Tag Archives: #ReadWomen

The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Dick Davis)

I have written before about my love of Natalia Ginzburg’s fiction – most recently, All Our Yesterdays, a rich, multilayered novel of family life spanning the duration of WW2. The Little Virtues is a volume of Ginzburg’s essays, and what a marvellous collection it is – erudite, intelligent and full of the wisdom of life. Ginzburg wrote these pieces individually between 1944 and 1962, and many were published in Italian journals before being collected here. In her characteristically lucid prose, Ginzburg writes of families and friendships, of virtues and parenthood, and of writing and relationships. I adored this beautiful, luminous collection of essays, a certainty for my end-of-year highlights even though we’re only in January – it really is that good.

In the opening essay, ‘Winter in the Abruzzi’ (1944), Ginzburg describes the time she and her family spent living in exile in a village in Abruzzo during the Second World War. It’s a poignant, melancholy piece, particularly given what happens to Natalia’s husband, Leone – a Jewish anti-fascist activist – at the hands of the authorities.

There is a kind of uniform monotony in the fate of man. Our lives unfold according to ancient, unchangeable laws, according to an invariable and ancient rhythm. Our dreams are never realised and as soon as we see them betrayed we realise that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality. No sooner do we see them betrayed than we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by. (pp. 12–13)

This palpable sense of melancholy is carried through to ‘Portrait of a Friend’ (1957) as Ginzburg reflects on her home city, the city of her youth, a place haunted by ‘memories and shadows’. Here she likens the area to an old friend, a poet who is now deceased.

Written in the immediate aftermath of war, ‘The Son of Man’ (1946) develops these themes further, with Ginzburg conveying how her generation — effectively the fugitives of war — will never feel safe in their homes again, where a knock in the middle of the night will almost certainly instil fear in the soul. In essence, the war has exposed a brutal truth, the darkest, ugliest sides of humanity in all their horror and cruelty. There’s a sense that the young have had to find a new strength or toughness to face the realities of life, something different from the previous generation – and hopefully the one to come. It’s a mindset that has led to a gulf between Ginzburg’s generation and that of her parents, especially in their respective approaches to parenthood.

They would like our children to play with woolly toys in pretty pink rooms with little trees and rabbits painted on the walls. They would like us to surround their infancy with veils and lies, and carefully hide the truth of things from them. But we cannot do this. We cannot do this to children whom we have woken in the middle of the night and tremblingly dressed in the darkness so that we could flee with them or hide them… (p. 83)

In ‘England: Eulogy and Lament’ (1961), the author relays her impressions of England and its people – a nation whose characteristics she documents with the directness of an outsider.

To Ginzburg, England is a civilised country, well governed and organised, serious and conventional, gloomy and dull, with occasional glimpses of beauty amid a largely homogenous environment. Many of these qualities are reflected in how the English dress – a style showing little imagination or individuality with the majority dressing alike. For women, the norm seems to be ‘beige or transparent plastic raincoats which look like shower curtains or tablecloths’, while businessmen opt for pinstripe trousers and black bowler hats. Moreover, Ginzburg is adept at capturing the demeanour of the English, how in conversation, they tend to stick to the superficialities of life (such as the weather and other banalities) to avoid causing others offence.

I couldn’t help but raise an ironic eyebrow at some Of Ginzburg’s observations about England’s principles. Oh, how this country has changed from the version portrayed here – in some areas for the better, in others for the worse!

It [England] is a country which has always shown itself ready to welcome foreigners, from very diverse communities, without I think oppressing them. (p. 36)

In ‘My Vocation’ (1949), one of my favourite pieces in this collection, Ginzburg traces her approach to writing over the arc of her creative life, from composing juvenile poems and stories in childhood to her maturity as a writer of the female experience in adulthood. It’s a fascinating piece detailing how her relationship with writing has changed through adolescence, marriage and motherhood. This beautiful, thoughtful essay also captures how the tenor of Ginzburg’s work is affected by her mood, especially the balance between her use of memory vs imagination.

When we are happy our imagination is stronger; when we are unhappy our memory works with greater vitality. Suffering makes the imagination weak and lazy; it moves, but unwillingly and heavily, with the weak movements of someone who is ill… (p.104)

Here, along with several other articles in this collection, we get the sense Ginzburg approaches her subjects obliquely or at an angle. In short, by writing about one aspect of a topic, she triggers reverberations elsewhere – like an echo amid the landscape or stone skimmed across a pool – adding a broader resonance to her insights beyond their immediate sphere or focus.

