Tag Archives: Penguin Books

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2021, Unsettled Ground tells the heartrending story of two adult twins, fifty-one-year-old Jeanie and Julius Seeder, sheltered from the modern world by their mother, Dot, in their run-down cottage in Wiltshire.

The twins have lived at home with Dot their whole lives. Julius picks up casual jobs where he can while Jeanie supports her mother, helping to tend the vegetables the family sell to a local deli and B&B. Their world is small and fragile, their existence hand-to-mouth – living rent-free in a dilapidated cottage, an undocumented arrangement dating back to the death of the twins’ father, Frank, some thirty-seven years earlier. In the absence of any technology or external influences, the family gain comfort from simple homely rituals, mostly playing folk songs together, passed down through the generations.

When Dot dies of a stroke at the beginning of the novel, the twins’ lives are thrown into turmoil as everything the Seeders previously understood about their family history begins to unravel. Caroline Rawson – married to the farmer on whose land the Seeders’ cottage is situated – claims that Dot owed her husband £2,000 in rent, a debt that the twins struggle to understand given the nature of Dot’s agreement with Rawson. The circumstances surrounding Frank Seeder’s death are alluded to, suggesting an element of guilt on Rawson’s part, hence the longstanding rent-free arrangement. But if that was indeed the case, why is Caroline Rawson suddenly demanding payments?

They rarely discussed money in the past and it comes awkwardly now, and they never talked in any depth about the agreement, they know it simply as an arrangement that was negotiated between Dot and Rawson a year after their father’s death – an event that was only ever alluded to, all of them orbiting an incident so horrific they were unable to shift themselves closer. (p. 92)

Other debts and family secrets gradually come to light, compounding the twins’ ability to hold onto the cottage in the face of the Rawsons’ hostility. With barely enough money to buy food, let alone to make a dent in Dot’s outstanding debts, Jeanie and Julius must face the possibility of eviction – all at a time when they are still grieving for their mother. In short, they can’t even afford a basic funeral for Dot – something they eventually deal with in the only way possible while batting away awkward questions about the secluded service and wake.

The novel is told mostly from the point of view of Jeanie, a proud, vulnerable, stubborn woman who gradually reveals her resilience over the course of the book. With great sensitivity and compassion, Fuller shows us just how challenging it is for someone like Jeanie to navigate the modern world with its reliance on formal processes and online technology. Largely due to a severe bout of rheumatic fever during her childhood, Jeanie cannot read and write – limitations she tries to keep hidden from the few people she comes into contact with.

Occasionally Jeanie sees these problems as her own failings and is ashamed, but most of the time she is cross that the world is designed for people who can read and write with ease. (p. 58)

It is an illness Jeanie remains wary of to the current day, largely due to Dot’s warnings about the frailty of her daughter’s heart, thereby imposing restrictions on Jeanie’s physical capabilities.

The lack of a bank account is another obstacle for the Seeders, something Jeanie discovers when she lands a job tending a local resident’s garden two afternoons a week. When her first payment is handed over as a cheque, Jeanine is too embarrassed to ask for cash, thereby rendering her work useless, at least as a means of gaining money. Nevertheless, it’s a step in the right direction for Jeanie, a sign of growing independence, which Fuller teases out beautifully during the book.

She is excited, amazed at what she has managed to do so easily, and although she knows that what she will be earning won’t touch their debts, the idea of doing work other than looking after her own house and garden makes her feel like something inside her – as tiny as an onion seed – is splitting open, ready to send out its shoot. (p. 107)

While the novel is relatively bleak in tone, it is not without occasional moments of brightness. As Dot’s death forces the twins to interact with the outside world in various unfamiliar ways, there is support from Dot’s friend, Bridget, and her husband, Stu. Bridget in particular tries to help Jeanie as best she can while keeping her counsel on Dot’s history and the version of events passed down to the twins. There is genuine heartbreak in this novel, particularly when unscrupulous bullies seize on the twins’ vulnerabilities and misfortunes, just at their lowest point. Ultimately though, it is a story of resilience, how sometimes we have to come to terms with darkness in our family history to forgive and move forward.

In Jeanie and Julius, Fuller has created two highly distinctive, richly-layered characters that feel fully painted on the page. The Seeders are marginalised – underdogs the reader will likely invest in, sensitively conveyed with compassion despite their undoubted failings. (There are times in this novel when you’ll probably want to give each twin a good shake or talking to, purely for their own good, but you know they’ll need to learn things the hard way to really pull through.) The supporting players are excellent too, especially Bridget and her wayward son, Nathan, who gets drawn into the eviction proceedings, much to his parents’ disgust. 

Fuller writes beautifully about the twins’ environment, capturing a feel for the landscape and the rhythms of rural life.

