Tag Archives: Penguin Books

The Girl on the Via Flaminia by Alfred Hayes

After serving in the US army in the Second World War, the British-born writer Alfred Hayes stayed on in Rome at the end of the conflict where he worked with some of the leading lights in the Italian neo-realist film movement, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. This talent for scriptwriting shows in Hayes’ 1949 novel, The Girl on the Via Flaminia, a slim work which zooms in on a microcosm of a society irreparably damaged by the ravages of war. It’s a brilliant, bleak yet beautifully written book, shot through with an aching sense of pain and sadness. Here’s how it opens:

The wind blew through Europe. It was a cold wind, and there were no lights in the city. (p.3)

Set in Rome in 1944, the novel focuses on Robert, a desperately lonely American soldier who finds himself stationed in the capital following the liberation of Italy from the Germans.

Having grown tired of boarding at the barracks with the rest of his unit, Robert longs for the company of a woman on a regular basis – not one of the prostitutes who ply their trade by the River Tiber, but someone more modest and above board. So, he makes an arrangement to share a private room with Lisa, a local Italian girl, at a house in the city. The lodgings are owned by Adele, a middle-aged Italian woman who has converted her dining room into a simple bar and eating place for the soldiers stationed in the vicinity. Also living in the house are Ugo, Adele’s mournful husband, and Antonio, their grown-up son, a bitter ex-soldier who resents the presence of the Allied forces in his country.

As far as Robert sees things, this is to be a simple arrangement, one that benefits both parties. Robert will have a little warmth and female company at night, while in return Lisa will receive some much sought-after supplies: coffee, sugar, chocolate, maybe even a little fruitcake on the side. It isn’t a question of just sex; Robert knows he could avail himself of one of the local prostitutes for that (not that he wants to – the prospect really doesn’t appeal). Rather, it’s more a case of desiring something decent and comfortable, albeit with no long-term strings attached.

On their first evening together in the room, Lisa is pretty antagonist towards Robert, whom she views as symbolic of American soldiers in general, a group characterised by their loudness, arrogance and stupidity. Robert, in his naivety, struggles to truly understand the anger and hostility being directed towards him, particularly from Lisa whom he believes he is helping through the provision of goods. Gradually, however, and with the help of a well-timed power cut, Lisa’s mood begins to soften, thereby enabling Robert to get a little closer to her – an experience exquisitely conveyed through Hayes’ beautiful prose.

Touching her, then, that first time, there had been no words at all to express the overwhelming sense of a woman being with him, in a clean place, in a clean bed, just being there, in a room, alone feeling the warmth even though it was not a given and voluntary and loving warmth, only the inevitable warmth of someone’s body. There were no words at all for the enormous charity that having a woman, in a room with a closed door, in a bed that was one’s own, meant. (p. 46)

Sadly, even the simplest of arrangements can run into complications, especially in a time of unrest and uncertainty. In order to rent the room from Adele, Robert has created the impression that he and Lisa are married. So, when their status is called into question, Lisa and Robert find themselves caught in a perilous situation, one that has long-term consequences for those involved.

I absolutely loved this slim yet stunning novel, my third by Hayes. (You can read my thoughts on In Love here, a book I probably need to read again as I couldn’t make up my mind about it at the time.)

Hayes is particularly good at conveying the nuances of human emotion in a nuanced and non-judgemental way, allowing us to see the situation from two very different perspectives: Robert’s and Lisa’s. The portrayal of complex and conflicting feelings – often in a state of fluidity – is beautifully done. Desire, longing, resentment and anger all come together to illustrate the difficulty of these characters’ situations. The haunting ending, with its air of uncertainty, feels very fitting, highlighting as it does the tragedy of the protagonists’ plight.

The novel also highlights the terrible effects of war, the damage and trauma inflicted not only on the soldiers and forces but also on the ordinary people left behind – women like Lisa who have few options open to them other than compromising their dignity to survive. By focusing on this relatively small group of individuals, Hayes paints a portrait of a country torn apart by the fallout from conflict, where victory and freedom are not what they were promised to be. Instead, the mood is characterised by feelings of frustration, anguish and suffocation.

On the walls of the small villages in the south, they had painted slogans during the other regime: to obey, to fight, to win. Obedience was done, fighting was over, there had been no victory. Agony was left, and a sense of suffocation. (p.74)

Bitterness and resentment are widespread, emotions typified by Antonio’s reactions to Robert and his compatriots as tensions escalate.

‘When we go into the street,’ he said, leaning forward, accusing them, because of the uniform, ‘what do we see? Your colonels, in their big cars, driving with women whose reputations were made in the bedrooms of fascist bureaucrats! With my country’s enemies! Or your soldiers, drunk in our gutters. Or your officers, pushing us off our own sidewalks! Oh, the magnificent promises the radio made us! Oh, the paradise we’d have! Wait, wait – there will be bread, peace, freedom when the allies come! But where is this paradise? Where is it, signori –?’ (pp. 76-77)

We also gain an insight into Antonio’s experiences of the war, the physical and emotional wounds he must deal with as a consequence of the bloodshed.

