Tag Archives: Fiction

The Young Accomplice by Benjamin Wood   

It was the 1950s setting that first attracted me to Benjamin Wood’s, The Young Accomplice, an immersive, slow-burning tale of opportunity, idealism and the possibility of breaking free from the past. I’m often a little sceptical when contemporary authors try to recreate this era in their work, especially the dialogue and period detail. Luckily, there are no such problems here. The early 1950s brilliantly are evoked – from the stripped-back, smoke-laded pubs to the grubby underworld of petty crime, everything feels authentic and true. The Young Accomplice was my first book by Benjamin Wood, but it impressed me so much that I’ll definitely be checking out his backlist.

The novel is mostly set at Leventree, a Surrey-based farm where the idealistic architects Arthur and Florence Mayhood hope to develop a new practice along the lines of Frank Lloyd Wright’s collaborative programme at Taliesin. Their aim is to train a series of apprentices – disadvantaged youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds – to participate in their altruistic project. Arthur feels a particular kinship with these ideals, having spent time in a borstal as a teenager for unknowingly handling stolen goods; and with no children of their own, the Mayhoods are keen offer wayward youngsters a fresh start.

Enter Joyce and Charlie Savigear – siblings in their late teens – who win the Mayhoods’ drawing competition for borstal kids with an eye for design. 

The Savigears were not the scrawny pair she [Florence] was expecting. Standing half a yard from one another in the fug of their own cigarettes, they had the restful attitude of two navvies on a lunch break. (p. 24)

While Joyce (the elder of the two) is rather sly and outspoken, Charlie is much quieter – a diligent young man who seems eager to learn. He responds well to the expectations set by the Mayhoods, contributing to the farm labour alongside his architectural training. In truth, there is something of the young Arthur in Charlie Savigear, a gentleness combined with curiosity and determination, qualities that Florence detects and hopes to nurture.

But as he [Charlie] stood there by his doorway, thick-browed, restful, waiting for an answer to his invitation, he looked so much like Arthur in his youth that she could feel the strangest dislocation from herself. He had the same involuntary pout, the same relentless motion to his eyes, as though observant of particulars that only he could see. And his carriage: borstal-trained into uprightness, yet so languid and serene. (p. 76)

Right from the start, the novel is imbued with a noticeable sense of unease, a feeling accentuated by the fact that Joyce and Charlie appear to have won their places at Leventree independently and on their own merits, despite hailing from different borstals. While the Mayhoods are too trusting for their own good, Hollis, the seasoned farmhand, soon gets the measure of the two youngsters, Joyce in particular. Hollis swiftly tapes her as crafty operator – smart enough to put on an act in front of her benefactors but quick to slacken off when left unsupervised.

The honest-grafter act was for the Mayhoods’ benefit. But when they weren’t around to watch her, it was whingeing and sarcasm all the way. He knew that it was going to be like this, week after week, one petty incident after the next. It would be her word they favoured over his, whenever there were sulks or quarrels. In their minds, she was still young, a work in progress, someone worth their kindness and investment. (pp. 94–95)

Nevertheless, as the narrative unfolds, a different side to Joyce begins to emerge. Woven through the text are flashbacks to past events as the Savigears’ paths to borstal are carefully revealed. Here we see a sixteen-year-old Joyce being groomed by Mal Duggan, a vicious petty criminal with a line in stolen cars. When Mal offers Joyce an escape from a life of drudgery, serving fussy customers at a dreary Maidstone store, she is quick to jump, lured by the prospect of excitement and a flat to call her own.

They’d met when she was sixteen, on a dreary afternoon in Maidstone, middle of the week. She’d been on lunch break, smoking round the back of E. H. Lacey’s store, and he’d been sitting in a Daimler parked up in the alley, blocking the goods entrance with his bonnet. Her first thought had been: Fancy motor. Must be rich, this fella. She hadn’t given much consideration to the way he looked, all slouched, and rumple-shirted, messing with the dial on the radio. (p. 137)

Naturally, Mal expects payback in return for the girl’s upkeep, forcing Joyce to act as a go-between with his usual fences. It’s a deeply troubling situation, a sexually abusive relationship where Mal holds all the cards.

He’d had her spinning like a pony on a carousel from the beginning, and she hadn’t even heard the music playing. (p. 146)

Charlie, for his sins, also gets embroiled in Mal’s stolen car racket through no fault of his own – a development that ultimately lands both Savigears in borstal.

Back at Leventree, the Savigears’ past begins to catch up with them with the sinister reappearance of Mal, adding to the novel’s underlying air of menace. As Joyce tries desperately to keep Mal’s return a secret – not even Charlie knows that he’s back on the scene – we begin to understand that her bravado is a front. A sort of defence mechanism against the fear of repeating past mistakes. In truth, Joyce is terrified of being sucked back into Mal’s criminal activities, complete with all the attendant risks this presents – not only to herself but to Charlie as well.

As the novel reaches its eventful denouement, we wonder if the Mayhoods’ belief in the Savigears will be rewarded. Charlie clearly has the potential to go far with the right training, but will Joyce’s actions scupper his chances once again? Only time will tell…

Wood has created an excellent novel here, one that hums with a slow-burning tension as the story plays out. The four central characters are brilliantly drawn with a genuine sense of richness, and the architectural practices are also convincingly portrayed. Wood has clearly done his research, covering everything from the preferred cigarettes and toiletries brands of the 1950s to the traditional framing practices of the day. It’s a graceful, slow-burning novel that gradually reveals its hand, rewarding patient readers for their time and investment. Very highly recommended indeed.

The Young Accomplice is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.

The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li

The Chinese-born writer Yiyun Li has been on my radar for a while, ever since her 2019 novel Where Reasons End popped up in my Twitter timeline with recommendations from readers I trust. Published last year with equally positive reviews, The Book of Goose is my first experience of Li’s work, but hopefully not my last. It’s a strange, compelling, captivating novel, full of different layers and ideas. On one level, we have a story about childhood friendship, devotion, manipulation and the power dynamics of relationships; but on another, the novel digs deep into the power of storytelling and the games children play to escape boredom – how fantasies can become truths if we pursue them too avidly, blurring the lines between the real and the imaginary. There’s so much to absorb with this one, and I’ll probably be thinking about it for a long time to come…

The book opens in 1966 with the passing mention of a death in a letter. Twenty-seven-year-old Agnès – now married and living in America with her husband, Earl – receives news that her childhood friend, Fabienne, has died in childbirth. The letter set off a series of memories for Agnès, reminiscences of her close, intense friendship with Fabienne, the two girls having grown up together in the farming village of Saint Rémy in France.

Rewinding to France in the early 1950s, we find Agnès and Fabienne at thirteen, growing up in a poverty-stricken post-war environment with little external excitement to stimulate their curiosity. As is often the case in such friendships, the two girls are the polar opposites of one another. While Fabienne is the natural leader – bold, creative, insolent and unpolished – Agnès is the more passive of the two – a follower by nature, keen to please Fabienne with her loyalty and compliance.

But were we not, in a sense, two blind girls? One would walk everywhere as though not a single mine were buried in the field. The other would not find the courage to take a step because the whole world was a minefield. Had they not been placed side by side by fate, they would have lived out their different lots. But that was not the case for us. Fabienne and I were in this world together, and we had only each other’s hands to hold on to. She had her will. I, my willingness to be led by her will. (p. 122)

One of the things Li does so well here is to capture the close, obsessive nature of the girls’ friendship, particularly how Agnès longs to be with Fabienne every spare minute of the day. We see the girls playing games together, often hanging out in the village cemetery, with Agnès posing questions to Fabienne about life’s great mysteries and the possibility of death.

