Tag Archives: Faber and Faber

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

Every now and again, a book comes along that captivates the reader with its elegant form and glittering prose. Maud Martha is one such book, the only novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. First published in the US in 1953, this exquisitely-written novella has recently been released in the UK for the first time, making it available to a much wider audience of readers than before.

Maud Martha comprises a sequence of around thirty short vignettes, each one an evocative prose poem presenting a snapshot of the titular character’s life from childhood to early adulthood. As the writer Margo Jefferson points out in her excellent introduction, Brooks – an African American woman from the working classes – drew on her own life to create Maud Martha, tweaking various elements, dialling them up or down to portray the story.

Like Gwendolyn Brooks herself, Maud Martha Brown was born in 1917 to a relatively poor African American family from Chicago. As such, the novella’s early chapters offer glimpses of Maud’s childhood in the city’s South Side, a tough, uncompromising environment punctuated by flashes of beauty in the day-to-day. Dandelions glitter like ‘yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress’ of the Browns’ back yard, while the beginning of class is heralded by the peal of a bell, ‘a quickening of steps’ and the ‘fluttering of brief cases.’ Right from the very start, the reader is struck by the author’s use of imagery to convey a glorious sense of wonder in the routine and mundane.

Over the course of the novel, we follow Maud Martha through childhood, her early romances as a teenager, to marriage and motherhood, moving seamlessly from the early 1920s to the mid-’40s. The girl is bright, virtuous and imaginative – not as pretty or dainty as her older sister, Helen, but virtuous nonetheless. She dreams of a life in New York with all its attendant glamour and culture – alluring but unobtainable, for the moment at least.

When Maud Martha meets Paul, her body sings beside him – this man who craves the pleasurable things in life, ‘spiffy clothes, beautiful yellow girls, natural hair, smooth cars, jewels, night clubs, cocktail lounges, class’. Marriage swiftly ensues, with the couple settling for a tiny kitchenette and a shared bathroom despite their aspirations for something more spacious. But, while there are moments of brightness – occasional trips to the cinema and other small pleasures – life is hard for the newly-married Maud, whose skin is darker than her husband’s, something of a barrier to maintaining his affections.

What I am inside, what is really me, he likes okay. But he keeps looking at my color, which is like a wall. He has to jump over it in order to meet and touch what I’ve got for him. He has to jump away up high in order to see it. He gets awful tired of all that jumping. (p. 56)

Brooks’ vignettes range from depictions of commonplace, quotidian activities (sparing a mouse; gutting a chicken; shopping for a hat) to more notable occasions (first beau; giving birth; her grandmother’s death). Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most affecting snapshots illustrate how Maud Martha navigates the casual prejudices and racism she experiences on a day-to-day basis. The telling looks, the unguarded remarks, and the more blatant, explicit injustices are all captured so carefully and subtly through Brooks’ poetic prose. For instance, in one early vignette, a trip to an uptown cinema – a place where people of colour are rarely seen – proves somewhat uncomfortable for Maud Martha and Paul, despite the beautiful setting.

When the picture was over, and the lights revealed them for what they were, the Negroes stood up among the furs and good cloth and faint perfume, looked about them eagerly. They hoped they would meet no cruel eyes. They hoped no one would look intruded upon. (pp. 49–50)

When Maud Martha takes a job as a domestic ‘help’ in the wealthy suburb of Winnetka, she realises just what Paul has to put up with in his service job – especially when her exacting employer, the insensitive Mrs Burns-Cooper, proceeds to rattle off a litany of boasts. Nevertheless, there is an admirable degree of dignity in how Brooks’ protagonist deals with this put-down and other similar incidents, a quiet seam of resilience in the face of hurtful slights.

Shall I mention, considered Maud Martha, my own social triumphs, my own education, my travels to Gary and Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio? Shall I mention my collection of fancy pink satin bras? She decided against it. She went on listening, in silence, to the confidences until the arrival of the lady’s mother-in-law (large-eyed, strong, with hair of a mighty white, and with an eloquent, angry bosom.) (p. 103)

Perhaps the most affecting example of racism occurs when Maud Martha takes her daughter, Paulette, to visit Santa at the local department store. While Santa welcomes the white children with smiles and open arms, Paulette is roundly ignored – to the point where her mother has to intervene. For the most part, Maud Martha is mindful of keeping the occasional ‘scraps of baffled hate’ hidden inside her, unvoiced and constrained, but in this instance, she can barely hold back the tears. It’s a deeply moving vignette, poignantly evoked through Brooks’ expressive prose.    

But despite the myriad of challenges for a young, black, working-class woman like Maud Martha, there is something wonderfully uplifting about this book, just like its protagonist’s attitude to life itself. The vignettes glow with evocative imagery – like jewels that shimmer as their facets catch the light.  

The Ball stirred her. The Beauties, in their gorgeous gowns, bustling, supercilious; the young men, who at other times most unpleasantly blew their noses, and darted surreptitiously into alleys to relieve themselves, and sweated and swore at their jobs, and scratched their more intimate parts, now smiling, smooth, overgallant, the drowsy lights; the smells of food and flowers, the smell of Murray’s pomade, the body perfumes, natural and superimposed… (pp. 53–54)

As we leave Maud Martha – pregnant with her second child, her brother, Harry, freshly returned from the Second World War – there’s a glorious sense of optimism in the air. Here is a woman with a world of possibilities ahead of her. ‘What, what, am I to do with all of this life?’, she muses, fearless and ready for anything, despite unsettling news of racially-motivated lynchings elsewhere.

In crafting Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks has created something remarkable, a celebration of resilience, grace, dignity and beauty – a powerful image of black womanhood that remains highly relevant today.

Maud Martha is published by Faber & Faber. My thanks to Andy Miller, whose rave on a recent episode of Backlisted pushed it up the reading pile – spot on again!

Hotel novels – a few of my favourites from the shelves  

This is a post I’ve been meaning to put together for a while, a celebration of my favourite novels set in hotels. There’s something particularly fascinating about this type of location as a vehicle for fiction – a setting that brings together a range of different individuals who wouldn’t normally encounter one another away from the hotel. Naturally, there’s some potential for drama as various guests and members of staff mingle with one another, especially in the communal areas – opportunities the sharp-eyed writer can duly exploit to good effect.

While some guests will be holidaying at the hotels, others may be there for different reasons – travellers on business trips, for instance, or people recovering from illness or some other kind of trauma. Then we have the hotel staff and long-term residents, more permanent fixtures in the hotel’s fabric, so to speak. All have interesting stories to tell, irrespective of their positions. So here are a few of my favourites from the shelves.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (1929 – tr. Basil Creighton)

Perhaps the quintessential hotel novel, this engaging story revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another in this glamorous Berlin setting. There are moments of significant darkness amid the lightness as Baum skilfully weaves her narrative together, moving from one player to another with ease (her sense of characterisation is particularly strong). At the centre of the novel is the idea that sometimes our lives can change direction in surprising ways as we interact with others. We see fragments of these people’s lives as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better, while others are less fortunate and emerge diminished. A thoroughly captivating gem with an evocative Weimar-era setting.

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy (1950)

Part morality tale, part mystery, part family saga/social comedy, Kennedy’s delightful novel was reissued last year by Faber in a fabulous new edition. This very cleverly constructed story – which takes place at The Pendizack cliffside hotel, Cornwall, in the summer of 1947 – unfolds over the course of a week, culminating in a dramatic picnic ‘feast’, Kennedy draws on an inverted structure, revealing part of her denouement upfront, while omitting crucial details about a fatal disaster. Consequently, the reader is in the dark as to who dies and who survives the tragedy until the novel’s end. What Kennedy does so well here is to weave an immersive story around the perils of the seven deadly sins, into which she skilfully incorporates the loathsome behaviours of her characters – both guests and members of staff alike. A wonderfully engaging book with some serious messages at its heart.

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984)

Another big hitter here, and one of my favourites in the list. As this perceptive novel opens, Edith Hope – an unmarried writer of romantic fiction – has just been packed off by her respectable, interfering friends to the Hotel du Lac, a rather austere establishment of high repute in the Swiss countryside. Right from the start, it’s clear that Edith has been banished from her sector of society, sent away to reflect on her misdemeanours, to ‘become herself again’ following some undisclosed scandal. (The reason for Edith’s exile is eventually revealed, but not until the last third of the book.) Central to the novel is the question of what kind of life Edith can carve out for herself, a dilemma that throws up various points for debate. Will she return to her solitary existence at home, complete with its small pleasures and its sense of freedom and independence? Or will she agree to compromise, to marry for social acceptability if not love? You’ll have to read the book itself to find out…

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor (1969)

We’re in much darker territory here with William Trevor, a writer whose work I’ve been reading steadily over the past four or five years. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with Trevor’s other novels from the 1970s – sad, somewhat sinister and beautifully observed. 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. With her nose for tragedy and a potentially lucrative story, Trevor’s protagonist inveigles her way into the Sinnott family, just in time for a landmark birthday celebration for the hotel’s owner, the elderly Mrs Sinnott. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

Bowen’s striking debut is a story of unsuitable attachments – more specifically, the subtle power dynamics at play among various privileged guests holidaying at a high-class hotel on the Italian Riviera. The narrative revolves around Sydney Warren, a somewhat remote yet spirited young woman in her early twenties, and the individuals she meets on her trip. In some instances, the characters are gravitating towards one another for convenience and perhaps a vague kind of protection or social acceptability, while in others, there are more underhand motives at play. It all feels incredibly accomplished for a debut, full of little observations on human nature and the social codes that dictate people’s behaviour – there are some particularly wonderful details on hotel etiquette here. If you like Edith Wharton’s ‘society’ novels, The Hotel may well appeal.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

One of my all-time favourite novels, Mrs Palfrey is a something of a masterpiece, marrying bittersweet humour with a deeply poignant thread. In essence Taylor’s story follows a recently widowed elderly lady, Mrs Palfrey, as she moves into London’s Claremont Hotel. Here she joins a group of long-term residents in similar positions to herself, each one likely to remain there until illness intervenes and a move to a nursing home or hospital can no longer be avoided. This is a beautiful, thought-provoking novel, prompting the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of ageing – more specifically, our need to participate in life, the importance of small acts of kindness and the desire to feel valued, irrespective of our age. Taylor’s observations of social situations and the foibles of human nature are spot-on – there are some wonderfully funny moments here amid the poignancy and sadness. An undisputed gem that reveals more on subsequent readings, especially as we grow older ourselves.  

Other honourable mentions include the following books:

  • Rosamond Lehmann’s marvellous The Weather in the Streets (1936), in which the devastation of Olivia and Rollo’s doomed love affair plays out against the backdrop of dark, secluded restaurants and stuffy, sordid hotels;
  • Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (1949), a powerful, visceral novel set in the squalid towns and desert landscapes of North Africa in the years following the end of the Second World War. As Port and Kit Moresby (Bowles’ troubled protagonists) travel across the stiflingly hot desert, the hotels grow more sordid with each successive move, putting further strain on the couple’s fractured marriage;
  • Finally, there’s Strange Hotel (2020), Eimear McBride’s immersive, enigmatic novel, where inner thoughts and self-reflections are more prominent than narrative and plot.

Do let me know your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books (you can buy most of them here via Bookshop.Org, together with a few other suggestions). Or maybe you have some favourite hotel novels that you’d like to share with others – I’m sure there are many more I’ve yet to discover, so please feel free to mention them below.

PS I’m also planning to do a ‘boarding house’ version of this post at some point, something that will come as no surprise to those who know me well!

Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

Written during the early feverish months of the first wave of COVID-19, Burntcoat is a haunting, beautifully-crafted story of love, trauma and the creation of art, all set against the backdrop of a deadly global pandemic. I’ve long been a fan of Hall’s short stories, ever since The Beautiful Indifference came out ten years or so ago, but this is my first experience of her novels – an overwhelmingly positive one, I should clearly state upfront. 

When we first meet Edith Harkness – the critically acclaimed installation artist who narrates the novel – her life is drawing to a close. At fifty-nine, Edith is living alone at Burntcoat, her warehouse-sized studio-cum-apartment, purchased several years earlier with the proceeds from a prestigious prize. The reason for her impending death is Nova (aka AG3) – a more severe virus than COVID but similar in many ways, primed to unleash the maximum devastation, destroying the body from within. 

It was – it is – perfect. Perfectly composed, star-like, and timed for the greatest chaos, for transmission across borders, replication, creating galaxies of itself. Perfectly operating in each victim – the patient incubation, methodical progression through the body, careful removal of the defensive sheath. It ascends, hellishly, erupting inside its host. A fever that becomes critical, so destructive the body might kill itself. The virus dies with the host or survives, retreating deep into the cells, lying dormant. (p. 126)

Edith caught Nova from her Turkish lover, Halit, several years ago, back when the virus was first circulating, before the availability of vaccines or ground-breaking treatments. Twenty or thirty years on, the world is divided into two groups of people: those who escaped the virus and now have some protection through vaccination; and those who were infected and survived. Unfortunately for the latter group, the virus remains dormant in the body, awaiting the inevitable reactivation that can come at any time. Consequently, the pandemic looms large for Edith in more ways than one. Not only is Edith a carrier, she is also finalising a national memorial for the dead, an installation set to endure long after her death.

As her relapse progresses, Edith reflects on different aspects of her life, memories spanning her childhood on the margins, the route to becoming an artist, and her relationship with Halit – an experience she describes with an electrifying sense of intimacy. The novel is presented in sections, almost like a series of extended vignettes, a structure that gives it a wonderful sense of fluidity as we move backwards and forwards in time, alighting on various elements of Edith’s richly-textured life.

Hall writes movingly of Edith’s childhood, an upbringing undoubtedly shaped by severe illness and trauma. When Edith was aged eight, her mother, Naomi, suffered a brain haemorrhage – an incident Edith witnessed during an outing with her parents. Somehow Naomi survived the bleed, ultimately recovering physically by learning how to function again, slowly and steadily with the help of her family. Nevertheless, something inherent to Naomi was displaced during the stroke, rupturing her sense of self and deep-rooted psyche.

Against all odds, the rupture hadn’t killed her. Naomi would recover, slowly, anatomically, but something fundamental was disrupted by the process of repair – the complex library of thought, memory, emotion, personality. They saved her life; they could not save her self. (p. 13)

When her parents’ marriage deteriorates in the year following her haemorrhage, Edith is left alone to care for Naomi in the absence of her father.

We also learn of Edith’s training as an artist, a process which takes her to Japan to learn the highly skilled process of ‘shou sugi ban’, a technique for charring cedar, rendering it waterproof. While it might sound counterintuitive at first, burning the wood in this way actually strengthens its structure, ‘preserving its integrity while enhancing its beauty’ – a phrase that could apply to Hall’s creative work itself.

Also of broader significance is Edith’s most famous installation, ‘The Witch at Scotch Corner’, an enormous Angel-of-the-North type structure, also known as ‘Hecky’. It’s a nod to the days of major investment in the arts – the commissioning of ‘a statement piece by a radical new artist’, supported by a wealthy patron with the requisite political clout. Edith delivers on the brief with an impressive combination of vision and ambition. As a result, her radical artwork – a gigantic squatting woman – duly takes up its position by the Scotch Corner junction, the gateway to the North East.

She is the masterwork. A half-burnt assemblage lofting high as a church tower, containing all the unrealistic belligerence and boldness of early ambition. The upper planks of beech were steamed pink, bent and hooped to extraordinary angles, the lower trellis strengthened by charring. She rises above the yellow furze as if from a pyre, hair streaming on the updraft, her back arcing. Welcome North. (p. 79)

It’s a wildly controversial piece, simultaneously attracting fulsome praise and reactionary outrage – a point that Hall, to her credit, never labours or overplays.

The most powerful sections of the novel are those featuring Halit, whom Edith starts seeing in the months leading up to lockdown. There’s a breathtaking feeling of intimacy to these passages, which Hall expresses in the second person – a viewpoint that enhances the sense of closeness between the couple, both physically and sexually.

The stove in the bedroom kept us warm. We sat or lay, you unwinding from work, taking off layer after layer, and our forms melted together in the red underworld light. We slept as the flames settled and died, tucked together like pigeons in a loft, the sleet creeping over the roof, the country waiting. February, with its bare, larval branches. March. Other nations were closing borders, quarantining. (p. 57)

Hall is well known for writing about sex in a way that feels both poetic and visceral, capturing the physicality of the act without losing the emotional depth. These passages are sensual and intense without ever feeling gratuitous – a testament to Hall’s finely-turned judgement as an artist and a writer. The prose is utterly sublime throughout – graceful and elegant in tone, almost meditative at times, especially when conveying the intimacy between the two lovers. The portrayal of their relationship is beautifully judged.

In Burntcoat, Sarah Hall has created something vital and vivid, capturing the fragile relationship between life and death. There is a deep sense of poignancy to the novel, a quality that stems from our understanding that Edith is facing her own mortality – she knows the resurgence will prove fatal this time as others have already succumbed. (At nearly sixty, Edith is old for a carrier, and her time is almost up.) As such, the novel explores some weighty existential themes. Namely, how do we live with the knowledge that one day we will die? How do we prepare for the inevitable without allowing it to consume us? And what do we wish to leave behind as a legacy of our existence? Intertwined with these big questions is the role of creativity in a time crisis – the importance of art in the wake of trauma, both individual and collective.

In short, this is a multi-layered novel with so much to offer – a moving elegy to love, life, loss and creativity that acts as a testament to humanity’s resilience in the face of deep uncertainty. Definitely one of the best and most thought-provoking novels I’ve read this year.

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

Foster by Claire Keegan

When I look back over the last three months, Claire Keegan’s beautiful novella Small Things Like These stands out as one of my favourite recent reads. Set in a small town in County Wexford in the run-up to Christmas 1985, the book tells the story of Bill Furlong, a thoroughly decent, hardworking man who stays true to his personal values when he sees worrying signs of abuse at the local convent. It’s a deeply affecting story about standing up to the Catholic Church and doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security at risk.

Clocking in at under 100 pages, Foster is an earlier novella in a similar style, drawing on themes of family, kindness and compassion from a child’s point of view. It’s a gorgeous book, just as exquisitely written as Small Things Like These, confirming Keegan as one of my favourite Irish writers alongside the wonderful Maeve Brennan.

As Foster opens, a young girl from Clonegal, County Carlow is being driven to County Wexford by her father, Dan. There she will stay with relatives, an aunt and uncle she doesn’t know, with no mention of a return date or the nature of the arrangement. The girl’s mother, Mary, is expecting a baby, and with a large family to support, the couple have chosen to take the girl to Wexford to ease the burden at home.

Almost immediately the girl detects some differences in her new environment with John and Edna Kinsella. Like the girl’s parents, the Kinsellas are country folk, living and working on a farm – and yet the atmosphere feels more relaxed here than at home, less rushed with more space to think and breathe.

With my mother it is all work: us, the butter-making, the dinners, the washing up and getting up and getting ready for Mass and school, weaning calves, and hiring men to plough and harrow the fields, stretching the money and setting the alarm. But this is a different type of house. Here there is room, and time to think. There may even be money to spare. (p. 12)

The story is narrated by the young girl herself (whose name we never learn), a viewpoint that gives the novella a beautiful sense of intimacy, perfectly capturing the uncertainty of not knowing how the future will pan out.

And so the days pass. I keep waiting for something to happen, for the ease I feel to end – to wake in a wet bed, to make some blunder, some big gaffe, to break something – but each day follows on much like the one before. (p. 37)

With no children of their own at home, the Kinsellas treat the girl with love and compassion, demonstrating their values through simple acts of kindness. As John works the land, preparing the crops for harvest, the girl helps Edna around the house, lighter work than she has been used to at home. Here she learns how to prepare fruit from the garden for jam and tarts, the simple rhythms of domestic life. There’s time for some fun too, the occasional trip to town to buy clothes and sweets – when John gives the girl a pound note to spend, her eyes light up. We also learn a little more about the Kinsellas themselves, how past sorrows have almost certainly shaped their affection for the girl, whom they treat as one of their own.

As the summer draws to a close, the sense of uncertainty about the future heightens, sharpening a little the atmosphere in the house. I won’t reveal anything more about how the story plays out, other than to say that Keegan really lands the ending – it’s an unforgettable scene.

Keegan writes beautifully about the gentle rhythms of country life. There is a purity and simplicity to her prose, a luminosity that builds through the book.

All through the walk, the wind blows hard and soft and hard again through the tall, flowering hedges, the high trees. In the fields, the combines are out cutting the wheat, the barley and oats, saving the corn, leaving behind long rows of straw. We meet men on tractors, going in different directions, pulling balers to the fields, and trailers full of grain to the co-op. Birds swoop down, brazen, eating the fallen seed off the middle of the road. (p. 49)

Her style is uncluttered and spare – every phrase has just the right weight and meaning, not a word out of place. She also leaves plenty of space in the story, allowing the reader to make their own connections between little hints and observations to fill in the gaps.

Occasional references to external events seem to locate the story in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, and yet there is a timeless quality to it, reflecting the Ireland of old. Keegan also nails the atmosphere of a small, close-knit community to perfection, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business and gossip is rife. In this scene, a nosy acquaintance of Edna’s has just come back from a funeral with much to report.

She takes off her cardigan and sits down and starts talking about the wake: who was there, the type of sandwiches that were made, the queen cakes, the corpse who was lying up crooked in the coffin and hadn’t even been shaved properly, how they had plastic rosary beads for him, the poor fucker. (pp. 57–58)

In summary then, Foster is a sublime novella, a masterclass in the ‘less-is-more’ school of writing – a poignant story, beautifully told. Another very strong contender for my annual reading highlights.

Foster is published by Faber & Faber; personal copy.

Reading Ireland – My Favourite Books by Irish Women Writers

As some of you may know, March is Reading Ireland Month (#ReadingIreland22), co-hosted by Cathy at the 746Books blog and Niall/Raging Fluff. It’s a month-long celebration of Irish books and culture from both sides of the border – you can find out more about it here.

Over the past few years, I’ve reviewed quite a few books by Irish writers; and given that 8th March is International Women’s Day, I thought I would share some of my favourites by women. (Hopefully these might give you some ideas on what to read if you’re thinking of participating.)

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

Bowen’s striking debut novel is a story of unsuitable attachments – more specifically, the subtle power dynamics at play among the members of a very privileged set, cast against the backdrop of the Italian Riviera. In many respects, the novel revolves around Sydney Warren, a somewhat remote yet spirited young woman in her early twenties, and the individuals she meets during her break. In some instances, the characters are gravitating towards one another for convenience and perhaps a vague kind of protection or social acceptability, while in others, there are more underhand motives at play.

It all feels incredibly accomplished for a debut, full of little observations on human nature and the social codes that dictate people’s behaviour (there are some wonderful details on hotel etiquette here). If you like Edith Wharton’s ‘society’ novels, The Hotel could well be for you.

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan (from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s)

A stunning collection of stories, all set in the same modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin in the 20th century. The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces that offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time despite the political turbulence of the early 1920s. Then we move on to a sequence of stories featuring Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance. Here we see two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. Lastly, the third and final section explores another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. In contrast to the previous pieces, there is a little more hope here as the Bagots’ relationship is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness.

What sets this collection apart from many others is the cumulative sense of disconnection conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning that gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece.

Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill (1956)

A brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. The novel’s protagonist is Laura Percival – a rather timid spinster in her forties – who we first meet on the afternoon of a family funeral. The deceased is Laura’s elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still looms large over Marathon (the Percivals’ residence), despite her recent death. This is a novel that delves into the past as developments force Laura to confront a period of her life she has long since buried – more specifically, a series of circumstances that led her to stay at Marathon when the possibility of freedom was so tantalisingly within reach.

A powerful, character-driven novel that focuses on the psychology and underlying motives of different individuals tied together by familial or social bonds, however tenuous. Fans of Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen would likely appreciate this.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)

This gorgeous, deeply-affecting novel focuses on the life of Tess Lohan, a girl born and raised on a farm in rural Ireland. The novel opens in the mid-1940s with the death of Tess’ mother – a loss that sets the tone for the decades which follow. Academy Street is a poignant book, the deeply-moving story of a quiet life that plays out firstly in 1950s Ireland and then in 1960s New York. The overall tone is achingly melancholy, but there are moments of intense beauty amidst the solitude and heartache.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the intensity of feeling Costello brings to Tess’ story. The prose is spare and controlled, but the reader feels a sense of closeness to Tess, as if we have near-complete access to her thoughts and emotions. A beautifully written book from one of my favourite contemporary writers.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)

A superb novella set in New Ross, a town in the southeast of Ireland, in the raw-cold days of the run-up to Christmas 1985. Central to the story is Bill Furlong, a hardworking coal and timber merchant who tries to help his clients where he can – dropping off bags of logs to loyal customers, even when they can’t afford to pay. One day, while delivering coal to the local Convent, Furlong sees something genuinely alarming – a sign that proves hard for him to ignore, despite his wife’s reservations about speaking out.

It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking book about the importance of staying true to your values – of doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security and aspirations at risk. Keegan’s prose is simple, pared-back and unadorned, a style that seems fitting given the nature of the story. Nothing feels superfluous here – every word has just the right weight and meaning.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell (2022)

This deeply-moving novel takes as its focal point a series of attacks – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fireside Raids – that took place in Belfast during WW2. Using these devastating real-life events as a springboard, Caldwell has created a really beautiful novel here – an engrossing, evocative portrayal of the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of the Bells, a fictional middle-class family. Caldwell excels in capturing so many aspects of the raids, both physical and emotional. From the fear as people wait for the bombings to start, to the panic of searching for the missing and those who may have perished, to depicting the crushing damage to homes in vivid, unflinching detail. Moreover, she makes us care about her characters, investing in their respective hopes and dreams, concerns and anxieties – and it’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes this portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting.

In summary, this is a beautiful, lyrical novel – a deeply moving tribute to the resilience of the Belfast people who lost and endured so much during the dark days of the Blitz. 

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read any of them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in another couple of titles during March, including one by a woman. And if you have any favourites by Irish women writers, please feel free to mention them alongside other comments below – personal recommendations are always welcome.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell  

While much has been written about the impact of WW2 on mainland Britain (London in particular), the fate of Northern Ireland has probably not received the same level of attention. It’s a topic that Lucy Caldwell explores vividly and movingly in her exquisite new novel, These Days, which takes as its focal point a series of attacks – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fireside Raids – that took place in Belfast from April to May 1941. Nine hundred people died and more than a thousand were injured in the Easter Raid alone, making it the biggest loss of life in any single night-raid outside of the London Blitz.

Using these devastating events as a springboard, Caldwell has created a really beautiful novel here – an engrossing, evocative portrayal of the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of the Bells, a fictional middle-class family.

Philip Bell, a Belfast-based GP, and his wife, Florence, have been fairly happily married for twenty-two years. They have three children, all living at home: twenty-one-year-old Audrey, who is flighty, impulsive and bookish; eighteen-year-old Emma, a kind, diligent but somewhat awkward girl who volunteers at the local First Aid unit; and thirteen-year-old Paul, a lively boy who enjoys adventures and making dens. By following these individuals through April and May ‘41, we see the impact of the war on a personal level – not just for the Bell family but the broader Belfast community too.

Audrey, a junior clerk at the Belfast tax office, has just become engaged to Richard, a respectable but somewhat stiff doctor who views marriage as the logical next step in their relationship. But through her friendship with Doreen Bates, a bright independently-minded colleague from London, Audrey begins to wonder whether marriage to Richard will be the right option for her. At twenty-one, she is still eager to experience life and the possibilities it has to offer – and while Richard represents safety and security, Audrey wonders whether she truly loves him enough to go through with it.

Meanwhile, at the local First Aid post, Emma is experiencing the first flushes of love, having fallen for Sylvia, a relaxed, self-assured young woman who works alongside her at the station. This flourishing relationship opens up a new world of possibilities for Emma, giving her a sense of ease and confidence that she has struggled to achieve in the past.

Sylvia toasted some bread and split an orange for breakfast, and then they washed and dressed – Emma in a blouse and cotton slacks of Sylvia’s, too short for her, as Sylvia was half a head smaller, so they flapped ridiculously somewhere around the ankles. Who cares, she thought. They went out into the day. (p. 77)

Florence – the girls’ mother – is an interesting character too. While not unhappily married to Philip, Florence still privately mourns the loss of her former love, Reynard, who was killed in the First World War. She allows herself to think of Reynard during the regular Sunday church service, reminiscing on the happiness of times past and what might have been, had he survived.

What Caldwell does so well here is to make us care about these characters, investing in their respective hopes and dreams, concerns and anxieties – and it’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes her portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting.

Caldwell excels in capturing so many aspects of the raids, both physical and emotional. From the fear as people wait for the bombings to start, to the panic of searching for the missing and those who may have perished, to depicting the crushing damage to homes in vivid, unflinching detail. In one especially striking scene, she describes a house with the front blown off, exposing the contents within – like a doll’s house, the walls studded with daggers of shattered glass.

The fires, the tramlines ripped from the road and pointing up in helpless angles at the sky. A tram car on its side. With every breath, the thick stench of burning lodged deeper in you. The people you passed in the streets, some walking with purpose, some wandering one way, then turning and walking back the other. Others just standing. (pp. 166-167)

She [Audrey] saw a body in the middle of the road, its limbs splayed at an unusual angle. How are we ever going to recover, she thought, from having seen such things? You can’t think about it – your mind will short-circuit if you do. (p. 170)

Alongside the Bells, Caldwell offers glimpses of other families within their orbit, widening her lens to bring in others from the working classes. There’s six-year-old Maisie Gallagher, whom Audrey helps during the carnage of the Easter Raid, and the teenager, Betty Binks, who works alongside Mrs Price, the Bells’ dutiful charwoman. We see how the bombing raids cut across the social classes, uniting women in their suffering and grief as they come to terms with the horrific impact on families.

In addition to the devastation depicted above, there are some lighter moments too – beautifully painted scenes of dances, children playing together, and couples visiting galleries. Shared moments of intimacy and friendship amidst the ravages of war. Caldwell’s prose is wonderfully vivid and impressionistic, similar to Rosamond Lehmann’s style from Invitation to the Waltz.

The Plaza Ballroom, Chichester Street. Nine o’clock, still just about light outside, that heady moment when the evening tilts to night. A queue of laughing couples, trios of girls arm in arm, all waiting their turn to go through the boxy portico with its neon sign, tickets at the booth, coats bundled over to the cloakroom boy, and hurriedly up the stairs, feeling the floor vibrating under their feet. (p. 83)

There are some brilliant scenes depicted here. Perhaps most notably Audrey’s night at the Floral Hall dance (the evening of the Easter bombing raid), and the Gallaghers’ attempt to smuggle two or three ‘luxuries’ across the Irish border from a day trip to Dublin – a passage that highlights the scarcity of basic items such as decent stockings and children’s shoes.

In summary, this is a beautiful, lyrical novel – a deeply moving tribute to the resilience of the Belfast people who lost and endured so much during the dark days of the Blitz. There’s a very heartfelt passage towards the end, recounting with weight and poignancy the roll call of losses across the city. A poetic elegy of great power and sensitivity – just like Caldwell’s novel as a whole, which I truly adored.

These Days is published by Faber & Faber (another for #ReadIndies); my thanks to the Independent Alliance and the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Winter reads – a few favourites from the shelves

A few weeks ago, I posted a piece on some of my favourite autumn reads, books such as R.C. Sherriff’s A Fortnight in September, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and an anthology of short stories, American Midnight – Tales of the Dark. Now that the weather has turned colder, it feels timely to look at winter reads – books that evoke the dark, snowy nights and crisp winter days. Here are a few of my favourites from the shelves.

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

Set out of season in a quiet seaside town close, Winter in Sokcho is a haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty – a story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations. The narrator – a young woman who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Into her life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, a connection that waxes and wanes as the days slip by. The book’s enigmatic ending only adds to its sense of mystery. 

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

Drive Your Plow… , the 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. By turns 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 Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

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

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

This haunting, dreamlike story of a neglectful single mother and her eight-year-old son will almost certainly get under your skin. Right from the very start of the book, there is something of a disconnect between parent and child, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. The narrative unfolds over a bitterly cold night, during which these two individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. An interesting choice for book groups and solo readers alike – the novella’s ambiguous nature of the ending makes this a particularly unnerving read.  

