Tag Archives: Julian Maclaren-Ross

My Books of the Year, 2015 – favourites from a year of reading

For me, 2015 was another year filled with great reading. I read around 90 books in 2015 (mostly older books), and only a handful turned out to be disappointing in some way. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve managed to whittle it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of excellent books, plus a few honourable mentions along the way! These are the books I love, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each ‘winner’ in this post, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

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First up, five category winners:

Reread of the Year: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Considered by some to be Yates’ best, this novel follows two sisters who take very different paths in life. Their story taps into a familiar theme in this author’s work: the search for happiness and fulfilment that always seems to elude his characters. Despite the deep sense of sadness running through the novel, this was my favourite reread of the year. A superb book (I doubt whether it gets much better than Richard Yates).

Honourable Mentions (All of these are winners in their own right): After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys; A Heart So White by Javier Marías; The Long Good-Bye by Raymond Chandler.

Crime Novel of the Year: The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (tr. John Cullen)

Set against the backdrop of Argentina’s Dirty War, the story focuses on the bond that develops between a clerk in the Buenos Aires investigative court and the husband of a murder victim. This is a first-rate novel—part psychological mystery, part exploration of corruption in the Argentine criminal justice system, but always engrossing.

Honourable Mentions: Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac; Topkapi – The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

Autobiographical Novel of the Year: Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

To be honest, I’ve only read a couple of autobiographical books this year, but the de Vigan was so good that I had to find a slot for it somewhere! Virtually impossible to summarise in a couple of sentences, this remarkable story focuses on a woman’s quest to gain a deeper understanding of her mother following the latter’s death by suicide. A genuinely absorbing book, beautifully written – de Vigan’s prose is luminous. 

Novella of the Year: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Poor Florence Green is up against it at every turn as she tries to open a bookshop in the (fictional) Suffolk town of Hardborough. The town is the kind of microcosm where everybody knows everybody else’s business, a place where gossip, hierarchies and class systems all play an important role. Fitzgerald writes with great insight about life’s failings and disappointments, but she is a humorous writer too – every scene is so finely observed. Of the three Fitzgerald novels I’ve read to date, this is my favourite.

Honourable Mentions: Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós; Madame de___ by Louise de Vilmorin; Agostino by Alberto Moravia.

Short Story Collection of the Year: Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the stories in this edition of forty-two pieces drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of her stories point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. An unusual and poetic collection of stories that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. Highly recommended, especially if you’re looking for something different.

Honourable Mentions: Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile; Subtly Worded by Teffi.

And now for the novels, eight favourites from a year of reading:

Run River by Joan Didion

It was a tough call between this book and Didion’s iconic Play It As It Lays; in the end, Run River was the one that stood out for me. I love the melancholy tone of this novel which explores the disintegration of the relationship between a husband and wife living in California. There is a sense of things dying here: Lily and Everett’s relationship; the traditional rancher’s way of life; people die too. I can’t imagine it being set anywhere other than California. In some ways, it’s a lament for a time that has all but disappeared. One for fans of Richard Yates – there are similarities with The Easter Parade.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

This novel follows a recently widowed elderly lady, Mrs Palfrey, as she moves into the Claremont Hotel where she joins a group of residents in similar positions – each one is likely to remain there until a move to a nursing home or hospital can no longer be avoided. This is a beautiful, bittersweet, thought-provoking novel, one that prompts the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of old age: the need to participate in life, the importance of small acts of kindness, the desire to feel valued. Taylor’s observations of social situations are spot-on (there are some very funny moments). A real gem.

A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

Part compassionate satire, part touching coming-of-age story, this semi-autobiographical novel was inspired by O’Brien’s experiences of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s and ‘50s. The boy’s father used to be a famous actor, but his career has faded over the years. By the time he is twelve, the boy is living with his melodramatic, alcoholic mother, acting as her confidante and helping her through the bad times. This is a wonderful book – funny, sad, ironic and sympathetic. In many ways, it reminds me of early-to-mid-period Woody Allen (you know, the good ones before things went astray).

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

Dorothy Baker makes my reading highlights for the second year running, this time with Young Man with a Horn, a novel inspired by the music of jazz legend, Bix Beiderbecke. The story focuses on the life of a fictional character named Rick Martin, a jazz musician whose passion for music is so great that he struggles to keep pace with his own ability. This is good old-fashioned storytelling strong on mood, atmosphere and the rhythm of the music. Baker’s writing is top-notch.

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

Set in the 1940s, this novel is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to eke out a living by selling vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. The story is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house where he rents a room. Probably my favourite read of the year – a must for Patrick Hamilton fans.