Finally, a few words about the writing: Hayes’ prose is spare, precise and evocative, qualities that help to convey the deep-rooted mood and atmosphere that underpin the story. As the cold wind sweeps through Rome, there is a sense of darkness and desolation in the city, feelings that mirror the mood of the country as a whole, trapped as it is in a seemingly never-ending war.

The city had no beauty now. The river had no history. When you stood on one of the bridges and looked at the city, you thought of home, and were depressed, and it seemed, because if the grayness over everything, that this war had been going on forever, and it would never end. (p.112)

The Girl on the Via Flaminia is published by Penguin; personal copy.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

Back in October, I spent a week or so gadding about the London Film Festival, trying to make the most of the chance to catch previews of various forthcoming releases and a few curios that may never find a distributor here in the UK. One of the most eagerly anticipated films (for me at least) was Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, a story of love, injustice and the fight for freedom.

While I wasn’t quite as bowled over by Jenkins’ previous film, the Oscar-winning Moonlight, as everyone else seemed to be, I loved the look of the Beale Street trailer. So, with this in mind, I decided to take a chance on it – luckily for me, it turned out to be one of my highlights of the fest, definitely up there in my final top five. (If you’re interested, you can read my thread of Film Festival tweets here.)

With just under a week to go to the Beale Street screening, I picked up a copy of the novel on the spur of the moment to read on the train journeys in and out of the city (just about manageable given the book’s length). It’s a really remarkable piece of writing, so powerful, passionate and lyrical, that it’s going to be hard to do it any kind of justice in a review.

The novel is narrated by Tish, a nineteen-year-old black girl who lives with her parents and sister in Harlem in the early 1970s. Tish is deeply in love with Fonny, just a regular young black guy except for the fact that he happens to be in jail, accused of a crime he clearly did not commit. As the story opens, Tish is visiting Fonny in prison to tell him she is having his baby, a development she believes will offer them a glimmer of hope, for Fonny loves Tish just as much as she loves him.

You see: I know him. He’s very proud, and he worries a lot, and, when I think about it, I know – he doesn’t – that that’s the biggest reason he’s in jail. He worries too much already, I don’t want him to worry about me. In fact, I didn’t want to say what I had to say. But I knew I had to say it. He had to know.

And I thought, too, that when he got over being worried, when he was lying by himself at night, when he was all by himself, in the very deepest part of himself, maybe, when he thought about it, he’d be glad. And that might help him. (p. 12)

In creating this story, Baldwin has seamlessly woven together two closely-related strands: firstly, the families’ efforts to discredit the case against Fonny in an attempt to secure his release; and secondly, a series of flashbacks from the young lovers’ courtship before Fonny’s imprisonment. Here’s an excerpt from a scene where Fonny is declaring his love for Tish, essentially asking her to be his life partner, for better or for worse.

‘So, all I’m trying to tell you, Tish, is I ain’t offering you much, I ain’t got no money and I work at odd jobs – just for bread, because I ain’t about to go for none of their jive-ass okey-doke – and that means that you going to have to work, too, and when you come home most likely I’ll just grunt and keep on with my chisels and shit and maybe sometime you’ll think I don’t even know you’re there. But don’t ever think that, ever. You’re with me all the time, all the time, without you I don’t know if I could make it at all, baby, and when I put down the chisel, I’ll always come to you. I’ll always come to you. I need you. I love you.’ He smiled. Is that all right, Tish?’

‘Of course it’s all right with me,’ I said. I had more to say, but my throat wouldn’t open. (pp. 94-95)

Alongside the story of Tish and Fonny’s relationship, the novel also conveys the power of familial love and familial tensions in fairly equal measure. Fonny’s mother, in particular, is dead set against her son’s involvement with Tish (as are his rather stuck-up sisters), while his father, Frank, is much more supportive of the couple.

Somewhat sadly, Fonny’s fight for justice is one that remains all too relevant today, over forty years since the novel’s original publication. As might be expected, Baldwin is very adept at highlighting the injustice meted out to people of colour in a society that harbours blatant misconceptions and prejudices against certain individuals; nevertheless, these elements never feel preachy or heavy-handed, just clear-sighted, well-judged and impactful. In this flashback scene, Fonny meets up with an old friend, Daniel, who has just been released from jail – another miscarriage or distortion of justice for the sake of convenience. (Daniel is the character who is speaking here.)

