Tag Archives: Picador

A Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977, at the height of Pym’s well-documented renaissance, A Quartet in Autumn is a quietly poignant novel of loneliness, ageing and the passing of time – how sometimes we can feel left behind as the world changes around us. Now that I’ve read it twice, I think it might be my favourite Pym – or at least one of her best and most memorable novels.

Central to the narrative are four colleagues – Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman – who work together in a London office, performing clerical duties of some sort (the exact name of the business or institution is never made clear). All four are in their sixties and fairly close to retirement. Letty and Marcia will leave first, the retirement age for women being lower than for men, with Edwin and Norman to follow in the fullness of time.

Letty – the most self-aware member of the group – is particularly conscious of how odd or antiquated they must seem to other people, especially the younger, more energetic office employees. While they don’t see or socialise with one another outside of work, each co-worker has their own individual habits and routines to fall back on. Letty enjoys reading and shopping, always making an effort with her clothes to maintain a neat appearance, even though she is a spinster. Edwin – a widower – has various church activities to keep him occupied, helping Father G. with his parish near Clapham Common. Norman – unmarried and living in a bedsit – seems fixated on getting angry with various things: the youth of today, people who drop litter, semi-nudity in public places, and cars, especially badly parked ones.

Finally, Marcia – the most troubled of the quartet – spends much of her time buying tinned food which she never seems to eat; collecting empty milk bottles, which she stores in the garden shed, ready for some unspecified emergency; and avoiding Janice Brabner, a rather persistent volunteer from Social Services. Marcia, who is still under the care of the local hospital following a mastectomy, resents Janice’s interference in her life and wishes she could be left alone. But instead, Janice persists in trying to encourage Marcia to get out more, preferably dropping in at the local Centre, much to the latter’s annoyance. Also of concern to Janice is her charge’s diet, which she considers lacking in fresh food, especially given Marcia’s reliance on tinned goods, cups of tea and biscuits. It’s an ongoing source of tension that builds steadily during the book.

As the novel unfolds, we learn a little more about these four individuals through various glimpses of their lives, especially away from work. With her middle-class upbringing and training in secretarial duties, Letty had expected to marry in her youth; but instead, she was left behind, trailing in the wake of her best friend, Marjorie, who proved more popular with men. Now Letty lives in a bedsit, owned by an elderly lady, who may also be on the cusp of retirement herself. Nevertheless, while Letty regrets not having married, she still believes that her life has value to it, albeit in a somewhat different, less complicated way than her peers.

Yet, she sometimes wondered, might not the experience of ‘not having’ be regarded as something with its own validity? (p. 21)

At one point in the past, Marcia had entertained vague thoughts of Norman as someone she might become attached to, but now she seems more interested in Mr Strong, the surgeon who performed her mastectomy. Naturally, Mr Strong is blissfully unaware of this, but it doesn’t stop Marcia from looking forward to her appointments with him.

Alongside its central themes of loneliness and ageing, the novel also illustrates how difficult it can be to adjust to change, especially when we are older and set in our ways. Edwin, for instance, laments the changes that have taken place in a nearby teashop, one of his regular lunchtime haunts.

He had had a light lunch, snack really, in the teashop whose decor had changed distressingly, though the food was the same. Edwin and the other regular patrons felt themselves out of place among so much trendy orange and olive green and imitation stripped pine. There were hanging lights and shades patterned with butterflies and over it all soft ‘muzak’, difficult to hear but insidious. (p. 20)

Change is also the cause of some distress to Letty, who finds life uncomfortable with her new landlord, a Nigerian man named Mr Olatunde. With their enthusiastic hymn-singing and penchant for spicy food, the Olatunde family prove too much for Letty to cope with, given her preference for peace and quiet. Once again, Letty reflects on her position as an unassuming spinster, left on the shelf having missed out on marriage – something that chimes with Pym’s portrayals of other self-effacing heroines, such as Mildred from Excellent Women and Belinda from Some Tame Gazelle.

It must surely be because she had not married. No man had taken her away and immured her in some comfortable suburb where hymn-singing was confined to Sundays and nobody was fired with enthusiasm. Why had this not happened? Because she had thought that love was a necessary ingredient for marriage? Now, having looked around her for forty years, she was not so sure. (p. 56)

There are elements of Pym herself in the character of Letty – and possibly a dash in Marcia too with her slide into neglectfulness.  Perhaps Pym is showing us how things might have worked out for her too, had she not been rescued from obscurity by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil?

This feeling of obsolescence is also present in other aspects of the novel – for example, how quickly we can be made to feel forgotten or superfluous to requirements when we retire or times move on. Letty feels it when she visits Edwin and Norman at the office, noticing how things have changed since her retirement.

‘I see you’ve spread yourselves out a bit,’ she said, noticing that the men now seemed to occupy all the space but had once accommodated the four of them. Again she experienced the feeling of nothingness, when it was borne in on her so forcibly that she and Marcia had been phased out in this way, as if they had never existed. (p. 110)

While Quartet is a somewhat melancholy novel – certainly compared to Pym’s earlier work – there are some lovely moments of gentle humour to balance the darkness. In this scene, Letty is visiting her friend Marjorie – now engaged to David Lydell, a middle-aged vicar who seems to have caught the eye of more than one lady in Marjorie’s village.

‘This is one of Father Lydell’s favourite dishes,’ said Beth, bringing a covered casserole to the table.  ‘Poulet niçoise – I hope you like it.’

‘Oh, yes,’ Letty murmured, remembering the times she had eaten poulet niçoise at Marjorie’s house. Had David Lydell gone all round the village sampling the cooking of the unattached women before deciding which one to settle with? Certainly the dish they were eating this evening was well up to standard. (p. 130)

As is often the case with Pym, it’s the small things that prove to be the most revealing, hinting at trouble brewing or secrets yet to be revealed. As the novel draws to a close, the group come together in a time of crisis, reaching out to one another in ways they have not managed to do before. For two of the quartet at least, there are decisions about their futures to be made, showing us that life still holds choices and new possibilities in the autumn of our years. This is a beautiful, perceptive, bittersweet novel, reminiscent of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (and possibly Memento Mori) in subject matter and style.

