Tag Archives: Fiction

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts  

Back in March, I wrote about Anthony Berkeley’s engaging Jumping Jenny (1933), a fine example of the ‘inverted mystery’ genre, where the identity of the murderer is known to the reader (but not the investigators of the crime) at an early stage. Originally published in 1938, Antidote to Venom is another mystery in this tradition — and if anything, I think it’s even better than the Berkeley, especially for those of us who enjoy crime fiction with a psychological edge. The novel starts by focusing on events from the perpetrator’s perspective, showing us how easy it is for a seemingly ordinary, law-abiding man to be drawn into criminal activities when circumstances force his hand…

The novel is set in and around Birmington Zoo in the Midlands, which I assume is a thinly disguised stand-in for the Birmingham enclosure. George Surridge, the Zoo’s director, has got himself into a bit of a fix. Trapped in a loveless marriage to the rather prickly Clarissa, George has been drawn into habitual gambling, an addiction that has left him struggling to pay off his debts. The one bright spot in his life is Nancy, a likeminded woman he meets one day at the Zoo. Additional furtive meetings subsequently ensue, and before long, George finds himself embroiled in a steady affair, desperately dreaming of a more relaxed life with Nancy in a chocolate-box cottage nearby.

As his troubles mount, George finds himself thinking of his Aunt Lucy, a frail, elderly woman with a sizable portfolio of investments. George knows that he is likely to inherit the bulk of Lucy’s estate on her death – she has made her intentions very clear in this respect. If only she would hurry up and die, George’s money worries would be over. He even finds himself toying with the idea of murder, however ghastly that might appear…

George was filled with horror when he realised just what he had been thinking. Why, that would be—he could scarcely bring himself to frame the word—that would be murder! Good God, how dreadful! Hastily he banished the thought.

But in spite of all his efforts, it came back. It grew, not less hateful, but more familiar. He toyed with the idea, wondering how such a thing might be done, then again assured himself with vehemence that nothing in heaven or earth would ever induce him to be guilty of such a hideous crime.

Still, the horrible suggestion lurked in the recesses of his mind… (p. 47)

Luckily for George, Aunt Lucy dies peacefully in her sleep without any sinister interventions, much to his relief. However, when George meets Lucy’s solicitor to discuss the details of his inheritance, he gets the shock of his life. It turns out that Capper, the rather shifty solicitor handling the estate, has embezzled the proceeds of Lucy’s investments, leaving George penniless with little hope of compensation, even if he goes to the police.

The only solution, as far as Capper sees it, is a cunning plan that requires George to assist in the murder of Capper’s uncle, a wealthy but poorly Professor who dabbles in research at the Zoo. (Naturally, Capper stands to benefit financially from his uncle’s death.) All George needs to do is provide Capper with some venom and a dead snake, and then the solicitor will do the rest. In fact, the less George knows about the murder the better – any pleas of ignorance of the deed itself will be all the more convincing if true. So, when Capper assures George that his plan is foolproof, the latter somewhat reluctantly agrees…

George felt terribly upset. Capper’s scheme seemed safe—for him. If the theft of the securities did not come out—and there was absolutely no reason why it should—no suspicion could possibly attach to him. And he would not commit the murder: in fact, he would know nothing about it. His part would be limited to quite a harmless action. True, he would be taking a snake which did not belong to him, but surely in all these years he had put in enough extra work at the Zoo to balance that? (p. 111)

In the following weeks, Capper enacts his plan with George playing his part as agreed — and not long afterwards, Professor Burnaby (Capper’s uncle) is found dead from a snake bite, just as Capper had planned.

Due to his fragile state of mind and ill health, the Professor’s death is judged to have been an accident, and the case is duly closed. However, when Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector French hears of the incident via a relative, his suspicions are aroused. It seems a particularly puzzling detail has been overlooked, suggesting foul play as opposed to an accident. So, when French offers his assistance to the Birmington police, the case is reopened, and a more thorough investigation ensues…

While the slow-burn nature of Antidote to Venom might frustrate some readers – it’s only in the final third of the novel that CI French gets involved – I thoroughly enjoyed the story’s pace and its focus on the build-up. What Crofts does very well here is to explore George as a character, giving readers a good insight into the pressures that force him to act. While Nancy is fairly lightly sketched – little more than a cipher in fact – the dilemma that George must deal with is very well portrayed.

