Tag Archives: #ReadWomen

Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Odd Girl Out is published by Picador; personal copy.

Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

I have long wanted to read the Italian writer Elsa Morante, ever since I learned of her influence on Elena Ferrante (you can find my reviews of Ferrante’s work here). Arturo’s Island was Morante’s second novel, originally published in Italian in 1957, and now freshly translated by Ann Goldstein for this Pushkin Press edition (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). It is a beautifully-observed, passionate coming-of-age story, one that captures the pain and confusion of adolescence in an imaginative, poetic style.

The narrative is told from the viewpoint of Arturo Gerace as he looks back on his teenage years spent on the remote island of Procida in the Bay of Naples – a tumultuous, troubling time in this young individual’s life.

At fourteen, Arturo spends most of his days roaming around the island, dreaming of great adventures with pirates, kings and other enigmatic figures from tales of fantasy. His father, Wilhelm, is a restless wanderer who frequently leaves the island for long periods with no planned date of return. With his unpredictable nature and temperament, Wilhelm is prone to frequent outbursts, displaying little thought for the feelings and sensitivities of those around him. In spite of this, Arturo idolises his father unquestioningly, eagerly anticipating the day when he is old enough to join Wilhelm on his seemingly intrepid travels.

Every act of his, every speech, had a dramatic fatality for me. In fact, he was the image of certainty, and everything he said or did was the verdict of a universal law from which I deduced the first commandments of my life. Here was the greatest seduction of his company. (p. 24)

Life for young Arturo is a solitary one, with his father often away and his mother no longer alive following her death in childbirth. He yearns for some much-needed love and affection, the kind fuelled by his romantic imagination – the absence of Arturo’s mother is very keenly felt.

She was a person invented by my regrets, and so she had, for me, every wished-for kindness, and different expressions, different voices. But, above all, in the impossible longing I had for her, I thought of her as faithfulness, intimacy, conversation: in other words, all that fathers were not, in my experience. (p. 44)

Moreover, young Arturo is largely in charge of the Geraces’ home, a somewhat run-down, castle-like building bequeathed to Wilhelm by an old friend – a man with an intense dislike of women and their ‘ugly’ appearances. As such, Arturo has had very little exposure to girls or women during his life, particularly given the isolated nature of his upbringing.

One day, Wilhelm returns unexpectedly to Procida with his new bride, Nunziata – a rather hesitant young girl from Naples who has been pushed into marriage by her mother, Violante. At sixteen, Nunziata is barely older than Arturo, a situation that leaves our protagonist struggling to understand this sudden change in dynamics and everything it represents. For the first time in his life, Arturo has a rival for his father’s affections, one who is almost as inexperienced and naïve as the young boy himself.

When I passed my father’s room, I heard from behind the closed door an excited whispering. I was almost running when I reached my room: I suddenly had the sharp, incomprehensible sensation that I had received from someone (whom I couldn’t yet recognise) an inhuman insult, impossible to avenge. I undressed quickly and, as I threw myself into bed, wrapping myself in the covers up to my head, a cry from her reached me through the walls: tender, strangely fierce, and childlike. (p. 124)

Virtually as soon as he has arrived home, Wilhelm becomes restless again, seeking the company of Nunziata and Arturo one minute and then shunning it the next. It’s not long before Wilhelm begins to view Nunziata as an appendage, akin to a tiresome relative of little interest or importance. Consequently, Arturo and Nunziata – the latter now pregnant with Wilhelm’s child – are left mostly on their own at the Casa dei Guaglioni while Wilhelm continues his erratic travels abroad.

At first, Arturo wants as little as possible to do with his new stepmother, shunning her company in favour of wandering around the island.

My antipathy towards my stepmother, meanwhile, didn’t diminish but became fiercer every day. And as a result of the life she led with me during my father’s absence from the island was certainly not very happy. I never spoke to her except to give her orders. If I was outside and wanted to summon her to the window to give her some command, or warn her of my arrival, I used to simply whistle. (p. 158)

Then, all of a sudden, he experiences a dramatic change of heart, prompted by the belief that Nunziata’s life may be in danger during the birth of her child, Carminiello. From this point onwards, Arturo begins to see his stepmother in a new light, viewing her as more beautiful and graceful than before. Meanwhile, Nunziata devotes herself to caring for the new baby, mainly at the expense of any consideration for Arturo or his potential needs – a situation that leaves Arturo feeling somewhat jealous of his new stepbrother.

