Tag Archives: #ReadIndies

Seven Steeples by Sara Baume

Like Yiyun Li, whose beguiling novel The Book of Goose I wrote about in January, Sara Baume has been on my radar for a few years, ever since the publication of her 2015 debut Spill Simmer Falter Wither to very positive reviews. Baume was born in Lancashire but grew up in County Cork – and it’s Ireland which forms the setting for her latest novel, Seven Steeples, recently longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, an award dedicated to celebrating the creative talent of young writers worldwide. It’s a quiet, contemplative book – a beautifully-crafted story of withdrawal from conventional society for the peace of a minimalist existence. Alongside this central theme, the novel has much to say about the natural erosion that occurs over time, from the decay of buildings and possessions to the dwindling of human contact and relationships.

There is very little conventional action or plot here (too little for some readers, I suspect). Instead, Seven Steeples revolves around Sigh (Simon) and Bell (Isobel), ‘two solitary misanthropes’ who decide to dissociate themselves from their former lives, leaving their unfulfilling jobs and tenuous family connections to live together in a remote rented house by the Irish coast. The building – which has existed for seven decades, one of many significant ‘sevens’ in the book – sits in the shadow of a low mountain, an ever-watchful presence that looms large in Baume’s story.

Accompanied by their dogs, Voss, a ‘spry and devious’ terrier, and Pip, ‘a hulking, dull-witted’ lurcher, Sigh and Bell aim to share a simple existence, getting by on a combination of welfare payments and their meagre savings, far away from the bustle of the city. There is no romantic or sexual attraction here, simply a shared desire for a different way of life. Both have made the conscious decision to lose touch with their families and create a new one of their own, complete with Voss and Pip.

…they had each in their separate large families been persistently, though not unkindly, overlooked, and this had planted in Bell and in Sigh the amorphous idea that the only appropriate trajectory of a life was to leave as little trace as possible and incrementally disappear. (p. 18)

The novel follows Sigh, Bell and their dogs over seven years, capturing their regular practices and routines. Both individuals are creatures of habit, walking the same route every evening, paying close attention to any slight changes from the previous day. There is a simplicity and quiet beauty to their rituals, the daily walks with and without the dogs, weekly trips to the shops, and occasional interactions with a nearby farmer whose presence they find reassuring without feeling overly intrusive.

Over the seven years, the novel also captures the changing seasons, beginning in January in year one and moving through to December by year seven. There is some exquisite, poetic writing about the natural world here – often quite unusual in style, such as this description of a sycamore tree bursting into life in the midst of June.

The mess of twisted, whiskered limbs exploded against the horizon. Its profile went from a line drawing to a watercolour, from spiked and tapping to fluffed and murmuring. (p. 108)

Alongside the turning of the seasons, the weather often affects the couple’s days, guiding their rhythms to a certain extent. As I mentioned above, the writing is beautiful – full of vivid imagery, frequently expressed in a language of its own. 

Weather systems arrived from the Atlantic and raced across their valley of sky. There was a vacillating rainbow, a paroxysm of wind, a spasmodic shower of hail. And then, the next day, there was an unbroken traffic jam of low-slung cloud backed up between the sea and the mountain, ironing the panorama away, moulting fine rain. (p. 43)

As the months and years slip by, Bell and Sigh gradually let the house fester and crumble around them. Crockery and glasses break, cutlery and utensils are lost, various appliances wear out or break down, the building itself degrades further. There is a palpable sense of erosion here, a steady decline that feels inevitable as it progresses. Yet, in pursuit of their isolated existence, with an unwillingness to ask for help or favours for fear of owing something in return, Bell and Sigh simply allow the house and its contents to degrade, continuing their natural trajectories of decay.

They had imagined, in the beginning, that if everything they owned was old and shoddy, even ugly, certainly nearing the end of its useful life, then they would better be able to bear its loss. (p. 163)

Occasionally, they debate whether to replace something that has broken down or been lost, typically without reaching an agreement – consequently, nothing gets done. Over the years, the detritus gradually piles up, a heady mix of particles of dust, hair, sand, dirt, pine needles, bodily fluids, flies, spiders, moths, mouse droppings and general clutter. There are cursory attempts to tidy up now and again, but these are superficial at best.

