Tag Archives: Picador

My favourites from a year in reading, 2022 – the books that almost made it

This December, I found it harder than usual to settle on a manageable number of titles for my ‘Books of the Year’ lists. In truth, there were very few disappointments amongst the 100+ books I read in 2022, partly because I tend to gravitate towards the mid-20th century for my reading. These modern classics have stood the test of time for a reason; in other words, they’re VERY GOOD!

As I looked back at this year’s reading, I found myself earmarking another eight books that didn’t quite make it into my final selections. All these books are brilliant in their own individual ways, and any of them could have easily found their way onto my ‘best of’ lists had I been compiling them on a different day. So, just in case you need yet another list of suggestions for your toppling TBR piles, here are books that almost made it. Enjoy!

Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1969)

Back in October 2021, the Backlisted team covered Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1969 novel Something in Disguise on their Halloween episode of the podcast. It’s a book I had read before, with somewhat mixed feelings. However, Andrew Male and Laura Varnam’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…The less said about the plot the better; just cut to the book itself.

Gigli, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (1931, (tr. Geoff Wilkes, 2013)

Irmgard Keun’s novellas always have something interesting to offer, and this striking portrayal of a determined young woman in Weimar-era Cologne did not disappoint. Right from the very start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging voice. In essence, the novella explores Gilgi (and the competing demands on her future direction) as she finds herself torn between two seemingly irreconcilable passions: her desire for independence and a successful career vs her love for the free-spirited Martin and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Keun does a terrific job capturing her protagonist’s conflicted emotions, frequently in a state of flux. In many respects, this is a very progressive book. Not only is it written in a modernist style, but it also touches on several forward-thinking themes, including adoption, opportunities for women in the workplace, financial independence from men, sex outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and the impact of debt on a person’s mental health. A thoroughly engaging book by one of my favourite women writers in translation.

The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns (1989)

I have written before about my love of Barbara Comyns and the eccentric worlds she portrays in her novels – stories that combine darkly comic humour and surreal imagery with the realities of day-to-day life. The setting for this one is a Kensington boarding house during the swinging ‘60s, a time of great social change. Amy Doll, a widow in her mid-thirties, has four female boarders – all middle-aged or elderly, all divorced or widowed and cast adrift from any immediate family. Low on funds and in need of support to pay the rent, the ladies have turned their hands to a little light prostitution, fashioning a sort of ‘lounge’ for elderly gentlemen in Amy’s gold and crimson drawing room. The story follows the progress of two of these women, Berti and Evelyn, as they try to survive. Dolls is a charming, wickedly funny novel with some serious themes at its heart – how sometimes our hands are forced by unfortunate circumstances, e.g. loneliness, poverty, abandonment or adversity. An underrated Comyns that deserves to be better known.

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker (1991)

First published in 1991 and more recently reissued by Weidenfeld & Nicholson as part of their W&N Essentials series, O Caledonia was Barker’s only novel. It’s a dazzling gem of a book, rich in a wealth of vivid imagery – clearly the product of a highly imaginative writer with a sharp eye for detail and an affinity for outsiders. Ostensibly a coming-of-age narrative, the novel blends elements from a range of literary traditions, from the Gothic novel to Classical Myths, skilfully weaving them into the fabric of the text. Andy Miller (of Backlisted fame) described it as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle meets Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a description that rings true. There’s also a dash of Barbara Comyns here – Barker’s prose is expressive and evocative, portraying a world that combines the sharply recognisable with the macabre and the surreal. A kaleidoscopic, jewel-like novel with a noticable poignant touch.

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (1953)

Every now and again, a book comes along that captivates the reader with its elegant form and glittering prose. Maud Martha is one such book, painting an evocative portrait of the titular character’s life from childhood to early adulthood. Over the course of the novella (which is written as a series of short vignettes), we follow Maud Martha through childhood in Chicago’s South Side, her early romances as a teenager, to marriage and motherhood, moving seamlessly from the early 1920s to the mid-’40s. Gwendolyn Brooks has created something remarkable here, a celebration of resilience, grace, dignity and beauty – a powerful image of black womanhood that remains highly relevant today. I loved this book for its gorgeous, poetic prose and beautiful use of imagery. A wonderful rediscovered gem courtesy of Faber Editions, a fascinating imprint that always delivers the goods.

Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich (1970, tr. Howard Curtis, 2021)

Another wonderfully evocative read – intense, melancholic and richly cinematic, like a cross between Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the novels of Alfred Hayes, tinged with despair. Set in Rome in the late 1960s, the novel follows Leo, a footloose writer, as he drifts around the city from one gathering to another, frequently hosted by his glamorous, generous friends. One evening, he meets Arianna, a beautiful, unpredictable, impulsive young woman who catches his eye; their meeting marks the beginning of an intense yet episodic love affair that waxes and wanes over the summer and beyond. Calligarich has given us a piercing depiction of a doomed love affair here. These flawed, damaged individuals seem unable to connect with one another, ultimately failing to realise what they could have had together until that chance has gone, frittered away like a night on the tiles. This intense, expresso shot of a novella will likely resonate with those who have loved and lost.

The Cost of Living; Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant (1951-1971)

A precise, perceptive collection of short stories by the Canadian author, Mavis Gallant. The very best of these pieces feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the narratives to expand in the reader’s mind on further reflection. Gallant is particularly incisive on the emptiness of suburban domesticity, the type of stifling, loveless marriage depicted in Mad Men and the novels of Richard Yates. Several of her protagonists – typically women – seem lost, cast adrift and unmoored in the vast sea of uncertainty that is life. Here we have stories of terrible mothers and self-absorbed fathers, isolated wives and bewildered husbands, smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves. A top-notch collection of stories, beautifully expressed. 

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (2007, tr. Frances Riddle, 2021)

Shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize, Elena Knows is an excellent example of how the investigation into a potential crime can be used as a vehicle in fiction to explore pressing societal issues. In short, the book is a powerful exploration of various aspects of control over women’s bodies. More specifically, the extent to which women are in control (or not) of their own bodies in a predominantly Catholic society; how religious dogma and doctrines exert pressure on women to relinquish that control to others; and what happens when the body fails us due to illness and/or disability. While that description might make it sound rather heavy, Piñeiro’s novel is anything but; it’s a hugely compelling read, full of depth and complexity. When Elena’s daughter, Rita, is found dead, the official investigations deliver a verdict of suicide, and the case is promptly closed by the police. Elena, however, refuses to believe the authorities’ ruling based on her knowledge of Rita’s beliefs, so she embarks on an investigation of her own with shocking results…

So, that’s it from me until 2023. Have a lovely New Year’s Eve, with very best wishes for the reading year ahead!

Books of the Year, 2022 – my favourite ‘older’ books from a year of reading

This year, I’m spreading my 2022 reading highlights across two posts. The first piece, on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, is here, while this second piece puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books I read this year, including reissues of titles first published in the 20th century.

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

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977, at the height of Pym’s well-documented renaissance, 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! The story follows four work colleagues in their sixties as they deal with retirement from their roles as clerical workers in a London office. While that might not sound terribly exciting as a premise, Pym brings some lovely touches of gentle humour to this bittersweet gem, showing us that life can still offer new possibilities in the autumn of our years.

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam

This is a really lovely book, a thoroughly engaging coming-of-age story in the style of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – maybe with a hint of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle in the mix for good measure. Set in a coastal town in North Yorkshire in the early years of the Second World War, Verona is narrated by Jessica Vye, a precocious schoolgirl with an utterly captivating voice. As the novel unfolds, we follow Jessica as she tries to navigate her way through adolescence, negotiating various formative experiences along the way. What Gardam does so well here is to capture the conflicting emotions of being a teen, from the surety of knowing one’s own mind to the agony of being misunderstood and not fitting in.

Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

A quietly devastating story of three generations of women, confined and subsumed by the men who surround them. There are similarities with Anita Brookner’s novels here – both thematically and stylistically – as Carvalho goes deep into the inner lives of her female protagonists, conveying them unflinchingly for the reader to see. The story centres on Dora Rosário – a widow we follow over the course of ten years – while also touching on her forthright mother-in-law, Ana, and her progressive daughter, Lisa. Carvalho explores these women in depth, showing us how they have been failed by the men who supposedly love them, with betrayal, duplicity, selfishness and abdication of responsibility all playing their respective parts.

