Tag Archives: Hamish Hamilton

Two Recent Reads – On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Thoughts on a couple of recent reads – both excellent, both published this year.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming (2019)

I’ve been reading a few memoirs recently. Rather unusual for me as my preferences lean quite heavily towards fiction, often from the mid-20th-century. Nevertheless, I found myself drawn to this book when it came out earlier this year, prompted by a flurry of positive reports and reviews. Now that I’ve read it, I suspect it may well end up being one of the highlights of my reading year; it really is very good indeed.

In brief, On Chapel Sands is the story of Laura’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. Five days later, Betty was found safe and well in a nearby village. She remembers nothing of the incident, and nobody at home ever mentions it again. Another fifty years pass before Betty learns of the kidnapping, by now a wife and mother herself with a rich and fulfilling life of her own.

The book combines the threads of a tantalising mystery – who took Betty from Chapel Sands that day and why? – with elements of memoir. Together they provide a fascinating insight into the various members of Laura Cumming’s family, their personalities and motivations, their secrets and personal attachments. It also raises questions of nature vs nurture. How much of Betty’s character was there from birth, a sense of coming from within? And how much was shaped by the attitudes of her parents (in particular, her dictatorial father, George, with his controlling manner)?

The failings of human nature constitute another key theme here – a fear of shame and the desire to maintain appearances both play their part in dictating Betty’s path in life.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is the way Cumming uses her skills as an art critic to shed new light on the unanswered questions surrounding her mother’s childhood. More specifically, the importance of images, details, perspective and context, in addition to hard evidence and facts.

The mystery of what happened, how it changed her, and her own children, has run through my days ever since I first heard of the incident on the beach thirty years ago. Then it seemed to me that all we needed was more evidence to solve it, more knowledge in the form of documents, letters, hard facts. But to my surprise the truth turns out to pivot on images as much as words. To discover it has involved looking harder, looking closer, paying more attention to the smallest of visual details – the clues in a dress, the distinctive slant of a copperplate hand, the miniature faces in the family album. (pp. 12–13)

Only by repeatedly sifting these details, returning to them again and again, is Cumming able to come to some kind of resolution about the nature of her mother’s past. The need to consider all the alternatives, to view the situation from various perspectives, is crucial to unravelling the enigma at its heart.

When viewed as a whole, this book is a loving testament to Laura’s mother, a woman whose warmth, generosity and compassion shine through the text. This deeply personal story also conveys a vivid portrait of a small, close-knit community in the early 1930s, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business – except, perhaps, the central individual concerned. All in all, this is a remarkable story, exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

This book caught my eye when it ended up on the Booker shortlist, largely because it was one of two contenders that seemed to be attracting the most positive reviews at the time (the other being Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport). So, when Girl won the Prize itself – a controversial decision as we know – I felt I had to read it.

In short, Girl, Woman, Other is a vibrant portrayal of twelve different characters – mostly black, mostly women – who together offer an insight into a sector of British society over the past hundred years. Here we have women spanning a variety of ages and walks of life, from nineteen-year-old Yazz, a street-smart young woman just starting out at University, to ninety-three-year-old Hattie, keen to remain self-sufficient in her home on the family farm. In between there are mothers and daughters, cleaning entrepreneurs and theatre directors, teachers and bankers, many of whom are forging unfamiliar paths in life – hopefully for others to follow suit.

Over a sequence of thirteen chapters – one for each character and a final after-party scene – Evaristo teases out the connections between various characters, some clear and direct, others more tenuous.

These women are bright, dynamic, resolute and determined, largely irrespective of the hand they’ve been dealt by society at large. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many have encountered abuse and prejudice over the years, and yet they have managed to find their own ways through it, often with the aid of sheer grit and perseverance. I suspect there is more than a hint of Evaristo herself in Amma, a fifty-something director of ground-breaking feminist theatre. Having lived most of her creative life on the radical fringes, Amma now finds herself joining the establishment with her new play due to open at the National, hopefully to great critical acclaim.

What I love about this book is the way Evaristo prompts readers to look beyond the traditional stereotypes of black women typically presented to us in films, TV and other cultural media, encouraging us to see her characters for who they really are – rounded individuals with a multitude of thoughts and feelings.

