Tag Archives: Read Women

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.

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

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

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

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

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

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

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

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

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

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

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

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

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

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

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

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

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

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

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

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

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

Passing by Nella Larsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

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

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

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

The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry

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

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

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

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

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

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

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

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

The Past by Tessa Hadley

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

Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell

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

Blitz Spirit by Becky Brown

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

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

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

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

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

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

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

My Phantoms is Gwendoline Riley’s sixth novel, a brilliantly observed, lacerating portrayal of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship that really gets under the skin. This book has attracted a raft of praise recently, largely prompted by Andy Miller’s enthusiastic support for it on Twitter. It’s a deeply uncomfortable read, veering between the desperately sad and the excruciatingly funny; and yet, like a car crash unfolding before our eyes, it’s hard to look away.

The novel is narrated by Bridget, who is difficult to get a handle on, other than what she tells us about her parents, Helen (aka ‘Hen’) and Lee Grant. Lee, who features heavily in the early chapters of the book, is one of those awful men who delight in badgering anyone who happens to fall within their orbit, physically pinching or goading his daughters on a regular basis. Bridget and her sister Michelle employ various strategies to pre-empt and deal with his mockery – some of them successful, others less so. He is a truly dreadful character, but sadly all too recognisable. (I had an uncle in a broadly similar vein, a loudmouth who taunted me for going to university when I really ought to have been working to earn a proper wage.) 

He [Lee] could never hear enough about the inadequacy of people who weren’t him. And as with his boasting about his past, these things didn’t need to have actually happened for him to enjoy them. The fact that he enjoyed them somehow brought them into being, with each innocuous piece of news you shared with him somehow always ending up as a perfect illustration of some risible misstep. Between your mouth and his ear the facts got bent backwards. So he was neither a prospector nor a connoisseur of human shortcomings, really, but rather a sort of processing plant which turned all information into the same brand of thrilling treat: that someone had had a knock-back or that someone had looked a fool. (p. 21–22)

Hen is another complex, deeply flawed character, albeit in a completely different way to Lee. Now in her late sixties, twice-divorced and living alone in Manchester, Hen is constantly trying to join social clubs and groups without ever developing any real friendships or meaningful relationships with others. Any degree of emotional investment on Hen’s part is sadly lacking. Moreover, there is a sense of Hen doing these things without deriving any enjoyment or pleasure from them, going through the motions of a social life because it’s what people should do.

I’m not sure what she [Hen] would have done with friends. Friends who, one imagines, might have wanted to ask her how she was now and then; who might even have expected her to return the interest. I suppose it had just lodged in her mind that one should have them; that it was ‘what people did’. (p. 59)

Having put herself out there, Hen feels that life owes her something in return, someone she can go to the cinema with, maybe even share a life with, like other people do. In theory, Hen’s second husband, Joe, ought to have been able to fulfil this role, but his coarse, boorish nature and lack of interest in going anywhere at all put the kibosh on that. After two years, their relationship ended acrimoniously, prompting Hen’s move to Manchester to distance herself from Joe’s circle.

As far as Bridget sees it, Hen is fixated with a feeling of exclusion from normal life, that she is not getting her just rewards for playing by the rules and putting the effort in when required. Despite throwing herself into Wine Circle, volunteering, various tours and excursions, Hen remains largely unfulfilled – something that Bridget finally tackles with Hen, suggesting therapy as a potential solution.

‘Are you listening, Mum?’ I said. ‘Can I tell you what I think? You need to think about what you want. And why what you get seems to leave you so empty. This comes up a lot with you, this note of disappointed expectation. I think you feel like a bargain has been broken when you say you do what you’re supposed to do. You understand that a deal was never struck, don’t you?’ (pp. 144-145) 

For much of the novel, Bridget keeps contact with Hen to a minimum, speaking to her occasionally on the phone, meeting up once or twice a year, ultimately culminating in a strained annual birthday meal that typically feels like a confrontation. Mother and daughter don’t engage in conversations as such. Instead, their exchanges rely on Bridget feeding Hen tried and trusted prompts, ‘combustible material’ that the latter is sure to respond to.