On Rereading: Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard

A couple of months ago, the Backlisted team covered Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1969 novel Something in Disguise for their Halloween episode of the podcast. It’s a book I had read before, with somewhat mixed feelings; however, Andrew and Laura’s impassioned case for it being a rather sly, perceptive novel about the horrors of domestic life prompted me to revisit it with a fresh pair of eyes. Naturally, they were right! (How could they not be?) On my second reading, I found it much more chilling from the start, partly because I already knew just how painfully the story would play out for some of the key characters involved…

So in this post, I’m jotting down a few things that particularly struck me on this second reading – largely for my own benefit, but some of you might find it interesting too.

As the Backlisted discussion touches on, the novel’s title has multiple meanings. Not only are certain individuals in the story concealing things from those closest to them, but the novel itself is also ‘something in disguise’. In essence, this is a domestic horror story masquerading under the cover of a family drama/whirlwind romance, complete with a breezy ‘women’s fiction’ style jacket to misdirect the reader; and while I’d picked up some of this domestic horror (particularly Alice’s miserable marriage to the insensitive, overbearing Leslie) on my first reading, I’d missed some of the early warning signs about Herbert’s true intensions. More on these red flags a little later in the post.

In my previous write-up of the novel, I’d noted the following points about the family’s matriarch, May, whose first husband had been killed many years earlier in the Second World War. “May is now married to Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, a pompous, penny-pinching bore who spends most of his spare time in London, dining at his club and visiting a ‘lady friend’ for sexual favours. Meanwhile, May must amuse herself at home, a rather staid old house in Surrey which she finds both cold and unwelcoming.”

May and Herbert’s Surrey house is almost a character in its own right, such is EJH’s talent for describing settings, furnishings and rooms. Herbert appears to have pushed May into buying it with the proceeds of an inheritance, somewhat against her better judgement. It’s a terrifying place – cold, dark and oppressive, the type of dwelling that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Shirley Jackson short story.

The floors of the wide, dark passages were polished oak, which, as Herbert had pointed out, obviated the need for carpets. The staircase was also oak – no carpet there, either, which made it slippery and a nightmare to negotiate with heavy trays. The hall, with its huge, heavily-leaded window – too large to curtain – was somehow always freezing, even in summer, and dark, too, because here the oak had crept up the walls to a height of about nine feet, making any ordinary furniture and look ridiculous. There was also a tremendous stone fireplace in which one could have roasted an ox; and, as Oliver had pointed out, nothing less would have done either to warm the place or to defeat the joyless odour of furniture polish. ‘It really is a monstrous house,’ she thought… (p. 83)

As the novel progresses, May begins to feel increasingly unwell, but no specific illness can be identified, with the doctors ultimately putting her condition down to age or the stress of Alice’s wedding. (At the beginning of the novel, Herbert’s daughter, Alice, marries Leslie – the first man to pay her any attention – chiefly as a means of getting away from her hideous father.) Moreover, the Colonel’s self-centred, duplicitous manner becomes increasingly apparent, leaving May to take the full strain of his selfishness, with no-one else in their Surrey home to offer support.

It’s hard to talk about how the May-Herbert storyline ends without getting into spoiler territory, but it definitely takes a very sinister turn. On my previous reading, I hadn’t fully grasped Herbert’s intentions until the closing scenes; however, this time I noticed just how many clues about his true colours are dropped in along the way. Instances such as the following when May’s daughter, Elizabeth, and her older lover, John, turn up unexpectedly at the Surrey house.

…they had arrived without warning at the innocuous hour of tea time, but this had so enraged the colonel that May had thought he was going to have a stroke. They had ‘broken in’ on him when he was in the greenhouse mixing something up for the lawn; no common courtesy left – he’d looked up from measuring something because he thought he’d heard a sound behind him, and there was this giant stranger without so much as a by-your-leave standing over him – enough to give any honest feller a heart attack. He’d lost his temper: not for long, but enough to make everyone feel intensely embarrassed… (p. 247)

And here, where Elizabeth wonders if men are largely responsible for the terrible things that happen to women. Perhaps John is responsible for his ex-wife’s drink problem and his daughter’s petulant behaviour? Maybe even Herbert – or Daddo as Elizabeth thinks of him – has a villainous streak? Sometimes it’s hard to tell…

And Daddo! She [Elizabeth] thought, with exactly the same hectic alarm; supposing he was wicked and just masquerading as stupid and dull! There was absolutely no reason, she went on, wildly, why on earth stupid people shouldn’t be wicked: it was far more likely, when you came to consider it. It was supposed to be far easier to be wicked than to be good…(p. 128)

This re-read also reinforced how trapped Alice must have felt in her marriage to Leslie – another self-absorbed bore with no regard for his wife’s feelings. In my previous post, I’d quoted an excruciating passage from Leslie and Alice’s wedding night (which you can read via the link). However, during this reading I highlighted a section from later in the novel when Alice is pregnant, desperately battling a combination of loneliness, isolation and nausea, to which Leslie seems oblivious.

By the time Leslie returned she was just beginning to feel sick again, but gave the appearance of having been at wifely occupations all day. He would make himself a drink, switch on the television and tell her about his day in a raised voice over it, while she struggled with nausea and supper.… When, eventually, they went to bed, Leslie left her alone which was the single best thing about being pregnant, she decided. He would kiss her forehead, pat her hand, sometimes – maddeningly – stroke her belly, but he seemed to regard sex as unnecessary. (p. 199)

Also worthy of a mention before I finish is Alice’s marvellous cat, Claude, who steals the whole show – quite literally in this scene – as he tucks into a pair of salmon trout that Herbert has held back from the catering for Alice and Leslie’s wedding.

He [Claude] had known for ages how to open the larder door, but had not advertised the fact, largely because there was hardly ever anything there worth eating; but he was extremely fond of fish. He inserted a huge capable paw round the lower edge of the door and heaved for several minutes: when the gap was wide enough he levered it open with his shoulder and part of his head. The fish lay on a silver platter on the marble shelf, skinned and garnished. He knocked pieces of lemon and cucumber contemptuously aside, settled himself into his best eating position and began to feast. He tried both fish – equally delicious – and when he could eat no more, he jumped heavily off the shelf with a prawn in his mouth which he took to the scullery for further examination. (pp. 21–22)

Claude really is quite the character – the sort of pet that does as he pleases, as many cats are inclined to do!

So, a fascinating reread for many different reasons, some of which I’ve noted above. I still feel that John is a little bit too good to be true. His whisking Elizabeth away to a life of luxury in the South of France seems like a fantasy – too idealistic or fantastic to buy into completely. But maybe that’s a deliberate decision on Howard’s part; I’m curious to hear any views.

Something in Disguise is published by Picador; personal copy.

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

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

Funny Weather by Olivia Laing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The #1956Club – some recommendations of books to read

As some of you will know, Karen and Simon will be hosting another of their ‘club’ weeks at the beginning of October (5th – 11th October to be precise). The idea behind these clubs is to encourage us to read and share our thoughts on books first published in a particular year as a way of building up a literary overview of the period in question. This time the focus will be 1956, which falls squarely within my sights as a lover of mid-20th-century fiction.

I have a new 1956 review coming up during the week itself; but in the meantime, I thought it would be nice to do a round-up of some of my previous reviews of novels published in 1956. Who knows, it might even tempt you to read something from the list…

 

The King of a Rainy Country by Brigid Brophy

This was Brigid Brophy’s second novel, a semi-autobiographical work narrated by a nineteen-year-old girl named Susan, whom the author once described as a ‘cut-down version’ of herself. Witty, engaging and deceptively light on its feet, the novel captures the freshness of youth, a sense of going with the flow to see where life takes you. The initial setting — London in the mid-1950s — is beautifully evoked, capturing the mood of Susan’s bohemian lifestyle. It’s a lovely book, shot through with a lightness of touch that makes it all the more engaging to read. Every relationship is coloured by a delightful sense of ambiguity as nothing is quite how it appears at first sight.

Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill

A brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, all set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. We first meet Laura – a rather timid spinster in her forties – on the afternoon of the funeral of her elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still hangs over the family’s home. To have any hope of moving forward, Laura must delve back into her past, forcing a confrontation with long-buried emotions. Lovers of Elizabeth Taylor, Anita Brooker or Brian Moore will find much to appreciate here. 

The Barbarous Coast by Ross Macdonald

A compelling and intricate mystery featuring many of the elements I’ve come to know and love in Ross Macdonald’s ‘Lew Archer’ novels. More specifically, twisted, dysfunctional families with dark secrets to hide; damaged individuals with complex psychological issues; themes encompassing desire, murder and betrayal – all set within the privileged social circle of 1950s LA. Here we find Archer on the trail of a missing wife, a quest that soon morphs into something much darker, taking in multiple murders, blackmail and cover-ups. Highly recommended for lovers of hardboiled fiction, this novel can be read as a standalone.

A Certain Smile by François Sagan (tr. Irene Ash)

The bittersweet story of a young girl’s ill-fated love affair with an older married man, one that epitomises the emotions of youth, complete with all their intensity and confusion. Sagan really excels at capturing what it feels like to be young: the conflicting forces at play; the lack of interest in day-to-day life; the agony and despair of first love, especially when that feeling is not reciprocated. In short, she portrays with great insight the painful experience of growing up. Another ideal summer read from the author of Bonjour Tristesse.

The Executioner Weeps by Frédéric Dard (tr. David Coward)

When Frenchman Daniel Mermet hits a beautiful young woman while driving one night, the incident marks a turning point in his life, setting the scene for this intriguing noir. Part mystery, part love story, this novella is beautifully written, shot through with an undeniable sense of loss – a quality that adds a touch of poignancy to the noirish tone. I’ve kept this description relatively short to avoid any potential spoilers; but If you’re a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, you’ll likely enjoy this. 

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard

An insightful view of the different stages of a deeply unhappy marriage, one that ultimately seems destined for disaster right from the start. The novel has an interesting structure, beginning in 1950 when the couple in question – Antonia and Conrad Fleming – have been married for twenty-three years, and then rewinding to 1942, 1937 and 1927 (to their honeymoon). In this respect, it mirrors the structure of François Ozon’s excellent film, 5×2, which focuses on five key timepoints in the disintegration of a middle-class marriage, presenting them in reverse order. Crucially, Howard’s story finishes in 1926 just before Antonia meets her future husband for the first time. While the story is presented mostly from the perspective of Antonia, there are times when we are given access to Conrad’s thoughts, albeit intermittently. While it’s not my favourite EJH – the tone can seem quite bitter and claustrophobic at times – the structure makes it an interesting choice. 

A Legacy by Sybille Bedford

This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of two very different families connected by marriage. As long-standing members of Berlin’s haute bourgeoisie, the Jewish Merzes are very wealthy and very traditional. By contrast, the aristocratic von Feldens hail from Baden, part of Germany’s Catholic south; they are comfortably off but not rich. Set against a backdrop of a newly-unified Germany, the narrative moves backwards and forwards in time, alighting on various points in the late 19th century and the years leading up to the First World War. One of the most impressive things about A Legacy is the insight it offers into this vanished world, the glimpses into the rather insular lives of the highly privileged Merzes in Berlin, coupled with the eccentricities of the von Felden family in the south. Bedford’s prose can be quite allusive and indirect at times; however, for readers with an interest in this milieu, there is much to appreciate here – the descriptions are amazing. 

Will you be joining the #1956Club? If so, what are you thinking of reading? Do let me know…

My books of the year, 2019 – favourites from a year of reading

2019 has been the year of the big series for me. I’ve read more books than ever this year, mostly due to being laid up at home for the best part of three months while recovering from a major fracture. Not an experience I wish to repeat, but it did give me the time and mental energy to work through some lengthy sequences of books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.

Regular readers may also recognise one or two familiar names – Penelope Fitzgerald is here again, as is William Trevor. Nevertheless, there are several *new* entrants too – with books by Anita Brookner, J. L. Carr and Laura Cumming, to name but a few. (I’ve been reading more memoirs this year, a trend reflected in the range of choices included here.)

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favourites from 2019 in order of reading – a baker’s dozen of brilliant books. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Perceptive, engrossing and enigmatic, Look at Me – Anita Brookner’s third novel – is something of a minor masterpiece, probing as it does the inner life of a lonely young woman who experiences a brief period of renaissance, only to be scarred by the torrid experience. Frances is drawn into the seductive world of a glamorous, bohemian couple, then cast aside like a discarded toy. Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner, and this novel has to be one of her best, most nuanced explorations of these themes.

