The Nature of Landscape: The Offing by Benjamin Myers and The Dig by Cynan Jones

Another of my round-up posts – this one focusing on two terrific books, both with a connection to the countryside.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)

This is such a beautiful, life-affirming book – a novel imbued with great warmth, a generosity of spirit and a strong sense of place.

The Offing is set in the English countryside in the summer of 1946, the year following the end of the Second World War. Although the conflict is over, the emotional scars remain, festering in the hearts and minds of the men following their return from battle, their shattering experiences too recent to suppress.

With little to look forward to other than a lifetime of work in the local pits, sixteen-year-old Robert sets out from his village in Durham to see something of the wider world outside. He envisages a journey with no set plan; just a desire to live from one day to the next, picking up a day’s work here and there in exchange for food and shelter.

At the approach to Robin Hood’s Bay, Robert spots a lane leading down to a secluded cottage. Here he stumbles across Dulcie, a tall, middle-aged woman of unconventional dress who greets him as if he were a familiar friend, just popping over as expected. Robert is invited to stay for nettle tea – an invitation he accepts, thereby sparking an unlikely friendship, one that ends up lasting the entire summer.

Dulcie is a wonderful creation – confident, direct and delightfully outspoken. At first, Robert is somewhat shy and reserved in Dulcie’s company, a little intimidated by her forthright views of the world. Nevertheless, he soon recognises this generous woman for what she truly is – wise, well-travelled and progressive in her outlook, someone with the potential to fuel his mind as well as his body. In return for a run of delicious meals and a shack for shelter, Robert clears Dulcie’s overgrown garden of weeds, an activity punctuated by long walks across the surrounding fields with Dulcie’s trusty dog, Butler.

Throughout the summer, Dulcie encourages Robert to read poetry to broaden his outlook, lending him books by D. H. Lawrence, John Clare and Keats amongst others. When the topic of war comes up in the conversation, Dulcie is quick to challenge Robert on his views of the Germans, reminding him that they are not so different from the British – mere pawns in a deadly game of chess.

‘…War is war: it’s started by the few and fought by the many, and everyone loses in the end. There’s no glory in bloodshed and bullet holes. Not a bit of it. I also happen to know that Germany has been left in a terrible state too, and always remember that most of those young men – boys the same age as you are now, no doubt – did not want to be there either. It’s always the honest folk that have to do the bidding of the despots. And after all there are only a few things truly worth fighting for: freedom, of course, and all that it brings with it. Poetry, perhaps, and a good glass of wine. A nice meal. Nature. Love, if you’re lucky. And that’s about it. Don’t hate the Germans; many of them are just like you and me.’ (p. 41)

With Dulcie’s encouragement, Robert begins to feel more alive to the possibilities open to him, with the realisation that there is much more to life than merely following in his father’s footsteps down the mine. He gains a deeper appreciation of the simple things in life, like the wonders of the natural world and the value of education. In short, Dulcie inspires Robert to live his own life – just as she has chosen to live hers. And there’s another payoff too, one for Dulcie. In the fullness of time, Robert enables this independent woman to come to terms with a painful event from her past, something she has been trying to suppress for the last six years. 

In writing The Offing, Myers has given us such a gorgeous, compassionate book, one that demonstrates the power of human connection in a damaged world. Alongside its themes of hope, individualism and recovery, the novel can also be seen as an evocative paean to the natural world. Myers writes beautifully about the countryside in a way that feels at once both timely and timeless, perfectly capturing the ephemeral feel of a glorious English summer.

The tiniest details came into sharp focus: the skeletal architecture of a small dead leaf that had lain untouched since winter, or the quiver of a solitary blade of wild grass where others beside it were still. The gentle panting of the dog too fell into the rhythm of my own heart as it beat a gentle pattern of sweet coursing blood in my eardrums. A single drop of sweat ran down my left temple. I felt alive. Gloriously, deliriously alive. (p. 45–46)

There are shades of J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country in this transcendent novel, maybe L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, too. If you liked either of those, chances are you’ll really enjoy this too. 

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014)

A haunting, deeply moving book about death, grief, brutality and compassion – beautifully expressed in spare, poetic prose.

Like the Myers, The Dig is rooted in the countryside. However, this is a very different kind of place to the one portrayed in The Offing. Here the environment is tough, feral and visceral; a setting characterised by the undercurrent of cruelty in the natural world.

Recently widowed Daniel is a sheep farmer, struggling to keep on top of the lambing season deep in rural Wales. He is quiet and hard-working, his days dictated by the rhythm of his flock, the demands of the farm acting as a respite from grief.

He tried to put it as clearly as he understood it. He could not bear the responsibility of small talk, reassuring people he was coping. He seemed to know the offer of sympathy would be like a gate he’d go crashing through. He could bear only the huge responsibility to the ewes, to the farm working, which would be tyrannical and which was in process now, and which didn’t care about him.

‘After?’ asked his mother.

I don’t know after,’ he said. And truly he didn’t. She held him then, and she felt the massive devastation of him. (p. 50)

Daniel’s story is interspersed with glimpses of another inhabitant of the community, ‘the big man’, a badger-baiter whose underground activities risk attracting attention from the police. The baiter is a sinister presence in the book, one who hunts at night, using savage dogs to trap badgers for use in the mercilessly cruel sport. (For the uninitiated, badger-baiting – an illegal activity in the UK – involves pitting a badger against a ferocious dog, typically resulting in the death of the badger and often seriously injuring the dog.)

As the narrative unfolds, the lives of the two men intersect with devastating consequences.

By now you’re probably thinking of this as a brutal book, one that features distressing scenes of badgers being exploited for sport. Well, that’s true; but one of the roles of fiction is to raise uncomfortable issues, challenging our beliefs and preconceptions of the world around us. While we may wish to think of the countryside as a peaceful place, we should also recognise the sense of darkness it can foster, the innate violence it can breed.

In writing The Dig, Jones has crafted an enduring story of loss, isolation and savagery in a harsh, unforgiving world. And yet there is great tenderness here too, a sense of beauty and poetry in the language, particularly in Daniel’s memories of times past. The writing has a meditative quality to it, perfectly capturing Daniel’s love for his wife and the intense pain of her loss. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates this aspect of the novella.

He remembered the sight of her in the cab of the tractor while she drove along the rows of bales and he stacked them on the trailer as the boys threw them up. He remembered the sweat and the itch of seed, the burn of the baling twine inside his fingers, the bales grazing his knuckles, the diesel air about the tractor. He remembered her with the bright splash of colour of the cloth worn on her head, how they had joked that she looked girlish and Alpine. Heidi they had called her that day, and how he had wanted her in the rich way we can want a woman we physically work with, and how he was glad it was his wife he wanted this way. (p. 91)

The Offing is published by Bloomsbury (personal copy), The Dig by Granta; my thanks to the publisher/Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

The gloriously off-kilter world of Muriel Spark continues to be a source of fascination for me. I loved this novella, especially the first half. It’s wonderfully dark and twisted, characteristically Sparkian in its unconventional view.

Central to the narrative is young Dougal Douglas who, on his arrival in Peckham from Scotland, sets about wreaking havoc on the community, disturbing the residents’ lives in the most insidious of ways.