I felt I could never have peace if she didn’t return to being, toward me, at least, the same as she had been before the fatal arrival of my stepbrother; and yet at no cost did I want to betray that longing to her. So I looked desperately for a means that, without wounding my pride, would force her to be concerned with me, or to manifest once and for all, her irredeemable indifference towards Arturo Gerace. (p. 233)

As the months slip by, Arturo must try to make sense of his emotions as they oscillate between an idealised form of first love for Nunziata and abject disillusionment – his demonstrations of affection are swiftly rejected. He tries, somewhat in vain, to grapple with new and confusing situations in this abrupt exposure to the complexities of the adult world.

Arturo’s Island is an emotionally-rich novel, frequently punctuated with passages of profound depth. Morante skilfully captures the vulnerabilities of youth, the maelstrom of emotions that characterises Arturo’s adolescence – the young boy’s experiences are very keenly felt. The author’s style is perfectly matched to the subject matter at hand: lyrical, intuitive and painfully perceptive. While the main thrust of the narrative takes places in the run-up to WW2, there is a timeless feel to this story, akin to a classic myth or fable.

With its imposing penitentiary, Procida is painted as an isolated, mysterious place, one with elements of menace and darkness, albeit lightened by the allure of the natural world. Morante’s descriptions of the island’s environment are beautifully expressed.

As this excellent novel draws to a close, Arturo must contend with emotions of antipathy, lust, jealousy and disillusionment. Morante’s portrayal of the young boy’s experiences is both intimate and compelling, tackling themes of forbidden love and ambiguous sexuality with insight and sensitivity. Alongside the struggle to reconcile his feelings for Nunziata, Arturo must also come to terms with a new, rather disturbing vision of his father – a discovery that will leave a mark on his character forever.

This is a layered, emotionally-rich novel, one that will likely suit lovers of interior-driven fiction with a strong sense of place. The pace is leisurely, reflecting the rhythm of life on the island – definitely a slow burner, but one that will reward the reader’s patience and emotional investment.

I read this book for Biblibio’s #WITMonth, which is running throughout August. For an interesting companion piece dealing with similar themes, see Agostino (1944) by Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante’s husband – also very highly recommended indeed.

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

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind.

First published in the late 1970s as a series of interlinked short stories, Territory of Light focuses on a year in the life of a young mother, recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. As the story opens, the unnamed woman – who narrates the novella – and her three-year-old daughter are newly established in a fourth-floor apartment with windows on all sides, thereby forming the ‘territory of light’ of the title.

Tsushima poignantly depicts the young woman’s pain in adjusting to life as a single parent, no longer sure of her own sense of self or future existence. The husband, Fujino, is in a new relationship, unable or unwilling to contribute financially to his daughter’s upbringing – a situation that leaves the narrator trying to cope with the unsettling transition taking place.

This man was my daughter’s father and my husband, but he knew nothing of the life I had been leading for over a month now – an existence that was uneventful enough in its way, and yet the tranquillity of the days ahead only fed my apprehension – and I could give him no idea of that life. I felt as though I had before me an invisible, rickety, misshapen mass that not only kept its precarious balance but was actually sending out roots and even tentative new shoots that only my eyes could see. Having been presented with this unstable object, I’m starting to grow too attached to it to be able to slip back into married life with Fujino as if nothing had happened. The way he spoke to me, as my husband, didn’t feel right anymore. (pp. 22-23)

There are times when the narrator oscillates between openly trying to prevent her husband from spending time with his daughter and secretly wishing they could all get back together – to coexist as a typical family unit, whatever form that may take.

I longed to have my old life back. But there was no going back now, nor any way out. I couldn’t decide whether I’d done this to myself or fallen for a ruse of unknown origin. What I’d failed to see so far, it turned out, it was my own cruelty. (p. 59)

In the meantime, she must juggle the needs of a lively three-year-old alongside her job as an archivist in an audio library, relying on the support of a day-care centre for childcare during the week. As the demands of single parenthood increase, there is a sense of this woman receding into the darkness, giving rise to feelings of guilt, fear, annoyance and fatigue. Her nights are haunted by anxiety-fuelled dreams and fragments of memories, frequently punctuated by the toddler’s persistent cries – something the narrator tries to block out through an increasing reliance on alcohol.

