Tag Archives: Coming of age

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns continues to be a source of endless fascination for me, a distinctly English writer with a very particular style. Her novels have a strange, off-kilter feel to them, blending surreal imagery and touches of dark, deadpan humour with the harsh realities of day-to-day life. There’s often a sadness too, a sense of melancholy or loneliness running through the texts.

First published in 1959, The Vet’s Daughter is the sixth Comyns I’ve read, and after a couple of false starts it may well turn out to be my favourite. This Virago edition (kindly sent to me by Liz) contains an introduction by the author herself, a sort of potted history of her life up to the time of the novel’s release. There are hints of an eccentric home life in the Comyns household: a fiery, unpredictable father, an invalid mother with a pet monkey; a succession of governesses with few qualifications; and little mixing between the family and the outside world. It’s a background that seems to feed directly into The Vet’s Daughter, a striking coming-of-age novel with a distinctive narrative voice.

The story is narrated by Alice Rowlands, the titular vet’s daughter, who lives in south London with her domineering father, Euan, and her sickly mother. Euan Rowlands is a violent man, essentially bullying Alice and her mother with his sudden outbursts and demands. Alice, on the other hand, is fully alive to the world around her, sensing the danger that her father duly presents. She is an innocent, imaginative girl at heart, qualities that come through in her childlike tone of voice.

I didn’t look after Father as well as Mother used to, and he often hit me because the bacon was burnt or the coffee weak. Once, when I had ironed a shirt badly, he suddenly rushed at me like a charging ball in a thunderstorm, seeming to toss the shirt in some way with his head. I held on to the kitchen sink, too afraid to move. He came right up to me, and I saw the whites of his eyes were all red. (pp. 17-18)

With her mother desperately ill upstairs in bed and no siblings to help out, Alice is little more than a maid – shopping for the household and looking after her mother, particularly at night. There is some support for Alice in the shape of Mrs Churchill, a straight-talking woman who comes over during the day; but when Alice’s mother dies, the future seems increasingly uncertain. Euan disappears for three weeks, leaving a locum vet, Henry Peebles, in charge of the practice. By contrast to Euan, Henry is a kindly chap, the first man to treat Alice with due care and consideration – in Henry (aka ‘Blinkers’), Alice has found a true friend for life.

When Euan reappears, Mrs Churchill is shocked to find him accompanied by Rosa Fisher, a rather brash woman who helps out behind the bar at the local pub. While Euan positions Rosa as the Rowlands’ new housekeeper, even Alice can see what she really represents. In effect, Rosa is Euan’s mistress – a careless, brazen woman who ultimately neglects Alice, endangering her well-being in the most deplorable of ways.

Alice turns to daydreams as a means of escape, vividly imagining a lush, exotic world where creatures roam freely, released from their restrictive constraints. In short, she uses these fantasies as a coping mechanism, blunting some of the sadness and brutality in her life.

Sometimes the life I was living seemed so hopeless and sad I would try to imagine I was in another world. Then all the dreary brown things in the kitchen would turn into great exotic flowers and I’d be in a kind of jungle, and, when the parrot called from his lavatory prison, he wasn’t the parrot, but a great white peacock crying out. (p. 60)

A respite ultimately comes in the form of Blinkers, who takes Alice to live in the Hampshire countryside as a companion to his elderly mother, Mrs Peebles. At first, Alice is enchanted by her new surroundings, taking comfort from the beauty of the natural world, alive with the signs of winter.

In the early morning, when I looked out of my bedroom window, the trees and fields were white with hoar frost and the glass in the window was beautifully patterned with it. I’d never loved the frost before but now it enchanted me. Besides the beauty, there were the sounds: the snap of a stick, the hard rustle of a frozen leaf, the crack of breaking ice–-even the birds’ winter cries seemed to be sharp and intensified. (p. 125)

Nevertheless, Alice’s new environment comes with its own set of challenges. The house is dark and in poor repair; and Mrs Peebles herself is also being preyed upon by bullies – in this instance, Mr and Mr Gowley, a rather dubious pair of housekeepers with their eyes on the family silver. It is here in the countryside that Alice becomes fully aware of her magical gift, an unusual ability only she seems to possess. It would be foolish of me to say too much about this, but it’s not dissimilar to Laura’s secret in Lolly WillowesSylvia Townsend Warner’s marvellous novel of a woman’s liberation, which I read in 2018.