As the novella opens, people are discussing an aborted wedding involving Dixie Morse, a typist at Meadows, Meade & Grindley (a local textiles’ factory), and Humphrey Place, a refrigerator engineer. Some three weeks’ earlier, Humphrey had said ‘no’ at the altar, walking out on Dixie and a church full of guests.  

Spark is very skilled in her use of dialogue to convey the story, a technique that gives the novella a sense of closeness or immediacy, almost as if the reader is eavesdropping on a conversation between friends. The saga of Dixie’s abandonment is relayed through gossip at the pub, with various locals chipping in, adding their two pennies’ worth to the anecdote as it passes along.

The barmaid said: ‘It was only a few weeks ago. You saw it in the papers. That chap who left the girl at the altar, that’s him. She lives up the Grove. Crewe by name.’

One landlady out of a group of three said, ‘No, she’s a Dixie Morse. Crewe’s the stepfather. I know because she works at Meadows Meade in poor Miss Coverdale’s pool that was. Miss Coverdale told me about her. The fellow had a good position as a refrigerator engineer.’

‘Who was the chap that hit him?’

Some friend of the girl’s, I daresay.’
‘Old Lomas’s boy. Trevor by name. Electrician. He was best man at the wedding.’

‘There was I,’ sang out an old man who was visible with his old wife on the corner bench over in the public bar, ‘waiting at the church, waiting at the church.’

His wife said nothing nor smiled. (p. 11–12)

There is a general feeling amongst the locals that Dixie would never have been jilted at the altar if Dougal Douglas had not come to Peckham in the first place.

Rewinding the timeline by a few months, we see Dougal arriving at Peckham’s Meadows, Meade & Grindley, where he is taken on by one of the managers, Mr Druce, to develop a vision for the employees. Absenteeism has become a problem at the factory, and Mr Druce believes that Dougal – an Arts man by education – is clearly the man to deal with it. Dougal, however, is a wily individual at heart. Consequently, he insists that extensive field research must be conducted to take the pulse of the people of Peckham before any reports on the issue can be submitted. In reality, this is merely an excuse for Dougal to do very little actual work; instead, he spends his time chatting up various woman at the factory, encouraging them to take Mondays off for the good of their health (ahem).

Alongside stirring things up at the factory, Dougal also manages to befriend Humphrey, Dixie’s fiancé – a development that happens purely by chance as both men are renting rooms at Miss Frierne’s boarding house in Peckham.

Dougal’s encounters with others are often characterised by a palpable undercurrent of sexual tension; this is particularly true of his interactions with Merle Coverdale, Dixie’s somewhat formidable yet vulnerable boss. For several years, thirty-seven-year-old Miss Coverdale has been trapped in an unfulfilling affair with the married Mr Druce; and as such, she is ripe for some attention, quickly succumbing to Dougal and his seductive charms. Dougal even has an influence on relations between Dixie and Humphrey in this respect, adding to the sexual charge between the couple, albeit indirectly.

‘You’re getting too sexy,’ she [Dixie] said. ‘It’s through you having to do with Dougal Douglas. He’s a sex maniac. I was told. He’s immoral.’

‘He isn’t,’ Humphrey said.

‘Yes he is, he talks about sex quite open, at any time of the day. Girls and sex.’

‘Why don’t you relax like you used to do?’ he said.

‘Not unless you give up that man. He’s putting ideas in your head.’

‘You’ve done plenty yourself to put ideas in my head,’ he said. ‘I didn’t used to need to look far to get ideas, when you were around. Especially up in the cupboard.’

‘Repeat that, Humphrey.’

‘Lie down and relax.’

‘Not after what you said. It was an insult.’ (pp. 56–57)

Once again, Spark draws on the effective use of conversations – this time between the factory workers – to move the narrative along. By doing this, she cleverly reveals how Dougal is considered to be ‘different’ or ‘funny’ by many of those around him. (In the following passage, Dixie is talking to Connie Weedin, daughter of Dougal’s immediate boss in Personnel.)

[Connie:] ‘My dad says he’s nuts. Supposed to be helping my dad to keep the factory sweet. But my dad says he don’t do much with all his brains and his letters. But you can’t help but like him. He’s different.’

[Dixie] ‘He goes out with the factory girls. He goes out with Elaine Kent that was process-controller. She’s gone to Drover Willis’s. He goes out with her ladyship [Miss Coverdale] too.’

‘You don’t say?’

‘I do say. He better watch out for Mr Druce if it’s her ladyship he’s after.’

‘Watch out – her ladyship’s looking this way.’ (p. 71)

While some people like Dougal, others – such as Dixie – clearly don’t. Nevertheless, virtually everyone views him as somewhat unusual or atypical from the norm, a quality that adds a certain something to the young man’s persona.

As the story plays out, it becomes increasingly barbed and surreal. There are instances of duplicity, blackmail, mental breakdown and tragedy, all seemingly orchestrated by Dougal – once again, indirectly.  

The setting – a South London borough in the 1960s – is captured to a T. It’s the sort of community where everyone is desperate to know everyone else’s business, the pubs and shops alive with gossip and rumour.

In Dougal Douglas, Spark has created one of her most sinister characters, a mercurial individual who brings chaos into the lives of those he encounters. There is a touch of the dark arts about this novella with its slyly manipulative protagonist. If you like Spark’s novella The Driver’s Seat, chances are you’ll appreciate this.   

The Ballad of Peckham Rye is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (tr. Archibald Colquhoun)

What can I say about this remarkable novel – undoubtedly a true classic of 20th-century literature – that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot. But as it’s our book group choice for May, I feel the need to jot down a few thoughts, if only to remind myself of what I loved about it for our discussion via Zoom later tonight.

The Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi based The Leopard on the life of his great-grandfather, Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, the Prince of Lampedusa, whose life spanned much of the 19th century. Like his esteemed ancestor before him, the author was also a prince, the last in the line of aristocracy that was ultimately swept away during the carnage and social change that ripped through Europe during WW2. This context is important for any reading of The Leopard, as Giuseppe Tomasi’s protagonist, Don Fabrizio, the charming Prince of Salina, finds himself caught up in a period of great change, one ushered in by the Risorgimento, or unification of Italy, whereby the various states of the southern Italian peninsula were incorporated into a united Italy in the mid-19th century.

The novel opens in the summer of 1860 at the time of Garibaldi’s advance on Sicily. An intelligent, charismatic nobleman at heart, Don Fabrizio knows that the old way of life is changing. The current principality is unlikely to survive, certainly not in the manner to which the old guard has become accustomed. As such, future generations of Don Fabrizio’s family will not to be able to enjoy the same privileges as the Prince during their own lifetimes. Moreover, the Prince’s nephew, the much-loved Tancredi, has broken with tradition, joining the Redshirts in their quest for change and unification. In his discussions with Don Fabrizio, it is Tancredi – a highly spirited young man – who sees the need to be part of the revolution, influencing the outside from within, in the hope of maintaining some semblance of authority.

“Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change…” (p. 19)

Don Fabrizio, for his part, tries to balance the preservation of his noble values with the need to adapt, thereby securing some degree of continuity for his family’s influence. He recognises Tancredi’s potential as an influential player in the politics of the future – the young man is much better placed in this respect than any the Prince’s seven children, Paolo, the natural bloodline heir included.