Interestingly, Tsushima doesn’t shy away from illustrating the fragile nature of the young woman’s state of mind, characterised by her increasing consumption of drink, a tendency to oversleep on weekdays, a lack of care for the apartment, and – most worryingly of all – her neglect of the child’s wellbeing. Even though it is clear that the narrator loves her child very much, the practicalities of the situation remain stark and unadorned.

As one might expect from the title, imagery plays a significant role in the novella, contributing significantly to the mood and atmosphere of the piece. Tsushima’s prose has a fluid, poetic quality, particularly when depicting the play of light within the building itself.

No one else must know about this place that made me yearn to dissolve until I became a particle of light myself. The way that light cohered in one place was unearthly. I gazed at its stillness without ever going in through the gate. (p. 119)

The narrative is punctuated with beguiling images, each one possible to visualise in the mind – perhaps best illustrated by the mosaic of bright colours ‘like a burst of bright flowers’ that suddenly appears on the roof next door.

The unexpected sight of bright colours on that weathered tiled roof set my heart racing with sudden foreboding. I leaned out of the window and took a closer look. They were coloured paper squares. Red ones. Blue ones. Green, yellow…I could only conclude that every sheet in the pack of origami paper I had bought my daughter a few days earlier had floated down, one after the other, taking its time and enjoying the breeze, on to the tiled floor roof below. I pictured a small hand pluck one square at a time from the pack, reach out the window, and release it in midair. My daughter, who had just turned three, would have been laughing out loud with pleasure as she watched the different colours wafting down. (p. 47)

Territory of Light is a quiet, contemplative novella – strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting, the apartment being located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Tsushima’s focus on the day-to-day minutiae of life is a powerful one, forcing us to contemplate how we would cope in similar circumstances, how our own failings and vulnerabilities might be exposed.

Moreover, the spectre of death runs through the narrative – from the young boy who falls to his death accidentally while playing, to a suicide on the railways, to the funerals glimpsed in the street, the concept of our ephemerality is keenly felt. Tsushima’s own father – the Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai – took his own life when she was just one year old, a point that adds another layer of emotional intensity to story reflected here. Nevertheless, there are moments of brightness too – the simple pleasures that motherhood can bring in spite of the myriad of challenges.

By the end of the book, there are tentative signs of some kind of acclimatisation on the part of the mother, the glimpse of a new beginning on the horizon. Nevertheless, the delicate balance between darkness and light remains, a point that serves to remind us of our own fallibilities in life.

This is my second piece for #WITMonth (women in translation) which runs throughout August. Several other bloggers have written about this book. Here are links to relevant posts by Grant and Dorian.

Territory of Light is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Voices in the Evening by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. D. M. Low)

Born in Palermo in 1916, the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg is perhaps best known for her autobiographical novel Family Lexicon, winner of the Strega Prize for fiction in 1963. Voices in the Evening is an earlier novel, first published in Italian in 1961 and translated into English in 1963.

In many respects, Voices is an episodic work, a series of interconnected vignettes depicting the lives and loves of various members of one particular family, all set in a small Italian village, viewed from the perspective of the years following WW2.

Central to the novel is Elsa, an unmarried twenty-seven-year-old woman who lives with her parents in the watchful village community, a place where gossip and arbitrary judgments are prevalent, adding colour to the inhabitants’ day-to-day activities. The narrative is bookended by two ‘conversations’ between Elsa and her mother. I use the term ‘conversation’ with caution as the dialogue is in effect a monologue with Elsa remaining silent in the face of her mother’s barbed musings and pointed observations.

‘One can see that there is a party somewhere,’ she added, ‘at the Terenzis’ very likely. Everyone who goes has to take something. Nowadays many people do that.’

She said, ‘But they don’t invite you, do they?

‘They don’t invite you,’ she said, ‘because they think that you give yourself airs. You have never been to the tennis club either. If one does not go about and show oneself, people say that such a person is giving himself airs, and they don’t seek one out anymore…’ (p.4)

These opening and closing vignettes set the tone for the novel, emphasising the sense of distance between Elsa and her mother, a feeling of separation between the generations. There is a touch of wry humour in these passages too, a note of irony in Ginzburg’s prose as Elsa must endure her mother’s complaints.

Voices can also be thought of as a novel of conflicts or tensions – conflicts between mothers and daughters, men and women, and ultimately those between different values and ideals. The first half of the narrative explores the troubled lives and loves of the most influential family in the village, a household headed up by old Balotta (or Little Ball), the owner of the local cloth factory where Elsa’s father works as an accountant. Old Balotta has five children, most of whom are unlucky in love. There is also another family member to contend with: Purillo, the patriarch’s adopted son.

Gemmina, Balotta’s eldest daughter, is in love with Nebbia, a man who rejects her advances in favour of marriage to a foolish young girl from a nearby village. Next in line are Balotta’s sons, Vincenzio and Mario – the former a bit of a misfit, the latter cheerful and sociable.

The Balotta family dynamics are disturbed when Mario decides to marry Xenia, an artist he meets during a business trip to Munich. Xenia appears somewhat aloof with her expensive tastes in clothes, food and other accoutrements. There is even a concern on the part of Balotta that Xenia might be a spy – the girl’s lack of interest in learning Italian is another point against her.

The family’s relationships are characterised by various flaws and failings – more specifically, unrequited love, marriages of convenience, and unions founded on acceptability at the expense of emotion.

The final vignette is the most emotionally compelling in the sequence, the story of a doomed love affair between Elsa and the last of Old Balotta’s sons, a young man by the name of Tommasino. Every Wednesday afternoon, Elsa and Tommasino spend time together in a nearby town, a place where they can experience a sense of freedom, unburdened by the weight of familial ties or expectations. Their meetings are conducted in secret, mostly in a rented room on the Via Gorizia.

At heart, Tommasino is not a romantic; his demeanour is a solitary one, reflecting a reluctance to be tied down. However, everything changes when Tommasino visits Elsa at home one evening, a move which soon results in the young couple’s engagement. As Elsa’s family begin to make preparations for the wedding, Tommasino glimpses the life of responsibility and domesticity that lies ahead. It is a world that does not appeal to him, far removed from the atmosphere of Via Gorizia with all its simplicity and seclusion. As a consequence, Tommasino cannot help but make his true feelings known to Elsa.

There was something, all the same, something intimate and delicate, and it had its own fulfilment and its own freedom. You and I, up there in the Via Gorizia, alone, without any plans for the future, without anything at all, have been happy in some fashion of our own. We had something there; it was not much but it was something. It was something very slight, very fragile, ready to break up at the first puff of wind. It was something which could not be captured and bought to the light or it would die. We have brought it to the light and it is dead, and we shall never recover it any more. (pp. 142-143)

Voices in the Evening is a simple yet subtle novel, one that explores the tension and discontentment in relationships between men and women, particularly those living in a small, close-knit community. There is a strong sense of estrangement running through the novel, a feeling of separateness and isolation in a shifting world. The shadow of war also looms in the background, accentuating a feeling of unease and instability.

Ginzburg’s prose is direct and unadorned in a way that leaves quite a bit of space in the narrative, maybe too much. If I had a criticism, it would be to say that the novel as a whole feels a little slight, particularly given the episodic structure and shift in focus from one character to another. Nevertheless, in some instances, what is left unsaid between individuals can seem just as significant as what is shared. Plus, I’m significantly impressed to want to read Ginzburg’s highly-regarded autobiographical work, Family Lexicon.

This is my first post for Biblibio’s Women in Translation event, which is running during August. (It just so happens that my #WITMonth has started a little early this year.)

Voices in the Evening is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby

Along with many other readers, I first discovered Winifred Holtby through her friendship with Vera Brittain, whose memoir – The Testament of Youth – is considered a classic for its depiction of the impact of the Great War on the British middle classes, particularly the women. While I’ve previously enjoyed some of Holtby’s other novels, it’s fair to say that my feelings about Poor Caroline (1931) are somewhat mixed. More about that later once I’ve explained a little about the novel itself – an inventive satire about the failings and cruelties of human nature and one woman’s fixation with a farcical scheme.

