Tag Archives: Book Review

A Chill in the Air by Iris Origo

The British-born writer, and biographer Iris Origo is perhaps best known for War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943–1944 – a remarkable account of the impact of WW2 on a small rural community in Tuscany, published in 1947 to great success. Prior to this, Origo kept another diary, a private record of developments leading up to Italy’s entry into the war in 1940. This earlier journal — A Chill in the Air — covers the period from March 1939 to July 1940, ending with the birth of Origo’s second child, Benedetta.

First published in 2017, long after the author’s death, A Chill in the Air is a truly fascinating text, an intelligent, clear-eyed account of Origo’s reading of political and diplomatic events across Europe from her viewpoint in Italy. While her overriding aim was to document events as simply and truthfully as possible, Origo also captures the prevailing moods of the various circles she moves in, giving the text a richness and vitality that really brings it to life.

Origo herself was supremely well-connected. Born to a British mother from the aristocracy and a wealthy American father, Origo spent much of her childhood living a life of privilege in the Italian town of Fiesole. In her early twenties she marries the Italian, Antonio Origo, also from aristocratic stock, and together they buy a dilapidated Tuscan estate, La Foce, which they restore over the next ten years. Following periods of foreign travel and separation from Antonio, partly prompted by the tragic death of the couple’s young son in 1933, Iris returns to Italy in 1938, ready to re-engage with her marriage and the continued development of La Foce. And it is here on the estate that she writes most of her diary, with occasional entries from trips to Florence and Rome.

With her godfather, William Phillips, working as the American Ambassador in Rome, Origo has connections to the innermost political and diplomatic circles – a position that offers an insight into Mussolini’s strategy and intentions. Nevertheless, Origo does not restrict her interests to the privileged classes; she is also in touch with plenty of ordinary Italians, people from all walks of everyday life, from farm workers and peasants to governesses and typists. In short, this multifaceted network of connections gives Origo’s diary a fascinating range of perspectives – it is, in effect, a combination of hypotheses, rumours and news reports (sometimes fake, sometimes genuine), all filtered and analysed by Origo in her characteristically perceptive style. Moreover, she casts her net as widely as possible, encompassing newspaper reports and radio broadcasts from a range of sources including the Italian, British and French press, with occasional bulletins from Germany, too.

A consummate observer with a sharp eye for detail, Origo is especially alert to the authorities’ widespread use of damaging propaganda at various points in the campaign. From an early stage, the possibility of war is ‘positioned’ to the people as a means of redistributing colonies and wealth, a battle between the rich and the poor in the name of Fascist revolution.

It is now clear what form propaganda, in case of war, will take. The whole problem will be presented as an economic one. The “democratic countries”, i.e., the “haves”, will be presented as permanently blocking the way of the “have-nots” to economic expansion. Germany and Italy must fight or submit to suffocation. (p. 31)

Furthermore, the propaganda extends to trying to convince the general public that the Fascist countries are interested in ‘peace and justice’ rather than war. ‘The real warmongers and alarmists are on the other side.’ Therefore, if war does break out, people will be led to believe it is the democracies who are responsible for the conflict – the Fascist countries will have been forced to act in self-defence, ostensibly as a means of ‘safeguarding’ the peace in Europe.

At first, there is little appetite amongst the Italians for war. The majority seem to believe that Mussolini, whom they have trusted for years, will not lead the country into battle. He will find a way of keeping Italy out of it, irrespective of developments elsewhere. Nevertheless, by August 1939, the picture feels a little different. While educated Italians remain anxious about the possibility of war, the general impression among the broader population is that a lull in the proceedings has descended, prompted by a blinkered faith in Mussolini’s abilities.

But it isn’t exactly calm. It is a mixture of passive fatalism, and of a genuine faith in their leader: the fruits of fifteen years of being taught not to think. It is certainly not a readiness for war, but merely a blind belief that, “somehow”, it won’t happen. (p. 72)

Origo is particularly adept at capturing the mood of the people she encounters at various points from March 1939 to July 1940. By October 1939, the atmosphere in Florence is menacing and unsettling. Fear and suspicion are rife, to the point where even the newspaper one is seen reading can lead to warnings, animosity or suspicious looks from others. As the months slip by, the fear and uncertainty mounts as the Duce moves closer to the Germans, and the prospect of Italy’s entry into the war looms large on the horizon. In effect, it appears as if Italy is moving ‘from one absurdity to another’, a falsification of its position by furthering a ‘forced alliance with Germany’ – with the possibility of Italians being called upon to fight on the side of a regime they despise.

Alongside the major political and diplomatic developments of the day, the diaries are peppered with illustrations of the impact of events on people from various walks of life.

One young woman, who is just expecting her first baby, prays daily that it will be a girl. “What’s the use of having boys if they’ll take them away from me and kill them? (p. 29)

We learn of a governess, a native of Alsace-Lorraine, who finds herself deemed ‘an enemy alien’ for the second time in her life, simply because of her nationality. Now she has been told by the authorities to leave Italy, with little money and no family to turn to. Just one of many innocent casualties, caught up in the turmoil of the approaching war.

The announcement of Italy’s entry into war is brilliantly captured by Origo – a strained, hoarse Mussolini, speaking from Rome’s Piazza Venezia, prompts little emotion from the farm workers at La Foce – a defence mechanism, perhaps, as is the stoic labourers’ way.

I look again at the listening faces. They wear the blank, closed look that is the peasant’s defence. Impossible to tell how much they have taken in or what they feel – except that it is not enthusiasm. (pp. 151-152)

In summary, then, A Chill in the Air is a truly fascinating book, a remarkably insightful account of a country’s inexorable slide into war. With her links to a wide network of individuals in various key positions, Origo has few illusions about the wisdom (or otherwise) of events unfolding around her – a sharpness that really comes through in the text. My NYRB Classics edition comes with an excellent introduction by the historian and writer Lucy Hughes-Hallett and an equally illuminating afterword by Origo’s granddaughter, the journalist and translator Katia Lysy – both of which position the book in the broader context of Origo’s life. Very highly recommended indeed.

The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Dick Davis)

I have written before about my love of Natalia Ginzburg’s fiction – most recently, All Our Yesterdays, a rich, multilayered novel of family life spanning the duration of WW2. The Little Virtues is a volume of Ginzburg’s essays, and what a marvellous collection it is – erudite, intelligent and full of the wisdom of life. Ginzburg wrote these pieces individually between 1944 and 1962, and many were published in Italian journals before being collected here. In her characteristically lucid prose, Ginzburg writes of families and friendships, of virtues and parenthood, and of writing and relationships. I adored this beautiful, luminous collection of essays, a certainty for my end-of-year highlights even though we’re only in January – it really is that good.

In the opening essay, ‘Winter in the Abruzzi’ (1944), Ginzburg describes the time she and her family spent living in exile in a village in Abruzzo during the Second World War. It’s a poignant, melancholy piece, particularly given what happens to Natalia’s husband, Leone – a Jewish anti-fascist activist – at the hands of the authorities.

There is a kind of uniform monotony in the fate of man. Our lives unfold according to ancient, unchangeable laws, according to an invariable and ancient rhythm. Our dreams are never realised and as soon as we see them betrayed we realise that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality. No sooner do we see them betrayed than we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by. (pp. 12–13)

This palpable sense of melancholy is carried through to ‘Portrait of a Friend’ (1957) as Ginzburg reflects on her home city, the city of her youth, a place haunted by ‘memories and shadows’. Here she likens the area to an old friend, a poet who is now deceased.