Fabienne frequently invents games for the two friends to play, largely to alleviate the boredom of their lives. One day, she comes up with a plan to write a sensational book as a sort of collaboration between the two girls. With her highly imaginative mind, Fabienne will create a series of macabre, sinister stories, while Agnès will draw on her well-developed penmanship skills to write them down and pose as the book’s author. When it comes to securing a publisher, Fabienne is smart enough to realise that Agnès is best placed to ‘front’ the book, largely due to the latter’s patient, biddable nature and higher standard of education.

Following some input from the local postmaster – a poetry-loving widower Fabienne manipulates as part of her plan – the stories are published to great critical success. Agnès is hailed as a child prodigy, ‘a savage young chronicler of postwar life with a mind drawn to morbidity’. As such, she finds herself on the end of considerable interest from the press, keen to gain an insight into her life and creative talents.

But I [Agnès] was lucky to have come up with how best to present myself as a child author: I was imagining a person who was half Fabienne and half Agnès, and I had no trouble stepping into the shoes of that person. A mysterious girl who had made up for her lack of education with good intuition—that was what the press needed to see. (p. 86)

After serving a useful purpose, the postmaster is swiftly dispatched by Fabienne in another of her manipulative plans – a move that illustrates how calculating she can be when faced with a potential threat.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, literary success opens up some exciting new opportunities for Agnès, who soon finds herself at Woodsway, a prestigious finishing school in England run by the formidable Mrs Townsend. This changes the dynamics between the two childhood friends as Agnès mixes with the other schoolgirls – all from wealthy families of a higher social class – while Fabienne stays in Saint Rémy. In essence, Fabienne seems quite content for Agnès to be out there in the world, experiencing things that will be useful for their forthcoming books.

Despite missing her soulmate terribly, Agnès becomes more assertive and rebellious at Woodsway, while Fabienne continues to orchestrate the dynamics of the girls’ relationship through her letters from home. With Agnès becoming increasingly restless and unhappy with the strict regime at the school, the stage is set for a denouement of sorts, but I’ll leave it there in terms of the plot for fear of revealing any spoilers.

In some respects, The Book of Goose reads like a fairy story or fable with a fatalistic undercurrent throughout – a kind of darkness or unease that permeates the book. Li makes great use of various metaphors and symbols in the narrative – for instance, apples, oranges and knives, with Agnès acting as ‘a whetstone to Fabienne’s blade’. The childhood game of paper-scissors-stone is another highly relevant metaphor, capturing something of the dynamics of the story and its leading players – the smart but manipulative Fabienne and the naïve yet hopeful Agnès.

Often I imagine that living is a game of rock-paper-scissors: fate beats hope, hope beats ignorance, and ignorance beats fate. Or, in a version that has preoccupied me: the fatalistic attracts the hopeful, the hopeful attracts the ignorant, and the ignorant, the fatalistic. (p. 106)

Some of the most beguiling aspects of Goose stem from the philosophical reflections and questions Li weaves into her book. While some of these represent the adult Agnès’ reminiscences of her childhood with Fabienne, others take the form of questions the two girls discuss as adolescents while hanging out in the cemetery. The existential nature of these questions fits so naturally within the text, capturing the kinds of discussions about life, growing up, ghosts and death one could easily imagine happening between girls of this age.

Another element that Li handles particularly well is how fantasies and stories can become forms of ‘truth’ to those involved if pursued very rigorously, blurring the margins between the imaginary and reality. While Fabienne invents fantasies and games as a way of dealing with boredom and an indifferent world, Agnès is thrilled to play along in the hope these fantasies can continue indefinitely.

Fabienne and I had raised ourselves to be the best make-believers. The world was often inconvenient or indifferent to us, and it was our ingenuity that made what was inconvenient and indifferent interesting: the stinging nettles left bloody marks on our legs as we ran, but we pretended that those were the nail scratches of the girls greedy for our attention; […] A hard life, unlike what we were taught at school, did not make us virtuous; the hardest life was the most boring, the most unrewarding. How else could we overcome this boredom but to bring ourselves up in our own make-believe, which, as we grew older, had become more elaborate, more exhilarating, and, most of all, closer to the truth? (p. 307)

Nevertheless, only Fabienne is mature enough to realise these games must come to a natural end. While Agnès wants a form of their childhood to go on forever, Fabienne knows it cannot last. The intensity of their friendship has been sustained by the fantasies of adolescence, but the adult world is beckoning, and their current relationship might struggle to survive. Soon there will be considerable pressure for the girls to get married and have children; it’s what their families expect of them, especially given their upbringing.

This is such a thoughtful, intelligent book, full of meaning and mystery. A captivating story of obsessive childhood friendship and the alluring nature of fantasies. A layered, literary novel – beautiful, strange and beguiling.

The Book of Goose is published by 4th Estate; personal copy.

Winter in the Air by Sylvia Townsend Warner  

It was the evocative title that first drew me to Winter in the Air, a shimmering collection of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories, recently published by Faber & Faber. Many of these pieces first appeared in the New Yorker between the late 1930s and mid-‘50s, and it’s fascinating to read them together here. When viewed as a whole, the collection paints a compelling picture of middle-class life in the mid-20th century, replete with individuals buffeted by the fallout of war with all its attendant losses. Here is a world of abandoned wives and widowed mothers, of bitterness and melancholy, all portrayed in Warner’s wonderfully lucid prose. There’s also something rather subversive about this collection, too – a sinister tone that inhabits some of these pieces, giving these stories a macabre or surreal edge.

As ever with short story collections, I’m not planning to cover every story in detail; instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole. Luckily there are some real standouts here, well worth the entry price alone.

The collection starts strongly with the titular story, in which a woman has returned to London after several years in the country. I love how Warner illustrates the difference between these two environments through her descriptions of charladies, neatly capturing the gossipy nature of village life.

A London charwoman does her work, takes her money and goes away, sterile as the wind of the desert. She does not spongily, greedily, absorb your concerns, study your nose to see if you have been crying again, count the greying hairs of your head, proffer sympathetic sighs and vacuum pauses and then hurry off to wring herself out, spongily, all over the village, with news of what’s going on between those two at Pond House. (pp. 1–2)

As the woman reflects on recent events, it becomes clear that she has been supplanted by her husband’s lover, forcing the move to London, which she handles with equanimity. Just like the furniture she must now fit into her city flat, the woman knows she will soon settle into this new arrangement. The silence of the room will not be intimidating for long…

A broken marriage also plays a central role in Hee-Haw!, another excellent story with a chilly, melancholy air. In this tale, a woman returns to the village where she once lived with her former husband, Ludovick, a successful painter who has since passed away. Their marriage was a turbulent one, ultimately lasting for three tumultuous years.  

In a whisk, in a glancing blow of recognition, she had seen it again, the place where she had lived for three years—in turmoil, in rapture, in drudgery, in fury, in the bitter patience of disillusionment; there, at the close of those three years, she had her last quarrel with Ludovick and walked for the last time down the steep path. (p. 13)

The woman is staying at the village pub where some of Ludovick’s work is on display – and during this visit, a local man starts telling her about the artist, not realising they used to be married to one another. Perhaps unsurprisingly, certain details about Ludovick’s colourful love life are revealed, accentuating the woman’s resentment of her philandering former husband.

In Idenborough – one of my favourite stories in the collection – an impromptu visit to a village near Oxford prompts memories of a long-forgotten love affair, a fleeting relationship that lasted little more than a day. The central protagonist here is Amabel, a middle-aged woman who is now married to her second husband, Winter (her first, Thomas, having died during the war). Again, this is an excellent story, beautifully told.