There was a bottomless supply of hair that flowed from the dogs, and dust from the ash that flowed from the fire, and they had combined – the dog hair and ash dust – into a new kind of matter, sticky, quilted. (p. 213)

From time to time, they discuss the remnants of family they have left behind, back in their former solitary lives, wondering aloud whether to contact them again, even if it means confronting the embarrassment of having allowed these relationships to slide. Nevertheless, the dilemma is inevitably settled by a lack of action, Bell and Sigh’s default mode when faced with situations where decisions are required.

They are scathing about the owners of holiday cottages, people who possess hundreds of things they rarely use, often with duplicates in their second homes. There are subtle references to environmental changes too, from the wildness of the weather to the increasing pressures of farming, with Baume eschewing idyllic imagery for the realities of rural life.

While the house is virtually a character in its own right, replete with a multitude of sounds, sights and smells, Bell and Sigh remain somewhat oblique and elusive – a little hard to pin down. At first, they seem quite different from one another, each with their own distinctive characteristics and habits; Bell, for instance, is the quicker of the two to anger, while Sigh has a seemingly endless ‘capacity for regret’. Over time, however, their personalities become increasingly similar, to the point where they even begin to resemble one another in physical appearance and dress as their clothes are pooled together.  

Year after year, the mountain remains unclimbed, despite the pair’s initial intentions to tackle it one day. Finally, in their eighth year, they decide to climb it, revealing a poignant reflection that illuminates the rest of the book. Like Jessica Au’s meditative novella Cold Enough for Snow, Seven Steeples closes with the mention of something significant, a revelation of sorts that may prompt readers to question the true nature of the situation they see before them. It’s a clever, melancholy ending, likely to send some readers back to the novel’s early chapters, eager to revisit specific aspects of the text.

In summary, Seven Steeples is a subtle, elegantly structured story of withdrawal from conventional society, the rejection of consumerism and wider societal networks in favour of a minimalist life.  Alongside this central theme, the novel depicts the natural erosion that occurs over time, from the decay of buildings and possessions to the dwindling of human contact and relationships. In truth, it’s a book I liked and admired rather than loved, but there’s no denying the beauty of Baume’s prose, especially when portraying the natural world. The book slips effortlessly between prose and a form of poetry, with the layout of words on the page reflecting something of the novel’s rhythm and recurring themes. A very accomplished book that will lend itself to different interpretations, especially towards the end.

Seven Steeples is published by Tramp Press; personal copy

Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan

The publishing arm of Daunt Books has been on a winning streak recently, with a run of top-flight reissues/releases from critically-acclaimed writers such as Natalia Ginzburg, Nona Fernández, Celia Dale and Elisa Shua Dusapin. Now I can add Kathryn Scanlan to that list, courtesy of her remarkably powerful book, Kick the Latch, recently published in this beautifully-produced edition.

Described as a work of fiction, Kick the Latch is based on a series of interviews Scanlan conducted with an American horse trainer named Sonia between 2018 and 2021. As such, the novella thrums with a strong sense of authenticity, alive with the sights and sounds of the racetrack – a male-dominated world where resilience and determination are necessary for survival. Through a series of short vignettes (mostly around a page in length), Scanlan skilfully builds up a composite picture of Sonia’s life from childhood to middle age – spare in terms of prose style but rich in visual imagery.

Sonia is raised in a poor neighbourhood in Iowa’s Dixon City, where money is tight and luxuries are few and far between. From an early age, she develops an interest in horses, learning to ride on Rowdy, a small mustang she finds at a local stable.

If I was in a good mood, Rowdy might test me. If I was in a hurry, he wouldn’t let me catch him. He taught me trust. He taught me not to trust too much. I learned to be a little leery. (p. 22)

The novella follows Sonia as she learns the ropes of horse training, her teenage summers spent working as a trainer in Denton in return for room and board. By eighteen, she’s working the racetracks full time, travelling the circuit and sleeping wherever she can – typically in a trackside stall, a truck or a cheap motel.