‘They said – they still say – I stole a car. Man, I can’t even drive a car, and I tried to make my lawyer – but he was really their lawyer, dig, he worked for the city – prove that, but he didn’t. And, anyway, I wasn’t in no car when they picked me up. But I had a little grass on me. I was on my stoop. And so they come and picked me up, like that, you know, it was about midnight, and they locked me up and then the next morning they put me in the line-up and somebody said it was me stole the car – that car I ain’t seen yet. And so – you know – since I had that weed on me, they had me anyhow and so they said if I would plead guilty they’d give me a lighter sentence. If I didn’t plead guilty, they’d throw me the book. Well’ – he sips his beer again – ‘I was alone, baby, wasn’t nobody, and so I entered the guilty plea. Two years!’ He leans forward, staring at Fonny. ‘But, then, it sounded a whole lot better than the marijuana charge.’ He leans back and laughs and sips his beer and looks up at Fonny. ‘It wasn’t. I let them fuck over me because I was scared and dumb and I’m sorry now.’ (pp. 122-123)

If Beale Street Could Talk is a book shot through with a powerful sense of loss, of missed chances and opportunities, of lost time and happiness for Tish and Fonny, maybe even other losses for those trying to support the young lovers in their quest for a better future. It’s also a beautiful portrayal of two people who are clearly devoted to one another, united by the kind of bond that seems strong enough to endure the greatest of hardships.

And what of the film? Well, as I alluded to earlier, it’s terrific. Barry Jenkins has done a superb job of capturing the lyricism and beauty of Baldwin’s prose, transferring these qualities to the screen. From a visual perspective, the film looks gorgeous, invested as it is with a sense of emotional warmth and sensitivity that really shines through. I think it’s one of those rare examples where seeing the movie actually enhances the experience of reading of the book.

As far as I can tell, the film is due to open in the US on 30th November and in the UK on 18th January. If you like the sound of the story, please do consider going to see it when it comes out. I very much doubt you’ll regret it.

If Beale Street Could Talk is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

What a marvellous novella this turned out to be. Smart, engaging and uproariously funny – another great summer read for me.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was the debut novel of the American screenwriter and author Anita Loos. (You can read a little more about her career here.) The book was an instant success on its release in 1925 – the individual sections had previously been published in Harper’s Bazaar, so the market was ripe for its appearance as a complete text.

Blondes features Lorelei Lee, a young American girl about town, and her best friend, Dorothy Shaw. Lorelei and Dorothy are very different from one another. At first sight, Lorelei – a blonde – appears rather witless and ditzy, while Dorothy – a brunette – seems sharper, more outspoken and more irreverent in her views. Lorelei likes to think of herself as being very refined, someone who is part of a particular social set along with everything this confers – more of that later…

So Mr Eisman gave me quite a nice string of pearls and he gave Dorothy a diamond pin and we all went to the Colony for dinner and we all went to a show and supper at the Trocadero and we all spent quite a pleasant evening. (p. 18)

The book’s main action really gets going when one of Lorelei’s male friends, Mr Eisman, ‘the Button King’, sends Lorelei to Europe with a view to broadening her horizons – a means of furthering her education if you like. Naturally, Dorothy accompanies our narrator on her trip, and their story is presented as a series of entries from Lorelei’s diary, a sequence of amusing vignettes as the girls make their way from New York to London to Paris and beyond.

It soon becomes clear that Lorelei has little interest in gaining a ‘traditional’ education while abroad. In fact, she seems far more concerned with shopping, drinking champagne and collecting valuable trinkets than taking in the famous sights. The majority of these attractions fail to impress her anyway, especially once she compares them to the buildings back in the US.

In London they make a very, very great fuss over nothing at all. I mean London is really nothing at all. For instants, they make a great fuss over a tower that really is not even as tall as the Hickox building in Little Rock Arkansas and it would only make a chimney on one of our towers in New York. So Sir Francis Beekman wanted us to get out and look at the tower because he said that quite a famous Queen had her head cut off there one morning and Dorothy said “What a fool she was to get up that morning” and that is really the only sensible thing that Dorothy has said in London. So we did not bother to get out. (p. 40)

Money, expensive jewellery and the good things in life are all important to Lorelei – she likes nothing more than a glamorous diamond bracelet and a delightful glass of champagne or two. Men are the main providers of these things with Lorelei attracting a trail of suitable admirers wherever she goes.

That said, Lorelei isn’t particularly interested in getting involved in any amorous romances. Unlike Dorothy, who falls in love relatively easily, Lorelei doesn’t become emotionally attached to any of these men. Instead, she sees them more as forms of light-hearted amusement and entertainment, just as long as they can furnish her with stylish gifts. As soon as Lorelei gets bored with her current beau, she demonstrates her readiness to move on to the next – providing he has enough money to keep her in the manner to which she has become accustomed.

So the French veecount is going to call up in the morning but I am not going to see him again. Because French gentlemen are really quite deceiving. I mean they take you to quite cute places and they make you feel quite good about yourself and you really seem to have a delightful time but when you get home and come to think it all over, all you have got is a fan that only cost 20 francs and a doll that they gave you way for nothing in a restaurant. I mean a girl has to look out in Paris, or she would have such a good time in Paris that she would not get anywhere. So I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever. (p. 55)

By the way, these misspellings and the rather childlike phraseology are all part of Lorelei’s charm; Loos’ prose has a natural rhythm all of its own.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a short book, but the girls’ adventures rattle along at quite a pace. There is a brief encounter with the Prince of Wales, a contretemps over a diamond tiara that Lorelei has her eye on, and plenty of other vignettes aside. We even get a peek at Lorelei’s backstory – an incident involving a shooting, a charge of which our heroine was rather demurely acquitted.

The two women make ideal foils for one another – in many ways, they are complete opposites. Lorelei struggles to understand why Dorothy can fall for a man who has no money, while Dorothy herself is dismayed at Lorelei’s willingness to accept a life without love. However, a man’s monetary wealth and resources are more valuable to Lorelei than any emotional or physical connection. She is very single-minded in her approach.

You might feel you know the story of Lorelei and Dorothy from the 1953 Howard Hawks film – also titled Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – but Loos’ original novel feels like a different creature altogether. There is something rather knowing about the book, something much sharper and more satirical going on underneath the outwardly frothy surface. It’s all very cleverly done. Whatever level you choose to read it on, it’s a real treat.

The Penguin Classics edition comes complete with a series of charming illustrations by Ralph Barton. Here’s an example from the Paris section of the story.

To finish, a brief note about Irmgard Keun’s 1932 novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, a book that would make an interesting partner to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – you can read my post about it here. Reputedly inspired by the Loos, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, something that ultimately illustrated the darker side of life which lay beneath the glamour of the capital city of Berlin. It’s an excellent book, one that features a narrator whose voice I found utterly engaging from the start. Highly recommended reading.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Two Recent Reads – Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler and The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

Something a little different from me today – a few thoughts on a couple of recent reads, both of which could be loosely classified as crime fiction.

Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler (1938)

I really enjoyed this old-school spy mystery by the respected British writer Eric Ambler. (You can find my review of another of his books, the hugely entertaining crime caper Topkapi/The Light of Day, here).

Like some of Ambler’s other novels, Epitaph for a Spy features a relatively ordinary if somewhat naïve man who, through no real fault of his own, finds himself caught up in a mysterious network of intrigue and illegal activities. The man in question here is Josef Vadassy, a languages teacher and Hungarian refugee of uncertain status, who gets into trouble while taking pictures during his holiday in the South of France.

As it turns out, the reel of film that Vadassy has been using to test various photographic techniques also happens to contain images of covert naval defences in a nearby town – something our protagonist is completely unaware of as he submits the reel for development. When the chemist who develops the film sees nature of these pictures, he alerts the police and Vadassy is promptly picked up for questioning. (Importantly, the novel was published in 1938 when Europe was poised on the brink of war, hence the seriousness of the situation.)

Luckily (or maybe unluckily) for our protagonist, the police soon come to the conclusion that Vadassy almost certainly didn’t take the incriminating photographs himself – he’s far too gauche for that. Instead, it seems likely that someone else has been spying on the naval defences, someone with an identical camera to Vadassy’s as the two pieces of equipment must have been switched at some point (probably by accident) – the most obvious cause of the issue being some kind of mix-up between cameras at Vadassy’s place of residence, the local hotel. So, Vadassy is sent back to the Réserve with strict instructions to follow the authorities’ orders in the hope of uncovering the real spy. Should he fail to do so, the outcome almost certainly means deportation for our protagonist, effectively destroying his whole world.

Vadassy is supplied with a list of the hotel’s occupants to ‘investigate’ with a particular view to establishing details of any cameras in their possession – but the fun really starts when Vadassy decides to use his own somewhat misguided initiative to root out the culprit without arousing their suspicions.

Among the guests at the hotel we have a typically British major and his mysterious wife, an idiosyncratic Frenchman who proves to be very indiscreet, and a young brother and sister combo from America who seem to have something to hide – I found this couple’s backstory rather hard to believe, but that’s a fairly minor quibble in the scheme of things. There are more potential suspects too, of varying European nationalities – twelve in total including the Swiss hotel manager and his wife.

For the most part, the characters are interesting and well-drawn – I particularly liked Herr Schimler, a man who turns out to have had a very eventful past. There are a few red herrings along the way as Vadassy’s suspicions flit from one character to the next, all of which help to maintain engagement.

The moon had risen and I could see the outlines of the clumps of bamboo canes below. A little to the right of them there was a patch of beach. As I watched, the shadows moved and I heard a woman’s laugh. It was a soft, agreeable sound, half-amused, half-tender. A couple came up into the patch of light. I saw the man stop and pull the woman towards him. Then he took her head in his hands and kissed her eyes and mouth. It was the unshaven Frenchman and his blonde. (p. 47)

All in all, this is a very enjoyable mystery with a clear resolution at the finish. In a sense, it becomes a race against time for Vadassy as he strives to flush out the spy before he is due back at work – both his job and his right to remain in France are at risk.