The morning sky lightens, and snow falls on the cottage. It falls on the thatch, concealing the moss and the mouse damage, smoothing out the undulations, filling in the hollows and slips, melting where it touches the bricks of the chimney. It settles on the plants and bare soil in the front garden and forms a perfect mound on top of the rotten gatepost, as though shaped from the inside of a teacup. It hides the roof of the chicken coop, and those of the privy and the old dairy, leaving a dusting across the workbench and floor where the window was broken long ago. (p. 1)

Her eye for detail is equally impressive, highlighting the idiosyncratic nature of the world the twins inhabit – the image of a piano lying on its side in the middle of a spinney will likely linger and endure.

This is a poignant, highly distinctive story of two outsiders living on the fringes of society. A tender, achingly sad novel with glimmers of hope for a brighter future, especially towards the end.

Unsettled Ground is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The #1954Club – some reading recommendations for next week

On Monday 18th April, Karen and Simon will be kicking off the #1954Club, a week-long celebration of books first published in 1954. Their ‘Club’ weeks are always great fun, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the various tweets, reviews and recommendations flying around the web during the event.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my fondness for fiction from the 1940s and ‘50s, I’ve reviewed various 1954 books over the past few years. So if you’re thinking of taking part in the Club, here are some of my faves.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

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

Bonjour Tristesse by Francois Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

A quintessential summer read, Bonjour Tristesse is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions, all set against the background of the glamorous French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another person arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father.  Sagan’s novella is an utterly compelling read with a dramatic denouement. My review is based on Heather Lloyd’s 2013 translation, but if you’re thinking of reading this one. I would strongly recommend Irene Ash’s 1955 version – it’s more vivacious than the Lloyd, a style that perfectly complements the story’s palpable atmosphere and mood.

The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith

This very compelling noir sees Highsmith in familiar territory, exploring themes of guilt, obsession and the possibility that an ordinary, everyday man might resort to murder if pushed far enough. In this instance, Highsmith is particularly strong on exploring the point at which idle curiosity tips over into an unhealthy obsession, signalling the point of no return. The novel revolves around Walter Stackhouse, a frazzled, thirty-year-old lawyer whose life is being made a misery by his wife, Clara, a successful yet neurotic real estate agent. There is an inherent dichotomy in the central protagonist’s personality, which is both believable and fascinating to observe. Even though Walter knows his actions are truly reckless, he goes ahead with them anyway, irrespective of the tragic consequences. It’s an intriguing novel, ideal for lovers of dark, well-crafted fiction with a psychological edge.

Les Belles Amours by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. Francis Wyndham)

This charming novel revolves around the respective fortunes of three central characters: the handsome roué, Monsieur Zaraguirre; the young libertine Louis Duville; and the alluring woman who manages to capture both of their hearts. (Interestingly, we never learn the young woman’s name as her identity throughout the novel is characterised by her attachment to each of the men in turn.) While de Vilmorin’s story is set in the 1920s, there is a timeless quality to it, so much so that it would be easy to imagine it playing out in the late 19th century, complete with the relevant social mores of the day. In short, Les Belles Amours is a beautifully constructed story of intrigues, infidelity, and the complexities of the heart – by turns elegant, artful and poignant. I suspect it’s currently out of print, but secondhand copies of the Capuchin Classics edition are still available.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

Murdoch’s debut novel is a subtly clever blend of the picaresque and the philosophical, set within the bohemian milieu of London and Paris in the early 1950s. Our narrator is Jake Donaghue, an impoverished hack writer who scrapes a living by translating mediocre French novels into English when in need of some ready cash. When Jack must find a new place to live – ably accompanied by his accommodating assistant, Finn – the quest sets off a sequence of misadventures, chance encounters and close shaves, all of which shape Jack’s outlook on life in subtly different ways. Along the way, the action takes in various scuffles, the theft of a manuscript, a break-in, a kidnap, and a spontaneous night-time dip in the Thames. On one level, it’s all tremendous fun, but there’s a sense of depth to the story too. A witty, engaging story and a thoroughly enjoyable read – my first Murdoch, but hopefully not my last.

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac (tr. Geoffrey Sainsbury)

First published in France in 1954, Vertigo (originally titled D’entre les morts, meaning Among the Dead) is the source novel for Hitchcock’s 1958 film of the same name. Even if you’ve seen the movie, the book is well worth reading. It’s darker than Hitchcock’s adaptation – in particular, the characterisation feels stronger and more nuanced here. Lawyer and former police officer Roger Flavières is haunted by a traumatic incident from his past linked to a fear of heights. As the narrative unfolds, echoes of former experiences reverberate in the protagonist’s mind, trapping him in a kind of nightmare and feverish obsession. This highly compelling novella would suit readers who enjoy psychological mysteries, particularly those that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary.  