Before long, circumstances conspire to dictate another change for Alice, prompting her return to Euan, who is back with the hideous Rosa. When Euan learns about his daughter’s unusual gift, he immediately seeks to exploit it for monetary gain, setting up a denouement with a shocking conclusion. It’s an ending that will prove hard to shake, somewhat reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s work – We Have Always Lived in the Castle immediately springs to mind.

The Vet’s Daughter has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: an enchanting, innocent child caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, often with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-matter-of-fact tone of voice that belies the horrors within. As ever, this author excels in her use of symbolism, skilfully establishing a somewhat surreal tone to the narrative right from the start.

The door was propped open by a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it, and I looked through. (p. 3)

Perhaps the most striking elements of the story stem from the violence and cruelty meted out to Alice, particularly at home. The novel has much to say about the tyrannical behaviour of fathers and the exploitation of the more vulnerable members of our society – especially children, the elderly and those who are ill or infirm. While Comyns blends elements of fantasy and magic realism with the stark realities of day-to-day life, she never lets us forgets the horrors of Alice’s existence, complete with its constraints.

This is a wonderful, magical novel with a dark, highly distinctive flavour. Barbara Comyns may not be to every reader’s taste, but she is a true original with a unique view of the world’s cruelties. A highly imaginative writer who deserves to be widely read.

My favourite books from a year of reading, 2021 – part two, older books

This year, I’m spreading my highlights from a year of reading across two posts. The first piece focused on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, while this second one puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books from my 2021 reading, most of which were written in the 20th century.

These are the backlisted 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 (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, this unsettling collection of Wharton’s Ghost Stories is a veritable treat. Characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety, Wharton’s narratives are rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors. The fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul are all in evidence here. As one would expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn, with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing. A wonderfully chilling collection of tales, tapping into the dark side of American history and human relationships.

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

A thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten, whom she names Gattino. Not long after Mary and her husband move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, thereby reawakening various emotions, previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of Gaitskill’s father. In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. While the Daunt Books edition came out in 2020, this powerful extended essay first appeared in the Granta literary journal in 2009.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

This loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale is another of Taylor’s marvellous ensemble pieces, very much in line novels such as A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, where the focus moves from one individual to another as their lives intertwine. The novel is set in Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s, and as ever with this author, the characters are brilliantly observed. What I love about this her work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and veracity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication. Possibly underrated in the Taylor oeuvre, but for me it’s a gem.

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

This is a glorious book – an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and, perhaps most significantly of all, repressed female desire. A small group of Anglican nuns set out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains, a place steeped in beauty and mystery. As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under the setting’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. Tensions – both sexual and otherwise – abound in this sensual novel, stepped in lush visual imagery. In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, even for devoted fans of the Powell and Pressburger film, such as myself!

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with his others from the 1970s, and is something of a bridge between The Boarding-House and The Children of Dynmouth, both of which I loved. The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families – one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous characters I’ve encountered this year: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.

The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a darkly evocative coming-of-age narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Matute excels in her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting, drawing on striking descriptions of natural world to reinforce the impression of danger. It’s a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions. As this visceral novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her. A unsettling summer read.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. While this premise seems simple on the surface, the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magical charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for, a throwback perhaps to simpler, more modest times.

Passing by Nella Larsen

Larsen’s 1928 novella Quicksand – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry – both of whom are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances. Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. A superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. I loved Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation too, currently steaming on Netflix.

Finally, a few books that almost made the cut – all very highly recommended indeed.

  • Meeting in Positano – Goliarda Sapienza’s gorgeous novel of female friendship, set in the glamorous world of 1950s Italy.  
  • The Visitor – Maeve Brennan’s piercing novella of resentment, bitterness and the loneliness of isolation.
  • Family Happiness – Laurie Colwin’s beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to be loved.   
  • Tea is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex’s delightfully amusing comedy on the pettiness of village life and the failure to recognise our own limitations.
  • The Feast – Margaret Kennedy’s joyous novel, set in post-war Cornwall. Part morality tale and part family saga/social comedy, it’s an escapist delight!

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 the last two have been…

August is #WITMonth – some recommendations of books by women in translation

As you may well know, August is Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. It’s a month-long celebration of translated literature by women writers – you can find out more about it here. I’ve reviewed quite a few books in this category over the past few years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read for WIT Month, here are a few of my recent favourites.