‘Human Relationships’ (1953) is another piece that follows a timeline, tracing the nature of our relationships with others from childhood and adolescence to adulthood and parenthood. Ginzburg is adept at capturing how the subtleties of our interactions change as we move through each of these phases. As our values, needs and priorities shift, so do our thoughts and emotions, frequently manifesting themselves in our attachments to others. While all stages are brilliantly conveyed, Ginzburg writes especially well about the mysteries of the adult world from a child’s point of view, highlighting the joys and anxieties that consume us at this age. In addition, her reflections on finding a life partner in adulthood are just as insightful and beautifully expressed.

After many years, only after many years, after a thick web of habits, memories and violent differences has been woven between us, we at last realise that he is, in truth, the right person for us, that we could not have put up with anyone else, that it is only from him that we can ask everything that the heart needs. (p. 141)

Central to some of these essays are our relationships with others. In ‘He and I’ (1962), Ginzburg describes the relationship with her partner in terms of their many differences, from their personalities and character traits to their interests and pursuits. It’s a beautifully written piece, tinged with touches of poignancy, especially towards the end.

Finally, in the titular essay from 1960, Ginzburg sets out her approach to parenthood, arguing that we should put more weight behind the ‘great virtues’ of life, several of which spring from instinct, and less on the ‘little virtues’, typically born from a defensive spirit of self-preservation.

As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; nor shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbour and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know. (p. 151)

Moreover, she argues that by focusing too much on the little virtues, parents are in danger of fostering a sense of ‘cynicism or fear of life’ amongst their children, particularly if the great virtues are missing or downplayed.

While we might not necessarily agree with everything Ginzburg sets out in her essays, there is no denying her commitment to these principles and the reasoning behind them. There is so much wisdom and intelligence to be found in these pieces.  A fascinating collection to savour and revisit, a keeper for the bedside table as a balm for the soul.

The Little Virtues is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li

The Chinese-born writer Yiyun Li has been on my radar for a while, ever since her 2019 novel Where Reasons End popped up in my Twitter timeline with recommendations from readers I trust. Published last year with equally positive reviews, The Book of Goose is my first experience of Li’s work, but hopefully not my last. It’s a strange, compelling, captivating novel, full of different layers and ideas. On one level, we have a story about childhood friendship, devotion, manipulation and the power dynamics of relationships; but on another, the novel digs deep into the power of storytelling and the games children play to escape boredom – how fantasies can become truths if we pursue them too avidly, blurring the lines between the real and the imaginary. There’s so much to absorb with this one, and I’ll probably be thinking about it for a long time to come…

The book opens in 1966 with the passing mention of a death in a letter. Twenty-seven-year-old Agnès – now married and living in America with her husband, Earl – receives news that her childhood friend, Fabienne, has died in childbirth. The letter set off a series of memories for Agnès, reminiscences of her close, intense friendship with Fabienne, the two girls having grown up together in the farming village of Saint Rémy in France.

Rewinding to France in the early 1950s, we find Agnès and Fabienne at thirteen, growing up in a poverty-stricken post-war environment with little external excitement to stimulate their curiosity. As is often the case in such friendships, the two girls are the polar opposites of one another. While Fabienne is the natural leader – bold, creative, insolent and unpolished – Agnès is the more passive of the two – a follower by nature, keen to please Fabienne with her loyalty and compliance.

But were we not, in a sense, two blind girls? One would walk everywhere as though not a single mine were buried in the field. The other would not find the courage to take a step because the whole world was a minefield. Had they not been placed side by side by fate, they would have lived out their different lots. But that was not the case for us. Fabienne and I were in this world together, and we had only each other’s hands to hold on to. She had her will. I, my willingness to be led by her will. (p. 122)

One of the things Li does so well here is to capture the close, obsessive nature of the girls’ friendship, particularly how Agnès longs to be with Fabienne every spare minute of the day. We see the girls playing games together, often hanging out in the village cemetery, with Agnès posing questions to Fabienne about life’s great mysteries and the possibility of death.

Fabienne frequently invents games for the two friends to play, largely to alleviate the boredom of their lives. One day, she comes up with a plan to write a sensational book as a sort of collaboration between the two girls. With her highly imaginative mind, Fabienne will create a series of macabre, sinister stories, while Agnès will draw on her well-developed penmanship skills to write them down and pose as the book’s author. When it comes to securing a publisher, Fabienne is smart enough to realise that Agnès is best placed to ‘front’ the book, largely due to the latter’s patient, biddable nature and higher standard of education.

Following some input from the local postmaster – a poetry-loving widower Fabienne manipulates as part of her plan – the stories are published to great critical success. Agnès is hailed as a child prodigy, ‘a savage young chronicler of postwar life with a mind drawn to morbidity’. As such, she finds herself on the end of considerable interest from the press, keen to gain an insight into her life and creative talents.

