Tag Archives: Barbara Comyns

My books of the year, 2020 – part 2, the novels

Last week, I published part 1 of my favourite reads of 2020, a post focussing on novellas and non-fiction. (If you missed it, you can find it here.)

Today, I’m back with part 2, my favourite novels from a year of reading. My reading has been somewhat erratic in 2020, following the ebb and flow of the lockdown-release cycle we’ve been navigating this year. Nevertheless, I have managed to read some truly excellent books. So, without further ado, these are the novels I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. As ever, I’ve summarised each one below, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

This is such a charming book, a wonderful novel in which a young woman, Hilary Fane, sets out on her own, hoping to find her way in the world of work before getting married. The story is told through a series of letters – mostly from Hilary to her parents and fiancé – coupled with the occasional interdepartmental memo from the London department store where she works. In short, the letters chart Hilary’s progress in London, the highs and lows of working life and the practicalities of surviving on a meagre wage. What comes through so strongly here is the narrative voice, revealing Hilary to be bright, realistic, witty and self-deprecating; in other words, she is an absolute joy. If you loved Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day or The Diary of a Provincial Lady, chances are you’ll enjoy this.

The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns

The novels of Barbara Comyns continue to be a source of fascination for me, characterised as they are by her unique world view, a surreal blend of the macabre and the mundane. The Skin Chairs is a magical novel in which a bright, curious girl must navigate some of the challenges of adolescence. It is by turns funny, eerie, poignant and bewitching. What Comyns captures so well here is how children can often be excellent intuitive judges of character without fully understanding the complexities or underlying motivations at play. A spellbinding read, one that reminds me a little of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I can’t recommend it more highly than that!

A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, the perfectly executed stories of human nature, the small-scale dramas of domestic life, typically characterised by careful observation and insight. First published in 1949, A Wreath of Roses is one of Taylor’s earliest novels – and quite possibly her darkest too with its exploration of fear, loneliness, mortality and lies. It also features one of the most striking openings in literature, a genuinely unnerving scene that sets a sinister tone right from the start. A Wreath of Roses is right up there with Mrs Palfrey and The Soul of Kindness for me, top-tier Taylor for sure.

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

The centrepiece of this somewhat surreal novel, which takes place in the 1970s, is a staff outing for the employees of a wine-bottling factory. Observing this ill-fated trip feels somewhat akin to watching a slow-motion car crash, with the reader powerless to divert their attention 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. In essence, this is an excellent, well-crafted tragi-comedy, shot through with Bainbridge’s characteristically acute insight into human nature. It is the juxtaposition between the ordinary and the absurd that makes this such an unsettling yet compelling read.

The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning

How to do justice to such a deeply rewarding series of novels in just a few sentences? It’s nigh on impossible. All I can do is to urge you to read these books for yourself if you haven’t done so already. Ostensibly a portrait of a complex marriage unfolding against the backdrop of the looming threat of war, this largely autobiographical series is rich is detail and authenticity, perfectly capturing the tensions and uncertainties that war creates. As ever, Manning excels at creating flawed and nuanced characters that feel thoroughly believable. A transportive read with a particularly vivid sense of place.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers

Set in the summer of 1946, just after the end of the Second World War, The Offing tells the story of an unlikely friendship that develops between two very different individuals, both of whom experience a kind of transformation as a result. In writing this novel, 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, this lyrical novel is an evocative paean to the natural world. Fans of A Month in the Country and The Go-Between will likely enjoy this.

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

A beautiful, elegiac novel set in 19th century Sicily, a time when the principality was caught in a period of significant change, one ushered in by the Risorgimento, or unification of Italy. It’s a novel that highlights the need for us to adapt if we want certain aspects of our lives to remain the same. The language is especially gorgeous here – sensual, evocative and ornate, frequently tinged with an aching sense of sadness for a vanishing world. Another transportive read, albeit one with an undeniable sense of melancholy.

The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

A sequel to Lehmann’s earlier novel, Invitation to the Waltz, in which seventeen-year-old Olivia Curtis is captivated at her first society ball by the dashing Rollo Spencer. Ten years later, a chance encounter brings Olivia back into contact with Rollo, sparking a rush of conflicting emotions – more specifically, the desire to open up vs the tendency towards self-protection. This remarkable book expertly captures the cruelty, frustration and devastation of a doomed love affair in the most glittering prose. The modernity of Lehmann’s approach, with its passages of stream-of-consciousness and fluid style, makes the novel feel fresh and alive, well ahead of its time for the mid-1930s.