The Island by Ana Maria Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

The loss of innocence is one of my favourite themes in literature. It’s a thread that runs through many coming-of-age novels, this one included. Matute’s story is set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, fourteen-year-old Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother, Aunt Emilia and duplicitous cousin, Borja – not a situation she relishes. This dark, visceral novel charts Matia’s awakening to the adult world, beautifully executed in the author’s lucid prose. Matute excels at heightening the sense of danger on the island through her vivid descriptions of the elements, e.g., the intense heat of the sun and the turbulent depths of the sea.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr Antonia Lloyd Jones)

This 2009 novel by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is quite a difficult one to describe. It is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. It’s also beautifully written, by turns arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic. I loved it.

Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Avril Bardoni)

There has been something of a revival of interest in the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg in recent years, driven by reissues of some of her novels and essays by Daunt Books and NRYB Classics. Valentino and Sagittarius are two separate yet related novellas from the 1950s, reissued together in one stylish edition from NYRB. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships, the tensions that arise when one person behaves selfishly at the expense of those around them. Resentment, delusion, evasion, pride, loyalty and compassion all come together to form these perceptive, richly textured narratives. When viewed together, they highlight how foolhardy we can be, especially when investing all our hopes in a particular individual or venture – the fallout for the surrounding family members is often painful in the extreme.

Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)

First published in 1946, Three Summers is something of a classic of Greek literature, a languid coming-of-age novel featuring three sisters, set over three consecutive summer seasons. At first sight, it might appear as though the book is presenting a simple story, one of three very different young women growing up in the idyllic Greek countryside. However, there are darker, more complex issues bubbling away under the surface as the sisters must learn to navigate the choices that will shape the future directions of their lives. Sexual awakening is a major theme, with the novel’s lush and sensual tone echoing the rhythms of the natural world. Ultimately though it is the portrait of the three sisters that really shines through – the opportunities open to them and the limitations society may wish to dictate. This a novel about working out who you are as a person and finding your place in the world; of being aware of the consequences of certain life choices and everything these decisions entails. (I read this book in the NYRB Classics livery, but Penguin have recently published a beautiful new edition as part of their European Writers series.)

Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese (tr. Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee)

First published in Italian in 1953, this is a brilliant collection of short stories and reportage by the critically acclaimed writer Anna Maria Ortese. As a whole, the book conveys a vivid portrait of post-war Naples in all its vitality, devastation and squalor – a place that remains resilient despite being torn apart by war. Sharp contrasts are everywhere Ortese’s writing, juxtaposing the city’s ugliness with its beauty, the desperation of extreme poverty with the indifference of the bourgeoisie, the reality of the situation with the subjectivity of our imagination. The attention to detail is meticulous – as is the level of emotional insight, particularly about women’s lives and family dynamics.

Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

This novella, which revolves around Kōko, a thirty-six-year-old divorced woman, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayako, shares many similarities with Tsushima’s Territory of Light, a book I really adored. Like Territory, Child of Fortune explores themes of marginalisation, motherhood and the pressure to conform to conventional societal expectations – the setting of 1970s Japan is highly significant here. This is a haunting, beautifully written book – by turns subtle, reflective and deeply melancholic. And yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end, a sense of Kōko finally seizing control, once again ready to forge her own path in life.

(You can find some of my other faves in last year’s WIT Month recommendations post from July 2020, including books by Françoise Sagan, Irmgard Keun, Yuko Tsushima and Tove Ditlevsen. There’s also my list of recommendations for foreign language films directed by women – a Twitter thread I may well repeat next month, with new suggestions of movies to seek out.)

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

The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

The loss of innocence is one of my favourite themes in literature. It’s a thread that runs through many coming-of-age novels, including Agostino by Alberto Moravia, Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig and The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley. Ana María Matute’s 1959 novella The Island – recently translated by Laura Lonsdale – is an excellent addition to the list, a darkly evocative narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. I loved it.

The story is set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Also living in the house are the family’s housekeeper, Antonia, and her son, Lauro, who acts as the children’s teacher and companion. At fifteen, Borja is a duplicitous boy, smart enough to behave sweetly in the company of his grandmother but sufficiently malevolent to show his true colours when her back is turned.