Hester Lilly by Elizabeth Taylor

Taylor’s first collection of short fiction includes seventeen stories of varying length – ranging from brief sketches of two of three pages to the novella-sized titular tale that opens the collection. There are some brilliant stories here, up there with some of the best vignettes from Taylor’s longer works. The opening piece in particular encapsulates many of this author’s key trademarks: her ability to create nuanced characters with real emotional depth; her acute observations of the subtleties of human interactions; and her capacity to elicit the reader’s sympathy for difficult individuals despite their inherent flaws. Where this collection really excels is in its depiction of domestic stories: the palpable tensions between semi-estranged partners; the unspoken agonies of lifeless marriages; and the painful attempts of a mother to outdo her neighbour. An excellent collection of stories from one of my very favourite authors.

Do let me know your thoughts on these books if you’ve read any of them. Or maybe you have plans of your own for the week – if so, I’d be interested to hear.

Hopefully I’ll be posting a new ‘1954’ review for the Club to tie in with the event, other commitments permitting!

Other People’s Worlds by William Trevor

As a writer, William Trevor has an innate ability to convey the tragedies of our lives, how individuals can be worn down by their fates and circumstances. It’s a quality that’s very much in evidence here, in the author’s 1980 novel, Other People’s Worlds, a tale of deception, collateral damage and a questioning of faith. But, if anything, the story is even darker than Trevor’s other early to mid-period work, more malevolent perhaps than The Children of Dynmouth, with which it shares a central theme – how a sinister figure can sweep into people’s lives, leaving wreckage in their wake.

The man in question is Francis Tyte, a thirty-something bit-part actor whose main claim to fame is a series of tobacco commercials on the TV. As the novel opens, Francis is preparing to marry Julia Ferndale, a forty-seven-year-old woman who lives wither her widowed mother, Mrs Anstey, in Swan House, their Gloucestershire home. Mrs Anstey has some nagging doubts about Francis, which she tries to voice to her grown-up grandchildren, Henrietta and Katherine, but to little avail. While Julia’s daughters agree that their mother should make a will, they have no great concerns about Francis himself. After all, Julia seems happy with him, contently planning their honeymoon in Florence, for which she alone will pay.

Francis, however, is not as charming or innocent as he might appear at first sight, as Trevor quickly reveals to the reader (but not to Julia herself). Over the years, Francis has latched onto a series of people (often women), inveigling his way into their worlds, taking advantage of their generosity – and in some instances, their vulnerabilities. It’s a well-worn routine, complete with a tragic childhood to illicit the victims’ sympathies, perfected over time, from one family to another.

After the tragedy of his parents’ death when he was eleven he’d spent the remainder of his childhood in Suffolk, with a faded old aunt who had died herself a few years ago. None of that was true. As a child he had developed the fantasy of the train crash; his parents were still alive, the aunt and her cottage figments of his imagination. But in the drawing-room of Swan House he recalled the railway tragedy with suitable regret, and was rewarded with sympathy and another cup of tea. (p. 28)

Once Francis has gained what he wants from his benefactors – or has been rumbled – he disappears, leaving them feeling foolish and violated in his wake. In most instances, money is his main object, alongside a place to stay; but as the narrative unfolds, the is a sense of something deeper at play – a desire or need to disrupt, perhaps. In many respects, Julia is the perfect target for Francis – kind, compassionate, and too trusting by half. Prone to collecting ‘lame ducks’, as Mrs Anstey tends to think of it. 

As preparations for the wedding get underway, Francis’s past begins to close in on him. We meet Doris, a single mother with a drink problem, barely holding down her job in the shoe department of a local store. While twelve-year-old Joy (Francis and Doris’s daughter) skips school, Doris cuts a particularly tragic figure, hiding bottles of vodka behind the bread bin to feed her escalating addiction. She too is the victim of Francis’s lies, knowing nothing about his engagement to Julia and the forthcoming wedding. As far as Doris is concerned, Francis is still married to his first wife, a dressmaker in Folkestone who has been at death’s door for several years.

Surely, it’s only a matter of time. Once the dressmaker has finally passed away, things will be different. Francis will be free to live with Doris and Joy on a permanent basis – just like a proper family, or so Doris believes. But her colleagues at the store are not quite as convinced…

He’d got even thinner, his face especially, not that it didn’t suit him. Lean bacon’s best, as Irene in Handbags always said. All the girls on the floor knew what he looked like of course because of being on the television, especially since he’d become the Man with the Pipe and there were more close-ups of his features. ‘Dishy,’ young Maeve who brought the tea to the floor supervisor’s office had said only three weeks ago. But some of the other girls, aware of how long Doris had been waiting for him, sometimes pursed their lips. (p. 64)

Others too get caught up in the web of lies, from Susanna Music, a young actress who comes into contact with Francis while working on a TV drama, to Francis’s elderly parents, Mr and Mrs Tyte – alive and relatively well in a care home in Hampton Wick. (Interestingly, the drama Francis and Susanna are working on concerns Constance Kent, whose story has some resonances with Other People’s Worlds.)