Central to the novel is Caroline Denton-Smyth, a spirited, eccentric and rather deluded woman who dreams of establishing the Christian Cinema Company (CCC) with the aim of producing chaste British films as a counterpoint to the immoral offerings from Hollywood. At the age of seventy or thereabouts, Miss Denton-Smyth cuts a striking if somewhat absurd figure as illustrated by the following passage.

She halted in the doorway, and fumbling among the chains and beads about her neck, found a pair of lorgnettes, clicked them open,  and stood peering through them into the ante-room, turning her finger a little as she peered, so that all her chains and beads clashed softly together, like the trappings of an oriental dancer at a cheap music hall. The lorgnettes imparted to her short, plump, eccentric figure an air of comic but indomitable dignity. Her preposterous red hat, with its huge ribbon bows and sweeping pheasant’s feather, bobbed triumphantly above her frizzled hair. (pp. 41-42)

Living on her own in a down-at-heel bedsit in Kensington, Caroline has no real money of her own, so she attempts to enlist support for her virtuous venture from a range of interested parties, many of whom gain places on her Board of Directors. There is the aristocratic dilettante, Basil St. Denis, whose wife encourages his participation as a means of keeping him busy; the Jewish businessman, Joseph Isenbaum, whose only interest in the project is to establish an influential connection with St Denis; the argumentative scientist Hugh Macafee, who sees the CCC as a potential buyer for his Tona Perfecta Film technology; and the brash ‘screenwriter’, Clifton Johnson, an American scoundrel on the look-out for any opportunity to pull a swindle.

None of these thoroughly unlikeable characters has any real interest in Caroline’s vision for the CCC. Instead, they are pursuing their own self-centred endeavours, each of which is revealed in detail as the narrative progresses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Poor Caroline is blind to all these shenanigans, doggedly persisting with her own fanciful ideas for morally upstanding movies. In this scene, she reveals to the Board her plans for the cultivation of future directors, fruitlessly aiming for the top with all her fallacies and delusions.

‘[…] indeed, I hope soon to add an archbishop to our list of directors.’

‘An archbishop?’

‘An archbishop, Mr. Johnson. Do you not remember that at our last meeting we decided to invite a number of distinguished ladies and gentlemen, representing the Stage, the Church, the Schools, the Universities, Art, Music and public service, to become directors so that when we send out our appeals we may make it quite clear that we have the highest possible authority behind us? My idea was, if possible, a Cabinet Minister, even the Premier might, being so greatly interested in English culture. I confess that I should like to see Mr. Baldwin’s name upon our Board and possibly the Archbishop of Canterbury. I always say aim high and you may keep on the level.’ (p. 108)

Meanwhile, Caroline’s family in Yorkshire will have nothing to do with the project, considering it to be the latest in a string of mad ideas. The only relative willing to help Caroline is her young cousin, Eleanor, an independently minded socialist recently arrived from South Africa following the death of her father. In her desperation for support, Caroline persuades Eleanor to invest the majority of her legacy in the CCC, shamelessly taking advantage of the young woman’s generosity and sympathy.

Also in the mix is a young curate, Father Mortimer, whom Caroline takes a shine to in the course of her delusions. However, unbeknownst to Caroline, Father Mortimer only has eyes for Eleanor, a development that leads to complications and heartache as the story plays out – particularly as it becomes clear that Caroline is jealous of her cousin’s youth, intelligence and ambitions.

We learn quite early on what happens to Poor Caroline in the end, but I won’t spoil it for you here. Much of the enjoyment of the novel stems from seeing how this rather sad character meets her fate, aided but mostly abetted by others along the way.

There are some wonderful set-pieces here involving romantic entanglements, unexpected confrontations and a bizarre accident in the midst of a storm, all beautifully observed by Holtby’s satirical eye. The characters are well captured too, in a manner that lays bare all their undesirable qualities and behaviours. Caroline is painted as a rather tragic figure, an outcast from her family and society, endlessly chasing rainbows in the hope of making her fortune through altruistic efforts. Moreover, Holtby has some serious points to make about the perceptions of women – often unfavourable – who throw themselves into charitable causes, and about the difficulties in funding the arts in general.

