Tag Archives: Penelope Fitzgerald

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

I’ve long wanted to read Beryl Bainbridge – her 1989 Booker-shortlisted novel An Awfully Big Adventure has been in my sights since Max reviewed it last year. So, when Annabel announced she would be hosting a Bainbridge Reading Week in June, it seemed the perfect opportunity for me to pick it up.

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Set in the early 1950s, An Awfully Big Adventure features Stella, a teenage girl who lives with her Uncle Vernon and his wife, Lily, in their down-at-heel boarding house in Liverpool. (Neither of the girl’s parents is on the scene, but the reasons behind their absence only become clear towards the end of the novel). Stella is quick and determined; she has the brains but not the discipline for schoolwork, preferring instead the environment of Mrs Ackerley’s ‘Dramatic Art’ classes where she goes every Friday after school.

In his desire to see Stella do well in life, Vernon pulls a few strings with a friend to get her a meeting with the producer at the local repertory theatre, a rather handsome fellow by the name of Meredith Potter. At first, Potter and his colleague – stage manager, Bunny – don’t seem terribly interested in seeing Stella perform the piece she has prepared in advance. Nevertheless, they take her out to tea and Eccles cakes at a nearby café (a wonderful scene which Max highlights in his review). At the end of their meeting, Stella is somewhat surprised when Meredith offers her a role; luckily for her, she is to start at the theatre at the beginning of the new season, one of two juniors Meredith ends up hiring for the run.

In due course, Stella meets the other members of the company, most of whom come complete with their own eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. This is a darkly comic novel, with much of the humour arising from the interactions between these characters as they go about their business at the theatre, all heightened by the various romantic attachments and professional rivalries at play within the group. Here’s a brief snippet to give you a feel for the troupe.

There were three men and four women in the cast of Dangerous Corner, all of whom, save one, were under contract for the season. The exception was Dawn Allenby, a woman in her thirties who had been engaged for this first production only and who, two days into rehearsal, had fallen heavily for Richard St Ives. If she was served before him at the morning tea-break she offered her cup to him at once, protesting that his need was greater than hers. He had only to fumble in the pocket of his sports jacket, preparatory to taking out his pipe, and she was at his elbow striking on a musical lighter which tinkled out the tune of ‘Come Back to Sorrento’.

St Ives was plainly terrified of her. Cornered, he resorted to patting her on the shoulder, while across his face flitted the craven smile of a man dealing with an unpredictable pet that yet might turn on him. He laughed whenever she spoke to him and clung to Dotty Blundell for protection, whirling her away on his arm the moment rehearsals were over. (pg 46) 

At first, Stella finds herself doing odd jobs around the theatre, running errands for various members of the cast and getting to know how things work. Nevertheless, her lively imagination and rather forthright manner do not go unnoticed. There is something quite refreshing about Stella, and it’s not long before she finds herself in a cameo role in the company’s production of Caesar and Cleopatra.

Dotty Blundell had grown especially fond of Stella. She was of the opinion there was more to the girl than might reasonably be expected. She had a boldness of manner, not to be confused with brashness, and an ability to express herself that was amusing, if at times disconcerting. (pg. 77)

That said, Stella is still relatively young and inexperienced, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. In her innocence and naivety, she soon falls in love with Meredith, placing him on a pedestal in the hope that he will reciprocate her feelings. Meredith, on the other hand, shows little interest in forging any kind of attachment to the girl – unbeknownst to Stella, he is in fact gay.

Things take a bit of turn for Stella with the arrival of P. L. O’Hara, a seasoned actor who is drafted in when one of the regular players breaks his leg in an accident. Having worked with Meredith and other long-standing members of the repertory team in the past, O’Hara has a history with the company and with Liverpool itself (a point of some significance within the story). In an attempt to make Meredith jealous, Stella gets involved with O’Hara, visiting him in his basement room several nights in a row – in essence, she thinks it might be useful to have a bit of experience under her belt for when Meredith finally gets around to showing some interest. It’s not long before the situation gets messy, but I’d better not say anything more for fear of revealing too much about the ending.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel with its sharp observations and darkly comic view of life. In some ways, it reminded me a little of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, a tragicomedy set within a community of barge dwellers on the River Thames in the early ‘60s. Bainbridge’s novel is perhaps funnier than the Fitzgerald, but with both of these books, one gets the feeling that catastrophe could strike these rather fragile people at any moment. Here, we know from the outset that things don’t end well for Stella. The novel begins with Chapter 0 — effectively a prologue that is revisited in the epilogue — in which she claims ‘I’m not old enough to shoulder the blame. Not all of it. I’m not the only one at fault.’ Only when we reach the closing chapters do we discover what Stella is referring to here.