At first, Tancredi is attracted to Concetta, the most alluring of Don Fabrizio’s daughters and also the Prince’s favourite. Concetta too is in love with Tancredi, so much so that she asks the family’s priest, Father Pirrone, to tell her father she believes a marriage proposal is imminent, hoping the latter will be happy for her to accept. Donna Fabrizio, however, realises his daughter’s dowry will be insufficient for Tancredi, potentially stymieing the boy’s future political ambitions. Somewhat fortuitously for the Prince, Tancredi soon falls under the sway of Angelica, the heart-stoppingly beautiful daughter of Don Calogero, one of the up-and-coming landowners in Sicily, whose newly-acquired wealth bestows on him significant influence. With an eye on the future of his extended family, the Prince encourages the blossoming romance between Tancredi and Angelica, viewing it as a desirable move in light of the broader socio-political developments, even though Don Calogero and his daughter are from a much lower social class than the Prince himself.

There is a distinct air of melancholy surrounding the character of Don Fabrizio as he observes the inevitable decline of the old ways of life. At forty-five, he seems jaded, something of a loner in a bustling house. Stagnating in a marriage with an indifferent, highly religious wife, the Prince secretly despairs of the fading beauty that surrounds him – a feeling that applies to both the physical beauty of the women he meets at society balls and the intellectual beauty of the world as he perceives it. A love of astronomy and mathematics provide the Prince with some form of solace, the stars in the night sky representing a sense of constancy and stability that is lacking elsewhere. There are also the night-time visits to lovers in the nearby brothels, another source of pleasure for the Prince, albeit a more furtive one.  

The novel is rich with the fabric of life in this privileged sector of Sicilian society, from the sumptuous meals at Don Fabrizio’s Palazzo in Palermo to the glamorous balls taking place within the Prince’s social set. Tomasi’s prose comes into its own here. The language is gorgeous – sensual, evocative and ornate, frequently tinged with an aching sense of sadness for the tragedies destined to follow.

Tancredi and Angelica were passing in front of them at that moment, his gloved right hand on her waist, their outspread arms interlaced, their eyes gazing into each other’s. The black of his tail-coat, the pink of interweaving dress, looked like some unusual jewel. They were the most moving sight there, two young people in love dancing together, blind to each other’s defects, deaf to the warnings of fate, deluding themselves that the whole course of their lives would be as smooth as the ballroom floor, unknowing actors set to play the parts of Juliet and Romeo by a director who had concealed the fact that tomb and poison were already in the script. (p.172)

There are also trips to the family’s country estate at Donnafugata; discussions between Don Fabrizio and various local influencers; reflections on various affairs of the heart, most notably those involving Tancredi and the rather crushed Concetta. All these threads come together to form a picture of Sicily which, for all its artistry and elegance, is also characterised by something much darker – a deep-seated seam of violence and fascination with death.

“This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing round us like a lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from all directions, who were at once obeyed, soon detested and always misunderstood; their sole means of expression works of art we found enigmatic and taxes we found only too intelligible, and which they spent elsewhere. All these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.” (p.138)

This beautiful, elegiac novel will transport you to the sensuality and heat of Sicily, an island at a time of great revolution and social change. I found it such a poignant and affecting read, all the more so for the fact that the author was unable to secure publication before his death from lung cancer in the summer of 1957. Thankfully for us, the book was edited by the eminent Italian writer Giorgio Bassani and published posthumously in 1958. What a marvellous gift this has turned out to be, a richly rewarding book of immense grace and beauty. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates the sublime nature of Tomasi’s prose.

Before going to bed Don Fabrizio paused a moment on the little balcony of his dressing-room. Beneath lay the shadowed garden, sunk in sleep; in the inert air the trees seemed like fused lead; from the overhanging bell-tower came an elfin hoot of owls. The sky was clear of clouds; those which had greeted the dusk had moved away, maybe towards less sinful places, condemned by divine wrath to lesser penalties. The stars looked turbid and their rays scarcely penetrated the pall of sultry air. (p. 61)

The Vintage edition comes with an excellent forward on the novel’s publication and the political context at the time of its setting, primarily the early 1860s.

(For the interested, I’ve also written about Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, another classic Italian novel which shares something of The Leopard’s wistful, elegiac tone and sense of yearning for the halcyon days of times past. Finally, here’s a link to my review of a slim collection of Tomasi’s short fiction, The Professor and The Siren, which includes the first chapter of an unfinished novel, The Blind Kittens – also highly recommended.)

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins, 2020)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations.

The setting for the novella – this French-Korean writer’s debut – is Sokcho, a coastal city in the far north-east of South Korea, close to the North Korean border. Dusapin’s story revolves around a young woman in her early twenties, currently working as a cook and housemaid in a run-down guest house struggling to keep up with the new hotels in the city.

The narrator – who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Moreover, she is being made to feel inadequate by her conventional Korean mother, a woman who sells seafood at the nearby fish market. There are repeated references to the narrator’s weight and her status as an unmarried woman, both of which give rise to pressure from the mother. The narrator, for her part, feels at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to her boyfriend, Jun-oh, an aspiring model intent on furthering his career in Seoul.

Into the narrator’s life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, an undeniable charge that feels detectable to the reader. 

I felt a chill as a draught blew through the kitchen. Turning round I saw Kerrand come in. He wanted a glass of water. He watched me work while he drank it, staring hard as if he were trying to make sense of the image in front of him. I lost concentration and nicked the palm of my hand. Blood welled onto the carrots, hardening to form a brownish crust. Kerrand took a handkerchief from his pocket. He stood close to me and held it to the wound.

‘You should be more careful.’

‘I didn’t do it on purpose.’

‘Just as well.’

 He smiled, pressing his hand against mine. I broke away, feeling uneasy. (p. 8)

With few contemporaries of her own age close at hand, the young woman is intrigued by Kerrand and his reasons for coming to Sokcho, particularly in the low season. In truth, the Frenchman is looking for inspiration for his new book, the final instalment in a series featuring a travelling archaeologist – a loner who bears a striking resemblance to Kennard with his dark looks and striking features.

At night, the young woman hears Kennard sketching in the next room, a sound shot through with sadness and melancholy, seeping into her consciousness as she tries to fall sleep.

In bed later, I heard the pen scratching. I pinned myself against the thin wall. A gnawing sound, irritating. Working its way under my skin. Stopping and starting. I pictured Kerrand, his fingers scurrying like spiders’ legs, his eyes are travelling up, scrutinising the model, looking down at the paper again, looking back up to make sure his pen conveyed the truth of his vision, to keep her from vanishing while he traced the lines. (p. 67)

There is a sense that the narrator is disturbed by Kennard’s potential vision of her, reflected in some of the drawings she secretly watches him sketching.

As the narrative unfolds, the connection between Kennard and the narrator waxes and wanes, defined by occasional moments of intensity interspersed with significant periods of latency. At first, the young woman does not reveal her dual nationality to him, choosing to communicate in broken English instead of her competent French. He eschews the Korean meals she cooks for the guests, preferring instead to pick up Western-style junk food which he eats alone in his room. Nevertheless, Kennard is sufficiently interested in the narrator to ask her to show him something of Sokcho. A trip to the border with North Korea follows, complete with a visit to the museum whose ghostly souvenir shop is staffed by a waxwork-like attendant, her face frozen as if in aspic.

