaders, recently released in this stylish new edition. (My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.)

First published in Chile in 2013, this dazzling, shapeshifting novella paints a haunting portrait of a generation of children exposed to the horrors of Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1980s, a time of deep unease and oppression for the country’s citizens – several of whom were kidnapped, tortured and murdered for resisting the regime. The book focuses on a close-knit group of young adults who were at school together during the ‘80s and are now haunted by a jumble of disturbing dreams, interspersed with shards of unsettling memories – suppressed during childhood but crying out to be dealt with now. Collectively, these striking fragments form a kind of literary collage, a powerful collective memory of the group’s absent classmate, Estrella González, whose father was a leading figure in the State Police.

Right from the very start, Fernández injects her narrative with a chilling sense of oppression, creating an ominous atmosphere that pulses through the book. Memories of the protagonists lining up in a regimented grid-like fashion at school – or later as adults marshalled together in the street – recur throughout the narrative, the context subtly shifting each time the passage appears.

Displaying clean fingernails, ringless hands, bright faces, hair brushed into submission. Singing the national anthem every Monday first thing, each according to their ability, in piercing off-key voices, loud and almost bellowing voices enthusiastically repeating the chorus, as up front one of us raises the Chilean flag from where it rests in somebody else’s arms. The little star of white cloth rising up, up, up till it touches the sky, the flag finally at the top of the staff, rippling over our heads in time to our singing as we stare up at it from the shelter of its dark shadow. (pp. 9–10)

Fernandez adopts a fascinating combination of form and structure for her book, using the popular Space Invaders game as both a framework and a metaphor for conveying the story. As such, the text is divided into four sections, each one focusing on a different time in the 1980s, with the title reflecting one of the lives assigned to a Space Invaders player during the game (e.g. ‘First Life’, ‘Second Life’ and ‘Game Over’). Moreover, the children’s situation can be likened to that of the targets in the Invaders game, their lives literally being shattered – both physically and psychologically – by the horrors of the Pinochet regime.

We’re pieces in a game, but we don’t know what it’s called,’ cites one of the protagonists as they recall those dictatorial line-ups at school – a statement that changes to ‘we’re pieces in a game that we don’t know how to stop playing,’ when it reappears towards the end of the book. As such, it implies that the battle seems never-ending, indicating a scenario where everyone feels trapped.

And when the last one died, when the screen was blank, another alien army appeared from the sky, ready to keep fighting. They gave up one life to combat, then another, and another, in a cycle of endless slaughter. (p. 16)

As the book unfolds, mostly through the sequence of dreams, partial recollections and letters between Estrella and her best friend, Maldonado, a composite picture of the missing girl emerges – a typical schoolgirl, alive to the wonders of life, despite her vulnerable situation. Each classmate sees Estrella slightly differently, viewing her from their own unique perspective; nevertheless, common threads are visible amongst the various voices, images and words.

One thing Fernández does brilliantly here is to draw on some remarkably striking imagery – often from the Space Invaders game itself – to convey the nightmarish world these children were exposed to. For instance, one of the group, a boy named Riquelme, is haunted by dreams of an army of prosthetic hands – an image prompted by the sinister wooden hand worn by Estrella’s father following his accident with a bomb.

Now Riquelme dreams about that never-seen cabinet full of prostheses and about a boy playing with them, a boy he never met. The boy opens the doors of the cabinet and shows him the prosthetic hands lined up one after the other, orderly as an arsenal. They’re glow-in-the-dark green, like the Space Invaders bullets. The boy gives a command and the hands obey him like trained beasts.

Riquelme feels them exit the cabinet and come after him. They menace him. They chase him. They advance like an army of earthlings on the hunt for some alien. (p. 19)

In some instances, dreams can provide an escape from the brutality of life, a safe space to retreat when seeking liberation or solace. However, in the scenario reflected here, any glimpses of freedom and joy are swiftly replaced by more frightening imagery, signalling grave danger as the threats close in.

The sand is swirling. Everything is draining. There’s a hole in the bottom of the pool and it’s beginning to swallow up my classmates. It swallows Bustamante. It’s swallows Fuenzalida. It swallows Maldonado. And I hear screams and the dream turns dangerous and I’m scared. I knew I shouldn’t have jumped into the water… (p. 67)

As the narrative continues, the story becomes progressively darker. More sinister signs and imagery appear. The relative familiarity of school assemblies, lessons and plays gives way to horrific events. Two active dissidents – young men barely out of school – are shot and killed by the State Police. Suspected militants are kidnapped, killed and dumped, their throats slit for all to see. Other individuals are abducted, arrested or beaten up; homes are searched; threatening phone calls are received. In short, the situation becomes increasingly gruesome. Suddenly, the signs of death prove impossible for the children to ignore as their understanding of the reality around them grows – a force they are powerless to tackle.