He affected innocence and purity, gallantry and poise in the presence of our grandmother, when in reality […] he was weak, cruel and proud, just a good-for-nothing boy on the way to being a man. (p.5)

Borja is particularly cruel to Lauro, whom he calls ‘Chinky’, confident in the belief that he can leverage a shameful secret the tutor is harbouring. Matia, on the other hand, has been expelled from her former convent school for kicking the Prioress. Consequently, the children’s grandmother – a tyrannical old crone who keeps watch over the neighbouring tenants through her opera glasses – considers Matia to be disobedient and in need of taming. In truth, however, Matia is simply confused and lonely, the product of a disruptive childhood short on parental love and affection – now firmly in adolescence, a time of turbulent emotions for any young girl.

One of the things Matute excels at in this novel is her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting. While we might consider the Mediterranean islands to be idyllic, Matute’s Mallorca has a radically different atmosphere. In reality, it is a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions.

Throughout the novella, the author makes excellent use of the natural world to reinforce this impression of danger. For example, the sun is frequently portrayed as intense, blistering and ferocious, mirroring the island’s capacity to breed violence and inflict damage on its inhabitants.

A cruel sense of violence, an irritated fire burned above, and everything was filled, saturated, with its black light. (p. 53)

The sea, too, can seem threatening, a volatile force with the potential to unnerve.

From high up in the square, where the Jews had been burned alive, the sea was like a deep, blue threat, terrifying and unsteady, mixing with the wind and sky. And it seemed that shining worlds could disappear there, and rootless echoes wander and be lost. Looking down, it seemed that everything must roll down to meet it. And life seemed both terrible and remote. (p. 80)

Menacing associations are everywhere on this island from the damaged agaves, their ‘edges withering like scar tissue’ to the stony soil, ‘an accretion of the dead upon the dead’. The torrid atmosphere is further augmented by the sickly aromas in the abuela’s house, a heady blend of jasmine, leather and cedar, plus the smoke from Aunt Emilia’s Turkish cigarettes.

Matute is particularly adept at setting her narrator’s internal anxieties against the island’s broader political and racial conflicts. Consequently, as the novella unfolds, Matia becomes increasingly aware of the violence and injustice that surround her. At first, Matia falls in line with Borja, the two children playing chess with one another by day and holding whispered conversations together at night. Nevertheless, there are certain developments that Matia doesn’t fully understand, things that she hears or observes that seem confusing, particularly when taken at face value. Unsurprisingly, this strengthens her impressions of the adult world as a mysterious, potentially dangerous place.

But there was something about life, it seemed to me, that was all too real. I knew, because they never stopped reminding me, that the world was wicked and wide. And it frightened me to think it could be even more terrifying than I imagined. I looked at the earth, and I remembered that we lived upon the dead. (p. 76)

In her desire for a bit of warmth and friendship, Matia begins to gravitate towards Manuel Taronji, the son of a neighbouring family persecuted by the locals for their political allegiances and Jewish heritage. In effect, Matia sees Manuel as a kindred spirit, someone she can talk to openly despite his outsider status as a ‘Chueta’. Borja, however, takes a vehement dislike to Manuel, particularly when it emerges that he might be the illegitimate son of Jorge, the powerful islander whom Borja clearly worships.

During the novella, we learn that Manuel’s stepfather, José, was murdered by the local fascists – the jack-booted Taronji brothers – for his Republican leanings. The fact that José was killed by members of his own extended family illustrates the strength of feeling surrounding the Nationalist movement, with supporters being prepared to kill their own flesh and blood to further the cause. Moreover, it gives a sense of the complex network of connections between the island’s inhabitants, encompassing familial, racial and political dimensions.

While Borja and his teenage contemporaries fight one another with butcher’s hooks, these various episodes of violence are punctuated by reports of the broader conflict in mainland Spain, typically relayed through hearsay and secondhand information.

(‘They say they’re killing whole families over there, shooting priests and putting out their eyes…throwing people into vats of boiling oil…May God have mercy on their souls!’) My grandmother would look shocked, but her eyes would shift a little closer together, like siblings whispering dark secrets to one another, as she listened to these morbid tales. (p. 3)

Alongside these depictions of brutality at the time of the Civil War, Matute remains alert to the atrocities of the past, reminding us that the island has long harboured prejudices against the Jewish community. For example, there are mentions of ‘the square, where the Jews had been burned alive’ – a direct reference to a case in which three Jews – including one named Taronji – were burned alive for refusing to denounce their faith. These echoes between past and present acts of barbarism add another dimension to the narrative, reminding us that prejudices can run deep if they remain unchecked.  

As the novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her.