Once the truth about Francis comes out (which feels inevitable to the reader from the start), Julia, a practising Catholic, begins to seriously question her faith, doubting the existence of God, given the trauma she is experiencing. It’s an interesting development, adding another layer to Trevor’s richly imagined story.

Francis Tyte is yet another of William Trevor’s sinister creations, a truly dangerous man who cares little for his victims, weaving fantasies for himself as he destroys those around him. As the story develops, we learn more about his early years, the interactions between Francis and a broader at the Tyte family home. Not that any of this is an excuse for Francis’s unscrupulous behaviour, but it does shed some light on how the rot began to set in.

Alongside the darkness and undeniable tragedy, there are humorous moments too. Mrs Spanners, Julia’s sixty-year-old charwoman, provides some welcome light relief with her interest in local gossip and forthright pronouncements. (Mrs Anstey, as it happens, is not a fan of Mrs Spanners and her ways of doing things, viewing her as an interference when Julia is away.) Once again, Trevor demonstrates his sharp eye for detail, the little touches that bring a character to life.

[Mrs Spanners:] ‘Fancy the garbage out again! Never think of no one but theirselves.’

She wore an overall with prancing shepherdesses on it, and was heavily scented with Love-in-a-Mist. Her face had already been made up, fingernails shaped and painted. Her tangerine hair was fresh from its curlers.

‘Another thing,’ she said. ‘Pig products is up. Immediate from midnight.’

With that she departed. (pp. 123–124)

Doris is a remarkably complex character (more deranged and twisted than Francis himself), foisting herself on Julia, Mrs Anstey and others as the truth is revealed.

All in all, this is a fateful tale – a story of shattered lives damaged by a fantasist/con man with little appreciation of his capacity to destroy. Nevertheless, there are glimmers of hope at the end amid the damage and destruction.

Definitely recommended for lovers of dark, character-driven fiction with flawed, unlikeable individuals. Fans of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye may well be interested in this one, especially given the resonances with Dougal Douglas and his disruptive impact on the community.

Other People’s Worlds is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Gilgi, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (tr. Geoff Wilkes)

I loved this novella, a striking portrayal of a determined young woman set in Weimar-era Cologne. First published in 1931, and subsequently banned by the Nazi authorities, Gilgi (One of Us), was Irmgard Keun’s debut novel, announcing its author as a powerful new voice in German literature.

The novella revolves around Gisela Kron, affectionally known as ‘Gilgi’, a twenty-one-year-old secretary living and working in Cologne. Gilgi is smart, resourceful and efficient. She works hard during the day, barely stopping to catch her breath; then at night she studies languages to improve her prospects, diligently applying herself to each task at hand. Despite living at home with her rather conservative adoptive parents, Gilgi rents a place elsewhere, a room of her own where she can study, be herself and work on her translations.

Idleness is anathema to Gilgi. She has little time for those who appear bored or lifeless. For Gilgi, progression is everything – she wants to work, to get on, to be ‘self-supporting and independent’. Hopefully she’ll save enough money to have her own apartment in a few years’ time, maybe even start her own business if everything goes well. Whatever it takes, Gilgi has the tenacity to succeed – even where men are concerned, or so she thinks…

Gilgi is an experienced girl. She knows men, and what they variously want and don’t want, and how this is betrayed by the tone of their voices, their expressions, and their movements. If a man and a boss like Herr Reuter speaks in an uncertain voice, he’s in love, and if he’s in love, he wants something. Sooner or later. If he doesn’t get what he wants, he’s surprised, offended, and angry. (p. 10)

One day, just when she’s least expecting it, into her life comes Martin, a charismatic free spirit in his early forties. In many ways, Martin seems the complete opposite to Gilgi; he is something of a vagabond, an idler who lacks ambition, viewing work as a means to an end, a way of funding his travels in a rather haphazard way. And yet, despite her fierce sense of independence, Gilgi is attracted to him, hoping that he might stay, preferably for a while.

…she’s not some sentimental goose, she doesn’t need anyone, she gets by on her own. She knows what she wants to do, and knows that she can do what she wants to do. And the whole time she’s telling Martin this, she grips his hand as though she was afraid that he could suddenly stand up and disappear, never to be seen again. He mustn’t do that, he must stay with her, for a long time yet… (p. 65)

Before long, Gilgi moves in with Martin, joining him in the beautiful flat he is looking after for an absent friend. Nevertheless, the pair have little time to spend with one another, especially with Gilgi’s translation work in the evenings. Money is a complication for the couple, too. While Gilgi can afford to pay her way, Martin’s sources of income are more meagre. He has a modest allowance from some capital invested in his brother’s business – just about enough to get by on his own, but nothing more.