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

My fascination with the work of William Trevor continues apace with his 1976 novel, The Children of Dynmouth, the story of a malevolent teenager and the havoc he wreaks on the residents of a sleepy seaside town. It’s an excellent book, one that veers between the darkly comic, the deeply tragic and the downright unnerving. What Trevor does so well here is to expose the darkness and sadness that lurks beneath the veneer of respectable society. The rhythms and preoccupations of small-town life are beautifully captured too, from the desolate views of the windswept promenade, to the sleepy matinees at the down-at-heel cinema, to the much-anticipated return of the travelling fair for the summer season. One for Muriel Spark fans, particularly those with a fondness for The Ballad of Peckham Rye.

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

As this brilliant novel opens, Edith Hope – an unmarried writer of romantic fiction – has just been packed off by her respectable, interfering friends to the Hotel du Lac, a rather austere hotel of high repute in the Swiss countryside. Right from the start, it is clear that Edith has been banished from her sector of society, sent away to reflect on her misdemeanours, to become herself again following some undisclosed scandal. (The reason for this exile is eventually revealed, but not until the last third of the book.) Central to the novel is Edith and her consideration of the kind of life she can carve out for herself. It’s a truly excellent book, one that throws up so many questions and points for debate – especially on the options open to women in the 1970s/’80s and how these have changed. My third reading of this book, and at last I feel that I’ve *got* it.

The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Caravaners is a satire of the highest order, not least because the novel’s narrator – the German baron, Otto von Ottringel – is a colossal ass; a pompous, insufferable individual with absolutely no self-awareness. The novel focuses on a caravanning holiday through the countryside of Kent, ostensibly to mark Otto’s silver wedding anniversary. What von Arnim does so well here is to let the reader see how Otto is perceived by those around him, even though the novel is narrated entirely through the baron’s own eyes. In short, this is a brilliantly-written book, one that casts a sharply satirical eye over such subjects as misogyny, class differences, power dynamics in marriage and Anglo-German relations during the early 20th century – not to mention the delights and follies of caravanning in the inclement British weather.

Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe

I have long had a fondness for the work of Billy Wilder, the Austrian-born American filmmaker who moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s. The Apartment (1961) is my all-time favourite film – I watch it at least once a year, often on New Year’s Eve – while Double Indemnity (1945) and Some Like It Hot (1960) would almost certainly make my top ten. So, a novelisation of Wilder’s quest to make his 1978 movie, Fedora was always going to be literary catnip for me. This is a wonderfully charming, warm-hearted book – at once a gentle coming-of-age story and an affectionate portrayal of one of Hollywood’s greatest directors – a compassionate, bittersweet novel about ageing, creativity and what happens when an industry changes, leaving a respected artist somewhat high and dry.

So there we have it, my favourite novels from a year of reading. All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead; let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than 2020…

The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns

The novels of Barbara Comyns continue to be a source of fascination for me, from the wonderfully matter-of-fact Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – widely considered to be a lightly fictionalised account of the author’s first marriage – to the evocative Mr Fox, a poignant tale set in the midst of WW2. My latest discovery is The Skins Chairs, first published in 1962 but sadly currently out of print. It’s vintage Comyns, shot through with a clever blend of the macabre and the mundane that characterises her work. Needless to say, I absolutely adored it.

The novel is narrated by Frances, a ten-year-old girl with just the right mix of wide-eyed innocence and active curiosity about the world around her. As the story opens, Frances – one of six children – is sent by her mother to stay with the Lawrences, a family of ‘horsey’ relatives who live in Leicestershire. Aunt Lawrence is a spiteful, domineering woman, intent on belittling Frances and her rather impoverished family, making light of their father and his work for a mattress company. (Frances’ father is in fact a legal adviser to the firm, a role that Aunt Lawrence appears to have forgotten, preferring instead to imply he is a lowly labourer. There is quite a lot snobbery in this novel, particularly amongst the Lawrences.) The Lawrence girls – eighteen-year-old Ruby and thirteen-year-old Grace – are little better than their mother, adding to the bleak atmosphere at the rather gothic Tower Hill.  It is only once Frances’ father dies that the Lawrences begin to show a degree of sympathy for the girl.

