Tag Archives: Duckworth

My books of the year 2021 – part one, recently published books

2021 has been another tumultuous year for many of us – maybe not as horrendous as 2020, but still very challenging. In terms of books, various changes in my working patterns enabled me to read some excellent titles this year, the best of which feature in my highlights. My total for the year is somewhere in the region of 100 books, which I’m very comfortable with. This isn’t a numbers game for me – I’m much more interested in quality than quantity when it comes to reading!

This time, I’m spreading my books of the year across two posts – ‘recently published’ books in this first piece, with older titles to follow next week. As many of you will know, quite a lot of my reading comes from the 20th century. But this year, I’ve tried to read a few more recently published books – typically a mixture of contemporary fiction and some new memoirs/biographies. So, the division of my ‘books of the year’ posts will reflect something of this split. (I’m still reading more backlisted titles than new, but the contemporary books I chose to read this year were very good indeed. I’m also being quite liberal with my definition of ‘recently published’ as a few of my favourites came out in 2017-18.)

Anyway, enough of the preamble! Here are my favourite recently published books from a year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

Every now and again, a book comes along that catches me off-guard – surprising me with its emotional heft, such is the quality of the writing and depth of insight into human nature. Mayflies, the latest novel from 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 novel 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. There are some significant moral and ethical considerations being explored here with a wonderful lightness of touch. An emotionally involving novel that manages to feel both exhilarating and heartbreaking.

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

A very striking novel that 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. Arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic, Plow subverts the traditional expectations of the noir genre to create something genuinely thought-provoking and engaging. The eerie atmosphere and sense of isolation of the novel’s setting – a remote Polish village in winter – are beautifully evoked.

The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry

When Julia Parry comes into possession of a box of letters between her maternal grandfather, the author and academic, Humphry House, and the esteemed Anglo-Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen, it sparks an investigation into the correspondence between the two writers. Their relationship, it transpires, was an intimate, clandestine one (Humphry was married to Madeline, Parry’s grandmother at the time), waxing and waning in intensity during the 1930s and ‘40s. What follows is a quest on Parry’s part to piece together the story of Humphry’s relationship with Bowen – much of which is related in this illuminating and engagingly written book. Partly a collection of excerpts from the letters, partly the story of Parry’s travels to places of significance to the lovers, The Shadowy Third is a fascinating read, especially for anyone interested in Bowen’s writing. (It was a very close call between this and Paula Byrne’s Pym biography, The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym, but the Parry won through in the end.)

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

This luminous meditation on marriage, womanhood, writing and reinvention is the second part of Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ trilogy – a series which commenced in 2014 with Things I Don’t Want to Know. In essence, this fascinating memoir conveys Levy’s reflections on finding a new way to live following the breakdown of her marriage after twenty or so years, prompting her to embrace disruption as a means of reinvention. Levy has a wonderful ability to see the absurdity in day-to-day situations, frequently peppering her reflections with irony and self-deprecating humour.

This is an eloquent, poetic, beautifully structured meditation on so many things – not least, what should a woman be in contemporary society? How should she live?

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

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

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

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

The Past by Tessa Hadley

A subtle novel of family relationships and tensions, written with real skill and psychological insight into character, The Past revolves around four adult siblings – Harriet, Alice, Fran and Roland – who come together for a three-week holiday at the Crane family home in Kington, deep in the English countryside. The siblings have joint ownership of the house, and one of their objectives during the trip is to decide the property’s fate. The inner life of each individual is richly imagined, with Hadley moving seamlessly from one individual’s perspective to the next throughout the novel. Everything is beautifully described, from the characters’ preoccupations and concerns, to the house and the surrounding countryside. A nearby abandoned cottage and its mysterious secrets are particularly vividly realised, adding to the sense of unease that pulses through the narrative. My first by Hadley, but hopefully not my last.

Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell

A luminous collection of eleven stories about motherhood – mostly featuring young mothers with babies and/or toddlers, with a few focusing on pregnancy and mothers to be. Caldwell writes so insightfully about the fears young mothers experience when caring for small children. With a rare blend of honesty and compassion, she shows us those heart-stopping moments of anxiety that ambush her protagonists as they go about their days. Moreover, there is an intensity to the emotions that Caldwell captures in her stories, a depth of feeling that seems utterly authentic and true. By zooming in on her protagonists’ hopes, fears, preoccupations and desires, Caldwell has found the universal in the personal, offering stories that will resonate with many of us, irrespective of our personal circumstances.