In essence, the novella explores Gilgi as an individual and the competing demands on her future direction. Before Martin appeared, Gilgi always knew what she wanted from life with 100% certainty. Now, however, these beliefs are being tested, to the point where Gilgi begins to question her aims, actions and ultimate limits.

Gilgi loves Martin with a depth and intensity she has never experienced before; and as the narrative progresses, she finds herself torn between two seemingly irreconcilable passions: her desire for independence and a successful career vs her love for Martin and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Ultimately, it is the attempted reconciliation of these opposing forces that drives Keun’s novella forward.

Everything’s fine, you thought, when you moved in with Martin. Nothing’s fine. Maybe you want too much. You want to keep your whole life from before, with its joy in getting ahead, its well-oiled approach to work, with its strict allocation of time, its brilliantly functioning system. And you want another life on top of that, a life with Martin, a soft contourless, heedless life. You don’t want to give up the first life, and you can’t give up the second one. (p. 85)

Right from the start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging ‘voice’. Keun does a terrific job in capturing her protagonist’s conflicted emotions, which are often in a state of flux. Like any young woman in the early stages of adulthood, Gilgi discovers how complex love can be – a state that makes one feel very protected one day and completely exposed the next. 

Interestingly, Keun seems to move seamlessly between first-, second-, and third-person narration throughout the book – a technique that sounds as if it might be quite confusing, but in reality feels anything but. It works beautifully on the page, giving the story a sense of vibrancy and fluidity to match Gilgi’s personality. The writing is wonderful – full of sharp observations about characters and life. I especially loved this description of Gilgi’s birth mother, whom Gilgi meets for the first time towards the end of the tale.

As coolly and uninhibitedly as the casting director of a revue, Gilgi examines the petite, elegant lady who is standing before her. Doesn’t impress me. How to classify her type? Title character in a mediocre magazine serial. Quite good figure – style a little undecided – half coolly fashionable American girl, half older lady who’s kept slim by dancing with gigolos. A touch too expensively dressed – the usual tasteful but slightly impersonal uniform of the traveler in first class. (p. 162)

In many respects, Gilgi (One of Us) is a very progressive book. Not only is it written in a modernist style, but it also touches on several forward-thinking themes, including adoption, opportunities for women in the workplace, financial independence from men, sex outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and the impact of debt on a person’s mental health. In summary then, Keun has created an evocative, thought-provoking narrative featuring a strong female character, very much a precursor to some of her later work.

Coincidentally, Max has just listed Keun’s 1937 novella, After Midnight in his 2021 reading highlights, so it’s great to see this writer getting some much-deserved attention!

Gilgi, One of Us is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

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

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

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

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

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

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

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

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

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

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

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

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

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

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

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

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

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

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

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

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

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

Passing by Nella Larsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

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

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

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

The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry

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

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

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

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

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

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

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

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

The Past by Tessa Hadley

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

Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell

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

Blitz Spirit by Becky Brown

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

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

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

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

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

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

Autumn reads – a few favourites from the shelves

A few weeks ago, Trevor and Paul released a podcast on some of their favourite fall/autumn books, including a few they hope to read this year. It’s a fascinating discussion, which you can listen to at The Mookse and the Gripes podcast via the usual platforms. Their conversation got me thinking about my own seasonal reading, particularly books with autumnal settings or moods. So, with a nod to Trevor and Paul’s selection, here are a few of my favourite autumn reads.

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

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

A Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

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

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party offers readers a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. The novel follows the final twenty-four hours of a three-day shoot, a landmark event in the social calendar of the Nettlebys and their immediate set. As the story unfolds, we learn more about the main characters, their distorted moral values and the rarefied world in which they circulate. What Colegate does so well here is to shine a light on the farcical nature of Edwardian society, the sheer pointlessness of the endless social whirl and the ridiculous codes that govern it. Fans of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy The Shooting Party, a superb novel that deserves to be better known.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

What can I say about this widely-acclaimed Gothic classic that hasn’t already been said before? Not a lot, other than to reiterate how brilliantly unsettling it is. The novel’s narrator, Merricat Blackwood – an eighteen-year-old girl with a distinctive, childlike voice – lives with her amiable older sister, Constance, in a large isolated house on the outskirts of a New England village. However, the girls have been ostracised by the local townsfolk, primarily due to an infamous poisoning in the family six years ago. As such, the book has much to say about outsiders – more specifically, how as a society we treat people who seem strange or different from the ‘norm’, and how our suspicions and prejudices can lead to fear – and ultimately to violence. An atmospheric, unsettling, magical book, shot through with touches of black humour, ideal for Halloween.

