Tag Archives: Non-fiction

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

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

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

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

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

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

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

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

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

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

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

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

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

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

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

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

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

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

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

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

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

Passing by Nella Larsen

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

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

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

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

My books of the year 2021 – part one, recently published books

2021 has been another tumultuous year for many of us – maybe not as horrendous as 2020, but still very challenging. In terms of books, various changes in my working patterns enabled me to read some excellent titles this year, the best of which feature in my highlights. My total for the year is somewhere in the region of 100 books, which I’m very comfortable with. This isn’t a numbers game for me – I’m much more interested in quality than quantity when it comes to reading!

This time, I’m spreading my books of the year across two posts – ‘recently published’ books in this first piece, with older titles to follow next week. As many of you will know, quite a lot of my reading comes from the 20th century. But this year, I’ve tried to read a few more recently published books – typically a mixture of contemporary fiction and some new memoirs/biographies. So, the division of my ‘books of the year’ posts will reflect something of this split. (I’m still reading more backlisted titles than new, but the contemporary books I chose to read this year were very good indeed. I’m also being quite liberal with my definition of ‘recently published’ as a few of my favourites came out in 2017-18.)

Anyway, enough of the preamble! Here are my favourite recently published books from a year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

Every now and again, a book comes along that catches me off-guard – surprising me with its emotional heft, such is the quality of the writing and depth of insight into human nature. Mayflies, the latest novel from Andrew O’Hagan, is one such book – it is at once both a celebration of the exuberance of youth and a love letter to male friendship, the kind of bond that seems set to endure for life. Central to the novel is the relationship between two men: Jimmy Collins, who narrates the story, and Tully Dawson, the larger-than-life individual who is Jimmy’s closest friend. The novel is neatly divided into two sections: the first in the summer of ’86, when the boys are in their late teens/early twenties; the second in 2017, which finds the pair in the throes of middle age. There are some significant moral and ethical considerations being explored here with a wonderful lightness of touch. An emotionally involving novel that manages to feel both exhilarating and heartbreaking.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

A very striking novel that is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community, and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth! This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. Arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic, Plow subverts the traditional expectations of the noir genre to create something genuinely thought-provoking and engaging. The eerie atmosphere and sense of isolation of the novel’s setting – a remote Polish village in winter – are beautifully evoked.

The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry

When Julia Parry comes into possession of a box of letters between her maternal grandfather, the author and academic, Humphry House, and the esteemed Anglo-Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen, it sparks an investigation into the correspondence between the two writers. Their relationship, it transpires, was an intimate, clandestine one (Humphry was married to Madeline, Parry’s grandmother at the time), waxing and waning in intensity during the 1930s and ‘40s. What follows is a quest on Parry’s part to piece together the story of Humphry’s relationship with Bowen – much of which is related in this illuminating and engagingly written book. Partly a collection of excerpts from the letters, partly the story of Parry’s travels to places of significance to the lovers, The Shadowy Third is a fascinating read, especially for anyone interested in Bowen’s writing. (It was a very close call between this and Paula Byrne’s Pym biography, The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym, but the Parry won through in the end.)

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

This luminous meditation on marriage, womanhood, writing and reinvention is the second part of Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ trilogy – a series which commenced in 2014 with Things I Don’t Want to Know. In essence, this fascinating memoir conveys Levy’s reflections on finding a new way to live following the breakdown of her marriage after twenty or so years, prompting her to embrace disruption as a means of reinvention. Levy has a wonderful ability to see the absurdity in day-to-day situations, frequently peppering her reflections with irony and self-deprecating humour.

This is an eloquent, poetic, beautifully structured meditation on so many things – not least, what should a woman be in contemporary society? How should she live?

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This beautiful, evocative novella is set in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story emerges, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a secret relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man whom she met at her husband’s office. What emerges is a story of unspoken desire, missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. This haunting, dreamlike novella is intimate and hypnotic in style, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

This slim, beautifully constructed novella is an exploration of solitude, a meditation on aloneness and the sense of isolation that can sometimes accompany it. The book – which Lahiri originally wrote in Italian and then translated into English – is narrated by an unnamed woman in her mid-forties, who lives in a European city, also nameless but almost certainly somewhere in Italy. There’s a vulnerability to this single woman, a fragility that gradually emerges as she goes about her days, moving from place to place through a sequence of brief vignettes. As we follow this woman around the city, we learn more about her life – things are gradually revealed as she reflects on her solitary existence, sometimes considering what might have been, the paths left unexplored or chances that were never taken. This is an elegant, quietly reflective novella – Lahiri’s prose is precise, poetic and pared-back, a style that feels perfectly in tune with the narrator’s world.

The Past by Tessa Hadley

A subtle novel of family relationships and tensions, written with real skill and psychological insight into character, The Past revolves around four adult siblings – Harriet, Alice, Fran and Roland – who come together for a three-week holiday at the Crane family home in Kington, deep in the English countryside. The siblings have joint ownership of the house, and one of their objectives during the trip is to decide the property’s fate. The inner life of each individual is richly imagined, with Hadley moving seamlessly from one individual’s perspective to the next throughout the novel. Everything is beautifully described, from the characters’ preoccupations and concerns, to the house and the surrounding countryside. A nearby abandoned cottage and its mysterious secrets are particularly vividly realised, adding to the sense of unease that pulses through the narrative. My first by Hadley, but hopefully not my last.

Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell

A luminous collection of eleven stories about motherhood – mostly featuring young mothers with babies and/or toddlers, with a few focusing on pregnancy and mothers to be. Caldwell writes so insightfully about the fears young mothers experience when caring for small children. With a rare blend of honesty and compassion, she shows us those heart-stopping moments of anxiety that ambush her protagonists as they go about their days. Moreover, there is an intensity to the emotions that Caldwell captures in her stories, a depth of feeling that seems utterly authentic and true. By zooming in on her protagonists’ hopes, fears, preoccupations and desires, Caldwell has found the universal in the personal, offering stories that will resonate with many of us, irrespective of our personal circumstances.

Blitz Spirit by Becky Brown

In this illuminating book, Becky Brown presents various extracts from the diaries submitted as part of the British Mass-Observation project during the Second World War. (Founded in 1937, Mass-Observation was an anthropological study, documenting the everyday lives of ordinary British people from all walks of life.) The diary extracts presented here do much to debunk the nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the British public during the war, a nation all pulling together in one united effort. In reality, people experienced a wide variety of human emotions, from the novelty and excitement of facing something new, to the fear and anxiety fuelled by uncertainty and potential loss, to instances of selfishness and bickering, particularly as restrictions kicked in. Stoicism, resilience and acts of kindness are all on display here, alongside the less desirable aspects of human behaviour, much of which will resonate with our recent experiences of the pandemic.

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

A brilliantly observed, lacerating portrayal of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship that really gets under the skin. Riley’s sixth novel is a deeply uncomfortable read, veering between the desperately sad and the excruciatingly funny; and yet, like a car crash unfolding before our eyes, it’s hard to look away. The novel is narrated by Bridget, who is difficult to get a handle on, other than what she tells us about her parents, Helen (aka ‘Hen’) and Lee Grant. This is a fascinating character study, one that captures the bitterness, pain and irritation of a toxic mother-daughter relationship with sharpness and precision. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, some of the best I’ve read this year, especially for illustrating character traits – a truly uncomfortable read, for all the right reasons.  