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter, perfectly captures the confusing mix of emotions that characterise a young girl’s coming of age. The book’s central character, Katherine Lind, exudes a deep sense of loneliness and isolation; and while Larkin never explicitly states Katherine’s nationality, there are several hints to suggest she is German, possibly a refugee of Jewish descent. This quiet, contemplative novel explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. Larkin’s prose is sublime, equally impressive in its portrayals of the nostalgic atmosphere of an English summer and the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. An understated gem.

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes (tr. Jamie Lee Searle)

A beautiful, atmospheric novella, set in the Black Forest during the dark, eerie period between Christmas and Twelfth Night. As the book opens, Manfred is trekking through the snow, returning to the village of his youth after an absence of forty years. A longstanding feud exists between Manfred and his younger brother, Sebastian, who effectively inherited the family farm back then, despite his lack of aptitude or training for the role. Underpinning the narrative are themes of loss, regret, and the possibility of reconciliation. While the overall tone is nostalgic and melancholy, there are glimmers of hope amidst the heartache as Manfred hopes to reconnect with his brother.

This is a wonderfully evocative read for a dark winter’s night, one that will likely resonate with anyone who has loved and lost at some point in their life.

The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy

The setting for Brophy’s glittering novella is a grand house in London where various guests have gathered for an 18th-century costume ball on New Year’s Eve. Central to the narrative are Anna K, a fortysomething divorcee attending the ball as Mozart’s Donna Anna, and another guest (identity unknown) who is dressed as a masked Don Giovanni. It’s a playful, seductive book, shot through with a captivating sense of wit. In essence, Brophy is riffing with the themes of Mozart’s celebrated opera Don Giovanni, reimagining the relationship between the titular character, DG, and the young woman he tries to seduce, Donna Anna. Despite my lack of familiarity with Mozart’s opera, I found this an utterly captivating read, accentuated by some beautiful descriptive prose. This is a highly imaginative novel of seduction, ageing, mortality and Mozart – the perfect read for a literary New Year’s Eve!

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 any of them in the future. Perhaps you have a favourite winter book or two? Please feel free to mention them in the comments below.

Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell

Back in October, the Belfast-born writer Lucy Caldwell won the BBC National Short Story Award with All the People Were Mean and Bad, a story of motherhood, chance encounters and the randomness of life. It’s a superb piece – probably the standout in Caldwell’s remarkable collection of stories, Intimacies, published by Faber earlier this year – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

All eleven stories in Intimacies are concerned with motherhood, mostly featuring young mothers with babies and/or toddlers, while a few focus on pregnancy and mothers to be. Consequently, the collection has a feeling of interconnectedness, a sense of synergy or cumulative effect as the reader moves from one piece to the next.

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.

Some of the most memorable stories rest on ‘what if’ or ‘what might have been’ moments, opening up the possibility of multiple outcomes for these characters – glimpses perhaps of alternative futures, some of which seem exciting, while others appear terrifying or weighed down by guilt.

In Like This, a busy mother, with a toddler and baby in tow, stops at a café for a brief respite. When the toddler wants to use the toilet – too large for the baby buggy to squeeze into – a friendly lady at a nearby table offers to watch the young woman’s baby. While the mother hurries her toddler along in the cubicle, the foolishness of her actions hits hard. How could she have left the most ‘helpless, precious thing’ she owns with a complete stranger, albeit another mother? Of course, this other woman said she has children of her own; but even so, what sort of mother would take the risk?

When the young woman emerges from the toilet, she is relieved to see that the buggy is still there; the stranger and the baby, however, are nowhere to be seen. In the minutes that follow, Caldwell’s protagonist begins a panic-stricken search for her child as the horror of a future blighted by tragedy plays out in her mind…

The fear and devastation of loss are also detectable in The Children, a fascinating story where a breastfeeding mother finds a lump in her breast. It could be nothing; but then again, it could be something – it’s so hard to tell. As such, we follow the young mother as the lump is investigated, with Caldwell skilfully switching between her protagonist’s medical appointments and work-related preoccupations as she awaits the results. The young mother is researching a story on the social reformer and author Caroline Norton, who found herself trapped in an abusive marriage and assailed by traumatic dreams. Reading Norton’s letters, the protagonist is reminded of her own anxiety dreams and how much she stands to lose, should the lump turn out to be cancer.

Since they were born, I’ve dreamed of losing my babies too. I dream that I’ve left my daughter in a Left Luggage unit and there are hundreds of dully gleaming lockers and I don’t have a key. […] I am dying, and I’m scared, and they tell me to keep calm and hold the hands that reach out for me, and I do, and feel myself pulled from my body. A moment’s relief, then the agony of realising I will never hold my children again. (p. 92)

Fears of a different kind assail the protagonist in Mayday, in which a female student is using some pills procured on the internet to terminate her unwanted pregnancy. (The story is set in Northern Ireland where accessible termination services are still to be commissioned following the legalisation of abortion in October 2019.) As she waits for the medication to work, the young woman experiences a mix of terror, sadness and relief – an overriding belief that she is making the right decision at this point in her life, despite the inherent risks.

She waits for the guilt to start, the regret, but it doesn’t. What does she feel? She tests out emotions. Scared, yes. Definitely scared. She’s deleted her browsing history seventeen, eighteen times. But they have ways of finding these things out, and somewhere, etched onto the Internet, is her name, her address, her PayPal account: what she did. When, where and how. She, or anyone who helps her, could be jailed for life. So, scared. (pp. 19–20)

In interviews, Caldwell has described her interest in writing about liminal or ‘in-between spaces’ (e.g. cars, airports and planes), where ‘time seems to stop, or is elsewhere for a while’, where alternative outcomes or different life paths open up, albeit momentarily. This is particularly true of the prize-winning story, All the People Were Mean and Bad, in which a young mother is on a night flight from Vancouver to London – the journey home from her cousin’s funeral. She is accompanied by her daughter – a toddler too young to have her own seat but too old to sit comfortably on her mother’s lap. The story’s title comes from a book about Noah’s Ark, which the mother hates but reads to her daughter, giving in to the child’s need to be occupied during the flight.

As the night unfolds, the mother gets chatting to the man in the adjacent seat, a fifty-six-year-old divorcee with children of his own – now fully grown. The man is kind and helpful, sympathetic to the young mother’s situation, travelling on her own with a restless child in need of comfort and distraction.   

This beautifully crafted story explores the gaps between who we are now and who we thought we would become, say ten or twenty ago. How our lives invariably turn out to be quite different from the futures we once imagined, often without clearly defined plans or conscious decisions on our part.

How time as a measure is, for a while, entirely meaningless, in this time out of time, and how distance is too, and about the distances we travel, between where we come from and where we end up, between who we thought we were and who we turn out to be. (pp. 126–127)

You have Riedel wine glasses and Dartington Crystal champagne flutes yourself now, and Japanese knives and a proper knife-sharpener, and sometimes, even peonies in vases, or at least in a vase. Where has it all come from? How have you graduated, almost without noticing, from novelty shot glasses and wine glasses nicked from pubs, thick-rimmed and engraved with measures, to this? […] And yet: you can’t shake the sense that it has all crept up on you without your wanting or asking for it, without your feeling any different than you did at twenty-nine, twenty-seven, or, yes, twenty-four (p. 124)

It’s also about the possibility of taking a different path in the future, how our lives can turn on the tiniest moments – split-second decisions that open up the possibility of excitement and desire alongside danger and guilt. There is a frisson of attraction between these two travellers, adding a degree of tension, a sense of will-they-or-won’t-they, to the scene when they should part.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of this luminous collection of stories, but hopefully it’s given you a flavour of what to expect. Caldwell writes beautifully about motherhood, womanhood, life-changing moments and alternative futures. 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.

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy    

Part morality tale, part family saga/social comedy, Margaret Kennedy’s delightful novel, The Feast, has recently been reissued by Faber in a beautiful new edition – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy. This very cleverly constructed story – which features a large cast of memorable, idiosyncratic characters – unfolds over the course of a week, culminating in the titular ‘feast’, an event that proves to be momentous in more ways than one!

The novel – which is set in Cornwall in the summer of 1947 – opens with a short prologue, in which Reverend Bott of St. Sody’s is deliberating over a funeral sermon he has to write. The previous month, a local cliffside hotel, The Pendizack, collapsed into the sea, killing all those who were inside the building at the time. Those who perished in the tragedy remain buried under the rocks and rubble, with no possibility of recovery – hence the need for a ceremony as an act of remembrance. Luckily, however, several of the hotel guests and members of staff escaped with their lives, having been out on a picnic – the titular feast – at the time of the cliffside collapse. Their stories, and the events of the week leading up to the disaster, are revealed in the remainder of the book. Tantalisingly, Kennedy only reveals the name of one of the seven dead at this point – Dick Siddal, whose wife Barbara managed the hotel – leaving the reader in the dark about the identity of the other six victims until the very end…

At this point, Kennedy takes us back to the Saturday before the tragedy, introducing us to the main players in the story: the staff and various guests. The hotel, it seems, is home to the Siddal family, who have turned the property over to paying guests for financial reasons. Dick Siddal, a former lawyer, lives in the boot-room behind the kitchen, only to emerge now and again to pass commentary on the state of the world. Mr Siddal has a sharp, perceptive mind, but offers nothing in the way of practical help in running the hotel. That operation is left to his wife, Barbara, who has settled into the role of a martyr, helped considerably by her eldest son, Gerry, whose heroic efforts to assist with all manner of jobs go largely unnoticed. The Siddals’ other sons, Robin and Duff, are the apples of their mother’s eye, with the money to finance their education being a major priority.

Also living at the hotel is the housekeeper, Dorothy Ellis, a lazy, spiteful woman who cannot resist poking her nose into everyone else’s business. One gets the sense that her loyalty to Mrs Siddal is pretty thin, especially given her opinion of The Pendizack (as revealed in a letter she writes to a friend).

Well this is not a hotel at all, only a boarding house—all falling down and the roof leaking, you can see there has been nothing spent on it for years and only one bathroom. They have lost all their money, so she got the bright idea to turn this into a boarding house because of course her darling boys have got to go to posh schools just the same—but she does not know the first thing about running a hotel and can’t cater for toffee. (pp. 15–16)

Of more practical use to Mrs Siddal is the housemaid, Nancibel, a sprightly, intelligent girl who worked in the ATS during WW2. Nancibal – who has the full measure of Dorothy Ellis – is nursing a broken heart, determined to move on after class differences scuppered her chances with former sweetheart, Brian. 

Much of the novel’s engaging humour is provided by the hotel guests, particularly through the clashes in social class and attitudes to life this environment throws up. Lady Gifford writes ahead to Mrs Siddal, laying out her extensive list of dietary requirements, despite the difficulties posed by rationing. 

I see I’ve said nothing about fish. I’m allowed everything except kippers, but I don’t think plaice agrees with me very well, nor haddock, unless cooked with plenty of butter. Crab and lobsters are not verboten which is very convenient, as I expect you get plenty of them and so many people can’t eat them. (p. 13)

There is definitely a whiff of scandal surrounding the Giffords’ financial affairs, especially given Lady G’s desire to move to Guernsey for tax purposes. As Kennedy’s omniscient narrator observes, the Giffords are ‘the kind of people who feed in the Black Market,’ and ‘who wear smuggled nylons…’. The Giffords’ four children – three of whom are adopted – are led by Hebe, a rather bossy, selfish child who proves to be a dangerous influence over other youngsters in the Pendizack’s orbit. More specifically, the three Cove girls, whose desperately mean mother confiscates their sweet rations and other ‘valuables’ to sell on to the highest bidder. Mrs Cove, a seemingly impoverished widow, ultimately reveals herself to be a nasty piece of work – so much so that one cannot help but hope she perishes in the hotel’s collapse. 

Also staying at the Pendizack are Paleys, a middle-aged married couple who tragically lost their daughter in heartbreaking circumstances. Consequently, an air of profound sadness surrounds this couple, particularly Mr Paley whose sense of pride clouds any decisions.

The Paleys always gave off this suggestion of a violence momentarily suspended. They would eat their breakfast every morning in a sombre, concentrated silence, as though bracing themselves for some enormous effort to be sustained during the day. (p. 24)

Further amusement is provided by Anna Lechene – a capricious writer – and her chauffer-secretary, Bruce, who also aspires to write. Last but not least, we have the formidable Canon Wraxton and his timid daughter, Evangeline. As Mrs Siddal reveals to her son, Gerry, the Wraxtons have already left another hotel in the area due to dissatisfaction on the part of the Canon.

‘They’re all right as regards money. They paid for a week in advance, though they only stayed two nights. But she says he has the most awful temper; he quarrelled with everybody and objected to cards and dancing in the lounges. And he was very rude to the staff.’

‘Oh Mother…don’t let’s have them.’ (p. 42)

Poor long-suffering Evangeline is reduced to grinding up glass in her room, storing it in pill box, possibly with the intention of slipping it into her father’s food. Only then can she hope to be free of his tyrannical influence.

What Kennedy does so well here is to weave an immersive story around the perils of the seven deadly sins, skilfully illustrated through the loathsome behaviours of her characters. In the week leading up to the feast, we see examples of pride, wrath, envy, greed, gluttony and sloth on display -possibly lust or wantonness too, although that’s perhaps a little more tenuous than the other sins. Interestingly, each individual seems to be nursing a disappointment or difficulty of some sort, which Kennedy reveals as the narrative unfolds.

In terms of action, there are plenty of developments to entertain the reader including various romances, the theft of a potentially valuable object, an outburst in church and a dramatic coastal rescue. The novel’s finale is a fancy-dress party of sorts, an evening picnic feast to give the impoverished Cove girls a holiday to remember.

In summary, The Feast is a wonderfully clever, engaging novel with some serious messages at its heart. At certain points, Kennedy encourages the reader to consider how strengths can sometimes become weaknesses when pursued to the extremes. Mr Paley is great example of this, a man whose self-respect has tipped into a crippling sense of pride. Similarly, for Evangeline, a heroic degree of patience with the domineering Canon Wraxton has inevitably given way to submission. There is much to contemplate here as the reader races towards the denouement where the survivors’ identities will be revealed.

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Cusk’s latest novel, recently longlisted for the Booker Prize, is narrated by M, a female writer – probably in her late thirties or early forties, certainly at a pivotal point in her life. M and her husband, Tony (the strong, silent type), live amid a remote, rural landscape within touching distance of the marshlands – somewhere in France, I think. The couple’s land also includes another property, the titular ‘second place’ representing one interpretation of the novel’s title (but perhaps not the only meaning of the term). Having demolished the original building and rebuilt it brick by brick, M and Tony now see the second place as a creative retreat, the kind of setting where writers and artists can hopefully find inspiration while choosing to remain distanced, should they so desire. 

Early in the novel, it becomes clear that M wishes to invite a male artist, L, to spend time in the second place. While M has not met this artist in person before, she feels deeply drawn to his work. Some fifteen years earlier, a chance encounter with L’s paintings at a Paris exhibition catalysed a moment of revelation for M, prompting her to leave her first husband and father of her daughter, Justine – now in her early twenties and living at home.

I felt myself falling out of the frame I had lived in for years, the frame of human implication in a particular set of circumstances. From that moment, I ceased to be immersed in the story of my own life and became distinct from it. (pp. 12-13, Faber)

M writes to L, inviting him to spend some time at the retreat – and in time, following a few false starts, L accepts, suddenly confirming his arrival like a bolt from the blue. M’s hope seems to be two-fold: firstly, that L will be able to capture the essence of the marshlands, a place of ‘desolation, and solace and mystery’ (other artists have tried in the past without complete success); secondly, that L will unlock something at the centre of M’s soul, a recognition perhaps of her individuality.

However, when M and Tony go to collect L at the harbour, a surprise awaits. L has brought a companion with him, a beautiful young English woman named Brett, who immediately unsettles M with her barbed, penetrating comments and invasion of personal space. To M, Brett also represents a rival for L’s attentions / affections, particularly with her liberated attitude and ‘ravishing’ looks.

While L presents as self-centred and cushioned from the realities of the world, he also evokes a sense of mystery and allure. For the narrator, the presence of L (and Brett as an uninvited interloper) destabilises her existence, causing M to question some fundamental self-perceptions, most notably her self-control and usual ability to reign everything in. Yet, while the emotions M experiences are deeply unnerving, there is a recognition of some potential positives, too – the opening up of new possibilities, a new form of liberty, perhaps.  

But I had already understood that this was to be the keynote of my dealings with him, this balking of my will and of my vision of events, the wresting from me of control in the most intimate transactions, not by any deliberate act of sabotage on his part but by virtue of the simple fact that he himself could not be controlled. Inviting him into my life had been all my affair! And I saw suddenly, that morning, that this loss of control held new possibilities for me, however angry and ugly and out of sorts it had made me feel so far, as though it were itself a kind of freedom. (p. 61)

As the scenario unfolds, a battle of wits plays out between these two individuals. M is confronted by the ‘compartmentalised nature’ of her personality, how she keeps things in separate chambers, ultimately deciding what to show to other people and what to conceal. L, it seems, has a knack for making others see themselves without being able to do very much about what is revealed. There is a sense that M’s self-perception of a life ‘built on love and freedom of choice’ is being challenged here, potentially revealing a weak kind of selfishness underneath. Throughout this dance, M vacillates between craving L’s affection and trying to protect herself against him, ultimately to the risk of her relationship with Tony.

There is much to admire in this elegantly constructed novel of discontentment, control and freedom – in particular, what ‘freedom’ represents for men vs women. (To M, L’s paintings convey an ‘aura of absolute freedom’, a freedom that is ‘elementally and unrepentantly male’.) Cusk’s prose is precise and beautifully judged, her observations on the psychological dynamics are sharp and insightful. And yet, reflecting on this novel as a whole, I’m not entirely sure what it’s trying to say. There are several very funny scenes here, not least given the tensions sparked by Brett and her presence in the mix. For instance, within minutes of meeting her hosts, Brett is touching M’s hair, declaring it to be ‘quite dry’ and suggesting ways to camouflage the grey discretely. Ouch!

Justine’s boyfriend, Kurt, is another source of amusement with his attempts to be a writer, complete with black velvet housecoat and red tam-o’-shanter hat. However, to view it as merely a social comedy or a standard novel of mid-life, middle-class discontentment might be too simple a reading. There seems to be something deeper going on here, more threatening in certain respects.

Perhaps Cusk is asking us as readers to consider our own lives, replete with their inherent facades and misconceptions? Prompting us to turn the mirror on ourselves, as M might be hinting here through her questions to Jeffers (the intended recipient of M’s narrative account).

Why do we live so painfully in our fictions? Why do we suffer so, from the things we ourselves have invented? Do you understand it, Jeffers? (p.7)

Interestingly, the novel is set against the backdrop of some kind of recent global crisis. The economy has collapsed, resulting in a devaluation of L’s art, together with the disappearance of Justine’s and Kurt’s former jobs. Travel has also been severely restricted, possibly suggesting a nod to the current pandemic, although the specific nature of the catastrophe is never fully revealed.

At the end of the book, Cusk explains that her novel ‘owes a debt to Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the time D. H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico’. In her version, Cusk has chosen to cast a painter (L) in the notional role of Lawrence, but the book is intended to be a tribute to Luhan’s spirit. As I understand it, Luhan and Lawrence had a fractured relationship, with Luhan oscillating between devotion and a form of retreat. The sense of emptiness she experienced in his absence was keenly felt. As a consequence of the visit, Lawrence threatened to ‘destroy’ Luhan – and this element of danger is mirrored in the Cusk.

Dorian has also written about the book here – a perspective that is well worth reading, particularly given his familiarity with D. H. Lawrence’s life and work.

Second Place is published by Faber; personal copy.