That scrabble for combustible material … My instinct was that it was the best thing to do; that it kept something else at bay. But I did not feel good about it; about the way, for instance, I used to ask this routinely overlooked and ignored woman about men. ‘Any potential new boyfriends?’ I’d say, brightly, every year, knowing that that would take care of half an hour or so as my mother talked up her latest crush and I reacted and speculated, and asked for details, and made a show of considering what they might indicate. (p. 82)

In return, Bridget tries to avoid revealing too much in the way of happiness or enjoyment in her own life, fearing that this will upset her mother or prompt the wrong kind of response. Occasionally though, the temptation to provoke cuts through the façade as Bridget wrestles with her demons.

As the novel unfolds, we learn more about the boundaries that Bridget has put in place to protect herself – things the reader begins to question in conjunction with Hen. Why, for example, has Hen never been ‘allowed’ to meet Bridget’s partner, John? (Bridget’s home is another example of something that appears to be off limits to Hen. She actually turns up unannounced at one point, and it’s an agonising scene to observe.) And why do we get the sense that Bridget might be withholding information from the reader, presenting us with a partial version of events in her ‘charade’ with Hen? These questions and more haunt the narrative as it moves towards its unflinching conclusion.

My Phantoms is a fascinating character study, one that captures the bitterness, pain and irritation of a toxic mother-daughter relationship with sharpness and precision. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, some of the best I’ve read this year, especially for illustrating character traits. While I’m not sure that I’ve fully understood Bridget as a person in her own right, the novel itself contains so many relatable scenes, especially for those of us with complex or troublesome families. It’s a truly uncomfortable read, for all the right reasons.   

My Phantoms is published by Granta. My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

The Past by Tessa Hadley

This is a wonderfully nuanced novel of family relationships and tensions, written with real skill and psychological insight into character. My first experience of Hadley’s fiction, but hopefully not my last…

The Past revolves around four adult siblings – Harriet, Alice, Fran and Roland – who come together for a three-week holiday at the Crane family home in Kington, deep in the English countryside. The siblings have joint ownership of the house, and one of their objectives during the trip is to decide the property’s fate. In short, the time may have finally come for them to sell before the upkeep on the house becomes too much.

Harriet (the eldest I think), is the most restrained of the Cranes. Despite her worthwhile job and interest in activism, Harriet feels that other, more emotional aspects of life have passed her by – a realisation that becomes increasingly apparent as the narrative progresses. Alice, a romantic, expressive individual at heart, has brought along her ex-boyfriend’s son, nineteen-year-old Kasim, seemingly on a bit of a whim.

Fran is the most grounded and well-organised of the siblings. A schoolteacher by profession, she is accompanied by her two children, the curious and watchful Ivy (aged nine) and the suggestible Arthur (aged six). Both of these characters are brilliantly realised, fleshed out in ways that remind me of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s and Penelope Fitzgerald’s fictional children. Fran’s husband, Jeff, has cried off at the last minute – clearly a source of frustration for Fran, who is left wondering whether her marriage is worth salvaging. Finally, Roland arrives with his third wife, Pilar, a highly-strung Argentinian lawyer, and Molly, his sixteen-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage.

Although very little happens in terms of plot, there is a discernible undercurrent of unease running through the narrative, which adds a degree of tension to this beautifully constructed book.

Not long after their arrival, Alice crosses a boundary with Roland, and her desire to reflect nostalgically on the past prompts an eruption from Pilar, who is still very much a newcomer to the group.

They were all affected by Pilar’s new presence among them – it had the effect of making their talk at the table seem false, as if they were performing their family life for her scrutiny. Alice and Fran were noisy, showing off; Fran exaggerated the drama of Jeff’s selfishness, his dereliction. Ivy spilled her drink, Arthur picked out all the cheese from his sandwich, then left the crusts; Kasim when he appeared wouldn’t sit down for lunch – he said he wasn’t hungry and then carved himself huge hunks of bread, ate them sitting on the grass at the bottom of the garden. Pilar didn’t contribute much to the conversation, the conversation, her remarks were rapid and forceful like her concentrated, liquid glances, as if she closed the discussion instead of opening it up. (p. 41)

Family, it seems, is not always a source of comfort, especially to someone like Pilar, who was raised during Argentina’s Dirty War and the era of the ‘disappeared’. Pilar begins to bond with Harriet during the holiday, viewing her as a potential confidante for her personal history and concerns. It’s another relationship where boundaries are ultimately overstepped, forcing a sequence of events that threaten to derail the holiday.