…and [Amabal] remembered how, earlier in the day, Winter had praised her for her sincerity. But now it was too late. Deceit must accumulate on deceit, and with her second husband she would visit Idenborough, where she had cuckolded her first one. (p. 197)

Other, more surprising relationships also feature here. In Evan – another highlight – Warner gives us a chance encounter on a train, the kind of set-up that feels ripe with possibility. A teenage schoolboy on the cusp of adulthood gets chatting with the only other traveller in his compartment, a woman returning from a spell in the country. Despite their lives being poles apart, an easy conversation quickly develops between the pair as the journey progresses. However, when the woman must change trains to catch her connection, something passes between the two of them – a spark of attraction charged with tension as the time comes to part. It’s a lovely story – surprising, evocative and lightly sketched – tinged with a touch of longing for the relationship to develop.

Nestling among these quietly compelling stories are sharper, more sinister pieces, shot through with an air of menace or a whiff of eccentricity. In A Priestess of Delphi, the brutal murder of a woman raises the threat of blackmail for a former lover from the victim’s distant past. As the protagonist – a writer named Charlton – embarks on a journey to recover his old love letters to the murdered woman, Warner gives her story a rather unsettling edge.  

Tossing and swaying, the newly leaved ash trees in the hedgerows looked hysterically green. It seemed a landscape fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils, and, for that matter, murders. (p. 50)

If anything, Under New Management is even more unnerving, a subtle tale of malevolence in a seedy post-war setting. The story revolves around Miss St John, a longstanding resident at the Peacock Hotel. When the establishment changes hands, Miss St John is not entirely happy with certain developments. The new owners, Mr and Mrs Fry, start encroaching on the spinster’s territory, shunting her into a small sitting room to give the seasonal guests the full run of the lounge. Moreover, Miss St John soon finds herself at the mercy of the Frys’ adult son, Dennis, who proceeds to regale her with horrifying accounts of brutal crimes from the newspapers. Nevertheless, Warner’s protagonist is made of stern stuff, a quality that ultimately sees her through. This superb story finishes with a suitably ironic twist while also showcasing the author’s flair for darkly comic character descriptions – Mr and Mrs Fry being a prime case in point!

Mrs Fry was of the type known as bright. She walked briskly, she smiled often, her head was always bound up in a bright-patterned scarf, and from under the scarf jutted two careful tinted curls whose position never varied by a hair’s-breadth from day to day (pp. 93–94)

Striking pen portraits also feature prominently in A Funeral at Clovie, as a man drives his cousin’s widow to her estranged husband’s funeral. The woman in question is Veronica, who is dressed ‘as though for a religious Ascot’, complete with a white cloak and sombrero, all topped off with ‘a sky-blue enamel cross’.   

No wonder she’s dressed up like a bride for her husband’s funeral, thought Archie. The whited sepulchre! Probably the next one will be some Bishop or other, and she’ll marry him in pink. (p. 209)

Other highlights include Shadwell, a brilliant story of a loyal servant who finds an ingenious way to supplement her meagre income, and Absolom My Son, an excellent story of a writer who discovers his work has been plagiarised by another author (now deceased). This is another tale with a surprising twist or two as it moves towards the end.  

So, all in all, this excellent collection of stories ticks several boxes for me, from the evocative mid-20th century settings to Warner’s beautiful, evocative prose. There’s some lovely descriptive writing here, especially in the author’s portrayal of the English landscape, the trees heavy with autumn foliage and inlets of green moss, ‘hot velvet in the sun, cold as ermine in the shade’. Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is Warner’s command of the contrasts in tone, the flashes of malevolence and malice lurking in these tales of seemingly gentile ladies and the respectable middle classes. A terrific collection of pieces with much to recommend it – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

A Touch of Mistletoe by Barbara Comyns

I’ve come to love Barbara Comyns over the past few years, a true English eccentric with a very particular style. Her novels have a strange, slightly off-kilter feel, frequently blending surreal imagery and touches of dark, deadpan humour with the harsh realities of life. There’s often a sadness to them too, a sense of poignancy or melancholy running through the text. First published in 1967, A Touch of Mistletoe is very much in this vein. Like some of Comyns’ earlier fiction, it feels semi-autobiographical in nature, rich in episodes and scenes that seem inspired by real-life experiences.

The novel is narrated by Victoria Green, who we follow from adolescence in the 1920s to middle age in the late ‘50s. In some respects, one could describe it as a sort of coming-of-age story as the narrative subtly explores the choices many single women faced in the mid-20th century. More specifically, Comyns gently probes the question of whether it is better to marry for love or financial security and companionship – not an easy decision for a single woman to have to make, especially when money is tight.

Right from the very start, Comyns draws on a couple of her favourite elements; firstly, by introducing two innocent children caught up in the trials of a dysfunctional family, and secondly by conveying their story in a disarming, matter-of-fact voice.

Following the death of their father, Victoria and her younger sister, Blanche, are educated by a string of hopeless governesses while their elder brother, Edward, attends school. The children’s mother is an alcoholic, alternating between sustained bouts of drinking and feverish spells of cleaning, much to the sisters’ confusion.

‘I’m afraid my daughter-in-law is poorly’ or ‘Your mother isn’t quite herself today, poorly, you know’ were words that frequently crossed his [Victoria’s grandfather’s] lips, and when we children heard the word ‘poorly’ applied to anyone who was ill, perhaps an innocent child suffering with measles, we took it for granted that they had been drinking bottles of port or sherry. (pp. 3–4)

By eighteen, Victoria is ready to flee the nest, keen to travel and pursue her interest in art. Following a traumatic spell working as a dog-handler-cum-skivvy for a dreadful woman in Amsterdam, Victoria finds herself in London, staying at a girls’ hostel near Baker Street; joining her there is Blanche, who is also eager for life to begin. The narrative mostly follows Victoria, although there are glimpses into Blanche’s life too. While Victoria inherits enough money from her grandfather to fund her first term at art school, Blanche hopes to pick up work as a mannequin or an artist’s model – cue various close shaves with seedy, unscrupulous men!

In time, the girls move to a bedsit near Mornington Crescent, where they try to survive on as little as possible. It’s a gloomy, bohemian environment, with meals mostly consisting of stale eggs, bread, cheap cheese, and cocoa without milk. Food must be heated over a candle or eaten cold, particularly if there are no spare shillings for the meter. But as ever with Comyns, these scenes of poverty are touchingly evoked. 

We did our shopping in Camden Town on Saturday afternoons. Although we were not as poor as we were to become later on, we had to shop very carefully. We used to buy grim little oranges for two a penny, which must have been dyed because the inside the peel was almost the same colour as the outside, and there were broken biscuits that only cost 4d. a pound, and cut-price sweetshops and grocer’s shops that had prices chalked all over the windows. (pp. 99–100)

The fortunes of both girls wax and wane over the years as various choices shape their lives, sometimes for the better, other times for the worse. Victoria goes through a string of jobs at small commercial agencies and animation studios, occasionally illustrating children’s books or other projects on the side to gain a little more income. Naturally, there are relationships too, with Blanche initially marrying a Captain for comfort and financial security while her sister is more interested in finding love. Sadly, Victoria’s first husband, Gene (a fellow artist whom she loves dearly), is plagued by significant mental health issues – a combination of schizophrenia and severe depression that blights the couple’s marriage following the birth of their son, Paul. Shortly after being admitted to hospital for treatment, Gene dies, leaving Victoria to grieve his loss.

Meanwhile, Blanche’s marriage is annulled due to non-consummation, leaving her free to marry again, this time more successfully for love and security. Her second husband, John, is a kind, older man with a good career in the forces – enough for them to start a family together.