And finally, a few honourable mentions for the books that almost made the list:

  • Second Sight – an eloquent collection of film writing by the writer and critic, Adam Mars-Jones;
  • Nomadland – Jessica Bruder’s eye-opening account of nomad life in America;
  • Open Water – Caleb Azumah Nelson’s poetic, multifaceted novella;
  • and The Years – Annie Ernaux’s impressive collective biography (tr. Alison L. Strayer), a book I admired hugely but didn’t love as much as others.

So that’s it for my favourite recently published titles from a year of reading. Do let me know your thoughts below – and join me again next week when I’ll be sharing my favourite ‘older’ books with plenty of treats still to come!

Blitz Spirit: Voices of Britain Living Through Crisis, 1939-1945 by Becky Brown  

In this fascinating book, the anthologist, editor and literary agent Becky Brown presents various extracts from the diaries submitted as part of the British Mass-Observation study during the Second World War. Founded in 1937, Mass-Observation was an anthropological study, documenting the everyday lives of ordinary British people from all walks of life. The initiative aimed ‘to tell a truer, fuller version’ of life in Britain than was available in the newspapers or recorded in history books. As part of the project, a volunteer group of 500 people across the UK – from factory workers to shop assistants, from writers to teachers, from housewives to office clerks – submitted their personal diaries on a monthly basis from August 1939 onwards. It’s a remarkable resource, full of striking insights into the diarists’ day-to-day lives during this extraordinary time.

The diary extracts are presented chronologically, offering readers the opportunity to follow the war as it unfolds from the end of August 1939 to August 1945. Each chapter covers a period of six months and is prefaced by a brief summary of the key developments – both historical and emotional, using the diary entries as a ‘temperature gauge’ or touchstone resource.

Interestingly, the book does much to debunk the nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the British public during the war, a nation all pulling together in one united effort. As the diary entries clearly demonstrate, people experienced a wide variety of human emotions, from the novelty and excitement of facing something new, to the fear and anxiety fuelled by uncertainty and potential loss, to instances of selfishness and bickering, particularly as restrictions kicked in. Moreover, Brown has clearly taken a lot of care to select a wide variety of extracts, offering us entries that range from the mundane and virtuous (e.g. digging up the garden to grow vegetables, as in the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign) to the dramatic and terrifying (e.g. scrambling to hide in a cupboard during an unexpected bombing raid).

While many of the entries are sobering and poignant, there are some lighter moments too, especially in the early stages before the actual conflict begins.

To Rectory afternoon for bandaging practice. The Rector’s wife amuses me rather. She speaks as if the village were going to be strewn with casualties in the near future. (p. 22, Oct. 1939)

Another diarist notes the popularity of war-like flourishes in women’s fashions, with long military-style coats and jackets featuring brass buttons and shoulder straps appearing in the local town. Others, however, are more unsettled by the sense of uncertainty, their emotions changing from one week to the next as the situation in Europe worsens…

The war was, for a few days, terrible and exciting. Then it was only fitfully so. Now, after being merely a bore for a while, it grows more fearsome. It becomes personal and menacing. (p. 37, Jan 1940)

One of the most striking things about these diaries is just how much they resonate with the way many of us were feeling (and behaving) during the first year of the recent pandemic. Pre-emptive stockpiling in the early stages of the war drives a degree of panic buying, just as we saw with flour, dried pasta and loo rolls at the start of COVID. By December 1939, shop assistants are already bearing the brunt of customers’ anger at shortages in the shops, frequently resulting in outbursts as they try to deal with the situation.

Women have so insulted shop assistants that the rule – that assistance may not be rude to customers or ‘answer back’ – has been relaxed, by the manager of a big store here. The girls are often in tears, & the men greatly upset, by selfish customers who blame assistants when they can’t get what butter or sugar they think they want. (p. 30, Dec. 1939)

Some diarists quote examples of neighbours or acquaintances who flout the rules, obtaining food or petrol illegally on the black market or indulging in unnecessary travel when they should be keeping journeys to a minimum. Others report shopkeepers (or those in positions of authority) profiting from the shortages, hiking up prices to benefit from the increased demand. If anything, class divisions exacerbate the situation, undermining the sense of everyone being equal or ‘in it together’.

Interestingly, anti-maskers are not simply a 21st-century phenomenon, as this 1941 entry from a Belfast-based diarist neatly demonstrates!

All the propaganda recently about gas & gas masks doesn’t seem to have had much effect. I was down-town for an hour this morning, & during that time saw one woman carrying a mask; & she was obviously English. Schoolchildren carry them when going to school, (because compulsory) but not at other times. (p. 100, Apr. 1941)

Naturally, there are also touching acts of kindness, examples of friends and neighbours looking out for one another, sharing essentials and provisions or ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort – e.g. taking in evacuees, knitting garments for soldiers or driving ambulances during the Blitz.

Frustration with the government’s handling of the situation is detectable in several of the dairies – people want to hear the truth, not some jingoistic propaganda being peddled by the media. They also want to be treated as grown-ups – trusted partners in the war effort, not subordinates who must simply do as they’re told with no explanations. 

Even at quite an early stage in the war, people are becoming desensitised to the constant stream of bad news, as one tragedy follows another with little pause for thought about the impact of lives lost. In some respects, this chimes with the current situation in the UK where our negligent government seems to regard the loss of 1,000+ lives per week to COVID as an ‘acceptable’ cost of the pandemic.

This war feels more and more like a continuation of the last one. I think we felt more grief then at the loss of life. The modern world does not seem to care about lives being lost (3000 lost on the roads in two months). (p. 24, Nov. 1939)

It’s astonishing too how one takes the most astounding piece of news in one’s stride now, as it were, as much that would in normal times have supplied us with a year’s sensations, we swallow in a week without great comment. I suppose our minds have reached saturation point. All we hear and read now has little further effect. (p. 78, Oct. 1940)

As the war rumbles on, the later years usher in increasingly high levels of fatigue, scepticism, flagging morale and uncertainty about the future, even when the prospect of victory seems to be in sight. While the war has thrown up new opportunities for some – particularly women who have been able to work in new areas – others are less positive about their prospects. Meanwhile, some appear to expect an immediate return to ‘normal’ life, possibly with certain advances, while in reality any changes are likely to be gradual. As one diarist reflects:

It will not be something definite and spectacular like Lights Up, Bananas for all, unlimited fully fashioned real silk stockings at 2/6d a pair and everyone with a job they like and able to afford their own plot and bungalow. (p. 272, Oct. 1944)

The detrimental impact of the war on children is uppermost in some diarists’ minds, with the loss of normal childhood experiences being a particular concern – another issue that will resonate with many of us as we emerge from COVID restrictions.

What a reflection on our present mode of life it is that children have hardly known what it is to be able to spend their few pennies on ices and sweets. They can only remember queues and crowds, sirens and shelters, and have never eaten a toffee-apple! These children have lost five years of their life, and we must try to make it up to them. (p. 264, Aug. 1944)

In summary, then, Blitz Spirit is a fascinating insight into the day-to-day lives of ordinary people living through extraordinary times. There is real stoicism and resilience here, alongside the less desirable aspects of human behaviour, much of which will resonate with our recent experiences of the pandemic. I found it a thoroughly illuminating read, an excellent addition to the accounts of Home Front life during WW2.

Blitz Spirit is published by Hodder & Stoughton; personal copy.

Two very good books by Laurie Colwin: Home Cooking + Passion and Affect

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (1988)

I have Dorian (at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau) to thank for introducing me to Laurie Colwin. (You can read more about the background to that intro in my review of Colwin’s 1982 excellent novel, Family Happiness, by clicking on the link.) Alongside fiction, Colwin also wrote about food – specifically, home-cooked food, the kinds of simple yet flavoursome dishes that any good cook needs to have in his or her repertoire.

First published in 1988, and reissued by Fig Tree in this lovely 2012 edition, Home Cooking weaves together Colwin’s recipes, anecdotes and sage words of advice on the joys of cooking and sharing food with friends. In short, it is a delight to read – warm, generous, and completely down-to-earth, just like Colwin herself, I would imagine. In some respects, reading this book feels like having your warmest, smartest, funniest friend over for dinner – someone with a willingness to share their culinary tricks and treats alongside their unmitigated disasters.

There are chapters here on Friday Night Supper, How to Disguise Vegetables and Easy Cooking for Exhausted People. All the recipes seem eminently achievable – tried and trusted versions of Colwin’s family favourites, including Warm Potato Salad with Fried Red Peppers, Orange Ambrosia and Extremely Easy Old-Fashioned Beef Stew (which can be pimped up accordingly once the basics have been mastered). Pot roasts and baked chicken feature heavily, as do eggplants (aubergines) and broccoli, two of Colwin’s favourite vegetables. I will definitely be trying some of her ways with orzo as there’s a packet languishing in my cupboard as we speak.

Orzo with butter and grated cheese is very nice. Orzo with a little ricotta, some chopped parsley and scallion, butter and cheese, is even better. Orzo with chopped broccoli and broccoli di rape is heaven, and it is also a snap. While you cook the orzo, steam the two broccolis—the amounts depend entirely on how many people you are feeding—until tender. Chop and set aside.

Drain the orzo throw in a lump of butter. Stir it in, add the broccoli, some fresh black pepper and some grated cheese, and you have a side dish fit for a visiting dignitary from a country whose politics you admire. (pp. 85-86).

She’s not above sharing some of her kitchen nightmares, either – the culinary disasters that have lingered in her mind. After all, as Colwin generously admits herself, having just served crunchy pasta to her husband’s friends, ‘if all else fails, eat out’.

There’s also a particularly amusing chapter on ‘Repulsive Dinners’ recounting the horrors that Colwin has experienced elsewhere. In this passage, she recalls an invitation to supper in Connecticut where the ‘local markets were full of beautiful produce of all kinds.’ Unfortunately, none of these tempting ingredients found their way into the host’s meal. Instead, ‘an old-fashioned fish bake’ was produced – even those words themselves sounded ominous, as Colwin conveys.

The old-fashioned fish bake was a terrifying production. Someone in the family had gone fishing and had pulled up a number of smallish fish—no one was sure what kind. These were partially cleaned and not thoroughly scaled and then flung into a roasting pan. Perhaps to muffle their last screams, they were smothered in a thick blanket of sour cream and then pelted with raw chopped onion.

As the coup de grâce, they were stuck in a hot oven for a brief period of time until their few juices run out and the sour cream had a chance to become grainy. With this we were served boiled frozen peas and a salad with iceberg lettuce. (p. 153)

What I love most about this book is the way Colwin writes – hopefully you’ll get a flavour of her style from the passage I’ve quoted above.

In summary then, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen is a wonderful collection of essays, recipes and reflections on the joys of simple yet delicious dishes. An ideal present for any food lover, especially the unpretentious ones!

Passion and Affect (1974)

I’ve also been reading some of Colwin’s short stories over the past few weeks, dipping in and out of her bittersweet collection Passion and Affect. Colwin writes beautifully about quiet, unshowy people, many of whom are drifting through life, searching for happiness or fulfilment, even if they can’t quite recognise it when they find it. While not necessarily outsiders, many of Colwin’s characters are somewhat odd or idiosyncratic, written with a kind of humanity that makes them seem entirely recognisable despite their inherent strangeness. Here we have stories of people falling in and out of love, not quite connecting through mismatched expectations, failing to compensate for their respective flaws and imperfections.

As one might expect with any collection of short stories, some pieces will resonate more strongly than others, so I’ll focus on a few of my favourites from the fourteen included here.

In The Water Rats (probably my favourite story), we meet Max Waltzer, a thoughtful, successful man who adores his wife and four children so much that his happiness threatens to overwhelm him. For Max, the fear of potential tragedy manifests itself in the form of water rats, recently sighted on the nearby shoreline.

In the beginning of the spring, geese flew in V formation. Max watched them from the bay window. He looked out over the water and saw the first of the small craft battling its way to an old mooring. On the weekends he liked to sit by the bay window and watch his part of the Sound. It soothed him, and it gave him a sense of propriety to see the latticework gazebo, firm on its slope. A family of barn swallows was building a nest in its thatched roof. (p. 49)

This is a beautifully written story in which a man must come to terms with his fear of loss – a worry that poses a more significant threat to his wellbeing than any hypothetical catastrophe.

In Children, Dogs and Desperate Men, a woman slips into a dalliance with a married man – a cartographer she meets at her cousin’s engagement party – even though she knows it’s unlikely to lead to anything lasting. As with many of Colwin’s characters, Elizabeth is somewhat fragile, viewing herself as ‘shaken and out of place’, still recovering from an earlier unhappy love affair. This touching, wryly humorous story ends on an unresolved note, leaving the reader to wonder what might happen in the future.

This dry (and frequently direct) style of humour runs through several of Colwin’s stories, perhaps most noticeably in The Big Plum, one of the best pieces in the collection. Harry, a supermarket manager, studying for a degree in art history, becomes fixated on Binnie Chester, a checkout girl who reminds him of Vermeer’s famous painting, The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Harry studies Binnie closely, fantasising about her home life in ‘an old house of ruined elegance’ with her vaguely tragic relatives – perhaps a rakish father and a faded, abstracted grandmother. Somewhat inevitably, Harry’s dreams are punctured when he finally plucks up the courage to talk to Binnie out of hours, an exchange laced with humour and poignancy as the normality of her life is ultimately revealed.

I’ll finish with a final quote that gives a hint of Colwin’s skills in conveying character. Her descriptions are often memorable and distinctive, just like the individuals themselves.

Holly was impeccable: she had not opted for neatness, it had been thrust upon her by nature. She had simple, unadorned features, and thick straight hair that fell unalterably to her shoulders. Clothes on her looked somehow cleaner and more starched than they did on other people. (p. 89)

Passion and Affect is published by Harper Perennial; personal copy.

The Years by Annie Ernaux (tr. Alison L. Strayer)

Broad in scope, evocative in detail, The Years is the French writer Annie Ernaux’s dazzling collective autobiography, in which the cultural and social history of a generation is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. It is a hugely impressive work, drawing on photographs, personal memories, cultural references, political history and social trends, threading together the perspectives of an individual (Ernaux), a generation (those who grew up in the aftermath of WW2) and a nation (France).

The underlying narrative running through the text is based on the trajectory of Ernaux’s life, from 1940, her birth year, to the mid-2000s, not long before the book was first published in French. Interestingly Ernaux uses ‘she’ rather than ‘I’ when conveying her own personal experiences, almost as if she is observing herself from a distance while writing the book. The collective experiences, however, are conveyed through the use of ‘we’, reflecting the ideas and perspectives of Ernaux’s generation and social class.

In fact, the question of how best to approach this style of memoir is one that Ernaux grapples with in the book. This is not the usual kind of autobiography, designed to convey an individual’s life history, story or analysis of the self. Instead, Ernaux envisages ‘a kind of woman’s destiny’, a text that will portray the passage of time, both individually and collectively – the blending of the personal with the universal referred to above.

She would like to assemble these multiple images of herself, separate and discordant, thread them together with the story of her existence, starting with her birth during World War II up until the present day. Therefore, an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of the generation. (p. 169)

By applying this approach to The Years, Ernaux recognises that our lives and experiences are influenced by the broader political, social and cultural environments in which we find ourselves. Moreover, our personal values and beliefs are reflected in our stances on these external dynamics, highlighting the relationship between the internal and external.

Over the course of the book, Ernaux focuses on key timepoints in her life: birth, childhood, adolescence, a move to college, early marriage and motherhood, the separation and divorce from her husband at forty, her relationship with a much younger lover at the age of fifty-seven. Each of these snapshots in time is introduced through the description of a photograph or a video clip. It’s an engaging way to open each section, cleverly blending imagery with glimpses of the author’s personal experiences and inner thoughts. In the photo described here, Ernaux – who is nineteen at this point – is posing with her college classmates, the philosophy class at the Rouen Lycée.

She is in the second row, third from the left. It is difficult to see in her the girl with the provocative pose from the previous photo, taken scarcely two years earlier. She wears glasses again, and a ponytail from which a lock of hair escapes at the neck. Frizzy bangs do nothing to soften her serious demeanour. Her face bears no sign of the events of the summer before, the boy’s invasion of her being, as semi-defloration evinced by the bloodstained underwear hidden between some books in her cupboard. No sign, either, of her actions and movements after the event: walking the streets after school in hope of seeing him; returning to the young ladies’ residence and weeping. Spending hours on an essay topic and understanding nothing. (pp. 73–74)

Feminism, sex and the female body are prominent themes in the book, highlighting their importance to Ernaux and her generation. Ernaux was a teenager in the mid-1950s, a decade too early to fully benefit from the sexual revolution at this point. It was a time when parents monitored their daughters very closely, scrutinising their clothes, make-up, movements and relationships. For Ernaux and her contemporaries, ‘shame lay in wait at every turn’, while the need to conform to societal expirations limited their freedoms and experiences. Nevertheless, like any enterprising teenagers, they managed to evade these restrictions now again, immersing themselves in the culture of the moment.

But we outsmarted the surveillance and went to see The Girl in the Bikini and Tempest in the Flesh with Françoise Arnoul. We would have loved to resemble the film heroines, possess the freedom to behave as they did. But between the films and books, on the one hand, and the dictates of society on the other, lay a vast zone of prohibition and moral judgement. To identify with anything we saw in the films or the heroines was forbidden. (p. 50)

Cultural and technological references also feature heavily in the book, with Ernaux conveying a picture of post-war French life, a world of rapidly evolving technologies, cultural trends and consumer behaviour. In terms of approach, the following passage gives a feel for Ernaux’s style, characterised as it is by the fusion of elements from various aspects of her world.

There would be the SS France, the Caravelle jetliner and the Concorde, school until sixteen, centres of arts and culture, the Common Market, and, sooner or later peace in Algeria. There were new francs, scoubidou bracelets, flavoured yoghurt, milk in cartons, transistor radios. For the first time one could listen to music anywhere, whether one was lying on the beach with the radio next one’s head or walking down the street. The joy of the transistor was of an unknown species. One could be alone but not alone, and have at one’s command the noise and diversity of the world (p. 76)

As one might expect, historical and political events cast their shadows over the lived experience – developments such as the Algerian war, the protests of May 1968, the election of François Mitterrand, the rise of the far right, AIDS, 9/11, etc. etc. As the years go by, we continue to glimpse moments from Ernaux’s life as her two sons grow up, leave home, find partners and have children of their own. Towards the end, there is a noticeable sense of melancholy, a growing awareness perhaps on the part of Ernaux of her own mortality, as the time she has ahead of her inevitably decreases. Not for any pressing reason – it’s simply the natural passage of time.

In summary, The Years is an evocative meditation on the lives of a generation, a beautifully written text that highlights the impact of collective history on personal memories and experiences. A fascinating book best experienced in person – I’ve barely scratched the surface of it here.

The Years is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; personal copy.

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

The Cost of Living – a luminous meditation on marriage, womanhood, writing and reinvention – is the second part of Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ trilogy, which commenced in 2014 with Things I Don’t Want to Know. I’m not quite sure why I started with this middle volume, first published in 2018 – maybe its focus on a significant turning point in the author’s life particularly appealed. Whatever the reason, now that I’ve read Cost, my investment in the trilogy as a whole is well and truly sealed.

In essence, this fascinating memoir conveys Levy’s reflections on finding a new way to live following the breakdown of her marriage after twenty or so years. Levy is fifty at this point, and the book starts with her realisation that she no longer wishes to live with her husband, to be part of the traditional societal view of the woman as wife and mother – roles designated to women by a longstanding patriarchal society. But, to paraphrase Levy herself, why mortgage one’s life to someone else’s fear? It takes immense amounts of time, care and generosity to build a family home, to be the ‘architect of everyone else’s well-being’. However, when we no longer feel a sense of belonging in our family home, it is time to move on – to step out of the old story and invent a new one. 

It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it, had come to an end. Femininity, as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twenty-first century. What would it cost to step out of character and stop the story? (p. 85)

It was time to find new main characters with other talents. (p. 87)

Consequently, Levy and her two daughters move from their dark, well-furnished Victorian house to a small but airy flat in a dilapidated North London building with poor heating and darkly ominous communal corridors, which Levy ironically calls ‘The Corridors of Love’. Here, Levy begins a new phase of her life, sometimes writing at night on the tiny balcony amidst the silvery sky and stars.

We were living with the sky from dawn to dusk, its silver mists and moving clouds and shape-shifting moons. (p. 24)

Many of the author’s reflections are intensely personal, offering the reader an insight into the emotions they inevitably trigger. Levy writes movingly her mother’s death from cancer, a tragedy that occurs within a year of the breakdown of the author’s marriage. We hear something of the mother’s backstory, too – a bright, glamorous, resourceful individual who worked hard to keep the family together when Levy’s father, an anti-apartheid activist, was imprisoned in the 1960s for his political beliefs.

In many cases, it is the details that make Levy’s vignettes feel so vivid, often imparting a note of ironic humour amidst the undeniable poignancy. For instance, when her bag breaks, the chicken Levy has bought for dinner is run over by a car, leaving an indelible impression, both on the bird and on the reader’s mind. Each day, as her mother’s life is coming to an end, Levy diligently buys a particular brand of ice lolly (the only food her mother can consume) from a newsagent’s shop run by three Turkish brothers. During each visit to the shop, Levy clears the top of the brothers’ freezer of various assorted goods – mushrooms, shoe polish batteries etc. – to reach the treasured ice lollies, preferably the lime ones which her mother prefers. One day, however, the usual flavours have gone with only the bubblegum lollies remaining – a variety her mother subsequently rejects. The frustration Levy displays towards the Turkish brothers is both heartbreaking and wryly amusing – an entirely understandable outlet for the depth of her pain.

There are several brighter, more playful moments, too – like shards of light amidst the darkness of winter. For example, we learn how Adrian Mitchell’s eighty-year-old widow, Celia, offers Levy the use of her husband’s old shed as a writing retreat – a rather spartan habitat that Levy shares with her friend’s spare freezer. In relaying this and other stories, Levy has a wonderful ability to see the absurdity in day-to-day situations, frequently peppering her reflections with irony and self-deprecating humour.

Of course I wanted to instal a wood-burning stove in the shed (what was I to do with the freezer?) and live a romantic writer’s life – preferably Lord Byron’s life, writing poetry in a velvet smoking jacket, waiting for inspiration to ravish me as the fragrant wood crackled and popped, etc. (pp. 49–50)

Nevertheless, in spite of a few challenges, Celia’s shed proves to be a welcome refuge for Levy, enabling her to write with a new sense of liberty.

Reflections on various literary figures are threaded through the memoir, often entwined with Levy’s own thoughts on writing, womanhood and ways of living. Her artistic touchstones range far and wide from Emily Dickinson to Simone de Beauvoir to Margarite Duras. Duras feels particularly crucial in this context, offering inspiration on motherhood, our perceptions of ourselves and the general creative process.

Levy’s ideas on various social constructs form key elements of the text, particularly those on the perception (and suppression) of women in 21st-century society. She highlights how men often fail to mention a woman by name when referring to her in conversation, defining the woman by their relationship (e.g. my wife) or simply leaving her nameless, like spectral figure in the shadows. A chance encounter with a man at a party is particularly telling, signalling a lack of interest in women’s voices on the part of this writer whose specialism is military biographies. On introducing himself to Levy (who has only just arrived), this tall, silvered-haired author asks her to pass him a canapé – a request she shrewdly ignores while proceeding to change her shoes.    

He was tall and thin, possibly in his late sixties, and seemed to desire my company. He talked about his books for a while and how his wife (no name) was unwell at home. He did not ask me one single question, not even my name. It seemed that what he needed was a devoted, enchanting woman at his side to acquire his canapés for him and who understood that he was entirely the subject. (pp. 66–67)

Above all though, The Cost of Living is about discovering a new way to live – to move away from the life that someone else has imagined for us and embrace disruption as a means of reinvention. It is heartening to read of Levy whizzing around London on her e-bike – a sort of metaphor for liberation itself – navigating the challenges this break from marital security presents. Especially so when we see how wise and perceptive Levy is in her reflections on life – her honesty and unassuming nature really do come through.

This is an eloquent, poetic, beautifully structured meditation on so many things – not least, what should a woman be in contemporary society? How should she live?

The Cost of Living is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Circles & Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists by Caroline Maclean

There seems to have been a mini trend towards the publication of group biographies over the past couple of years. Perhaps most notably Square Haunting, Francesca Wade’s luminous account of five fascinating women who found themselves living in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square during the first half of the 20th century. Wade’s biography is focused on two central aspects: a specific geographical area (the aforementioned Square) and a common theme (a quest for independent living and ‘a room one’s own’).

Like its Bloomsbury counterpart, Caroline Maclean’s group biography, Circles & Squares also zooms in on a particular area of London (in this instance, Hampstead) and a unifying theme (here it’s modernism). While Circles isn’t quite as eloquent as the Wade, it remains a fascinating read – not least for the array of modernist artists, architects and writers we encounter on the page.

The book is structured such that each chapter focuses on two or three individuals (typically featuring a romantically involved couple) working in a similar artistic space. So, in the opening chapters we have the sculptor Barbara Hepworth and the painters Ben and Winfred Nicholson, with other associated luminaries such as Henry Moore, Paul Nash and Walter Gropius following in subsequent sections.

Maclean opens in September 1931 with the coming together of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth during a fortnight’s holiday in Happisburgh, a small village on the Norfolk coast. It’s an engaging opening, capturing the carefree mood generated by the freedom to work, interspersed with swimming, dancing and playing games on the beach. Ben (married with three young children at this point) and Barbara (also married) fall in love, sparking a relationship that continues for the next eighteen years.  

One of the things Maclean does particularly well in Circles is to capture the fluidity of these artists’ lives, the sense of like-minded souls gravitating towards one another, irrespective of the collateral damage to marriages and other relationships. For Winifred, the breakdown of her marriage with Ben gives rise to conflicted feelings, painful at first, although these wax and wane somewhat over time. By contrast, Ben holds onto his own ‘subjective truth’ throughout, viewing himself as the centre of things and morally correct.

Winifred’s unhappiness is painfully apparent, and it is not surprising that she felt conflicted at times. Ben, on the other hand, believed that by staying true to his feelings, everyone else would be happy, eventually. A close friend described how they ‘thought they were freeing themselves’ from bourgeois constraints, and ‘they thought there was no such thing as jealousy’ but ‘it didn’t seem to work out that way’. (p. 24)

For a while, Ben shuttles between Barbara in Belsize Park and Winifred (in various locations), with both women showing considerable patience and grace during a very trying period. Eventually however, Ben and Barbara move in together, mostly settling in Belsize Park, although Paris also features heavily here. Triplets come along in 1934, cementing their relationship further, and the couple finally marry in 1938, less than a year before the start of WW2.

Meanwhile, in the early ‘30s, another modernist movement is beginning to take shape in Belsize Park, focusing on architecture as the enabler of a new way of living.

Designed by the architect Wells Coates, a modernist white block of flats that looked a bit like an ocean liner was built over the winter of 1933 and the spring of 1934. The Lawn Road flats, known as the Isokon, were built to free people from the clutter of daily life, to release them from household chores. They did not need to cook or clean so that they could focus on more important things like art, politics or love. (p. 51)

The Isokon building (which some of you may be familiar with) is born out of a vision developed by the charismatic architect Wells Coates and the forward-thinking engineer Jack Pritchard. It’s another fascinating development – not only for its contribution to the British modernist movement but also for its ambition to facilitate an alternative lifestyle. The Pritchards, perhaps more than any other couple in the book, display a nonconformist approach to living. Their marriage is an open one (with Coates actively involved in an affair with Jack’s wife, Molly); and their attitudes to child-rearing are equally, if not more, progressive.

Maclean is mindful of conveying the various tensions involved in the development of the Isokon, ranging from the multitude of financial issues to the more ideological or emotional ones. As the author rightly points out, there is a degree of irony here, nicely captured in the following quote.

There was an irony in the fact that Molly, Jack and Wells wanted to free people from the chaos of their lives when their own lives were far from simple. (p.76)

Subsequent chapters focus on other key players in the modernist movement, all of whom coalesce around Hampstead at some point in the 1930s, leading to some sharing of inspiration and ideas. For example, the sculptor Henry Moore and his wife, Irina – both of whom were present during the pivotal Happisburgh holiday in September 1931 – spend the 1930s living in Parkhill Road, Belsize Park, just around the corner from the Nicholsons. Other British artists and writers who feature prominently include Paul Nash, John Piper, W.H. Auden and Myfanwy Evans/Piper (editor of the abstract art magazine Axis). The rise and fall of various artistic movements are covered too – most notably Unit One, a group of sculptors, artists and architects looking to ‘bring together a diverse range of abstract modernism and surrealism’.

The tensions between the different facets of modernism that develop during the 1930s, particularly those pitting abstraction and surrealism, are also captured in the book. While Moore is something of a moderator, adopting an open-minded outlook on both schools of art, Ben Nicholson is highly singular in his approach, viewing abstraction as the only form of modernism worth supporting. (In reality, Nicholson wishes to ‘squash surrealism’; Moore, on the other hand, regards it as restoring a much-needed element of romanticism to art.)

It’s also interesting to note how many European émigrés in the modernist movement spend time in Hampstead during the decade in question. Architects such as Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of design, and Marcel Breuer, another Bauhaus leading light, also feature prominently – as do the artists Piet Mondrian and László Moholy-Nagy. 

In summary, then, Circles & Squares offers a fascinating insight into the bohemian world of modernism flourishing in Hampstead during this influential decade. By using Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth as focal points for her treatise, Maclean explores the lives of the various luminaries who find themselves in the couple’s orbit. As these artists, architects and designers continue to push the boundaries of modernism in their work, new ways of living begin to emerge, defining a movement that goes beyond the conventional boundaries of art and creativity. With the outbreak of WW2 fast approaching, the momentum behind the group begins to dissipate in the final years of the decade, leaving us to reflect on what might have been had the war not taken place…

Karen has also reviewed this book, and I’m in agreement with her on its relative strengths and limitations – in particular, the downsides of trying to focus on a wide range of individuals. In addition, a little more coverage of the actual art or architecture itself wouldn’t have gone amiss. For example, at one point, we get a tantalising glimpse of Barbara piercing a hole in an abstract sculpture of pink alabaster to make her legendary Pierced Form. It’s a ground-breaking move that transforms certain aspects of 20th-century sculpture, opening up the form ‘to involve interior space’ – and yet, artistic details such as this are relatively few and far between.

Nevertheless, Circles offers some fascinating insights into this dazzling period of cultural history – definitely worth reading if you’re a fan of the modernist movement. 

Circles & Squares is published by Bloomsbury; my thanks to Karen for passing on her review copy.

The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry

When Julia Parry comes into possession of a box of letters between her maternal grandfather, the author and academic, Humphry House (HH), and the esteemed Anglo-Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen (EB), it sparks an investigation into the correspondence between the two writers. Their relationship, it transpires, was an intimate one, ebbing and flowing over time, waxing and waning in intensity during the 1930s and ‘40s; this much is clear to Parry from her initial glimpses of the letters. She is also fortunate in having access to both sides of the conversation – letters from EB to HH and vice versa – preserved by Humphry’s wife, Madeline, Julia’s maternal grandmother. There are letters from Humphry to Madeline too, adding another dimension to this intriguing dynamic.

What follows is a quest on the part of Parry to piece together the story of Humphry’s relationship with Bowen – much of which is related in this illuminating and engagingly written book. Partly a collection of excerpts from the letters, partly the story of Julia’s travels to places of significance to the lovers, The Shadowy Third is a fascinating read, especially for anyone interested in Bowen’s writing.

The affair between Bowen and Humphry begins in Oxford in the early 1930s when Bowen is already a critically-acclaimed writer with a clutch of novels and short stories to her name. Moreover, she is ten years into her marriage to Alan Cameron, although their relationship, we learn, was never consummated. In effect, Alan has been adopting a kind of ‘parental’ role for Bowen, substituting for the losses she endured as a child, thereby providing security and respectability in the eyes of society.

Humphry, at this point, is also in a relationship, albeit a somewhat less formal one. He has been seeing Madeline Church – the same Madeline he goes on to marry in 1933, one year after his first meeting with Bowen at the Oxford dinner party. Following this initial connection, Bowen and Humphry write to one another regularly, and their letters reveal much about their respective personalities. Bowen – forthright and direct, particularly with emotions; Humphry – naïve, enthusiastic, and somewhat lacking in sensitivity. There are physical meetings between the pair too, and their relationship becomes sexual.

During the early years of the affair, Humphry emerges as rather foolish and insensitive in his treatment of both women: his lover, Bowen, and – more importantly – his wife, the exemplary Madeline. Not long before their wedding, Humphry makes it clear to Madeline that he may well indulge in ‘sensual acts’ with other women during their marriage, a practice that he acknowledges as ‘technically unfaithful’. Madeline is fully aware of Humphry’s feelings for Bowen at this point – this is clear from the letters she receives from HH. Nevertheless, in spite of these declarations, the marriage goes ahead.

Humphry often wandered through the rooms of his heart without shutting doors behind him. He thoughtlessly carried his relationship with one woman into the sphere of the second. He told each about his feelings for the other – unable, or unwilling, to imagine how this might just distress them. […] Humphry’s pattern of behaviour left both women in potentially vulnerable positions. Each was to devise strategies – very different ones – to deal with the man with the open-plan heart. (pp. 66–67)

There is a real lack of self-awareness on the part of Humphry here, compounded by a dismissal of Madeline’s intellectual capabilities. In the early years of the marriage, Madeline – who studied English at Royal Holloway – is never allowed to shine, firmly relegated to the positions of wife, mother and homemaker. Naturally, this is partly a function of societal attitudes at the time, frequently confining women to the domestic arena. Nevertheless, Humphry’s vanities and his lack of consideration of Madeline’s aspirations and feelings are also important factors here. At this stage in his life, Humphry is struggling to establish himself professionally, unable to secure a suitable position in the academic hierarchy, despite his ongoing research into the work of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

This initial, rather clouded view of Madeline – one reading of the ‘Shadowy Third’ of the book’s title – is reinforced by the impression she makes on Bowen. Elizabeth is cutting about Madeline in her letters to the philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin, describing her as perfectly nice, but rather dull and mediocre. A visit by Bowen to the Houses’ marital home in Devon in 1935 strengthens this perception for Bowen – so much so that she sends Madeline a tea service as a ‘thank you’ gift, reinforcing her status as largely domestic.

Contrary to these perceptions, Madeline is very bright, a woman with strong moral and ethical values – her honesty, simplicity and goodness are clearly evident from the start. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that she agreed to marry Humphry in the knowledge of his ongoing infidelities – a reflection of the lack of realistic options for women in the 1930s, I suspect. Thank goodness the situation is very different today. More of Madeline later, but for now, I’d like to return to Bowen, whose energy and artistic temperament pulse through Parry’s book.

In some respects, the affair with Humphry enriches Bowen’s life with new experiences, a new level of emotional depth and intensity that she subsequently draws on for her fiction. (The House in Paris, which I’ve yet to read, seems particularly significant here.) Interestingly, Bowen can compartmentalise her affair with Humphry, keeping it separate from the relative stability of her home life with Alan – who seems, for his part, to be turning a blind eye to Elizabeth’s peccadillos. As such, Bowen expects Humphry to do the same, a demand that creates a notable degree of tension in their relationship.  

If you cannot emerge imaginatively from your daily life enough to meet me imaginatively and to keep up this imaginative communication between us, then you and I have no future. But the idea of you letting me go fills me with despair on your behalf as much as on my own. If you did let me go, if later your home life and your marriage ever ceased to satisfy the whole of your nature, then you would have nothing to fall back on but petty muddles and lusts – unless you had found meanwhile, as I should like you to find, another and better Elizabeth. (Letter from EB to HH, Nov 1934, pp. 141–142)

Humphry, it seems, is less able to do this than Elizabeth, and the opportunity of an academic post in India for three years soon takes him overseas, separating him from both Madeline and Elizabeth. It comes at a difficult point in the lovers’ relationship, with Elizabeth taking umbrage over Humphry’s passing attraction to ‘B’, the sister of Elizabeth’s agent, Spencer Curtis Brown. At first, Madeline (pregnant with her second child) stays behind in England, India being no place for a wife or mother. Nevertheless, following the baby’s birth, Madeline leaves the two children with her parents and joins Humphry in India for five months, a trip that results in a rekindling of their relationship. By the time Humphry returns to England in 1938, the affair with Elizabeth is all but over, although their friendship and professional collaboration continue for many years. Madeline too ultimately reconciles her feelings about Humphry’s connection to Bowen, no longer allowing the relationship ‘get’ to her as it did in the past. Consequently, she feels more secure in the marriage, a reflection of her intelligence and an underlying steeliness.

Sadly, Humphry dies suddenly of a heart condition at the age of 46, not long after he has finally gained recognition as a successful writer and an inspirational teacher. (His students in India and elsewhere are full of praise for his lectures, viewing him with a combination of professional respect and immense fondness.)

Somewhat perversely, the loss of Humphry presents Madeline with an opportunity to shine. Her role in cataloguing and editing a definitive collection of Dickens’ letters is widely recognised, bringing the professional appreciation she so richly deserves (ten years after Humphry’s death). It’s a very gratifying picture for Parry to hold on to, one that reflects the steely determination of ‘Linny’, the grandmother she knew and loved.  

Parry has written a beautiful, thoroughly absorbing book here, capturing her travels across the world to reconstruct the emotional landscape of her grandparents’ lives. It’s a journey that takes her to several locations – from the academic circles of Oxford to Bowen’s Court in Ireland to the Presidency College in Calcutta. Bohemian London in the 1930s is vividly evoked, as in the Irish country-house milieu of Bowen’s heritage – not only through the extracts from various letters but via Parry’s elegant commentary too. In summary, this is a fascinating account of a complex tangle of relationships, exquisitely conveyed with intelligence and sensitivity. A truly captivating read for Bowen fans and newbies alike.

The Shadowy Third is published by Duckworth; personal copy.

June Reading – Funny Weather by Olivia Laing and The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison

I have two books to share with you today – both non-fiction, both highly recommended – the types of books that lend themselves very well to being read in short bursts, especially if time is tight.

Funny Weather by Olivia Laing

I loved this – a fascinating collection of essays, articles and mini-biographies which explore the importance of art in politically unsettled times.

This is the third book I’ve read by Olivia Laing, and it’s just as absorbing as the others despite the brevity of the individual pieces. (If it’s of interest, my mini-review of The Lonely City, Laing’s beautiful meditation on the experience of loneliness in a busy urban environment, is here.) As a writer, she is someone I’m happy to follow, just to see where the path takes me, such is the quality of her writing.

Several of the pieces included in the collection were initially published, often in different forms, in newspapers and journals such as The Guardian, frieze and the New Statesman. There are glimpses into the lives of leading artists – David Hockney, Joseph Cornell and Jean-Michel Basquiat, to name but a few; interviews with four highly talented women – Hilary Mantel, Sarah Lucas, Ali Smith and Chantal Joffe; and columns for frieze, a leading magazine of contemporary art and culture.

The frieze pieces are particularly interesting as they allow Laing free rein to cover a wide variety of subjects relating to art – from political protest (e.g. the practice of lip-sewing amongst migrants and refugees) to literary appreciation, with columns on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels and Anthony Powell’s Dance series. 

One or two of the essays revisit familiar areas of interest for Laing; Drink, drink, drink, for instance, on women writers and alcohol, a mini-sequel of sorts to The Trip to Echo Spring. Marguerite Duras features quite heavily here, as do Patricia Highsmith and Jean Rhys, two of my favourite female authors. Laing is incisive in her analysis of Rhys’ early novellas, viewing them as depictions of loneliness and depression. These stories feature impoverished women on the edge who struggle to get by and are often brushed off by ‘respectable’ society with its class-conscious snobbery.

In the unstable Good Morning, Midnight she makes a case for why such a woman might turn to drink, given limited options for work or love. At the same time, and like her near-contemporary [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, she uses drunkenness as a technique of modernism. The novel is written in a flexible first person, slip-sliding through Sasha’s shifting moods. ‘I’ve had enough of these streets that sweat a cold, yellow slime, of hostile people, of crying myself to sleep every night. I’ve had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whiskey, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine with the bottles labelled “Dum vivimus, vivamus…” Drink, drink, drink… As soon as I sober up I start again…’ (pp. 213–214)

In other pieces, Laing offers her reflections on specific books ranging from Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living and Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I love this observation on the latter, which feels absolutely spot on.


What’s remarkable is the pitch of Rooney’s writing, the way it shimmers and quivers with intelligence. Each sentence is measured and unobtrusive, and yet the cumulative effect is a near-unbearable attentiveness to the emotional dimension of human lives, the quick uneasy weather. (p.289)

Through the myriad of perspectives in this endlessly fascinating book, Laing makes a clear case for the power of art (and its creators) in a dynamic, politically turbulent world. While art can be a source of joy and beauty for many of us, Laing seems more interested in its potential as a form of resistance and stimulus – something with a sense of agency to protest and repair. And yet, despite the clear political overtones in some of these articles, they never feel overly forced or preachy. This is a beautiful collection of pieces characterised by this writer’s thoughtful, erudite style. Very highly recommended indeed.