Elsewhere, the self-confident Kasim has designs on Molly, hatching a plan to seduce her in a nearby derelict cottage – a place that also holds a fascination for Ivy and Arthur, mostly as a secret hideaway where they can escape from the adults.

In a nod to Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris (which I’ve yet to read), Hadley divides her novel into three sections, The Present, The Past and The Present. It’s a structure that enables her to show how earlier events can seep into the here and now, albeit in subtle and surprising ways. The middle section focuses on the siblings’ mother, Jill, who in 1968 is back with her parents in Kington, wondering what to do with her life following a break-up with her philandering husband, Tom. A brief dalliance between Jill and a local man at the abandoned cottage hints at a potential secret in the Crane family, something that may or may not come out in The Present. It’s to Hadley’s credit that she never pushes this and other connections too far, favouring nuance and subtlety over thrills and shocking revelations – a degree of control she maintains throughout.

In summary, The Past is a very absorbing novel, full of subtle, understated observations. The inner lives of these characters are richly imagined, with Hadley moving seamlessly from one individual’s perspective to another throughout the novel. Everything is beautifully described, from the characters’ preoccupations and concerns, to the house and the surrounding countryside. The abandoned cottage and its mysterious secrets are particularly vividly realised, adding to the sense of unease that pulses through the narrative.

Highly recommended, especially for lovers of subtle, character-driven fiction – it reminded me a little of Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave, a novel I very much enjoyed last year.

The Past (first published in 2015) is published by Vintage; personal copy.

Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor  

As some of you may know, this week is all about the #1976Club, Karen and Simon’s celebration of books first published in 1976. For my first read, I’ve chosen Blaming, Elizabeth Taylor’s final novel, written when the author knew she was dying of cancer. There is a particular poignancy to it, a consequence perhaps of Taylor’s impending mortality. It is, nevertheless, an excellent novel, a characteristically perceptive story of blame, guilt and selfishness – more specifically, what we do when our selfishness catches up with us and how we sometimes try to shift the blame for our failings onto others.

The novel revolves around Amy Henderson, whom we first encounter in the middle of a holiday with her husband, Nick. The Hendersons are typical Taylor protagonists, drawn from the middle-class world that she knew so intimately. Well into middle age, the couple have a comfortable lifestyle, a married son, James, and two granddaughters, Dora and Isobel.

To aid his recovery from an operation, Nick has embarked on a Mediterranean cruise with Amy – a trip that is proving rather trying for various reasons. While Nick is determined to make the most of various sightseeing opportunities, Amy would much rather stay on the ship, passing the time by reading and relaxing. As a result, there is an unmistakable note of tension in the air as Amy tries to control her frustration with Nick and a packed timetable of outings to various Turkish mosques.

And so it had been in some ways a trying holiday – she fussing over him with the patience of a saint, but inwardly quick to be bored, or irritated by such prolonged sight-seeing; and he determined to miss nothing, as if it were his last chance. (p. 10)

Things take a turn for the worse when Nick passes away in his sleep while onboard the ship, leaving Amy in shock and with no family nearby for support. The one person to hand is Martha, a young American novelist who has already attached herself to the Hendersons as the only other English-speaking passengers on board. (In truth, Amy has already spent a little time with Martha, before Nick’s death, albeit out of politeness rather than any desire to be friends.)

Martha gallantly steps in, abandoning her plans for the remainder of the cruise to accompany Amy back to London, where both women happen to live. On their arrival in London, Martha delivers Amy into the hands of James, who together with a family friend, the gentle widower, Gareth Lloyd, will take care of Amy and the funeral arrangements for Nick.

Back in London, Amy is reluctant to maintain any kind of friendship with Martha, despite the latter’s kindness in supporting her on the journey home. James, in particular, sees the selfishness in his mother’s behaviour, irrespective of her grief.