In summary, then, The Island, is a dark and visceral novella, beautifully executed through Matute’s lucid prose. This combination of a highly evocative first-person narrative and the oppressive atmosphere is somewhat reminiscent of Carmen Laforet’s Nada, another excellent Spanish novel set around the time of the Civil War.  

The Island is published by Penguin; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. I read this book for Stu’s Spanish Lit Month – more details here.

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

Every now and again, a book comes along that surprises me with its emotional heft, such is the quality of the writing and depth of insight into human nature. Mayflies, the latest novel from the highly respected writer, editor and critic Andrew O’Hagan, is one such book – it is at once both a celebration of the exuberance of youth and a love letter to male friendship, the kind of bond that seems set to endure for life.

Central to the novel is the relationship between two men – Jimmy Collins, who narrates the story, and Tully Dawson, the larger-than-life individual who is Jimmy’s closest friend. The book is neatly divided into two sections: the first in the summer of ’86, when the boys are in their late teens/early twenties; the second in 2017, which finds the pair in the throes of middle age.

At eighteen, Jimmy is being encouraged by his English teacher – the sharp-eyed Mrs O’Connor – to continue his education, mainly as a route out of his working-class Ayrshire background. Tully, however, is going down a different path in life, working as a machinist but living mainly for the evenings and weekends. There is more than a touch of Albert Finney about Tully – not just in appearance but in personality too.

Irvine New Town, east of eternity. Tully was twenty years old and a lathe turner. He impersonated Arthur Seaton from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by taunting his boss all week and drinking pints of Black and Tan all weekend. He looked like Albert Finney, all slicked-up hair, but in Tully’s case spiked with soap. At that time, he had the kind of looks that appeal to all the sexes and all ages, and his natural effrontery opened people up. (p. 4)

Tully and Jimmy hang out with a gang of lads – Tibbs, Limbo, Hogg and Dr Clogs – whose defining characteristics range from the techy one to the political one. Their lives are defined by music, football, and various cultural references, their conversations peppered with lists of ‘top threes’: the three best goals scored by a Scottish player or the top three films starring Robert de Niro. I’m sure you get the drift.  

Where the first half of the novel really excels is in capturing the sheer adrenaline rush of being young, a time when your whole life is ahead of you, and the possibilities appear endless. The highlight of the summer is a weekend in Manchester, a trip centred on an indie music festival at the city’s G-Mex centre. The boys are high on the anticipation of the event, affording it the feel of a momentous occasion – a kind of coming-of-age or last flush of youth, something that O’Hagan neatly portrays in Jimmy’s response to this seemingly magical city.

We came into Manchester like air into Xanadu. The place was a state of mind to us and we saw cascades of glitter in ordinary things. (p. 53)

I just paused for a second, standing there, and realised I was ‘in it’, part of the city right then, and part of the history we were here to celebrate. (p. 58)

It’s a formative experience for Tully too, one that sets him on a different life path due to Jimmy’s carefully directed input. While Tully might be a lathe turner at the moment, higher education remains a viable option for the future, potentially opening up an escape from his humble beginnings. (As an aside, both boys have somewhat distant relationships with their fathers, a factor that seems crucial in shaping their personalities.)

The concert, when it comes, is like a drug – a high epitomised by The Smiths and lead singer Morrisey’s magnetic presence and swagger. 

The singer wafted into view and sold his drowsy reticence like a drug. The band was at its height, romantic and wronged and fierce and sublime, with haircuts like agendas. Morrissey came brandishing a license, a whole manner of permission, as if a new kind of belonging could be made from feeling left out, like nobody knew you as he did. (p. 120)

There is a hint of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting in the mood and feel of this first section, particularly given the laddish banter amongst the group. And yet, that’s far from being the complete picture here; there is a softer side to the novel’s opening too, a real tenderness in the portrayal of these boys, who come across as hugely likeable and endearing. Despite all the surface bravado and brio on display, especially from Tully, O’Hagan never lets us forget how vulnerable these young men might be, both now and in the future.

In part two, we fast-forward thirty years to the autumn of 2017 and a whole different phase of life for the two central protagonists who remain closely connected – still firm friends, still throwing ‘top threes’ at one another – in spite of their physical distance. At forty-nine, Jimmy is an established writer, living in London with his wife, Iona, who works in the theatre. Having taken Jimmy’s advice and worked his way through night school, Tully is now a teacher, Head of English no less, in a school in Glasgow’s East End.