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies. Many of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopelessbefuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. Once again, Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences in writing this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question. An excellent novel, both darkly comic and poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

A magnificent twelve-novel sequence exploring the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid 20th century. Impossible to summarise in just a few sentences, Powell’s masterpiece features one of literature’s finest creations, the odious Kenneth Widmerpool. It’s fascinating to follow Widmerpool, Jenkins and many other individuals over time, observing their development as they flit in and out of one another’s lives. The author’s ability to convey a clear picture of a character – their appearance, their disposition, even their way of moving around a room – is second to none. Quite simply the highlight of my reading year.

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

A remarkable memoir by the American-born writer, Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. By turns beautiful, illuminating, elegiac and sad; a rare book that feels expansive in scope yet intimate in detail all at once.

Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

I wasn’t sure about the first book in this trilogy when I read it back at the end of 2018, but after a longish break from the series my perseverance with it paid off. Widely considered as Marias’ masterpiece, Your Face Tomorrow is a tremendous achievement, a thought-provoking treatise on truth, betrayal, coercion and culpability. When viewed as a whole, the narrative raises some key questions about the nature of violence, particularly whether the final outcome can ever justify the means. An intricate series that remains frighteningly relevant today.

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn

Another of my recuperation reads, this sequence charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. It is a story in which the sins and failures of fathers and mothers shape the lives of their children in the most destructive of ways. When read as a series, the novels are bruising yet immensely satisfying as they give the reader such a deep insight into the central character’s inner life, complete with its anxieties, complexities and self-destructive tendencies. By turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny, this is a fiercely intelligent examination of dysfunctional families.

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr

A sublime, deeply affecting book about love, loss and the restorative power of art. Set in small Yorkshire village in the heady summer of 1920, Carr’s novella is narrated by Tom Birkin, a young man still dealing with the effects of shell-shock following the traumas of the First World War. Above all, this is a beautifully written novella imbued with a strong sense of longing – a sense of nostalgia for an idyllic world. Best read in summer to reflect the book’s atmosphere.

Love and Summer by William Trevor

Set in the idyllic countryside of Ireland in the 1950s, Love and Summer is a gentle, contemplative novel of lost love and missed chances. Trevor perfectly captures the rhythm of life in a small farming community, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, where any deviation from the expected norm is noticed and judged. It is a world populated by lonely, damaged individuals, people who expect little from life save for a simple existence with few opportunities or openings. Beautifully written in a simple, unadorned style; fans of Colm Tóibín would likely enjoy this one.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Gillian Harcourt)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind. Originally published as a series of short stories, Tsushima’s novella focuses on a year in the life of a young mother, recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting – an apartment located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

This is a challenging book to summarise in just a few sentences, particularly given the twisted nature of the narrative (I’m not even going to try to describe it.) Once again, Spark has crafted an unforgettable story that disturbs as much as it intrigues, leaving the reader both unsettled and fascinated by her somewhat distorted view of the world. She is a remarkable writer – uncompromising in terms of vision, style and the execution of her art. Utterly brilliant and completely bonkers all at once – a book that will likely divide opinion.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

This absorbing memoir revolves around the story of Cumming’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. What I love about this book is the way Cumming uses her skills as an art critic to shed new light on the unanswered questions surrounding her mother’s childhood. More specifically, the importance of images, details, perspective and context, in addition to hard evidence and facts. A remarkable story exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally, Michael Favala Goldman)

When viewed together, these books form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a striking series of reflections by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen, who grew up in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen in the years following WW1. The books chart Ditlevsen’s lonely childhood, awkward adolescence and troubled adult life in a style that is simple, candid, striking and elegant. There is a frankness to the author’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that feels hard to resist.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Just as good if not better than its predecessor, Olive Kitteridge. Here we find Olive in her mid-seventies to early-eighties, dealing with the challenges of everyday life in her own inimitable way. While there are many things to love and admire about this book, it is Strout’s insight into the fragility of our existence that feels most affecting. There is some brilliant writing here about the loneliness and terror of old age (the anxiety is palpable), the realisation of lost opportunities and past failings; and ultimately the fear of death itself. This is a profoundly moving book – a highly perceptive portrait of a genuine individual and the small-town community in which she lives.

So, another very satisfying year of reading for me. I really have read some excellent books in 2019. (My one regret is not having enough space to include a favourite crime/noir novel of the year – if I had to choose, it would be The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith, a writer whose books never fail to disappoint me.)

All that remains is for me to wish you all the very best for the festive season and the year ahead – may they be filled with plenty of bookish delights!

Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard

A week or so ago, I wrote about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1972 novel, Odd Girl Out, which I mostly enjoyed. The preceding EJH, Something in Disguise (1969) proved to be more mixed for me, a rather unsettling novel compared to either After Julius (1965) or Odd Girl Out. More about the reasons for this a little later.

Disg

On one level, Disguise could be thought of as a family saga, one that delves into the challenging nature of relationships, particularly those between husbands and wives. Central to the family is May, whose first husband was killed many years earlier in the Second World War. May is now married to Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, a pompous, penny-pinching bore who spends most of his spare time in London, dining at his club and visiting a ‘lady friend’ for sexual favours. Meanwhile, May must amuse herself at home, a rather staid old house in Surrey which she finds both cold and unwelcoming.

Both partners have grown-up children from their former marriages. May has two: twenty-four-year old Oliver, a bright, easy-going chap who would much rather find a wealthy young woman to marry than earn a living by getting a job; and twenty-year-old Elizabeth, a caring, idealistic young woman looking to make her own way in life. (As the novel opens, Elizabeth somewhat reluctantly leaves the Surrey home to join Oliver at his flat in London, chiefly as a means of escape from Herbert and his annoyingly boorish ways.)

Completing the family is Herbert’s daughter, Alice, a shy, somewhat naïve young woman just setting out on married life with her much older husband, Leslie – another conceited bore with little concern for others. (In truth, Alice is so desperate to get away from her father that she accepts a proposal of marriage from the first man who shows an interest in her, almost from fear that there may never be another.) The following quote – taken from a discussion between the couple on their wedding night – captures Leslie’s attitude in a nutshell.

[Leslie] ‘Well – it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect me to be completely inexperienced at my age – now would it?’

[Alice] ‘No.’

‘I’m not – you see. Not at all inexperienced: quite the reverse – you might say. I’ve been – intimate – with quite a number of women. I’ve never known them well,’ he added hastily, ‘you understand what I mean, don’t you Alice?’

‘Yes.’

‘I mean, naturally, they weren’t the sort of women you’d expect me to have known well. That wasn’t their function if you take me. But it does mean that I know a good deal about a certain side of life. That’s necessary for men. For women – of course – it’s different. I don’t suppose – well I wouldn’t expect you to know anything at all about that.’ He finished his brandy and looked at her expectantly. ‘No.’

‘Of course not.’ He seemed at once to be both uplifted and disheartened by this. (p. 38)

Much of the novel’s narrative revolves around Elizabeth and her relationship with John Cole, a wealthy, attentive man whom she meets in the course of her work, cooking dinners for private clients in the upmarket areas of London. In short, John sweeps Elizabeth off her feet, whisking her away to a villa in the South of France, one of his many luxurious properties in exotic places. Their affair is passionate, idyllic and somewhat unrealistic – to the point where it begins to feel a bit silly. Nevertheless, there are significant challenges for the couple along the way, not least in the form of John’s daughter, Jennifer, a spoilt brat who does her utmost to thwart her father’s new relationship. The fact that Elizabeth is the same age as Jennifer herself makes the situation seem all the more galling.

Meanwhile, back in Surrey, May is starting to feel the strain of life on her own with Herbert, without any of the children present to offer their support. As the days slip by, May begins to feel increasingly unwell, but no specific illness can be identified, the doctors ultimately putting her condition down to age or the stress of Alice’s wedding. A visit from Elizabeth – who is left reeling from Jennifer’s impact on her relationship with John – should prove beneficial to May. However, both women shy away from opening up about what is really going on in their lives, preferring instead to pretend that everything is okay.

In spite of this novel’s strangeness – the changes in tone, the unnerving scenarios, the overly romanticised view of certain relationships – there are some real moments of insight here, particularly in the portrayal of May’s relationship with Herbert. The following observation is very telling, hinting at the Colonel’s selfish, duplicitous nature, something that becomes increasingly apparent as the novel progresses. (The novel’s title, Something in Disguise, does feel rather apt here.)

Herbert was sitting in his large chair with his head thrown back listening to the cricket news from a small and badly serviced radio resting on the arm of his chair. A whiskey and soda lay within his grasp. When he became aware of Elizabeth, he went through the bizarre and contradictory motions of not getting up out of his chair although he knew he should: or, possibly, seeming to get up out of his chair and then not managing it because he was listening too hard to the radio. Elizabeth took advantage of this pantomime to make signs at the drink and herself, and with the barest flicker of hesitation, he seemed to agree. Luckily for her, the drink was still unlocked… (pp. 180-181)

Some of the secondary characters are particularly well-drawn, most notably Alice, who is utterly miserable in her new life with Leslie, trapped in a pokey bungalow not far from her husband’s family. Rosemary (Leslie’s nosy sister) is utterly believable, in spite of only being glimpsed in brief. Pregnant, lonely and homesick, Alice misses her cat, Claude, terribly, a situation made all the more painful by the gift of a demanding puppy from Leslie’s beloved mother – a well-meaning gesture that completely misses the mark.

Ultimately, the novel builds to a rather dramatic denouement with two shocking incidents playing out virtually simultaneously. Once again, I am left wondering about the believability of one of the developments – that involving Elizabeth and John, as it feels somewhat brutal and unnecessary.

Having now read a few of this author’s novels, I am coming to the view that some of the scenarios created by EJH are deliberately designed to highlight the rather unrealistic, idealised vision of marriage held by society at the time. There is a sense that she is drawing attention to the dangers for women who fall into these traps – particularly those who buy into the highly romanticised vision of love at first sight, only to discover that the reality is much less fulfilling than the idealistic vision they were led to believe. Meanwhile, others drift from one doomed relationship to another, hopelessly clinging to unsuitable men in spite of the knowledge that they will almost certainly end up damaged as a result. There are glimpses of hope amidst the pain and oppression of delusion, but these are relatively few and far between.

Something in Disguise is published by Picador; personal copy.

Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I’m a bit hit-or-miss when it comes to Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius being the hit and The Long View the miss. (Getting It Right, which I read earlier this year and never got around to writing up at the time, fell somewhere between the two.) Odd Girl Out (1972) broadly fits into the ‘hit’ category for me, albeit with a few caveats here and there. It’s a novel about sexual attraction and secret relationships, largely played out against the comfortable background of the privileged middle classes in 1970s Berkshire.

Odd 1

Edmund and Anne Cornhill, both in their late thirties/early forties, have been happily married for ten years, content with themselves and one another in their own secluded world. Edmund travels to London each day where he works as an estate agent, a role that often involves the assessment of grand country houses. Meanwhile, Anne amuses herself by pottering in the garden, shopping for treats, and cooking delicious meals for Edmund to enjoy on his return.

As with any longstanding relationship, there are occasional niggles to be smoothed out. Anne wishes Edmund wouldn’t insist in bringing her breakfast in bed every morning (in truth she considers it a waste of valuable time), while Edmund promptly ignores Anne’s suggestions on which shirt-and-tie combination he should wear that day, preferring to select his own clothes instead. Nevertheless, the marriage is a comfortable one, both parties feeling fulfilled and contented.

All this begins to change when Arabella comes to stay, destabilising the Cornhills’ idyllic lifestyle in her own rather naïve and charming way. Arabella is young, beautiful and vulnerable, recovering as she is from the after-effects of a very recent abortion. (No spoilers here as this is made abundantly clear from the start.) The link between Arabella and the Cornhills is a somewhat tenuous one. In essence, she is the daughter of Edmund’s former stepmother, Clara, a frightful, self-centred woman who treats the girl like an unwanted appendage or nuisance to be dealt with, preferably by way of a convenient marriage.

Armed with her youth and progressive outlook, Arabella is more sexually liberated than either Edmund or Anne, a point that leads to the virtually inevitable affair. Edmund is utterly beguiled by Arabella, to the point that he starts behaving like a lovesick teenager in her presence, desperately trying to extend the time they can spend alone together. What is somewhat more surprising is Arabella’s impact on Anne, who also finds herself affected by the young girl’s presence in the house, albeit in a rather different, more unpredictable way.

It was extraordinary how she [Arabella] could stream with tears and go on looking beautiful and not have to blow her nose, Anne thought. She wanted to feel ‘poor little thing’, but there was something about Arabella’s appearance and state that went well beyond that. She put out her hand to stroke Arabella’s hair, and touching it, felt vaguely frightened. (p. 107)

Alongside the main narrative thread, there are some interesting secondary stories, too – perhaps most notably that of Janet, the downtrodden wife of Arabella’s former lover, Henry, an unsuccessful actor and prize brute. While Janet does her best to feed her children on little more than thin air, Henry proceeds to abuse her, making her life a misery at every possible opportunity. If anything, I would have liked a lot more of Janet, but sadly it wasn’t to be – a relatively minor quibble in the scheme of things, but a missed opportunity nonetheless. Anne’s backstory reveals another abusive relationship: a hasty previous marriage with a most unsuitable partner, Waldo, now fortunately out of the picture in Canada.

Overall, this is a very well-written novel about the fickle, complicated nature of love. As far as Arabella sees things, pretty much everything in life is simple – not necessarily easy, but simple. In reality, however, love, desire and sexual relationships are much more complicated than this – a point that Arabella eventually discovers to her peril. (I can’t help but wonder if this is another story that draws on some of EJH’s own rather bruising relationships with abusive, self-absorbed men – it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.)

The period detail is rather wonderful, too. There are some glorious touches from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s here, including martinis, Sancerre, salmon trout, chilled soup, kaftans, pant suits and holidays in Greece – like an upmarket version of Abigail’s Party in certain respects. As ever with EJH, the descriptions of settings, rooms, furnishings and other minutiae are perfectly observed.

In summary, this is an elegant novel with touches of real sadness and poignancy. Recommended to readers of relationship-driven fiction with a domestic setting.

This is the first of two pieces about EJH I’m planning to post over the next few weeks – more about my responses to another of her novels to follow.

Odd Girl Out is published by Picador; personal copy.

The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn – part 2, the individual books

Earlier this week, I posted a piece with some overarching thoughts on Edward St Aubyn’s five-part sequence of books, The Patrick Melrose novels. (If you missed this, do consider going back to read it – you can find the link here.) In short, the series charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. It’s also one of the highlights of my reading year so far.

In this follow-up post, I’m going to touch on the individual novels, just to highlight one or two points about each one. Inevitably, this will include the broad arc of Patrick’s story. However, the traditional notion of plot is not the main driving force here; instead, the series is more about character, personal experience and psychological insight. If you’re thinking of reading the series, hopefully this will give you an idea of what to expect from it.

The first book, Never Mind, explores Patrick’s childhood – in particular, the torturous summer he spends with his sadistic father, David Melrose, and wealthy, alcoholic mother, Eleanor, at the family’s (or rather Eleanor’s) house in the South of France – Patrick is just five years old at this point. It is a shallow, privileged world, one in which disdain, ignorance and abject neglect are allowed to flourish and fester.

There are a number of key incidents in this book, most notably Patrick’s first experience of sexual abuse at the hands of his father – a practice that continues unchallenged for the next three years. Eleanor, on the other hand, is either too week or drunk to intervene. (There is a suggestion in the books that Eleanor is aware of David’s ongoing abuse of her son but is too frightened to do anything to stop it.)

Naturally, on account of the subject matter, this is a difficult book to read, devastating in its emotional intensity and impact. The abuse scene is all the more powerful for its subtlety and understated nature, a technique that leaves it to the reader’s imagination to complete the distressing picture.

Max has already written an excellent review of this book, which I would encourage you to read as it delves into many of the book’s strengths. Before moving on, I’d just like to highlight one aspect of St Aubyn’s style that stood out for me – namely, his ability to convey such astute insights into character through the smallest of actions or details.

…he [David] leaned over and picked up a half-smoked Montecristo cigar. One was ‘supposed’ to remove the paper band from the cigar, and so David left it on. To break even the smallest rules by which others convinced themselves that they were behaving correctly gave him great pleasure. His disdain for vulgarity included the vulgarity of wanting to avoid the appearance of being vulgar. (p. 90, Never Mind)

Book two, Bad News, finds Patrick at twenty-two, flying to New York to collect his father’s ashes whilst in the throes of multiple addictions. Strung out on various cocktails of speed, cocaine, heroin and alcohol, Patrick tries to reconcile his feelings about David’s death, a process that takes him to a nightmarish abyss, characterised by the relentless chorus of voices that haunt his hallucinatory dreams.

There is some brilliant writing about the physical and emotional impact of drug addiction here, particularly given the pernicious demons from Patrick’s past. However, it is the acerbic gallows humour that really stands out for me – passages such as the following in which Patrick discusses his father’s argumentative nature with an old family friend, Anne, following a viewing of the body at the funeral parlour.

‘So you liked being with him in a place he didn’t complain about.’

‘Exactly,’ said Patrick. ‘I couldn’t believe my luck, and for a while I expected him to sit up in his coffin, like a vampire at sunset, and say, “The service here is intolerable.” Then we would have had to go to three or four other funeral parlours. Mind you, the service was intolerable. They sent me to the wrong corpse.’

‘The wrong corpse!’ exclaimed Anne.

‘Yes, I wound up at a jaunty Jewish cocktail party given for a Mr Hermann Newton. I wish I could have stayed; they seemed to be having such fun…’ (p. 41, Bad News)

By book three, Some Hope, thirty-year-old Patrick has experienced some success in conquering his drug addiction, a habit he now recognises as concealing a deeper struggle – the fight to avoid turning into his father.

In many ways, this novel reminds me very much of Anthony Powell’s marvellous series, A Dance to the Music of Time, which I have written about here. Some Hope revolves around a glamorous party hosted by the Melroses’ old acquaintance, Bridget – also present at the house during that fateful summer portrayed in Never Mind.

It is, in one sense, a biting social satire in the style of Powell and Waugh, replete with casual cruelties and cutting remarks. The guest of honour at the party is Princess Margaret, a woman who behaves in the most callously to various guests, particularly the French Ambassador, who comes close to creating a diplomatic incident, and Bridget’s young daughter, Belinda. To accentuate the Powell comparison even further, there is even a scene featuring a painting by Poussin – surely a nod to the title of Dance.

In book four, Mother’s Milk, we find Patrick in his early forties, living with his kind and grounded wife, Mary, and their two young children, Robert and Thomas. It is a book about mothers and the influence they bring to bear on their children. More specifically, Eleanor’s failures of Patrick throughout his life; the negative impact of Patrick’s maternal grandmother on Eleanor herself; and finally, Mary’s very different approach to motherhood, one that reflects her nurturing nature and unbridled capacity for love.

While Patrick knows he has already passed on some of his preoccupations and anxieties to Robert, there may still be time to take a different approach with Thomas, one that prevents the toxic fallout from tainting the life of his youngest son.

He [Patrick] was obsessed, it was true, with stopping the flow of poison from one generation to the next, but he already felt that he had failed. Determined not to inflict the causes of his suffering on his children, he couldn’t protect them from the consequences. Patrick had buried his own father twenty years ago and hardly ever thought about him. At the peak of his kindness David had been rude, cold, sarcastic, easily bored; compulsively raising the hurdle at the last moment to make sure that Patrick cracked his shins. It would have been too flagrant for Patrick to become a disastrous father, or to get a divorce, or to disinherit his children; instead they had to live with the furious, sleepless consequence of those things. (pp. 88-89, Mother’s Milk)

As the series draws to a close with the final book, At Last, there are signs that Patrick may be able to find some kind of way forward, a sense of release from the traumas and frustrations of the past. At the age of forty-five, he is attending his mother’s funeral, an opportunity to let go of longstanding anger and resentment. Surely his mother’s passion for philanthropy, for using her money to try and save the disadvantaged children of the world, stemmed from a subconscious feeling that she had failed to protect her own son. As the full horror of Eleanor’s life with David is finally revealed, Patrick realises that it is not the end of closeness but the end of longing for such feelings of intimacy and protection that he must mourn.

By turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny, this series is a masterpiece of modern fiction. Very highly recommended indeed.

The Patrick Melrose novels are published by Picador; personal copies.

The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn – some overall thoughts

Something a little different from me today. Not a review as such, but some overarching reflections on this exceptional series of novels, which I gobbled up over the course of a week back in April during my recovery from a major fracture. I’d already had a bit of a false start back in February with the first book in the series, Never Mind; but then again, a six-hour session in A&E was probably not the ideal environment in which to read a story as brutal and hard-hitting as this. (Perversely, it was the only book I had with me at the time of my accident; but to be honest, I was grateful for any form of distraction from the pain.)

Anyway, back to the books. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, it charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. Along the way, the novels delve into child abuse, marital rape, drug addiction, alcohol misuse, abject cruelty and neglect, and all manner of other sadistic behaviours. It is a story in which the sins and failures of both fathers and mothers shape the lives of their children in the most destructive of ways. (Sounds great, doesn’t it? I know – I’m really selling it here.)

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Far from it in fact. With the possible exception of book one, Never Mind, the novels are shot through with a wickedly funny, caustic seam of humour, much of which stems from Patrick’s inherent cynicism and fiercely cutting sense of wit.

The books are also superbly written; not a word wasted or out of place. St Aubyn is clearly one of our finest prose stylists, a writer with the ability to convey the sharpest of feelings in just a sentence or two.

The first drink centred him for about twenty minutes and then the rest brought his night mind rushing over the landscape like the dark blade of an eclipse. (p. 225, Mother’s Milk)

When read as a series, the novels are immensely satisfying as they give the reader such a deep insight into Patrick’s inner life, complete with its anxieties, complexities and self-destructive tendencies. There is something very humane and profound about these novels, the sense that by examining the various generations of his family in this way, St Aubyn is attempting to exorcise the ghosts of his past, to banish the demons of his early life and painful existence. (The books are clearly semi-autobiographical.) And yet they are about as far from the conventional misery memoir as you are ever likely to get. The combination of fierce intelligence and sharp, sardonic wit sets them apart from anything as formulaic as this.

In a follow-up post to go out later this week, I’m planning to touch on the individual novels, just to highlight one or two points about each one. Inevitably, this will include the broad arc of Patrick’s story. However, the traditional notion of plot is not the main driving force here; instead, the series is more about character, personal experience and psychological insight.

In the meantime, I’ll wrap up with the following thoughts…

Razor-sharp, fiercely intelligent and emotionally penetrating in its examination of dysfunctional families, this series is a masterpiece of English fiction. I’m so glad I returned to it in a more conducive environment.

Viewed individually, the books are by turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny. Perseverance may well be the key here – if you get past the first two volumes, you’re almost certainly home free. More on the individual instalments in my next post, hopefully later this week…

The Patrick Melrose novels are published by Picador; personal copies.

After Julius by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I’ve been looking for an opportunity to try again with Elizabeth Jane Howard, ever since my somewhat mixed response to The Long View, her novel of a deeply unhappy marriage told in reverse. While structurally very interesting, TLV felt rather uneven and was ultimately marred by bitterness for me. I just couldn’t engage with or invest enough in the characters to care about them – an issue exacerbated by Howard’s somewhat clinical, dispassionate tone.

So here I am again with EJH – this time, her 1965 novel, After Julius, which also fits nicely with Simon and Karen’s latest ‘Club’ event, running all this week. Happily, this experience was much more positive for me. I’d even go as far as to say that I loved this novel with one very notable caveat – more on that later, as the scene in question comes towards the end.

The Julius of the title is Julius Grace, an affluent publisher who was killed while assisting in the Dunkirk evacuation during WW2. The story takes places over a weekend some twenty years after Julius’ death, as the remaining members of the Grace family, together with a few guests, gather at the family home in Sussex. What starts as well-intentioned, sociable occasion ends in devastation as various revelations connected with Julius’s heroic actions gradually come to light.

Hosting the weekend is Esme, Julius’ fifty-eight-year-old widow who has never remarried following the loss of her husband. Joining Esme for the weekend are her two daughters: the beauty of the family, Cressy (37), a rather reluctant concert pianist; and the more practical, down-to-earth, Emma (27), a reader and editor in the family’s publishing firm.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Emma has brought along a young man, a wayward poet named Dan Brick, whom she met earlier that day while at work. Being essentially working-class, Dan comes from a very different social sphere to the Graces and their friends, and his responses to the events of the weekend are rather interesting to observe. Importantly, he seems to have clicked with Emma, a young woman whose only previous experience with the opposite sex has blighted most of her adult life.