Written in the immediate aftermath of war, ‘The Son of Man’ (1946) develops these themes further, with Ginzburg conveying how her generation — effectively the fugitives of war — will never feel safe in their homes again, where a knock in the middle of the night will almost certainly instil fear in the soul. In essence, the war has exposed a brutal truth, the darkest, ugliest sides of humanity in all their horror and cruelty. There’s a sense that the young have had to find a new strength or toughness to face the realities of life, something different from the previous generation – and hopefully the one to come. It’s a mindset that has led to a gulf between Ginzburg’s generation and that of her parents, especially in their respective approaches to parenthood.

They would like our children to play with woolly toys in pretty pink rooms with little trees and rabbits painted on the walls. They would like us to surround their infancy with veils and lies, and carefully hide the truth of things from them. But we cannot do this. We cannot do this to children whom we have woken in the middle of the night and tremblingly dressed in the darkness so that we could flee with them or hide them… (p. 83)

In ‘England: Eulogy and Lament’ (1961), the author relays her impressions of England and its people – a nation whose characteristics she documents with the directness of an outsider.

To Ginzburg, England is a civilised country, well governed and organised, serious and conventional, gloomy and dull, with occasional glimpses of beauty amid a largely homogenous environment. Many of these qualities are reflected in how the English dress – a style showing little imagination or individuality with the majority dressing alike. For women, the norm seems to be ‘beige or transparent plastic raincoats which look like shower curtains or tablecloths’, while businessmen opt for pinstripe trousers and black bowler hats. Moreover, Ginzburg is adept at capturing the demeanour of the English, how in conversation, they tend to stick to the superficialities of life (such as the weather and other banalities) to avoid causing others offence.

I couldn’t help but raise an ironic eyebrow at some Of Ginzburg’s observations about England’s principles. Oh, how this country has changed from the version portrayed here – in some areas for the better, in others for the worse!

It [England] is a country which has always shown itself ready to welcome foreigners, from very diverse communities, without I think oppressing them. (p. 36)

In ‘My Vocation’ (1949), one of my favourite pieces in this collection, Ginzburg traces her approach to writing over the arc of her creative life, from composing juvenile poems and stories in childhood to her maturity as a writer of the female experience in adulthood. It’s a fascinating piece detailing how her relationship with writing has changed through adolescence, marriage and motherhood. This beautiful, thoughtful essay also captures how the tenor of Ginzburg’s work is affected by her mood, especially the balance between her use of memory vs imagination.

When we are happy our imagination is stronger; when we are unhappy our memory works with greater vitality. Suffering makes the imagination weak and lazy; it moves, but unwillingly and heavily, with the weak movements of someone who is ill… (p.104)

Here, along with several other articles in this collection, we get the sense Ginzburg approaches her subjects obliquely or at an angle. In short, by writing about one aspect of a topic, she triggers reverberations elsewhere – like an echo amid the landscape or stone skimmed across a pool – adding a broader resonance to her insights beyond their immediate sphere or focus.

‘Human Relationships’ (1953) is another piece that follows a timeline, tracing the nature of our relationships with others from childhood and adolescence to adulthood and parenthood. Ginzburg is adept at capturing how the subtleties of our interactions change as we move through each of these phases. As our values, needs and priorities shift, so do our thoughts and emotions, frequently manifesting themselves in our attachments to others. While all stages are brilliantly conveyed, Ginzburg writes especially well about the mysteries of the adult world from a child’s point of view, highlighting the joys and anxieties that consume us at this age. In addition, her reflections on finding a life partner in adulthood are just as insightful and beautifully expressed.

After many years, only after many years, after a thick web of habits, memories and violent differences has been woven between us, we at last realise that he is, in truth, the right person for us, that we could not have put up with anyone else, that it is only from him that we can ask everything that the heart needs. (p. 141)

Central to some of these essays are our relationships with others. In ‘He and I’ (1962), Ginzburg describes the relationship with her partner in terms of their many differences, from their personalities and character traits to their interests and pursuits. It’s a beautifully written piece, tinged with touches of poignancy, especially towards the end.

Finally, in the titular essay from 1960, Ginzburg sets out her approach to parenthood, arguing that we should put more weight behind the ‘great virtues’ of life, several of which spring from instinct, and less on the ‘little virtues’, typically born from a defensive spirit of self-preservation.

As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; nor shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbour and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know. (p. 151)

Moreover, she argues that by focusing too much on the little virtues, parents are in danger of fostering a sense of ‘cynicism or fear of life’ amongst their children, particularly if the great virtues are missing or downplayed.

While we might not necessarily agree with everything Ginzburg sets out in her essays, there is no denying her commitment to these principles and the reasoning behind them. There is so much wisdom and intelligence to be found in these pieces.  A fascinating collection to savour and revisit, a keeper for the bedside table as a balm for the soul.

The Little Virtues is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Young Accomplice by Benjamin Wood   

It was the 1950s setting that first attracted me to Benjamin Wood’s, The Young Accomplice, an immersive, slow-burning tale of opportunity, idealism and the possibility of breaking free from the past. I’m often a little sceptical when contemporary authors try to recreate this era in their work, especially the dialogue and period detail. Luckily, there are no such problems here. The early 1950s brilliantly are evoked – from the stripped-back, smoke-laded pubs to the grubby underworld of petty crime, everything feels authentic and true. The Young Accomplice was my first book by Benjamin Wood, but it impressed me so much that I’ll definitely be checking out his backlist.

The novel is mostly set at Leventree, a Surrey-based farm where the idealistic architects Arthur and Florence Mayhood hope to develop a new practice along the lines of Frank Lloyd Wright’s collaborative programme at Taliesin. Their aim is to train a series of apprentices – disadvantaged youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds – to participate in their altruistic project. Arthur feels a particular kinship with these ideals, having spent time in a borstal as a teenager for unknowingly handling stolen goods; and with no children of their own, the Mayhoods are keen offer wayward youngsters a fresh start.

Enter Joyce and Charlie Savigear – siblings in their late teens – who win the Mayhoods’ drawing competition for borstal kids with an eye for design. 

The Savigears were not the scrawny pair she [Florence] was expecting. Standing half a yard from one another in the fug of their own cigarettes, they had the restful attitude of two navvies on a lunch break. (p. 24)

While Joyce (the elder of the two) is rather sly and outspoken, Charlie is much quieter – a diligent young man who seems eager to learn. He responds well to the expectations set by the Mayhoods, contributing to the farm labour alongside his architectural training. In truth, there is something of the young Arthur in Charlie Savigear, a gentleness combined with curiosity and determination, qualities that Florence detects and hopes to nurture.

But as he [Charlie] stood there by his doorway, thick-browed, restful, waiting for an answer to his invitation, he looked so much like Arthur in his youth that she could feel the strangest dislocation from herself. He had the same involuntary pout, the same relentless motion to his eyes, as though observant of particulars that only he could see. And his carriage: borstal-trained into uprightness, yet so languid and serene. (p. 76)

Right from the start, the novel is imbued with a noticeable sense of unease, a feeling accentuated by the fact that Joyce and Charlie appear to have won their places at Leventree independently and on their own merits, despite hailing from different borstals. While the Mayhoods are too trusting for their own good, Hollis, the seasoned farmhand, soon gets the measure of the two youngsters, Joyce in particular. Hollis swiftly tapes her as crafty operator – smart enough to put on an act in front of her benefactors but quick to slacken off when left unsupervised.