Other People’s Worlds by William Trevor

As a writer, William Trevor has an innate ability to convey the tragedies of our lives, how individuals can be worn down by their fates and circumstances. It’s a quality that’s very much in evidence here in this tale of deception, collateral damage and a questioning of faith. The novel revolves around Francis Tyte, a thirty-something bit-part actor who sweeps into other people’s lives, leaving wreckage in his wake. As the story opens, Francis is preparing to marry Julia, a forty-seven-year-old woman who lives with her widowed mother, Mrs Anstey, in their Gloucestershire home. Mrs Anstey has some nagging doubts about Francis, which she tries to voice to her grown-up grandchildren to little avail. But with preparations for the wedding well underway, Francis’s past begins to close in on him, and the story soon unravels from there. Fans of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye might well enjoy this one!

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

I loved this exquisitely written novel about the slow, stealthy disintegration of a marriage. It’s a masterclass in precision and understatement, all the more impressive for its subtlety and refusal to submit to melodrama. Central to the story are the Gresham family – fifty-two-year-old Evelyn Gresham, a successful barrister of the highest rank, his beautiful wife, Imogen, and the couple’s ten-year-old son, Gavin. Imogen is a sensitive, compassionate young woman at haert, but efficient management and organisation are not her strongest suits. By contrast, Blanche Silcox – the Greshams’ nearest neighbour – is the polar opposite of Imogen. At fifty, Blanche is the living embodiment of the home counties ‘country type’, complete with her dowdy tweeds and forbidding hats. The real strength of this novel lies in the precision and clarity Jenkins brings to her portrayal of Imogen, particularly the lack of agency she feels when faced with Blanche as a competitor for Evelyn’s heart. Another quietly devastating book with the power to endure.

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

There are hints of Comyns’ own troubled childhood in The Vet’s Daughter, a striking coming-of-age novel with a dark, highly distinctive flavour. The story is narrated by Alice Rowlands, the titular vet’s daughter, who lives in south London with her domineering father, Euan, and her sickly mother. Euan Rowlands is a violent man, essentially bullying Alice and her mother with his sudden outbursts and demands. Alice, on the other hand, is fully alive to the world around her, sensing the danger that her father duly presents. She is an imaginative girl at heart, a quality that comes through in her childlike tone of voice. All the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel are here: an enchanting, innocent child caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, often with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact tone of voice that belies the horrors within. A magical novel by a highly imaginative writer.

The Trouble with Happiness by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

These short stories – many of which are superb – explore the suffocating nature of family life predominantly from the female perspective, the overwhelming sense of loneliness and anxiety that many women (and children) feel due to various constraints. Here we see petty jealousies, unfulfilled desires, deliberate cruelties and the sudden realisation of deceit – all brilliantly conveyed with insight and sensitivity. What Ditlevsen does so well in this collection is to convey the sadness and pain many women and children experience at the hands of their families. Her characters have rich inner lives, irrespective of the restrictions placed on them by society and those closer to home. The writing is superb throughout, demonstrating the author’s skills with language and a flair for striking one-liners with a melancholy note.

Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard

First published in 1999, when Elizabeth Jane Howard was nearing the twilight of her career, Falling was inspired by real-life events. When Howard was in her seventies, she fell for the charms of a con man – a seemingly attentive man who took advantage of the fact that she was unattached and vulnerable yet receptive to admiration. At first, Howard was flattered by the attention, but the affair proved devastating when her lover’s true intentions became clear. Having been badly bruised by these events, she channelled her experiences into Falling, a fictionalised version of the story that feels horribly real. It’s an excellent novel – engrossing, chilling and beautifully written, like a slow-burn thriller in the Patricia Highsmith vein.