American Midnight – Tales of the dark short story anthology

Also making a strong claim for the Halloween reading pile is American Midnight is a wonderfully chilling short story anthology released in 2019. The collection comprises nine tales of the dark and supernatural, all penned by American authors and originally published in the 19th or 20th century. The featured writers include Edith Wharton, Edgar Allen Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Shirley Jackson (again!). One of the best things about the selection is the diversity of styles across the ranger – from gothic folk horror to classic ghost stories, there’s something for virtually everyone here. American Midnight is a wide-ranging collection of unsettling stories, shot through with striking imagery and a palpable sense of unease, exploring some of the mystery and darkness in America’s chequered past. For more unnerving short stories, check out Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales, Daphne du Maurier’s The Breaking Point and Edith Wharton’s Ghost Stories – all come with high recommendations from me.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

At first, this might seem an unusual choice; however, I’ve chosen it because the novel’s heroine, Mrs Palfrey – a recently widowed elderly lady – is in the twilight of her life. As the book opens, Mrs Palfrey is in the process of moving into London’s Claremont Hotel (the story is set in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, when this was not unusual for those who could afford it). Here she joins a group of residents in similar positions, each likely to remain at the hotel until they can no longer avoid a move to a nursing home or hospital.

To save face in front of the other residents, Mrs P persuades a kindly young man, Ludo, to play the role of her grandson, and an unlikely yet deeply touching relationship between the pair soon develops. This beautiful, bittersweet novel 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; and the desire to feel valued. Taylor’s observations of social situations are spot-on, and there are some very amusing moments alongside the undoubted poignancy. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is an understated gem – a wise, beautifully-observed novel that stands up to re-reading.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading any of them in the future. Perhaps you have a favourite autumnal book or two? Please feel free to mention them in the comments below.

A Misalliance by Anita Brookner

The English writer and art historian Anita Brookner carved out a particular niche for herself during her writing career, producing beautifully crafted novels about loneliness and isolation. Her books often feature unmarried women living narrow, unfulfilling lives in well-to-do London flats, where they spend their evenings waiting for unobtainable lovers to make fleeting appearances. That probably makes the novels sound rather dull; however, in reality, they are anything but. I find them very appealing – both for their exquisite prose and for their astute insights into character, particularly as Brookner’s women feel very relatable to me. 

First published in 1986, A Misalliance is very much in this vein, focusing as it does on Blanche Vernon, a respectable middle-aged woman who now lives alone in her central London apartment. Blanche’s husband of twenty years, Bertie, has left her for ‘Mousie’ – a much younger, frivolous woman who has succeeded in capturing Bertie’s imagination and protective instincts. Consequently, Blanche endeavours to fill her days with charitable work at one of the London hospitals and trips to the National Gallery where she studies the nymphs, reflecting on their romantic allure – a vision that presents a sharp contrast to the drabness of her life. Money is not an issue for Blanche – she has a small private income – and with no job or children to occupy her time, we quickly get the sense that facing the day ahead often presents something of a challenge. The expensive food and wine she buys give her little pleasure, heightening her longing for the night and a release into sleep.

Blanche Vernon occupied her time most usefully in keeping feelings at bay. In this uneasy month of the year – cold April, long chilly evenings – she considered it a matter of honour to be busy and amused until darkness fell and released her from her obligations. […]

Leaving her house – in reality a tall brick building containing several mysterious high ceilinged apartments – was the event of the day, after which she felt she could breathe more freely, having launched herself yet again on the world without meeting any resistance. (p. 5)

With her ‘tweed suit and polished shoes’, Blanche is considered somewhat eccentric and unapproachable by her neighbours and acquaintances. She remains friendly with Barbara, Bertie’s sister, and the two women talk to one another on the phone every night.

Bertie, for his part, has also not completely severed all ties with Blanche, occasionally dropping in on her for an evening drink and a slice of apple tart. In truth, Blanche secretly hopes that Bertie might tire of Mousie and her little-girl-lost act at some point, prompting him to return to the fold even though the Vernons are officially divorced. Mostly though, Blanche is left wondering why some women – like the emotional Mousie and the mocking nymphs in the National Gallery – seem to attract men like magnets, while other, more sensible individuals, such as herself, do not. Moreover, when Blanche meets Sally Beamish, a woman who shares something of Mousie’s alluring qualities, these thoughts are accentuated, throwing the emptiness of her life into sharp relief.