While the novel contains a certain amount of plot – mostly revolving around Frances’ return to her family and their quest to scrape by in reduced circumstances – it is perhaps more concerned with Frances as an individual and her experiences of the things she encounters. There is such pleasure to be gained from seeing the world through this young girl’s eyes, complete with its inherent strangeness and curiosities. Naturally, Comyns conveys this vision with the most wonderful turns of phrase, ranging from the striking to the humorous to the downright surreal. At one point in the story, Ruby takes Frances to the General’s house to the see the ‘skin chairs’, a collection of artefacts brought back from the Boer War. As it turns out, five of the chairs were made from the skins of black men and one from white…

One chair certainly was lighter than the rest and I carefully sat on it, expecting something strange to happen; but it was exactly like sitting in any other uncomfortable chair. My bare arms touched the back and, remembering what it was made of, I stood up and wiped my arms with my handkerchief. With a feeling of awe I gazed at the chairs thinking of the poor skinless bodies buried somewhere in Africa. Did their souls ever come to see what had happened to their skins or had they forgotten all about them? How had the General brought the skins back? And did the workmen who covered the chairs know what gruesome work they were doing? (p. 19)

The narrative is studded with grotesque images, from the infamous skin chairs to the details of Frances’ nightmares to the General’s contorted face following a severe stroke. All these elements add to the rather morbid feel of the novel as the spectre of death is never far away.

Alongside the eerie imagery, there are various surreal touches dotted through the novel – weirdly off-kilter observations that feel so striking to the reader, particularly given the unvarnished nature of Frances’ tone of voice. As with Sophia in Our Spoons, it is the matter-of-factness of Frances’ delivery that makes these reflections seem so arresting. In the following passage, Frances is thinking about Mrs Alexander, an eccentric lady with ‘a kind of ravaged, fabulous beauty, like some old and exotic doll in a museum, glittering and dusty’. Mrs Alexander has taken a shine to Frances, much to the young girl’s concern, particularly given the unsettling nature of the Mrs A’s claustrophobic home.

There was a lot about monkeys: her house was full of them. And she had once kept a bear, but people had complained because it used to break into church during the services, and it had to be given to a zoo. ‘I sometimes wonder why I ever returned to England, so many unpleasant things happen here.’ (pp. 106-107)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Lawrences consider Mrs Alexander to be quite mad; but in truth she is a lonely, unconventional lady, albeit one with outlandish ideas.

What Comyns captures so well in this novel is the way in which children can often be excellent, intuitive judges of character without fully understanding the complexities or underlying motivations at play. Frances knows that Vanda – a somewhat frivolous and careless young widow who lives nearby – is neglectful of her undernourished baby and yet she is not quite old enough to appreciate why this might be the case. Consequently, Frances grows quite attached to young Jane (and vice versa), visiting and helping to take care of her when she can.

Several of the adult characters are pretty frightful, from the venomous Aunt Lawrence with her pretentious ideals to the feckless Vanda whose disregard for Jane results in near tragedy. The most striking exception to this rule is Mr Blackwell, a kindly man who befriends Frances following his move to Springfield (the property once occupied by the General). Mr Blackwell’s friendship is a source of much brightness for Frances and her family, easing their money worries following several years of poverty.

Alongside the poignancy and dark humour, there are some beautiful descriptive passages here, packed full of detail on the intricacies of Frances’ world. In the following passage, Frances reimagines each room in her childhood home, a technique she uses to stave off the horrific nightmares after her father’s death.

To keep myself awake and to calm myself I would go through each room at home so that it almost seemed as if I was there. I tried to recall everything they contained: the yellow rug in the drawing-room, which we used to cut pieces from to make dolls’ wigs; the faded morning-room curtains with monkeys climbing up them – it was always a sign that summer was coming when they were hung; the enormous brass bedstead in the spare room, all draped in chintz curtains, with its feather mattress – sometimes we slept there when we were ill, because it was on the sunny side of the house, and Father used to thump the mattress to make a hollow for us to lie in. (p. 30)

In short, this is a magical novel in which a bright, curious girl must navigate some of the challenges of adolescence. It is by turns funny, eerie, poignant and bewitching. A spellbinding read, one that reminds me a little of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I can’t recommend it more highly than that.