Yazz wishes the play had already opened to five-star universal acclaim so that she can watch it stamped with pre-approval, it matters because she’ll have to deal with the aftermath if it’s slagged off by the critics and Mum’ll go on an emotional rampage that might last weeks – about the critics sabotaging her career with their complete lack of insight into black women’s lives and how this had been her big break after over forty years of hard graft blah di blah and how they didn’t get the play because it’s not about aid workers in Africa or troubled teenage boys or drug dealers or African warlords or African-American blues singers or white people rescuing black slaves

guess who’ll have to be on the end of the phone to pick up the pieces?

she’s Mum’s emotional caretaker, always has been, always will be

it’s the burden of being an only child, especially a girl

who will naturally be more caring. (pp. 49 – 50)

The narrative explores many themes of relevance to our society over the past century, delving into class, race, gender, sexuality, feminism and social mobility, with some of the dialogue in the novel offering a vehicle for raising key issues and prompting debate.

In summary, this is a thoroughly absorbing, cleverly-constructed novel featuring a myriad of interesting voices – by turns exuberant, striking, funny and poignant. There is a richness of experience on offer here which makes it feel highly pertinent to our current times. In spite of the diversity of modern multicultural Britain, Evaristo shows us that maybe, just maybe there is more that connects us as individuals than divides us. A thoroughly inspiring story in more ways than one.

On Chapel Sands is published by Chatto and Windus, Girl, Woman, Other by Hamish Hamilton; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing reading copies.

How to be both by Ali Smith (review)

I bought Ali Smith’s latest novel, How to be both, back at the end of September with a view to reading it at Christmas. Time got the better of me over the holidays, but in a way I’m glad I had it for the dark days in January as it turned out to be a delight from start to finish.

How to be both, is divided into two parts, both titled ‘one’. The overall narrative consists of two interconnected stories: in one, we encounter a sixteen-year-old girl named George whose mother has recently died; in the other, we meet Francescho, a figure based on a real-life 15th-century Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa. The book has been published in such a way that brings an element of chance to the reading experience. Half the copies of How to be both have been printed with George’s section of the narrative first followed by Francescho’s, while in the remaining 50% of copies the order is reversed.

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In my version of the novel, the narrative starts with George’s story. We join her on New Year’s Eve a few months after her mother’s sudden death from an acute allergic reaction. George lives with her father and younger brother, Henry, and it’s clear that each member of the family is finding it difficult to come to terms with their loss.

One of the things I like about Ali Smith is her ability to create young characters that are interesting and believable. George is no exception; she is smart, inquisitive, a stickler for grammar and thoroughly likeable with it. Through George, Smith perfectly captures the sense of loss and absence that follows the death of a parent. When a loved one dies they remain alive in our thoughts blurring the boundary between life and death. Consequently, George has to keep reminding herself that her mother is dead: ‘But I’m not, her mother says. Said. That was then. This is now […] Her mother’s now not anything.’

George’s story is full of memories of her mother, and central to this section is the account of a trip the pair take to Italy to see a piece of artwork in its natural state. This visit, prompted by a photo George’s mother has seen in an art magazine, forms the main link with the other section of Smith’s novel as the artwork in question is one of Francescho’s frescos.

Here’s George with her mother as they view the frescos in a Palazzo in Ferrara. The frescos are teeming with life, like ‘a giant comic strip’:

There are unicorns pulling a chariot here and lovers kissing there, and people with musical instruments here, people working up trees and in fields there. There are cherubs and garlands, crowds of people, women working at what looks like a loom up there, and down here there are eyes looking out of a black archway while people talk and do business and don’t notice the looking. (pg. 50, Hamish Hamilton)

That’s just a small extract from the wonderful description of these frescos.

As the weeks pass, George finds some comfort in the form of friendship with Helena, a girl from school who shares her budding interest in art as a form of expression. When tasked with a school assignment on empathy and sympathy, the two girls decide to capture it through the voice of Francesco del Cossa, the painter of the frescos George’s mother loved so much. It is entirely possible that the other section of the book, Francescho’s story, is a figment of George and Helena’s imagination. Nothing is clear though and Smith leaves this open to the interpretation of the reader.