No one is exactly sure when it happened, but we all remember that coffins and funerals and wreaths were suddenly everywhere and there was no escaping them, because it had all become something like a bad dream. Maybe it had always been that way and we were only just realising it. Maybe Maldonado was right and we were too young. Maybe we were distracted by all that history homework, all those maths tests, all those enactments of battles against the Peruvians. Suddenly things sprang to life in a new way. The classroom opened out to the street, and, desperate and naive, we leaped onto the deck of the enemy ship in the first and final attempt doomed to failure. (p. 57)

It would be unfair of me to reveal what happened to Estrella during this time; you’ll have to read the book to discover it yourself. Suffice it to say we learn enough from the narrative to piece her story together (including the reasons for her disappearance) – a story inspired by actual events from the author’s childhood.

Fernández’s style is visual, engaging and stylishly poetic. While the world portrayed here is brutal, there is wonderful lightness of touch to the author’s approach – an exquisite layering of details for the reader to assemble. Despite its brevity, this is a novella with hidden depths, a highly memorable narrative for such a delicately-etched text. In particular, Fernández skilfully illustrates how in childhood we suppress thoughts and images of traumatic events, only for them to resurface later, often unexpectedly, to be filtered, aggregated and processed in the context of adult life. In short, this is a fractured narrative reflecting fractured lives. A stunning achievement by a remarkable writer – definitely someone to watch.

Women Writers in Translation – some of my recent favourites from the shelves

As many of you will know, August sees the return of WIT Month, a month-long celebration of books by Women in Translation. It’s an annual event hosted by Meytal at Biblibio, aiming to raise the profile of translated literature by women writers worldwide.

This year, I’ve been trying to put a little more focus on this area by reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation each month, rather than just thinking about them for August. So, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read for WIT Month, here’s a round-up of my recent faves.

Meeting in Positano by Goliarda Sapienza (tr. Brian Robert Moore)

This is such a gorgeous novel, as luminous as a hazy summer’s day, shimmering with beauty and sensuality. Its author, the Italian actress and writer Goliarda Sapienza, started her career in theatre and film, working with Luchino Visconti in the 1940s and 50s; and it was a film that first brought Sapienza to Positano, the magical Italian village on the Amalfi Coast she viewed as her spiritual home. The novel – a sensual story of female friendship – has a semi-autobiographical feel, set in the glamour of 1950s Italy. The intensity of the bond between the two women is beautifully conveyed, encompassing joy, desire, regret, longing and tragedy, making this a wonderful rediscovered gem.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This beautiful, evocative novella is set in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story unfolds, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a secret relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man she met at her husband’s office. What emerges is a story of unspoken desire, missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. This haunting, dreamlike novella is intimate and hypnotic in style, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

Gigli, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (tr. Geoff Wilkes)

I loved this novella, a striking portrayal of a determined young woman in Weimar-era Cologne. Right from the start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging voice. In essence, the novella explores Gilgi as an individual and the competing demands on her future direction as she finds herself torn between two seemingly irreconcilable passions: her desire for independence and a successful career vs her love for Martin (a free spirit) and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Keun does a terrific job in capturing her protagonist’s conflicted emotions, frequently in a state of flux. In many respects, this is a very progressive book. Not only is it written in a modernist style, but it also touches on several forward-thinking themes, including adoption, opportunities for women in the workplace, financial independence from men, sex outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and the impact of debt on a person’s mental health. A thoroughly engaging book.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

This slim, beautifully-constructed novella is an exploration of solitude, a meditation on aloneness and the sense of isolation that sometimes accompanies it. The book – which Lahiri originally wrote in Italian and then translated into English – is narrated by an unnamed woman in her mid-forties who lives in a European city, also nameless but almost certainly somewhere in Italy. There’s a vulnerability to this single woman, a fragility that gradually emerges as she goes about her days, moving from place to place through a sequence of brief vignettes. As we follow this woman around the city, we learn more about her life – things are gradually revealed as she reflects on her solitary existence, sometimes considering what might have been, the paths left unexplored or chances never taken. This is an elegant, quietly reflective novella – Lahiri’s prose is precise, poetic and pared-back, a style that feels perfectly in tune with the narrator’s world.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