It’s a gruelling life, especially at the bottom-tier racetracks – a rootless existence, travelling from one place to another, working sixteen-hour days for little financial gain. Nevertheless, Sonia finds it rewarding in many other ways. She clearly has a genuine affinity for the horses, caring as best she can for their temperaments and needs. The best trainers work with their horses, not against them, and Sonia really seems to understand this, flexing her approach to what the horse wants to do. Moreover, Scanlan is particularly strong at conveying the routines and rituals of horse training, the day-to-day tasks that Sonia carries out with care and dedication. In effect, she is the horses’ caregiver, tuning in to their emotions alongside their physical needs.

You have your bandages laundered, rolled up, ready. You have your sheet cotton and your hoof packing. You groom them and put on leg liniments, run bandages. You might freeze their legs with ice or put them in a turbulator with epsom salts. They love to stand with the warm whirlpool water up past their knees. If their shoulders are stiff, you rub salve on and wrap them in plastic and pin a wool blanket around their neck. Pretty soon the sweat start dripping. It loosens them up, makes them feel good. (p. 70–71)

One of the things Scanlan does so brilliantly here is to preserve Sonia’s distinctive tone of voice, recounting the trainer’s experiences in a direct, matter-of-fact way. And yet there is genuine humanity and compassion here too, qualities that shine through in the dedication Sonia applies to her work. In some respects, Sonia’s narrative voice reminds me a little of Tove Ditlevsen’s, as conveyed in the equally remarkable Copenhagen Trilogy – a straightforward, unadorned delivery that feels all the more potent as a result. Like Ditlevsen, Sonia has her own traumatic experiences to deal with. At seventeen, she is raped at gunpoint by a man who breaks into her trailer, a jockey she knows from her work at the tracks. And yet, as with other ordeals and hardships, Sonia deals with this incident stoically, taking measures to protect herself as best she can.

The guy sobered up, I knew him, I seen him every day, I knew exactly who it was—it was bad, but anyway, I survived. I cut my hair real short after that. (p. 42)

Working the racetracks becomes all-consuming for Sonia; it’s not just a job but a way of life, leaving little room for friends, family and relationships outside the racetrack community. Nevertheless, despite professional rivalries and competitiveness between trainers (and between jockeys), the racetrackers are a kind of family, helping and supporting their fellow members in times of need. For instance, when Sonia is severely injured by a horse (accidents are not uncommon in the world!), a fellow trainer and his wife step in, offering her a place to recuperate despite their previous disagreements.

For years and years you’re around nobody but racetrack people. You don’t have time for family. Your romantic relationships are short-lived because a rolling stone catches no moss. It’s hard, it’s grueling, it’s up and down. I had a lot of injuries. I could’ve been paralyzed real easy. The doctors stressed that to me—it wouldn’t take much. (p. 137)

Unsurprisingly, there are flashes of brutality lurking amidst the buzz of this strangely compelling world. Sonia doesn’t hold back on describing the disreputable tactics some (less ethical) trainers employ to pump up their horses immediately before a race. (If you’re sensitive to descriptions of animal cruelty, this might not be a book for you.) Nevertheless, Sonia doesn’t condone these dubious practices herself; rather, she is simply relaying the reality of the world around her, highlighting the cruelty for what it clearly is.

It feels as if Scanlan has compressed a whole life within the pages of this slim book – the sense of economy and precision is remarkable, calling to mind Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams, which captures the life of a railroad construction worker in the early 20th century. There is also something of Chloé Zhao’s films here, particularly The Rider, both in subject matter and in style. Yet, irrespective of these comparisons, Scanlan has crafted something extraordinary with this book – the composite portrait of a woman’s life, illuminated with grace, stoicism, openness and humanity. I found it utterly compelling – a window into a world I knew nothing about.

Kick the Latch is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. This is my second review for Karen and Lizzie’s #ReadIndies event, more details here.