Cressy, on the other hand, has come alone. Following an early, disastrous marriage which promptly ended with her husband’s death in the war, Cressy has subjected herself to a string of unhappy affairs, failing to achieve any sense of comfort or emotional fulfilment despite her desires. In essence, her situation is encapsulated in the following quote.

Had been married; husband killed in the war. No children. Sad, but infinitely intriguing – and convenient. Surely there must be a lover lurking about? Some cynical, selfish fellow who ruined sensitive intelligent girls by spending two evenings a week with them – preying upon their finer feelings with anything from money, the right sexual touch to downright lies about the future? But there never was, for Cressy was passionately monogamous. So whoever it was took possession, spent two evenings a week with her (and sometimes more, but they couldn’t be sure from week to week – they’d telephone anyhow so don’t go out: and, poor fool, she never would), and preyed upon her feelings with whatever equipment they could bring to bear. (p.60)

Cressy has vowed to end her latest hopeless affair, a liaison with the thoroughly self-centred Dick Hammond – a factor made all the more complicated by his unexpected arrival at the house for Saturday night’s dinner party.

Also in attendance for the weekend is Esme’s former lover, forty-four-year-old Felix King. While Julius was still alive, Esme embarked on a passionate affair with Felix, the one great love of her life irrespective of their differences in age. As the novel unravels, it soon becomes clear that Esme had never truly loved Julius, certainly not in a deep, fulfilling sense. His obsession with quoting poetry to her in moments of heightened emotion had put paid to all that, right from the early stages of their marriage.

In all moments of emotion he resorted to poetry; and this included making love to her. She had pleaded ignorance, but this only provoked hours of tender instruction, and every time he reached out for some slim calf-bound volume from a shelf, or threw back his head and half shut his eyes (he knew a fantastic amount of stuff by heart) the same wave of unwilling reverence and irritated incomprehension swept over her. (p. 28)

Emotionally isolated in her relationship with Julius, Esme turned to Felix for a little love and affection – perhaps unsurprisingly so given the nature of her situation.

No son was a private, nagging refrain, and for the rest of her functions she sometimes felt as though she was endlessly laying an elaborate table for a meal to which nobody in the end sat down. (p. 33)

Felix for his part was attracted to Esme, finding her shrewd, sophisticated and wonderfully entertaining. Nevertheless, it was too early in life for him to settle down back then, even once Esme became free following her husband’s untimely death.

Now Felix is keen to see Esme again after a gap of twenty years – the first time the former lovers will have met following a rather abrupt end to their relationship. As she waits for Felix to arrive at the house, Esme wonders why he wishes to see her again. Is out of duty, curiosity, or some other unknown motive? It’s hard to tell.

Esme knows she still loves Felix, possibly even more so now than before. If anything, his reappearance releases an intensity of feeling that has been allowed to accumulate for too long, precipitating a liberation of sorts. What Esme doesn’t know is just how Felix will react…

After Julius is a very carefully constructed novel, elegantly alternating between the perceptions of the five main characters, alongside a few pivotal group scenes. The inner lives of Howard’s women are captured with great precision and accuracy, painfully revealing past traumas and their resultant scars: Esme remains trapped in a kind of time-capsule, continuing to harbour deep feelings for Felix, in spite of his apparent abandonment of her; Emma has repressed all thoughts of love and emotional fulfilment following a horrendous early experience at the hands of a brute; and Cressy has spent most her life trying to fit around her lovers’ plans in the desperate hope of some affection in return.

With the possible exception of Julius, whom we encounter through flashbacks, the leading male characters here are mostly self-centred cads, frequently treating women as love-objects, merely to picked up and dumped at a moment’s notice. In this scene, one of the female characters – I won’t say which one – reveals how she was bullied by a former lover who had learned of her pregnancy.

He was furious! He managed to make me feel squalid and entirely to blame. (…) This man was supposed to have loved me: he wrote books about people and ideology – he was regarded as a pioneer, a humanitarian, someone of great integrity who cared what happened to society – a responsible and courageous man – one in a million. And yet there I was pregnant, honestly because he bullied me about knowing better, and all he wanted to do was to be shot of the situation – never mind what became of me in the process. (pp. 278–279)

As a slight aside, there is an interesting sub-theme running through this novel, that of the tension between a person’s public conscience to serve the good of humanity and their private desire for personal advancement. It’s a dynamic that touches several of the characters here – Julius, Felix and Cressy, in particular.

Returning to the men, even Dan – whose outward appearance is rather amiable – harbours worrying beliefs about the ‘acceptable’ roles and behaviours of women. In this scene, Dan is reflecting on Cressy’s reactions to her mother, especially once it transpires that Felix has returned.

Well, that sister of Emma’s would make an occasion out of a milk shake on a wet Sunday afternoon. She hadn’t seemed to like the doctor either; but then he’d never seen anyone treat their mother as she had done – downright discourtesy if ever he’d seen it: crossed in love, he had no doubt, and nearly on the shelf on top of that. No wonder the poor thing was edgy. Of course, the father had died, and a houseful of women without a man to crack the whip always made them soft and restless. (pp. 118-119)

This a perceptive, beautifully observed novel of secrets, guilt and longstanding resentments. The insights into characters’ perceptions and emotions, particularly those of the emotionally stranded women, are brilliantly judged. There is also some gorgeous deceptive writing here, particularly in the depiction of the interiors and the natural world.

My one reservation relates to a very brutal scene towards the end of the novel in which one of the women submits to a horrific act of violence, virtually accepting it as part-and-parcel of her relationship with the man concerned. It’s tricky to say any more without revealing spoilers, but I found it difficult to accept this character’s reactions in the hours and days following the incident. Maybe it’s merely a reflection of the prevailing attitudes of the period or some of EJH’s own damaging experiences – it’s a little hard to tell. Feel free to comment on it below, especially if you’ve read the book.

Update: Caroline has posted an excellent review of this novel, which you can find here.

After Julius is published by Picador; personal copy.