The detecting, when it comes, is most enjoyable. French is a very likeable detective – smart, determined and inclusive, keen to work collaboratively with the Birmington Police to secure a successful outcome. The details of the ‘kill’ itself are devilishly clever – not something I would have worked out for myself without French’s hypothesis, but perfectly feasible nonetheless.

The novel ends on a redemptive note with George reflecting on the folly of his ways. While Crofts’ desire to introduce a moral dimension to the story is likely to divide readers, the brevity of this element stops it from being too heavy-handed.

So, in summary, this is a most enjoyable mystery/character study with much to recommend it – I’m really glad I picked this one up!

Antidote to Venom is published by the British Library; personal copy.

The Umbrella by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Like many readers, I was gripped by Tove Ditlevsen’s arresting Copenhagen Trilogy when Penguin reissued it in 2019. Beautifully written in a candid, piercingly stark style, this autofictional series touches on key experiences from the author’s life, encompassing depression, troubled relationships, pregnancies (both wanted and unwanted) and drug addiction. During her career, Ditlevsen found an outlet in creative expression, producing some thirty books, spanning poetry, autofiction, novels and short stories – two volumes of which have been brought together here in this beautiful Penguin edition, The Trouble with Happiness.

In this post, I’m covering the stories in the first part of the book – originally published in Danish as Paraplyen (‘The Umbrella’) in 1952. These ten stories – many of which are superb – explore the suffocating nature of family life predominantly from the female perspective, the overwhelming sense of loneliness and anxiety that many women (and children) feel due to various constraints. Here we have stories of petty jealousies, unfulfilled desires, deliberate cruelty and the sudden realisation of deceit, brilliantly conveyed by the author with insight and sensitivity.

While some of the women in Ditlevsen’s stories are actively seeking an escape from their abusive husbands or the mundanity of a domestic existence, others have cause to question their sense of happiness, suddenly realising that they have been living a lie. In My Wife Doesn’t Dance, one of my favourites in this collection, a woman has been lulled into a false sense of security by her husband’s apparent acceptance of a physical limitation – a childhood paralysis that left her with a limp. It is only when she overhears him talking to someone on the phone that she realises the true nature of his duplicity – it’s as if someone has opened a door, exposing her to ‘an invisible, […] icy cold wind’ of betrayal.

He has no idea, she told herself. He doesn’t have any idea what I’m going through. And suddenly she perceived him as a complete stranger, a person she just happened coincidentally to be in the room with, and she was able to feel disconnected from him, from her love for him, her solidarity with him, and she decided again from her profound loneliness to ask who had called… (p. 32)

There is deceit of another kind in His Mother, a particularly creepy story in which Asger, a young man in his late twenties, pays a visit to his elderly mother with his new girlfriend in tow. As the mother shows the girlfriend some old family photographs, a striking resemblance is revealed, calling into question the true nature of Asger’s relationship to his Aunt Agnes – a woman who experienced a complete mental breakdown and suffered terribly during her life.

The writing is terrific here, fill of vivid imagery that adds to the unsettling feel. Asger’s mother is a morose, sardonic woman, someone who actively sniffs out others’ misfortunes and nurses them as her own; and as Asger’s girlfriend acclimatises herself to this oppressive environment, something of the mother’s aura seems to penetrate her soul.

A reflection from the eyes across from her, so filled with misery, reached her own open and questioning gaze, and a speck of invisible dust settled on her features, as if for a moment she had merged with the silent horde of photographs which spent their shadowy lives here on the furniture and the windowsills, where no flowers seemed to thrive. (p. 39)

Ditlevsen writes brilliantly from a child’s point of view, showing us how children often understand more than we realise, especially where family relationships and tensions are involved. In A Nice Boy, a seven-year-old has to adjust to a change in family dynamics when his adoptive parents have a baby of their own. This is an excellent story – very sad but exquisitely observed, especially in its depiction of the boy’s evident anxieties.

In Evening, a young girl finds herself caught between her biological parents, both of whom have remarried following the breakdown of their relationship. In truth, the girl wishes they could get back together, a desire that becomes apparent as we access her inner world.

Children are a focus too in One Morning…, a very affecting story of the break-up of a household, a family split in two by the wife’s affair with her lover. Consequently, the couple’s children are separated from one another – the girl moving out with her father while the boy stays behind with his mother. How does a five-year-old see this? asks Ditlevsen at one point. How long before she feels betrayed? By focusing on the fractured lives of one family, Ditlevsen encourages us to see the wider societal implications of broken relationships, highlighting the universal in the personal as she mines her characters’ lives.  