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Jessica Au is a new writer to me – clearly an exciting talent on the strength of this book alone. Her beautiful, meditative novella, Cold Enough for Snow, won the inaugural Novel Prize, which seeks to reward novels written in the English language that ‘explore and expand the possibilities of the form, and are innovative and imaginative in style’. This biennial prize has been set up by three independent publishers working in collaboration: Fitzcarraldo Editions, who publish Au’s book in the UK and Ireland, Giramondo (covering Australasia), and New Directions (for North America).

At first sight, the story being conveyed in Cold Enough for Snow seems relatively straightforward – a mother and her adult daughter reconnect to spend some time together in Japan. Nevertheless, the narrative is wonderfully slippery – cool and clear on the surface, yet harbouring fascinating hidden depths, a combination that gives the book a spectral, enigmatic quality, cutting deep into the soul.

Mother and daughter – both unnamed – travel from separate locations to meet in Tokyo, where the daughter has made all the arrangements for the visit. Interestingly, the novel is narrated by the daughter, so we never hear from the mother directly. Instead, everything we are shown is filtered through the daughter’s perspective, which gives the narrative a particular slant that becomes increasingly apparent as the story unfolds.

Right from the start, there is a strong sense of separateness and isolation surrounding these figures. The trip seems important to the daughter (less so to the mother), although we are never explicitly told why. The two have clearly drifted apart over the years – the daughter now living in Australia with her partner, Laurie, a sculptor, the mother having emigrated from her childhood home in Hong Kong to Australia many years before. Moreover, the mother has recently moved house in Australia to a location close to her other daughter (the narrator’s married sister) and her family. Partly for this reason, there is an air of distance between the narrator and her mother as they walk through the Tokyo streets, hinting perhaps at the gaps that have evolved over time.

All the while, my mother stayed close to me, as if she felt that the flow of the crowd was a current, and that if we were separated, we would not be able to make our way back to each other, but continue to drift further and further apart. (p. 9)

In Tokyo, the pair walk along the city’s canal paths, visit various museums that the daughter has carefully chosen, and share simple meals in bars and restaurants. However, while the daughter always appears present and engaged, fervently hoping her mother is enjoying these experiences, the latter often seems quiet or absent from the moments in question.

Threaded through the trip are various memories from the past, the narrative moving back and forth in time – a technique that adds to the dreamlike quality of the novel as it crosses the boundaries of time, blurring the margins between past and present. We learn of the narrator’s love of literature, especially Greek myths, a passion fuelled by an influential teacher the woman met during her youth. Further memories emerge of the mother’s family in Hong Kong, the close relatives that have long since passed away. A particularly resonant passage explores the sister’s memories of a trip to Hong Kong at the age of six or seven, sparked by the death of the girls’ maternal grandfather. The sense of disorientation experienced by the narrator’s sister is vividly conveyed, a time of intense strangeness and confusion in an unfamiliar world.

Au excels in conveying the slippery nature of memory, how our perceptions of events can evolve over time – sometimes fading to a feeling or impression, other times morphing into something else entirely, altered perhaps by our own wishes and desires.

But, witnessing her daughter, it was like remembering the details of a dream she once had, that perhaps, at some point in her life, there had been things worth screaming and crying over, some deeper truth, or even horror, that everyone around you perpetually denied, such that it only made you angrier and angrier. Yet now, my sister could not harness that feeling, only the memory of it, or not even that, but something even more remote. (p. 23)

Au’s prose style is gorgeous – meditative, hypnotic and perfectly poised, accentuating the beauty of the characters’ surroundings in Japan. There is some beautiful descriptive writing here, ranging from the artworks the mother and daughter see during their gallery visits to the environment of the natural world.

Through the sheets of rain, the landscape looked almost like a screen painting that we had seen in one of the old houses. It had been made up of several panels, and yet the artist had used the brush only minimally, making a few careful lines on the paper. Some were strong and definite, while others bled and faded, giving the impression of vapour. And yet, when you looked, you saw something: mountains, dissolution, form and colour running forever downwards. (p. 84)

As the novella unfolds, it becomes increasingly enigmatic, prompting the reader to question the true nature of the situation they see before them. Much of the novel’s power stems from points left unsaid, a technique that gives the narrative a wonderful sense of space, enabling the reader to bring their own interpretation to the story. (In her review, Janakay likened elements of the book to A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, a very apt comparison.)