Threaded through the novella are signs of tension between the South and the North. At Naksan these are highly visible, from the barbed wire on the beaches to the bunkers with sub-machine guns poking out from their openings. While the scars from WW2 on the beaches of Normandy are old and worn, those in South Korea remain raw, signalling a country still at war with its neighbour.    

Our beaches are still waiting for the end of a war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife-edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In a winter that never ends. (p. 88)

Body image is another running theme, particularly the various pressures – both external and self-imposed – an individual can experience to look ‘perfect’ or attractive. Several aspects of the story tap into these anxieties, from the narrator’s battle with bulimia to her boyfriend’s obsession with modelling to a female guest’s recovery from plastic surgery. Food too plays an important role in the novella, mostly through the traditional meals the young woman prepares at the guest house, frequently using octopuses from her mother’s stall. The pufferfish is also highly symbolic here, a poisonous delicacy that must be prepared correctly to avoid death on consumption.

This novella is beautifully-written, characterised by Dusapin’s clipped, crystalline prose. The desolate South Korean landscape is skilfully evoked, the stark imagery reflecting feelings of division and alienation. Winters in Sokcho are especially cold and bleak. As the narrator reflects, one has to live through them to understand this, defined as they are by the essence of the city – the sights, the smells and the isolation – these are the elements that seep into the soul.

The book finishes on an enigmatic note, an ending that feels at once both mysterious and strangely inevitable. All in all, this is a haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty. Very highly recommended indeed.  

Winter in Sokcho is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers/Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

Recent Reads – 20th Century Women: Daphne du Maurier and Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Another of my round-up posts – this one focusing on two short-story collections, both from the mid-20th century.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier (1959)

Aside from Rebecca (which I love), I probably prefer du Maurier’s stories to her novels. There’s something about the short form that seems to suit this author’s style, a heightening of the creeping sense of dread that runs through much of her work.

The Breaking Point is 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.

In The Alibi – one of my favourites in the collection – we meet James Fenton, a middle-aged man who feels trapped in the routine of his marriage, desperate to break free from his conventional lifestyle. Suddenly, out of the blue, Fenton is seized by the forces of evil, prompting thoughts of violence and murder. With this in mind, he picks a house a random, posing as a respectable man looking to rent a room. Luckily for Fenton, the occupant is Anna, a poor refugee desperately in need of money to support her young son, Johnnie – little does Anna know what might be in store for her when Fenton makes his request.

‘What would you want the room for?’ she asked doubtfully.

There was the crux. To murder you and the child, my dear, and dig up the floor, and bury you under the boards. But not yet.

‘It’s difficult to explain,’ he said briskly. ‘I’m a professional man. I have long hours. But there have been changes lately, and I must have a room where I can put in a few hours every day and be entirely alone. You’ve no idea how difficult it is to find the right spot. This seems to me ideal for the purpose.’ He glanced from the empty house down to the child, and smiled. ‘Your little boy, for instance. Just the right age. He’d give no trouble.’ (p.6)

This is a brilliant story, one that takes the narrative in unexpected directions. (I couldn’t help but think of the excellent film, 10 Rillington Place, as I was reading it.) As with many of the pieces here, the reader experiences a looming sense of dread, fearful of what might happen to the occupants as the tale unfolds. Over time, Anna becomes increasingly dependent on Fenton, a development that sparks another kind of crisis in our protagonist’s life.

The Blue Lenses is another highlight, a particularly unnerving story that plays with the mind. Marda West is recovering in a nursing-home following an eye operation – a procedure considered very successful by the surgical team. The time has come for Marda’s bandages to be removed and temporary lenses fitted – the blue lenses that represent the first step in her recovery. Marda has been told to expect things to look a little different with the lenses. She will be able to see everything, but not in full colour – the effect is akin to wearing sunglasses on a bright day. However, when Marda finally opens her eyes, she is horrified by the sights that greet her. The blue lenses have the effect of exposing people for who they really are, revealing to Marda their true personalities. 

Now she was certain that what was happening was real, was true. Some evil force encompassed the nursing-home and its inhabitants, the Matron, the nurses, the visiting doctors, her surgeon – they were all caught up in it, they were all partners in some gigantic crime, the purpose of which could not be understood. (pp. 64-65)

This is a rather alarming story, one that plays on some of our deepest fears and paranoias, not to mention our fascination with conspiracies.  

Du Maurier is brilliant at building atmosphere and tension – qualities that are evident in The Pool, the tale of two siblings who are spending the summer with their grandparents. This is a dreamlike story, one in which the girl, Deborah, is enticed into a secret magical world with frightening results.

Chaos had come. There were no stars, and the night was sulphurous. A great crack split the heavens and tore them in two. The garden groaned. If the rain would only fall there might be mercy, and the trees, imploring, bowed themselves this way and that, while the vivid lawn, bright in expectation, lay like a sheet of metal exposed to flame. Let the waters break. Bring down the rain. (p.152)

In The Lordly Ones, a young, near-mute boy, brutally abused by his cruel parents, finally finds his voice, only by being placed in the most precarious of positions. This tale of brutality and heartbreak takes places in the wilds of the moors, a setting du Maurier chillingly evokes.

I read this excellent collection for Ali’s Daphne du Maurier event – running this week. There are shades of Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales here, another disquieting collection of stories to unsettle the soul. Highly recommended indeed.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans, 1989)

The Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe has been enjoying something of a mini-revival in the last few years. In 2014, Daunt Books reissued her excellent novella, La Femme de Gilles (1937), a timeless story of the pain that desire and self-sacrificing love can inflict on a marriage. Another novella soon followed: Marie (1943), also available from Daunt, an intimate book in which we gain a deep insight into a young woman’s inner life. 

A Nail, A Rose – published here in a beautiful new edition from Pushkin Press – is a collection of eight short stories written throughout Bourdouxhe’s literary career. (The earliest pieces first appeared in the 1940s, while the most recent ones came much later in the ‘80s.) As is often the case with a collection of this nature, certain stories resonate more strongly than others. Nevertheless, Bourdouxhe’s best pieces are very good indeed, particularly those based on some of her own personal experiences.

The standout story here is the novella-length Sous Le Pont Mirabeau in which a young woman attempts to journey from Belgium to France at the time of the German invasion in 1940. Like Bourdouxhe herself, the central character has just given birth to a baby girl, leaving her little option but to set out with the infant in her arms. It’s a very affecting account, threaded through with striking images of a nation at war.

The streets were full of people who were strangely silent, and the big balloons looked fixed in the sky; she felt heaviness and oppression in the air. Turning away she went on walking up and down. The soldiers weren’t talking, they were lined up in the café benches as if they were storing sleep, gathering their strength. She felt very alone, caught up in the great apparatus of war. She tried to find a single face on which to rest her gaze. The baby raised one arm and uttered a little cry; she quietened her by leaning against her face. They stayed like this, their faces buried in each other’s. (pp. 195–196)

Virtually all of Bourdouxhe’s stories are focused on women, several of whom seem trapped in the confines of domesticity. One of the best of these is Blanche, in which the titular character ignores her husband’s cries for a clean shirt, hiding it in a cupboard while longing for some peace. This is an imaginative story, one that ultimately grants Blanche a brief taste of freedom – an escape to the forest where she can dream of an imaginary lover.