In his review of this novel, Max describes the story as being akin to a classic country house crime novel, which seems like a very apt description to me.

I read this novel over the sunny Bank Holiday weekend at the beginning of May, and it proved to be a fine choice. A nice match for the gorgeous weather.

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes (1963)

This is the third novel I’ve read by Hughes, a somewhat underrated American crime writer from the mid-20th century. My reviews of the other two are here – In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse – both of which I would strongly recommend, the former in particular.

My comments on The Expendable Man are going to be fairly concise. Not because of any concerns about the quality of the novel – far from it, it’s actually extremely good! Rather, the less you know about it the better, especially if you think you might read it.

In brief, the initial set-up is as follows. Hugh Densmore, a young doctor, has borrowed his mother’s Cadillac to drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix for a family wedding. En route, he spots a rather dishevelled teenage girl waiting alone on a deserted section of the highway. Densmore wouldn’t usually stop for hitchhikers – but in his concern for the girl’s safety, he offers her a ride which she accepts.

From the word go, it’s clear that these two individuals come from very different social spheres; he is well-bred, educated and polite, while she is rough, brazen and resentful.

After a tense and uncomfortable journey, Densmore drops the girl at a bus station and assumes he will never hear from or see her again. But then things go drastically wrong for our protagonist, and his previously ordered world comes crashing down around him.

This is a brilliant story, one that may well cause you to question your own assumptions – and maybe expose some of your subconscious prejudices too. It’s also very gripping and beautifully written. Hughes has such a wonderful style; it’s a joy to read. Here’s how it opens.

Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the colour of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of dark horizon were discerned only by conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading bronze of the sun. (p. 3)

The Expendable Man was my choice for our May book group, and I’m happy to say that it went down very well. (We take turns to pick the book which makes for a fairly diverse selection across the year.) It’s very difficult to go into any details here without revealing spoilers, but suffice it to say that we had plenty to discuss — particularly about the social context at that time. (Some of the issues raised by the novel remain painfully relevant today.)

All in all, this is highly recommended – not just for lovers of crime fiction but for other readers too.

Epitaph for a Spy is published by Penguin, The Expendable Man is published by NYRB Classics – personal copies.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Last year I read and loved Shirley Jackson’s gothic masterpiece We Have Always Lived in the Castle. So, it was with a keen sense of anticipation that I picked up another of her classic novels, The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959 and famously adapted for the screen as The Haunting some four years later. It’s a brilliantly unsettling book, a gothic/psychological chiller that relies more on the characters’ fears, imaginations and terrors than any explicit elements of horror or violence.

Central to the story is Eleanor Vance, a rather reclusive, childlike woman in her early thirties who travels to Hill House at the invitation of Dr Montague, an academic with an interest in the paranormal. Dr Montague has rented Hill House for the summer to observe and collect any evidence of supernatural activity or ghostly goings-on, not least of which may be connected to the dwelling’s complex and ill-fated history. Also joining Dr Montague and Eleanor at the house are Theodora, a bright, flamboyant young woman who brings a touch of sophistication to the proceedings and Luke Sanderson, the congenial heir to the estate.

Eleanor is the first of the group to arrive at the property, and her initial impressions are not promising. Hill House itself is a strong force within the book, its imposing presence making itself felt at an early stage in the story.

This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed. (p. 35)

The house has been built in a curious design with the various rooms forming two concentric circles surrounding a central inner room. All the angles and doorways are slightly off-kilter, giving each room a somewhat unbalanced perspective, a feeling which only adds to the creepiness of the place – the internal doors seem to close of their own free will.

The housekeeper, Mrs Dudley, is a very strange creature indeed, unwilling to waver from her strict timetable of breakfast at nine and the laying out of dinner at six sharp, leaving everything in readiness for the guests so that she can head off to her own home before it gets dark. Mrs D is a wonderful Jackson creation (albeit in miniature), delivering her lines in a deadpan style – all of which adds a touch of dark humour to the novel.

In many ways, Eleanor acts as a focal point for the story. She has come to Hill House as a means of escape, to break free from her unhappy home life, an existence indelibly marked by the lonely years she previously spent nursing her sick mother (now deceased). There is an increasing sense, especially as novel progresses, that Eleanor sees Hill House as her destiny, drawn as she is to certain aspects of the house in spite of its chilling appearance and unsettling aura.

As she closed the door of the blue room behind her Eleanor thought wearily that it might be the darkness and oppression of Hill House that tired her so, and then it no longer mattered. The blue bed was unbelievably soft. Odd, she thought sleepily, that the house should be so dreadful and yet in many respects so physically comfortable—the soft bed, the pleasant lawn, the good fire, the cooking of Mrs. Dudley. The company too, she thought, and then thought, Now I can think about them; I am all alone. Why is Luke here? But why am I here? Journeys end in lovers meeting. They all saw that I was afraid. (p. 91)

At first, all seems relatively uneventful at the estate, and the members of the group sleep soundly through the night. However, it’s not long before the house begins to exert its mysterious forces on the group. A sequence of frightening noises, the appearance of strange writing on walls and other inexplicable events come together to unnerve the inhabitants, Eleanor in particular. In this scene, she cries out to Montague and Luke for assistance.