One day, Jimmy receives a call from Tully, the sort of phone call we all dread. There’s a crisis on the horizon for Tully, the kind of crunch point which is not going to disappear. He needs Jimmy’s help, both emotionally and practically, a request that only the closest of friends can ever make. Naturally, given their history, Jimmy agrees, ultimately finding himself caught between two conflicting forces – on the one hand, his loyalty to lifelong buddy, Tully; and on the other, his concern for Tully’s partner, Anna, who has her own somewhat different vision of the future.

The tonal register of this second half is very different to the first – more sobering and reflective in mood, qualities that tend to develop naturally as we age. Nevertheless, Tully remains fiercely comedic in the face of intense adversity, interspersing the serious stuff of life with hilarious anecdotes and banter.

Alongside these perceptive insights into Tully’s psyche, O’Hagan is particularly strong on the emotional impact of the dilemma on Jimmy. There is an overriding sense of loyalty here, a testament to the strength of a lifelong friendship that feels rock solid to the core – and yet Jimmy is also acutely alert to the bigger picture and its attendant moral considerations while Tully chooses to remain blinkered. 

Yet it became obvious, as the weeks passed, that his [Tully’s] decisions were having an impact way beyond himself. As an adult, he had a kind of complacency when it came to the opinions of others; he didn’t quite believe the world beyond himself could halt his ideas. (p. 154)

As a consequence, Jimmy attempts to mediate between Tully and his immediate family, throwing himself into activities in the hope of catalysing some form of resolution. The ending, when it comes, feels both heartbreaking and strangely triumphant, a hugely affecting combination that O’Hagan manages to pull off with skill and grace. Without wishing to reveal too many spoilers, there are some big moral and ethical considerations here, and yet the narrative never feels weighed down or mired in burdensome detail. The lightness of touch is one of the most impressive things about this novel, which manages to be emotionally truthful without ever succumbing to the merest hint of sentimentality – another testament to the author’s artistry and sensitivity. Moreover, the book as a whole feels perfectly balanced in spite of the shift hallway through; we need the vitality of that first half for the poignancy of part two to hit home.

In writing Mayflies, O’Hagan has given us a novel of rare beauty and humanity, an exhilarating portrayal of youth and a touching ode to male friendship. I loved it to bits – very highly recommended indeed for lovers of well-crafted character-driven fiction.

Mayflies is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

I have long wanted to read the Italian writer Elsa Morante, ever since I learned of her influence on Elena Ferrante (you can find my reviews of Ferrante’s work here). Arturo’s Island was Morante’s second novel, originally published in Italian in 1957, and now freshly translated by Ann Goldstein for this Pushkin Press edition (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). It is a beautifully-observed, passionate coming-of-age story, one that captures the pain and confusion of adolescence in an imaginative, poetic style.

The narrative is told from the viewpoint of Arturo Gerace as he looks back on his teenage years spent on the remote island of Procida in the Bay of Naples – a tumultuous, troubling time in this young individual’s life.

At fourteen, Arturo spends most of his days roaming around the island, dreaming of great adventures with pirates, kings and other enigmatic figures from tales of fantasy. His father, Wilhelm, is a restless wanderer who frequently leaves the island for long periods with no planned date of return. With his unpredictable nature and temperament, Wilhelm is prone to frequent outbursts, displaying little thought for the feelings and sensitivities of those around him. In spite of this, Arturo idolises his father unquestioningly, eagerly anticipating the day when he is old enough to join Wilhelm on his seemingly intrepid travels.

Every act of his, every speech, had a dramatic fatality for me. In fact, he was the image of certainty, and everything he said or did was the verdict of a universal law from which I deduced the first commandments of my life. Here was the greatest seduction of his company. (p. 24)

Life for young Arturo is a solitary one, with his father often away and his mother no longer alive following her death in childbirth. He yearns for some much-needed love and affection, the kind fuelled by his romantic imagination – the absence of Arturo’s mother is very keenly felt.

She was a person invented by my regrets, and so she had, for me, every wished-for kindness, and different expressions, different voices. But, above all, in the impossible longing I had for her, I thought of her as faithfulness, intimacy, conversation: in other words, all that fathers were not, in my experience. (p. 44)

Moreover, young Arturo is largely in charge of the Geraces’ home, a somewhat run-down, castle-like building bequeathed to Wilhelm by an old friend – a man with an intense dislike of women and their ‘ugly’ appearances. As such, Arturo has had very little exposure to girls or women during his life, particularly given the isolated nature of his upbringing.