Some of the stories are quite abstract in style or contain elements of fantasy. Pieces like Clara which explores themes of communication and mortality, and René in which a hairdresser’s thoughts and actions drift into somewhat surreal territory.

In summary, then, these are stories of discontent and disaffection, of ordinary women yearning for more fulfilment in life. An interesting collection, if somewhat uneven.

My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. You can find Guy’s review here.

The Great Fortune (The Balkan Trilogy Book 1) by Olivia Manning – Part 2

Earlier this week, I posted part 1 of my review of The Great Fortune, the first book in Olivia Manning’s largely autobiographical series of novels, The Balkan Trilogy. (If you missed it, you can catch up with it via the link above.)

Essentially the book is a portrait of a marriage, albeit one unfolding against the backdrop of uncertainty and the looming threat of war – the year is 1939 and the sense of tension palpable. The two central characters, newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle, are based on Olivia Manning and her husband, R. D. Smith, a British Council lecturer posted in Bucharest.

In my first post, I focused on the characterisation – mostly covering the nature of Guy and Harriet’s marriage together with an insight into the other leading player in the story, the White Russian émigré, Prince Yakimov (or Yaki as he terms himself). As a consequence, I’m going to cover some other aspects here, most notably, the novel’s atmosphere, mood and evocation of place, including some of the political developments that give rise to various tensions in the city. 

As ever with Manning, the sense of place is excellent – clear, vivid and beautifully conveyed. She has a wonderful knack for capturing the cultural ‘feel’ of a city through a combination of ambience, tone, and some well-chosen local details. It’s something I noticed in Manning’s earlier novel School for Love (1951); but if anything, these elements seem even more impressive here.

The church door was opening and a light falling on to the snow feathered cobbles. A closed trăsură drew up. Two women, like little sturdy bears in their fur coats and fur-trimmed snow boots, descended. As they entered the church, they drew veils over their heads. (p.115)

There is some beautiful descriptive writing to be found, typically reflecting Manning’s painterly eye. (She was a talented artist, having attended classes at the Portsmouth School of Art in her youth.)

Le Jardin, recently opened in a Biedermeier mansion, was the most fashionable of Bucharest restaurants and would remain so until the first gloss passed from its decorations. Situated in a little snow-packed square at the end of the Boulevard Brăteanu, its blue neon sign shone out cold upon the cold and glittering world. The sky was a delicate grey-blue, clear except for a few tufts of cirrus cloud. The moon was rising behind the restaurant roof, on which the snow, a foot thick, gleamed like powdered glass. (p. 188)

The sense of uncertainty amongst the Pringles’ social circle also comes through very strongly, particularly as the shadow of war inches ever closer.

‘Wherever one is,’ she said, ‘the only thing certain is that nothing is certain.’ (p. 82)

The novel’s midpoint is marked by a wonderful set-piece, a Christmas dinner hosted by the Pringles for assorted friends. It is the first real opportunity that Harriet has had for entertaining guests since her arrival in Bucharest, and she wants it to go swimmingly. Unfortunately for our host, the tensions between individuals are evident from the start, especially amongst those of different nationalities and political outlooks.

On another occasion, Harriet becomes convinced that Guy has been roped into participating in an underground resistance unit headed up by Commander Sheppy, one of many minor characters threaded through the book. Rumours of Germany’s invasion of Hungary have unsettled Harriet quite deeply, so much so that she fears for the safety of her husband when he fails to return home on time.

She was suddenly convinced that Guy’s disappearance had something to do with the scare about Hungary. Perhaps Sheppy had already taken him off on some sabotaging expedition. Perhaps he had already injured himself – or been arrested – or seized by the fifth columnists. Perhaps she would never see him again. She blamed herself that she had not gone immediately to Inchcape and asked him to interfere: now she went to the telephone and dialled his number. When he answered, she asked if Guy were with him. He had seen or heard nothing of Guy that evening. (p. 195)

During the course of the novel, several significant political developments take place. Poland is invaded and falls; the Romanian Prime Minister is assassinated by the Iron Guard; Germany invades Denmark and Norway, then Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg; all too soon France becomes the primary target. Like many other ex-pats in Bucharest, the Pringles learn of various political developments via a combination of newspaper reports, radio broadcasts, rumours and German propaganda. (A map illustrating the Nazis’ advance across Europe is clearly visible at the German bureau, a building occupying a prominent position in the city.)

As this first instalment in the trilogy draws to a close, news of the fall of Paris comes through, sharply increasing the sense of anxiety. For the people of Bucharest, France’s defeat is akin to the demise of civilisation, with the country representing liberty, freedom, culture and democracy. It is a tantalising point for this excellent novel to end on, ultimately setting up a keen sense of anticipation for the second book in the series, The Spoilt City.

(Several other bloggers have written about this series of novels. So here are some links to the posts I recall seeing – pieces by Ali, Karen, Max and Radhika – all well worth reading.)

The Balkan Trilogy is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Great Fortune (The Balkan Trilogy Book 1) by Olivia Manning – Part 1

Last spring, while recovering from a major fracture, I took the opportunity to read three sets of novels: Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, Javier Marias’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy and Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, all of which ended up on my best-of-year highlights. When the current lockdown kicked it, it seemed timely to crack on with another literary doorstop – in this instance, Olivia Manning’s much-admired Balkan Trilogy, starting with the first in the series, The Great Fortune.

First published in 1960, this novel is considered to be largely autobiographical, based as it is on Manning’s experiences in WW2. In 1939, Manning married British Council lecturer R. D. Smith, who was in the midst of a posting to Bucharest. As a consequence, she accompanied Smith to Romania, and subsequently to Greece, Egypt and Palestine as the Nazis continued their advance through Eastern Europe. The couple were the inspiration for the two central characters in the trilogy, Guy and Harriet Pringle (both in their early twenties) who, as the first book opens, arrive in Bucharest just days after their wedding. While Harriet is new to Bucharest, Guy has been working as a lecturer at the city’s University for the past twelve months, his relationship with Harriet having come about when the pair met in England during the summer holidays.

Essentially the book is a portrait of a marriage, albeit one unfolding against the backdrop of uncertainty and the looming threat of war – the year is 1939 and the sense of tension palpable. Moreover, the novel gives an insight into the impact of the impending war on a group of ex-pats and émigrés, predominantly the British.

The move to Bucharest presents significant challenges for Harriet, requiring her to adjust to a new city with an unfamiliar culture alongside marriage to Guy. With his strong Communist ideals, Guy believes passionately in supporting needy individuals, virtually irrespective of their character and motivations. He frequently champions lost causes, generously giving his time and limited resources to the down-and-outs of the city.

As a consequence, Harriet initially feels shut out of the marriage, somewhat resentful of having to share Guy with those in the faculty and beyond. She is naturally suspicious of some of Guy’s friends, particularly the curvy Romanian student, Sophie, who calls on Guy’s sympathies at the most frustrating of times. Sophie – who clearly has designs on Guy – bitterly resents Harriet’s presence in Bucharest, a situation that causes Harriet to question the wisdom of her decision.