The honest-grafter act was for the Mayhoods’ benefit. But when they weren’t around to watch her, it was whingeing and sarcasm all the way. He knew that it was going to be like this, week after week, one petty incident after the next. It would be her word they favoured over his, whenever there were sulks or quarrels. In their minds, she was still young, a work in progress, someone worth their kindness and investment. (pp. 94–95)

Nevertheless, as the narrative unfolds, a different side to Joyce begins to emerge. Woven through the text are flashbacks to past events as the Savigears’ paths to borstal are carefully revealed. Here we see a sixteen-year-old Joyce being groomed by Mal Duggan, a vicious petty criminal with a line in stolen cars. When Mal offers Joyce an escape from a life of drudgery, serving fussy customers at a dreary Maidstone store, she is quick to jump, lured by the prospect of excitement and a flat to call her own.

They’d met when she was sixteen, on a dreary afternoon in Maidstone, middle of the week. She’d been on lunch break, smoking round the back of E. H. Lacey’s store, and he’d been sitting in a Daimler parked up in the alley, blocking the goods entrance with his bonnet. Her first thought had been: Fancy motor. Must be rich, this fella. She hadn’t given much consideration to the way he looked, all slouched, and rumple-shirted, messing with the dial on the radio. (p. 137)

Naturally, Mal expects payback in return for the girl’s upkeep, forcing Joyce to act as a go-between with his usual fences. It’s a deeply troubling situation, a sexually abusive relationship where Mal holds all the cards.

He’d had her spinning like a pony on a carousel from the beginning, and she hadn’t even heard the music playing. (p. 146)

Charlie, for his sins, also gets embroiled in Mal’s stolen car racket through no fault of his own – a development that ultimately lands both Savigears in borstal.

Back at Leventree, the Savigears’ past begins to catch up with them with the sinister reappearance of Mal, adding to the novel’s underlying air of menace. As Joyce tries desperately to keep Mal’s return a secret – not even Charlie knows that he’s back on the scene – we begin to understand that her bravado is a front. A sort of defence mechanism against the fear of repeating past mistakes. In truth, Joyce is terrified of being sucked back into Mal’s criminal activities, complete with all the attendant risks this presents – not only to herself but to Charlie as well.

As the novel reaches its eventful denouement, we wonder if the Mayhoods’ belief in the Savigears will be rewarded. Charlie clearly has the potential to go far with the right training, but will Joyce’s actions scupper his chances once again? Only time will tell…

Wood has created an excellent novel here, one that hums with a slow-burning tension as the story plays out. The four central characters are brilliantly drawn with a genuine sense of richness, and the architectural practices are also convincingly portrayed. Wood has clearly done his research, covering everything from the preferred cigarettes and toiletries brands of the 1950s to the traditional framing practices of the day. It’s a graceful, slow-burning novel that gradually reveals its hand, rewarding patient readers for their time and investment. Very highly recommended indeed.

The Young Accomplice is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.

The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li

The Chinese-born writer Yiyun Li has been on my radar for a while, ever since her 2019 novel Where Reasons End popped up in my Twitter timeline with recommendations from readers I trust. Published last year with equally positive reviews, The Book of Goose is my first experience of Li’s work, but hopefully not my last. It’s a strange, compelling, captivating novel, full of different layers and ideas. On one level, we have a story about childhood friendship, devotion, manipulation and the power dynamics of relationships; but on another, the novel digs deep into the power of storytelling and the games children play to escape boredom – how fantasies can become truths if we pursue them too avidly, blurring the lines between the real and the imaginary. There’s so much to absorb with this one, and I’ll probably be thinking about it for a long time to come…

The book opens in 1966 with the passing mention of a death in a letter. Twenty-seven-year-old Agnès – now married and living in America with her husband, Earl – receives news that her childhood friend, Fabienne, has died in childbirth. The letter set off a series of memories for Agnès, reminiscences of her close, intense friendship with Fabienne, the two girls having grown up together in the farming village of Saint Rémy in France.

Rewinding to France in the early 1950s, we find Agnès and Fabienne at thirteen, growing up in a poverty-stricken post-war environment with little external excitement to stimulate their curiosity. As is often the case in such friendships, the two girls are the polar opposites of one another. While Fabienne is the natural leader – bold, creative, insolent and unpolished – Agnès is the more passive of the two – a follower by nature, keen to please Fabienne with her loyalty and compliance.

But were we not, in a sense, two blind girls? One would walk everywhere as though not a single mine were buried in the field. The other would not find the courage to take a step because the whole world was a minefield. Had they not been placed side by side by fate, they would have lived out their different lots. But that was not the case for us. Fabienne and I were in this world together, and we had only each other’s hands to hold on to. She had her will. I, my willingness to be led by her will. (p. 122)

One of the things Li does so well here is to capture the close, obsessive nature of the girls’ friendship, particularly how Agnès longs to be with Fabienne every spare minute of the day. We see the girls playing games together, often hanging out in the village cemetery, with Agnès posing questions to Fabienne about life’s great mysteries and the possibility of death.

Fabienne frequently invents games for the two friends to play, largely to alleviate the boredom of their lives. One day, she comes up with a plan to write a sensational book as a sort of collaboration between the two girls. With her highly imaginative mind, Fabienne will create a series of macabre, sinister stories, while Agnès will draw on her well-developed penmanship skills to write them down and pose as the book’s author. When it comes to securing a publisher, Fabienne is smart enough to realise that Agnès is best placed to ‘front’ the book, largely due to the latter’s patient, biddable nature and higher standard of education.

Following some input from the local postmaster – a poetry-loving widower Fabienne manipulates as part of her plan – the stories are published to great critical success. Agnès is hailed as a child prodigy, ‘a savage young chronicler of postwar life with a mind drawn to morbidity’. As such, she finds herself on the end of considerable interest from the press, keen to gain an insight into her life and creative talents.

But I [Agnès] was lucky to have come up with how best to present myself as a child author: I was imagining a person who was half Fabienne and half Agnès, and I had no trouble stepping into the shoes of that person. A mysterious girl who had made up for her lack of education with good intuition—that was what the press needed to see. (p. 86)

After serving a useful purpose, the postmaster is swiftly dispatched by Fabienne in another of her manipulative plans – a move that illustrates how calculating she can be when faced with a potential threat.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, literary success opens up some exciting new opportunities for Agnès, who soon finds herself at Woodsway, a prestigious finishing school in England run by the formidable Mrs Townsend. This changes the dynamics between the two childhood friends as Agnès mixes with the other schoolgirls – all from wealthy families of a higher social class – while Fabienne stays in Saint Rémy. In essence, Fabienne seems quite content for Agnès to be out there in the world, experiencing things that will be useful for their forthcoming books.

Despite missing her soulmate terribly, Agnès becomes more assertive and rebellious at Woodsway, while Fabienne continues to orchestrate the dynamics of the girls’ relationship through her letters from home. With Agnès becoming increasingly restless and unhappy with the strict regime at the school, the stage is set for a denouement of sorts, but I’ll leave it there in terms of the plot for fear of revealing any spoilers.