She [Blanche] even thought, and not for the first time, that it was her timorous decency, disguised as brusqueness, that had caused her to lose Bertie, and she compared herself with the distantly musing Sally entirely to her own disadvantage. For Sally, like Mousie, like those cynical smiling nymphs in the National Gallery, had known, with an ancient knowledge, that the world respects a predator, that the world will be amused by, interested in, indulgent towards the charming libertine. At that moment Blanche knew herself to be part of the fallen creation, doomed to serve, to be faithful, to be honourable, and to be excluded. (p. 79)

Blanche meets Sally and her three-year-old mute stepdaughter, Elinor, while dispensing tea in the hospital outpatients’ department. Almost immediately, Blanche sees something of herself in Elinor with her serious demeanour and quiet determination, prompting a desire to know more about the child and the family’s circumstances. It’s an interest that Sally quickly intuits and seeks to take advantage of, casually leveraging Blanche’s attachment to Elinor for her own personal gain. In short, Sally has grown used to a glamorous lifestyle but no longer has the means to sustain it, especially as her husband, Paul, is currently working overseas. Before long, Blanche is leaving £10 notes under the teapot in Sally’s flat to ‘tide her over’ and looking after Elinor while Sally amuses herself with a friend.

The situation intensifies when Sally pressurises Blanche to intervene in personal matters involving her husband, Paul, and his employers, a wealthy American couple, the Demuths. It’s a request that Blanche initially resists, knowing nothing of Paul and his rather mysterious financial arrangements. As this scenario plays out – I won’t go into it here – we see another man falling for the charms of a younger, attention-seeking woman who is fully aware of her appeal to the opposite sex. Once again, Blanche is left to reflect on the vagaries of romantic attraction – why do vulnerable or manipulative women seem so attractive to men, while their more refined or restrained counterparts are frequently ignored?

While I loved the first half of this novel for its compelling set-up, I found the second half just a little looser and less convincing. Still, there is plenty for fans of Brookner to enjoy here. As ever with this author, the characterisation is excellent, particularly Blanche, who appears to be a classic Brookner heroine reflecting on the unfairness of life. The secondary characters are great value too, especially Miss Elphinstone, Blanche’s talkative charwoman, a figure who could have easily stepped out of an Elizabeth Taylor novel – A Wreath of Roses and At Mrs Lippincote’s both spring to mind. However, unlike Blanche, Miss Elphinstone – who also appears to live alone – has fashioned a perfectly acceptable strategy for occupying her time, throwing herself into church activities with steeliness and gusto. 

Miss Elphinstone seemed to enjoy a lively and dramatic existence lived in the shadow of some excitable church whose activities absorbed most of her time and whose members abounded in competitive acts of selflessness. Thus was ensured an avalanche of information that took up most of the morning. Severely hatted, and wearing an overall under Blanche’s last season‘s black coat, Miss Elphinstone carried an equally severe black leather hold-all which contained a pair of rubber gloves, a change of shoes, and a religious magazine to read on the bus… (p. 22)

We also meet the dentist’s wife, Mrs Duff, a kindly woman who takes care of Blanche after a particularly trying meeting with Paul’s employers. In Mrs Duff, Brookner shows us another type of life – a woman seemingly content with a lack of excitement, having settled into the rhythms and routines of a longstanding marriage.

In summary, then, A Misalliance is an exquisitely written exploration of loneliness and the complexities of emotional entanglements, especially for a woman in Blanche’s position. There are some astute observations on womanhood, manipulation and loneliness here. Highly recommended for fans of Brookner and quiet, character-driven fiction with a focus on women’s lives.

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cosy and Not-So-Cosy Crime – E. C. R. Lorac and Ross Macdonald

I have two crime fiction novels to share with you today – both of which were written in the late 1950s, albeit in very different tonal registers. E. C. R. Lorac’s Two-Way Murder is a thoroughly entertaining cosy crime novel, ideal escapism from 21st-century Britain; however, I’m going to start with its not-so-cosy counterpart, Ross Macdonald’s compelling California-based mystery, The Galton Case.

The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald (1959)

Regular readers of this blog may know that I’ve been reading Ross Macdonald’s ‘Lew Archer’ novels in order over the past five or six years. (For those of you who are new to Ross Macdonald, he’s in a similar vein to the great hardboiled detective novelists, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – i.e. a writer whose work transcends the traditional crime fiction genre.)

The Galton Case – the eighth book in the series – sees the world-weary private eye being drawn into a cold case investigation which naturally turns out to be far more complex that it appears at first sight. As a novel, it contains many of Macdonald’s hallmarks: a powerful dysfunctional family; various individuals motivated by greed; and current crimes with a hidden connection to the past. While it’s probably not my favourite book in the series, The Galton Case still makes for a highly compelling read. A very solid entry, barring a couple of caveats regarding the ending.

Mrs Galton, a wealthy widow with a significant heart condition, wishes to reconcile with her estranged son, Anthony Galton, before it is too late. Some twenty years earlier, Anthony Galton disappeared from the family home (together with his pregnant wife and a significant amount of money) following a rift with his mother. In short, Mrs Galton hadn’t approved of her son’s marriage, often the cause of tension in a Lew Archer novel.

The old lady’s lawyer, Gordon Sable, hires Archer to find Anthony, even though he has already been declared legally dead. Mrs Galton, however, remains convinced that her son is still alive, possibly making a living from writing as he had hoped to do at the time of his disappearance.