As George’s section draws to a close, there are signs of hope. She begins to imagine a future, a vision of a summer where she finds her father happily going about his business instead of resorting to drink. In addition, there’s an intriguing link to del Cossa which acts as an introduction to the other half of the book.

Francescho’s story comes in the form of a first-person narrative, a voice I found utterly engaging from the start. Early in this section, we learn that Francescho is in fact female. When her father recognises young Francescho’s talent for drawing, he encourages her to adopt a male identity thereby enabling her to fulfil her desire to work as an artist.

During this half of the novel, we follow Francescho’s progress as she develops her trade. In time, she is appointed to paint three sections of fresco in a certain Palazzo, the one visited many years later by George and her mother. There is a playful, subversive note to Francescho’s art as she incorporates the faces of her family members and much-loved friends into these frescos. Furthermore, she cannot resist the occasional spot of political satire, an activity that provides another link to George’s story – before her death, George’s mother was an early pioneer of the Subvert movement, an underground group that used art as a form of political activism.

In an intriguing development to Francescho’s narrative, it would appear that her spirit has been sent to observe George in the present day, and these passages are threaded through the story of Francescho’s own life in 15th-century Italy. This might sound confusing and tricksy, but far from it. It all comes together beautifully.

As one might expect, Francescho finds certain aspects of 21st-century life rather baffling. That said, her observations are rather astute. Can you tell what she’s thinking about here?

…cause this place is full of people who have eyes and choose to see nothing, who all talk into their hands as they peripatate and all carry these votives, some of the size of a hand, some the size of a face or a whole head, dedicated to saints perhaps or holy folk, and they look or talk or pray to these tablets or icons all the while by holding them next to their heads or stroking them with fingers and staring only at them, signifying they must be heavy in their despairs to be so consistently looking away from their world and so devoted to their icons. (pgs. 229-230)

At first Francescho mistakes George for a boy and this play on gender provides another link between the two parts of this novel. Irrespective of her initial mistake, Francescho clearly senses that George is grieving for the loss of a loved one:

This boy I am sent for some reason to shadow knows a door he can’t pass through and what it tells me just to be near him is something akin to when you find the husk of a ladybird that has been trapped, killed and eaten by a spider, and what you thought on first sight was a charming thing, a colourful creature of the world going about its ways, is in reality a husk hollowed out and proof of the brutal leavings of life. (pg. 229)

If it’s not clear by now then I should say that I liked this book very much. Like its protagonists, it’s clever, brimming with ideas and yet it’s easy to engage with too. The writing is wonderful and Smith conveys much warmth and affection for these characters. I thoroughly enjoyed both parts, but I found Francescho’s voice especially captivating – her character comes with a language and syntax all of her own.

With a title like How to be both, it’s probably no surprise that duality is at the heart of this novel, and Smith uses this theme to create multiple connections between the two parts. I’ve already touched on the links between life and death and questions of gender, but there are other examples too. The frescos act as a metaphor for the story we can see on the surface and what might be revealed if we endeavour to dig a little deeper and look underneath. At various points the stories touch on the act of observation and surveillance: the observer and the observed; the act of seeing and being seen.

Finally, Smith’s love of art is plainly evident and the novel has something to say on our responses to art, how the form can evoke certain feelings and enrich our lives in various ways. I’ll finish with a quote on this theme as George considers one of Del Cossa’s paintings in a London art gallery:

Today what she sees is the way the rockscape on one side of the saint is broken, rubbly, as if not yet developed, and on the other side has transformed into buildings that are rather grand and fancy.

It is as if just passing from one side of the saint to the other will result if you go one way in wholeness and if you go the other in brokenness.

Both states are beautiful. (pg. 158)

Several other bloggers have reviewed this book including bookemstevo, Eric at Lonesome ReaderGemma at The Perfectionist Pen and anakatony at Tony’s Book World.

Francesco del Cossa’s frescos can be viewed in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.

How to be both is published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books. Source: personal copy. Book 8/20 in my #TBR20.