The element that sits less comfortably with me stems from one character’s rather unfortunate comments about women’s sex lives and the potential for abuse. (I won’t quote them here; they’re far too unpleasant for that.) Satire or no satire, this feels somewhat out of place, particularly in a novel by a notable feminist such as Holtby. Maybe she is trying to hold up a mirror to society, to draw our attention to the unreasonable nature of the prevailing attitudes at the time (we’re still in the early 1930s here); but even so, this seems somewhat misjudged given the context of the remarks in question. While the character concerned is left feeling rather frustrated by the end of the novel, it does seem as if Holtby lets him off the hook to a certain extent – a more savage denouement for this individual might have been more fitting.

So, in summary, an interesting novel with some excellent scenes, but not without its problems. A very different Holtby from the others I’ve read. If they’re of interest, you can find my thoughts on them here: South Riding; Anderby Wold; and The Crowded Street. The first, in particular, comes very highly recommended indeed.

Poor Caroline is published by Virago; personal copy.

Mini Reviews – Barbara Comyns and E. C. R Lorac

A couple of additional mini reviews of recent reads – this time novels by the wonderfully off-kilter Barbara Comyns and the British crime writer, E. C. R. Lorac. Enjoy!

Mr Fox by Barbara Comyns (1987)

I discovered this little gem of a novel a few months ago via Heaven Ali’s excellent review, which you can find here. It’s very much in the style of one of Comyns’ earlier novels, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950), a book that made my ‘best of’ list back in 2017.

Like ‘Spoons’, Mr Fox features a rather childlike young woman who relates her story in an unassuming, conversational style. As the novel opens, Caroline Seymore and her three-year-old daughter, Jenny, have just been offered a place to live by their ‘friend’, Mr Fox, who makes his money via various underhand dealings – mostly tarting up dodgy cars plus some black-market activities here and there. (The novel is set at the start of WW2.)

Caroline has been on her own with Jenny for the past three years, trying to make a go of sub-letting rooms in a London house having inherited the lease after her mother’s death. Unfortunately for Caroline, the bailiffs and debt-collectors are rapidly closing in, leaving her virtually no other option but to accept Mr Fox’s offer however awful that may be.

I knew so little about him [Mr Fox] really. Perhaps he was an awful vicious man, or maybe he was cruel and bad-tempered or mean; perhaps he hoarded things like string and candle-ends in boxes under his bed, or he might even get drunk and beat people. Then I remembered all my creditors and thought perhaps I’d better risk all these things. Nothing could be worse than all those summonses and bowler-hatted debt collectors. (pp. 27-28)

Mr Fox is an odd little man; kindly and generous one minute but prone to moody behaviour the next. In particular, he finds Jenny’s constant chattering somewhat annoying, frequently disturbing the household when he wants to enjoy a rest. While Caroline doesn’t share a bed with Mr Fox, she is expected to cook his meals – another aspect her benefactor finds fault with. As a consequence, Caroline often feels sad and homesick, even though she has no other home to speak of. There are times when Caroline longs to escape from Mr Fox, but realistically there is nowhere else where she and Jenny can go.

With the advent of war looming on the horizon, Mr Fox decides they all need to get out of London for a while, so he shuts down his dodgy garage, securing a job in an aircraft factory instead. But life in the isolated town of Straws proves terribly grim for Caroline; it’s a shabby, dismal place where no one seems to have any spark or money.

I became more and more depressed and never bothered to carry my gas mask any more. It wasn’t the war that depressed me so much but life at Straws. It was the most dreary, lonely place in the world, and it made Mr Fox unbearable. He became frightfully bad-tempered and nervy and had completely changed from the dashing kind of crook he used to be; leading an honest life didn’t suit him at all. (p. 76)

As Ali has already written about this slim yet very affecting book, I’m not going to dwell on the plot, only to say that we follow Caroline and Jenny as they try to make their way in an uncertain world – sometimes aided and abetted by Mr Fox, other times not. Instead, I’ll try to highlight a few things I liked about the novel, just to give you a feel for the style.

Like Sophia in Spoons, Caroline is a very engaging narrator, the childlike naivety and innocence adding greatly to her charm. There are times when Caroline’s matter-of-fact tone of voice may seem at odds with the horror of the situations she is describing, but in practice this style of delivery makes her predicament feel all the more horrific. (In an effort to earn her keep with Mr Fox, Caroline spends a terrible week working as a dance hostess in a ghastly club, a role she is ill-equipped for with her innocence and simplicity.)

In spite of the rather bleak subject matter – poverty, homelessness, a desperate reliance on the kindness of others, particularly men – Comyns lightens the tone with some nicely judged humour. There are several moments when Caroline is unintentionally funny, coming out with the most wonderful turns of phrase such as this description of a man who invites her for dinner after they meet in the club.

I came through the main entrance of Rules after getting rather entangled in the swing doors. But there he was, looking like a bulldog crossed with a hot-cross bun. (p. 51)

Comyns’ evocation of wartime London is superb, replete with air-raid sirens, explosions and bombed-out houses. There is a truly terrifying scene in which Caroline has to run barefoot while shielding Mr Fox’s dog, desperately trying to find shelter during a chaotic raid. Moreover, what comes through very strongly from the narrative is the fluid nature of civilian life during the war. Caroline and Jenny are almost always on the move, barely able to stay more than a few months in any single place. The transient feel of everything – jobs, houses, possessions, even life itself – is both palpable and striking.

I absolutely loved this little novel by Comyns, which is by turns funny, evocative, honest and poignant. The ending in particular is very affecting, perfectly capturing the opportunistic nature of Mr Fox – a man forever on the make, constantly on the lookout for the next lucrative deal.

Fire in the Thatch by E. C. R. Lorac (1946)

I’d been looking to read E. C. R. Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) for a while, particularly following positive reports by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and one or two other readers on Twitter. So, I was delighted to find a copy of one her novels, Fire in the Thatch, in a local charity shop fairly recently, especially as it was in near-perfect condition. Happily, my first experience of this author’s work was a great success, definitely one I’d recommend to others.

In short, Fire in the Thatch is a very entertaining entrant in the British Library Crime Classics series, a traditional Golden-Age novel to brighten a dull weekend. When Little Thatch cottage is destroyed in a fire, killing its new tenant, the reclusive army veteran Nicholas Vaughan, the dogged Chief Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to investigate.

Set in the beautiful countryside of Devon, this is a thoroughly intriguing mystery with interesting, distinctive characters (many of whom are shadowy), and a deep-rooted sense of place. Lorac demonstrates a real appreciation of the farming community’s passion for the landscape and traditional customs. These aspects of the novel are beautifully portrayed. The writing is excellent too, very engaging and precise.

Hayley at Desperate Reader has posted a lovely review of this, as has Guy, so I shall direct you to their posts. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping an eye out for more books by Lorac, particularly those featuring Macdonald, the rather engaging detective at the heart of Thatch – Lorac’s compelling portrayal of this determined character is one of the book’s many delights.

Recent Reads – Rosamond Lehmann, Romain Gary and Ellen Wilkinson

Mini reviews of three recent reads – hopefully you’ll find something of interest across the mix.

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann (1932)

This beautiful, charming novel – presented through a blend of stream-of-consciousness and more traditional narrative – manages to combine a lightness of touch with a real depth of personal feeling.

On the day of her seventeenth birthday, Olivia Curtis receives from her parents a roll of flame-coloured silk to be fashioned into an evening dress for a forthcoming dance. The occasion will represent Olivia’s introduction to society, a world already glimpsed by her older sister, the attractive, more self-assured Kate.

In the days leading up to the dance, we sense Olivia’s anticipation of the event, a mixture of excitement and apprehension over various aspects of the evening: nervousness as to how her dress will turn out; speculation over who else will be attending, particularly which boys; worries about there being sufficient dance partners for the girls; and ultimately, whether her first experience of a ball will be a success or a disappointment. The idea of ending up as a wallflower is almost too much for Olivia to bear.

Why go? It was unthinkable. Why suffer so much? Wrenched from one’s foundations; neglected, ignored, curiously stared at; partnerless, watching Kate move serenely from partner to partner, pretending not to watch; pretending not to see one’s hostess wondering: must she do something about one again? – (but really one couldn’t go on and on introducing these people); pretending not to care; slipping off to the ladies’ cloakroom, fiddling with unnecessary pins and powder, ears strained for the music to stop; wandering forth again to stand by oneself against the wall, hope struggling with despair beneath a mask of smiling indifference. (pp. 126-127)

The ball itself is beautifully conveyed in a series of vivid scenes, immersing the reader in the atmosphere of the event. Lehmann’s style is evocative and impressionistic, like the brushstrokes of watercolour artist practising their craft. The little pen-portraits of various attendees are very finely sketched, giving just enough detail to bring the characters to life.

Ali has written a characteristically perceptive review of this book, highlighting some interesting observations on class. Simon has also written about it here (his piece focuses on Olivia’s clothes and appearance). Olivia and Kate are very much viewed as country mice by their sophisticated cousin, Etty, also present at the dance – while bright and respectable, the middle-class Curtis family belong to a somewhat different social sphere to that of their hosts, Sir John and Lady Spencer. Olivia’s seamstress, the rather tragic Miss Robinson, provides another contrast – a woman whose narrow, unfulfilled life is heartbreaking to see.

I really enjoyed this novel for its expressive, impressionistic style, the exquisite prose, and its insight into the inner life of an expectant young girl. Very highly recommended indeed.

Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary (tr. John Markham Beach) (1961)

A thoroughly engaging memoir of this French writer’s early life and ongoing quest to fulfil his mother’s ambitions, namely for Gary to become a great artist, a person of distinction. In addition to these creative pursuits, the memoir also touches on Gary’s time as an instructor and pilot during the Second World War. It is by turns humorous, entertaining, charming and poignant, a story that blends the light-hearted with the moving and profound.

I stood there in my leather flying jacket, with that ridiculous cigar in my mouth, my cap pulled down jauntily over one eye, my hands in my pockets, and the familiar tough look on my face, while the whole world around me became a strange, foreign place empty of all life. That is what I chiefly remember of that moment today: a feeling of utter strangeness, as though the most familiar things, the houses, the trees, the birds, and the very ground under my feet, all that I had to come to regard as certainties, had suddenly become part of an unknown planet which I had never visited before. My whole system of weights and measures, my faith in a secret and hidden logic of life were giving way to nothingness, to a meaningless chaos, to a grinning, grimacing absurdity. (p. 212)

Grant has already written an excellent review of this book, and I agree with pretty much everything he says in his piece – do take a look. Emma has a page devoted to Romain Gary on her blog, so you’ll be able to find more posts about the author’s work there.

This is a thrilling yarn laced with philosophical reflections on this nature of life – my first encounter with this esteemed writer, but hopefully not my last.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson (1932)

I do love these British Library Crime Classics with their vintage settings and stylish covers. This is an interesting entry in the series from the Labour politician and writer, Ellen Wilkinson. In short, it is a most enjoyable mystery with a political edge.

Up-and-coming Conservative MP and parliamentary private secretary, Robert West, turns amateur detective when an influential financier is shot dead during a private dinner at the House of Commons. What appears at first to be a case of suicide turns out to be far more complicated than that, especially once the official investigation – led by Inspector Blackitt of the Yard – gets underway.

This is a compelling little mystery with a likeable central character in Robert West. While the ending feels a little rushed, the atmosphere in the House of Commons is captured in vivid detail, bringing to life the hustle and bustle of political life in the 1930s.

Shaw followed West along the locker-lined corridor to that octagonal space where the heart of Parliament beats. The House of Commons had risen soon after the nine o’clock division, and it was now ten-thirty, but groups of Members still stood excitedly discussing the sensation of the day–-for the threatened crisis had disappeared with the announcement of the Government’s majority. Again Shaw had to admire his friend’s technique.

Every one made a dart at West, who somehow managed to deny rumours, to quieten agitated and elderly M.P.s and even to deal with a cynical young woman who wanted to know why he had only shot one poor little millionaire instead of turning a machine-gun on to the whole Front Bench. (p. 43)

There are some nice reflections on the changing nature of Britain too, as the old traditions and values must give way to new sources of business and revenue streams. The economic context/state of the nation forms an important backdrop to the story, adding to the political intrigue.

Karen has written a great review of this, and I agree with everything she highlights in her piece. In spite of a few flaws, this is an interesting mystery with an atmospheric sense of place.

My copies of Invitation to the Waltz, Promise at Dawn, and The Division Bell Mystery were published by Virago, Penguin, and the British Library respectively; personal copies.