[James:] “I will write to thank her [Martha]. It was a great act of friendship to cut short her holiday like that – and all the extra expense.”

“I paid that, and she really only missed Ephesus,” Amy said ungraciously. “But, oh yes, she was very kind.”

Mourning seemed to give the go-ahead to every sort of rudeness and selfishness, he thought, fearing more of the same thing to come. (p. 36)

At first, Amy neglects to return Martha’s calls, pretending she has mislaid the number, fully aware of her shameful behaviour in the face of this woman’s kindness. Finally, however, Martha writes to Amy, virtually inviting herself to come and visit – a trip that eventually takes place. Once inside Amy’s house, Martha is careful to observe everything, mentally noting specific phrases that Amy uses in conversation, together with all the attendant details of English life. We quickly get the sense that Martha is using Amy to a certain extent, possibly gathering information that might prove useful for a novel.

As the story plays out, an unlikely friendship develops between the two women, although we’re never quite sure of either character’s true feelings towards the other. There comes a point when the tables are turned, when Martha finds herself in need of help from Amy, offering the latter an opportunity to return the favour. Amy, to her shame, puts her own feelings first at this point, virtually abandoning Martha in her hour of need. It’s a failing that will come to haunt Amy in the months that follow, compounding the sense of guilt she feels while also trying to absolve herself of blame.

When viewed overall, Blaming is rather poignant in tone. Nevertheless, there are some wonderfully amusing moments for readers to enjoy, especially those involving Amy’s male housekeeper, the brilliantly named Ernie Pounce. A bit of an old woman at heart, Ernie persists in measuring himself against Gareth Lloyd’s housekeeper, who is clearly not averse to cutting corners in the kitchen, much to Ernie’s horror. In this scene, Amy and her son’s family are just about to be served their Christmas dinner, which Ernie has lovingly prepared.  

It was the meal of the year at which Ernie was always present as part of the family, wearing the black corduroy jazz-club jacket and a pink bow tie. Having brought in the turkey and set it before James, he whipped off a fancy apron and stood by to pass plates and vegetables. The sausages were in one long string and draped about the bird like a coronet. James, whose father had always done the carving, was annoyed by all this cluttering up of his job. He tried to lift the sausages away, but with a knife blade-side up, so that they lay scattered all over the carpet. Dora laughed quietly, with her eyes shut, her lips pressed together. Isobel was furious. (pp. 120-121)

James’ daughters, Dora and Isobel, are terrific value too, perfectly capturing the kinds of behaviours one might observe from a mature, intelligent seven-year-old (Dora) and her insufferable younger sister (Isobel). Children often ask the funniest or most awkward questions in challenging situations, and Taylor captures this brilliantly when the girls are told that their grandfather, Nick, has died. All too soon, the children are musing on who (or what) has the right to go to heaven. After all, people must go somewhere when they die, otherwise we’d run out of room for everyone on earth!

Ultimately though, this is Amy’s story, a thoughtful exploration of selfishness, blame and guilt. Once again, Taylor shows her innate ability to catch her characters off guard, observing them in their most private of moments, laying bare their inherent flaws and failings for the reader to see.

Mycopy of Blaming was published by Chatto & Windus, but it’s currently in print with Virago Press.

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter-Downes

A few years ago, I read and loved One Fine Day (1947), a beautifully-written novel about class, social change and the need to find new ways to live in the years following WW2. The novel was by Mollie Panter-Downes, an English writer who also acted as The New Yorker’s England correspondent/columnist for the duration of the war. Much of her early work has been out of print for several years; but in March, just as the lockdown was kicking in, The British Library reissued one of the early novels, My Husband Simon (1931), as part of their new Women Writers series. It’s an excellent book, one that brilliantly captures the tension arising from a writer’s desire to pursue her craft during the early years of marriage. 