Blitz Spirit by Becky Brown

In this illuminating book, Becky Brown presents various extracts from the diaries submitted as part of the British Mass-Observation project during the Second World War. (Founded in 1937, Mass-Observation was an anthropological study, documenting the everyday lives of ordinary British people from all walks of life.) The diary extracts presented here do much to debunk the nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the British public during the war, a nation all pulling together in one united effort. In reality, people experienced a wide variety of human emotions, from the novelty and excitement of facing something new, to the fear and anxiety fuelled by uncertainty and potential loss, to instances of selfishness and bickering, particularly as restrictions kicked in. Stoicism, resilience and acts of kindness are all on display here, alongside the less desirable aspects of human behaviour, much of which will resonate with our recent experiences of the pandemic.

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

A brilliantly observed, lacerating portrayal of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship that really gets under the skin. Riley’s sixth novel is a deeply uncomfortable read, veering between the desperately sad and the excruciatingly funny; and yet, like a car crash unfolding before our eyes, it’s hard to look away. The novel is narrated by Bridget, who is difficult to get a handle on, other than what she tells us about her parents, Helen (aka ‘Hen’) and Lee Grant. This is a fascinating character study, one that captures the bitterness, pain and irritation of a toxic mother-daughter relationship with sharpness and precision. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, some of the best I’ve read this year, especially for illustrating character traits – a truly uncomfortable read, for all the right reasons.  

And finally, a few honourable mentions for the books that almost made the list:

  • Second Sight – an eloquent collection of film writing by the writer and critic, Adam Mars-Jones;
  • Nomadland – Jessica Bruder’s eye-opening account of nomad life in America;
  • Open Water – Caleb Azumah Nelson’s poetic, multifaceted novella;
  • and The Years – Annie Ernaux’s impressive collective biography (tr. Alison L. Strayer), a book I admired hugely but didn’t love as much as others.

So that’s it for my favourite recently published titles from a year of reading. Do let me know your thoughts below – and join me again next week when I’ll be sharing my favourite ‘older’ books with plenty of treats still to come!

The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry

When Julia Parry comes into possession of a box of letters between her maternal grandfather, the author and academic, Humphry House (HH), and the esteemed Anglo-Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen (EB), it sparks an investigation into the correspondence between the two writers. Their relationship, it transpires, was an intimate one, ebbing and flowing over time, waxing and waning in intensity during the 1930s and ‘40s; this much is clear to Parry from her initial glimpses of the letters. She is also fortunate in having access to both sides of the conversation – letters from EB to HH and vice versa – preserved by Humphry’s wife, Madeline, Julia’s maternal grandmother. There are letters from Humphry to Madeline too, adding another dimension to this intriguing dynamic.

What follows is a quest on the part of Parry to piece together the story of Humphry’s relationship with Bowen – much of which is related in this illuminating and engagingly written book. Partly a collection of excerpts from the letters, partly the story of Julia’s travels to places of significance to the lovers, The Shadowy Third is a fascinating read, especially for anyone interested in Bowen’s writing.

The affair between Bowen and Humphry begins in Oxford in the early 1930s when Bowen is already a critically-acclaimed writer with a clutch of novels and short stories to her name. Moreover, she is ten years into her marriage to Alan Cameron, although their relationship, we learn, was never consummated. In effect, Alan has been adopting a kind of ‘parental’ role for Bowen, substituting for the losses she endured as a child, thereby providing security and respectability in the eyes of society.

Humphry, at this point, is also in a relationship, albeit a somewhat less formal one. He has been seeing Madeline Church – the same Madeline he goes on to marry in 1933, one year after his first meeting with Bowen at the Oxford dinner party. Following this initial connection, Bowen and Humphry write to one another regularly, and their letters reveal much about their respective personalities. Bowen – forthright and direct, particularly with emotions; Humphry – naïve, enthusiastic, and somewhat lacking in sensitivity. There are physical meetings between the pair too, and their relationship becomes sexual.

During the early years of the affair, Humphry emerges as rather foolish and insensitive in his treatment of both women: his lover, Bowen, and – more importantly – his wife, the exemplary Madeline. Not long before their wedding, Humphry makes it clear to Madeline that he may well indulge in ‘sensual acts’ with other women during their marriage, a practice that he acknowledges as ‘technically unfaithful’. Madeline is fully aware of Humphry’s feelings for Bowen at this point – this is clear from the letters she receives from HH. Nevertheless, in spite of these declarations, the marriage goes ahead.

Humphry often wandered through the rooms of his heart without shutting doors behind him. He thoughtlessly carried his relationship with one woman into the sphere of the second. He told each about his feelings for the other – unable, or unwilling, to imagine how this might just distress them. […] Humphry’s pattern of behaviour left both women in potentially vulnerable positions. Each was to devise strategies – very different ones – to deal with the man with the open-plan heart. (pp. 66–67)

There is a real lack of self-awareness on the part of Humphry here, compounded by a dismissal of Madeline’s intellectual capabilities. In the early years of the marriage, Madeline – who studied English at Royal Holloway – is never allowed to shine, firmly relegated to the positions of wife, mother and homemaker. Naturally, this is partly a function of societal attitudes at the time, frequently confining women to the domestic arena. Nevertheless, Humphry’s vanities and his lack of consideration of Madeline’s aspirations and feelings are also important factors here. At this stage in his life, Humphry is struggling to establish himself professionally, unable to secure a suitable position in the academic hierarchy, despite his ongoing research into the work of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

This initial, rather clouded view of Madeline – one reading of the ‘Shadowy Third’ of the book’s title – is reinforced by the impression she makes on Bowen. Elizabeth is cutting about Madeline in her letters to the philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin, describing her as perfectly nice, but rather dull and mediocre. A visit by Bowen to the Houses’ marital home in Devon in 1935 strengthens this perception for Bowen – so much so that she sends Madeline a tea service as a ‘thank you’ gift, reinforcing her status as largely domestic.

Contrary to these perceptions, Madeline is very bright, a woman with strong moral and ethical values – her honesty, simplicity and goodness are clearly evident from the start. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that she agreed to marry Humphry in the knowledge of his ongoing infidelities – a reflection of the lack of realistic options for women in the 1930s, I suspect. Thank goodness the situation is very different today. More of Madeline later, but for now, I’d like to return to Bowen, whose energy and artistic temperament pulse through Parry’s book.

In some respects, the affair with Humphry enriches Bowen’s life with new experiences, a new level of emotional depth and intensity that she subsequently draws on for her fiction. (The House in Paris, which I’ve yet to read, seems particularly significant here.) Interestingly, Bowen can compartmentalise her affair with Humphry, keeping it separate from the relative stability of her home life with Alan – who seems, for his part, to be turning a blind eye to Elizabeth’s peccadillos. As such, Bowen expects Humphry to do the same, a demand that creates a notable degree of tension in their relationship.  

If you cannot emerge imaginatively from your daily life enough to meet me imaginatively and to keep up this imaginative communication between us, then you and I have no future. But the idea of you letting me go fills me with despair on your behalf as much as on my own. If you did let me go, if later your home life and your marriage ever ceased to satisfy the whole of your nature, then you would have nothing to fall back on but petty muddles and lusts – unless you had found meanwhile, as I should like you to find, another and better Elizabeth. (Letter from EB to HH, Nov 1934, pp. 141–142)

Humphry, it seems, is less able to do this than Elizabeth, and the opportunity of an academic post in India for three years soon takes him overseas, separating him from both Madeline and Elizabeth. It comes at a difficult point in the lovers’ relationship, with Elizabeth taking umbrage over Humphry’s passing attraction to ‘B’, the sister of Elizabeth’s agent, Spencer Curtis Brown. At first, Madeline (pregnant with her second child) stays behind in England, India being no place for a wife or mother. Nevertheless, following the baby’s birth, Madeline leaves the two children with her parents and joins Humphry in India for five months, a trip that results in a rekindling of their relationship. By the time Humphry returns to England in 1938, the affair with Elizabeth is all but over, although their friendship and professional collaboration continue for many years. Madeline too ultimately reconciles her feelings about Humphry’s connection to Bowen, no longer allowing the relationship ‘get’ to her as it did in the past. Consequently, she feels more secure in the marriage, a reflection of her intelligence and an underlying steeliness.

Sadly, Humphry dies suddenly of a heart condition at the age of 46, not long after he has finally gained recognition as a successful writer and an inspirational teacher. (His students in India and elsewhere are full of praise for his lectures, viewing him with a combination of professional respect and immense fondness.)

Somewhat perversely, the loss of Humphry presents Madeline with an opportunity to shine. Her role in cataloguing and editing a definitive collection of Dickens’ letters is widely recognised, bringing the professional appreciation she so richly deserves (ten years after Humphry’s death). It’s a very gratifying picture for Parry to hold on to, one that reflects the steely determination of ‘Linny’, the grandmother she knew and loved.  

Parry has written a beautiful, thoroughly absorbing book here, capturing her travels across the world to reconstruct the emotional landscape of her grandparents’ lives. It’s a journey that takes her to several locations – from the academic circles of Oxford to Bowen’s Court in Ireland to the Presidency College in Calcutta. Bohemian London in the 1930s is vividly evoked, as in the Irish country-house milieu of Bowen’s heritage – not only through the extracts from various letters but via Parry’s elegant commentary too. In summary, this is a fascinating account of a complex tangle of relationships, exquisitely conveyed with intelligence and sensitivity. A truly captivating read for Bowen fans and newbies alike.

The Shadowy Third is published by Duckworth; personal copy.