There are several additional elements that I would love to discuss here, but to say any more might spoil the experience for other readers. So instead, I’ll finish with a final quote, one that seems to capture something of the novel’s allusive nature. This is a slim, evocative novella exploring profoundly moving themes: the elusive nature of memories; the distance between the generations; and our desires to relive or reshape the past, to mould it into something slightly different, drawing perhaps on our regrets and wishes.

…and then I said that in many of the old paintings, one could discover what was called a pentimento, an earlier layer of something that the artist has chosen to paint over. Sometimes, these were as small as an object, or a colour that had been changed, but other times they could be as significant as a whole figure, an animal, or a piece of furniture. I said that in this way too, writing was just like painting. It was only in this way that one could go back and change the past, to make things not as they were, but as we wished they had been, or rather as we saw it. (pp. 92–93)

One final thought. There are some really interesting resonances here with Celine Sciamma’s latest film, Petite Maman, which explores loneliness, isolation and loss through a distanced mother-daughter relationship, albeit a somewhat different one. These two pieces of art – Au’s novel and Sciamma’s movie – share an elegant simplicity and depth of feeling. They make a fascinating, thought-provoking pair, soulmates perhaps in terms of style and themes.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell  

While much has been written about the impact of WW2 on mainland Britain (London in particular), the fate of Northern Ireland has probably not received the same level of attention. It’s a topic that Lucy Caldwell explores vividly and movingly in her exquisite new novel, These Days, which takes as its focal point a series of attacks – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fireside Raids – that took place in Belfast from April to May 1941. Nine hundred people died and more than a thousand were injured in the Easter Raid alone, making it the biggest loss of life in any single night-raid outside of the London Blitz.

Using these devastating events as a springboard, Caldwell has created a really beautiful novel here – an engrossing, evocative portrayal of the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of the Bells, a fictional middle-class family.

Philip Bell, a Belfast-based GP, and his wife, Florence, have been fairly happily married for twenty-two years. They have three children, all living at home: twenty-one-year-old Audrey, flighty, impulsive and bookish; eighteen-year-old Emma, a kind, diligent but somewhat awkward girl who volunteers at the local First Aid unit; and thirteen-year-old Paul, a lively boy who enjoys adventures and making dens. By following these individuals through April and May ‘41, we see the impact of the war on a personal level — not just for the Bell family but for the broader Belfast community too.

Audrey, a junior clerk at the Belfast tax office, has just become engaged to Richard, a respectable but somewhat stiff doctor who views marriage as the logical next step in their relationship. However, through her friendship with Doreen Bates, a bright independently-minded colleague from London, Audrey begins to doubt whether marriage to Richard will be the right option.

At twenty-one, she is still eager to experience life and the possibilities it has to offer – and while Richard represents safety and security, Audrey wonders whether she truly loves him enough to commit.

Meanwhile, at the local First Aid post, Emma is experiencing the first flushes of love, having fallen for Sylvia, a relaxed, self-assured young woman who also works at the station. This flourishing relationship opens up a new world of possibilities for Emma, giving her a sense of ease and confidence that she has struggled to achieve in the past.

Sylvia toasted some bread and split an orange for breakfast, and then they washed and dressed – Emma in a blouse and cotton slacks of Sylvia’s, too short for her, as Sylvia was half a head smaller, so they flapped ridiculously somewhere around the ankles. Who cares, she thought. They went out into the day. (p. 77)

Florence – the girls’ mother – is an interesting character too. While not unhappily married to Philip, Florence still privately mourns the loss of her former love, Reynard, who was killed in the First World War. She allows herself to think of Reynard during the regular Sunday church service, reminiscing on the happiness of times past and what might have been, had he survived.

What Caldwell does so well here is to make us care about these characters, ensuring we feel invested in their respective hopes and dreams, anxieties and concerns. It’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes her portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting.

Caldwell excels in capturing so many aspects of the raids, both physical and emotional. From the fear as people wait for the bombings to start, to the panic of searching for the missing and those who may have perished, to depicting the crushing damage to homes in vivid, unflinching detail. In one especially striking scene, she describes a house with the front blown off, exposing the contents within – like a doll’s house, the walls studded with daggers of shattered glass.

The fires, the tramlines ripped from the road and pointing up in helpless angles at the sky. A tram car on its side. With every breath, the thick stench of burning lodged deeper in you. The people you passed in the streets, some walking with purpose, some wandering one way, then turning and walking back the other. Others just standing. (pp. 166-167)

She [Audrey] saw a body in the middle of the road, its limbs splayed at an unusual angle. How are we ever going to recover, she thought, from having seen such things? You can’t think about it – your mind will short-circuit if you do. (p. 170)

Alongside the Bells, Caldwell offers glimpses of other families within their orbit, widening her lens to bring in others from the working classes. There’s six-year-old Maisie Gallagher, whom Audrey helps during the carnage of the Easter Raid, and the teenager, Betty Binks, who works alongside Mrs Price, the Bells’ dutiful charwoman. We see how the bombing raids cut across the social classes, uniting women in their suffering and grief as they come to terms with the horrific impact on families.

In addition to the devastation depicted above, there are some lighter moments too – beautifully painted scenes of dances, children playing together, and couples visiting galleries. Shared moments of intimacy and friendship amidst the ravages of war. Caldwell’s prose is wonderfully vivid and impressionistic, similar to Rosamond Lehmann’s style from Invitation to the Waltz.

The Plaza Ballroom, Chichester Street. Nine o’clock, still just about light outside, that heady moment when the evening tilts to night. A queue of laughing couples, trios of girls arm in arm, all waiting their turn to go through the boxy portico with its neon sign, tickets at the booth, coats bundled over to the cloakroom boy, and hurriedly up the stairs, feeling the floor vibrating under their feet. (p. 83)

There are some brilliant scenes depicted here. Perhaps most notably Audrey’s night at the Floral Hall dance (the evening of the Easter bombing raid), and the Gallaghers’ attempt to smuggle two or three ‘luxuries’ across the Irish border from a day trip to Dublin – a passage that highlights the scarcity of basic items such as decent stockings and children’s shoes.

In summary, this is a beautiful, lyrical novel – a deeply moving tribute to the resilience of the Belfast people who lost and endured so much during the dark days of the Blitz. There’s a very heartfelt passage towards the end, recounting with weight and poignancy the roll call of losses across the city. A poetic elegy of great power and sensitivity – just like Caldwell’s novel as a whole, which I truly adored.

These Days is published by Faber & Faber (another for #ReadIndies); my thanks to the Independent Alliance and the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns  

I have written before about my love of Barbara Comyns and the eccentric worlds she portrays in her novels, perhaps most notably in Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954). First published in 1989, The House of Dolls shares the same offbeat sensibility as Comyns’ earlier work, blending darkly comic humour and surreal imagery with the realities of day-to-day life. As in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, there are several emotions on display here, ranging from optimism and hope to endurance and stoicism to despondency and poignancy. It’s a wonderfully funny book, one of my favourites by this supremely talented writer!

The novel is set in a Kensington boarding house during the swinging ‘60s. 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. As Amy explains to her friend Doris…

‘…I thought it would make a nice sitting-room for my ladies; but you should see what they have done with it. It looks real wicked somehow, and they’ve added to the mirrors and there’s a sort of bar, all done up with bamboo, where they serve drinks, at a profit, of course; only, there’s always one who drinks behind the others’ backs and that causes trouble. It’s all very worrying; but there it is. There’s little I can do to alter things: they’re too strong for me, especially that Berti.’ (p. 5)

Central to this operation are Berti and Evelyn – both stick-thin and well past their prime. With her dyed red hair and skin-tight clothes, Berti is the more formidable of the pair, a rather nosy, bawdy woman who proves difficult for Amy to control. Almost as troublesome is Evelyn – ‘a poor man’s version of Berti’ with her blue rinse and slightly tragic air. The two women are forever arguing – mostly over petty jealousies, frequently fuelled by drink. Completing the quartet are Augustina (commonly known as the Señora), easily the most sensible of the group, and Ivy, a timid middle-aged woman who finds herself roped into her housemates’ enterprise, much to her discomfort.