The novel’s narrator is Nevis Falconer, a promising young author with a successful debut novel to her name. One weekend, while visiting friends in Burnham Beeches, Nevis meets Simon Quinn, an attractive, forceful young man who works in the city. Their attraction to one another is powerful, immediate and largely emotional. Right from the very start, Nevis knows that this will be more than just a casual meeting at a party. Simon has the potential to disrupt her life, forcing her to compromise on the one she has mapped out for herself – that of a writer with a promising career to look forward to. Nevertheless, the passion she feels for him proves hard to resist…

I wanted to get away from this cool stranger who was threatening the neat little plan of my life. That was quite clear from the beginning. I knew that if I married Simon I should have to fight hard for my work and my individuality. His personality was so strong that it might swamp me. Already I knew that he was obstinate and ruthless; that he liked very few of the things that I liked, and was ignorant as a savage about everything that I had been taught to respect. The thought of our life together appalled and fascinated me. (p. 11)

The couple’s courtship is equally swift and passionate. Having stopped off at a pub on the drive back to London, Simon and Nevis spend the night together, vowing to get married in spite of their obvious differences.

Fast-forward three years, and we find Nevis – a brittle twenty-four-year-old by this point – rather frustrated by the constraints of marriage. In truth, Simon detests pretty much everything that Nevis enjoys. He shows no interest in books, or in Nevis’s career as a writer for that matter, preferring instead to spend his time with business contacts and vacuous friends – people whom Nevis cuttingly refers to as ‘Good Chaps’. While Simon adores the countryside, Nevis craves the buzz of life in the city, causing the couple to compromise on their desired living arrangements.

Simon’s family is another source of antagonism for Nevis. In short, she views the Quinns as being somewhat beneath her, both socially and intellectually, their name representing an entire class of society in Nevis’s mind.

London was full of Quinns, eating saddle of mutton at handsome mahogany tables; going up the steps of good clubs and stepping out of quiet, expensive cars; thinking that “art” meant the Royal Academy, and “beauty” was the sort of wishy-washy, rubber-stamp, damageable prettiness that you see on the lid of a chocolate-box. (p. 29)

Simon’s mother-in-law would like nothing more than for Nevis to put aside any silly notions of writing in favour of having a baby – just like her daughter-in-law, Gwen, the gentle, domesticated wife of Simon’s brother, Adrian. Nevis, however, would rather die than live the life of Gwen with its quiet deference and lack of mental stimulation. 

As a consequence, Nevis and Simon’s marriage is a tempestuous one, with the couple oscillating between furious quarrels and passionate reconciliations on a daily basis.

It occurred to me that when we had first met we had circled round each other warily like prize-fighters looking for a weakness in the other’s guard. From the beginning there had been a faint sense of antagonism between us; the antagonism of two intensely egotistical people, neither of whom enjoyed the sensation of giving in. We both had black, unforgiving tempers. When we were not being wildly, ecstatically happy we were quarrelling; there were no tame half-measures with us. (p. 31)

Panter-Downes brilliantly captures the impassioned nature of this young couple’s relationship in a way that feels reminiscent of early Evelyn Waugh. I couldn’t help but be reminded of novels like Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust as I was reading certain passages of the book.  

As the narrative unfolds, we gain an insight into the frustration Nevis feels at not being able to concentrate sufficiently on her craft. Writing is much more than an occupation for Nevis; in many respects, it is a way of life, one that has been clipped by her marriage to Simon. By now, she has published a second novel, but neither she nor her American publishers feel entirely happy with it. While technically speaking, it is a good book, the promise of her spirited debut is somewhat lacking. Moreover, when acquaintances ask how her next one is going, Nevis responds in characteristically sardonic style, refusing to suffer fools gladly for the sake of social graces.

“When are you going to give us another book, Mrs Quinn?”

I thought drearily, “Oh, hell!” If one happens to be a professional writer, there are always people who make a point of enquiring about one’s new book as though it were a child just recovering from scarlet fever. “How is the new book going?” Anxiety, polite interests, two pounds of the best black grapes. “Very nicely, thank you. We expect it to live now.” “Oh, I’m so glad! That’s splendid!” And, the unpleasant duty over, away the enquirer trips, so relieved, so thankful that the dear little sufferer is out of danger and soon going to appear in a nice new seven-and-sixpenny jacket. (pp. 175–176)

All this is thrown into sharp relief by the arrival of Nevis’s American publisher, Marcus Chard. At forty or thereabouts, Marcus is much older than Nevis, more experienced in publishing circles and the like. He sees that marriage is stifling Nevis’s creativity, smothering the promise shown in her first novel, a situation he urges her to address. As a consequence, Nevis comes to realise that she may have to choose between her marriage and her career, two competing passions that have proved challenging for her to reconcile. There is a sense too that Marcus’s interest in Nevis goes beyond the purely professional; he is attracted to her sharp mind and cutting wit, qualities that prove very stimulating to this American visitor.  