All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Angus Davidson)

This rich, multilayered narrative follows two very different neighbouring Italian families during the Second World War, charting the various challenges this uncertainty presents. Ginzburg has written a truly remarkable novel here, a story of ordinary people living through extraordinary times, beautifully told with a warmth and generosity of spirit that reflects the Italian character. There are some lovely touches of dry humour throughout as the author maintains a wry sense of detachment from life’s absurdities, despite the gravity of events. It’s also clearly a novel informed by personal experiences and memories, written by a woman who lived through the turmoil of a country at war – a point that adds a genuine sense of poignancy and authenticity to the story as it unfolds.

A Helping Hand by Celia Dale

There is something deeply unnerving about a crime novel featuring an ordinary domestic setting – the type of story where sinister activities take place behind the veil of net curtains in the privacy of the protagonist’s home. The English writer Celia Dale was clearly a master of this genre, especially if her 1966 novel A Helping Hand is anything to go by. It’s an icily compelling tale of greed and deception, stealthily executed amidst carefully orchestrated conversations and endless cups of tea. In essence, the plot revolves around an outwardly respectable middle-aged couple, Maisie and Josh Evans, who take under their wing an elderly lady named Mrs Fingal. At first sight, the Evanses seem ideally placed to take care of Mrs Fingal – Maisie is a former nurse, and Josh seems equally attentive – but as the story gets going, the reader soon realises that something very underhand is afoot…

Latecomers by Anita Brookner

The English writer and art historian Anita Brookner is well known for her exquisitely-crafted novels of loneliness and isolation, typically featuring unmarried women living quiet, unfulfilling lives while waiting for their married lovers to make fleeting appearances. Latecomers – Brookner’s eighth – is somewhat different from the norm as it features two male protagonists, Hartmann and Fibich, who came to England as Jewish refugees via the Kindertransport evacuation in WW2. While the adult Hartman is optimistic, content, and at ease with his life, Fibich is anxious, melancholy and self-effacing – constantly burdened by the weight of history. Essentially, the novel follows these two men over their adult lives, tracing this unwavering friendship through their business partnership, respective marriages and the growth of their children, all set against the backdrop of the spectre of war. It’s a remarkably moving book, right up there with Brooker’s best.

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó (tr. George Szirtes)

Set in Hungary in the early 1960s, Iza’s Ballad is a heartbreaking portrayal of the emotional gulf between a mother and her daughter, two women with radically different outlooks on life. When her father dies, Iza decides to bring her elderly mother, Ettie, to live with her in Budapest. While Ettie is grateful to her daughter for this gesture, she struggles to adapt to modern life in the city, especially without her familiar possessions and the memories they represent. It’s a novel of many contrasts; the chasm between the different generations; the traditional vs the new; the rural vs the urban; and the generous vs the self-centred. Szabó digs deep into the damage we inflict on those closest to us – often unintentionally but inhumanely nonetheless.

So, that’s it for my favourite books from a year of reading. Do let me know your thoughts on my choices – I’d love to hear your views.

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead – may it be filled with lots of excellent books, old and new!

Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich (tr. Howard Curtis) 

The publication history of this terrific novella by the Italian novelist and screenwriter Gianfranco Calligarich is almost as fascinating as the book itself. Written when Calligarich was in his twenties, the book struggled to find a publisher until it dropped into the hands of the renowned novelist and essayist Natalia Ginzburg – a writer currently enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity due to the recent reissues from Daunt Books and NRYB Classics. Ginzburg was so enthused by Calligarich’s novella that she persuaded an Italian publishing house to issue it in 1973, resulting in both critical and commercial success.

However, not long after, the book slipped out of print, taking on the status of a cult classic amongst those in the know. Following a couple of revivals in the 2010s, Last Summer in the City is now available to read in English for the first time, courtesy of the translator Howard Curtis and Picador Books. It’s a wonderfully evocative read – intense, melancholic and richly cinematic, like a cross between Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the novels of Alfred Hayes, tinged with despair.

Last Summer is narrated by Leo Gazzara, a thirty-year-old man from Milan who has come to Rome as a correspondent for a medical-literary magazine. When the publication folds, he finds himself drifting around the city, shuttling from one cheap hotel to another, picking up a little freelance work here and there when he needs money to get by. Having eschewed the usual trappings of respectability revered by his older sisters, Leo often relies on the generosity of others, feeding on their ‘leftovers’ in more ways than one. So when two relatively wealthy friends move to Mexico City for a year or two, Leo agrees to house-sit their apartment, providing him with a comfortable place to live as he meanders around Rome.