The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison

This is such a thoughtful, beautifully-written book that it’s going to be hard for me to do it justice in a few short paragraphs. Nevertheless, I shall endeavour to give you a sense of it, albeit in brief.

The Stubborn Light of Things is a collection of Harrison’s monthly columns for The Times ‘Nature Notebook’, which began in the summer of 2014. The articles are presented chronologically, with the first half of the book focusing on London, where Harrison lived until December 2017, and the second half Suffolk, where she resides today. Collectively, they chart the author’s passion for the natural world, the changing of the seasons and a growing sense of engagement with her surroundings – be they urban or rural.

Harrison extols the benefits of reconnecting with nature by overserving and ‘tuning in’ to what is happening in the environment – activities aided by her thoughtfulness and innate sense of curiosity. One of the most striking things about the London-based columns is just how much wildlife there is to observe on our doorsteps, irrespective of our location. In the ‘City’ section of the book, there are sightings of short-eared owls, migrating nightjars and red kites, alongside the more frequently observed squirrels and urban foxes.

There are pockets of South London that seem utterly rural; paths edged with cow parsley and dog roses and overhung by oaks through which the sunlight filters down, green-dappled and shifting. I can walk from one blackcap’s song to another’s, no buildings or roads in sight, breathing in the smell of spring and green growth. At this time of year everything seethes with life: the nettles are thick with aphids, pollen rides the warm June air, the undergrowth is busy with baby birds and cuckoo spit froths overnight. It feels intoxicating. (pp. 44– 45)

There are pieces too about various rewilding and conservation projects, many of which tap into Harrison’s interest in the fragility of the natural world. For instance, she rightly bemoans the trend towards over-tidiness whereby hedges are regularly ‘topped’, effectively rendering them unsuitable as ‘wildlife habitats and corridors’. If only we could tolerate a degree of messiness, then it would help nature to flourish, rewarding us with richer environments in which to live.  

As in Surrey, this mania for tidiness is eradicating wildflowers, butterflies, insect- and seed-eating birds, hedgehogs and a whole host of other creatures we profess to love. So why are we letting it happen? I think it’s crept up us slowly, so that we simply can’t see the harm we’re doing. Just as we believe the number of insects around us is normal, rather than terrifyingly depleted, it looks right to us now for verges to be razed rather than riotous, and for farmland hedges to look ugly and smashed. We’ve also been slow to wake up to how crucial these vestiges of habitat have become for wildlife, as pressures on the wider countryside have invisibly mounted up. To turn things around requires a paradigm shift: can we tolerate an untidier, bushier, scrubbier environment to help bring nature back? (pp. 174–175)

When Harrison moves to Suffolk, her connection with nature deepens, furthering her bond with the rhythms of the seasons – her home is an 18th-century cottage situated in a small village surrounded by arable land. Here, the nightingales come to breed each spring, when linnets and yellowhammers can also be found, singing from the shrubs and hedgerows. It feels like a natural evolution for the author, which mirrors her development as a writer with a growing body of nature writing to complement her novels.

A gorgeous, evocative book, full of level-headed reflections on the natural world.

Funny Weather is published by Picador and The Stubborn Light of Things by Faber; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing reading copies.

Spanish Lit Month – some reading recommendations for July

As some of you may know, July is Spanish Lit Month (#SpanishLitMonth), hosted by Stu at the Winstonsdad’s blog. It’s a month-long celebration of literature first published in the Spanish language – you can find out more about it here. In recent years, Stu and his sometimes co-host, Richard, have also included Portuguese literature in the mix, and that’s very much the case for 2021 too.

I’ve reviewed quite a few books that fall into the category of Spanish lit over the lifespan of this blog (although not so many of the Portuguese front). If you’re thinking of joining in and are looking for some ideas on what to read, here are a few of my favourites.

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazan (tr. Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves)

This is a marvellous novel, a great discovery for me, courtesy of fellow Spanish Lit Month veteran, Grant from 1streading. The House of Ulloa tells a feisty tale of contrasting values as a virtuous Christian chaplain finds himself embroiled in the exploits of a rough and ready marquis and those of his equally lively companions. This classic of 19th-century Spanish literature is a joy from start to finish, packed full of incident to keep the reader entertained.

Who Among Us? by Mario Benedetti (tr. Nick Caistor)

This intriguing, elusive novella by the Uruguayan author and journalist, Mario Benedetti, uses various different forms to examine a timeless story of love and misunderstandings. We hear accounts from three different individuals embroiled in a love triangle. Assumptions are made; doubts are cast; and misunderstandings prevail – and we are never quite sure which of the three accounts is the most representative of the true situation, if indeed such a thing exists. Who among us can make that judgement when presented with these individuals’ perceptions of their relationships with others? This is a thoughtful, mercurial novella to capture the soul.

Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli (tr. Christina McSweeney)

A beautiful collection of illuminating essays, several of which focus on locations, spaces and cities, and how these have evolved over time. Luiselli, a keen observer, is a little like a modern-day flâneur (or in one essay, a ‘cycleur’, a flâneur on a bicycle) as we follow her through the city streets and sidewalks, seeing the surroundings through her eyes and gaining access to her thoughts. A gorgeous selection of pieces, shot through with a melancholy, philosophical tone.

Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

Another wonderful collection of short pieces – fiction this time – many of which focus on the everyday. Minor occurrences take on a greater level of significance; fleeting moments have the power to resonate and live long in the memory. These pieces are subtle, nuanced and beautifully observed, highlighting situations or moods that turn on the tiniest of moments. While Fraile’s focus is on the minutiae of everyday life, the stories themselves are far from ordinary – they sparkle, refracting the light like the crystal chandelier in Child’s Play, one of my favourite pieces from this selection.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was just twenty-three when her debut novel, Nada, was published. It’s an excellent book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. Here we see the portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. This is a wonderfully evocative novel, a mood piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. Truly deserving of its status as a Spanish classic.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

My first Marías, and it remains a firm favourite. A man is stabbed to death in a shocking incident in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes an immersive meditation, touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. Those long, looping sentences are beguiling, pulling the reader into a shadowy world, where things are not quite what they seem on at first sight.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the pieces in this volume of forty-two stories, 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 as they progress. Several of them point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday, the sense of strangeness that lies hidden in the seemingly ordinary. Published by NYRB Classics, Thus Were Their Faces is an unusual, poetic collection of vignettes, many of which blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. Best approached as a volume to dip into whenever you’re in the mood for something different and beguiling.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Anne McLean)

Vila-Matas travels to Paris where he spends a month recalling the time he previously spent in this city, trying to live the life of an aspiring writer – just like the one Ernest Hemingway recounts in his memoir, A Moveable FeastVila-Matas’ notes on this rather ironic revisitation are to form the core of an extended lecture on the theme of irony entitled ‘Never Any End to Paris’; and it is in this form that the story is presented to the reader. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging novel, full of self-deprecating humour and charm.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in another couple of titles during the month, possibly more if the event is extended into August, as in recent years.

Maybe you have plans of your own for Spanish Lit Month – if so, what do you have in mind? Or perhaps you have a favourite book, first published in Spanish or Portuguese? Feel free to mention it alongside any other comments below.