The Skin Chairs was published by Virago Books (currently out of print); personal copy.

Mini Reviews – Barbara Comyns and E. C. R Lorac

A couple of additional mini reviews of recent reads – this time novels by the wonderfully off-kilter Barbara Comyns and the British crime writer, E. C. R. Lorac. Enjoy!

Mr Fox by Barbara Comyns (1987)

I discovered this little gem of a novel a few months ago via Heaven Ali’s excellent review, which you can find here. It’s very much in the style of one of Comyns’ earlier novels, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950), a book that made my ‘best of’ list back in 2017.

Like ‘Spoons’, Mr Fox features a rather childlike young woman who relates her story in an unassuming, conversational style. As the novel opens, Caroline Seymore and her three-year-old daughter, Jenny, have just been offered a place to live by their ‘friend’, Mr Fox, who makes his money via various underhand dealings – mostly tarting up dodgy cars plus some black-market activities here and there. (The novel is set at the start of WW2.)

Caroline has been on her own with Jenny for the past three years, trying to make a go of sub-letting rooms in a London house having inherited the lease after her mother’s death. Unfortunately for Caroline, the bailiffs and debt-collectors are rapidly closing in, leaving her virtually no other option but to accept Mr Fox’s offer however awful that may be.

I knew so little about him [Mr Fox] really. Perhaps he was an awful vicious man, or maybe he was cruel and bad-tempered or mean; perhaps he hoarded things like string and candle-ends in boxes under his bed, or he might even get drunk and beat people. Then I remembered all my creditors and thought perhaps I’d better risk all these things. Nothing could be worse than all those summonses and bowler-hatted debt collectors. (pp. 27-28)

Mr Fox is an odd little man; kindly and generous one minute but prone to moody behaviour the next. In particular, he finds Jenny’s constant chattering somewhat annoying, frequently disturbing the household when he wants to enjoy a rest. While Caroline doesn’t share a bed with Mr Fox, she is expected to cook his meals – another aspect her benefactor finds fault with. As a consequence, Caroline often feels sad and homesick, even though she has no other home to speak of. There are times when Caroline longs to escape from Mr Fox, but realistically there is nowhere else where she and Jenny can go.

With the advent of war looming on the horizon, Mr Fox decides they all need to get out of London for a while, so he shuts down his dodgy garage, securing a job in an aircraft factory instead. But life in the isolated town of Straws proves terribly grim for Caroline; it’s a shabby, dismal place where no one seems to have any spark or money.

I became more and more depressed and never bothered to carry my gas mask any more. It wasn’t the war that depressed me so much but life at Straws. It was the most dreary, lonely place in the world, and it made Mr Fox unbearable. He became frightfully bad-tempered and nervy and had completely changed from the dashing kind of crook he used to be; leading an honest life didn’t suit him at all. (p. 76)

As Ali has already written about this slim yet very affecting book, I’m not going to dwell on the plot, only to say that we follow Caroline and Jenny as they try to make their way in an uncertain world – sometimes aided and abetted by Mr Fox, other times not. Instead, I’ll try to highlight a few things I liked about the novel, just to give you a feel for the style.

Like Sophia in Spoons, Caroline is a very engaging narrator, the childlike naivety and innocence adding greatly to her charm. There are times when Caroline’s matter-of-fact tone of voice may seem at odds with the horror of the situations she is describing, but in practice this style of delivery makes her predicament feel all the more horrific. (In an effort to earn her keep with Mr Fox, Caroline spends a terrible week working as a dance hostess in a ghastly club, a role she is ill-equipped for with her innocence and simplicity.)

In spite of the rather bleak subject matter – poverty, homelessness, a desperate reliance on the kindness of others, particularly men – Comyns lightens the tone with some nicely judged humour. There are several moments when Caroline is unintentionally funny, coming out with the most wonderful turns of phrase such as this description of a man who invites her for dinner after they meet in the club.