More relationships also follow for Victoria – perhaps most notably marriage to Tony, a successful writer who falls prey to the ill effects of drink, particularly when he completes a book. Consequently, Victoria’s world is evocatively portrayed, illustrating the highs and lows of married life with a man addicted to drink.

He [Tony] hated these people when he was sober; but, when he had been drinking, he’d bring a taxi-load home and expect me to give them what he called a ‘dormitory feast’, and after the feast, they would spend the rest of the night on the drawing-room floor until Marcella swept them out in the early morning. They left with books under their arms and silver ashtrays in their pockets and the lavatories were often filthy. I thought they were like the mistletoe that Gene had feared so much and hoped it wasn’t starting to grow on me. (p. 243)

Having grown accustomed to her mother’s drinking as a child, Victoria considers her husband’s condition a sadness or illness that descends on some individuals, just as schizophrenia used to land on Gene. In time, however, the couple’s relationship breaks down, leaving Victoria at risk of being preyed on by boring men, ‘the hopeless kind that goggle at you through thick spectacles and talk about sex or their mothers’ all the time.

The narrative also touches on WW2 with powerful descriptions of the devastation caused by flying bombs, leaving homes and buildings ripped apart, exposing the contents within. Nevertheless, despite the tragedy of the situation, Comyns lightens the tone now and again, casting her eye on the surreal and absurd with those wonderful details she so expertly invokes.

An old woman was fined for feeding ducks on a public pond and a light-hearted girl in the provinces was sent to prison for flashing a torch in boys’ faces. Once I told a man at a party that my grocer occasionally let me have extra butter and he said that I was sinking ships. He was so angry that his eyes became crossed and I hurriedly left. Later I discovered that this man who thought I was sinking ships used to buy black-market petrol from dustmen who siphoned it out from their petrol tanks. Then there were people who loved to queue; they joined any old queue that was going. (p. 260)

As the novel draws to a close, we find the two sisters reunited, reflecting on the cards that life has dealt them. Victoria’s son, Paul, is all grown up, studying art at Camberwell college, newly married with a young baby and promising prospects of his own. Blanche’s children are also ploughing their own furrows while their parents are still together, content with their lives in middle age. Meanwhile, there are new opportunities on the horizon for Victoria as she looks to the future.

In terms of style and subject matter, Mistletoe feels quite similar to Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, another novel that explores the choices open to women at this time. Interestingly, both books draw much of their power from the tone of voice Comyns employs – a childlike, matter-of-fact delivery that really adds to their appeal. Despite Mistletoes dark themes – poverty, alcoholism, mental illness, and abortion – there’s a lightness of touch in Comyns’ writing, the flashes of deadpan humour fitting beautifully within the context of the story. In summary then, a sensitive portrayal of a life touched by mistletoe – another brilliant novel by one of my favourite women writers.

A Touch of Mistletoe is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

Books of the year 2022, my favourites from a year of reading – recently published books

2022 has been another excellent year of reading for me. I’ve read some superb books over the past twelve months, the best of which feature in my reading highlights.

Just like last year, I’m spreading my books of the year across two posts – ‘recently published’ titles in this first piece, with older books (including reissues) to follow next week. Hopefully, some of you might find this list of contemporary favourites useful for last-minute Christmas gifts.

As many of you know, most of my reading comes from books first published in the mid-20th century. But this year, I’ve tried to read a few more newish books – a mixture of contemporary fiction and one or two memoirs/biographies. So, my books-of-the-year posts will reflect this mix. (I’m still reading more backlisted titles than new ones, 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 first came out in their original language 10-15 years ago.)

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 books 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 my full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Like many readers, I’ve been knocked sideways by Claire Keegan this year. She writes beautifully about elements of Ireland’s troubled social history with a rare combination of delicacy and precision; her ability to compress big themes into slim, jewel-like novellas is second to none. Set in small-town Ireland in the run-up to Christmas 1985, Small Things is a deeply moving story 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. Probably the most exquisite, perfectly-formed novella I read this year – not a word wasted or out of place.

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Another very impactful, remarkably assured novella, especially for a debut. (I’m excited to see what Natasha Brown produces next!) Narrated by an unnamed black British woman working in a London-based financial firm, this striking book has much to say about many vital sociopolitical issues. Toxic masculinity, the shallowness of workplace diversity programmes, the pressure for people of colour to assimilate into a predominantly white society, and the social constructs perpetuating Britain’s damaging colonial history – they’re all explored here. I found it urgent and illuminating – a remarkable insight into how it must feel to be a young black woman in the superficially liberal sectors of society today.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell

Last year, Lucy Caldwell made my 2021 reading highlights with Intimacies, her nuanced collection of stories about motherhood, womanhood and life-changing moments. This year she’s back with These Days, an immersive portrayal of the WW2 bombing raids in the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of a fictional middle-class family. What Caldwell does so well here is to make us care about her characters, ensuring we feel invested in their respective hopes and dreams, their anxieties and concerns. It’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes her portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting to read. A lyrical, exquisitely-written novel from one of my favourite contemporary writers.

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

At first sight, the story being conveyed in Cold Enough for Snow seems relatively straightforward – a mother and her adult daughter reconnect to spend some time together in Japan. Nevertheless, this narrative is wonderfully slippery – cool and clear on the surface, yet harbouring fascinating hidden depths within, a combination that gives the book a spectral, enigmatic quality, cutting deep into the soul. Au excels in conveying the ambiguous nature of memory, how our perceptions of events can evolve over time – sometimes fading to a feeling or impression, other times morphing into something else entirely, altered perhaps by our own wishes and desires. A meditative, dreamlike novella from a writer to watch.

Foster by Claire Keegan

I make no apologies for a second mention of Claire Keegan – she really is that good! As Foster opens, a young girl from Clonegal in Ireland’s County Carlow is being driven to Wexford by her father. There she will stay with relatives, an aunt and uncle she doesn’t know, with no mention of a return date or the nature of the arrangement. The girl’s mother is expecting a baby, and with a large family to support, the couple has chosen to take the girl to Wexford to ease the burden at home. Keegan’s sublime novella shows how the girl blossoms under the care of her new family through a story that explores kindness, compassion, nurturing and acceptance from a child’s point of view.

Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

I’ve read a few of Ernaux’s books over the past 18 months, and Happening is probably the pick of the bunch (with Simple Passion a very close second). In essence, it’s an account of Ernaux’s personal experiences of an illegal abortion in the early ‘60s when she was in her early twenties – her quest to secure it, what took place during the procedure and the days that followed, all expressed in the author’s trademark candid style. What makes this account so powerful is the rigorous nature of Ernaux’s approach. There are no moral judgements or pontifications here, just unflinchingly honest reflections on a topic that remains controversial today. A really important book that deserves to be widely read, even though the subject matter is so raw and challenging.

Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

I adored this haunting, beautifully-crafted story of love, trauma, and the creation of art, all set against the backdrop of a deadly global pandemic. Hall’s novel explores some powerful existential themes. 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 of crisis – the importance of art in the wake of trauma, both individual and collective. In Burntcoat, Sarah Hall has created something vital and vivid, capturing the fragile relationship between life and death – not a ‘pandemic’ novel as such, but a story where a deadly virus plays its part.

Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin

When we hear the word ‘flâneur’, we probably think of some well-to-do chap nonchalantly wandering the streets of 19th-century Paris, idling away his time in cafés and bars, casually watching the inhabitants of the city at work and play. Irrespective of the specific figure we have in mind, the flâneur is almost certainly a man. In this fascinating bookthe critically-acclaimed writer and translator Lauren Elkin shows us another side of this subject, highlighting the existence of the female equivalent, the eponymous flâneuse. Through a captivating combination of memoir, social history and cultural studies/criticism, Elkin walks us through several examples of notable flâneuses down the years, demonstrating that the joy of traversing the city has been shared by men and women alike. A thoughtful, erudite, fascinating book, written in a style that I found thoroughly engaging.

Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (tr. Natasha Wimmer)

First published in Chile in 2013, this memorable, shapeshifting novella paints a haunting portrait of a generation of children exposed to the horrors of Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1980s – a time of deep oppression and unease. The book focuses on a close-knit group of young adults who were at school together during the ‘80s and are now haunted by a jumble of disturbing dreams interspersed with shards of unsettling memories – suppressed during childhood but crying out to be dealt with now. Collectively, these striking fragments form a kind of literary collage, a powerful collective memory of the group’s absent classmate, Estrella, whose father was a leading figure in the State Police. Fernandez adopts a fascinating combination of form and structure for her book, using the Space Invaders game as both a framework and a metaphor for conveying the story. An impressive achievement by a talented writer – definitely someone to watch.

The Colony by Audrey Magee

Set on a small, unnamed island to the west of Ireland during the Troubles, The Colony focuses on four generations of the same family, highlighting the turmoil caused when two very different outsiders arrive for the summer. 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. In essence, the novel is a thought-provoking exploration of the damaging effects of colonisation – touching on issues including the acquisition of property, the demise of traditional languages and ways of living, cultural appropriation and, perhaps most importantly, who holds the balance of power in this isolated society. I found it timely, thoughtful and utterly compelling – very highly recommended indeed.   

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

Another excellent novel set during the Troubles, Trespasses is a quietly devastating book, steeped in the tensions of a country divided by fierce sectarian loyalties. It’s also quite a difficult one to summarise in a couple of sentences – at once both an achingly tender story of an illicit love affair and a vivid exploration of the complex network of divisions that can emerge in highly-charged communities. The narrative revolves around Cushla, a young primary teacher at a local Catholic school, and her married lover, Michael, a Protestant barrister in his early fifties. Here we see ordinary people living in extraordinary times, buffeted by a history of violence that can erupt at any moment. I loved this beautifully-written, immersive page-turner – it’s probably one of my top three books of the year.

Dandelions by Thea Lenarduzzi

In Dandelions, the Italian-born editor and writer Thea Lenarduzzi has given us a gorgeous, meditative blend of family memoir, political and socioeconomic history, and personal reflections on migration between Italy and the UK. Partly crafted from discussions between Thea and her paternal grandmother, Dirce, the book spans four generations of Lenarduzzi’s family, moving backwards and forwards in time – and between Italy and England – threading together various stories and vignettes that span the 20th century. In doing so, a multilayered portrayal of Thea’s family emerges, placed in the context of Italy’s sociopolitical history and economic challenges. Another book I adored – both for its themes and the sheer beauty of Lenarduzzi’s prose.

So that’s it for my favourite ‘recently published’ titles from a year of reading – I’d love to hear your thoughts below. Do join me again next week when I’ll be sharing the best older books I read this year with plenty of literary treasures still to come!

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó (tr. George Szirtes)

The Hungarian writer Magda Szabó is perhaps best known for her 1987 novel The Door, a poignant story of the relationship between two women – a writer and her housekeeper. (It’s been on my radar for a while, although I’ve yet to read it.)  Iza’s Ballad (an earlier novel) also features a complex relationship between two women at its heart – in this instance, the frustrations and heartbreak of a distant mother-daughter relationship. More specifically, the book digs deep into the damage we inflict on those closest to us – often unintentionally but inhumanely nonetheless. It is a story of many contrasts; the differences between the generations; the traditional vs the new; the rural vs the urban; and the generous vs the self-centred.

Seventy-five-year-old Ettie and her husband Vince have lived a traditional life in the Hungarian countryside since their marriage some fifty years before. They have one daughter, the progressive, idealistic Iza, a brilliant doctor who now works in Pest (eastern Budapest), where she is well respected and successful. While Iza is a dutiful daughter, paying monthly visits to her elderly parents, she rarely shows any emotion, devoting herself instead to a demanding job in rheumatology.

Everything changes for both women when Vince dies of cancer. At first, Ettie fears being left alone in the old house, the long empty days stretching out ahead of her with no husband to talk to or care for. But Iza – a direct, controlling person at heart – decides that Ettie must come and live with her in the apartment in Pest as it’s clearly the right thing to do. There is no consultation with Ettie at this point, simply a unilateral decision that Iza makes with no attempt to establish Ettie’s wishes. Nevertheless, in her relief at not being abandoned, Ettie defers to Iza’s better judgement – clearly her capable daughter knows best – and she goes along with the plan.

Straight after Vince’s funeral, Iza bundles Ettie off for a week at a sanatorium, effectively as a way of getting ‘the old woman’ out of the way while she arranges the move. The former family home is sold to Iza’s ex-husband, Antal, a kind, considerate man who retains a fondness for Ettie despite his broken relationship with her daughter. Meanwhile, Ettie must contend with a maelstrom of emotions on her own – grief at the loss of her beloved husband, relief at the prospect of a new life with Iza, and concern over the packing up of the house. Her major consolation is the prospect of being surrounded by Vince’s possessions once she arrives in Pest.

It was an enormous relief to her [Ettie] that she wouldn’t have to live by herself in a house bereft of Vince, but it was terrifying not be present while Iza packed up ready for the removal men. ‘You’d only torture yourself,’ retorted Iza, ‘you have spent enough time crying. I know my flat, know where I am taking you, I know where things will fit and what will look best. I want you to be happy from now on.’ (p. 56)

What follows when Iza brings her mother to the city is truly heartbreaking to observe. Very few of the couple’s treasured possessions have survived the move, and those that have are barely recognisable from their former selves. Vince’s favourite chair has been reupholstered, transforming it from a comfortable, careworn reminder to an alien object, erasing its emotional value for Ettie as a result. Naturally, Ettie is devastated by this casting aside of her former life. Virtually everything familiar has been discarded or left behind, accentuating Ettie’s crushing sense of loss.

She felt as if some elemental blow had destroyed everything around her and that only now did she really know what it was to be a widow, someone absolutely abandoned.

She didn’t cry while Iza was in the room, just looked pale and was more quiet than usual, but she tried to say something nice, however awkward, about the practicality of the arrangement and Iza’s helpfulness and kindness. (p. 89)

Everything required for comfort was present and correct but she still felt as though she had been robbed. (p. 92)

As the days and weeks slip by, Ettie continues to struggle with her new life in the city. Every time she tries to do something to please Iza, such as cooking a favourite meal from the girl’s childhood or brewing traditional Turkish coffee, the gesture backfires, aggravating Iza on her return from work. While Ettie has been used to a life of housework and cleaning, Iza’s housekeeper Teréz takes care of everything in Pest – an arrangement that Iza is determined to maintain. Unsurprisingly, this leads to tension between Ettie and Teréz, prompting Iza to intervene…

The old woman listened. She felt silly and unable to mount an argument; she was so cowed by the accusation that she got on Teréz’s nerves that she dared not say a word. Should she say that she’d like to be the one who looked after her [Iza], and that she’d enjoy taking care of things and finding out what she liked? Or that she [Ettie] had worked all her life, that she liked working and would like to find a way of showing how grateful she was for not being left alone? She kept quiet. (p. 98)

One of the great tragedies here – and there are many – is Iza’s lack of appreciation of her mother’s needs and emotions. On her return from work, Iza simply wants some peace and quiet, so she soon becomes irritated by Ettie’s questions and constant presence in the flat.