In some respects, The Book of Goose reads like a fairy story or fable with a fatalistic undercurrent throughout – a kind of darkness or unease that permeates the book. Li makes great use of various metaphors and symbols in the narrative – for instance, apples, oranges and knives, with Agnès acting as ‘a whetstone to Fabienne’s blade’. The childhood game of paper-scissors-stone is another highly relevant metaphor, capturing something of the dynamics of the story and its leading players – the smart but manipulative Fabienne and the naïve yet hopeful Agnès.

Often I imagine that living is a game of rock-paper-scissors: fate beats hope, hope beats ignorance, and ignorance beats fate. Or, in a version that has preoccupied me: the fatalistic attracts the hopeful, the hopeful attracts the ignorant, and the ignorant, the fatalistic. (p. 106)

Some of the most beguiling aspects of Goose stem from the philosophical reflections and questions Li weaves into her book. While some of these represent the adult Agnès’ reminiscences of her childhood with Fabienne, others take the form of questions the two girls discuss as adolescents while hanging out in the cemetery. The existential nature of these questions fits so naturally within the text, capturing the kinds of discussions about life, growing up, ghosts and death one could easily imagine happening between girls of this age.

Another element that Li handles particularly well is how fantasies and stories can become forms of ‘truth’ to those involved if pursued very rigorously, blurring the margins between the imaginary and reality. While Fabienne invents fantasies and games as a way of dealing with boredom and an indifferent world, Agnès is thrilled to play along in the hope these fantasies can continue indefinitely.

Fabienne and I had raised ourselves to be the best make-believers. The world was often inconvenient or indifferent to us, and it was our ingenuity that made what was inconvenient and indifferent interesting: the stinging nettles left bloody marks on our legs as we ran, but we pretended that those were the nail scratches of the girls greedy for our attention; […] A hard life, unlike what we were taught at school, did not make us virtuous; the hardest life was the most boring, the most unrewarding. How else could we overcome this boredom but to bring ourselves up in our own make-believe, which, as we grew older, had become more elaborate, more exhilarating, and, most of all, closer to the truth? (p. 307)

Nevertheless, only Fabienne is mature enough to realise these games must come to a natural end. While Agnès wants a form of their childhood to go on forever, Fabienne knows it cannot last. The intensity of their friendship has been sustained by the fantasies of adolescence, but the adult world is beckoning, and their current relationship might struggle to survive. Soon there will be considerable pressure for the girls to get married and have children; it’s what their families expect of them, especially given their upbringing.

This is such a thoughtful, intelligent book, full of meaning and mystery. A captivating story of obsessive childhood friendship and the alluring nature of fantasies. A layered, literary novel – beautiful, strange and beguiling.

The Book of Goose is published by 4th Estate; personal copy.

Crook O’ Lune by E. C. R. Lorac

In recent years, the British Library has been doing a sterling job with its reissues of various vintage mysteries by the English crime writer Edith Caroline Rivett. While many of these novels were written under Rivett’s main pen name E. C. R. Lorac, others were published in the guise of Carol Carnac – including the excellent Crossed Skis, a fabulous winter holiday read.

Crook O’ Lune (aka Shepherd’s Crook) is another splendid addition to the list, an absorbing slow-burn mystery with an excellent sense of place. The setting is the fictional farming community of High Gimmerdale, which Lorac based on the parish of Roeburndale in the Lancashire fells, an area she knew very well. It also features her regular detective, Chief Inspector Macdonald, who continues to impress with his sharp mind, likeable manner and thorough investigative skills.

With an eye on his future retirement plans, Macdonald is staying with friends in Lancashire’s Lune Valley while he searches for a small dairy farm to buy. During the trip, an investigation with links to the past arises, and Macdonald gets drawn in…

Gilbert Woolfall, a middle-aged businessman from Leeds, has recently inherited Aikengill, a remote farmhouse in the local area. While Gilbert has always been a town man, he finds himself increasingly tempted by the prospect of making Aikengill his home, especially given the beauty of the local area. Moreover, the property has been in the Woolfall family for centuries and was lovingly refurbished by the previous owner, Gilbert’s Uncle Thomas; so, the emotional pull of the property’s heritage is proving difficult for Gilbert to resist.

But with the other half of his mind he [Gilbert] was aware that something deep down inside him responded to the remoteness and serenity of the place, something tugged at him, told him he belonged here, as his forefathers had done and that if he sold that ancient house which Uncle Thomas had left him in his will, he’d know for the rest of his life he’d made a mistake, as well as lost an opportunity. (pp. 18–19)

Nevertheless, before finalising his decision, Gilbert is keen to work through his late uncle’s vast store of papers on the Woolfall family history. Who knows what he might discover as he continues to dig?

While Gilbert is mulling things over, Lorac introduces a few other interested parties – each with an eye on the new owner’s decision, one way or another. First up, there’s Betty Fell, a strapping lass from a family of local farmers. Betty hopes to marry her young man, Jock Shearling, a local farmhand, but the prospect of living with either set of parents is not particularly appealing. So, she asks Gilbert if she and Jock can stay in a wing of the house and look after the place in his absence. In effect, Betty would act as Aikengill’s housekeeper while Jock could look after the land.

Then there’s the Rector, the disagreeable Simon Tupper, who seems to think Gilbert’s uncle should have left the Church some money in his will. Gilbert knows of some suspicions regarding the Church’s misallocation of a previous stipend – a provision for a perpetual curate in the area, originally dating back to the Woolfalls’ ancestors in the 17th century. This ‘hocus-pocus’ about the grant appears to be the reason for the lack of any Church bequest in Uncle Thomas’s will. Finally, there’s Daniel Herdwick, owner of the neighbouring farm. He wishes to buy Aikengill as he already has grazing rights to the estate’s land.

Gilbert is minded to take up Betty Fell’s offer to take care of the place while he decides what to do long term. He knows it might take a year or two to make a final decision, and the house will need looking after in his absence – especially as the current housekeeper, Mrs Ramsden, is moving to Dent to take care of her cousin. However, before any plans can be finalised, a tragedy occurs. A fire breaks out in the Aikengill cellar, destroying the contents of the property’s study and killing Mrs Ramsden – possibly unintentionally, as the house was presumed to have been unoccupied on the night in question.  

Naturally, Chief Inspector Macdonald gets involved in the case – firstly as a consultant to the local police and subsequently on a more formal basis. The ensuing investigations take Macdonald through the hills and dales of the fells, giving Lorac ample opportunities to showcase her skills in capturing the beauty of the local area. What makes this story particularly engaging is how beautifully Lorac portrays the farming community and the local landscape. She writes lovingly about the details of day-to-day rural life, the rhythms of working the land, and the blend of beauty and ruggedness in the terrain.

It was a glorious spring evening, the sun still gilding the crests of the high fells, though the valley was already in shadows. At first, the steep narrow road ran between hedgerows in which the first blackthorn was spreading a mist of white, and the willow catkins were blobs of gold, but after a couple of miles the hedgerows gave way to dry-stone walls, the arable land dropped behind, and the road rose even more steeply to the open fellside. (p. 16)

The narrative is punctuated by some lovely descriptions of the Lancashire landscape, and Lorac’s knowledge of the practicalities of sheep farming also comes through, giving the story a strong sense of authenticity. (The Aikengill mystery is further complicated by the apparent theft of some sheep from Herdwick’s flock – a series of incidents that may or may not be connected to the fire) The post-war atmosphere, complete with shortages and black-market trading, is also nicely evoked.

Another area where Lorac excels is the characterisation. In Macdonald, Lorac has created a character with a deep understanding of country folk, particularly their strong sense of community and suspicion of strangers. The number of key players/suspects is relatively small, and Lorac fleshes them out beautifully through a combination of dialogue, behaviours and descriptive passages. As this mystery is a slow burner, we get to know the characters really well, despite a few obligatory red herrings here and there.

Moreover, the solution is not overly complex or convoluted. Much of it rests on Uncle Thomas’s investigations into the Woolfall family history, some of which seem tantalisingly out of reach for the reader. (If you’re someone who likes to spot the clues and piece everything together yourself before the investigator reveals all, you might be a little frustrated with this one. I’m not sure there’s enough here to actually solve the puzzle in full without a little more info on Uncle Thomas’s papers.) Nevertheless, when the solution is finally laid out, it feels entirely plausible and in keeping with the novel’s tenor – so, no complaints on that front from me.

In summary then, this is a very absorbing mystery with a well-developed set of characters and a marvellous sense of place. Another winner from E. C. R. Lorac, one of the stars of the British Library Crime Classics series – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Winter in the Air by Sylvia Townsend Warner  

It was the evocative title that first drew me to Winter in the Air, a shimmering collection of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories, recently published by Faber & Faber. Many of these pieces first appeared in the New Yorker between the late 1930s and mid-‘50s, and it’s fascinating to read them together here. When viewed as a whole, the collection paints a compelling picture of middle-class life in the mid-20th century, replete with individuals buffeted by the fallout of war with all its attendant losses. Here is a world of abandoned wives and widowed mothers, of bitterness and melancholy, all portrayed in Warner’s wonderfully lucid prose. There’s also something rather subversive about this collection, too – a sinister tone that inhabits some of these pieces, giving these stories a macabre or surreal edge.

As ever with short story collections, I’m not planning to cover every story in detail; instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole. Luckily there are some real standouts here, well worth the entry price alone.

The collection starts strongly with the titular story, in which a woman has returned to London after several years in the country. I love how Warner illustrates the difference between these two environments through her descriptions of charladies, neatly capturing the gossipy nature of village life.

A London charwoman does her work, takes her money and goes away, sterile as the wind of the desert. She does not spongily, greedily, absorb your concerns, study your nose to see if you have been crying again, count the greying hairs of your head, proffer sympathetic sighs and vacuum pauses and then hurry off to wring herself out, spongily, all over the village, with news of what’s going on between those two at Pond House. (pp. 1–2)

As the woman reflects on recent events, it becomes clear that she has been supplanted by her husband’s lover, forcing the move to London, which she handles with equanimity. Just like the furniture she must now fit into her city flat, the woman knows she will soon settle into this new arrangement. The silence of the room will not be intimidating for long…

A broken marriage also plays a central role in Hee-Haw!, another excellent story with a chilly, melancholy air. In this tale, a woman returns to the village where she once lived with her former husband, Ludovick, a successful painter who has since passed away. Their marriage was a turbulent one, ultimately lasting for three tumultuous years.  

In a whisk, in a glancing blow of recognition, she had seen it again, the place where she had lived for three years—in turmoil, in rapture, in drudgery, in fury, in the bitter patience of disillusionment; there, at the close of those three years, she had her last quarrel with Ludovick and walked for the last time down the steep path. (p. 13)

The woman is staying at the village pub where some of Ludovick’s work is on display – and during this visit, a local man starts telling her about the artist, not realising they used to be married to one another. Perhaps unsurprisingly, certain details about Ludovick’s colourful love life are revealed, accentuating the woman’s resentment of her philandering former husband.

In Idenborough – one of my favourite stories in the collection – an impromptu visit to a village near Oxford prompts memories of a long-forgotten love affair, a fleeting relationship that lasted little more than a day. The central protagonist here is Amabel, a middle-aged woman who is now married to her second husband, Winter (her first, Thomas, having died during the war). Again, this is an excellent story, beautifully told.

…and [Amabal] remembered how, earlier in the day, Winter had praised her for her sincerity. But now it was too late. Deceit must accumulate on deceit, and with her second husband she would visit Idenborough, where she had cuckolded her first one. (p. 197)

Other, more surprising relationships also feature here. In Evan – another highlight – Warner gives us a chance encounter on a train, the kind of set-up that feels ripe with possibility. A teenage schoolboy on the cusp of adulthood gets chatting with the only other traveller in his compartment, a woman returning from a spell in the country. Despite their lives being poles apart, an easy conversation quickly develops between the pair as the journey progresses. However, when the woman must change trains to catch her connection, something passes between the two of them – a spark of attraction charged with tension as the time comes to part. It’s a lovely story – surprising, evocative and lightly sketched – tinged with a touch of longing for the relationship to develop.

Nestling among these quietly compelling stories are sharper, more sinister pieces, shot through with an air of menace or a whiff of eccentricity. In A Priestess of Delphi, the brutal murder of a woman raises the threat of blackmail for a former lover from the victim’s distant past. As the protagonist – a writer named Charlton – embarks on a journey to recover his old love letters to the murdered woman, Warner gives her story a rather unsettling edge.  

Tossing and swaying, the newly leaved ash trees in the hedgerows looked hysterically green. It seemed a landscape fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils, and, for that matter, murders. (p. 50)

If anything, Under New Management is even more unnerving, a subtle tale of malevolence in a seedy post-war setting. The story revolves around Miss St John, a longstanding resident at the Peacock Hotel. When the establishment changes hands, Miss St John is not entirely happy with certain developments. The new owners, Mr and Mrs Fry, start encroaching on the spinster’s territory, shunting her into a small sitting room to give the seasonal guests the full run of the lounge. Moreover, Miss St John soon finds herself at the mercy of the Frys’ adult son, Dennis, who proceeds to regale her with horrifying accounts of brutal crimes from the newspapers. Nevertheless, Warner’s protagonist is made of stern stuff, a quality that ultimately sees her through. This superb story finishes with a suitably ironic twist while also showcasing the author’s flair for darkly comic character descriptions – Mr and Mrs Fry being a prime case in point!

Mrs Fry was of the type known as bright. She walked briskly, she smiled often, her head was always bound up in a bright-patterned scarf, and from under the scarf jutted two careful tinted curls whose position never varied by a hair’s-breadth from day to day (pp. 93–94)

Striking pen portraits also feature prominently in A Funeral at Clovie, as a man drives his cousin’s widow to her estranged husband’s funeral. The woman in question is Veronica, who is dressed ‘as though for a religious Ascot’, complete with a white cloak and sombrero, all topped off with ‘a sky-blue enamel cross’.   

No wonder she’s dressed up like a bride for her husband’s funeral, thought Archie. The whited sepulchre! Probably the next one will be some Bishop or other, and she’ll marry him in pink. (p. 209)

Other highlights include Shadwell, a brilliant story of a loyal servant who finds an ingenious way to supplement her meagre income, and Absolom My Son, an excellent story of a writer who discovers his work has been plagiarised by another author (now deceased). This is another tale with a surprising twist or two as it moves towards the end.  