And beyond him [the father]: millions of miserable children, tons of loyal housekeepers and an incurable army of lovers, abandoned husbands, disloyal husbands, betrayed and flighty women, all kinds of people, all kinds of lives, and all equally lonely. (p. 57)

It’s a point she also makes very capably in Life’s Persistence, a story of a young woman seeking an illegal abortion. There are resonances with Annie Ernaux’s Happening in this one, highlighting the societal shame of unwanted pregnancy (and the challenges of securing a termination), particularly when the woman must deal with the risks alone.

Behind each of these women was the shadow of a man: a tired husband who toiled for a throng of children, and whose income couldn’t bear the strain of another child; a disloyal chap with pomaded hair who was already a thing of the past, an ephemeral, hasty tryst that had little to do with love; a student who was loved but too young, who was now pacing outside on the sidewalk, teetering between hope and fear; a carefree superficial guy who had ‘found an address‘ and bought a way out of the predicament he had gotten himself into; or one who had moved away from the city and left his difficult burden here like a piece of forgotten furniture; at any rate a man, a trap, a careless costly experience, maybe the first one – (pp. 68–69)

What Ditlevsen does so well in this collection is to convey the anxieties, sadness and pain that many women and children experience at the hands of their families. Her characters have rich inner lives, irrespective of the restrictions placed on them by society and those closer to home. The writing is superb throughout, demonstrating the author’s skills with language and a flair for one-liners with a cutting, melancholy note.

Suddenly his mother was on her like a cold draft. (p. 37)

They share children between them as if they were furniture, she thought… (p. 53)

She had placed her life’s great despair outside the door, and only when she left home did the sorrowful black cape wind back around her. (p. 29)

This is a tremendous collection of stories to read and revisit, one of the very best I’ve read in recent years. (I’m also planning to cover Book 2, The Trouble with Happiness in the future, maybe in a week or two.)

The Umbrella forms the first part of The Trouble with Happiness, published by Penguin Classics in 2022; personal copy.

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 there are 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, which she skilfully incorporates into 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!

Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr

A very ingenious locked-room mystery with a tantalising premise, I enjoyed this one a lot, particularly the initial set-up.  

Till Death Do Us Part was initially published in 1944; but the story, which is set in the close-knit village of Six Ashes, actually takes place some years earlier during the run-up to the Second World War. Dick Markham, a moderately successful playwright specialising in psychological thrillers, has just got engaged to Lesley Grant, a relative newcomer to the area. While Lesley has only been living in Six Ashes for the last six months, she has made quite an impact since her arrival, attracting the interest of several local men.

The action really gets going at the village fete when Lesley appears to receive some bad news during her consultation with a fortune teller, the star attraction at the event. While Lesley makes light of the discussion, Dick is somewhat puzzled, having clearly seen her reaction to the mystic’s predictions from the shadows visible through the tent. Shortly after the encounter, Lesley shoots the fortune teller with a rifle from one of the stalls, claiming the incident to be an accident due to her lack of familiarity with guns. Nevertheless, when the victim reveals himself to be Sir Harvey Gilman, a famous Home Office Pathologist, suspicions are duly aroused…

While recovering from the shooting, Sir Harvey confides in Dick Markham, raising doubts about Lesley and her personal history. Lesley, it seems, has been associated with a series of poisonings in the past; and in each instance, the victim was either her husband or lover, discovered in a locked room with a syringe of prussic acid close to hand. All three deaths were judged to be suicide at the time, and no hard evidence has ever been found to suggest the contrary; nevertheless, Sir Harvey remains convinced of Lesley’s guilt, especially given the similarities in circumstances.

In short, Sir Harvey wants Dick to help him in his investigations by setting a trap for Lesley. If she really is the killer, chances are she will strike again with an attempt to poison Dick. Sir Harvey hopes to catch Lesley in the act by observing her movements, thereby gathering the evidence he needs to pursue a conviction.

‘She’s being a fool, of course. But she must play with this bright shiny wonderful toy called murder by poison. It’s got her. She’s obsessed. That’s why she took the risk of shooting at me, and trusting to innocent eyes and general gullibility to have it called an accident. All her preparations are made for somebody’s death. And she won’t be cheated of the thrill.’ (p. 59)

It’s a very compelling premise, but before the plans can be finalised and put in place, Sir Harvey himself is found dead in precisely the same circumstances as the other incidents under investigation. In short, the victim’s body is discovered in a locked room with a syringe of prussic acid nearby – a death by poisoning made to look like a suicide, just as before.