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Set in New York in the late 1960s, this short novel follows a weekend in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a childless upper-middle-class couple living in Brooklyn. When Sophie is bitten by a cat, the incident is the first of a number of disturbing events that threaten to destabilise the Bentwoods’ seemingly harmonious existence. This is a subtle and very effective character study; slowly but surely Fox peels away the layers to expose Sophie’s vulnerability and Otto’s failings. A novel that has grown in my mind over time.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Set in Enniscorthy (the author’s birthplace), a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the late 1960s, Tóibín’s latest novel is the touching story of a woman who has to find a new way to live following the death of her husband. This is a novel that speaks to me on a personal level; so much of Nora’s story reminds me of my own mother’s experiences following the loss of my father. A subtle character study of a woman’s inner life. As one might expect with Tóibín, the sense of place is wonderful, too.

Carol / The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith’s ‘underground’ novel centres on the development of a relationship between Therese, a young aspiring designer and Carol, an older woman in the midst of a divorce and custody battle for her child. I really love this book; it is beautiful, insightful and involving. The central characters are so well drawn – the longing Therese feels for Carol is portrayed with great subtlety. While Carol is quite different to the other Highsmith novels I’ve read, it contains moments of real tension, both sexual tension and flashes of fear and anxiety. Familiar Highsmith themes such as obsession, desire and morally complex scenarios are here, albeit in a different context. This is the source novel for Todd Haynes’ recent film, Carol – both the novel and the movie come with a high recommendation from me.

Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

I seem to have developed a bit of a thing for novels featuring life in the great British boarding houses of the 1930s and ‘40s. First came Patrick Hamilton’s brilliant Slaves of Solitude, one of my favourites from last year, and now the equally marvellous Of Love and Hunger from Hamilton’s contemporary, Julian Maclaren-Ross. It will make my 2015 highlights, for sure.

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First published in 1947, Of Love and Hunger is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man in his late twenties who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to sell vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. Life as a door-to-door salesman is soemwhat miserable; the pay is lousy and with sales being so hard to come by, the prospects of commission are pretty poor. It’s all a desperate racket of course, and Fanshawe has enough nous to see through the flannel being peddled his employers. On a good day, canvassing door-to-door might yield four or five ‘dems’ (in-home demonstrations, carpets cleaned for free), and once you’re inside, there’s the question of convincing the customer to sign. Not as easy as it might appear. Here’s an excerpt from one of Fanshawe’s calls.

This one was called Miss Tuke. 49, The Crescent. Small house, two storeys, villa-type; small dark drawing-room full of knick-knacks, thick old-fashioned hangings full of dust. No maid, no cleaner, woman in once a week. A cert, if I played it right.

Miss Tuke didn’t seem a bad old girl either. Bit jumpy: kept looking up at the ceiling as if expecting it might fall on her at any moment. Couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw what I got out of her carpet.

‘But I don’t understand. I had the carpet cleaned. Two days ago. I had a woman in.’

‘This dirt didn’t accumulate in two days, Miss Tuke.’ I told her. ‘It’s been in your carpet for years. The ordinary methods of cleaning won’t remove it.’

‘Then what can I do?’

‘There’s only one thing,’ I said, pointing to the cleaner. Miss Tuke looked at it and swallowed. I waited to let the idea sink in. It was too soon to start on her yet, but I felt in my pocket to make sure I’d an order-form ready when the time came. It was there all right. (pgs. 6-7)

I won’t reveal how this one turned out, but let’s just say things don’t go quite to plan.

The novel is set in a colourless seaside town near Brighton in the late 1930s, and with the country on the brink of WWII, a sense of uncertainty is simmering away in the background. Fanshawe’s current abode is a tawdry boarding house, a place where he remains under the gaze of the ever-watchful landlady, Mrs Fellows. Constantly in arrears with the rent and heavily reliant on credit, Fanshawe never seems to have enough money in his pockets. He’s living from one day to the next, but there’s always the hope that wealthy Uncle George will come through with a cheque to tide him over for a while. Meanwhile, Fanshawe’s landlady is on the lookout for any signs of money.

Mrs Fellows popped out of her den next to the dining-room as I was reading the letter. All day long she sat in there by an electric fire, dressmaking. She made all her own dresses. But when I came in she always popped out, in case I got a cheque and hid it before she’d time to get her hooks in. I was six quid in arrears, and she watched my mail like a hawk.

‘Any luck, Mr Fanshawe?’ She asked, with one eye on the letters.

‘None, I’m afraid. Only bills.’