So, all in all, this excellent collection of stories ticks several boxes for me, from the evocative mid-20th century settings to Warner’s beautiful, evocative prose. There’s some lovely descriptive writing here, especially in the author’s portrayal of the English landscape, the trees heavy with autumn foliage and inlets of green moss, ‘hot velvet in the sun, cold as ermine in the shade’. Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is Warner’s command of the contrasts in tone, the flashes of malevolence and malice lurking in these tales of seemingly gentile ladies and the respectable middle classes. A terrific collection of pieces with much to recommend it – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

A Touch of Mistletoe by Barbara Comyns

I’ve come to love Barbara Comyns over the past few years, a true English eccentric with a very particular style. Her novels have a strange, slightly off-kilter feel, frequently blending surreal imagery and touches of dark, deadpan humour with the harsh realities of life. There’s often a sadness to them too, a sense of poignancy or melancholy running through the text. First published in 1967, A Touch of Mistletoe is very much in this vein. Like some of Comyns’ earlier fiction, it feels semi-autobiographical in nature, rich in episodes and scenes that seem inspired by real-life experiences.

The novel is narrated by Victoria Green, who we follow from adolescence in the 1920s to middle age in the late ‘50s. In some respects, one could describe it as a sort of coming-of-age story as the narrative subtly explores the choices many single women faced in the mid-20th century. More specifically, Comyns gently probes the question of whether it is better to marry for love or financial security and companionship – not an easy decision for a single woman to have to make, especially when money is tight.

Right from the very start, Comyns draws on a couple of her favourite elements; firstly, by introducing two innocent children caught up in the trials of a dysfunctional family, and secondly by conveying their story in a disarming, matter-of-fact voice.

Following the death of their father, Victoria and her younger sister, Blanche, are educated by a string of hopeless governesses while their elder brother, Edward, attends school. The children’s mother is an alcoholic, alternating between sustained bouts of drinking and feverish spells of cleaning, much to the sisters’ confusion.

‘I’m afraid my daughter-in-law is poorly’ or ‘Your mother isn’t quite herself today, poorly, you know’ were words that frequently crossed his [Victoria’s grandfather’s] lips, and when we children heard the word ‘poorly’ applied to anyone who was ill, perhaps an innocent child suffering with measles, we took it for granted that they had been drinking bottles of port or sherry. (pp. 3–4)

By eighteen, Victoria is ready to flee the nest, keen to travel and pursue her interest in art. Following a traumatic spell working as a dog-handler-cum-skivvy for a dreadful woman in Amsterdam, Victoria finds herself in London, staying at a girls’ hostel near Baker Street; joining her there is Blanche, who is also eager for life to begin. The narrative mostly follows Victoria, although there are glimpses into Blanche’s life too. While Victoria inherits enough money from her grandfather to fund her first term at art school, Blanche hopes to pick up work as a mannequin or an artist’s model – cue various close shaves with seedy, unscrupulous men!

In time, the girls move to a bedsit near Mornington Crescent, where they try to survive on as little as possible. It’s a gloomy, bohemian environment, with meals mostly consisting of stale eggs, bread, cheap cheese, and cocoa without milk. Food must be heated over a candle or eaten cold, particularly if there are no spare shillings for the meter. But as ever with Comyns, these scenes of poverty are touchingly evoked. 

We did our shopping in Camden Town on Saturday afternoons. Although we were not as poor as we were to become later on, we had to shop very carefully. We used to buy grim little oranges for two a penny, which must have been dyed because the inside the peel was almost the same colour as the outside, and there were broken biscuits that only cost 4d. a pound, and cut-price sweetshops and grocer’s shops that had prices chalked all over the windows. (pp. 99–100)

The fortunes of both girls wax and wane over the years as various choices shape their lives, sometimes for the better, other times for the worse. Victoria goes through a string of jobs at small commercial agencies and animation studios, occasionally illustrating children’s books or other projects on the side to gain a little more income. Naturally, there are relationships too, with Blanche initially marrying a Captain for comfort and financial security while her sister is more interested in finding love. Sadly, Victoria’s first husband, Gene (a fellow artist whom she loves dearly), is plagued by significant mental health issues – a combination of schizophrenia and severe depression that blights the couple’s marriage following the birth of their son, Paul. Shortly after being admitted to hospital for treatment, Gene dies, leaving Victoria to grieve his loss.

Meanwhile, Blanche’s marriage is annulled due to non-consummation, leaving her free to marry again, this time more successfully for love and security. Her second husband, John, is a kind, older man with a good career in the forces – enough for them to start a family together.

More relationships also follow for Victoria – perhaps most notably marriage to Tony, a successful writer who falls prey to the ill effects of drink, particularly when he completes a book. Consequently, Victoria’s world is evocatively portrayed, illustrating the highs and lows of married life with a man addicted to drink.

He [Tony] hated these people when he was sober; but, when he had been drinking, he’d bring a taxi-load home and expect me to give them what he called a ‘dormitory feast’, and after the feast, they would spend the rest of the night on the drawing-room floor until Marcella swept them out in the early morning. They left with books under their arms and silver ashtrays in their pockets and the lavatories were often filthy. I thought they were like the mistletoe that Gene had feared so much and hoped it wasn’t starting to grow on me. (p. 243)

Having grown accustomed to her mother’s drinking as a child, Victoria considers her husband’s condition a sadness or illness that descends on some individuals, just as schizophrenia used to land on Gene. In time, however, the couple’s relationship breaks down, leaving Victoria at risk of being preyed on by boring men, ‘the hopeless kind that goggle at you through thick spectacles and talk about sex or their mothers’ all the time.

The narrative also touches on WW2 with powerful descriptions of the devastation caused by flying bombs, leaving homes and buildings ripped apart, exposing the contents within. Nevertheless, despite the tragedy of the situation, Comyns lightens the tone now and again, casting her eye on the surreal and absurd with those wonderful details she so expertly invokes.

An old woman was fined for feeding ducks on a public pond and a light-hearted girl in the provinces was sent to prison for flashing a torch in boys’ faces. Once I told a man at a party that my grocer occasionally let me have extra butter and he said that I was sinking ships. He was so angry that his eyes became crossed and I hurriedly left. Later I discovered that this man who thought I was sinking ships used to buy black-market petrol from dustmen who siphoned it out from their petrol tanks. Then there were people who loved to queue; they joined any old queue that was going. (p. 260)

As the novel draws to a close, we find the two sisters reunited, reflecting on the cards that life has dealt them. Victoria’s son, Paul, is all grown up, studying art at Camberwell college, newly married with a young baby and promising prospects of his own. Blanche’s children are also ploughing their own furrows while their parents are still together, content with their lives in middle age. Meanwhile, there are new opportunities on the horizon for Victoria as she looks to the future.

In terms of style and subject matter, Mistletoe feels quite similar to Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, another novel that explores the choices open to women at this time. Interestingly, both books draw much of their power from the tone of voice Comyns employs – a childlike, matter-of-fact delivery that really adds to their appeal. Despite Mistletoes dark themes – poverty, alcoholism, mental illness, and abortion – there’s a lightness of touch in Comyns’ writing, the flashes of deadpan humour fitting beautifully within the context of the story. In summary then, a sensitive portrayal of a life touched by mistletoe – another brilliant novel by one of my favourite women writers.

A Touch of Mistletoe is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute by Lauren Elkin

Earlier this year, I read and loved Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin’s fascinating exploration of notable flâneuses down the years, a book that celebrates various women walkers in touch with their cities. Elkin’s latest book, No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute, shares something with its predecessor – a curiosity and a sense of engagement with the inhabitants of a metropolis.

From September 2014 to May 2015, while teaching at a Paris university, Elkin jotted down various notes during her twice-weekly bus journeys to and from work (the numbers 91 and 92 refer to the bus routes she used). These diary-style entries are presented in No. 91/92 with very few edits, preserving the spontaneous, unfiltered feel of Elkin’s impressions. The initial aim was for Elkin to observe her surroundings from the position of a commuter, using her phone to note these thoughts and observations; however, as the project progressed, a more personal record emerged – something I’ll return to later in this review.

Elkin openly acknowledges a debt to Georges Perec here. His book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (a collection of observations which Perec wrote as he sat in a café in Saint-Sulpice Square for three days in 1974), is clearly a touchtone for Elkin, as is the work of Annie Ernaux. Like Perec, Elkin is interested in capturing the regular rhythms of everyday life – not the big dramatic events or occurrences, but the small micro-observations that might otherwise go unnoticed.

The individual entries vary in length from just a few sentences (often unpunctuated) to a couple of paragraphs – few vignettes extend over a page. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Elkin’s fellow commuters feature heavily in these notes, highlighting a sense of curiosity about other people’s lives and the stories we imagine from the clues and hints we can see.

I clamber into a seat and move aside the coat of the man sitting next to me to keep from sitting on it. Excusez-moi I say politely. I have a headache. He is wearing too much cologne. When this man gets off the bus I notice his head is completely bald under his blue woolen beanie. Not the kind of bald that comes naturally for some men with age. I don’t know how I know he’s been sick, it’s just something I feel I know. (p. 17)

Some passages are playful, almost like flash non-fiction or poetry, often demonstrating a sharp sense of wit.

Blue tutu Chanel bag fake lashes girl you look amazing. (p. 35)

Your glittery sandals are awful but the rest of your outfit is good. (p. 27)

Occasional flashes of anger and frustration burst through, especially in Elkin’s observations of other commuters’ treatment of their fellow passengers, particularly women. Bus etiquette and common codes of courtesy feature regularly in these notes. For instance, the reluctance of some passengers to slide over to an adjacent window seat when another person wishes to sit, forcing the latter to clamber over them to reach the unoccupied space.

When Elkin falls pregnant, she starts noticing different things on her journeys, such as the practicalities of getting on and off the bus with toddlers in strollers, what children do on the bus, and how pregnant women are treated – sometimes very poorly.

A pregnant woman tries to get on but another woman nearly throws her off the step in her hurry to get on the bus first. She finally makes it on but the only open seat is inhabited by a woman’s bag. The pregnant woman is able to make her move it but only with effort. The woman thinks her bag needs her seat more than a woman with a soccer ball for a stomach. (p. 82)

It’s a revealing picture, highlighting how, in our rush to save time, we often lose sight of general pleasantries towards others, especially those who may be more vulnerable or fragile than ourselves.

As the diary progresses, the tone changes somewhat as we realise both Elkin and the city of Paris are dealing with the fallout from loss. For Elkin, it is the loss of an unborn child due to an ectopic pregnancy, an experience that leaves her feeling shattered – both physically and emotionally.

The days have come apart. I don’t leave the bed. Don’t use my phone except to write this. Check email on my laptop. I can’t answer any messages though people send nice ones.

I watch television, I lose myself in other people’s plot lines, I watch people who exist pretend to be people who don’t exist. (p. 101)

For Paris, it’s the 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices which prompts the city’s inhabitants to reflect – an incident that ultimately leads to twelve deaths and the injury of several others. As Parisians try to process the impact of the attack, a delicate balance emerges. While most people feel anxious, as if their world has shifted in some terrible, uncontrollable way, this is balanced by a sense of defiance, a necessity to carry on as normal to get through the days.

20/01/15

Tuesday morning

We’re all thinking the same thing, it’s the first day back to work since it all happened and it feels like we swallowed something down the wrong pipe and we’re just starting to be able to take regular breaths again we came out of our houses ok I came out of my house and we marched in defiance but the defiance has taken a backseat to our commute as we try to get on with things even though there are seventeen fewer Parisians than there were this time last week. (p. 50)

What works so well here is Elkin’s ability to capture the sense of togetherness that stems from the regular commute, especially in a time of crisis. While each individual traveller is alone with their own thoughts and preoccupations, they are also united with several others through a shared activity and spirit.

The penultimate entry in the book is one of the most thoughtful and reflective. Writing in November 2015, a day or two after the Bataclan attacks, when the mundanity of everyday life was so cruelly interrupted, Elkin begins to see things in a slightly different light, one that emphasises the fragile nature of our existence and how our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments. A train caught or missed; a decision to go out or stay in; the choice of one concert over another. These reflections and more highlight the importance of appreciating our surroundings, the sense of wonder to be found in the ordinary and everyday.

In summary then, a really interesting book that may well inspire readers to look at their immediate world with a fresh perspective, ready to jot down whatever catches their eye.

No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute is published by Les Fugitives; personal copy.

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó (tr. George Szirtes)

The Hungarian writer Magda Szabó is perhaps best known for her 1987 novel The Door, a poignant story of the relationship between two women – a writer and her housekeeper. (It’s been on my radar for a while, although I’ve yet to read it.)  Iza’s Ballad (an earlier novel) also features a complex relationship between two women at its heart – in this instance, the frustrations and heartbreak of a distant mother-daughter relationship. More specifically, the book digs deep into the damage we inflict on those closest to us – often unintentionally but inhumanely nonetheless. It is a story of many contrasts; the differences between the generations; the traditional vs the new; the rural vs the urban; and the generous vs the self-centred.

Seventy-five-year-old Ettie and her husband Vince have lived a traditional life in the Hungarian countryside since their marriage some fifty years before. They have one daughter, the progressive, idealistic Iza, a brilliant doctor who now works in Pest (eastern Budapest), where she is well respected and successful. While Iza is a dutiful daughter, paying monthly visits to her elderly parents, she rarely shows any emotion, devoting herself instead to a demanding job in rheumatology.

Everything changes for both women when Vince dies of cancer. At first, Ettie fears being left alone in the old house, the long empty days stretching out ahead of her with no husband to talk to or care for. But Iza – a direct, controlling person at heart – decides that Ettie must come and live with her in the apartment in Pest as it’s clearly the right thing to do. There is no consultation with Ettie at this point, simply a unilateral decision that Iza makes with no attempt to establish Ettie’s wishes. Nevertheless, in her relief at not being abandoned, Ettie defers to Iza’s better judgement – clearly her capable daughter knows best – and she goes along with the plan.

Straight after Vince’s funeral, Iza bundles Ettie off for a week at a sanatorium, effectively as a way of getting ‘the old woman’ out of the way while she arranges the move. The former family home is sold to Iza’s ex-husband, Antal, a kind, considerate man who retains a fondness for Ettie despite his broken relationship with her daughter. Meanwhile, Ettie must contend with a maelstrom of emotions on her own – grief at the loss of her beloved husband, relief at the prospect of a new life with Iza, and concern over the packing up of the house. Her major consolation is the prospect of being surrounded by Vince’s possessions once she arrives in Pest.

It was an enormous relief to her [Ettie] that she wouldn’t have to live by herself in a house bereft of Vince, but it was terrifying not be present while Iza packed up ready for the removal men. ‘You’d only torture yourself,’ retorted Iza, ‘you have spent enough time crying. I know my flat, know where I am taking you, I know where things will fit and what will look best. I want you to be happy from now on.’ (p. 56)

What follows when Iza brings her mother to the city is truly heartbreaking to observe. Very few of the couple’s treasured possessions have survived the move, and those that have are barely recognisable from their former selves. Vince’s favourite chair has been reupholstered, transforming it from a comfortable, careworn reminder to an alien object, erasing its emotional value for Ettie as a result. Naturally, Ettie is devastated by this casting aside of her former life. Virtually everything familiar has been discarded or left behind, accentuating Ettie’s crushing sense of loss.

She felt as if some elemental blow had destroyed everything around her and that only now did she really know what it was to be a widow, someone absolutely abandoned.

She didn’t cry while Iza was in the room, just looked pale and was more quiet than usual, but she tried to say something nice, however awkward, about the practicality of the arrangement and Iza’s helpfulness and kindness. (p. 89)

Everything required for comfort was present and correct but she still felt as though she had been robbed. (p. 92)

As the days and weeks slip by, Ettie continues to struggle with her new life in the city. Every time she tries to do something to please Iza, such as cooking a favourite meal from the girl’s childhood or brewing traditional Turkish coffee, the gesture backfires, aggravating Iza on her return from work. While Ettie has been used to a life of housework and cleaning, Iza’s housekeeper Teréz takes care of everything in Pest – an arrangement that Iza is determined to maintain. Unsurprisingly, this leads to tension between Ettie and Teréz, prompting Iza to intervene…

The old woman listened. She felt silly and unable to mount an argument; she was so cowed by the accusation that she got on Teréz’s nerves that she dared not say a word. Should she say that she’d like to be the one who looked after her [Iza], and that she’d enjoy taking care of things and finding out what she liked? Or that she [Ettie] had worked all her life, that she liked working and would like to find a way of showing how grateful she was for not being left alone? She kept quiet. (p. 98)

One of the great tragedies here – and there are many – is Iza’s lack of appreciation of her mother’s needs and emotions. On her return from work, Iza simply wants some peace and quiet, so she soon becomes irritated by Ettie’s questions and constant presence in the flat.

Her [Ettie’s] constant presence, the way she kept opening doors, always wanting something to happen at precisely the times Iza was exhausted and wanted rest and quiet, a space where nothing happened, saddened her and forced her to spend ever less time at home, only as much as was absolutely necessary. (pp. 131–132)

With Iza out at work all day, there are precious few opportunities for Ettie to spend time with her daughter or to share how she is feeling. Ettie knows she should be grateful to Iza for bringing her to Budapest, but the loneliness she is experiencing is destroying her, and with no one to talk to, these emotions remain locked in. As the novel unfolds, we can almost see Ettie wasting away before our eyes. In effect, she is retreating into herself as much as possible for fear of doing anything that will aggravate either Iza or Teréz. For Ettie, large chunks of the day are spent riding the tram routes across the city to steer clear of Teréz or whittled away alone at the flat.   

While the reader’s sympathies will almost certainly be weighted towards Ettie, Szabó is mindful of portraying each of her characters as complex, rounded individuals, complete with their shortcomings and failings. Like all of us, Ettie has her faults, from her jealousy of Lidia, the gracious nurse who holds Vince’s hand as he is dying, to her resentment of Teréz for robbing her of the chance to cook Iza’s meals. Similarly, while Iza has many faults ranging from selfishness and a lack of emotional intelligence to brusqueness and insensitivity, the situation is not entirely black and white. Her dedicated approach to work is undeniable, an asset widely recognised by colleagues and patients alike. Nevertheless, Iza’s lack of understanding towards her mother is horrifying to observe – while every physical comfort is provided for Ettie, the requisite emotional support is sorely missing from Iza’s approach. (Interestingly, this lack of emotional involvement is mirrored in Iza’s relationships with men – both her ex-husband Antal, who left Iza for fear of being destroyed by her, and Iza’s current lover, Domokos, who suddenly realises he might be destined for a similar fate.)

As this heartbreakingly poignant novel approaches its inexorable conclusion, Ettie returns to her old country home for the instalment of Vince’s headstone – a visit that prompts a reunion with Antal and a touching reminder of her former life. Despite the undeniable sadness in this story, this was a knockout read for me – a richly textured portrait of two very different women, unable to reach out to one another despite their familial bond.

Iza’s Ballad is published by NYRB Classics (US) and Vintage (UK); personal copy.

The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson Carr

I’ve had slightly mixed experiences with Carr’s mysteries in the past, but this is a good one!

First published in Britain in 1942, The Seat of the Scornful combines an intriguing mystery with some different interpretations of what constitutes justice. Central to the story is the formidable judge, Justice Horace Ireton, a man who enjoys playing ‘cat-and-mouse’ with the accused, sometimes allowing a convicted criminal to stew in their own juice before approving a stay of execution. As his colleague Fred Barlow observes:

“…He [Justice Ireton] doesn’t care twopence about the law. What he is interested in is administering absolute, impartial justice as he sees it.” (p. 23)

The judge would like his daughter, twenty-one-year-old Constance, to marry Barlow, an affable barrister with good career prospects. Constance, however, has other ideas. Much to her father’s displeasure, Constance has fallen for Tony Morell, a charismatic entrepreneur with a rather shady past.

He [Morell] was one of those self-consciously virile types which are associated with the Southern European; the sort of man who, as Jane Tennant once put it, always makes a woman feel that he is breathing down the back of her neck. (pp. 19-20)

When the couple announce their intention to marry, Judge Ireton offers Morrell a sizeable amount of money to disappear without a word to Constance about their agreement. At first, Morell appears to accept the offer. But after returning to the judge’s bungalow the following evening to collect his payment, Morrell is found dead in highly suspicious circumstances, a scenario that clearly implicates Justice Ireton as the murderer.

Before long, Dr Gideon Fell, who happens to play chess with Ireton, is called in to assist the police with their investigations – and what appears to be a relatively simple case soon throws up some very interesting complications. As it turns out, several people connected to the judge were in the area at the time of the murder. In fact, the room where Morell’s body was found was easily accessible through some open French windows – the very opposite of a ‘locked room’!

As the mystery unfolds and we learn more about the other potential suspects, the judge’s views on justice and the law become increasingly relevant. Can motivations or extenuating circumstances ever justify such a serious crime? And is circumstantial evidence ever sufficient to establish guilt? These questions and more are explored through Carr’s cleverly constructed mystery.

The characterisation is particularly good here, with Carr’s portrayal of Justice Ireton feeling authentic and believable. Constance Ireton is well-drawn too, a rather headstrong girl with a capacity for flighty emotions. Similarly, Carr does well to create some compelling supporting players, most notably Fred Barlow and Constance’s friend Jane Tennant, who also find themselves drawn into the investigations.

The solution, when it comes, feels a bit convoluted with a couple of last-minute twists that will likely divide opinion. Nevertheless, this thoroughly enjoyable mystery keeps the reader guessing right to the very end!

The Seat of the Scornful is published by the British Library as part of their Crime Classics series; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.