But I [Agnès] was lucky to have come up with how best to present myself as a child author: I was imagining a person who was half Fabienne and half Agnès, and I had no trouble stepping into the shoes of that person. A mysterious girl who had made up for her lack of education with good intuition—that was what the press needed to see. (p. 86)

After serving a useful purpose, the postmaster is swiftly dispatched by Fabienne in another of her manipulative plans – a move that illustrates how calculating she can be when faced with a potential threat.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, literary success opens up some exciting new opportunities for Agnès, who soon finds herself at Woodsway, a prestigious finishing school in England run by the formidable Mrs Townsend. This changes the dynamics between the two childhood friends as Agnès mixes with the other schoolgirls – all from wealthy families of a higher social class – while Fabienne stays in Saint Rémy. In essence, Fabienne seems quite content for Agnès to be out there in the world, experiencing things that will be useful for their forthcoming books.

Despite missing her soulmate terribly, Agnès becomes more assertive and rebellious at Woodsway, while Fabienne continues to orchestrate the dynamics of the girls’ relationship through her letters from home. With Agnès becoming increasingly restless and unhappy with the strict regime at the school, the stage is set for a denouement of sorts, but I’ll leave it there in terms of the plot for fear of revealing any spoilers.

In some respects, The Book of Goose reads like a fairy story or fable with a fatalistic undercurrent throughout – a kind of darkness or unease that permeates the book. Li makes great use of various metaphors and symbols in the narrative – for instance, apples, oranges and knives, with Agnès acting as ‘a whetstone to Fabienne’s blade’. The childhood game of paper-scissors-stone is another highly relevant metaphor, capturing something of the dynamics of the story and its leading players – the smart but manipulative Fabienne and the naïve yet hopeful Agnès.

Often I imagine that living is a game of rock-paper-scissors: fate beats hope, hope beats ignorance, and ignorance beats fate. Or, in a version that has preoccupied me: the fatalistic attracts the hopeful, the hopeful attracts the ignorant, and the ignorant, the fatalistic. (p. 106)

Some of the most beguiling aspects of Goose stem from the philosophical reflections and questions Li weaves into her book. While some of these represent the adult Agnès’ reminiscences of her childhood with Fabienne, others take the form of questions the two girls discuss as adolescents while hanging out in the cemetery. The existential nature of these questions fits so naturally within the text, capturing the kinds of discussions about life, growing up, ghosts and death one could easily imagine happening between girls of this age.

Another element that Li handles particularly well is how fantasies and stories can become forms of ‘truth’ to those involved if pursued very rigorously, blurring the margins between the imaginary and reality. While Fabienne invents fantasies and games as a way of dealing with boredom and an indifferent world, Agnès is thrilled to play along in the hope these fantasies can continue indefinitely.

Fabienne and I had raised ourselves to be the best make-believers. The world was often inconvenient or indifferent to us, and it was our ingenuity that made what was inconvenient and indifferent interesting: the stinging nettles left bloody marks on our legs as we ran, but we pretended that those were the nail scratches of the girls greedy for our attention; […] A hard life, unlike what we were taught at school, did not make us virtuous; the hardest life was the most boring, the most unrewarding. How else could we overcome this boredom but to bring ourselves up in our own make-believe, which, as we grew older, had become more elaborate, more exhilarating, and, most of all, closer to the truth? (p. 307)

Nevertheless, only Fabienne is mature enough to realise these games must come to a natural end. While Agnès wants a form of their childhood to go on forever, Fabienne knows it cannot last. The intensity of their friendship has been sustained by the fantasies of adolescence, but the adult world is beckoning, and their current relationship might struggle to survive. Soon there will be considerable pressure for the girls to get married and have children; it’s what their families expect of them, especially given their upbringing.

This is such a thoughtful, intelligent book, full of meaning and mystery. A captivating story of obsessive childhood friendship and the alluring nature of fantasies. A layered, literary novel – beautiful, strange and beguiling.

The Book of Goose is published by 4th Estate; personal copy.

Crook O’ Lune by E. C. R. Lorac

In recent years, the British Library has been doing a sterling job with its reissues of various vintage mysteries by the English crime writer Edith Caroline Rivett. While many of these novels were written under Rivett’s main pen name E. C. R. Lorac, others were published in the guise of Carol Carnac – including the excellent Crossed Skis, a fabulous winter holiday read.