‘Never mind, Mr Fanshawe. Something’ll turn up.’ (pg. 14)

Maclaren-Ross is excellent at portraying the dismal and somewhat futile nature of life as a door-to-door salesman. Everyone is on the fiddle: some salesmen are pulling names and addresses from the telephone directory, noting them down as ‘dems’ to meet their targets; others are hiring out cleaners instead of selling them; sales managers are flogging second-hand models to make a bit of extra cash on the sly. You name it, they’re doing it. Every now and again a sales manager swoops in for a pep talk with the troops and then disappears as quickly as possible. It’s all a load of bluster, and Maclaren-Ross captures it perfectly.

Another thing I love about this novel is the character descriptions. Maclaren-Ross can convey the sense of a person in just a few clipped sentences. Here’s a quick sketch of a couple of Fanshawe’s colleagues in the vacuum business, Barrington and Hall:

Hall looked more like a salesman than any of us. Baggy blue suit, brown shoes, fuzzy hair standing on end. And, of course, a raincoat. We all had raincoats. Sure sign of a salesman. Spot ’em miles off. Same as gangsters. Barrington wore a blue suit as well, but his shoes were black. Big fellow, about my build. You could see his biceps bulging under the blue suit. Had a wife that he sometimes talked about but didn’t live with. (pg. 5)

You get the picture. All this might be starting to sound a little bleak, but it isn’t. The novel is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house.

After only a few weeks with the firm, Fanshawe gets the sack. It’s not entirely unexpected, and he ends up signing on with the one of the competitors, a bigger outfit by the name of Sucko. Cue a string of hilarious scenes as Fanshawe pitches up at the Sucko School for training, a place where he learns everything there is to know about Sucko except how to sell the bloody thing!

Friday was the last day of the course. Graduation Day. The afternoon was given up to showing us the Sucko Floor Polisher, which we could sell as a sideline if all else failed. Commission on it was big, but so was the Floor Polisher. In fact it was enormous. I hoped to Christ we hadn’t to cart that about with us as well. The dem-case with the cleaner in it was heavy enough on its own. 28 lb, to be exact. Smith, who was a small chap, could hardly get it up off the floor. (pg. 104)

At first, transferring to Sucko appears to be a good move. There’s talk of a team of lady-interviews to book the dems, thereby enabling the salesmen to focus on the job of selling. But support is a bit thin on the ground in Fanshawe’s area, and his Group Leader, Smiler Barnes, is a slippery character. All in all it’s the same old fiddle, just on a bigger scale.

Running alongside Fanshawe’s quest to eke out a living, there is another strand in the novel. When Fanshawe’s colleague, Roper, gets the sack from the first firm, he goes away to sea for three months leaving his wife, Sukie, on her own. He asks Fanshawe to look after her, to call round or take her out every now and again. Fanshawe agrees albeit reluctantly. At first he isn’t sure about Sukie but soon warms to her as he gets to know her a little better. With her wide knowledge of books, Sukie encourages Fanshawe to put his talent for storytelling to use by writing a few stories on his time in India. (Brief flashbacks threaded through the novel reveal certain aspects of his former life as a journalist out in the East.) Of course, the inevitable happens, and Fanshawe falls in love with Sukie, a romance played out against the backdrop of prying landladies, seaside cafes and picnics in the woods.

Sukie lay back in her white blouse with her arms behind her head. ‘I love it,’ she said. ‘Don’t you love the sun? She closed her eyes. Her eyelids had little blue veins in them. Under her eyes was a blue shadow and the lids were shaded blue as well. Her arms were bare to the elbow. Strong and white. A little black hair showing under the armpit where I could see up the sleeve of her blouse. She was there within reach of my hand and there was nothing I could do except look at her. (pg. 132-133)

That’s about as much as I want to say about this strand – you’ll have to read the book to discover the outcome for yourself. 

All in all, Of Love and Hunger is a wonderful novel, one of my favourite reads of the year so far. The two lead characters, Fanshawe and Sukie, are beautifully realised and more complex than appears at first sight. As the novel progresses, we see a more sensitive, vulnerable side to Fanshawe as he falls for his friend’s wife. Sukie, on the other hand, is rather fickle, her moods change like the weather. At times, she is supportive and encouraging but she can also be a bit of a tease. There are hints of a fiery temper, too.

Maclaren-Ross’ clipped prose and use of slang gives the story an authentic feel. As you might expect, he captures the mood of the period perfectly. Many of the young men in the novel are scraping a living, just like Fanshawe. As the story draws to a close we are on the brink of change; war is coming, and there is a sense that many see military service as a new start in life. It saddens me to think of these men with so little ahead of them other than the prospect of war.

In wrapping up, I must thank a few people for bringing this terrific novel to my attention. Firstly, Kaggsy, via her review here, and secondly, Max, who recommended it in his comments on my Hamilton piece. Guy is another fan – his review is here.

Of Love and Hunger is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy.