Tag Archives: Non-fiction

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.

Second Sight – Selected Film Writing of Adam Mars-Jones

The British writer and critic Adam Mars-Jones has had a longstanding interest in film, something which informs this collection of reviews, essays and personal insights spanning more than thirty years of cinema releases. As the first film reviewer for The Independent (from 1986 – 1997) and more recently as a critic for The Times Literary Supplement, Mars-Jones is well placed to offer views on this subject, having analysed a wide range of movies over the course of his career.

The book opens with an extended autobiographical piece covering the author’s grounding in film, largely informed by the process of watching and thinking about movies rather than more formal training on the subject. This organic or naturalistic immersion is important to convey upfront as it informs Mars-Jones’ approach as a critic – an ethos where personal insights, reflections and opinions sit alongside more objective assessments of the technical aspects of film.

With the groundwork in place via the opening meditation, the remainder of the book comprises a selection of the author’s film reviews and essays from the late 1980s to 2017, interspersed with more recent reflections on these pieces. In essence, the additional notes allow Mars-Jones to look back on his original columns with the benefit of hindsight – and, in some instances, to offer a modified view on the picture in question.

As with my posts on short stories, I’m not planning to cover all the individual pieces in the collection – there are more than thirty of them in total! Instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the book by reflecting on some of the reviews that resonated with me personally. (Naturally, when it comes to reviewing any medium, we are all subjective to a certain extent.)

One of the book’s most entertaining pieces is an essay entitled ‘Thirteen Spielbergs’, commissioned by Prospect magazine in 2016 to coincide with a Stephen Spielberg retrospective at the NFT. Mars-Jones goes on the offensive here, effectively grouping the director’s films into thirteen fairly reductive categories from ‘Sledgehammer of Subtlety’ (Sugarland Express) to ‘Inner-Child Wrangler’ (E.T.) to‘Reluctant Minimalist’. This last grouping includes Jaws (one of Spielberg’s best movies), in which thedirector was forced to rely on inventiveness due to technical issues with specific special effects. In reality, this development turned out to be a blessing in disguise, pushing Spielberg down the route of subtlety in favour of clumsiness.

Also of note is the highly eloquent defence of David Fincher’s Alien 3, a film that Mars-Jones clearly admires for delivering ‘images of an often extraordinary beauty without letting the adrenaline level of its narrative drop much below the maximum’. As someone who has always found James Cameron’s Aliens – the critically-acclaimed sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien – rather bombastic and overrated, I have a lot of sympathy for the author’s views on the trilogy. Many other critics consider Alien 3 a disappointment compared to its predecessor; but Mars-Jones has a different take on it, viewing Cameron’s Aliens as possibly ‘the weakest film in the cycle, flawed by a certain sentimentality and a relatively routine approach to action.’

Another piece that resonates with me is the review of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the award-winning film by Martin McDonagh, which draws on a mother’s rage against the authorities for an unsolved sexual assault and murder. AM-J cites several issues with the film from the crass behaviours of certain characters to the derogatory representations of black individuals on screen – the latter appearing to be merely cyphers with no discernible depth or backstory. It’s a movie I also find deeply problematic, despite Frances McDormand’s blistering performance in the lead role. Whether you agree with it or not, the author’s critique is very thoughtful and well-argued – definitely worth seeking out if you’re familiar with the film.

By now, you might be thinking of Second Sight as a series of takedowns or arguments against highly successful films, however this is not the case at all. There are several very positive reviews here – and not just for arthouse and independent films but more mainstream movies too. The groundbreaking noir pastiche Who Framed Roger Rabbit is an excellent case in point. As Mars-Jones puts it, this is ‘the sort of film that gives blockbusters a good name’, where much of the pleasure stems from the collision of live-action and animation rather than a smooth integration of the two mediums. It’s a film I haven’t seen in years, but I’m looking forward to watching it again as a consequence of this piece.

Also on the list to revisit is Safe (by Todd Haynes), which features Julianne Moore as a woman who becomes ultra-sensitised to virtually everything in her immediate environment, to the point where this condition takes over her whole life. Some twenty-five years after its initial release, Safe presents an eerie, multilayered vision of the protagonist’s life, prompting anxieties that seem to resonate with our mask-wearing, socially-distanced approach to living today. Mars-Jones likens this mysterious and beautifulfilm to the work of the Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, drawing parallels in terms of camerawork, style and themes. More specifically: alienation, discontentment and the desire to free oneself from the sense of ennui surrounding an existing life. It’s an excellent piece, characteristically thoughtful, insightful and well presented. Again, well worth reading if you’re familiar with these films.

Some filmmakers make multiple appearances, allowing the author to track their development over time, pinpointing the highs and lows in their careers. Terence Davies falls into this category, as does Robert Altman – the latter giving rise to a particularly fascinating series of analyses. Altman is a maverick, a director who veers between brilliance and failure in a rather unpredictable way – and yet for some, this lack of predictability is part of the appeal. In certain respects, Altman can be viewed as an anti-authoritarian, someone ‘with a powerful need of other people’s structures to inhabit and contradict.’ For Mars-Jones, Altman’s highs include McCabe & Mrs Miller, Nashville and Kansas City; the lows M*A*S*H, A Wedding and Images; while Short Cuts, for all its sweep and ambition, falls somewhere in between. AM-J also successfully puts his finger on the reason why I have never been able to engage with Peter Greenaway’s films. Despite the undeniable aesthetic beauty of these works, they appear to lack any form of emotional soul – almost as if they are hermetically sealed in a vacuum devoid of feeling.

Other astute pieces consider subjects such as the representation of disability in film and the use (or misuse) of music to telegraph or accentuate emotion. Mars-Jones argues for a less-is-more approach to soundtracks, where the judicious use of silence can often be advantageous. Moreover, the careful introduction of music can signal a change of tone, one that fits with the director’s intentions. In short, ‘music best retains its power by being rationed.’ (The author’s observations on Kubrick’s use of music and silence in 2001: A Space Odyssey are particularly interesting.)

In summary, this is a fascinating collection of film writing, the sort of book that leaves the reader with a long list of movies to watch or revisit. Even though the views expressed here may not always be in line with our own, Mars-Jones is never anything less than thoughtful and eloquent in his assessments. A fascinating compendium for film lovers to dip into, time and time again.

Second Sight is published by Reaktion Books; personal copy.   

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – Book Review, Part 2

Earlier this week, I posted part 1 of my review of Paula Byrne’s marvellous new biography of Barbara Pym. If you missed it, you can catch up with it here as this post carries straight on from the first.

Some of the most interesting aspects of this biography – and there are many things to treasure here – are the connections Byrne makes between Pym’s personal life and the threads in her fiction. Over the course of her career, Pym drew extensively on her own personal experiences, creating an environment populated with excellent, unassuming woman, pompous, unobservant husbands, fusty, isolated academics and precious young curates. Spinsterhood was a recurring theme, from ‘contended spinsters’ such as Belinda Bede from Some Tame Gazelle to exploited spinsters such as Mildred Lathbury from Excellent Women.

It is a world that seems at once both farcical and recognisable, such was Pym’s insight into the foibles of human nature. In effect, the novels became outlets for Pym’s deepest feelings, particularly those of loss, hurt and unrequited love.

In Some Tame Gazelle – which features two sisters, Belinda and Harriet Bede, closely modelled on how Barbara and her younger sibling Hilary might be living when they reach their fifties – Pym channelled former lover Henry Harvey for her portrayal of Archdeacon Hoccleve, a pompous, self-centred man whom Belinda worships from afar.

In Some Tame Gazelle, the Archdeacon loves nothing better than the sound of his own voice, bores his parishioners with his overlong, wordy sermons, and is jealous of his curates. Many of Henry’s traits and peccadilloes are depicted in this handsome, selfish, petulant, lazy, conceited and not terribly bright man of the cloth: his dislike of olives, his delicate constitution, his habit of lying in bed in the morning, his constant complaints. His Viennese red wool socks that Belinda must forever darn. (p. 133)

Hoccleve is a brilliant creation, all the more so when we realise how closely he resembles Henry in both character and behaviour. (You can read more about Pym’s romantic entanglements with Henry Harvey in part 1 of my review.)

Byrne highlights several other examples too. There is more than a hint of Julian Amery – a sophisticated young man who had a fling with Barbara, only to drop her quite casually – in Simon Beddoes, the ambitious young politician who featured in Pym’s marvellous ‘Oxford novel’ Crampton Hodnet.

Another of Pym’s lovers, Gordon Glover, provided the inspiration for Fabian Driver, the handsome yet vain widower from Jane and Prudence. Pym fell hard for Gordon, the estranged husband of her close friend Honor Glover; and while Honor knew about Pym’s relationship with Gordon, the situation was complicated by the fact that the two women were sharing a house (along with Barbara’s sister, Hilary) at the time.

In short, Barbara was mesmerised by Gordon, but their affair ended after just two months when he dumped her rather abruptly shortly after the Christmas break. While Gordon seemed to be treating their relationship as a fling, Barbara was hoping for something more lasting. As a consequence, Pym poured all of her hurt over the rejection by Gordon Glover – and his cowardice in not being straight with her – into another novel, the pitch-perfect Excellent Women. Here we see Pym writing with a whole new level of insight into affairs of the heart, particularly the intense bruising that can come from being sidelined.

Another rejection provided inspiration for the novel The Sweet Dove Died, written around 1970 but only published followed Pym’s renaissance later that decade. At close to fifty, Pym fell in love with another somewhat unsuitable chap, Richard Roberts, aka Skipper. A rugged, ‘virile-looking’ man, Skipper was eighteen years Pym’s junior and a homosexual; and while Pym appeared to be aware of Skipper’s sexual leanings from an early stage, it didn’t stop her from falling hard for him. Skipper had a certain degree of charisma, but there was also a dark side to his personality, an irascible, depressive streak that made him difficult to like. Once again Pym was ‘off-loaded’, an experience that she channelled into her art, penning Dove as a kind of riposte. It is considered one of Pym’s most melancholy novels, a reflection no doubt of her feelings at the time.

To compound matters, Skipper’s rejection coincided with Pym’s well-documented ‘Wilderness Years’, which commenced when Jonathan Cape declined to published her seventh novel, An Unsuitable Attachment. The year was 1963 – which Byrne terms as Pym’s ‘Annus Horribilis’ – when significant social changes were sweeping through Britain. As such, Pym’s rather genteel image seemed oddly out-of-step with modern trends and considerations.

Beatlemania had begun, and with it a cult of youth and working-class rebellion in which Pym’s world suddenly looked unfashionably middle aged and middle class – though she herself liked their records. (p. 486)

It didn’t help that the novel portrayed a cross-class relationship as being ‘unsuitable’, just at a time when class barriers were being demolished.

Pym was deeply hurt by Cape’s actions, particularly the manner of their brush-off, which was communicated to her in a cold letter, without the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting or phone call to soften the blow. Several other publishers subsequently declined An Unsuitable Attachment, and its successor The Sweet Dove Died; however, the respected writer Philip Larkin proved himself Pym’s saviour…

Larkin and Pym had been friends for many years, writing to one another over the course of a couple of decades. The poet was a huge fan of Pym’s novels, diligently re-reading them all every few years. As such, he was a great source of comfort to Barbara during her Wilderness Years, writing to Faber’s editor, Charles Monteith, on her behalf in the hope of securing future publications of her work.

‘In all her writing I find a continual perceptive attentiveness to detail, which is a joy and a steady background of rueful yet courageous acceptance of things which I think more relevant to life as most of us have to live it.’ (Letter from Larkin to Charles Monteith, p. 522)

Pym’s renaissance was finally secured in 1977 when the TLS ran an article asking various writers to name their most underrated authors. Pym was the only writer to receive two nominations, one from Philip Larkin, the other from Lord David Cecil. As a consequence, Pym’s fortunes changed virtually overnight. Various broadsheets wanted to interview her, Roy Plomley secured her for Desert Island Discs, and best of all, Macmillan offered to published her latest novels, Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died. Even Jonathan Cape wanted to be friends with Pym again, once they’d got over the shock of her new-found popularity. The satisfaction of being able to tell them that she’d since signed with Macmillan must have been delightful for Pym! A happy ending for our heroine, very much in keeping with the tone of her early books.

I hope I’ve succeeded in giving you a flavour of this absorbing biography over the past few weeks. (It really is a very comprehensive book.) There were many sides to Pym’s personality, some of them public, others more private. Ultimately, what emerges is an image of a woman who had many fascinating experiences during her lifetime, including several affairs of the heart – a rather surprising number for an English gentlewoman and spinster from the mid-20th-century! (Other than Pym’s relationship with Henry Harvey, I had very little knowledge of this aspect of her life before reading Byrne’s biography.)

While Pym’s canvases were small, the emotions she depicted were significant and universal, highlighting her sensitivity to the foibles of human behaviour. There is a sharpness in her fiction that comes from lived experience, a compassion and sense of humanity, particularly for those who have loved and lost. How I envy those of you who’ve yet to read her for the first time – you have so many treats to forward to!

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is published by William Collins; my sincere thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – Book Review, Part 1

Last week I posted a little excerpt from Paula Byrne’s comprehensive new biography of Barbara Pym, one of my favourite underappreciated writers from the mid-20th century. Hopefully it will have whetted your appetite for this truly immersive book, which I plan to cover in more detail over the course of the week. (It really is a most fascinating read!)

Byrne digs deep into the detail here, following Pym from her childhood in Shropshire to her twilight years in Oxfordshire, illuminating with great clarity and affection each distinct phase of the author’s life. The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is written in the style of a picaresque narrative, which gives the book a jaunty tone, very much in line with its subject’s world. As such, it is presented as an engaging sequence of vignettes with titles such as ‘Miss Pym’s Summer of Love’, ‘Miss Pym passes her Interview’ and ‘Hullo Skipper’.

Following her birth in Oswestry in 1913, Pym lived through a remarkable period of history, a time that encompassed two World Wars, a royal abdication and sweeping social change; and while it would be impossible for me to cover all aspects of her life in these reviews, I hope to convey something of the flavour of the book.

Pym’s childhood was a happy and loving one. Born into a respectable, middle-class family in 1913, Barbara was well suited to Oswestry’s comfortable routines. Her father, Frederic, was a good-natured solicitor, and her mother, Irena, the epitome of the ‘excellent women’ Pym would go on to portray with great affection in her novels.

Irena – an avid reader and lover of music – had clear ambitions for Barbara and her younger daughter, Hilary, supporting their education in the hope they would progress to Oxford. In 1931, Barbara gladly fulfilled her mother’s wishes, winning a place at St Hilda’s College to read English. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these new surrounding proved stimulating and exhilarating to the young Pym, and she embraced University life with great enthusiasm and relish.

Pym found Oxford ‘intoxicating’. In no small part this was because she suddenly found herself the centre of male attention and, like many girls from single-sex schools, she was ready to enjoy being in the company of young men. As with her heroine, Miss Bates, in her third published novel Jane and Prudence, the male undergraduates beat a path to Pym’s door. It was not only the preponderance of men (the ratio was one woman to ten men) that enhanced her desirability, but also the fact that she was so funny and interesting. She was in particular a magnet for homosexual men, who were drawn to her wit and playfulness. (pp. 26–27)

As a witty, highly original young woman, Pym was not short of male admirers, and Byrne devotes several chapters to the romantic adventures in our heroine’s life, many of which proved hurtful and damaging. Pym tended to rush headlong into love affairs, confessing all her most intimate feelings in the pages of her diaries. Naturally, Byrne draws heavily on these texts in this biography, particularly as they offer such a rich seam of material.

Pym’s first real love was a Classics student named Rupert Gleadow, and while their letters to one another were both affectionate and passionate, Barbara was clearly coming under pressure to take things a step further. When Barbara finally agreed to sleep with Rupert, the incident caused a rupture in their relationship – the relevant pages from Barbara’s diary are missing, presumably ripped out from intense embarrassment and distress. The specifics of what happened that night remain a mystery. Nevertheless, it is clear from the state of Barbara’s diary and her subsequent withdrawal from Rupert that she felt pressurised, ultimately losing her virginity in a most unpleasant way. It must have been an incredibly traumatic thing for any young woman to process at the time, especially someone of Barbara’s sensitivity. The very least she could do was to purge the incident from her diary if not from her memories and mindset.

Other lovers duly followed, perhaps most significantly, Henry Harvey, a handsome student whom Pym ‘stalked’ at the Bodleian Library – his ‘herringbone tweed grey overcoat and brown leather gloves, lined with lambswool’ were duly noted. Unfortunately for Barbara, Henry led her a bit of a merry dance, playing things cool and flirting with other admirers, even though their relationship had become sexual.

In truth, the deeply sensitive Pym was too open with her affections, falling fast and hard for this dashing intellectual with a tendency for cruelty. Henry abused Pym’s affections, but he was also capable of great compassion alongside the callousness, and Pym remained attracted to him for several years. Sadly, Pym’s early experiences with Henry set something of a pattern for her future relationships with men – as Byrne quite correctly notes in the biography, ‘the more badly they treated her, the more deeply in love she felt’.

Alongside Pym’s romantic entanglements, Byrne shines a light on many other aspects of Pym’s life, not least her war work in the Wrens and subsequent role in the African Institute, where she became involved in the field of anthropology. It is perhaps no coincidence that Pym would gravitate to such an area, concerned as it is with the subject of human behaviour.

Also covered within the biography is Pym’s fascination with Germany – its culture, its landscapes and ultimately its men (her rather naïve flirtation with an SS Officer, Friedbert Glück, is explored in some detail). Interestingly, the initial mid-1930s drafts of her early novel, Some Tame Gazelle, contained several references to Germany; however, Pym finally removed them on the advice of her friend, Jock Liddell – a trusted Oxford contemporary who helped Barbara with her early manuscripts.

Like many Britons in the 1930s, Pym was drawn to the allure of developments in Germany, only to subsequently realise the true horror of Hitler’s regime as the war drew closer. Pym remained blinkered to the reality of the situation for some time, refusing to believe that her darling Friedbert could be capable of such atrocities. Nevertheless, his closeness to Hitler made this a distinct possibility. It’s a salutary experience that highlights just how challenging it can be for us to separate the personal from the political, especially when our deepest emotions are involved.

Luckily Pym ultimately saw the light, and by the time of its publication in 1950, Some Tame Gazelle had been stripped of all references to Germany and its countrymen. In hindsight, it is rather lucky that Pym’s initial submission of Gazelle was rejected by Chatto & Windus in the mid ‘30s, otherwise her legacy might have looked somewhat different…

That’s it for today. More in part 2 of this review when I’ll be looking at how Pym mined her own personal experiences as source material for her fiction. It’s one of the most fascinating aspects of this insightful biography, particularly as it sets Pym’s fiction in a more personal context.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is published by William Collins; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – in which Marks and Spencer take umbrage at Pym’s Jane and Prudence

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for the novels of Barbara Pym, with their acute observations of the minutiae and minor dramas of day-to-day English life. It will therefore come as no surprise to many of you that I was eager to read The Adventures of Miss Barbra Pym – a brand new biography by the respected biographer and novelist Paula Byrne. It’s a wonderfully immersive book, one that manages to be both illuminating and affectionate in relatively equally measure.

A more detailed review will follow in due course, but as a taster I wanted to share the following vignette from the biography – an incident which is so quintessentially Pym-like in style that it could have come straight out of one of her novels. Byrne makes this very point in her biography, and she is spot on. There is a comic absurdity to it, much like the little slights that Pym portrayed in her early novels, Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle.

It concerns a certain retailer’s reaction to Pym’s third published novel, Jane and Prudence, in which Jane, a rather frumpy clergyman’s wife, is playing matchmaker for her friend, Prudence, an elegant, independent young woman. While critical reviews of the novel were polite and reserved, Pym’s friends were more encouraging with some even preferring it to much loved Excellent Women. In certain respects, the characters seemed more ‘real’ – Prudence in particular.

A blow was suddenly struck, however, when a letter arrived from the legal department of Marks and Spencer. The store had taken umbrage at Jane Cleveland’s comment about their clothes: ‘When we become distressed we shall be glad of an old dress from Marks and Spencer as we’ve never been used to anything better.’ (p. 435)

Pym – a fan of M&S and their clothes – had intended the line to be an affectionate remark, capturing the gentle comfort one can gain from something familiar and reliable. (It’s worth remembering that J&P was published in 1953, not long after the end of clothes rationing in 1949.) Marks and Spencer, however, were upset by the suggestion that their clothes were considered substandard, commenting as follows in their rather wounded and pompous riposte:

‘This reference is clearly derogatory of the Company as both in terms and by implication it suggests that dresses worn by this Company are of inferior quality and unfit for wear by persons of the class who buy their hats from Marshall’s or Debenham’s.’ (p. 435)

As far as M&S were concerned, the fact that Pym had previously been described as the author of books ‘worthy of Jane Austen’ only added insult to injury. Jonathan Cape – Pym’s publishers at the time – responded to confirm that no harm had been intended and ‘Pym wrote dutifully that as a regular customer she had the greatest respect for the store’.

Just like the world Pym created in her novels, this incident is at once both entirely ridiculous and strangely believable – an anecdote that seems entirely in keeping with Pym’s tonal register!  

If this has whetted your appetite for the book, you might want to grab yourself a ticket for the forthcoming livestream event being co-hosted by the Chorleywood Bookshop, Village Books and the Seven Oaks Bookshop. Tickets start at £6 for the event, which is accessible worldwide. There’s a link here if you’re interested. (I should declare a link with the Chiltern Bookshops as I’m currently managing their Personalised Book Subscription services.)

More on this engaging biography a little later, hopefully in the next few weeks…

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is published by William Collins; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

First published as an essay in Granta’s Summer 2009 issue, Lost Cat is a thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. Mary Gaitskill – an American writer whose work has recently been experiencing something of a revival – is perhaps best known for her short stories; but this slim memoir is wonderfully affecting. (Spoiler alert: I really adored it.)

While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten whom she names Gattino. The kitten is the runt of the litter – thin, one-eyed and desperately in need of attention. Nevertheless, under Mary’s supervision, Gattino grows stronger and more affectionate, seemingly returning his carer’s love and nurturing gestures.

In time, Mary and her husband, Peter, return to their home in New York, with Gattino in tow. At first, Gattino seems settled, continuing the progress that was made back in Italy. However, not long after Mary and Peter move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, prompting a tireless search for the cat in the immediate area. Over the next several months, Mary puts out food, lays traps, distributes flyers and stakes out car parks, all in an effort to find the elusive Gattino. Various potential sightings are reported, but none of these instances turn out to be genuine.

In her desperation to find the lost cat, Mary consults psychics and mystics, while continuing to worry away at various omens and superstitions – anything that might have some significance to Gattino’s whereabouts and situation.

Running through this profoundly moving memoir are various other strands that cut deep into Mary’s life. The loss of Gattino reawakens various emotions within Mary, releasing previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of her father. What emerges is a picture of Mary’s father, a ‘difficult’, truculent man who had suffered great pain from an early age, his own father and mother having died when he was a young boy. Moreover, Mary’s father endured a slow and painful death, a function of his terminal cancer and refusal to accept treatment. While Mary and her father were not particularly close, she and her sisters tended to him in his final months – albeit too late and somewhat inadequately.

Consequently, there is a sense that the loss of Gattino allows Mary to experience (and ultimately, to come to terms with) the pain of losing her own father. Not only the physical loss of a parent but a yearning for the life they might have had together too. In effect, Mary’s concern that she has failed to ‘protect’ Gattino opens the gateway of emotions related to other, potentially more painful regrets.

Human love is grossly flawed, and even when it isn’t, people routinely misunderstand it, reject it, use it or manipulate it. It is hard to protect a person you love from pain, because people often choose pain; I am a person who often chooses pain. An animal will never choose pain; an animal can receive love far more easily than even a very young human. And so I thought it should be possible to shelter a kitten with love. (p. 15)

Also of significance here are Mary’s feelings for two disadvantaged children, Caesar and Natalia, whom she and Peter met through a kind of fostering programme several years earlier. The children’s home life in the city is tough, with a mother who beats and belittles them routinely and no sign of a father on the scene. Perhaps unsurprisingly given this background, the siblings prove somewhat challenging to reach; nevertheless, Mary perseveres, recognising Caesar’s neediness and aggression to be a function of his situation.

I took Caesar’s aggression seriously – but for a long time I forgave it. I forgave because for me the aggression and need translated almost on contact as longing for the pure affection he had been denied by circumstance, and outrage at the denial. (pp. 40–41)

Holidays with Mary and her husband prove to be a release for the children, initially at least. Mary spends considerable time and energy supporting the pair, giving them pleasurable experiences to remember, helping Natalia with her homework, and paying for both children to attend a good school. Nevertheless, as the siblings grow older, disaffection sets in, and Mary’s efforts to nurture Natalia’s abilities fail to have the desired impact.

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. Through her reflections on these issues, Gaitskill comes across as a very open person, someone with a desire to analyse and reflect on her experiences, laying bare her various anxieties along the way.

I can’t say offhand how many times, during the decades before I got married, I asked for or demanded some sort of relationship with someone who shut the door in my face, then opened it again and peeked out. I would – metaphorically – pound on the door and follow the person through endless rooms. Sometimes the door opened and I fell in love – before losing interest completely. I thought then that my feelings were false and had been all along, but the pain that came from rejecting someone or being rejected was real and deep. (p. 82)

There are points where Mary doubts or examines her reasons for intervening in these situations, particularly as far as Caesar and Natalia are concerned. Nevertheless, there is a sense that she was right to offer her love to Gattino – perhaps accompanied by the hope that one day he might return…

Lost Cat is published by Daunt Books. My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

I loved this thoroughly absorbing memoir by the journalist Hadley Freeman, a book that combines the personal and the political in an emotionally involving way. Ostensibly, House of Glass tells the story of Freeman’s paternal grandmother, Sala, and her family, a narrative that spans the whole of the 20th century – the product of a decade’s worth of meticulous and illuminating research on the part of the author. And yet, it is also a thoughtful meditation on the challenges of being Jewish during this fateful period of history, touching on issues such as identity, immigration, assimilation and social mobility. I’m already saving a place for it in my reading highlights of the year.

My grandmother would sit under an umbrella, separate from us. She was further protected from the sun by a wide-brimmed hat, various Hermès – or Hermès-esque – silk scarves wound in complicated knots around her neck, mini Dior handbag in her lap. She looked as distinctly French as my grandfather looked American, with the naturally soft, elegant looks of a Renoir painting but now overlaid with the melancholy of a Hopper one. (p. 3)

The discovery of a burnished red shoebox, full of tantalising mementos of Sala’s past, catalyses Freeman’s quest to understand her grandmother’s life and personal history. While the focus of the initial research is Sala, it soon broadens to encompass her brothers, each one possessing an intriguing backstory of his own. The journey is a fascinating one, taking Freeman from Picasso’s archives in Paris to an isolated farmhouse in Auvergne to the concentration camps of Poland.

glass

Sala was born in 1910, the youngest child of Reuben and Chaya Glahs, Polish Jews living in Chrzanow, which at the time was part of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The tension between tradition and progression was already present within the Jewish community at this point. At the age of twelve, Sala’s eldest brother, Jehuda, urges his parents to be ‘less obviously Jewish’, ultimately persuading them to change the family name to the more westernised ‘Glass’ – ‘something simultaneously strong and fragile, able to withstand pressure but prone to breaking’.

In the early 1920s, as pogroms against the Jews begin to sweep through Poland, the family moves to Paris, settling initially in the Marais Pletzl, a rundown area housing many Jewish immigrants – and it is from here that the Glasses begin to establish new lives and personal identities for themselves.

Jehuda becomes Henri, who, following his training as an engineer in Prague, settles in Paris where he works in the garment trade. Marriage to Sonia, a bright, resourceful Polish woman with a talent for languages, soon follows, as does a move into a more lucrative career in photoimaging. In a remarkable turn of events, Henri invents the Omniphot microfilming machine, a device that plays a significant role in the Resistance movement during the Second World War.

Jakob becomes Jacques, a passive, mild-mannered man who finds work as a furrier. A spell in the French Foreign Legion follows in the early stages of the war.

Sender, however, takes a somewhat different path to his older brothers. An ambitious, self-motivated individual at heart, Sender becomes Alex Maguy, a creative genius with a passion for beauty and the best of French culture. Through a combination of artfulness, hard work and determination, Alex works his way up from apprentice in a garment workshop to owner of a couture salon by the age of twenty. It’s a fascinating and successful career, one that brings him into contact with several leading artists and designers of the period, including Christian Dior and René Gruau, both of whom work as illustrators for Alex’s label.

Like Alex, Sara (aka Sala), is captivated by the culture of Paris, a city steeped in art, beauty and fashion. However, just when her life appears to be at its most radiant – she studies art, finds a job and falls in love – political developments intervene, causing the family to take action. In 1937, Alex arranges for Sara to marry Bill Freiman, an American businessman who promises a life of relative comfort and safety. Much to her dismay, Sara must make a terrible sacrifice – to give up her own happiness for the sake of her family, largely in the belief that they will be able to join her in the US.

In what must have been a state close to shock, Sara began to accept that she was going to America to marry a man she didn’t know and liked less. She would never have done it just to save herself. But for her whole family? Of course she went.

[…] The only option open to Sara was the one that countless women had been forced to take before her: marry someone she did not love. It is the traditional form of female sacrifice, so common that it was considered at the time expected and unremarkable. What would have been extraordinary, in the eyes of those around her then, is if she’d refused to do it. (p. 160)

By tracing the lives of Sara/Sala and her siblings, Freeman teases out various differences that prove influential in shaping their destinies. In particular, there are questions around passivity vs action, compliance vs defiance and separateness vs assimilation.

When the authorities conduct a census in France in the early 1940s, Jacques registers as a Jew, firm in the belief that it is better to conform – that his adopted country, France, will ultimately take care of him.

Stay where you are, don’t question things, put your life in the hands of others, just trust – those were Jacques’s natural tendencies. (p. 244)

Sadly, as a consequence of this registration, Jacques is one of the first Jews to be rounded up under the Vichy regime in Occupied France, sealing his fate with a transfer to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, just 20 km from his birthplace of Chrzanow.

Did he [Jacques] wonder why he, alone among his siblings, hadn’t risked anything to stay alive? Why he was the passive one among them and how was this the conclusion to that story? Did he think about the weird irony of his life, how he had always wanted to stay still, but was forced to travel so far, and yet ended up right back where he began? (p. 253)

Henri, on the other hand, is careful to assimilate, quickly seeing the advantages of integration as offering some level of protection. With the help of his wife Sonia – an interpreter fluent in multiple languages – Henri passes as a German during the period of Occupation, thereby enabling him to put the Omniphot to vital use.

Henri and Sonia never registered as Jews. Both of them foresaw the dangers ahead and Sonia, as usual, took charge. She figured out how to buy false identity cards on the black market which claimed they were a Christian German couple, called Class. She also spoke German so fluently she could pass as a native, even to German officers, and Henri could get by. They then rented a tiny apartment on the Avenue des Minimes, under the name of Class, and left almost everything back in their home on rue Victor-Cousin, so it would look to the police who came looking for the Jewish Glasses like they’d simply abandoned it. (p. 209)

Alex, too, takes a different approach, one of outright defiance and self-preservation. Following a distinguished spell in the French Foreign Legion, Alex spends much of the war in the South of France, ultimately hiding out in a farmhouse in the Auvergne for the best part of a year. Once again, it’s a remarkable story, involving a host of anecdotes, brushes with death, and the receipt of favours from friends in high places. Following the war, Alex ultimately becomes a hugely successful art dealer – his friendship with Picasso is something of a highlight, the pinnacle of an illustrious life and career.

By contrast, Sara, who ultimately reverts to being called Sala, is trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, deep in the midst of small-town Long Island. When it becomes clear to Sala that a permanent reunion with her family will not be possible, she throws herself into the lives of her two boys – Ronald, who will become Hadley’s father, and his younger brother, Rich. There are biennial trips back to Paris to see the family – brief opportunities for Sala to re-immerse herself in the wonders of French culture – but these are scant compensation for the opportunities that were passed up.

In summary, then, House of Glass is a wonderfully immersive memoir, one that asks searching questions about a whole host of issues including familial identity, integration, personal outlook, xenophobia and social mobility. Topics that remain all too relevant in Europe (and the wider world) today where instances of racism and nationalism are still very much in evidence.

Freeman presents this story of her family with a blend of humanity, balance and perceptiveness, laying out the siblings’ lives both openly and engagingly. There is a real sense of journalistic rigour here, a thoroughness alongside the insights and reflections. Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for readers with an interest in European history.  

House of Glass is published by 4th Estate; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.  

Recent Reads – Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid and The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

Some brief thoughts on two excellent books I’ve been reading, both of which were published earlier this year.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (2020)

Chosen by my friend, N, for our book group in early September, this is such a terrific novel – a sharp, pacy, whip-smart satire of white privilege, racial dynamics and wokeness set in modern-day Philadelphia. It’s very different from the usual types of book I read, both in terms of context and style; nevertheless, I raced through it in my eagerness to get to the end.

The novel opens with an incident, something that Reid cleverly uses as a catalyst, kick-starting a chain of events through which to explore these issues. Late one night, Emira Tucker – a twenty-five-year-old college graduate and part-time babysitter – is asked to take care of her employers’ toddler at short notice while the parents deal with an incident at their home. Emira, who is black, takes three-year-old Briar, who is white, to a nearby grocery store, just to keep the young girl occupied.

At the store, a nosy woman gets suspicious at the sight of a black girl playing around with white child so late at night. A tense exchange between Emira and the store’s security guard swiftly follows, all of which is filmed by a white bystander who is clearly trying to support Emira.

“You know what—it’s cool,” she said. “We can just leave.”

“Now wait a minute.” The guard held out his hand. “I can’t let you leave, because a child is involved.” “But she’s my child right now.” Emira laughed again. “I’m her sitter. I’m technically her nanny…” This was a lie, but Emira wanted to imply that paperwork had been been done concerning her employment, and that it connected her to the child in question.

“Hi, sweetie.” The woman bent and pressed her hands into her knees. “Do you know where your mommy is?”

“Her mom is at home.” Emira tapped her collarbone twice as she said, “You can just talk to me.” (p. 11–12)

Eventually, the situation is resolved, but only once Emira phones Briar’s father to come and verify her position. Emira is not trying to kidnap Briar; rather, she is the toddler’s regular babysitter.

From here, the novel spins off into very interesting territory covering topics such as racism amongst the white liberal elite, the fetishisation of black people and the shallow world of social media influencers.

Alix, Briar’s mum, longs to back in New York where she’d been carving out a successful career for herself as a brand influencer before motherhood intervened. In the wake of the grocery store incident, Alix tries her hardest to buddy up with Emira, showing an interest in the sitter’s life that feels way beyond the bounds of acceptability. Emira, however, is more concerned for Briar, with whom she has developed a very caring relationship, particularly as Alix has somewhat sidelined the toddler in favour of her new baby, Catherine.

There is so much that’s impressive here from the depth of characterisation – particularly the women – to the insightful observations of human behaviour and the razor-sharp intelligence and wit. Reid’s use of detail is excellent, especially in the construction of the novel’s plot. Key points are frequently seeded at various points in the narrative, only for their true significance to become fully apparent at a later stage. (There are some terrific set-pieces and showdowns along the way.) The dialogue is brilliant, too – from the naturalistic exchanges between Emira and her BFFs to the excruciating discussions between Alix and her upwardly-mobile friends.

Some readers might baulk at the fact that a key part of the plot hinges on a significant coincidence, something that reaches into Alix’s past; but I was more than happy to go with it given the quality and complexity of what Reid is doing here. All in all, this is a very clever debut, as thought-provoking as it is compelling – a hugely enjoyable read.

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey (2020)

Earlier this year, I wrote about Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia, a luminous meditation on the hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness. Samantha Harvey’s The Shapeless Unease could be viewed as something of a companion piece to the Benjamin. It’s just as beautifully written, a book that brilliantly evokes the fragmentary nature of this condition, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between seemingly disparate thoughts as the mind flits from one topic to another.

In the midst of the night, Harvey trawls through the remnants of her past, searching for clues on the cause of her insomnia, the trigger that has turned her from a sleeper to a non-sleeper over the past year.

When I don’t sleep I spend the night searching the intricacies of my past, trying to find out where I went wrong, trawling through childhood to see if the genesis of the insomnia is there, trying to find the exact thought, thing or happening that turned me from a sleeper to a non-sleeper. I try to find a key to release me from it. I try to solve the logic problem that is now my life. I circle the arena of my mind, it’s shrinking perimeter, like a polar bear in its grubby blue–white plastic enclosure with fake ice caps and water that turns out to have no depth. I circle and circle. It’s 3 a.m., 4 a.m. It’s always 3 a.m., 4 a.m. I circle back. (p. 32)

So much of what Harvey says in this book resonates with me – from the differences between fear and anxiety, to her reflections on death and our own sense of mortality, to the humiliation we sometimes encounter when discussing a condition with a doctor or counsellor. I too have experienced that sense of dread and desperation when seeking a cause or label for a series of symptoms, the need to negotiate for further tests or investigations to be carried out. Moreover, the frustration of being on the receiving end of well-intentioned advice and lifestyle interventions, most of which have already been explored.

‘Also no lying in bed awake for more than twenty minutes – bed is just for sleep and intimacy. It isn’t for lying awake. Don’t eat too late in the evening, no alcohol, no caffeine after midday, cut out sugar, no hard exercise after 7 p.m., a nice warm bath before bed but not too hot and not too soon before bed, keep your room cool and ventilated.’

‘I do these things, they don’t help.’

‘Over time, they will.’

‘Over time, they haven’t. I feel unhelpable.’

‘Nobody is unhelpable.’

‘I am.’

‘Nobody is.(p. 139)

Along the way, Harvey touches on a range of other subjects with her characteristic blend of insight and intelligence – topics ranging from loss, grief, childhood, writing, swimming and the distortion of our national values into the divisions wielded by Brexit. There’s even a short story threaded through the book, a compelling piece about a gang who hack into cash machines, emptying them of their plentiful stash.

In summary, this is a beautiful, intelligent, poetic book on a mystifying condition that many of us will experience at some point in our lives – an elegant meditation on what it means to exist when deprived of sleep in an elastic continuum of time. I loved this one. 

Such a Fun Age is published by Bloomsbury, The Shapeless Unease by Jonathan Cape; personal copies.