I came through the main entrance of Rules after getting rather entangled in the swing doors. But there he was, looking like a bulldog crossed with a hot-cross bun. (p. 51)

Comyns’ evocation of wartime London is superb, replete with air-raid sirens, explosions and bombed-out houses. There is a truly terrifying scene in which Caroline has to run barefoot while shielding Mr Fox’s dog, desperately trying to find shelter during a chaotic raid. Moreover, what comes through very strongly from the narrative is the fluid nature of civilian life during the war. Caroline and Jenny are almost always on the move, barely able to stay more than a few months in any single place. The transient feel of everything – jobs, houses, possessions, even life itself – is both palpable and striking.

I absolutely loved this little novel by Comyns, which is by turns funny, evocative, honest and poignant. The ending in particular is very affecting, perfectly capturing the opportunistic nature of Mr Fox – a man forever on the make, constantly on the lookout for the next lucrative deal.

Fire in the Thatch by E. C. R. Lorac (1946)

I’d been looking to read E. C. R. Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) for a while, particularly following positive reports by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and one or two other readers on Twitter. So, I was delighted to find a copy of one her novels, Fire in the Thatch, in a local charity shop fairly recently, especially as it was in near-perfect condition. Happily, my first experience of this author’s work was a great success, definitely one I’d recommend to others.

In short, Fire in the Thatch is a very entertaining entrant in the British Library Crime Classics series, a traditional Golden-Age novel to brighten a dull weekend. When Little Thatch cottage is destroyed in a fire, killing its new tenant, the reclusive army veteran Nicholas Vaughan, the dogged Chief Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to investigate.

Set in the beautiful countryside of Devon, this is a thoroughly intriguing mystery with interesting, distinctive characters (many of whom are shadowy), and a deep-rooted sense of place. Lorac demonstrates a real appreciation of the farming community’s passion for the landscape and traditional customs. These aspects of the novel are beautifully portrayed. The writing is excellent too, very engaging and precise.

Hayley at Desperate Reader has posted a lovely review of this, as has Guy, so I shall direct you to their posts. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping an eye out for more books by Lorac, particularly those featuring Macdonald, the rather engaging detective at the heart of Thatch – Lorac’s compelling portrayal of this determined character is one of the book’s many delights.

My books of the year, 2017 – favourites from a year of reading

As I’ve been off the grid for most of last few months, I didn’t get a chance to post a list of my favourite books from 2017. So, in the spirit of better late than never, here it is. Enjoy!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like its predecessor, 2017 turned out to be another strong reading year for me. I read fewer books than usual this time (around 70 books, mostly older/blacklisted titles) but the majority were very good. Once again, it proved very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, so I’ve gone overboard with a top fifteen – that’s two more than the baker’s dozen I usually aim for. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

It’s getting to the point where I need to reserve a permanent spot for Barbara Pym, such is the quality of her writing. This year’s slot goes to Crampton Hodnet, a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s (Some Tame Gazelle came a very close second). What a joy it was to return to this author’s territory, a familiar world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

A series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by Isherwood’s time in the city during the early 1930s. I really loved this book with its striking cast of characters and wealth of engaging vignettes. As one might expect, the author’s portrayal of a Berlin in flux is truly wonderful, capturing the atmosphere of everything from the seedy underground bars and nightlife to the magnificence and glory of the glamorous side of the city. A most evocative read.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

Here’s another author worthy of a permanent place my end-of-year lists, Elizabeth Taylor – I just can’t seem to get enough of her work. The storyline in this book revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her best intentions often causing more harm than good. A novel full of little insights into various aspects of human behaviour – lovers of character-driven novels should enjoy this one.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

My favourite of the collections of short stories I read in 2017 (Saki’s Improper Stories came a close second). Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness. Once again, this will appeal to lovers of character-driven fiction. A superb set of stories, quite varied in style in spite of the overriding theme.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Set largely in the seedy bars and boarding houses of London’s Earl’s Court, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square centres on the tortured existence of George Harvey Bone, a thirty-four-year-old man who is obsessed with a beautiful yet vindictive young woman named Netta Longdon. It is an utterly brilliant portrait of a man on the edge, perfectly capturing the sudden changes in mood and mindset of a lonely and tormented soul, driven to distraction by the heartless woman he so deeply desires. This might just be my favourite book of the year.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

A beautiful and compelling portrayal of forbidden love, characterised by Wharton’s trademark ability to expose the underhand workings of a repressive world. Set within the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s, a culture that seems so refined on the surface, and yet so terribly brutal, hypocritical and intolerant underneath once the protective veneer of respectability is stripped away. There is a real sense of depth and subtlety in the characterisation here – classic literature doesn’t get much better than this.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

A highly compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Second World War. It’s a brilliant novel, one that features a most distinctive character quite unlike any other I’ve encountered either in literature or in life itself. In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating individual, one that is sure to generate strong opinions either way. Is she a manipulative hypocrite, determined to seize any opportunity and exploit it for her own personal gain? Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? You’ll have to read the book yourself to take a view.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

One of several reads featuring a highly distinctive female narrator – in this case, Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience. It is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heart-warming.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Enchanted indeed! What a delightful novel this turned out to be – telling, as it does, the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming story has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. A truly magical read, guaranteed to lift the spirits.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

In this beautifully written novel, we follow a day in the life of the Marshalls, an upper-middle-class family struggling to find a new way to live in an England irrevocably altered by the Second World War. Several threads and encounters come together to form a vivid picture of a nation, a country trying to come to terms with new ways of life and the accompanying changes to its social fabric. A little like a cross between Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and an Elizabeth Taylor novel, this was a wonderful discovery for me.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

This novel was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, thereby creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult. A thoroughly delicious read.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I read this in advance of Halloween, and it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite humorous in a darkly comic way. What really sets this book apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of the narrator’s voice, that of young Merricat Blackwood. A novella with much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. The sense of being an outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a prominent theme.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Several of the books in translation I chose to read in 2017 were disappointing, but this one really stood out for the distinctiveness of its central character, Doris. A striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start, particularly in the way it reflected her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin. Another very evocative read for me.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party provides a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. Essentially a tale of ‘upstairs and downstairs’, this is a wonderful ensemble piece with a sting in its tail. Fans of L. P Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy this one.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes made my 2016 highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. And here she is again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse is a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there – only things don’t quite go to plan. It’s probably my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I read last year.

So there we are – a pretty satisfying year of reading all told.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Another of my reads for the Classics Club, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is narrated by Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles Fairclough. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience – it is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heartwarming.

When young Sophia meets fellow artist, Charles, on a train, she soon falls for him against the backdrop of a glorious English summer. In spite of opposition from virtually everyone in Charles’s family, the couple marry very quickly and find a flat in North London which they furnish with secondhand pieces, all painted a beautiful duck-egg green. Their lifestyle is rather bohemian to say the least.

Right from the start, money is in very short supply. While Sophia has a regular job at a commercial studio, Charles considers himself to be a more ‘serious’ artist, reliant on the occasional commission or ad-hoc sale for income. In reality, he contributes next to nothing to the household finances – and when he does, it is quickly frittered away on luxuries such as paint, new brushes and restaurant dinners. For all her charms and initial optimism about married life, Sophia is rather naïve, and the first half of the novel is peppered with humorous moments as she tries to get to grips with marriage and running the house as well as being the main breadwinner in the family. Impractical advice from various members of Charles’s interfering family does little to help matters, especially when it’s delivered in a rather condescending fashion – here’s a typical example.

Although most of Charles’s relations came from Wiltshire they used to come to London very frequently. They all talked and asked questions about our financial position and took the line of “I hope you are looking after dear Charles properly”, or “What a lucky girl you are to have married into our family.” In those days I was too timid to say much, but I used to resent it all the more and sometimes, after they left, I would be nervy and resentful with Charles. Also they would keep suggesting impractical ways we could earn extra money. They sent cuttings from the Daily Mail about how I could make sweets or gloves at home and make a fortune, or complicated rackets for Charles to sell note-cases to our friends on commission. As none of our friends had any notes, he wouldn’t have done very well from it. (pp. 20-21)

Things take a distinct turn for the worse when Sophia finally discovers she is expecting a baby (cue some amusing scenes as she wonders why she has been feeling poorly all the time). Charles is pretty horrified by the prospect of becoming a father, and Sophia herself has no real understanding of the practicalities of motherhood. In short, they are both completely unprepared for what lies ahead. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel for Sophia when I read the following passage.