Her voice was not loud, and she had tried to keep it level, but she heard the doctor’s book drop to the floor and then the pounding of feet as he and Luke ran for the stairs. She watched them, seeing their apprehensive faces, wondering at the uneasiness which lay so close below the surface in all of them, so that each of them seemed always waiting for a cry for help from one of the others; intelligence and understanding are really no protection at all, she thought. (p. 154)

As the novel moves forward, there is a sense that Hill House is taking control of Eleanor, possessing her in some way, with things coming to a head following the arrival of Dr Montague’s disagreeable and controlling wife and her rather blunt assistant, Arthur. Mrs Montague also has a keen interest in the supernatural, bringing with her a planchette – a sort of Ouija board that produces words – in the hope of being able to communicate with the spirits.

The various relationships between women form an interesting thread which runs through the book, almost all of them characterised by hostility, envy or jealousy. First we have Eleanor and her sister – a woman we never meet in person, although we know that Eleanor dislikes her. Then there are the two Crain sisters, the daughters of the ill-fated man who commissioned the construction of Hill House in the first place – after inheriting the estate following their father’s death, the two sisters then spent a lifetime arguing over the division of the property and the family heirlooms. Finally, we have Eleanor and Theodora who initially form a close bond in unison against the potential terrors of the house. There is a sense that Eleanor views Theodora as the soulmate she has longed for, or even the person she would love to be herself – a glamorous, self-assured woman with an interesting life. But then the relationship between these two women begins to sour when Eleanor feels provoked by Theodora, a situation that only serves to distance Eleanor from the rest of the group.

The way that Jackson illustrates the gradual falling apart of Eleanor’s mind is very effective, encouraging the reader to come to their own conclusions about the young woman’s sanity. Does the terrifying aura of Hill House have the greatest impact on Eleanor’s state of mind, or is she inherently emotionally unhinged anyway irrespective of her surroundings? There is a degree of ambiguity here for the reader to ponder.

Eleanor is undoubtedly a daydreamer and fantasist, her vivid, childlike imagination running riot at various points in the story. When she spots a tiny cottage hidden away in a garden during the journey to Hill House, Eleanor imagines herself living there alone with only her fantasies and a white cat for company. Several of the motifs and images she creates at this point resurface later in the book, echoing and reverberating with great effect. These recurring symbols reminded quite strongly of Merricat’s lucky charms and rituals in We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

All in all, this is an excellent novel – a very striking exploration of a character’s psyche. It’s extremely well-written, too – at times the prose has an almost musical quality. Fans of Castle will almost certainly enjoy Hill House, a book that turned out to be a very satisfying and intriguing read for me. It was one of Max’s summary posts that prompted me to bump it up the pile – you can find a more detailed review here. Ali has also written about this book here.

The Haunting of Hill House is published by Penguin; personal copy.

The Boarding-House by William Trevor

I have written before about my love of the great British boarding house as a setting for fiction – more specifically, novels like The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross, and The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. There is something about this type of environment that really appeals to me. Maybe it’s the seediness of these places or the strange mix of people we often encounter there – whatever it is, I never seem to tire of reading about these establishments. All of which brings me to the very aptly named The Boarding-House, an absolute gem of an early novel by the Irish writer, William Trevor – a very worthy addition to my list.

Set in a South London suburb in 1964, the novel is an ensemble piece, focusing on the lives and concerns of the residents of Mr Bird’s boarding house, the sort of traditional establishment that is fast going out of fashion due to the rise in bedsits and flat-shares. At first, Mr Bird’s tenants appear to be a disparate bunch, each person possessing their own individual characteristics and personality traits. However, it soon becomes clear that they are all solitary figures, mostly flawed or inadequate in some way, at risk of being seen as misfits or outcasts from the realms of ‘normal’ society.

There is Major Eele, an old-school eccentric with a penchant for strip clubs; Mr Obd, a lonely Nigerian man who longs to deepen his relationship with an English girl he first met some twelve years earlier (sadly, she will have nothing to do with him any more); Mr Scribbin, a railway enthusiast who spends his nights listening to gramophone records of steam trains; and Mr Venables, a nervous office worker who has been the subject of petty bullying for most of his life. Then there are the female residents, Miss Clerricot, a somewhat plain secretary who is puzzled by the fact that her married boss seems to be taking a particular interest in her, and Rose Cave, a gentle, middle-aged woman who remains haunted by the memory of her dead mother. There are a couple of other notable residents too, Nurse Clock and Mr Studdy – more about those two a little later on.

All of these characters are drawn by Trevor with great precision and clarity, and in such a way that clearly elicits the reader’s sympathy. The pen portraits of Miss Clerricot and Rose Cave are particularly touching. There is a sense of tragedy surrounding the lives of both of these women, a feeling of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential as time passes them by.