His life is a somewhat shallow, disorganised one as he drifts from one woman to another, one bar to another, one gathering to another, frequently hosted by his glamorous, generous friends. Alongside lassitude, alcohol is another demon for Leo, blurring his senses as he tries to kick the habit. Interestingly, Calligarich often depicts Leo in the morning after the night before, a leisurely time of day that our protagonist enjoys – after all, he has long been a magnet for women.

I slept until late morning, when I woke up to an empty apartment. I found coffee already made, along with a note. Stay as long as you like. I thought about it, as I lay in a bathtub filled with warm water, I thought about whether to stay or not, until I realised that the only thing I could do now was leave and never come back. And so, like so many other times, for the last time I got out of her bath, dried myself, finished the coffee, and left, firmly closing the door behind me. (p. 98)

One evening, at a party hosted by friends, Leo meets Arianna, a beautiful, unpredictable, impulsive young woman who catches his eye. After the soiree breaks up, Leo and Arianne drive through the city, flirting with one another, stopping for warm brioche at a bakery and driving to the sea before dawn. It’s the start of an intense yet episodic love affair that waxes and wanes over the summer and beyond. 

It was the hour when anyone who’s been on his feet all night demands something hot in his stomach, the hour when hands search for each other under the sheets as dreams become more vivid, the hour when the newspapers smell of ink and the first sounds of day start to creep out like an advanced guard. It was dawn, and all that reminded of the night were two shadows under the eyes of this strange girl by my side. (pp. 36–37)

Right from the very start, there is a sense of fatalism about this story, a feeling that Leo and Arianna’s relationship is doomed almost as soon as it gets underway. Here we see two disaffected, damaged souls, unmoored and adrift, never quite connecting with one another as they blow hot and cold. For instance, when Leo thinks he is falling in love with Arianna, she refuses to hear it, silencing his declarations of emotion and affection. Similarly, there are times when Leo rejects Arianna, preferring instead to retreat into his loneliness and anger.

This capricious, volatile quality also applies to their other relationships, particularly the one between Arianna and her rather jealous sister, Eva – a bond characterised by frequent quarrels and overly dramatic flounces, particularly from Arianna. 

Rome is almost a character in itself here – the city is home to the transient, the people that pass through, often searching for something new or different, even if they cannot define what that ‘something’ might be. Calligarich’s depictions of Rome are seductive and glamorous at times, especially at night. And yet, there’s something brittle and all-consuming about the capital, too – a darkness or destructive note that must be respected and borne in mind. Rome is a place that feeds a person’s needs and disaffections – by turns, charming, tolerating and spurning its inhabitants in response to the prevailing mood.  

…Rome by her very nature has a particular intoxication that wipes out memory. She’s not so much a city as a wild beast hidden in some secret part of you. There can be no half measures with her, either she’s the love of your life or you have to leave her, because that’s what the tender beast demands, to be loved. […] If she’s loved, she’ll give herself to you whichever way you want her, all you need to do is go with the flow and you’ll be within reach of the happiness you deserve. You’ll have summer evenings glittering with lights, vibrant spring mornings, café tablecloths ruffled by the wind like girls’ skirts, keen winters, and endless autumns, when she’ll seem vulnerable, sick, weary, swollen with shredded leaves that are silent underfoot. […] In this way you too, waiting day after day, will become part of her. You too will nourish the city. Until one sunny day, sniffing the wind from the sea and looking up at the sky, you’ll realize there’s nothing left to wait for. (pp. 7–8)

Calligarich’s prose is gorgeous and evocative, adding a sense of beauty to Leo’s loneliness and despair. There are times when the novella is infused with a sense of yearning for the past, a nostalgia for something that was lost or never fully attained. Calligarich’s portrayal of Leo’s father is especially poignant – a silent, orderly man who returned shattered from the War.

In summary, Last Summer in the City is a beautiful, melancholic story of a man lost and adrift in Rome. Here we have a piercing depiction of a doomed love affair, of two flawed, damaged individuals unable to connect – ultimately failing to realise what they could have had together until that chance has gone, frittered away like a night on the tiles. This intense, expresso-shot of a novella will likely resonate with those who have loved and lost.

Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard  

First published in 1999, when Elizabeth Jane Howard was nearing the twilight of her career, Falling was inspired by real-life events. When Howard was in her seventies, she fell for the charms of a con man – a seemingly attentive man who took advantage of the fact that she was unattached and vulnerable yet receptive to admiration. At first, Howard was flattered by the attention, but the affair proved devastating when her lover’s true intentions became clear. Having been badly bruised by these events, she channelled her experiences into Falling, a fictionalised version of the story that feels horribly real. It’s an excellent book – engrossing, chilling and beautifully written, like a slow-burn thriller in the Patricia Highsmith vein.

In the novel, the narrative is conveyed through alternating chapters, giving readers an insight into both central characters – Henry Kent, a relatively good-looking man in his sixties with a background in gardening, and Daisy Langrish, a successful playwright, also in her sixties. Having separated from his wife, Hazel – a woman who always resented his lack of success – Henry is living from one day to the next, camping out on a dilapidated boat while its owners are abroad. With no money to speak of, Henry is on the lookout for a well-heeled woman, preferably someone middle-aged with no thoughts of having children. Of course, a faded beauty would be ideal, a neglected divorcee or widow just ripe for the picking; but most importantly, she must be comfortably off, wealthy enough to support Henry without his needing to work…

When Daisy Langrish (aka Redfearn) moves into a nearby cottage, she quickly becomes the target of Henry’s attention. With two bruising marriages behind her, Daisy is wary of getting her fingers burnt again. In particular, she was badly hurt by her second husband, Jason, a successful actor who left her for a much younger woman following two years of wedded bliss. Nevertheless, despite a few reservations, she agrees to let Henry sort out the garden for her when he calls to enquire.

The ‘Henry’ sections of the book are written in the first person, giving the reader full access to his thought processes right from the very start. Consequently, we can see how quickly Henry sizes Daisy up, pinpointing her vulnerabilities and planning his strategy accordingly. He knows he needs to win Daisy’s trust, carefully disarming her as gently as possible.

Trust. I could clearly recall that the first time our eyes met hers were full of wary defence; she was not accustomed to trusting people. I must disarm her, but so gradually that she would be hardly aware of it. (p. 70)

Almost immediately after their initial meetings, Daisy has to go the US for a couple of months, much to Henry’s dismay. While abroad, Daisy breaks her shoulder and foot during a trip to Mexico – an accident that leaves her hospitalised in the US for several weeks as she recovers from the injuries. Meanwhile, Henry is eager to discover more about Daisy, viewing this as a way of bolstering his chances. As far as Henry sees it, the more he knows about his target, the deeper the connection he can forge. So, he breaks into the cottage and rifles through Daisy’s belongings, reading her diary and personal letters – all of which give him an insight into her painful break-up with Jason.

Armed with this information and a few sob stories of his own, Henry starts writing to Daisy in hospital, gradually developing their relationship while she is vulnerable and alone. Moreover, when Daisy is finally well enough to return to the UK, Henry makes himself invaluable to her recovery, fetching groceries and keeping an eye on her as she settles back into the cottage.

Slowly but surely, Henry inveigles his way into Daisy’s life, steadily planning his advancement with the ultimate goal of marriage. At first, Daisy remains on her guard, fearful of a degree of intimacy that she certainly doesn’t want. For years now, she has kept herself emotionally closed down, fearful of opening up as a means of self-protection. Nevertheless, she has to acknowledge Henry’s attentiveness – his tenderness, even. It’s almost as if he can anticipate her needs without encroaching too far on her privacy. Maybe, just maybe, he actually loves her? Could this be her last chance of happiness, an opportunity to come first in someone else’s affections? As Henry works his magic, Daisy begins to wonder…

She was touched by his candour and his courage. Here she stopped. Was she not more than touched, more than grateful? For over two weeks now he had tended her with a delicacy and kindness that was surely unusual in any man, only credible, indeed, if some kind of love was involved. Perhaps he did love her, actually love her. The possibility, the faintest chance, that this might be so, might actually be real… (p. 268)

Something that Howard does so well here is to show us the relationship from two different perspectives, illustrating the true intentions behind Henry’s actions – and how Daisy is ultimately taken in by this technique. While the ‘Daisy’ sections are mostly written in the third person, some passages are presented as letters or diary entries, giving us direct access to her thoughts. Her gradual surrender is incredibly painful to observe, especially as we know just how devious and manipulative Henry can be. At first, one might consider him a fantasist, the sort of man who feeds off his own delusions; but as the narrative gradually unfolds, his psychopathic tendencies become increasingly clear…

My abstinence I intended her to interpret as my extreme love for her, and this was entirely successful; indeed, I had every kind of success and it was a sweet triumph to see her at ease, looking up at me with a kind of grateful radiance. I told her that she was beautiful and that I loved her (one cannot do this too often), and she answered that I made her feel beautiful. I knew then that I had accomplished much; was more than halfway to her becoming mine. (p. 307)

Howard also gives the reader just enough information to piece together Henry’s disreputable past as the story goes along. Slowly but surely, we learn of his underlying personality and habits – more specifically his short fuse and tendencies towards violence, his dislike of interference from those he considers outsiders, and his lack of any social contacts or real friends. He really is a very nasty piece of work.

Howard is such an astute observer of human nature, exploring her characters’ motivations with insight and understanding. The supporting players are beautifully drawn too, particularly Daisy’s agent, Anna, who is suspicious of Henry from the start. Even Daisy’s somewhat distanced daughter, Katya, has some nagging doubts about her mother’s lover, exacerbated perhaps by her own marital problems.

In short, this is a thoroughly engrossing novel, a compelling exploration of just how easy it is to be seduced when we are vulnerable and alone. My thanks to Andrew Male, who recommended this book to me as one of Howard’s late masterpieces. He was absolutely right, of course. (How could he not be?) It’s a brilliantly unsettling read – my favourite EJH to date.

Falling is published by Picador; personal copy.

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (tr. by Sam Bett and David Boyd)

Recently shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, Heaven was first published in Japan in 2009 – it’s my first experience of Mieko Kawakami’s work, but I definitely plan to read more in the future. The novel tackles a very difficult subject – that of adolescent bullying – but does so in such a thoughtful and thought-provoking way that the reader cannot help but be drawn in.

Set in Japan in 1991, Heaven is narrated by a fourteen-year-old boy who is only known to us by his nickname ‘Eyes’. The boy is systematically bullied – both mentally and physically – by a group of boys in his class, an action he puts down to his lazy eye. Kawakami is particularly insightful on the rush of thoughts swimming around in the narrator’s head as he thinks about the situation at school, from the reasons for the bullying to catastrophising about the future with all its underlying anxieties.  

I could finish school and change my surroundings, but as long as my eye was lazy, I couldn’t rightfully expect any substantial change. It was more likely that things would get much worse, or maybe they already were, and I hadn’t yet realized the extent of it. Maybe I would kill myself like that kid from TV, or maybe someone else would kill me first. Maybe I was already dead. These ideas flooded my mind to the point where I wasn’t sure what I was thinking. I was numb with a mix of fear and nausea. (p. 50)

Early in the novel, a tentative friendship develops between the narrator and a girl in his class, Kojima, who also finds herself on the receiving end of bullying. The other girls perceive Kojima as poor and dirty, referring to her as ‘Hazmat’ due to her scruffy appearance and lack of personal hygiene. In reality though, Kojima is making a personal choice to look this way as a form of solidarity with her impoverished father (now separated from the family) – a sign of kinship, so to speak, despite her mother’s newly-acquired wealth.

At first, the friendship between the narrator and Kojima develops through the notes they leave for one another inside their desks, but in time they begin to meet in a safe place on a fortnightly basis. Kawakami portrays this relationship in such a touching and tender way that feels entirely believable – in essence, both are seen as outsiders by their peers, singled out as ‘different’ due to their physical appearances. It’s also clear that Kojima’s friendship and secret notes – some of which are presented in the text – are the only things that give the narrator a sense of solace as he struggles to get through the days.

On one level, Heaven offers an acute insight into the narrator’s emotions as he tries to process his responses to the bullying. But on another level, the book can also be viewed as an exploration of some of the broader philosophical issues at play. The psychology of bullying, for instance – what prompts people to act the way they do, and how important (or not) are moral codes and social norms in shaping their actions? It also considers different strategies for counteracting the bullies, spanning the spectrum from passive submission to active defiance. Perhaps most importantly, Kawakami explores whether there is a kind of strength to be gained by experiencing suffering and pain, a sense of meaning or moral reward for getting through it.

As the discussions between Kojima and the narrator evolve, it becomes clear that the two teenagers see the bullying somewhat differently from one another, particularly in terms of context. While the narrator remains passive when being attacked, trying to distract himself as a means of getting through it, Kojima attaches a deeper meaning to the experience, viewing her endurance of the abuse as a kind of strength, almost as if she’s making a moral stand by suffering in this way. There’s also a sense that Kawakami is making a broader societal point here, drawing attention to the complicity of bystanders who turn the other cheek. By ignoring these acts of cruelty, are we effectively condoning the bullies’ actions by not speaking out? 

[Kojima:] “…We know what’s important, and we know what’s wrong. That’s just not true for anyone else in class. They pretend they don’t know what’s going on. They act nice to the ones who step all over us just to stay on their good side, and to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to them. They act like their hands are clean, but they aren’t. They don’t get it, not at all. They’re no different from the ones who hurt us…” (p. 92)

Kawakami adds another viewpoint to the mix through the character of Momose, the ordinarily silent sidekick to the bullies’ ringleader, Ninomiya. In a chance meeting after the novel’s most harrowing instance of bullying, the narrator encounters Momose in a hospital waiting room, and a discussion between the pair ensues. In short, Momose presents the view that everything in life is random, nothing happens for a reason, and there is no such thing as right or wrong. Rather, people do what they feel like doing – moral codes or reasoning simply don’t come into it.

“…Sometimes you just want to do something. You get these, like, urges. Like you want to punch someone, or kick someone, whoever happens to be there. The only reason those things happened to you is that you were around when someone was looking for someone to punch. That’s all.” (p. 114)

“…It couldn’t be any simpler. People do what they can get away with.” […]

As the narrator tries to counteract Momose’s argument, the discussion touches on wider societal issues, highlighting once again various contraindications and inconsistencies in our behaviours. In particular, Kawakami raises questions about the dual standards in certain aspects of society – how in some instances, people are willing to do things to others (such as paying a young woman for sex) that they would not wish to happen to members of their family.

By expressing these different viewpoints through her characters, Kawakami does an excellent job of raising some of the issues related to abuse in quite an open, non-leading way, making the novel a fascinating choice for book groups. There’s certainly plenty to discuss.

Inevitably, for a story like this to feel truthful and authentic, there must be a certain degree of detail in the descriptions of the bullying itself – and it’s fair to say that Kawakami doesn’t hold back on this front, expressing the physical and mental aspects of the abuse in all its heartbreaking cruelty. An extended incident in a gymnasium – where the narrator is basically used as a human football – is particularly vicious.

Ensconced in a darkness whose color I could not define, and unable to allow myself to stand, I spun and writhed, searching for a defense. I had no clue what my body was doing. A tepid lava, black and leaden, rose over my ankles and climbed my legs. It probed my mouth and pumped into my lungs. In no time, it was melting me, working from the inside. I moved my legs, trying to escape, but lost my balance and fell flat. (p. 83)

Nevertheless, the story ends on a hopeful note, a welcome ray of optimism that may give the narrator a route out. A beautifully written novel about a tough, uncompromising subject that deserves to be widely read. Highly recommended, as long as you’re prepared for some uncomfortable scenes.  

Heaven is published by Picador; personal copy.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977, at the height of Pym’s well-documented renaissance, 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.

Quartet in Autumn is published by Picador; personal copy.

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!