As Martin Edwards outlines in his excellent introduction to the book, the eminently likeable Dick Markham now faces a terrible dilemma. He is madly in love with Lesley but knows little of her background before the move to Six Ashes – a factor that gnaws away in his mind in light of Sir Harvey’s allegations. So, should he trust Lesley and her claims of innocence or is she in fact a serial poisoner, just as the Pathologist claimed? And if Lesley isn’t the murderer, who the devil is?

To assist in the investigations into Sir Harvey’s death, Dr Gideon Fell – an expert on locked room mysteries – is brought in; and, as is often the case in these things, various red herrings and other distractions must be worked through before the identity of the perpetrator is revealed. For instance, who fired a shot into Sir Harvey’s room on the night of his murder? Was someone else trying to shoot Sir Harvey, and how does this relate to the poisoning (the actual cause of his death)? Why is Lesley so secretive about the existence of a safe in her bedroom? What does this box contain? And why does Lesley hit Cynthia Drew with a hand mirror when she finds her in the bedroom? Or maybe Cynthia is lying when she tells Dick about this incident with Lesley? It’s all rather hard to tell!

The solution to the locked room mystery, when it comes, is a very ingenuous one – not something I would have worked out for myself without Gideon Fell’s explanation, but perfectly credible nonetheless. As for the perpetrator and their motive, I’ll leave that suitably ambiguous, just as Carr does himself for the majority of the book – he really does keep the reader guessing on this one.

My only slight niggle relates to Gideon Fell. While there’s no doubting Fell’s skill as detective, I didn’t particularly warm to him as a character due to his slightly haughty demeanour and self-assured air. Also, in terms of style, he’s not the most inclusive of detectives, sharing little of his actual thinking with others as the investigation unfolds – an approach that can leave the reader feeling somewhat detached from the detecting itself.

Nevertheless, the residents of Six Ashes are an interesting bunch and very nicely drawn. Carr does a great job of capturing Dick’s feelings towards Lesley, which are suitably conflicted. Dick desperately wants to believe in his fiancée’s innocence, and yet her alleged association with so many suspicious deaths proves hard for him to square. And to complicate matters further, there’s another potential love interest in the picture – Cynthia Drew, an amiable, level-headed woman who many in the village considered a good match for Dick before Lesley turned his head.

So, in summary, this is a clever locked-room mystery with a highly compelling set-up, albeit with one or two caveats about Fell’s personal style. My thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy of the book – very much appreciated as ever.

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.

The Birds of the Air by Alice Thomas Ellis

While Christmas is often trumpeted as the season to be jolly, it can be an incredibly stressful time for many, throwing us together with relatives we rarely see and may well dislike, encouraging us to stuff ourselves with food and drink, and generally disturbing our usual routines. It’s a set-up that Alice Thomas Ellis cleverly explores in her excellent novel, The Birds in the Air, set in the fictional suburb of Innstead, a British hinterland between town and country.

As the book opens, the widowed Mrs Marsh is preparing for the forthcoming arrival of her extended family, trying to get things ready for the busy festive season. Her eldest daughter, Mary, is mourning the loss of her son, Robin, whose death hangs over the novel, intermittently alluded to but never fully explained. Mrs Marsh, on the other hand, is a stoical woman, very much of the ‘life must go on’ way of thinking, an approach that clashes directly with Mary’s lack of interest in day-to-day life. In truth, Mary wants to be left alone to nurse her grief, avoiding interactions with others, especially over Christmas. 

She wished she could lie in the garden and come up later with the crocuses. What a rest that would be. She had lost interest in the world. A world in which Robin could die was a foolish, trivial place where nothing made sense and she had no desire to linger. (p. 102)

Meanwhile, Mrs Marsh’s other daughter, the dutiful Barbara, is embroiled in her own problems, prompted by the realisation that her husband – the loathsome Sebastian – is having an affair. As Barbara observes the various guests at their pre-Christmas drinks party, she spies Sebastian flirting with the wife of one of his colleagues, thereby confirming what her son, Sam, has already discovered.

Barbara was trying to be brave. She was cold, and her hands shook. Her face was dry and wore a cutout smile, as stiff and unnatural as a cardboard party mask, and she hardly knew what she was saying to the mobile faces around her as they opened and shut to speak or eat. She had told herself repeatedly that everyone else in this room had had extra-marital affairs and no one had died of it. No one minded any more – it was acceptable, it was smart, it was only human, it was ‘sophisticated’. At the old-fashioned word she felt tears in her eyes. She had never even learned to be sophisticated and now that everything had passed beyond the very concept she was lost – a stranger among her friends. (p. 34)

Sam is the eldest of Sebastian and Barbara’s two children – a rebellious teenager ardently railing against any form of conformity and control. Quite a contrast then to his younger sister, Kate, a highly precocious little girl with a tendency to boast, much to Sam’s annoyance.