Berti and Evelyn have a small number of clients and sometimes look for new ones in the local coffee bars and pubs. One of the things Comyns does so well here is to lace her descriptions of the ladies’ activities with a seam of mordant humour, giving the novel a slightly surreal or unhinged tone that really adds to its appeal.

Berti poured herself the first drink of the evening, an unusually small one. She was expecting a new client that evening, a middle-aged Greek she had met in the underground. He had just buried his wife, he said, and was feeling lonely. She felt nervous; he was so dark and his melancholy eyes were like dates. He told her his wife had died in the street. A street accident? Murdered? He did not say. (p. 66)

Meanwhile, Ivy – who hates her job in the haberdashery and wool shop – is longing for someone to take care of her. Preferably her boyfriend, Hugh – a respectable dentist from Putney – who knows nothing of the ladies’ prostitution racket. As soon as his divorce comes through, Hugh plans to marry Ivy and move to Canada to set up a new practice, much to his fiancée’s relief.

To be released from Mulberry Grove, Berti, Evelyn and the chiropodist and, above all, from the widower who came on Wednesdays. Never to see them again. No more women clamouring for knitting wool, no more listening to the manageress talking about her home knitting machine and her fallen arches. She would be thousands of miles away, married to her wonderful Hugh and her disagreeable past behind her. (p. 60)

While her tenants entertain their gentleman callers upstairs, Amy tries to shield her fourteen-year-old daughter, Hetty, from the debauchery of the lounge, turning up the radio to drown out any noise. It’s a difficult age for Hetty, who has little in common with the other girls at her school, preferring animals and comics to boyfriends and bands. In search of friendship and solace, Hetty skips school a couple of days a week, spending her time instead with a gentle, childlike man named Glover, making mosaics out of broken china and glass. Thankfully, there is nothing inappropriate or sexual about this relationship; rather, the pair work together peacefully in the garden of a derelict house, creating beautiful pictures from these shattered remnants – a lovely contrast to the unsavoury goings-on at Hetty’s home.

Comyns also adds a lovely storyline for Amy into the mix – a blossoming romance with a policeman named Harry, who enjoys gardening and DIY. When Harry first calls at the house, Amy is mistakenly convinced that he is spying on her, trying to gather evidence on the ‘brothel’ upstairs. In time though, Harry becomes a trusted friend and partner, helping Amy to stand firm against the ladies and their bawdy evening parties.

As the lounge collective begins to break up, with Ivy and the Señora leaving Kensington, Berti and Evelyn must find another place to live – especially as Amy intends to marry Harry. At first, the old ladies’ prospects look bleak. With their meagre allowances and little hope of continuing the usual services, Berti and Evelyn have barely any money to speak of – a situation not helped by their disastrous forays into the world of work. While Evelyn gets drunk during a babysitting assignment, Berti falls foul when she takes a job as a cook, lasting a couple of days in the face of a demanding employer. But then, just when the situation seems desperate, Berti’s luck turns, opening new opportunities for the two elderly dames.

The House of 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. Tonally and thematically, I’m reminded of some of Muriel Spark’s novels (Memento Mori, perhaps) and the early works of William Trevor. There’s something sad and unhinged about it, in the mould of Trevor’s The Boarding-House and The Love Department.

I’ll finish with a final quote that captures something of the novel’s tone and the nature of the two ladies, Berti and Evelyn. They have developed a new hobby – looking up funerals in the newspapers and gate-crashing the most promising ones, passing themselves off as distant relatives of the deceased. As their new landlady observes…

‘…They have an air of breeding; but there is something distinctly odd about them, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. […] They have charming voices. It’s just their oddness that makes me a little nervous. Oh, yes, and they’d been to a funeral at the cemetery and I heard the one with blue hair whisper to the other, “Handy for funerals, isn’t it?” Perhaps they’re body-snatchers.’ (p. 145)

The House of Dolls is published by Turnpike Books (another for #ReadIndies). My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy – and to Ali, who happened to gift me a copy at almost exactly the same time!