Crook O’ Lune (aka Shepherd’s Crook) is another splendid addition to the list, an absorbing slow-burn mystery with an excellent sense of place. The setting is the fictional farming community of High Gimmerdale, which Lorac based on the parish of Roeburndale in the Lancashire fells, an area she knew very well. It also features her regular detective, Chief Inspector Macdonald, who continues to impress with his sharp mind, likeable manner and thorough investigative skills.

With an eye on his future retirement plans, Macdonald is staying with friends in Lancashire’s Lune Valley while he searches for a small dairy farm to buy. During the trip, an investigation with links to the past arises, and Macdonald gets drawn in…

Gilbert Woolfall, a middle-aged businessman from Leeds, has recently inherited Aikengill, a remote farmhouse in the local area. While Gilbert has always been a town man, he finds himself increasingly tempted by the prospect of making Aikengill his home, especially given the beauty of the local area. Moreover, the property has been in the Woolfall family for centuries and was lovingly refurbished by the previous owner, Gilbert’s Uncle Thomas; so, the emotional pull of the property’s heritage is proving difficult for Gilbert to resist.

But with the other half of his mind he [Gilbert] was aware that something deep down inside him responded to the remoteness and serenity of the place, something tugged at him, told him he belonged here, as his forefathers had done and that if he sold that ancient house which Uncle Thomas had left him in his will, he’d know for the rest of his life he’d made a mistake, as well as lost an opportunity. (pp. 18–19)

Nevertheless, before finalising his decision, Gilbert is keen to work through his late uncle’s vast store of papers on the Woolfall family history. Who knows what he might discover as he continues to dig?

While Gilbert is mulling things over, Lorac introduces a few other interested parties – each with an eye on the new owner’s decision, one way or another. First up, there’s Betty Fell, a strapping lass from a family of local farmers. Betty hopes to marry her young man, Jock Shearling, a local farmhand, but the prospect of living with either set of parents is not particularly appealing. So, she asks Gilbert if she and Jock can stay in a wing of the house and look after the place in his absence. In effect, Betty would act as Aikengill’s housekeeper while Jock could look after the land.

Then there’s the Rector, the disagreeable Simon Tupper, who seems to think Gilbert’s uncle should have left the Church some money in his will. Gilbert knows of some suspicions regarding the Church’s misallocation of a previous stipend – a provision for a perpetual curate in the area, originally dating back to the Woolfalls’ ancestors in the 17th century. This ‘hocus-pocus’ about the grant appears to be the reason for the lack of any Church bequest in Uncle Thomas’s will. Finally, there’s Daniel Herdwick, owner of the neighbouring farm. He wishes to buy Aikengill as he already has grazing rights to the estate’s land.

Gilbert is minded to take up Betty Fell’s offer to take care of the place while he decides what to do long term. He knows it might take a year or two to make a final decision, and the house will need looking after in his absence – especially as the current housekeeper, Mrs Ramsden, is moving to Dent to take care of her cousin. However, before any plans can be finalised, a tragedy occurs. A fire breaks out in the Aikengill cellar, destroying the contents of the property’s study and killing Mrs Ramsden – possibly unintentionally, as the house was presumed to have been unoccupied on the night in question.  

Naturally, Chief Inspector Macdonald gets involved in the case – firstly as a consultant to the local police and subsequently on a more formal basis. The ensuing investigations take Macdonald through the hills and dales of the fells, giving Lorac ample opportunities to showcase her skills in capturing the beauty of the local area. What makes this story particularly engaging is how beautifully Lorac portrays the farming community and the local landscape. She writes lovingly about the details of day-to-day rural life, the rhythms of working the land, and the blend of beauty and ruggedness in the terrain.

It was a glorious spring evening, the sun still gilding the crests of the high fells, though the valley was already in shadows. At first, the steep narrow road ran between hedgerows in which the first blackthorn was spreading a mist of white, and the willow catkins were blobs of gold, but after a couple of miles the hedgerows gave way to dry-stone walls, the arable land dropped behind, and the road rose even more steeply to the open fellside. (p. 16)

The narrative is punctuated by some lovely descriptions of the Lancashire landscape, and Lorac’s knowledge of the practicalities of sheep farming also comes through, giving the story a strong sense of authenticity. (The Aikengill mystery is further complicated by the apparent theft of some sheep from Herdwick’s flock – a series of incidents that may or may not be connected to the fire) The post-war atmosphere, complete with shortages and black-market trading, is also nicely evoked.

Another area where Lorac excels is the characterisation. In Macdonald, Lorac has created a character with a deep understanding of country folk, particularly their strong sense of community and suspicion of strangers. The number of key players/suspects is relatively small, and Lorac fleshes them out beautifully through a combination of dialogue, behaviours and descriptive passages. As this mystery is a slow burner, we get to know the characters really well, despite a few obligatory red herrings here and there.