By penning My Husband Simon, Panter-Downes has given us a perceptive exploration of the challenges facing women writers in balancing their desire for creativity against the constraints of marriage. It is also a fascinating examination of the subtle differences in class that dictated the rules of society in the 1920s. The depictions of London life are glorious too.

I have to admit to being a little nervous of reading this one, fearing that it might not be up to the admittedly very high standards of MPD’s later work. However, I needn’t have worried at all. This is a terrific book, one that reminds me a little of Elizabeth Taylor’s debut novel, At Mrs Lippincote’s, which I wrote about here.

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

First published in 1974, The Bottle Factory Outing was Beryl Bainbridge’s fifth novel. It’s only the third of her books that I’ve read (my first was An Awfully Big Adventure, a darkly comic gem); but on the evidence of this, I should probably aim to read some more.

Ostensibly, The Bottle Factory Outing focuses on two mismatched young women, Brenda and Freda, who share a shabby bedsit while also working together at a local wine bottling factory. While Brenda is mousey and pessimistic, Freda is loud and outgoing, forever dreaming about the life she would like to be living – preferably that of a successful actress surrounded by friends and family.

In the opening paragraphs, Brenda and Freda are watching the early stages of a funeral with the removal of a coffin from another flat in their building. As they speculate on the deceased – an old lady who lived with her cat – the differences between the two women become increasingly apparent.

‘You cry easily,’ said Brenda, when they were dressing to go to the factory.

‘I like funerals. All those flowers – a full life coming to a close…’

‘She didn’t look as if she’d had a full life,’ said Brenda. ‘She only had the cat. There weren’t any mourners – no sons or anything.’

‘Take a lesson from it then. It could happen to you. When I go I shall have my family about me – daughters – sons – my husband, grey and distinguished, dabbing a handkerchief to his lips…’

‘Men always go first,’ said Brenda. ‘Women live longer.’

‘My dear, you ought to participate more. You are too cut off from life.’ (p. 2)

Twenty-six-year-old Freda is a force of nature, a tall curvy blonde who dresses flamboyantly, her cobalt blue eyeshadow and purple pantsuit adding considerably to her striking appearance. Brenda, on the other hand, cuts a dowdy figure in her dark stockings and shabby, over-sized coat. At thirty-two, Brenda already seems old before her time. Having fled an abusive relationship with her selfish husband, Brenda now wishes to hide from the world, far away from Stanley and his deranged mother.

The differences between the two girls are also noticeable at the factory – an establishment owned by Mr Paganotti, an enterprising Italian businessman who has built up the business from scratch. While at work, Freda spends much of her time chasing after Vittorio, the handsome trainee manager and nephew of Mr Paganotti. In truth, however, Vittorio shows only limited interest in Freda in spite of her persistent efforts to attract his attention. Nevertheless, there is nothing that Freda would like more than a romantic dinner for two with Vittorio, a situation she tries to engineer with mixed results.

He was a man of sensibilities and everything was against her – his background, his nationality, the particular regard he had for women or a category of womanhood to which she did not belong. By the strength of her sloping shoulders, the broad curve of her throat, the dimpled vastness of her columnar thighs, she would manoeuvre him into her arms. I will be one of those women, she thought, painted naked on ceilings, lolling amidst rose-coloured clouds. She straightened and stared at a chair. She imagined how she might mesmerise him with her wide blue eyes. Wearing a see-through dressing-gown chosen from a Littlewoods catalogue, she would open the door to him. (p. 40)

Brenda too faces her own particular challenges at work; in this instance, the difficulties involves Mr Rossi, a manager at the firm, who persists in trying to grope Brenda in the seclusion of the cellar. Far from calling out Mr Rossi for sexual harassment, Brenda is too timid to say anything, preferring instead to suffer in near silence. From a young age, Brenda was brought up to be deferential – drilled into saying ‘yes’ when what she really wanted to say was ‘no’ (and vice versa).  Now in her thirties, Brenda continues to remain passive while being taken advantage of by others, afraid to speak up for fear of causing a problem.