Her [Ettie’s] constant presence, the way she kept opening doors, always wanting something to happen at precisely the times Iza was exhausted and wanted rest and quiet, a space where nothing happened, saddened her and forced her to spend ever less time at home, only as much as was absolutely necessary. (pp. 131–132)

With Iza out at work all day, there are precious few opportunities for Ettie to spend time with her daughter or to share how she is feeling. Ettie knows she should be grateful to Iza for bringing her to Budapest, but the loneliness she is experiencing is destroying her, and with no one to talk to, these emotions remain locked in. As the novel unfolds, we can almost see Ettie wasting away before our eyes. In effect, she is retreating into herself as much as possible for fear of doing anything that will aggravate either Iza or Teréz. For Ettie, large chunks of the day are spent riding the tram routes across the city to steer clear of Teréz or whittled away alone at the flat.   

While the reader’s sympathies will almost certainly be weighted towards Ettie, Szabó is mindful of portraying each of her characters as complex, rounded individuals, complete with their shortcomings and failings. Like all of us, Ettie has her faults, from her jealousy of Lidia, the gracious nurse who holds Vince’s hand as he is dying, to her resentment of Teréz for robbing her of the chance to cook Iza’s meals. Similarly, while Iza has many faults ranging from selfishness and a lack of emotional intelligence to brusqueness and insensitivity, the situation is not entirely black and white. Her dedicated approach to work is undeniable, an asset widely recognised by colleagues and patients alike. Nevertheless, Iza’s lack of understanding towards her mother is horrifying to observe – while every physical comfort is provided for Ettie, the requisite emotional support is sorely missing from Iza’s approach. (Interestingly, this lack of emotional involvement is mirrored in Iza’s relationships with men – both her ex-husband Antal, who left Iza for fear of being destroyed by her, and Iza’s current lover, Domokos, who suddenly realises he might be destined for a similar fate.)

As this heartbreakingly poignant novel approaches its inexorable conclusion, Ettie returns to her old country home for the instalment of Vince’s headstone – a visit that prompts a reunion with Antal and a touching reminder of her former life. Despite the undeniable sadness in this story, this was a knockout read for me – a richly textured portrait of two very different women, unable to reach out to one another despite their familial bond.

Iza’s Ballad is published by NYRB Classics (US) and Vintage (UK); personal copy.

The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson Carr

I’ve had slightly mixed experiences with Carr’s mysteries in the past, but this is a good one!

First published in Britain in 1942, The Seat of the Scornful combines an intriguing mystery with some different interpretations of what constitutes justice. Central to the story is the formidable judge, Justice Horace Ireton, a man who enjoys playing ‘cat-and-mouse’ with the accused, sometimes allowing a convicted criminal to stew in their own juice before approving a stay of execution. As his colleague Fred Barlow observes:

“…He [Justice Ireton] doesn’t care twopence about the law. What he is interested in is administering absolute, impartial justice as he sees it.” (p. 23)

The judge would like his daughter, twenty-one-year-old Constance, to marry Barlow, an affable barrister with good career prospects. Constance, however, has other ideas. Much to her father’s displeasure, Constance has fallen for Tony Morell, a charismatic entrepreneur with a rather shady past.

He [Morell] was one of those self-consciously virile types which are associated with the Southern European; the sort of man who, as Jane Tennant once put it, always makes a woman feel that he is breathing down the back of her neck. (pp. 19-20)

When the couple announce their intention to marry, Judge Ireton offers Morrell a sizeable amount of money to disappear without a word to Constance about their agreement. At first, Morell appears to accept the offer. But after returning to the judge’s bungalow the following evening to collect his payment, Morrell is found dead in highly suspicious circumstances, a scenario that clearly implicates Justice Ireton as the murderer.

Before long, Dr Gideon Fell, who happens to play chess with Ireton, is called in to assist the police with their investigations – and what appears to be a relatively simple case soon throws up some very interesting complications. As it turns out, several people connected to the judge were in the area at the time of the murder. In fact, the room where Morell’s body was found was easily accessible through some open French windows – the very opposite of a ‘locked room’!

As the mystery unfolds and we learn more about the other potential suspects, the judge’s views on justice and the law become increasingly relevant. Can motivations or extenuating circumstances ever justify such a serious crime? And is circumstantial evidence ever sufficient to establish guilt? These questions and more are explored through Carr’s cleverly constructed mystery.

The characterisation is particularly good here, with Carr’s portrayal of Justice Ireton feeling authentic and believable. Constance Ireton is well-drawn too, a rather headstrong girl with a capacity for flighty emotions. Similarly, Carr does well to create some compelling supporting players, most notably Fred Barlow and Constance’s friend Jane Tennant, who also find themselves drawn into the investigations.

The solution, when it comes, feels a bit convoluted with a couple of last-minute twists that will likely divide opinion. Nevertheless, this thoroughly enjoyable mystery keeps the reader guessing right to the very end!

The Seat of the Scornful is published by the British Library as part of their Crime Classics series; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The London Train by Tessa Hadley

There is a touch of Brief Encounter about The London Train, Tessa Hadley’s 2011 novel featuring two parallel narratives that ultimately come together and connect. In one sense, this wonderfully subtle book can be viewed as an exploration of the fault lines and emotional disconnects in two seemingly stable marriages. Moreover, the story also highlights how these fissures can be exposed by random events, from the sudden disappearance of a daughter to a chance encounter on a train.

Structurally, the book is divided into two sections that initially appear to be separate novellas: The London Train and Only Children. However, by the time the reader reaches the midpoint of the second section, the connection between these beautifully constructed narratives becomes clear.

The first story revolves around Paul, a middle-aged writer and reviewer who lives in Wales with his second wife, Elise, a successful restorer of antiques, and their two young children, Becky and Joni. From an early stage, Hadley hints at an air of restlessness or lack of fulfilment surrounding Paul. Having recently lost his mother, Paul is haunted by dreams of his childhood, gnawing away at the guilt he feels over his infrequent visits before her death. While Elise and the girls provide Paul with a comfortable, loving home environment, he occasionally wishes that his life were more spontaneous and free-spirited – a little like that of his bohemian friend Gerald, a part-time University tutor, who seems to get by on a combination of humous, Scotch eggs and weed. Moreover, an ongoing dispute with his neighbour – the deliberatively obstructive farmer Willis – is a further source of agitation for Paul and Elise.

The story really gets going when Paul’s eldest daughter – nineteen-year-old Pia, from his earlier marriage to Annelies – goes missing from her London home. When Paul tracks Pia down, he discovers she is pregnant and living with the child’s father, a Polish man named Marek, in a squalid flat near King’s Cross. At first, it is unclear whether Marek is a conman, an entrepreneur, or a fantasist, with his dreams of setting up an import-export business for Polish delicatessen goods. Nevertheless, there is something magnetic about this quietly authoritative man and his sister, the equally compelling Anna. Consequently, Paul finds himself getting drawn into their world – to the point where he temporarily leaves Elise after a furious row to camp out with Pia and Marek in their claustrophobic flat.

As soon as Marek and Anna were in the flat, Paul saw that Anna was a force just as her brother was, and that Pia had been drawn to both of them, not just the man. Both moved with quick, contemptuous energy, crowding the place; Paul recognised that they were powerful, even if he wasn’t sure he liked them, and couldn’t understand yet what their link was to his daughter, or whether it was safe for her. (pp. 67–68).

In essence, the combination of tensions Paul is experiencing – his worries over the stability of Pia’s future with Marek; the guilt he feels about neglecting his mother; the ongoing row with Willis; and his underlying sense of restlessness – conspire to expose the fault lines in his relationship with Elise. Several differences between the couple rise to the surface, from the contrasts in their family backgrounds and social class to their current values and attitudes to life, prompting a kind of mid-life crisis for Paul as he starts to feel the pull of Anna.

Hadley’s second story focuses on thirty-something Cora, who has recently left her older husband, Robert, a rather stuffy and emotionally detached Civil Servant, high up in the Home Office. Cora is now living in Cardiff, having lovingly renovated her parents’ house following their deaths; and while her new role as a librarian is not particularly demanding, she enjoys the lack of stress after several years as an English teacher.

At heart, Cora keeps her feelings under wraps, finding it hard to confide in her closest friend, Frankie, who also happens to be Robert’s sister. While Robert tries to persuade Cora to return to London, she is content to remain in Wales, enjoying her freedom and a new-found air of self-possession. As far as Cora sees things, Robert appears to view their marriage as a kind of ‘contract or a piece of legislation’, not a living, breathing relationship driven by deep emotions.

Nothing could shake his [Robert’s] hierarchy of importance, where work was a fixed outer form, inside which personal things must find their place. Once, she had gloried in cutting herself to the right shape to fit it. (p. 172).

As you’ve probably guessed by now, these two stories come together when Paul and Cora meet by chance on the Cardiff-to-London train. An attraction gradually develops as they chat during the journey, culminating in an arrangement to meet again the next time Cora is in Cardiff. Before long, the pair are embroiled in a passionate affair, which feels especially liberating for Cora, given the sense of loneliness surrounding her marriage to Robert.  

Their relations were asymmetrical. She was the completed thing he wanted, and had got – he had seen her whole that very first time on the train, her strong particular stamp of personality written for him to read, clear as a hieroglyph; whereas she was absorbed in his life as it streamed forward, lost in him, not able to know everything he was. She couldn’t have imagined, in her old self, the pleasure to be had in such abandonment (p. 264)

I think I’ll leave it there in terms of the plot, save to say that Hadley plays with the timings of various events, moving smoothly from one timeline to another to weave her stories together.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is Hadley’s ability to create a strong connection between the reader and her central characters, especially Cora, whose inner life is portrayed with just the right degree of intimacy. In both stories, we see how seemingly stable marriages can be eroded over the years by small failings and disappointments, highlighting these characters’ relatable flaws and shortcomings.

Hadley also successfully draws out various parallels and connections between the two stories without the underlying themes ever feeling overworked. For instance, both Cora and Paul are separated from their respective partners – possibly temporarily or maybe more permanently. Both are grieving a parent with no siblings to share their grief or sense of loss. Both are at pivotal points in their lives when their choices are likely to have significant ramifications for themselves and others.

Running alongside the central theme of the fragility of marital relationships are various related areas, including coping with a family bereavement, female desire and self-possession, and the balance between freedom and domestic responsibility. There’s also a discernible undercurrent of unease about key social and political issues, ranging from the damaging effects of climate change to the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, especially those earmarked for deportation. In his Home Office role, Robert is under investigation for a major fire at an immigration removal centre, with a formal inquiry due to reach a critical point. Once again, Hadley demonstrates subtlety in her treatment of these topics, conveying her perspective in a thoughtful and compelling way.

Robert’s fire, however, had been at one of the new purpose-built centres: brick buildings on brownfield sites, as blandly featureless from the outside as mail-order depots or units on an industrial estate. […] this modern apparatus for punishment stood lightly and provisionally in the landscape, like so many husks, or ugly litter. The appearance of the buildings, Cora thought, was part of the pretence that what was processed inside them was nothing so awful or contaminating as flesh and blood. The buildings made possible the dry husks of language in the reports that Robert read, and wrote. (p. 191).

In summary then, The London Train is an exquisitely written novel on the messy business of middle-class life and the vulnerability of seemingly stable relationships. Yet, by the end of this richly textured book, there is a sense of optimism for the future, the possibility of reconnections, new beginnings, and a deeper understanding as the dust settles on these characters’ lives. Highly recommended for lovers of character-driven fiction with a focus on interiority.

Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart (tr. Michael Hofmann)

The German writer Irmgard Keun lived a fascinating life. Having enjoyed great success with her first two novels Gilgi, One of Us (1931) and The Artificial Silk Girl (both of which I adored), she found herself blacklisted when the Nazis swept to power in 1933. By 1936, Keun was travelling around Europe in the company of her lover, the Jewish writer Joseph Roth. After Midnight (1937) and Child of All Nations (1938) were written while Keun was in exile abroad, with the writer finally returning to Germany in 1940 under an assumed name – possibly helped by a false newspaper report of her suicide. A final novel, Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart, was published in Germany in 1950 but has only recently been translated into English by Michael Hofmann in 2021.

Ferdinand differs from Keun’s earlier novels by virtue of its focus on a male character. So while Gilgi, Silk Girl and Midnight, all feature strong women, full of determination and life, Ferdinand is narrated by a dandyish daydreamer with a tendency to drift. Consequently, Ferdinand seems to lack the narrative drive of Keun’s previous work, which makes for a somewhat frustrating read (for this reader at least). Nevertheless, there are still various elements to enjoy here, although it’s probably best suited to die-hard Keun fans rather than first-time readers of her work.

Set in post-war Cologne, where black-market trading and other dodgy activities are rife, the novel reads like a series of pen portraits and sketches as our eponymous hero, Ferdinand Timpe, tries to make his way in a rapidly changing world. Just like Ferdinand himself, the narrative meanders around, bumping into various acquaintances and members of the extended Timpe family, each one more eccentric and absurd than the last. Take Ferdinand’s brother Luitpold as an example, a furniture maker in southern Germany – a man who always manages to stay afloat, despite his dire money management.

Luitpold represents the type of good fellow who in nineteenth-century novels gets into trouble by issuing bonds for unreliable friends, allowing bills to fall due, paying allowances to children who were not his, and opening his heart and his wallet to impoverished widows. By the rules of our rough new world he is classified as a noble idiot. (p. 105)

Ferdinand’s future mother-in-law is another strange one, eagerly combing the bombed-out city for all manner of booty from typewriters to louche paintings.

The city seemed wiped out, destroyed. But some things weren’t. In the midst of the ruins there were a few intact, abandoned houses and flats in pallid, ghostly glory. Everything belonged to everyone. Insatiable and obsessed, my forget-me-not-blue mother-in-law went on the prowl, and snaffled among other things as sewing machine, various typewriters, four rugs, seventeen eggcups, a gilt frame, a bombproof door, a poultry cage, and a pompous drawing-room painting depicting a voluptuous woman lying prone in pink, puffy nudity, a blue moth teetering on the end of her pink index finger, and the whole thing somehow casual. (p. 60)

Funnily enough, the stolen painting gives rise to a particularly amusing anecdote when the former owners of the artwork appear on the scene. But despite this troublesome development, Ferdinand’s mother-in-law, Frau Klatte, insists that the painting is a treasured heirloom, passed down through her family from one generation to the next. As far as Frau Klatte sees it, the former owners are ‘awful people’ who are ‘not even properly married’, and a protracted tussle over the item subsequently ensues.

At heart, Ferdinand lacks ambition, which contributes to his rather aimless approach to life. As such, he recognises his lack of suitability for various professions, ranging from teaching and academia to administration and business. In a case of mistaken identity, Ferdinand lands a gig as a writer for Red Dawn, an emerging literary journal, but he struggles to settle on a subject for his story. Eventually though, another job turns up, with Ferdinand acting as a kind of agony aunt for unhappy wives looking to let off steam about their husbands’ shortcomings.

Most women would rather be married unhappily than not at all. Besides they are rarely as unhappy as they think they are. Some have an inborn martyr complex and take suffering for a sign of moral superiority. They like to be pitied. For these wives I have a pained frown in the corner of my mouth and a look of melancholy sympathy. That sees me through, and I don’t even need to speak. (p. 117)

As Ferdinand makes his way through the city, he is also on the lookout for a new suitor for his fiancée, Luise. Having allowed himself to become engaged to Luise before the war, Ferdinand now wishes to extricate himself from the arrangement. In truth, after a stint as a prisoner of war, he really wants to live alone for a while as he adjusts to a world of freedom. The trouble is, there are Luise’s feelings to be considered, hence our protagonist’s quandary on what to do for the best. As the novel draws to a close, an ironic development comes to Ferdinand’s rescue, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself should you decide to read the book.

The novel ends with a party at Cousin Johanna’s place, a reunion of sorts as various friends, relatives and strangers come together, fuelled by an assortment of music and drink. It’s a fitting end to a somewhat disjointed novel – but maybe that’s a perfectly accurate reflection of life in post-war Cologne, shortly after Germany’s currency reform in 1948.

So, in summary then, not an entirely satisfying experience for me, although Keun’s pithy observations on human nature and various aspects of 20th century life are always interesting to read. For other (more positive) views on this book, Grant’s review and Max’s summary are worth reading, accessible via the links.    

Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. (Read for Lizzy’s German Lit Month and Novellas in November.)

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

I always enjoy returning to the comforting world of Barbara Pym, populated as it is by ‘excellent’, well-meaning women, idiosyncratic Anglican clergymen and somewhat fusty academics. It’s a place that seems both mildly absurd and oddly believable, full of the sharply-observed details that Pym captures so well. First published in 1958, A Glass of Blessings is another lovely addition to this author’s body of work, a charming novel of mild flirtations and misunderstandings.

Blessings is narrated by Wilmet Forsyth, a well-dressed, attractive woman in her early thirties, comfortably married to the dependable but rather dull Rodney, a civil servant at the Ministry. Having met in Italy during the war when Wilmet was in the Wrens and Rodney in the Army, the couple now live quite amiably with Sybil, Rodney’s amiable mother, in a well-heeled London suburb.

With Rodney out at work all day and Sybil busy with her charitable work, Wilmet is rather at a loss for something to do. Rodney doesn’t want his wife to work as his salary provides more than enough for them to live comfortably at the family home. And in any case, Wilmet doesn’t appear to have trained for any roles – why should she with a solid husband to take care of her? So, instead, Wilmet spins out her days on a combination of bits and pieces, attending evening classes in Portuguese with Sybil, lunching with various friends and spending time with the priests at her local parish.

As is often the case with Pym, there are few, if any, dramatic plot developments here. Instead, Pym focuses on the characters and the interactions they have with one another over the course of the story. For a woman in her early thirties, Wilmet has led a somewhat sheltered existence – there were no lovers before Rodney, she has no children and few close friends to speak of, and her social circle is relatively narrow. So when Piers Longridge – the brother of her closest friend, Rowena – starts paying Wilmet some attention, she looks forward to a little mild flirtation…

I got into the train in a kind of daze. As it lurched on from station to station I gave myself up to a happy dream in which I went to look after Piers when he was ill or depressed or just had a hangover. And yet, had that been what I meant when I had made my offer to him? Not an offer, exactly. But if not an offer, then what? I felt that Piers really needed me as few people did. Certainly not Rodney, I told myself, justifying my foolish indulgence. Piers needed love and understanding, perhaps already he was happier because of knowing me. When I had reached this conclusion I felt contented and peaceful, and leaned back in my seat, smiling to myself. (pp. 174–175)

Wilmet, it seems, is not terribly good at reading other people and picking up on their signals – a failing that leads to disappointment when she finally meets Piers’ flatmate. (I’ll leave you to discover the wonderful irony of that moment for yourself, should you decide to read the book!)

It seemed as if life had been going on around me without my knowing it, in the disconcerting way that it sometimes does, like the traffic swirling past when one is standing on an island in the middle of the road. (p. 248)

Pym is a keen observer of human nature, and the novel is full of the gentle humour that Pym excels in. Mr Bason, the new housekeeper at the local parish, is a great source of amusement, passing judgement on his employers and their tastes in food and furnishings at every given opportunity. Bason is one of those wonderful Pym creations – a slightly camp, gossipy man with a penchant for objects of beauty but little time for those who fail to appreciate either his interests or his culinary talents. In particular, he takes pleasure in ‘borrowing’ Father Thames’ treasured Fabergé egg, much to Wilmet’s horror during a chance encounter at the grocer’s…

Would Mr Bason go on talking about the Fabergé egg? I wondered. And was it my duty to say something to him? Surely not here, among the All-Bran, the Grapenuts, the Puffed Wheat, the Rice Krispies and the Frosted Flakes?

‘Father Bode will have his cornflakes,’ said Mr Bason, seizing a giant packet of Kellogg’s. ‘Of course Father Thames has a continental breakfast, coffee and croissants.’

‘My husband likes Grapenuts,’ I found myself saying feebly. Then, gathering strength, I asked, ‘And what do you have? An egg?’ (p. 193)

There’s also an interesting subplot involving Mary Beamish, a steady young woman who Wilmet initially dismisses as rather dull.

Mary Beamish was the kind of person who always made me feel particularly useless – she was so very much immersed in good works, so splendid, everyone said. She was about my own age, but smaller and rather dowdily dressed, presumably because she had neither the wish nor the ability to make the most of herself. (p. 17)

Nevertheless, as Wilmet learns more about the needs and lives of those around her, she becomes more sympathetic to Mary’s situation, showing a different side to her character than we see at first. Moreover, there’s a lovely hint of irony to their friendship, so while Wilmer is busy dreaming of a flirtation with Piers (and possibly the attractive Assistant Priest, Father Ransome, too), Mary is quietly getting on with a little romance of her own!

As ever with Pym, the dialogue is witty and charming, highlighting each character’s foibles and quirks – her talent for gentle social comedy is second to none. Interestingly, there are hints of a more bohemian world opening up than in earlier Pym novels as we begin to see the transition from a traditional, conservative world to a more liberal society. Piers and his circle of friends are the main embodiment of modernity here, but there are other little touches too, especially in Sybil’s relationship with Professor Root, a frequent caller at the Forsyth house.

Finally, for fans of Pym’s earlier novels, there are various cameo appearances and mentions of characters from these books, including Prudence Bates (from Jane and Prudence), Archdeacon Hoccleve (from Some Tame Gazelle) and the dashing Rocky Napier from Excellent Women). I couldn’t help but laugh at the idea that both Wilmet and Rowena had crushes on Rocky Napier – presumably from their days as Wrens when they encountered Rocky in Italy. 

‘Oh this weather,’ Rowena sighed, pulling off her pale yellow gloves. ‘It makes one so unsettled. One ought to be in Venice with a lover!’

‘Of course,’ I agreed. ‘Whom would you choose?’

There was a pause, then we both burst out simultaneously, ‘Rocky Napier!’ and dissolved into helpless giggles. (p. 159)

In summary, then, A Glass of Blessings is another delightful novel by the inimitable Barbara Pym. As the story draws to a close, Wilmet’s husband, Rodney, also confesses to a harmless flirtation of his own. Nevertheless, the book ends on a contented note with few worries about the couple’s future together. Wilmet, in particular, has a better understanding of those around her, enriching the various relationships she has formed in her affable social circle.     

A Glass of Blessings is published by Virago Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. Max has also written about this one, and you can read his thoughtful review here.