Ellis is particularly adept at capturing the various tensions as the family gathers together in the confines of Mrs Marsh’s house, a claustrophobic environment that adds to the pressure within. More friends and neighbours subsequently arrive, most notably Sebastian’s publisher, Hunter, whom Barbara covertly desires. In the wake of her discovery about Sebastian, Barbara works herself up into a feverish state, entertaining the fantasy that Hunter is planning to seduce her – a misapprehension that can only end badly. Meanwhile, Mary continues to isolate herself from the rest of the party as far as possible, while Mrs Marsh is rushed of her feet, silently cursing the numerous fallings of her family.

Shot through with flashes of wry insight and barbed humour, The Birds of the Air highlights the casual savageries and absurdities that often occur in family life. Ellis is an astute observer of the suburban middle-classes, skewering her characters’ foibles with sharpness and precision.

Sebastian’s father, the judge, was a complacent man with a high colour, the set mouth of one who has never been contradicted and a voice which sounded as though he was perpetually swallowing a mouthful of expensive whisky together with a few fox hairs. (p. 54)

While none of these characters are particularly likeable, they do feel very recognisable – a testament to the author’s insight into human behaviour. Ellis also has a keen eye for detail with a mordantly witty edge – a note that adds a slightly menacing touch to this inconspicuous setting.

There had been a moon last night – a bridal moon, veiled and ominous behind the running clouds – but now there were only snow flakes, hurrying down and gathering as mobs gathered to overthrow tyrants. (p. 104)

This is a novella steeped in loss, jealousy and betrayal, but Ellis’s humour prevents it from being maudlin, balancing the darkness with some lovely flashes of absurdity.

My first experience of this author’s fiction, but hopefully not my last. Fans of Elizabeth Berridge, Beryl Bainbridge and Barbara Pym would likely enjoy this very much!

My edition of The Birds of the Air was published by Penguin; personal copy.

In Which Barbara Pym Gets a Glamorous Makeover, Courtesy of Virago Press!

Something a little different from me today, a little celebration of one of my favourite women writers, the inimitable Barbara Pym. I have written before about my love of Pym’s novels with their unassuming women, hapless clergymen and fusty academics, moving in a world that feels both strangely absurd and highly relatable.

In the context of most Barbara Pym novels, the most pressing concerns are what to serve the new vicar when he comes over for tea and how to dress for the forthcoming church fete. (If only real life were like that, everything would be so much simpler!) On the surface, they may appear to be light social comedies, amusing sketches of village life; but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a satisfying amount of depth. Pym wrote insightfully about unrequited love, often based on her own experiences of relationships and middle-class life. Through her engaging fiction, she championed women who were taken for granted by men, those ‘excellent’, capable gentlewomen, always ready to rally the troops with endless cups of tea and consoling words of sympathy.

While many mid-20th century writers have fallen in and out of fashion over the past seventy years, Pym has always enjoyed the ardent support of various literary luminaries, including Philip Larkin, Lord David Cecil, Jilly Cooper, Anne Tyler and Alexander McCall Smith – even during the wilderness years. Moreover, while the social context of the world has changed hugely in that time, Pym’s astute observations on human emotions and behaviours have continued to endure.

Now, as we approach what would have been her 109th birthday (she was born on 2nd June 1913), Pym is set to experience another renaissance, courtesy of a series of nine fabulous reissues in the Virago Modern Classics imprint. They really are beautifully designed, marrying the enduring ‘vintage’ feel of Pym’s fiction with a wonderfully stylish new look.

The Virago team very kindly offered me a couple of review copies, A Glass of Blessings and An Academic Question, both of which I’ve yet to read. But in the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to put together a brief round-up of Pym’s other Virago novels with links to my previous reviews, just to give you a few ideas. Whether you’re a Pym newbie or a more seasoned reader of her work, there’s almost certainly something in the range for you!

Crampton Hodnet

Published posthumously in 1985, Pym actually wrote this delightful comedy of manners in the late 1930s, just after the outbreak of the Second World War. Set in the respectable circles of North Oxford, Crampton Hodnet introduces us to a world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date, a novel that deserves to be much better known.