Before I married Charles I used to hope I would have masses of children. I thought it would be nice always to have at least one baby and quite a number of older children all developing in their individual ways, but before we were married Charles told me he never wanted to have any children, and I saw they would not fit in with the kind of life we would lead, so I just hoped none would come to such unsuitable parents—anyway, not for years. I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said “I won’t have any babies” very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control, but by this time I knew that idea was quite wrong. (p. 26)

When Sophia informs her boss that she is pregnant, he responds by telling her she might as well leave at the next holiday. We are in the early 1930s here, many years before the introduction of maternity pay and employment protection for expectant mothers. With Sophia out of a job and Charles swanning about all day nurturing his artistic tendencies, the couple’s prospects are very poor indeed.

Much to Charles’s dismay, Sophia has a little boy which they name Sandro. He is a fragile little thing, very quiet and gentle and almost certainly malnourished. In spite of all this, Charles doesn’t warm to the child. Not for the first time, Comyns pulled me up short with one of Sophia’s revelations about life with her husband with all his blatant insensitivity.

Charles still disliked him [Sandro], but in spite of this made some drawings of us together, so I hoped eventually he would get used to him. At the moment I felt I had most unreasonably brought some awful animal home, and that I was in disgrace for not taking it back to the shop where it came from. (p. 64)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the plot. It might spoil things, I think. Suffice it to say that the situation gradually deteriorates over the course of the next couple of years. While there are occasional periods of brightness – an inheritance from Sophia’s aunt and the occasional commission for Charles provide brief respites from poverty – they are sporadic and relatively short-lived.  All too soon Sophia finds herself desperately scrabbling around for money again, a situation which leads to the re-emergence of tensions in the marriage. She is forced to find another job to support the family as Charles won’t (or can’t) hack it in a commercial studio. As the story moves towards a somewhat inevitable crisis point, the mood darkens considerably, and the humour that characterises the first half of the novel gradually falls away. In this scene, Sophia reflects on her first day back at work as a commercial artist. Once again, Charles’s selfishness is all too apparent…

The first day there, I had to walk to work because we had no money in the house. Charles promised he would bring some in time for lunch, but, of course, didn’t, and I was too shy of the other girls to borrow any, so I became rather hungry and when it was time to leave I waited to see if he would come to fetch me, but again he failed me, so I had to walk home, getting more and more hungry on the way, and angry, too. When I arrived home I saw Charles through the uncurtained window. He was sitting reading with a tray of tea-things beside him. He looked so comfortable, I became even more angry, and dashed in like a whirlwind and picked up a chair and hit him with it. He did look startled. It was the first time I had done anything like that, and he was disgusted with me. I was ashamed of myself, too, but felt too tired to apologise, so just went to bed and wished I was dead. (pp. 100-101)

Hooray for Sophia! I think I would have sideswiped him with that chair, too.

This is an excellent novel, one that I enjoyed a lot more than I had expected to. For some reason, I had got it into my head that Comyns would be too left-field or eclectic for my tastes. How wrong could I be! I found Sophia a rather endearing narrator – yes, she is gullible and naïve, but she is also sympathetic and good-natured at heart. I couldn’t help but warm to her matter-of-fact, childlike narrative, a style that makes her revelations all the more shocking and impactful when they come, like little bolts out of the blue.

One of the things I like most about this novel is the way Comyns weaves various points of social commentary into Sophia’s story, all grounded in personal experience no doubt. There are some truly shocking and degrading scenes depicting Sophia’s treatment in the maternity wards following her admission to give birth. Several of the nurses are cruel and insensitive to her condition, and she is forced to carry her own suitcase from one room to another during a seemingly endless sequence of transfers through the hospital. The lack of proper care doesn’t end there either; this next passage highlights the lack of support and information available to young mothers following the birth.

We had no money at all and the milkman wouldn’t leave any milk because we hadn’t given him any money lately. He was quite nice about it and said we could have some free milk every day if we applied to the council. Mothers with new babies were allowed one pint a day if they had no money. The council went up in my estimation when I heard about this. Up till now I had thought it was almost a criminal offence to have a baby. All the same I did not apply for the free milk, because I was afraid they would take the baby away and put it in a home on the grounds of its parents having no visible means of support. (p. 65)

I’ve probably made this novel sound terribly grim, but it isn’t at all. There are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments here, especially in the first half of the book. More importantly, perhaps, we know from the opening page that there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Sophia. By the end of the novel, she is in a happier place having learnt some important lessons along the way. I guess that’s as much as any of us can hope for in life.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.