One day, Wilhelm returns unexpectedly to Procida with his new bride, Nunziata – a rather hesitant young girl from Naples who has been pushed into marriage by her mother, Violante. At sixteen, Nunziata is barely older than Arturo, a situation that leaves our protagonist struggling to understand this sudden change in dynamics and everything it represents. For the first time in his life, Arturo has a rival for his father’s affections, one who is almost as inexperienced and naïve as the young boy himself.

When I passed my father’s room, I heard from behind the closed door an excited whispering. I was almost running when I reached my room: I suddenly had the sharp, incomprehensible sensation that I had received from someone (whom I couldn’t yet recognise) an inhuman insult, impossible to avenge. I undressed quickly and, as I threw myself into bed, wrapping myself in the covers up to my head, a cry from her reached me through the walls: tender, strangely fierce, and childlike. (p. 124)

Virtually as soon as he has arrived home, Wilhelm becomes restless again, seeking the company of Nunziata and Arturo one minute and then shunning it the next. It’s not long before Wilhelm begins to view Nunziata as an appendage, akin to a tiresome relative of little interest or importance. Consequently, Arturo and Nunziata – the latter now pregnant with Wilhelm’s child – are left mostly on their own at the Casa dei Guaglioni while Wilhelm continues his erratic travels abroad.

At first, Arturo wants as little as possible to do with his new stepmother, shunning her company in favour of wandering around the island.

My antipathy towards my stepmother, meanwhile, didn’t diminish but became fiercer every day. And as a result of the life she led with me during my father’s absence from the island was certainly not very happy. I never spoke to her except to give her orders. If I was outside and wanted to summon her to the window to give her some command, or warn her of my arrival, I used to simply whistle. (p. 158)

Then, all of a sudden, he experiences a dramatic change of heart, prompted by the belief that Nunziata’s life may be in danger during the birth of her child, Carminiello. From this point onwards, Arturo begins to see his stepmother in a new light, viewing her as more beautiful and graceful than before. Meanwhile, Nunziata devotes herself to caring for the new baby, mainly at the expense of any consideration for Arturo or his potential needs – a situation that leaves Arturo feeling somewhat jealous of his new stepbrother.

I felt I could never have peace if she didn’t return to being, toward me, at least, the same as she had been before the fatal arrival of my stepbrother; and yet at no cost did I want to betray that longing to her. So I looked desperately for a means that, without wounding my pride, would force her to be concerned with me, or to manifest once and for all, her irredeemable indifference towards Arturo Gerace. (p. 233)

As the months slip by, Arturo must try to make sense of his emotions as they oscillate between an idealised form of first love for Nunziata and abject disillusionment – his demonstrations of affection are swiftly rejected. He tries, somewhat in vain, to grapple with new and confusing situations in this abrupt exposure to the complexities of the adult world.

Arturo’s Island is an emotionally-rich novel, frequently punctuated with passages of profound depth. Morante skilfully captures the vulnerabilities of youth, the maelstrom of emotions that characterises Arturo’s adolescence – the young boy’s experiences are very keenly felt. The author’s style is perfectly matched to the subject matter at hand: lyrical, intuitive and painfully perceptive. While the main thrust of the narrative takes places in the run-up to WW2, there is a timeless feel to this story, akin to a classic myth or fable.

With its imposing penitentiary, Procida is painted as an isolated, mysterious place, one with elements of menace and darkness, albeit lightened by the allure of the natural world. Morante’s descriptions of the island’s environment are beautifully expressed.

As this excellent novel draws to a close, Arturo must contend with emotions of antipathy, lust, jealousy and disillusionment. Morante’s portrayal of the young boy’s experiences is both intimate and compelling, tackling themes of forbidden love and ambiguous sexuality with insight and sensitivity. Alongside the struggle to reconcile his feelings for Nunziata, Arturo must also come to terms with a new, rather disturbing vision of his father – a discovery that will leave a mark on his character forever.

This is a layered, emotionally-rich novel, one that will likely suit lovers of interior-driven fiction with a strong sense of place. The pace is leisurely, reflecting the rhythm of life on the island – definitely a slow burner, but one that will reward the reader’s patience and emotional investment.

I read this book for Biblibio’s #WITMonth, which is running throughout August. For an interesting companion piece dealing with similar themes, see Agostino (1944) by Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante’s husband – also very highly recommended indeed.