Some Tame Gazelle

This is vintage Pym, a great introduction to her recurring preoccupations and themes. The central characters – Belinda and Harriet Bede – are loosely based on Barbara and her elder sister, Hilary. In essence, Pym imagines their lives in thirty years’ time, both sisters unmarried and living together in a house in a quiet village in the countryside. In this early novel, she demonstrates such a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy, adding genuine texture and depth.

Excellent Women

One of Pym’s most popular, best-known novels and rightly so. I revisited this at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and it turned out to be the perfect lockdown read – charming, comforting and thoughtful, with enough insight into its protagonist’s world to elevate it into the literary sphere. The novel is narrated by the quintessential Pym heroine, Mildred Lathbury, a sensible, diplomatic and accommodating spinster in her early thirties. Marriage is a central theme in this book, set as it is in a period when society placed a great deal of value on the institution of marriage. The novel explores whether a woman like Mildred can live ‘a full life’ if she remains unmarried, a central concept that makes it a very satisfying read.

Jane and Prudence

Another sparkling addition to Pym’s oeuvre, Jane and Prudence is a charming story of unrequited love, the blossoming of unlikely relationships, and the day-to-day dramas of village life. Once again, Pym shows her keen eye for a humorous scenario and an interesting personality or two. Her trademark descriptions of food and clothing – hats in particular – are also in evidence. As the story plays out, there are some unexpected developments, one or two of which show us that we can find solace and a form of love in the most unlikely of potential partners. Possibly my favourite Pym to date.

Less Than Angels

Pym drew on her own experiences of life at the International African Institute in London for this thoughtful novel set within the world of a group of anthropologists. On the surface, Less Than Angels seems a more serious, more reflective novel than some of Pym’s other early works, certainly judging by those I’ve read to date. There is a poignant note to the central character’s story, which only reveals itself as the book draws to a close. Nevertheless, Pym’s trademark dry humour is never too far away. Probably best suited to seasoned Pym readers rather than newbies, I think.

No Fond Return of Love

This very enjoyable novel features two rather mismatched young women, Dulcie and Viola, who meet at a conference for proofreaders and indexers. While that might sound a little dry as a set-up, in Pym’s capable hands it is anything but! There are some wonderful set-pieces here, all played out in the familiar Pym world of afternoon tea, jumble sales, church gatherings and various learned organisations. As one might expect, each scene is very keenly observed. There’s also some gloriously furtive stalking on the part of Dulcie as she spies on the object of her affection, the editor Dr Aylwin Forbes. Definitely a novel I’d like to re-read.

Civil to Strangers

Published posthumously in 1987, Civil to Strangers comprises the titular novel, three unfinished novels/novellas and four short stories. While the novels and novellas are minor Pyms in the grand scheme of things, there is much for the completist to enjoy in this lovely collection of work. The short story Goodbye Balkan Capital is particularly strong. It’s quintessential Pym, a beautifully observed tale of two spinster sisters sharing a house together, protagonists reminiscent of the Bede sisters from Some Tame Gazelle.

So, there we have it. A whistle-stop tour of my thoughts on these Pym reissues from Virago. I’m sure they’ll be a runaway success, especially given the stunning new designs!

Let me know what you think of these novels in the comments below, especially if you’ve read any of them – and your thoughts on the updated editions, of course. Or maybe you have plans to (re-)read some of them soon? If so, feel free to mention them below.

The new editions will be published in the UK on 2nd June (Pym’s birthday!), and you can pre-order them here from my Bookshop.Org affiliate site. My sincere thanks to Virago Press for kindly providing copies.

The Road to the City by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Frances Frenaye)

The more I read the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, the more I like her – especially her short novellas such as Valentino and Sagittarius, recently reissued by NYRB Classics.

The Road to the City was Ginzburg’s debut, originally published under the pseudonym ‘Alessandra Tornimparte’ in the early 1940s. Ostensibly a story of a young woman’s desire to escape her village for a life in the city, the novella has much to say about various socioeconomic factors – how our destinies can be shaped by gender, social class, opportunities and education. It’s a simple, relatable story, told in Ginzburg’s characteristically unvarnished style.

The novella is narrated by seventeen-year-old Delia, who lives with her parents and three younger siblings in an unnamed Italian village an hour’s walk from the nearest city. There are multiple problems in the household – money is tight, affection is lacking, and life in general is mundane, a situation compounded by Delia’s father who is frequently tired and short-tempered. Consequently, Delia longs to escape her dreary surroundings by moving to the city, just as her elder sister, Azalea, decided to do at the roughly same age.  