First published in Japanese in 2016 and translated into English in 2018, Convenience Store Woman is something of a literary sensation, having sold more than a million copies in Japan alone. This quirky, sharply-observed novella is both darkly humorous and strangely poignant, which might sound like a slightly uncomfortable combination, but somehow Murata makes it work. It’s also a book that will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to fit in or found themselves out of step with society’s expectations. Alongside its central theme of the rigidity (and absurdity) of society’s expectations, the novella also touches on various related points, including misogyny, coercion and our perceptions of retail workers. In summary, this is a surprisingly clever novella that poses some fascinating questions about society and the relative value we place on different life choices. A very thought-provoking read.

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

First published in Portugal in 1966 and recently translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa, this brilliant novella is something of a minor masterpiece of 20th-century literature. Here we have a work of great precision and compression – 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. Fans of Natalia Ginzburg and Penelope Mortimer will also find much to admire in this novella – a timeless reminder of how destructive the actions of unthinking men can be, defining and destroying the women who serve them.

Family and Borghesia by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Beryl Stockman)

Two separate but related late ‘70s novellas by the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg, reissued together in a lovely edition from NYRB Classics. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships – how couples come together and subsequently break apart, often creating shock waves across their wider family networks. Viewed together, they illustrate how painful day-to-day life can be and how difficult it is to defend ourselves against unhappiness and detachment. Several characters seem lost or purposeless, drifting through life, trying to navigate the things that cause pain – infidelity, abandonment, illness, suicide, premature death, loneliness and depression. And yet, Ginzburg maintains a lightness of touch in these books, highlighting the inherent emotions without a hint of sentimentality, exploring the various relationships with insight and depth.

Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

First published in French in 2000 and translated into English in 2001, Happening takes us back to October 1963 when Ernaux was studying literature at Rouen University while also dealing with an unwanted pregnancy at the age of twenty-three. In essence, the book is an account of Ernaux’s experiences of a backstreet abortion – her quest to secure it, what takes place during the procedure and the days that follow, all expressed in the author’s trademark candid style. What makes this account so powerful is the rigorous nature of Ernaux’s approach. There are no moral judgements or pontifications here, just the unflinchingly honest details of a topic that remains controversial even in today’s relatively liberated society. By recounting this traumatic experience, one deeply connected to life and death, perhaps Ernaux is looking to translate the personal into something of broader social relevance. A powerful, vital, uncompromising book that deserves to be widely read.

The Umbrella by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Originally published in Danish as Paraplyen (‘The Umbrella’) in 1952, this is the first of two collections of short stories brought together in this beautiful Penguin edition, The Trouble with Happiness and Other Stories. (I’m planning to post my review of the second collection during WIT Month itself.) These ten 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 have stories of petty jealousies, unfulfilled desires, deliberate cruelty and the sudden realisation of deceit, brilliantly conveyed by the author with insight and sensitivity. In short, it’s one of the very best collections I’ve read in recent years. Very highly recommended indeed.

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (tr. Sam Bett and Davis Boyd)

This excellent novel tackles a very difficult subject – that of adolescent bullying – but does so in such a thoughtful and thought-provoking way that the reader cannot help but be drawn in. Set in Japan in 1991, Heaven is narrated by a fourteen-year-old boy who is known to us only by his nickname ‘Eyes’. The boy is systematically bullied – both mentally and physically – by a group of boys in his class, an action he puts down to his lazy eye. On one level, Heaven offers an acute insight into the narrator’s emotions as he tries to process his responses to the bullying. But on another, the book can also be viewed as an exploration of some of the broader philosophical issues at play. The psychology of bullying, for instance – what prompts people to act the way they do, how important (or not) are moral codes and social norms in shaping their actions, and what (if anything) do victims gain from enduring it? A beautifully-written novel about a tough, uncompromising subject – shortlisted for the International Booker earlier this year.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading any next month. Perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? If so, please feel free to mention it below.

You can also find some of my other favourites in my WIT Month recommendations posts from July 2020 and 2021, including books by Olga Tokarczuk, Françoise Sagan, Yūko Tsushima, Ana Maria Matute and many more. Hopefully, there’s something for everyone here!