As you’ll have guessed from the novel’s title, the centrepiece of the story revolves around a staff outing, an event that Freda has arranged much to Brenda’s horror. (In truth, Brenda would much rather stay at home, content to remain invisible while others go off to enjoy themselves.) All the other employees are looking forward to the event, especially as Mr Paganotti – notable by his absence – has donated four barrels of wine to be enjoyed during the trip.

On the morning of the outing, the van booked for the trip fails to show up, much to Freda’s disappointment. Nevertheless, Rossi cooks up a new plan for the day (largely with the aim of seducing Brenda) by offering his own car together with that of a colleague as alternative transport. It’s at this point in the story that events begin to turn increasingly surreal, culminating in a demented drive through the wilds of Windsor Safari Park as the afternoon unravels.

I don’t want to give away too many details about the trip, save to say that it feels as if the reader is watching a slow-motion car crash, powerless to look away as the horror unfolds. The tone is darkly comic and farcical, a little like a cross between Willy Russell’s play Our Day Out and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party – maybe with a touch of Nuts in May thrown in for good measure. The off-the-wall touches are beautifully done, heightened by a sharp eye for detail and freakish imagery.

The safari bus when it came was painted with black stripes like a zebra. It looked as if the whole pride of lions had hurled themselves at the rusty bonnet and ill-fitting windows and torn the tyres to ribbons. The driver was dressed in a camouflage jacket of mottled green and a hat to match, one side caught up at the side as if he were a Canadian Mountie. When he opened the double doors at the back of the van, Brenda saw he was wearing plastic sandals, bright orange and practically luminous, and striped socks. (p. 148)

The female characters are also particularly well observed, vividly brought to life by Bainbridge’s skills as a writer. At the time of publication, the book was praised in a review by William Trevor who described it ‘as though Muriel Spark had been prevailed upon to write an episode of The Liver Birds,’. (Warning: this excellent piece on Bainbrdge does contain spoilers.) It’s a great description as the novel has something of both the sharpness of Carla Lane’s writing and the savagery of Spark’s worldview. The observations on life on a low wage, social class, worker’s rights, and the harassment of women in the workplace are also keenly felt.

As the novel hurtles towards its startling denouement, the tone begins to change, shifting from black humour to deep pathos. It’s a testament to Bainbridge’s skills as a writer that this transition works so well, prompting the reader to feel some degree of sympathy for each of the characters concerned, in spite of their failings.

In essence, this is an excellent, well-crafted tragi-comedy, shot through with Bainbridge’s acute insight into human nature. It is the juxtaposition between the ordinary and the absurd that makes this such an unsettling yet compelling read.

For other perspectives on this novel, here are links to reviews by Max and Cathy. Thanks, both, for encouraging me to read this.

The Bottle Factory Outing is published by Abacus Books; personal copy.

A Personal Anthology – a selection of my favourite short stories

Something a little different from me today. Towards the end of last year, the writer and critic Jonathan Gibbs very kindly invited me to contribute to his ongoing literary project, A Personal Anthology. In essence, each of Jonathan’s guest editors is asked to curate a selection of twelve short stories they wish to share with other readers. The stories can be personal favourites or linked to a particular theme; it’s down to each curator to decide. The idea is to bring interesting stories and writers to a broader audience, and to discover which authors have most influenced some of today’s writers and critics.

Every Friday a new personal anthology is sent out to subscribers as a TinyLetter, and today it’s my turn in the guest editor’s chair! To view my selection, just click on the link here:

A Personal Anthology by JacquiWine.

If you like what you see, please do consider subscribing to the anthologies – you can sign up to receive the weekly TinyLetters here. All the short story selections are archived and available to view at this website: A Personal Anthology. Should you wish, you can view the various choices by the guest curators or the featured writers.

So that’s it from me. I hope you find something of interest in my selection of stories and the broader project in general. Enjoy!