They say that big families are happy, but I could never see anything particularly happy about ours. Azalea had married and gone away when she was seventeen, and my one ambition was to do likewise. (p. 3)

(Possibly a nod to the opening passage of Anna Karenina there, with its reference to happy – or should that be unhappy? – families.)

As a respite from this unhappy home life, Delia spends her days hanging out in the city, visiting Azalea and roaming the streets until it’s time to go home. Accompanying her on these trips are her younger brother, Giovanni, and their cousin, Nini – a sweet-natured boy who lives with Delia’s family, his own parents having died some years earlier.

Despite acting as a kind of role model for Delia, Azalea it seems is far from happy in her marriage. She has a lover (as does her older husband), and with a maid to take care of the children, there is little left to occupy her days. Nevertheless, Delia dreams of a similar life of leisure and luxury – glamorous clothes and a comfortable home befitting a city lifestyle.

While Nini seeks to better himself through reading and an apprenticeship at a local factory, Delia shuns the prospect of work, looking to marriage as her preferred route out of poverty. With this in mind, she courts Giulio, a stout, unattractive medical student from a higher social class who could be her ticket to a better life. But when Delia falls pregnant, tensions between the two families abound, especially when Giulio’s father tries to pay off Delia’s parents – an offer the latter firmly turn down.

A wedding is hastily agreed for a future date, allowing Giulio to complete his current round of studies. Meanwhile, Delia is packed off to a no-nonsense aunt who lives up in the mountains, hopefully avoiding the sort of scandal that a teenage pregnancy tends to attract.

As the novella unfolds, we follow Delia throughout her pregnancy, complete with the various romantic entanglements that ensue. In truth, Delia cares little for Giulio as a person; it is his social class and status she finds appealing, primarily as a gateway to a more exciting life in the city. Nevertheless, while marriage to Giulio represents a convenient escape route for Delia, there are potential downsides too. The last thing she wants to happen is to end up like Giulio’s mother, tied to the home all day while her looks fade and wither.

…and as I undressed for bed I thought of how Giulio was always kissing me there in the woods, but he hadn’t yet asked me to marry him. I was in a hurry to get married, but I wanted to enjoy myself afterward too. And perhaps with Giulio I shouldn’t be so free. He might treat me the way his father treated his mother, shutting her up on the pretext that a woman’s place was in the home, until she had turned into an old hag who sat all day long by the window, waiting for someone to go by. (p. 16)

Nini, on the other hand, is a more natural fit as a partner, declaring his love for Delia despite her selfish character. With time on her hands to reflect and ponder the future, Delia misses the carefree days she used to idle away in the city, a realisation that taps into some recurring themes in Ginzburg’s work – specifically, our inability to recapture the past and failure to appreciate the true value of things until they’ve gone.

The Road to the City is a rather tragic tale, lucidly conveyed in Ginzburg’s pithy, candid style. There is something raw and unadorned about the writing, an approach that fits well with the brutal reality of life for young women in Delia’s position – poor, uneducated women with little choice but to marry and raise children in a patriarchal society that favours men. While Delia is very prickly as a character – lazy, selfish, unreliable and insolent are descriptions that immediately spring to mind – it is hard not to feel some sympathy for her as she waits out her pregnancy in the hills. Ultimately though, the novella offers a stark commentary on society, highlighting the constraints placed on women and the consequences these can lead to for all those involved.

The Road to the City is published by Daunt Books; personal copy.

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2021, Unsettled Ground tells the heartrending story of two adult twins, fifty-one-year-old Jeanie and Julius Seeder, sheltered from the modern world by their mother, Dot, in their run-down cottage in Wiltshire.

The twins have lived at home with Dot their whole lives. Julius picks up casual jobs where he can while Jeanie supports her mother, helping to tend the vegetables the family sell to a local deli and B&B. Their world is small and fragile, their existence hand-to-mouth – living rent-free in a dilapidated cottage, an undocumented arrangement dating back to the death of the twins’ father, Frank, some thirty-seven years earlier. In the absence of any technology or external influences, the family gain comfort from simple homely rituals, mostly playing folk songs together, passed down through the generations.

When Dot dies of a stroke at the beginning of the novel, the twins’ lives are thrown into turmoil as everything the Seeders previously understood about their family history begins to unravel. Caroline Rawson – married to the farmer on whose land the Seeders’ cottage is situated – claims that Dot owed her husband £2,000 in rent, a debt that the twins struggle to understand given the nature of Dot’s agreement with Rawson. The circumstances surrounding Frank Seeder’s death are alluded to, suggesting an element of guilt on Rawson’s part, hence the longstanding rent-free arrangement. But if that was indeed the case, why is Caroline Rawson suddenly demanding payments?