Alongside the comedy and dark undercurrent, Bainbridge brings a real feeling of warmth and affection to this novel, particularly in the portrayal of the various characters, most notably Stella’s Uncle Vernon. Vernon cares very deeply for Stella and doesn’t want to see her get hurt. He knows she is bound to change as she gets more involved with the theatre, and yet he is unprepared for how lost he feels when this starts to happen.

He had wanted her to alter, had himself at some sacrifice to his pocket jostled her onto the path towards advancement, and yet he sensed she was leaving him behind. He hadn’t realised how bereft he would feel, how alarmed. (pg. 42)

Stella too is a wonderful creation. With her combination of adolescent innocence and frankness, she has a tendency to say exactly what pops into her head without thinking about the consequences, thereby inadvertently creating tensions within the group. Once again, I won’t go into the details as it’s best you discover these for yourselves should you decide to read the book.

In her younger days, Bainbridge spent some time working at the Liverpool Playhouse, a fact that shows in this novel as the details feel spot on. (Several of the characters in Meredith’s repertory company are based on people Bainbridge met during that time.)

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that conveys something of the atmosphere of England in the early ‘50s, a time when the fallout from WW2 was still visible for all to see. Money is tight in Stella’s family, so baths are a once-a-fortnight luxury here – plus they all seem to use the same towel!

It was inconvenient, Stella coming home and wanting a bath. As Uncle Vernon pointed out, it was only Wednesday.

‘I don’t care what day it is,’ she said. She was so set on it she was actually grinding her teeth.

It meant paraffin had to be fetched from Cairo Joe’s chandler’s shop next door to the Greek Orthodox church, and then the stove lugged two flights up the stairs and the blanket nailed to the window with tacks. In the alleyway beyond the back wall stood a row of disused stables and a bombed house with the wallpaper hanging in shreds from the chimney-breast, and sometimes women, no better than they ought to be, lured men into the ruined shadows.

‘You’ll freeze,’ Lily threatened, having run upstairs in her coat and hat to lay out the family towel and returned, teeth chattering, like Scott on his way to the Pole. (pgs. 37-38)

For other perspectives on this novel, here are links to reviews by Cleo and Emma.

An Awfully Big Adventure is published by Abacus Books.

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

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

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First up, five category winners:

Reread of the Year: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novella of the Year: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

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

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

Run River by Joan Didion

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

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

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

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

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

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

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

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

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

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

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

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

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

Carol / The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

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

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

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Having arrived late to Penelope Fitzgerald, I’ve been trying to catch up with a few of her novels over the past year or so. The Bookshop will make my end-of-year list, so I had high hopes for Booker Prize winner, Offshore, another novel that draws on Fitzgerald’s own life experience. Her time working in a Southwold bookshop informed the former while her years living on a barge on the Thames gave rise to the latter.

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First published in 1979 but set in the early sixties, Offshore features a small community of individuals who live on houseboats on the Battersea Reach stretch of the Thames. It’s probably fair to say that these boat dwellers are outsiders, unsettled characters getting by on the margins of society. Despite living within touching distance of the security and solidity of dry land, they remain vulnerable, somewhat cast adrift in life.

The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway. (pg. 2)

The group’s somewhat reluctant leader is Richard, an investment counsellor and ex-Navy man who lives on Lord Jim, a converted minesweeper. Living alongside Richard is his ‘shires-bred’ wife, Laura, a woman who would much rather a nice house in the Home Counties, preferably something straight out of Country Life magazine. Dreadnought is occupied by Sam Willis, a semi-retired painter of maritime landscapes. Then there’s Maurice, a sympathetic, easy-going rent boy who allows his boat to be used as a repository for stolen goods. One or two others also feature, but the novel’s central character is 32-year-old Nenna, owner of Grace.

Offshore ebbs and flows along with the lives of these somewhat fragile, lonely individuals. While the story touches on various situations that affect different members of the community, this is not a plot-driven novel. Instead, Fitzgerald’s focus is on her characters: their hopes and aspirations, their failures and compromises.

Nenna’s marriage has broken down (possibly temporarily, possibly permanently) and she lives on Grace with her two children, Martha (aged 12) and Tilda (aged 6). Martha and Tilda are independent, resourceful creatures. Like the children in The Beginning of Spring and The Bookshop, they seem mature beyond their years.

One of the things I like most about Fitzgerald is the way she conveys the sense of a character in just one or two sentences. Take Nenna, for instance:

Nenna’s character was faulty, but she had the instinct to see what made other people unhappy, and this instinct had only failed her once, in the case of her own husband. (pgs. 10-11)

And here’s a telling description of Martha, Nenna’s eldest – telling in the sense that it conveys almost as much about Nenna as it does about her daughter:

Nenna would have felt better pleased with herself if she had resembled her elder daughter. But Martha, small and thin, with dark eyes which already showed an acceptance of the world’s shortcomings, was not like her mother and even less like her father. The crucial moment when children realise that their parents are younger than they are had long since been passed by Martha. (pg. 21)

Whenever she is alone, Nenna’s thoughts turn to the demise of her marriage to Edward. (Ideally she would like Edward to come and live on Grace with her and the children, but that seems a fairly distant prospect.)  These reflections take the form of a judicial hearing in which Nenna is questioned by a judge, while her conscience, quite uninvited, maintains a close watch over the proceedings. Here’s a brief excerpt:

‘…Why don’t I go to him? Well, why doesn’t he come to us? He hasn’t found anywhere at all that we could all of us live together. He’s in some kind of rooms in the north-east of London somewhere.’

‘42b Milvain Street, Stoke Newington.’

‘In Christ’s name, who’s ever heard of such a place?’

‘Have you made any effort to go and see the plaintiff there, Mrs James? I must remind you that we cannot admit second-hand evidence.’

So now it was out. She was the defendant, or rather the accused, and should have known it all along. (pg. 40)

In the hands of another writer, this could have been a little gimmicky, but Fitzgerald uses it very effectively here. It gives a clear insight into Nenna’s mind – the way she thinks and how she sees her relationship with Edward.

When Nenna finally goes to see him in Stoke Newington, things don’t go quite to plan. She finds Edward lodging in a single room in a house owned by the mother of one of his old school friends, hardly an ideal setting for a reconciliation.

Things were going as badly as they could. From the room immediately beneath them, somebody began to play the piano, a Chopin nocturne, with heavy emphasis, but the piano was by no means suitable for Chopin and the sound travelled upwards as a hellish tingling of protesting strings.

‘Eddie, is this the only room you’ve got?’

‘I don’t see anything wrong with it.’

She noticed now that there was a kind of cupboard in the corner which was likely to contain a washbasin, and a single bed, tucked in with a plaid rug. Surely they’d do better making love on board Grace than on a few yards of Mackenzie tartan? (pgs. 113-114)

One of most impressive things about Offshore stems from Fitzgerald’s ability to treat her characters with sympathy despite their failings. She has a knack for conveying humour alongside the misfortune and calamities that touch the lives of these barge-dwellers, and yet there is compassion in her writing, too.

While I didn’t love Offshore quite as much as The Bookshop, there is plenty to enjoy here. Each scene is beautifully observed. The novel has a strong sense of place, alive with the sights and smells of the riverside and glimpses of Chelsea in the early sixties. Fitzgerald offers just enough detail to give the reader a sense of each of her characters, their personality and outlook on life. Maurice is as amusing as he is hapless. There are touching exchanges between Nenna and Richard as they find solace in each other’s company. Willis’s attempts to patch up and sell his boat end in disaster – an impromptu party to celebrate the potential sale of Dreadnought is one of the novel’s delights. In some ways, Offshore reminded me a little of Mike Leigh’s films (something along the lines of High Hopes), and that’s no bad thing.

Max’s excellent review prompted me to pick up this novel, and his post contains links to a range of other reviews and articles about the book.

Offshore is published by Fourth Estate. Source: personal copy. Book 12/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Finishing my #TBR20 – a few reflections

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been tagging my recent reviews with #TBR20. You may have heard about this initiative on twitter, or read about it posts by other bloggers (Emma and Max have joined recently – I’ve included links to their posts. Other participants are here). In essence, #TBR20 is a way of tackling the ever-growing ‘to-be-read’ pile of books by reading twenty books you already own before buying any more. It’s Eva Stalker’s idea – you can read Eva’s original post here. Eva started her #TBR20 in November with the aim of finishing by the end of March – you can read her latest post here (one month on from completing her twenty).

Like Eva, I already owned more unread books than I knew what to do with, so I decided to start a round of #TBR20 at the beginning of December. By the first week in April, I’d finished reading my twentieth book, Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart (not my favourite book of the twenty, but an exhilarating read nonetheless). If you’re interested, here’s a picture of my twenty books (well, nineteen of them as I read Mary Costello’s Academy Street on kindle).

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One month on from finishing my #TBR20, I thought it would be useful to jot down a few notes on how it worked for me, partly for my own benefit but also because it might be of interest to others.

From the outset, I decided to pick my twenty books as I went along. I had a ‘draft’ set of twenty books piled up on the bookshelf, but I tinkered with it every now and again. My reading tends to be driven by my mood; I need variety, a change of pace or tone. I want books that take me to different periods and places. There are times when one book leads to another, something with a similar idea or theme or an interesting contrast. I found this relatively easy to manage by maintaining the flexibility to move a few books in and out of the pile.

This approach came into its own when I reached the end of January. I hit a difficult period at home. A mysterious pain appeared on one side of my body and refused go away. A protracted sequence of tests, hospital visits and periods of uncertainty followed. I’ll spare you the details, but it turns out that I have a crack in one of my ribs, a fracture that is taking some time to heal. It’s still there, and it’s rather painful.

Out went a few challenging or intense books; in came a few books I just knew I would enjoy. Novels like the warm and affectionate A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien; an escape to 1950s LA in the form of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Good-bye; and the comfort of rereading a favourite novel, A Heart So White by Javier Marias. (I checked with Eva, rereads are in line with the spirit of #TBR20 – it’s about valuing the books you already own even if you’ve read them before.) All three turned out to be terrific choices.

I also decided only to count the books I intended to review, mainly to tag and record them on here. In addition, I excluded a couple of review copies which I read and posted about while I was doing #TBR20. Library loans (which I used for books chosen by my book group) were also excluded. All in all, I ended up reading 24 books from my TBR/reread shelf (20 reviewed + 4 not reviewed), two review copies and two library loans. You can find links to all my reviews in this index here, or you can click on the #TBR20 tag at the bottom of this post.

So what have I learned from #TBR20?

  • Well, I’ve rediscovered a sense of excitement about the books I bought many months or years ago, several of which were personal recommendations or purchases prompted by other bloggers’ reviews.
  • My original ‘draft’ twenty did not include enough crime, hardboiled or noir to satisfy me; that’s where I would have struggled had I not made at least one tweak.
  • My current TBR includes more than enough choice and variety to satisfy my reading whims. I don’t need any more books. (That doesn’t stop me wanting a few more every now and again.)
  • I don’t feel attracted to the new releases just because they are ‘new’. I still crave books, but the ones I want to buy tend to be older releases, backlist titles by some of my new favourite authors (Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald, Joan Didion, Ross Macdonald and Javier Marias spring to mind) or other reissues that have caught my eye.
  • I have missed the enjoyment of browsing in bookshops. This has been the biggest challenge, to keep away from temptation. I allowed myself just one visit to a bookshop during the four months of #TBR20, a trip to the new Foyles. Time for a small confession. It was my birthday in March, and I cracked – I used a birthday book token to buy myself a little something: A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr. I nearly read it that very week, but it’s sitting on my bookshelf for a late summer treat. I just know I’m going to love it.
  • When I started my #TBR20, I set up a new wishlist for the books I wanted to buy. By the beginning of April, there were twenty books on that list, and that’s following a couple of rounds of pruning. I had intended to allow myself six new books, but temptation got the better of me and I ended up buying twelve (eek!), the others remain on the wishlist. Here they are – as you can see, I’ve gone a bit NYRB Classics crazy.

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  • I’ve already read three of them, all fantastic: Philippe Beaussant’s Rendezvous in Venice, Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn and Alberto Moravia’s Agostino (reviews to follow). I intend to keep the others for a while; they have joined the ranks of the great TBR.
  • I need to carry on with the spirit of #TBR20, of valuing the books I already own rather than allowing myself to be distracted by the next craving. I’m not sure if I can go another four months without buying ANY new books; it might be a little too soon after the first round.
  • As an alternative approach, I’m going to try to cut back on buying books (especially now that I’ve had a splurge). I’m still thinking about what might work for me over the next few months. Possibly a TBR10 or a ‘Three Out, One In’ approach? Maybe I’ll try a TBR10 and see how I get on. If it works out, I might push on through to another twenty, but I’ll need to choose the books I want to read as I go along. I know that much. There are still a good 200+ unread physical books (and around 50 e-books) in this house, so there’s plenty of scope for me to appreciate the ones I already own.

Good luck to those of you who are doing the #TBR20. I hope my thoughts are of some interest – do let me know your thoughts on #TBR20, tackling the reading pile or on any of the books I’ve mentioned. All are welcome.

Belinda Farrell has also posted her thoughts on finishing #TBR20 here.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop is set in 1959 in the fictional Suffolk town of Hardborough, where Florence Green, a middle-aged widow of limited means wishes to open a bookshop, something the town has not seen for several years. Florence has decided to buy the Old House, a run-down historic building in the centre of Hardborough, with a view to converting it into a viable business. She trusts her previous experience in the book trade will stand her in good stead.

At an early stage in the story, it becomes clear that Florence is not the only party interested in the Old House. Violet Gamart, one of Hardborough’s most powerful residents, has her eye on it for an arts centre. Hardborough must secure its place on the cultural landscape of Suffolk; it must keep pace with the likes of Aldeburgh.

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Undeterred by a thinly-veiled warning from Mrs Gamart, Florence presses ahead. With the aid of a loan from the bank, she acquires the Old House, a modest damp-infested property which comes complete with its own poltergeist (or ‘rapper’ to use the local term). In time she acquires a supply of stock and opens The Old House Bookshop for business.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this novel was Fitzgerald’s descriptions of Hardborough and its inhabitants. Here’s a short but effective description of this rather insular place:

The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold. (pg. 8)

Hardborough is the kind of microcosm where everybody knows everyone else’s business, ‘who was in financial straits, who would need larger family accommodation in nine months, and who was about to die.’ Fitzgerald presents several instances of how things work in Hardborough, but the following example is one of my favourites. Alongside the books for sale, Florence feels obliged to offer her customers a lending library facility, but the open collection system means that each borrower can see everyone else’s reservations. The Life of Queen Mary is much in demand, and several customers would like to borrow it; if only Mrs Thornton would come and collect her reservation. In the meantime, everyone else can see Queen Mary languishing on the shelf – a source of frustration for other borrowers, especially those who are desperate to get their hands on it. And to make matters worse, Mrs Thornton is rumoured to be a slow reader:

In point of time, Mrs Thornton had been the first to put it on her list; and Florence, confident in the justice of her method, placed the Thornton ticket in it. Every subscriber had a pink ticket, and the books were ranged alphabetically, waiting for collection. This was a grave weakness of the system. Everybody knew at a glance what everybody else had got. They should not have been poking about and turning things over in the painfully small space which had been cleared for the library, but they were unused to discipline. (pgs. 56-57)

In its first six months of business the bookshop does a fairly respectable trade; sales are modest, but not spectacular. One day, Florence receives a visit from a local resident, the rather slippery Milo North, who suggests that she order several copies of a recently-published novel, a book with the potential to sell like hot cakes. Florence is keen to ensure it is a good novel, one that is suitable to offer for sale to the inhabitants of Hardborough. With this in mind, she orders an inspection copy and asks her ally, the book-loving Mr Brundish, to give an opinion on its merits. On reading the novel, Brundish offers Florence the following view:

It is a good book, and therefore you should try to sell it to the inhabitants of Hardborough. They won’t understand it, but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy. (pg 101)

Florence forges ahead and orders 250 copies, she is pleased to make it available to her customers – the novel in question is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

As you can probably guess, the arrival of Lolita prompts a bit of a furore in Hardborough. Florence’s window display alone draws quite a crowd, enough to create a temporary obstruction on the highway. Violet Gamart lodges an objection, and a series of rather pointed letters pass between Florence and her solicitor. The other High Street traders are upset; Florence, however, is quietly determined to carry on:

Not one of the throng in the High Street had come into the dressmaker’s, still less bought a watercolour. Nor had they looked at the wet fish offered by Mr Deben. All the tradespeople were now either slightly or emphatically hostile to the Old House Bookshop. It was decided not to ask her to join the Inner Wheel of the Hardborough and District Rotary Club. (pg. 109)

It is fairly clear from an early stage in this novel that Florence is going to be up against it at every turn as she tries to make a success of the Old Bookshop. I don’t want to say too much about the closing stages of the book, but the final paragraph will leave you with an unforgettable image of Florence. My sympathies were with her right to the bitter end.

The Bookshop is a brilliant book, so finely observed and incisive. Fitzgerald’s prose is precise and economical, her sentences perfectly balanced – her style reminds me a little of Elizabeth Taylor’s (of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont fame). Like Taylor, Fitzgerald has a wonderful way of describing characters. Here’s an early description of Florence:

She was in appearance small, wispy and wiry, somewhat insignificant from the front view, and totally so from the back. She was not much talked about, not even in Hardborough, where everyone could be seen coming over the wide distances and everything seen was discussed. (pg. 2)

Perhaps the most telling insight into Florence’s character comes on the opening page:

She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation. (pg. 1)

Milo North, on the other hand, ‘was tall, and went through life with singularly little effort.’ ‘His fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage.’ (pg. 22)

Hierarchies and class systems play an important role in the novel. The future of Christine Gipping, Florence’s young assistant, rests on the outcome of her Eleven Plus. A pass would secure her entry to Grammar school and, in time, the possibility of marriage to ‘a white collar chap’ – a bright future for Christine. Failure would see her consigned to the Technical – if this were the case she wouldn’t ever be able to look above ‘a labouring chap or even an unemployed chap’.

Even the books for Florence’s lending library come with their own pecking order:

The books available on loan were divided into classes A, B, and C. A were very much in demand, B acceptable, and C frankly old and unwanted. For every A she borrowed, she must take three Bs and a large number of Cs for her subscribers. If she paid more, she could get more As, but also, a mounting pile of Bs and the repellent Cs, and nothing new would be sent until the last consignment was returned. (pg. 55)

Fitzgerald writes with great insight about life’s failings and disappointments, but she is a humorous writer too. I’ll draw to a close with a favourite quote, one that illustrates one of the challenges of life as a provincial bookseller – how to deal tactfully with requests from local authors. Their books came with titles such ‘On Foot Across the Marshes’ or ‘Awheel Across East Anglia’ for what else is there to do with flatlands but to cross them?

She vividly imagined their disillusionment, wedged behind the table with books and a pen in front of them, while the hours emptied away and no one came. ‘Tuesday is always a very quiet day in Hardborough, Mr ––, particularly if it is fine. I didn’t suggest Monday, because that would have been quieter still. Wednesdays are quiet too, except for the market, and Thursday is early closing. The customers will come in and ask for your book soon – of course they will, they have heard of you, you are a local author. Of course they will want your signature, they will come across the marshes, afoot and awheel.’ The thought of so much suffering and embarrassment was hard to bear, but at least she was in a position to see that it never took place. (pg. 69)

This is the second Penelope Fitzgerald I’ve reviewed, both are gems. The Bookshop is the more direct of the two, The Beginning of Spring the more mysterious. I can wholeheartedly recommend both.

The Bookshop is published in the UK by Fourth Estate. Source: personal copy. Book 15/20 in my #TBR20.

My Books of the Year – 2014

For me, 2014 was a year filled with great books, so much so that I’ve found it difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post. I read 101 books in 2014 – that’s probably too many although it does include several novellas – and very few turned out to be duds. My first pass at a shortlist came out at 24 books, but I’ve cut it down to thirteen, a baker’s dozen of favourites from my year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day.

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I’ve listed my picks in the order I read and reviewed them. I’ve summarised each one, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

2014 was the year of #FerranteFever, and I ended up reading four books by this author: the first three in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels and a standalone novel, The Days of Abandonment. It came down to a choice between the ferocity of Days and the breadth and scope of the Neapolitans. I’ve plumped for the latter and the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, which remains my favourite of the three. Set in Naples in the 1950s, it follows the friendship between two girls, Elena and Lila, and the different paths they take to escape the neighbourhood. A compelling story that captures the changing dynamics of the relationship between these two girls.

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

This was a reread for the 2014 IFFP-shadowing project chaired by Stu, and it’s the book that prompted me to start my own blog. (Stu published my review as a guest post at Winstonsdad’s.)

A man is stabbed to death in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes a meditation touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. The Infatuations is my favourite novel from our IFFP-shadow shortlist, with Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels a close second.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was twenty-three when Nada, her debut novel, was published. It’s an amazing book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. A portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. A wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting.

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

An account of the two years Vila-Matas spent in Paris as a young and aspiring writer trying to emulate his idol, Ernest Hemingway. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging piece of meta-fiction, full of self-deprecating humour and charm. Marguerite Duras makes an appearance too as Vila-Matas ends up lodging in a filthy garret at the top of her house. Huge fun and a favourite read from Spanish Lit Month.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

This novel charts a deep friendship between two American couples over forty years. The story explores how these four friends cope with the challenges and setbacks they face during their lives; their struggles are the stuff of our everyday existence, but no less important or significant as a result. It’s an exceptional book – eloquent, graceful, wise and deeply moving. Stegner’s prose is simply wonderful.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I loved this novel of life in a seedy English boarding house set in the grim winter of 1943. A spinster in her late thirties is trapped in a ‘death-in-life’ existence and subjected to petty bullying by the ghastly Mr Thwaites. The characters are pin-sharp, and Hamilton has a brilliant for dialogue. A dark tragicomedy of manners, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra, a graduate student at Berkeley, drives home to her family’s ranch for the wedding of her identical twin sister, Judith, where she seems all set to derail the proceedings. This is a brilliant novel featuring one of my favourite women in literature. If you like complex characters with plenty of light and shade, this is the novel for you. Cassandra is intelligent, precise and at times witty, charming and loving. But she can also be manipulative, reckless, domineering, self-absorbed and cruel.  She’s a bundle of contradictions and behaves abominably at times, and yet she has my sympathies.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (tr. by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell)

This delightful novella is a playful take on the traditional country-house murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect. There is much to enjoy: the wit and charm of the writing; the eccentricities of the rather pedantic narrator; the playful nature of the narrative; the murder mystery at its heart. This is a book that never takes itself too seriously as it gently pokes fun at the mystery genre. A favourite read for Richard’s celebration of Argentinian lit.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Set in New York in the later 19th Century, this novel features Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lilly knows she must net a wealthy husband to safeguard her place in society and the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, but she wants to marry for love and money. Lily is a fascinating character: complex, nuanced and fully realised. A great novel, fully deserving of its status as a classic.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (tr. by Brian Murdoch)

Narrated by an eighteen-year-old German soldier fighting in WWI, this is a searing portrait of the suffering, desolation and futility of war. There is, however, a sense of universality to this story. The narrator could be any one of the terrified young soldiers sent to the front, desperately trying to get from one day to the next, never knowing what the future might bring. A deeply affecting novel, beautifully written; I wish I had read it many years ago.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940. Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. Another standout read from Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

On one level, H is for Hawk is the story of how Macdonald attempts to deal with grief by training a goshawk following the death of her father. On another, it captures a biography of the novelist T.H White and his misguided attempts to train his own hawk. The writing is excellent: vivid and evocative in its description of landscape and nature, informative and engaging on falconry and White. This is an intelligent, multi-layered and humane book. An emotional but thoroughly rewarding read for me, I had to pick the right time for this one.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel featuring two mismatched couples, the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, The Good Soldier is a story of intrigues, betrayals and duplicity. It tells of the consequences of reigning in desires and of the damage caused when these desires are unleashed. As the narrator, John Dowell, tries to make sense of events, we’re left questioning his reliability. A fascinating book, superbly written. Each of the main characters is flawed or damaged in some way, and my impressions changed as I continued to read. One to revisit at some stage.

Also noteworthy (these are the books I agonised over): Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue; Speedboat by Renata Adler; The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald; Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier.

So there we go, my favourite books from a year of reading and eight months of blogging – better late than never. Wishing you all the best for 2015, may it be filled with many wonderful books.

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (review)

Penelope Fitzgerald is one of those authors I’ve been aware of for many years, but had never got around to reading. Three of her novels, The Bookshop, The Beginning of Spring and The Gate of Angels have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and she won the prize in 1979 with Offshore. I knew she was held in high regard, but somehow, she’d fallen off my radar. But then at the end of last year, 4th Estate reissued Fitzgerald’s books in beautiful new editions. Tempted by these reissues in their smart covers, I thought I’d try one of her novels: The Beginning of Spring, first published in 1988.

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The Beginning of Spring is set in Moscow in the winter of 1913, a time political and industrial change for Russia. Frank Reid — born and raised in Russia, but English by descent – owns and manages a small printing works, part of a business established by his father. As the book opens, Frank learns that his wife, Nellie, has left him suddenly and without any warning. Nellie has taken their three children (Dolly, Ben and Annushka) with her, but subsequently deposits them at Mozhaisk station. Frank is at a loss as to why Nellie has disappeared so abruptly, abandoning the children during her escape. On the children’s arrival home, Dolly (at ten, the eldest of the three) offers her father the following observation, which makes her seem wise beyond her years:

‘You shouldn’t have expected her to manage by herself. She had to send us back, we weren’t a comfort to her. I think you asked too much of her.’ (pg. 23, 4th Estate)

And a few days later, Dolly tells Frank ‘the mistake she probably made was getting married in the first place.’ (pg. 62)

During the novel, we learn a little more of Nellie’s upbringing in Norbury, and how she came to meet Frank through the local choral society. As a young man, Frank journeyed to England to study and gain hands-on experience of the printing industry, and his training took him to Norbury. Fitzgerald takes us back in time to illustrate Frank’s initial impressions of his future wife:

Frank was struck by her way of looking at things. There was a tartness about it, a sharp flavour, not of ill-nature, but of disapproval of life’s compromises, including her own. (pg. 29)

Nellie is determined that she’s ‘not going to be got the better of by Norbury’. We sense her desperation to get away from this stifling environment, the gossip and judgement of its inhabitants, not to mention the scrutiny of aunts, uncles and other family members due to attend the wedding. A little before her wedding day, Nellie seems unsettled by her lack of experience with men, and the same anxieties return to her mind:

It was a moment’s loss of confidence, which Frank knew he mustn’t allow. Under his hands her solid partly naked body was damp with effort. She was recklessly dragging off something whose fastenings seem to defy her. Her voice was muffled. ‘Go on Frank. I’m not going to let them stand about knowing more than I do. I won’t be got the better of.’ (pg. 37)

There’s something quite telling about this section of the narrative, and yet Fitzgerald leaves much unsaid, thereby allowing the reader to contemplate the significance on future events. As the flashbacks continue, Nellie seems quite at home in Moscow on their arrival in Russia, more so than in Germany where the couple spent their first three years of marriage. And so we still don’t know why Nellie has left Frank, or whether she intends to come back.

Returning now to 1913, Frank sets about trying to make arrangements for the care of the children. Keen to avoid the English chaplaincy (the chaplain’s wife is quite a character) for as long as possible, Frank draws on the support of Arkady Kuriatin’s wife and family; Kuriatin is a merchant and business contact, and his family are happy to accommodate the Reid children, in the short term at least. Fitzgerald’s writing contains flashes of sly humour, and we see this in her description of the Kuriatins:

Arkady had children – how many, Frank couldn’t say, because extra ones, perhaps nephews and nieces, perhaps waifs, or even hostages, seemed to come and go. His wife, Matryona Osipovna, was always at home. Frank had heard her say, ‘What is there better outside than in?’ Nellie had always admitted Mrs Kuriatin’s kindness, but couldn’t be doing with her. (pg. 63)

A visit to Moscow by Nellie’s rather naïve brother, Charlie, also provides ample opportunity for Fitzgerald to add touches of wry humour to the narrative.

Another of the novel’s delights stems from its cast of finely-drawn and memorable characters; one such character is Selwyn Crane, Frank’s chief accountant, fervent poet and avid follower of Tolstoy. In order to provide his employer with a solution to his childcare dilemma, Selwyn introduces Frank to Lisa Ivanovna, a bright young peasant girl who can speak good Russian to the children. The author gives us a few details of how Selwyn has encountered Lisa. Finding her in tears while working in a Moscow department store, he assumes she’s feeling homesick and out-of-place in the big city. And yet, there is an air of mystery around Selwyn’s connection with the girl and his reasons for bringing her to the attention of Frank. All goes well when Lisa meets Frank’s children (who seem to be showing few signs of missing their mother), and so the young girl moves into the Reid household. Frank finds himself drawn to this attractive, quietly enigmatic creature, but it would be unfair of me to say any more about how the remainder of the story unfolds…

The Beginning of Spring is a quietly compelling novel, one that draws you slowly, yet steadily, into its mysterious world. Fitzgerald gives us a skilfully realised picture of Russia in this era with its tea rooms bustling with activity and its well-to-do houses. We see how business and dealings with the authorities are conducted in Russia during this period, a time when one had to have ‘an instinct for how much in the way of bribes would be appropriate for the uniformed and political police.’ And despite being born and raised in Russia, Frank is constantly reminded that he’s a ‘foreigner’, one whose freedom to come and go from the country is dependent on the disposition of the authorities.

As I’ve already hinted, there is much going on under the surface of the narrative, plenty left unsaid and this leaves space for the reader to ponder the significance of particular phrases and scenes. Towards the end of the book, there’s a beautiful extended passage covering the change and evolution of birch trees as the seasons pass from spring through to winter and back to spring once again. Fitzgerald describes in two or three pages the lifecycle of the birch, as we follow the trees from birth to decay and death. Once again, I’m sure this piece is symbolic of other events in the novel, but nothing is explicit; we’re left to draw our own meaning from these images. Similarly, could it be that the opening of sealed windows in the Reid household, an event that heralds the start of spring, is symbolic of something else? Could it be a metaphor for the release of repressed emotions, perhaps? A sign of feelings that have been bottled-up for months…

In the closing chapters, Fitzgerald deftly pulls the novel’s threads together, and we discover something of the puzzle surrounding Nellie’s disappearance. It’s a great ending, one that left me keen to read more of her novels at some point.

The Beginning of Spring is published in the UK by 4th Estate. Source: personal copy.