Tag Archives: #ReadIndies

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, who is 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 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. But through her friendship with Doreen Bates, a bright independently-minded colleague from London, Audrey begins to wonder whether marriage to Richard will be the right option for her. 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 go through with it.

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 works alongside her 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!