At first, Miss Clerricot is buoyed by the attention of her boss, Mr Sellwood, who takes her to lunch and then on a business trip to Leeds. However, her illusions are shattered when she realises that her companion is merely looking for someone who will listen to him, a captive audience for his interminably dull discourses on the banking and insurance industries. Not that Miss Clerricot wants to have an affair with Mr Sellwood, but it would be nice to feel wanted and desired in some way, at least for once in her life.

Rose Cave’s backstory is sadder still. Having been born out of wedlock, she never knew anything of her father apart from the fact that he had been hired by her grandparents to hang some wallpaper in their house. There was a closeness between Rose and her mother in those early years; the scandal over the affair and the snobbery it created in the family drew them together, cementing their reliance on one another until death intervened.

Rose Cave lived a selfless life until her forty-first year, until the day her mother died. And then, when she moved closer in to London, closer to the work she did, she found it hard to feel that she was not alone. She joined clubs and societies to give herself something to do, but one night when she glanced around it seemed to her that she was just a little older than the other people present, and it seemed that the fact was noticeable. (p.48)

Also residing at the boarding house are the kitchen staff, the pragmatic Mrs Slape and her young helper Gallelty – the latter a very recent addition to the household, having been scooped up by Mr Bird in the most unlikely of circumstances.

It’s not long before we get the sense that Mr Bird has deliberately ‘collected’ these various unfortunates over the years, seeking them out for his own pleasure – not as acts of kindness but for some sort of perverse mischief, the nature of which becomes a little clearer as the story moves forward.

He in his time had sought these people out, selecting them and rejecting others. He sought them, he said, that they in each other might catch some telling reflection of themselves, and that he might see that happen and make what he wished of it. (p. 16)

Even though Mr Bird dies right at the beginning of the novel, his presence is felt throughout by way of extracts from his ‘Notes on Residents’ and accompanying flashbacks from the past. Plus, there is the sense that his spirit remains in the house following his death, exerting its influence over the various events which subsequently play out.

In a move seemingly designed to put the cat among the pigeons following his death, Mr Bird has bequeathed the boarding house to the two most diametrically opposed residents – namely, the rather brusque and interfering Nurse Clock and the feckless petty criminal and blackmailer, Mr Studdy.

Constantly on the lookout for any moneymaking opportunities, Studdy – a rather amiable chancer – uses the residents’ collection for Mr Bird’s funeral to acquire a couple of cut-price wreaths, pocketing the spare cash in the process. A nice little earner when added to the eight pounds eight he hopes to save in unpaid rent – money previously owed to Mr Bird that he now plans to keep for himself (well, as long as Nurse Clock doesn’t get wind of it).

Nurse Clock and he did not hit it off. He wondered if she knew about the eight pounds eight. It was not impossible, he imagined, that Mr Bird had released that information on his death-bed. She had looked at him oddly when he had displayed the wreaths, when he said that he had added an extra sixpence of his own. She had pitched up her head, snorting like a horse, blowing through her nostrils. You could not trust, thought Studdy, a woman who looked like that and who spoke so sharply. Whenever he saw her in her big blue skirt he wanted to stick a pin in her. He fingered the point of his lapel and felt the pin there, the pin her carried for that purpose: to stick, one day, into one or other of Nurse Clock’s knees. (pp. 14-15)

The other residents and kitchen staff fear Mr Bird’s death will signal the end of the boarding house. However, the conditions included in Bird’s will and testament provide them with a certain degree of reassurance. Nurse Clock and Studdy are to inherit the establishment provided it remains in its current form with no changes to the residents or staff – well, until someone dies or leaves the boarding house of their own accord. There is much fun to be had in observing the dynamics between the domineering Nurse Clock and the rather sly Mr Studdy as they vie for position in the house, their conversations with one another are a real treat.

In time, however, Nurse Clock realises that Mr Studdy might prove to be of some use. With Studdy’s assistance, she plans to turn the house into a home for the elderly – an altogether more agreeable endeavour than a boarding house, and potentially more profitable to boot. Studdy, for his part, sees this development as a positive move, viewing it as an opportunity to extort money and valuables from vulnerable elderly residents in their twilight years of their lives.

The hatred was still there between them, but it no longer raged; it was no longer on the brink of violence, because something stronger, something like self-interest or greed or small ambition, had put it into its proper place. (p. 120)

As the story plays out, it builds to a near-inevitable denouement. One gets the feeling that the spectral Mr Bird is playing God with the lives of the various residents, pitting them against one another in a bid to destabilise the environment he once created.

While the lives of many of these characters are marked by a deep sense of sadness or loneliness – Mr Obd’s situation is particularly heartbreaking – they are partly balanced by touches of dark humour every now and again. Major Eele takes centre stage in some priceless scenes, most notably those involving a certain Mrs le Tor, the unfortunate recipient of one of Mr Studdy’s rather tawdry blackmail letters.

The attempted disposal of Mr Bird’s clothes to a charity for refugees gives rise to more moments of hilarity. In an underhand move on the part of Mr Studdy, the deceased’s suits and shirts get mixed up with items belonging to Mr Scribbin and Mr Venables, much to the embarrassment of the normally uber-efficient Nurse Clock. It is a truly marvellous scene, one that could have come straight out of a classic comedy of manners by Barbara Pym.

All in all, The Boarding-House is a superb novel, a wonderful study of human nature, a tragi-comedy of the finest quality. Highly recommended.

The Boarding-House is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

My books of the year, 2017 – favourites from a year of reading

As I’ve been off the grid for most of last few months, I didn’t get a chance to post a list of my favourite books from 2017. So, in the spirit of better late than never, here it is. Enjoy!

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Like its predecessor, 2017 turned out to be another strong reading year for me. I read fewer books than usual this time (around 70 books, mostly older/blacklisted titles) but the majority were very good. Once again, it proved very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, so I’ve gone overboard with a top fifteen – that’s two more than the baker’s dozen I usually aim for. 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, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

It’s getting to the point where I need to reserve a permanent spot for Barbara Pym, such is the quality of her writing. This year’s slot goes to Crampton Hodnet, a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s (Some Tame Gazelle came a very close second). What a joy it was to return to this author’s territory, a familiar world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

A series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by Isherwood’s time in the city during the early 1930s. I really loved this book with its striking cast of characters and wealth of engaging vignettes. As one might expect, the author’s portrayal of a Berlin in flux is truly wonderful, capturing the atmosphere of everything from the seedy underground bars and nightlife to the magnificence and glory of the glamorous side of the city. A most evocative read.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

Here’s another author worthy of a permanent place my end-of-year lists, Elizabeth Taylor – I just can’t seem to get enough of her work. The storyline in this book revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her best intentions often causing more harm than good. A novel full of little insights into various aspects of human behaviour – lovers of character-driven novels should enjoy this one.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

My favourite of the collections of short stories I read in 2017 (Saki’s Improper Stories came a close second). Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness. Once again, this will appeal to lovers of character-driven fiction. A superb set of stories, quite varied in style in spite of the overriding theme.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Set largely in the seedy bars and boarding houses of London’s Earl’s Court, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square centres on the tortured existence of George Harvey Bone, a thirty-four-year-old man who is obsessed with a beautiful yet vindictive young woman named Netta Longdon. It is an utterly brilliant portrait of a man on the edge, perfectly capturing the sudden changes in mood and mindset of a lonely and tormented soul, driven to distraction by the heartless woman he so deeply desires. This might just be my favourite book of the year.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

A beautiful and compelling portrayal of forbidden love, characterised by Wharton’s trademark ability to expose the underhand workings of a repressive world. Set within the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s, a culture that seems so refined on the surface, and yet so terribly brutal, hypocritical and intolerant underneath once the protective veneer of respectability is stripped away. There is a real sense of depth and subtlety in the characterisation here – classic literature doesn’t get much better than this.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

A highly compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Second World War. It’s a brilliant novel, one that features a most distinctive character quite unlike any other I’ve encountered either in literature or in life itself. In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating individual, one that is sure to generate strong opinions either way. Is she a manipulative hypocrite, determined to seize any opportunity and exploit it for her own personal gain? Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? You’ll have to read the book yourself to take a view.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

One of several reads featuring a highly distinctive female narrator – in this case, Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience. It is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heart-warming.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Enchanted indeed! What a delightful novel this turned out to be – telling, as it does, the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming story has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. A truly magical read, guaranteed to lift the spirits.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

In this beautifully written novel, we follow a day in the life of the Marshalls, an upper-middle-class family struggling to find a new way to live in an England irrevocably altered by the Second World War. Several threads and encounters come together to form a vivid picture of a nation, a country trying to come to terms with new ways of life and the accompanying changes to its social fabric. A little like a cross between Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and an Elizabeth Taylor novel, this was a wonderful discovery for me.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

This novel was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, thereby creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult. A thoroughly delicious read.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I read this in advance of Halloween, and it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite humorous in a darkly comic way. What really sets this book apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of the narrator’s voice, that of young Merricat Blackwood. A novella with much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. The sense of being an outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a prominent theme.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Several of the books in translation I chose to read in 2017 were disappointing, but this one really stood out for the distinctiveness of its central character, Doris. A striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start, particularly in the way it reflected her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin. Another very evocative read for me.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party provides 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. Essentially a tale of ‘upstairs and downstairs’, this is a wonderful ensemble piece with a sting in its tail. Fans of L. P Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy this one.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes made my 2016 highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. And here she is again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse is a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there – only things don’t quite go to plan. It’s probably my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I read last year.

So there we are – a pretty satisfying year of reading all told.