Despite his initial scepticism about the chances of finding Anthony alive, Archer takes the case; however, just as he is about to get started, a murder takes place, the victim being a rather ill-tempered servant by the name of Culligan, whom Archer had met at Sable’s home. Unsurprisingly, these two cases – the disappearance of Anthony Galton and the murder of Peter Culligan – turn out to be connected, signalling another complex tangle of crimes for Archer to unravel.

As ever with Macdonald, the descriptions of the locations are marvellous, from the melting pot of San Francisco to the comfortable enclaves of California.

Arroyo Park was an economic battleground where managers and professional people matched wits and incomes. The people on Mrs Galton’s Street didn’t know there had been a war. Their grandfathers or great-grandfathers had won it for them; death and taxes were all they had to cope with. (p. 11)

However, what’s particularly interesting about this novel is the psychological aspect – the exploration of human behaviour that takes place as Archer digs deeper. There are questions of identity to be resolved, instances of wish fulfilment and delusion alongside the more traditional motives of resentment and greed.

In Archer, Macdonald has created a highly engaging investigator who veers between pragmatism, sarcasm and compassion – a protagonist the reader can invest in for the duration of the series. While the ending feels a bit rushed, leaving a couple of loose ends unresolved, these are relatively minor quibbles in the scheme of things. In summary – a very solid mystery with some interesting insights into human nature.

Two-Way Murder by E. C. R. Lorac (written in the mid-late 1950s, published in 2021)

While Two-Way Murder is a much lighter, less menacing mystery than The Galton Case, the two novels share some similar characteristics – namely, tangled dysfunctional families and current crimes with potential links to suspicious incidents from the past.

Lorac’s novel – which has the air of a classic Golden Age Mystery – is set in the coastal resort of Fordings in the mid-late 1950s. Local innkeeper Nicholas (Nick) Brent – an ex-Navy man in his early thirties – has offered to drive his friend, the lawyer Ian Macbane, to the Hunt Ball, the major event in Fordings’ social calendar. Macbane is down from London for the Ball, where he hopes to get the opportunity to dance with Dilys Maine, the prettiest girl in the locality. Dilys, however, has a fondness for Michael Reeve, a prickly farmer and landowner whose family has something of a chequered history.

The action gets going towards the end of the Ball when Nick drives Dilys home, just before midnight. It’s a pre-arranged departure, conveniently timed to enable Dilys to get back without her absence being detected – by either her puritanical father, Mr Maine, or the family’s housekeeper, Alice. During their journey home, Nick and Dilys come across a dead body lying in the road, at which point Nick suggests that Dilys should walk home across the fields to avoid being dragged into the inevitable investigations. To complicate matters further, Nick is then attacked while phoning the police to report the dead body. There are further suspicious goings-on too, but I’ll leave you to discover those for yourself should you decide to read the book…

Needless to say, the police suspect the man on the road has been murdered, prompting investigations into various persons of interest in the vicinity and their movements on the night in question. There are some very interesting characters in the mix, including Dilys’ father, a tyrannical man obsessed with keeping a watch on Mr Hoyle, a local landlord whom Maine suspects of smuggling; Michael Reeve, of course, whose house Nicholas Brent was phoning from when he was attacked; and Michael’s elder brother, Norman, who may or may not be the dead body.

One of the things I particularly like about this mystery is the contrast between the different policemen investigating the murder. The initial enquiries are conducted by Inspector Turner, a methodical, practical-minded chap whose insensitivity and disregard for local networks tend to put him at a disadvantage. Inspector Waring, however, adopts a more intuitive approach to the case, his lively and imaginative mind remaining alert to the patterns of human nature. Ian Macbane is another interesting addition to the ‘team’, aiding Inspector Waring (who has been brought in from CID) with a spot of amateur detecting of his own.

In summary, Two-Way Murder is an excellent vintage mystery with a rather clever resolution – eminently believable at that, which isn’t always the case in these things. Attention to detail is key here, with elements of timing, the weather and the geographical layout of the area all playing important roles in pinpointing the culprit. There are some wonderful characters here too, from the likeable Inspector Waring to the thoughtful Ian Macbane to the Maine’s astute housekeeper, Alice. As ever, Lorac does a great job in conveying a sense of the local community and the importance of longstanding grudges. I’ll finish with a final quote that gives a feel for the location and Lorac’s flair for descriptions.

The car had topped the last rise of Bramber Head, the great chalk ridge which jutted out into the Channel; below, the ground dropped steeply to the wide basin of Fairbourne Bay, and the lights of Fordings were stretched out like jewelled necklaces, crossing and intertwining, with coloured lights along the seafront and a blur of chromatic brilliance over the cinema on the pier. (p. 18)

Karen has also written about this novel, including more info on Lorac and the discovery of this book – do take a look! My thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy.