Tag Archives: Faber

The Colony by Audrey Magee

This is a superb novel, probably one of the most assured and layered narratives I’ve read in recent years. Recently longlisted for the Booker Prize, The Colony is a thought-provoking exploration of the damaging effects of colonisation – touching on issues including the acquisition of property (in its broadest sense), the demise of traditional languages and ways of living, cultural appropriation and exploitation and, perhaps most importantly, who holds the balance of power in the isolated society. I found it timely, thoughtful and utterly compelling, a certainty for my reading highlights at the end of the year.

The novel is set on a small, unnamed island to the west of Ireland in the summer of 1979, deep in the midst of the Troubles, a political and nationalistic conflict over the status of Northern Ireland, fuelled by historical events. The island community has declined over the years, leaving twelve families to maintain the old traditions, heavily reliant on fishing (plus rent from the occasional visitor) to make a basic living.

As the summer gets underway, the island must steel itself for the intrusion of two visitors, a volatile combination that seems set to unsettle the community, possibly irreversibly. First to arrive is Lloyd, a fussy, punctilious artist from London who fancies himself as a modern-day Gaugin, keen to capture the island’s cliffs – and possibly the island’s inhabitants – in all their natural beauty. Following a ridiculous journey by rowing-boat, Lloyd further annoys the islanders by complaining about his accommodation, insisting on a rearrangement of the furniture to make the most of the dwelling’s light. While solitude and silence are crucial to his work, Lloyd is repeatedly interrupted by James; at fifteen, he is the youngest member of the local family that provide the visitor’s meals.

The second visitor arrives just as Lloyd settles into a rhythm, capturing the island’s landscape in traditional charcoals and oils. The man in question is JP Masson, a French linguist nearing the end of a five-year longitudinal study on the evolution of the island’s language, a traditional Gaelic dialect in danger of dying out. Compared to the demanding Englishman, Masson is well-liked by the islanders, his arrival heralded with a full tea and spread.

Masson is keen to protect the island’s language, fearful of any erosion by the encroachment of English phrases and intonations with the potential to disturb. Consequently, he is resentful of Lloyd’s presence on the island – surely a contaminating influence on the Gaelic dialect he wishes to preserve. Likewise, Lloyd is equally annoyed by Masson, viewing him as a disturbing presence to the silence required for his art. These tensions are only exacerbated when Masson discovers that Lloyd’s cottage is directly adjacent to his own, subtly highlighting one of the central issues of colonisation as the men divide up their territory, flinging turf around as they go.

He [Masson] picked up the turf straddling the dividing line and threw it into his basket. Mine, Lloyd, for I was here first. The whole yard is mine. Always has been. And damn you, anyway. For being here. For intruding. […] An Englishman. In this, my final summer. He shouldn’t be here, not on this island, not in this yard, for this is my place, my retreat,… (p. 87)

Mealtimes with James’ family prove particularly stressful for everyone, with Masson insisting the islanders speak Gaelic – a language Lloyd does not understand – while Lloyd prefers English, replete with its own troublesome associations. Deep-seated divisions soon emerge, questioning the validity and ownership of a dying language in a modern, English-speaking world.

It’s theirs to kill, said Lloyd. Not yours.

Masson shook his head.

You can’t speak on this. You have spent centuries trying to annihilate this language, this culture.

[…]

This is about Ireland, said Masson. About the Irish language.

And do the Irish have a say, said Lloyd, in your great plan for saving the language?

The English don’t, said Masson. (pp. 94-95)

Central to Masson’s study is the multigenerational O’Neill/Gillan family. At fifteen, James is the youngest, the only bilingual member, fluent in Gaelic and English, having been schooled on the mainland. The boy’s elders are pressuring him to become a fisherman, following in the footsteps of his father, uncle and grandfather, who drowned in a fishing accident when he was a baby. James, however, has other aspirations; he is a talented artist with a natural eye for composition – more promising than Lloyd, who is struggling to capture the island’s birds and subtle natural light.

As James starts producing his own paintings of island life, Lloyd ‘borrows’ the boy’s ideas, indulging in a form of artistic appropriation to further his own career. With Lloyd dangling the promise of a joint exhibition of their work in London, James hopes to use his creative talents as a possible means of escape. Anything to get away from fishing, the burden of providing for his family, not to mention continuing the Gaelic language as per Masson’s insistent wishes.

…because if I smell of something other than fish, of paints and oils, they might all see that I should leave, that I am not a fisherman, not a proper island boy, but something that has to be elsewhere, somewhere other than here looking after my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and now they’re giving me the mother tongue to look after as well, to save that mother too, to save it all and the other mothers. I don’t want so many mothers. (p. 148)

Something Magee does so brilliantly here is to move the point-of-view around from one character to another – often within the same paragraph or sentence – showing us the richness of each person’s inner life despite the limited nature of their existence. James’ mother, Mairéad, for instance – a woman who mostly speaks in Gaelic but has a reasonable understanding of English, enough to know what is being discussed at the table. As Mairéad knits a jumper for James, she ponders her grandmother’s attitude to knitting, another illuminating passage on the enduring pain of colonisation.

They take our land, she says, starve us and then to alleviate the poverty, to assuage their guilt, they set us up with knitting. Make jumpers this way and sell them, they said. Earn your living that way, they said. Earn your rent that way, they said, though, we liked earning our living the other way, from the land that was our land, the sea that was our sea. But they told us to knit, so now we knit. Well, I’m not knitting, says Bean Uí Fhloinn. Not that knitting. Their knitting. Their Scottish, English, Irish knitting. I’ll do my own knitting. Knit as my mother did. As my grandmother knitted. (pp. 163–164)

While still pining for her drowned husband, Liam, Mairéad treads a dangerous path, sleeping with Masson in the dead of night, then walking to the cliffside hut at dawn, where she poses semi-nude for Lloyd in the style of a Rembrandt muse. There is no sexual attraction for Mairéad in these sessions with Lloyd; only a desire for her essence to be captured in oils, then taken away from this deadly island – the place that has claimed her holy trinity of men – to hang in a gallery for posterity as an image to endure. Also relevant here is Liam’s temperamental brother, Francis, who ‘waits in the long grass’ for his widowed sister-in-law, Mairéad, the woman he desperately wants to possess.

Bean Uí Néill – James’ grandmother and Mairéad’s mother – is another woman scarred by loss and erosion. Wary of the islander’s visitors, she is fearful that Lloyd will paint the islanders – which he does, having already promised to stick to the cliffs. The presence of one outsider (Masson) on the island feels manageable for this matriarch, but two at the same time spells trouble – a prediction that ultimately comes to pass.

While Bean Uí Néill turns a blind eye to Mairéad’s visits to Masson’s bed – written off as a tolerable summer fling – she knows nothing of her daughter’s sessions with Lloyd. Bean Uí Fhloinn, on the other hand, misses nothing. Fully immersed in the Gaelic language, James’ great-grandmother is Masson’s prime subject, the source for his dissertation and subsequent book, which are sure to be a great success. Yet, in his own way, Masson is just guilty as Lloyd of cultural exploitation, using the islanders’ language to further his progression while casually sleeping with Mairéad. Interestingly, Magee adds another layer to her portrayal of Masson, exposing his own colonial heritage. Born to a brutal French father and a misguided Algerian mother, Masson was forced to learn Arabic in secret as a child, a practice that deepened the divisions within an already fractured household.

For a novel concerned with the preservation of language, Magee’s prose is suitably stunning, demonstrating a poetry and fluidity as it flows from one character to another, blurring the margins between observation, dialogue and inner thoughts and feelings.

He looked at the sky and began to draw

gulls

swirling and twisting

hovering, banking

across

cloudless blue (p. 11)

There’s some gorgeous descriptive writing here too, deftly capturing the play of light on the beautiful coastal landscape, complete with its active birdlife.

He attached paper to the easel and lifted a pencil to sketch long lines up and down the page, a low hum slipping through his lips as his fingers and hand moved across the sheet, hunting to recreate that first encounter, his first sighting of that ferocious beauty, page after page of light and dark, of unshaded and shaded, working late into the night and again in the early morning, relishing the stillness of the village, of the island, his doors and windows open to flood the cottage with light, with the sounds of the sea and the songs of the birds. (pp. 51–52)

As the novel draws to a close, there is a notable escalation in tension, a factor present throughout in the island’s power dynamics. Alongside these palpable pressures, Magee punctuates the narrative with radio bulletins on the Troubles – short, factual reports of terrorist incidents on the mainland, offering no judgements or opinions, just the cold, hard facts of death and sectarian violence. With the summer turning to autumn, the visitors finally prepare to depart, having planted emotional hand-grenades of their own with the potential to explode…

In a wise move, Magee doesn’t overplay the novel’s denouement, eschewing high drama for a more understated ending – still devastating in its own way, but quietly so, pregnant with uncertainties as to what the future will hold. We fear for these islanders – their traditions, their livelihoods, and ultimately their safety – lives disrupted by the self-centred interlopers, men who have sown the seeds of discontentment and potential violence for many years to come. 

The Colony is published by Faber; personal copy.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – some personal reflections

Back in the 1970s, when I was a young girl, my mother and I would travel to Ireland every summer to visit my grandfather and his family. Sometimes we stayed at his house in Cork, but more often than not, we ended up with my mum’s older sister, B, in the city’s suburbs. Aunt B and her husband, K, had two daughters – both slightly older than me, but close enough in age for us to play together quite happily.

Their house was in an unusual location – built into the side of a steep hill, so precipitous and sheer that it was practically a cliff. There was no back garden – all you could see from the rear of the house was the cliff face, literally within touching distance of the building. The kitchen and back rooms were dark and oppressive, with virtually no natural light all day. My lovely grandfather disliked the house quite strongly and rarely set foot in it. Luckily, we rarely visited in winter; but even in summer, when the days were long and the sun was bright, it was a strange, shadowy place – a stark contrast to the warmth of the family within.

Heightening this ominous atmosphere was a Convent – a large gothic monstrosity, both physically and spiritually, aptly situated further up the hill. The Convent included an orphanage, an asylum, possibly even a prison – we never knew for sure. Naturally, when you’re young, all sorts of rumours swirl around, especially when a place seems so mysterious and foreboding. All I really understood at the time was that ‘bad people’ were sent there, girls who had committed sins or disgraced their families. On the odd occasion that my cousins were naughty, Aunt B – a formidable woman when crossed – would shout, “If you don’t behave yourselves, the nuns will come and get you” or words to that effect – the nuns being those from the Convent on the hill. Naturally, this threat was enough to nip any misbehaviour in the bud. The Convent was seen as a sinister place, and my cousins were afraid of it.

Years later, when I was well into my twenties, I heard that the Convent had closed down. By then, my cousins had moved away, having married and started families of their own. The old family home on the hill had been sold, and Aunt B was living with her eldest daughter in a different part of Cork. The Convent, it transpired, had been a Magdalene Laundry, one of several such institutions run and financed by the Catholic Church with the support of the Irish State. For some two hundred years, several thousand girls and women were incarcerated in these institutions, typically against their will, forced to work in brutal conditions for little or no pay. Many were unmarried mothers, disowned or rejected by their families, their babies subsequently adopted, sold or even killed – hidden away and suppressed by the powerful Catholic Church. Other women or girls were simply locked up for being ‘morally wayward’, a term that covered a multitude of so-called sins.

I mention this here because of its relevance to Small Things Like These, a profoundly affecting novella by the Irish writer Claire Keegan. 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 story is set in New Ross, a town in the southeast of Ireland, in the raw-cold days of the run-up to Christmas. The year is 1985, and times are hard for many of the town’s residents; the nearby shipyard has closed, local businesses are issuing redundancies, and many people are struggling to pay their bills.

Bill Furlong, a hardworking coal and timber merchant, tries to help his clients where he can, dropping off bags of logs to loyal customers, even when they can’t afford to pay., Furlong knows he is lucky, having worked his way up in the business over the years. He and his wife Eileen have five daughters – good, hardworking girls, all still in school, quietly going about their days. As a family, they take comfort from the small, significant things in life, the simple pleasures and personal achievements that constitute their world.

Nevertheless, despite his relatively secure position, Furlong feels a sense of restlessness, an uneasiness about his life and the things he sees around him. He worries about his work, finding it difficult to switch off and relax. The long days stretch out ahead of him, prompting various reflections on the relevance of his life. Apart from supporting Eileen and the girls, what is it all for? Where is the meaning and purpose, his reason for being alive?

What was it all for? Furlong wondered. The work and the constant worry. Getting up in the dark and going to the yard, making the deliveries, one after another, the whole day long, then coming home in the dark and trying to wash the black off himself and sitting into a dinner at the table and falling asleep before waking in the dark to meet a version of the same thing, yet again. Might things never change or develop into something else, or new? (p. 32)

From a moral standpoint, Furlong has been strongly shaped by his childhood, having grown up in Mrs Wilson’s house, a few miles outside New Ross. At sixteen, Furlong’s mother, Sarah, fell pregnant while working in service for Mrs Wilson, a wealthy Protestant widow. While Sarah’s family wanted nothing to do with her, Mrs Wilson adopted a more compassionate approach, allowing Sarah to keep her job and the baby – quite an unusual response at a time when many employers would have rejected an unmarried mother, distancing themselves from the inevitable scandal and shame. As a consequence, Furlong knows he owes everything to Mrs Wilson – a kind, open-minded woman who encouraged him with his reading, treating him modestly yet fairly, despite his illegitimacy. 

One day, in the run-up to Christmas 1985, Furlong reaches a turning point in his life. While delivering coal to the local Convent, he sees something genuinely alarming – clear signs of child abuse that prove hard for him to ignore. Naturally, the nuns are frightened that Furlong may prove troublesome to them, should he decide to take the matter further; so they try to pass the incident off as child’s play – an unfortunate misunderstanding when it’s clearly anything but.

The Mother Superior makes it known to Furlong that she has the ear of the adjacent school, the only decent one for girls in the local area. Two of Furlong’s daughters are currently studying at St Margaret’s, with the other three due to follow in time, should places be made available to them. Implicit in this discussion is the suggestion of blackmail, that Furlong should keep quiet if he cares about his girls’ education – a feeling only strengthened by the generous Christmas bonus (or hush money) that is slipped into his Christmas card.

When Furlong mentions his concerns about the Convent to Eileen, she urges him to ignore it. Their lives are stable and secure, so why get involved with something that doesn’t concern them, especially if it puts their children’s futures at risk? Mrs Kehoe, the landlady at the local pub, also warns of the Convent’s network of influence, reminding Furlong that the ‘nuns have a finger in every pie’, so to speak – their power extends far and wide, further than one might realise at first sight.

‘They belong to different orders,’ she [Mrs Kehoe] went on, ‘but believe you me, they’re all the one. You can’t side against one without damaging your chances with the other.’ (p. 95)

As Christmas approaches, Furlong must wrestle with his conscience, weighing the stability of his family against the urge to intervene…

Keegan has written a beautiful, deeply resonant novella here, one that highlights the complicity that existed within the Catholic Church and surrounding community for several decades. It takes great courage to speak out against such a powerful institution, to stand up and take action when it would be so much *easier* to a blind eye – a spirit that Furlong embodies in the face of hostility and uncertainty. There is a particular poignancy to the story too, set as it is in the week before Christmas, the season of peace on earth and goodwill to all – a time of kindness, generosity and compassion. 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.

As far as I’m aware, no members of my mother’s family were sent to the Magdalene Laundries or similar mother-and-baby homes, but sadly they knew of others who were affected more directly. Fittingly, Keegan has dedicated the book to the women and children who suffered in these places over the years, the last of which was closed in 1996. For the interested, you can find more about the Laundries here, following an official inquiry in 2013.

If you’re still with me, thank you for reading this piece – it’s clearly somewhat personal. I love this novella for some many things: its simplicity and beauty, the spirit it embodies, and the memories it evokes. Ultimately, though, it’s a story about how important it is for us to speak out and take action when faced with cruelty and complicity, a valuable reminder for us all.

Small Things Like These is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a copy.

Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

In August 2021, Faber and Faber introduced a new publishing list called Faber Editions, dedicated to showcasing radical literary voices from around the world. The first book in the series is Rachel Ingalls’ beguiling 1982 novella, Mrs Caliban (my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy). It’s an utterly captivating book – a subversive feminist fable that neatly combines the everyday and the extraordinary to thrilling effect. I loved it and would thoroughly recommend it to other readers looking for something imaginative and distinctive.     

Central to the novella is Mrs Dorothy Caliban, a middle-aged woman whose marriage is stagnating. Having lost her young son, Scotty, due to complications with routine surgery, Dorothy is still grieving – trying to cope with the impact of bereavement as best she can. Moreover, she has also recently experienced a miscarriage – another painful loss for her to come to terms with, largely on her own.

Now and again, Dorothy thinks she hears voices on the radio – people talking to her directly, offering personal messages of reassurance and support. They might be a sign of trauma, but this is never made entirely clear. Sadly, Dorothy’s husband, Fred, is of little or no help in this regard, the loss of Scotty and the unborn baby having pushed the couple apart.

That was the point where things began to change with Fred. The first blow had stunned them both, but the second had turned them away from each other. Each subtly blamed the other while feeling resentment, fury and guilt at the idea that a similar unjust censure was radiating from the opposite side. (p. 7)

To make matters worse, Dorothy suspects Fred of having an affair with another woman. There have been other dalliances in the past, so this wouldn’t be his first indiscretion, and his frequent absences from the house are a clear sign of trouble.  

One day, while going about her chores at home, Dorothy hears an unusual announcement on the radio. A giant lizard-like creature, capable of living underwater and on dry land, has escaped from the nearby Institute of Oceanographic Research. Having killed two of his keepers, ‘Aquarius the Monsterman’, is considered highly dangerous, and the public are warned that he should not be approached. At first, Dorothy thinks this might be one of her strange messages from the ether, but then she quickly realises that it’s a genuine alert.

Later that night, just as Dorothy is rushing around the house, preparing dinner for Fred and one of his work colleagues, who should manoeuvre his way into her kitchen but the ‘Monsterman’ himself…

She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure that she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face. (p. 20)

After some initial nervousness, Dorothy reaches out to the creature, treating him with care and tenderness. As a consequence, ‘Larry’ – as the amphibian is generally known – is gentle and inquisitive in return, quickly establishing a bond with his new friend and protector. It soon becomes clear to Dorothy that Larry has suffered greatly while being held at the Institute. He has been tortured and sexually abused – experimented on by the scientists who were fascinated by his uniqueness. So, in truth, his attacks on the keepers were a form of self-defence.

To protect Larry from the police, Dorothy hides him in the guest room, which Fred rarely enters. Over the course of the following few weeks, a touching, affectionate relationship develops between the pair as they learn about one another’s worlds. In essence, both Dorothy and Larry are seeking an escape, a release from trauma or torture – Dorothy from the loss of Scotty and the unborn baby, and Larry from being captured and abused. Moreover, both are constrained by the limits imposed on them by society. Consequently, they find solace in one another on an emotional level, a sense of connectedness that feels meaningful and real. There is also a strong sexual dimension to their union, an aspect which offers Dorothy a sense of liberation and fulfilment, freeing her from the isolation of her lonely, loveless marriage.

By day, Larry watches TV, listens to music and helps Dorothy with the housework, an activity he clearly enjoys. I especially like how Ingalls plays with our expectations of masculinity, presenting Larry as a sensitive ‘new man’ – someone who is attentive and helps around the house, unlike most men in the early ‘80s. At night the pair venture out, driving somewhere quiet where Larry can swim or walk among the flowers, carefully hidden from strangers to maintain his cover.

They dried themselves off, drove around for a while, and walked through some of their favourite gardens in bare feet. Dorothy was less nervous than the first time they had gone out, but still felt a sense of possible danger and an edginess, which she was beginning to enjoy. She skipped and danced after Larry, as with his long legs he went loping down the length of the flowerbeds. She giggled with nerves. (p. 63)

One of many things Ingalls does so well here is to inject the narrative with a degree of ambiguity. Larry might be a figment of Dorothy’s imagination, a kind of vision or fantasy on which to project her warmth and affection – and while this is never made explicitly clear, something is said in the final two or three pages that might give the reader a jolt. As Dorothy’s friend Estelle – a divorcee with two suitors on the go – reminds her, a woman’s grief can be misunderstood and mislabelled, possibly leading to wrongful incarceration.

Remember what happened to you. They almost had you in the loony bin. Once you’re helpless, one of those bastards steps forward with a hypodermic and the curtain comes down on your life. You stay there and they give you massive doses of sedatives every day because you’re easier to take care of that way. And then your brain is pretty much slugged into submission. No more chance to find your way out of your troubles, ever. (pp. 100–101)

As this intriguing novella reaches its denouement, the threat to Larry’s safety steps up a notch, forcing the pair to take additional risks in an attempt to evade the authorities.

I loved this tender, slyly subversive story, which Ingalls underscores with a wry seam of humour. A magical, otherworldly read with a sinister, unsettling edge. Very highly recommended indeed, especially for readers who enjoy a degree of ambiguity.

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

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

These are the backlisted books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

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

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

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

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

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

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

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

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

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

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

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

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

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

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

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

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

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

Passing by Nella Larsen

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

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

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

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead. Let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than the last two have been…

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!