They rarely discussed money in the past and it comes awkwardly now, and they never talked in any depth about the agreement, they know it simply as an arrangement that was negotiated between Dot and Rawson a year after their father’s death – an event that was only ever alluded to, all of them orbiting an incident so horrific they were unable to shift themselves closer. (p. 92)

Other debts and family secrets gradually come to light, compounding the twins’ ability to hold onto the cottage in the face of the Rawsons’ hostility. With barely enough money to buy food, let alone to make a dent in Dot’s outstanding debts, Jeanie and Julius must face the possibility of eviction – all at a time when they are still grieving for their mother. In short, they can’t even afford a basic funeral for Dot – something they eventually deal with in the only way possible while batting away awkward questions about the secluded service and wake.

The novel is told mostly from the point of view of Jeanie, a proud, vulnerable, stubborn woman who gradually reveals her resilience over the course of the book. With great sensitivity and compassion, Fuller shows us just how challenging it is for someone like Jeanie to navigate the modern world with its reliance on formal processes and online technology. Largely due to a severe bout of rheumatic fever during her childhood, Jeanie cannot read and write – limitations she tries to keep hidden from the few people she comes into contact with.

Occasionally Jeanie sees these problems as her own failings and is ashamed, but most of the time she is cross that the world is designed for people who can read and write with ease. (p. 58)

It is an illness Jeanie remains wary of to the current day, largely due to Dot’s warnings about the frailty of her daughter’s heart, thereby imposing restrictions on Jeanie’s physical capabilities.

The lack of a bank account is another obstacle for the Seeders, something Jeanie discovers when she lands a job tending a local resident’s garden two afternoons a week. When her first payment is handed over as a cheque, Jeanine is too embarrassed to ask for cash, thereby rendering her work useless, at least as a means of gaining money. Nevertheless, it’s a step in the right direction for Jeanie, a sign of growing independence, which Fuller teases out beautifully during the book.

She is excited, amazed at what she has managed to do so easily, and although she knows that what she will be earning won’t touch their debts, the idea of doing work other than looking after her own house and garden makes her feel like something inside her – as tiny as an onion seed – is splitting open, ready to send out its shoot. (p. 107)

While the novel is relatively bleak in tone, it is not without occasional moments of brightness. As Dot’s death forces the twins to interact with the outside world in various unfamiliar ways, there is support from Dot’s friend, Bridget, and her husband, Stu. Bridget in particular tries to help Jeanie as best she can while keeping her counsel on Dot’s history and the version of events passed down to the twins. There is genuine heartbreak in this novel, particularly when unscrupulous bullies seize on the twins’ vulnerabilities and misfortunes, just at their lowest point. Ultimately though, it is a story of resilience, how sometimes we have to come to terms with darkness in our family history to forgive and move forward.

In Jeanie and Julius, Fuller has created two highly distinctive, richly-layered characters that feel fully painted on the page. The Seeders are marginalised – underdogs the reader will likely invest in, sensitively conveyed with compassion despite their undoubted failings. (There are times in this novel when you’ll probably want to give each twin a good shake or talking to, purely for their own good, but you know they’ll need to learn things the hard way to really pull through.) The supporting players are excellent too, especially Bridget and her wayward son, Nathan, who gets drawn into the eviction proceedings, much to his parents’ disgust. 

Fuller writes beautifully about the twins’ environment, capturing a feel for the landscape and the rhythms of rural life.

The morning sky lightens, and snow falls on the cottage. It falls on the thatch, concealing the moss and the mouse damage, smoothing out the undulations, filling in the hollows and slips, melting where it touches the bricks of the chimney. It settles on the plants and bare soil in the front garden and forms a perfect mound on top of the rotten gatepost, as though shaped from the inside of a teacup. It hides the roof of the chicken coop, and those of the privy and the old dairy, leaving a dusting across the workbench and floor where the window was broken long ago. (p. 1)

Her eye for detail is equally impressive, highlighting the idiosyncratic nature of the world the twins inhabit – the image of a piano lying on its side in the middle of a spinney will likely linger and endure.

This is a poignant, highly distinctive story of two outsiders living on the fringes of society. A tender, achingly sad novel with glimmers of hope for a brighter future, especially towards the end.

Unsettled Ground is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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