Harriet had failed to consider the possibility of a Sophie. Foolishly. There was always someone. There was also the fact that, whether Sophie had received encouragement or not, Guy’s natural warmth towards everyone could easily be misinterpreted. She had herself taken it for granted that it was for her alone. […] They had slipped into marriage as though there could be no other possible resolution of such an encounter. Yet – supposing she had known him better? Supposing she had known him for a year and during that time observed him in all his other relationships? She would have hesitated, thinking the net of his affections too widely spread to hold the weighty the accompaniment of marriage. (pp. 45–46)

In time, Harriet begins to settle in Bucharest, forming an unlikely friendship with Bella, an English woman married to Nikko Niculescu, a Romanian of note. While Bella is not the sort of woman Harriet would necessarily spend time with elsewhere, in Romania Bella’s company is relaxed and genial, a welcome relief in an unfamiliar world. Then there is Guy’s friend and associate, Clarence, who works at the British propaganda bureau and is often present at social gatherings. Clarence – who is half-heartedly engaged to a woman back in England – finds Harriet very attractive, admiring her resilience, intolerance and natural strength of character. Harriet, for her part, recognises an air of melancholy in Clarence’s cynical demeanour, ‘something poignant and unfulfilled’; and yet she remains faithful to Guy, ultimately recognising the value of his vitality and creative spirit.

Alongside the Pringles, the other main character here is Prince Yakimov (or ‘poor old Yaki’ as he tends to call himself), a half-Irish, half-Russian prince whom Harriet first glimpses on her arrival at Bucharest railway station. While Yaki cuts a rather striking figure with his crocodile dressing case and long coat, he has virtually no money to speak of. Nevertheless, he is a wonderful creation, complete with his distinctive manner and clipped speech.

A seasoned raconteur/bon viveur by nature, Yaki largely exists on the generosity of others, cadging luxurious meals here and there by virtue of his wit. On his arrival in Bucharest, Yaki runs into a journalist friend, McCann, who asks him to deputise as a foreign correspondent in return for credit at the Athénée Palace Hotel. Naturally, Yaki is only too happy to oblige; but when McCann’s backing comes to an end, the prince must resort to his usual tactic to stave off the creditors – that of a soon-to-be-delivered remittance somewhat delayed by the threat of war. The trouble is, Yaki always spends any money he receives in an instant, typically on luxurious dinners in the finest of restaurants, delicious food and wine being his main weaknesses.

At the end of the week he [Yaki] was presented with a bill. He looked at it in pained astonishment and required the manager to come to him. The manager explained that, as Yakimov was no longer backed by McCann’s agency, he must settle a weekly account in the usual way.

‘Dear boy,’ he said, ‘m’remittance should be here in a week or two. Difficult time. Posts uncertain. War on, y’know.’

His quarterly remittance had, in fact, come and gone. Bored by the menu of the hotel, he had spent it on some excellent meals at Capşa’s, Cina’s and Le Jardin. (p. 126)

In the end, a much-diminished Yaki becomes another of Guy’s causes, a consequence of having been turfed out of his lodgings by a belligerent landlady (Yaki’s days at the plush Athénée Palace are long gone by now). Much to Harriet’s annoyance, Guy offers Yaki their spare room as a place to stay, seeing only an impoverished man in need of help, not a serial squanderer of money. 

Interestingly, it seems that Manning based the character of Yaki on Julian Maclaren-Ross, author of the marvellous novel Of Love and Hunger, a book I absolutely adore – you can read my post on it here. In a related aside, there is something about The Great Fortune that reminds me very much of Anthony Powell’s masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time, a series that also contains a character modelled on Maclaren-Ross – in this instance, the idiosyncratic author, X Trapnel. In both series of books, there is a sense that we are observing a group of characters over time, sharing their lives and experiences as world-changing events unfold alongside. Like Powell, Manning has an ability to convey a lucid picture of an individual – their appearance, their manner, even their way of carrying themselves – in just a paragraph or two. She might not be quite as brilliant as Powell at differentiating some of the minor characters from one another, but she comes pretty close – quite a feat considering the large cast of individuals we meet in this book.

If it’s not clear by now, I should say that I loved this richly rewarding novel – it’s thoroughly absorbing and compelling with a strong sense of authenticity throughout. As such, I’ve split my review into two posts, the second of which will cover some of the aspects I haven’t had time to go into here, particularly the novel’s mood, atmosphere and vivid sense of place. All being well, that’ll be up later this week, together with link to other bloggers’ reviews.

So, I hope to see you again for part 2 – thankfully much shorter than this!

The Balkan Trilogy is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup by J. L. Carr

The British writer and publisher J. L. Carr is undoubtedly best known for his masterpiece, A Month in the Country (1980), a book I truly adore. Nevertheless, this author is much more than a one-book wonder as his excellent 1975 novella, How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup, clearly demonstrates.

I loved this tale of the plucky underdogs – titular non-leaguers Steeple Sinderby Wanderers – overcoming all the odds to beat the mighty Glasgow Rangers, scooping the much-prized FA Cup in the process. Although very different in style to Carr’s most famous work, How Steeple Sinderby… shares something of that novella’s tone, an air of wistfulness and longing for halcyon times past.

In short, the book charts the progress of a village football team who, through a combination of talent, discipline and determination, achieve their dream of going all the way to cup final and snatching victory in the game’s closing minutes.

And then the truly magnificent Slingsby, who had withstood this assault like a rock, gathered the ball and, on the turn, squeezed a fierce low kick from the scrum. And one wondered… one wondered if this had been plotted months ago when this village side was still lost in the obscurity of the midland plains. It had been All or Nothing. Nothing if McGarrity had scored, Nothing if Wilmslow hadn’t risen from the earth… If, if, if… (p.111)

Crucial to the team are its key players: centre forward Sid Smith, a once-promising striker now lured out of retirement; Monkey Tonks, the local milkman whose strength and agility make him an ideal candidate for goalkeeper; and last but not least, Alan Slingsby, whose earlier career at Aston Villa was cut short due to his wife’s need for round-the-clock care.

The story is narrated by a local man, Joe Gidner, who is tasked with documenting the official history of the Wanderers’ triumph. As such, the novella comprises Gidner’s reflections on the season, intercut with extracts from newspaper reports on crucial matches, along with the occasional summary of committee meetings at the Club. Several of the press reports are penned by Alice (Ginchy) Trigger, a staff reporter from the East Barset Weekly Messenger. Ginchy – whose remit covers funerals, inquests, weddings and all sport – is one of a cast of idiosyncratic characters who give Carr’s novella its wonderful sense of place, rooted as it is in a somewhat eccentric rural community, quintessentially English in tone. At one point, Ginchy is asked to provide a running audio commentary on one of the games, for broadcast to an orchard full of restless Hartlepool fans who were unable to gain entry to the ground. It’s gloriously eccentric, full of partisan enthusiasm for the plucky home side.  

They’re all around Monkey Tonks and he’s trying to push them away as he can’t see. And everybody’s running into one another and the ball’s knocked two of theirs down. HE’S RUNNING! BILLY SLEDMER’s RUNNING! There’s nobody in front of him but their goalie and he’s coming out crouching. HE’S SCORED! We’ve got THREE. THEY CAN’T WIN US NOW! (pp. 69–70)

Mr Fangfoss, the formidable Club Chairman, is also worthy of a mention here, a confident, outspoken man who sees off all-comers – the meddling Club President included – with the most marvellous of put-downs.   

The Club’s tactical guru, the Hungarian Dr Kossuth, is another highly memorable character. Here he is with his beautiful, breathtaking wife, arriving at the ground for a pre-tournament match.

On this particularly fine April day she was wearing her expensive leopard skin coat with a little fur hat perched on her heaped-up hair and long leather boots. And the Doctor was wearing a long black Central European overcoat with the astrakhan collar which marked him as having seen better days. Naturally, I refused to take their 5p admission. (pp. 11–12)

En route to the final, the Wanderers must face all manner of opposition, from the confident Barchester City – the first of the Big Boys in the qualifying rounds – to the much-fancied team from Manchester, complete with a coterie of fans who run riot through the village.

There is a wonderful comic tone running through this novella, from the descriptions of the Wanderers’ preparations to the observations on their various opponents. I love this passage on Barchester, a town much despised by its neighbours for the smugness of its residents. 

Barchester has a cathedral and, until they built the Discount Hyper-Market, this was its biggest attraction. On fine Saturdays the City draws about 250 paying spectators, augmented by between 20 and 30 Pensioners who are driven out for air from the Cathedral Almshouses by the Warden Canon. But, in cold, wet weather, they get no more than 70 or 80 – including the full tally of Pensioners – all huddled in their ‘grandstand’, which is very interesting architecturally because it tones in with the Cathedral and is the only football building mentioned in the Professor Pevsner’s ‘Buildings of England’. (p. 43)

The spirit of village league football is also beautifully conveyed – an endeavour where belief and enthusiasm are all important, irrespective of the ramshackle nature of the set-up.

What strikes me about this marvellous novella is some of the aspects it shares with A Month in the Country despite the apparent difference in focus. As in Country, the fleeting nature of happiness is a key theme here, a sense that what has passed can never be recaptured, however much we wish it could be. Probably the best we can do is to cherish the memories, keeping them alive in our hearts and minds.

The book also has some interesting things to say about the nature of life in a rural community, almost as if there is something broader going on here alongside the touching tale of wish fulfilment.

People don’t know about rural England between the last Mystery Autumn Foliage Coach Trip and the Mystery Blossom Journey into Spring. Mud, fog, dripping trees, blackness, floods, mighty rushing winds under doors that don’t fit, damp hassocks, sticking organ keys, stone floors and that dreadful smell of decay. (p. 11)

For a novella first published in 1975, it also feels somewhat ahead of its time in terms of insights into the modern game – perhaps most notably, the importance of sports psychology and European-style methods of football management. Moreover, Carr is also aware of the negative impact of commercialisation within the game, particularly when the Club comes under pressure to convert to a limited company with sponsorship deals being touted as incentives.

So, in summary, How Steeple Sinderby… is very highly recommended indeed, even if you have absolutely no interest in football. Trust me, the writing is more than good enough to transcend any concerns on that front.

How Steeple Sinderby… is published by Penguin; personal copy.

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

First published in 1974, The Bottle Factory Outing was Beryl Bainbridge’s fifth novel. It’s only the third of her books that I’ve read (my first was An Awfully Big Adventure, a darkly comic gem); but on the evidence of this, I should probably aim to read some more.

Ostensibly, The Bottle Factory Outing focuses on two mismatched young women, Brenda and Freda, who share a shabby bedsit while also working together at a local wine bottling factory. While Brenda is mousey and pessimistic, Freda is loud and outgoing, forever dreaming about the life she would like to be living – preferably that of a successful actress surrounded by friends and family.

In the opening paragraphs, Brenda and Freda are watching the early stages of a funeral with the removal of a coffin from another flat in their building. As they speculate on the deceased – an old lady who lived with her cat – the differences between the two women become increasingly apparent.

‘You cry easily,’ said Brenda, when they were dressing to go to the factory.

‘I like funerals. All those flowers – a full life coming to a close…’

‘She didn’t look as if she’d had a full life,’ said Brenda. ‘She only had the cat. There weren’t any mourners – no sons or anything.’

‘Take a lesson from it then. It could happen to you. When I go I shall have my family about me – daughters – sons – my husband, grey and distinguished, dabbing a handkerchief to his lips…’

‘Men always go first,’ said Brenda. ‘Women live longer.’

‘My dear, you ought to participate more. You are too cut off from life.’ (p. 2)

Twenty-six-year-old Freda is a force of nature, a tall curvy blonde who dresses flamboyantly, her cobalt blue eyeshadow and purple pantsuit adding considerably to her striking appearance. Brenda, on the other hand, cuts a dowdy figure in her dark stockings and shabby, over-sized coat. At thirty-two, Brenda already seems old before her time. Having fled an abusive relationship with her selfish husband, Brenda now wishes to hide from the world, far away from Stanley and his deranged mother.

The differences between the two girls are also noticeable at the factory – an establishment owned by Mr Paganotti, an enterprising Italian businessman who has built up the business from scratch. While at work, Freda spends much of her time chasing after Vittorio, the handsome trainee manager and nephew of Mr Paganotti. In truth, however, Vittorio shows only limited interest in Freda in spite of her persistent efforts to attract his attention. Nevertheless, there is nothing that Freda would like more than a romantic dinner for two with Vittorio, a situation she tries to engineer with mixed results.

He was a man of sensibilities and everything was against her – his background, his nationality, the particular regard he had for women or a category of womanhood to which she did not belong. By the strength of her sloping shoulders, the broad curve of her throat, the dimpled vastness of her columnar thighs, she would manoeuvre him into her arms. I will be one of those women, she thought, painted naked on ceilings, lolling amidst rose-coloured clouds. She straightened and stared at a chair. She imagined how she might mesmerise him with her wide blue eyes. Wearing a see-through dressing-gown chosen from a Littlewoods catalogue, she would open the door to him. (p. 40)

Brenda too faces her own particular challenges at work; in this instance, the difficulties involves Mr Rossi, a manager at the firm, who persists in trying to grope Brenda in the seclusion of the cellar. Far from calling out Mr Rossi for sexual harassment, Brenda is too timid to say anything, preferring instead to suffer in near silence. From a young age, Brenda was brought up to be deferential – drilled into saying ‘yes’ when what she really wanted to say was ‘no’ (and vice versa).  Now in her thirties, Brenda continues to remain passive while being taken advantage of by others, afraid to speak up for fear of causing a problem.

As you’ll have guessed from the novel’s title, the centrepiece of the story revolves around a staff outing, an event that Freda has arranged much to Brenda’s horror. (In truth, Brenda would much rather stay at home, content to remain invisible while others go off to enjoy themselves.) All the other employees are looking forward to the event, especially as Mr Paganotti – notable by his absence – has donated four barrels of wine to be enjoyed during the trip.

On the morning of the outing, the van booked for the trip fails to show up, much to Freda’s disappointment. Nevertheless, Rossi cooks up a new plan for the day (largely with the aim of seducing Brenda) by offering his own car together with that of a colleague as alternative transport. It’s at this point in the story that events begin to turn increasingly surreal, culminating in a demented drive through the wilds of Windsor Safari Park as the afternoon unravels.

I don’t want to give away too many details about the trip, save to say that it feels as if the reader is watching a slow-motion car crash, powerless to look away as the horror unfolds. The tone is darkly comic and farcical, a little like a cross between Willy Russell’s play Our Day Out and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party – maybe with a touch of Nuts in May thrown in for good measure. The off-the-wall touches are beautifully done, heightened by a sharp eye for detail and freakish imagery.

The safari bus when it came was painted with black stripes like a zebra. It looked as if the whole pride of lions had hurled themselves at the rusty bonnet and ill-fitting windows and torn the tyres to ribbons. The driver was dressed in a camouflage jacket of mottled green and a hat to match, one side caught up at the side as if he were a Canadian Mountie. When he opened the double doors at the back of the van, Brenda saw he was wearing plastic sandals, bright orange and practically luminous, and striped socks. (p. 148)

The female characters are also particularly well observed, vividly brought to life by Bainbridge’s skills as a writer. At the time of publication, the book was praised in a review by William Trevor who described it ‘as though Muriel Spark had been prevailed upon to write an episode of The Liver Birds,’. (Warning: this excellent piece on Bainbrdge does contain spoilers.) It’s a great description as the novel has something of both the sharpness of Carla Lane’s writing and the savagery of Spark’s worldview. The observations on life on a low wage, social class, worker’s rights, and the harassment of women in the workplace are also keenly felt.

As the novel hurtles towards its startling denouement, the tone begins to change, shifting from black humour to deep pathos. It’s a testament to Bainbridge’s skills as a writer that this transition works so well, prompting the reader to feel some degree of sympathy for each of the characters concerned, in spite of their failings.

In essence, this is an excellent, well-crafted tragi-comedy, shot through with Bainbridge’s acute insight into human nature. It is the juxtaposition between the ordinary and the absurd that makes this such an unsettling yet compelling read.

For other perspectives on this novel, here are links to reviews by Max and Cathy. Thanks, both, for encouraging me to read this.

The Bottle Factory Outing is published by Abacus Books; personal copy.

Heat Wave by Penelope Lively

I bought a copy of this novel last year, attracted by the striking artwork on the front cover and the promise of a perceptive portrayal of ‘a fragile family, damaged and defined by adultery’. Fortunately, the book itself very much lives up to this impression, unfolding over a dry, claustrophobic summer underscored with a developing sense of tension.

Fifty-five-year-old Pauline – a freelance editor – is spending the summer at World’s End, her cottage in the English countryside. Residing in the adjacent cottage are Pauline’s daughter, Teresa, Teresa’s husband, Maurice, and their baby, Luke. Ostensibly, the family is there to enable Maurice – a writer of some promise – to complete his book on the history of tourism, a topic on which he holds fervent views.

At twenty-nine, Teresa is some fifteen years younger than Maurice, whom she loves very much. As Pauline looks on, she is reminded of the time when she was newly married to Teresa’s father, Harry, a rising star in academia back then, in demand both at home and abroad. While Pauline stayed at home to care for Teresa, Harry was free to play the field with various students, chalking up a string of affairs over the early years of their marriage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harry denied any suggestion of infidelity when first confronted, casting Pauline as the overly suspicious accuser while reminding her of his need to circulate for work.

Confrontation is self-defeating, she has come to realize. Harry is not so much defensive or evasive as perplexed. An invisible observer of such an exchange between them would see Pauline as the flailing accuser, resting her case on inference and conjecture, while Harry is the voice of sweet reason, explaining that he is a busy man, that he knows and sees many people, some of whom are indeed women, that these accusations are not reasonable, not sensible.

And all the time she knows, she knows. (p. 107)

In time, however, Pauline came to realise that her devotion to Harry was misplaced, prompting a split and ultimately a divorce.

From an early stage in the novel, there is a sense of the past being reflected in the present, of history threatening to repeating itself from one generation to the next. Like Harry before him, Maurice can cast a spell over those who surround him, coming across as genial, curious and magnetic. As Pauline observes Maurice, she wonders how faithful he will be, especially when Maurice’s editor, James, appears on the scene, accompanied by his attractive partner, Carol, who is also connected to the publishing industry.

She [Pauline] recognizes Carol. Not Carol personally but Carol as a species. She is a literary groupie – one of those who leech on to writers, who are passed from hand to hand among poets, and for whom publication and a degree of fame spell sexual magnetism. Pauline has worked with several Carols. They do not last long because they lack efficiency and ambition – they are only there for the pickings. They do not want to go to bed with a book, but with anyone who wrote one. (p. 61)

You can probably guess how some aspects of this story will play out – the relationship between Maurice and Carol is more than just a friendship or professional connection. Naturally, it is Pauline who sees and understands precisely what is going on between the two of them long before Teresa does. Having been a cuckolded wife herself, Pauline is well able to read the looks that pass between Maurice and Carol, signals that trigger painful feelings from her own troubled past.   

Maurice stands nearby – just waiting, it would seem. Pauline glances away from James and sees that Maurice’s look is upon Carol, who is absorbed still in this problem with the sandal. There is a concentration about this look – an intensity – that she has seen before. In Maurice’s eyes above a glass of red wine. In someone else’s eyes, at another time. She both sees the look and feels it like some chill shadow. (p. 60)

As the weeks go by, Pauline finds it increasingly difficult to control her anger at Maurice, fuelled by the frustration she once experienced with Harry (now living in California with his thirty-nine-year-old second wife). Drawing on the characters from the novel she is editing, Pauline hints at the options available to a woman in Teresa’s position, albeit somewhat pointedly. Nevertheless, there is a sense that what is left unsaid is just as important as what is explicitly conveyed, the exchange of looks and gestures being highly relevant here.

Lively’s descriptions of the natural world are so evocative, clearly reflecting the novel’s simmering tension through images of the scorched landscape withering in the blistering heat. What was once lush and furtive is now barren and arid, mirroring the process of decay in Maurice and Teresa’s relationship.

This is very much an interior, character-driven novel, giving a rich insight into Pauline as an individual, covering both her present life and earlier experiences. (There are several flashbacks to Pauline’s married life with Harry along the way, with Lively moving seamlessly between the two timelines.) The other characters are nicely fleshed-out too, from the vulnerable, trusting Teresa, to subtly manipulative Maurice, to the genial editor James – they all seem to ring true.

Alongside the main narrative, we also gain an insight into the nature of other marital relationships, each with their own specific challenges. Perhaps most notably there is Pauline’s client, Chris, an author whose wife ups and leaves him while he is trying to complete his book. We also see the quiet tragedy of another life, that of Pauline’s close friend and former lover, Hugh, who has stood by his housebound wife for several years despite her crippling mental health issues.

In some respects, Heat Wave reminded me of some of Anita Brookner’s novels, particularly Providence and Hotel du Lac. There is a similar tone or ‘feel’ to it, giving a window into emotions of jealousy, betrayal and frustration. Definitely recommended for fans of perceptive character-driven fiction that taps into these themes.     

Heat Wave is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.