Moreover, the solution is not overly complex or convoluted. Much of it rests on Uncle Thomas’s investigations into the Woolfall family history, some of which seem tantalisingly out of reach for the reader. (If you’re someone who likes to spot the clues and piece everything together yourself before the investigator reveals all, you might be a little frustrated with this one. I’m not sure there’s enough here to actually solve the puzzle in full without a little more info on Uncle Thomas’s papers.) Nevertheless, when the solution is finally laid out, it feels entirely plausible and in keeping with the novel’s tenor – so, no complaints on that front from me.

In summary then, this is a very absorbing mystery with a well-developed set of characters and a marvellous sense of place. Another winner from E. C. R. Lorac, one of the stars of the British Library Crime Classics series – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Winter in the Air by Sylvia Townsend Warner  

It was the evocative title that first drew me to Winter in the Air, a shimmering collection of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories, recently published by Faber & Faber. Many of these pieces first appeared in the New Yorker between the late 1930s and mid-‘50s, and it’s fascinating to read them together here. When viewed as a whole, the collection paints a compelling picture of middle-class life in the mid-20th century, replete with individuals buffeted by the fallout of war with all its attendant losses. Here is a world of abandoned wives and widowed mothers, of bitterness and melancholy, all portrayed in Warner’s wonderfully lucid prose. There’s also something rather subversive about this collection, too – a sinister tone that inhabits some of these pieces, giving these stories a macabre or surreal edge.

As ever with short story collections, I’m not planning to cover every story in detail; instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole. Luckily there are some real standouts here, well worth the entry price alone.

The collection starts strongly with the titular story, in which a woman has returned to London after several years in the country. I love how Warner illustrates the difference between these two environments through her descriptions of charladies, neatly capturing the gossipy nature of village life.

A London charwoman does her work, takes her money and goes away, sterile as the wind of the desert. She does not spongily, greedily, absorb your concerns, study your nose to see if you have been crying again, count the greying hairs of your head, proffer sympathetic sighs and vacuum pauses and then hurry off to wring herself out, spongily, all over the village, with news of what’s going on between those two at Pond House. (pp. 1–2)

As the woman reflects on recent events, it becomes clear that she has been supplanted by her husband’s lover, forcing the move to London, which she handles with equanimity. Just like the furniture she must now fit into her city flat, the woman knows she will soon settle into this new arrangement. The silence of the room will not be intimidating for long…

A broken marriage also plays a central role in Hee-Haw!, another excellent story with a chilly, melancholy air. In this tale, a woman returns to the village where she once lived with her former husband, Ludovick, a successful painter who has since passed away. Their marriage was a turbulent one, ultimately lasting for three tumultuous years.  

In a whisk, in a glancing blow of recognition, she had seen it again, the place where she had lived for three years—in turmoil, in rapture, in drudgery, in fury, in the bitter patience of disillusionment; there, at the close of those three years, she had her last quarrel with Ludovick and walked for the last time down the steep path. (p. 13)

The woman is staying at the village pub where some of Ludovick’s work is on display – and during this visit, a local man starts telling her about the artist, not realising they used to be married to one another. Perhaps unsurprisingly, certain details about Ludovick’s colourful love life are revealed, accentuating the woman’s resentment of her philandering former husband.

In Idenborough – one of my favourite stories in the collection – an impromptu visit to a village near Oxford prompts memories of a long-forgotten love affair, a fleeting relationship that lasted little more than a day. The central protagonist here is Amabel, a middle-aged woman who is now married to her second husband, Winter (her first, Thomas, having died during the war). Again, this is an excellent story, beautifully told.

…and [Amabal] remembered how, earlier in the day, Winter had praised her for her sincerity. But now it was too late. Deceit must accumulate on deceit, and with her second husband she would visit Idenborough, where she had cuckolded her first one. (p. 197)

Other, more surprising relationships also feature here. In Evan – another highlight – Warner gives us a chance encounter on a train, the kind of set-up that feels ripe with possibility. A teenage schoolboy on the cusp of adulthood gets chatting with the only other traveller in his compartment, a woman returning from a spell in the country. Despite their lives being poles apart, an easy conversation quickly develops between the pair as the journey progresses. However, when the woman must change trains to catch her connection, something passes between the two of them – a spark of attraction charged with tension as the time comes to part. It’s a lovely story – surprising, evocative and lightly sketched – tinged with a touch of longing for the relationship to develop.

Nestling among these quietly compelling stories are sharper, more sinister pieces, shot through with an air of menace or a whiff of eccentricity. In A Priestess of Delphi, the brutal murder of a woman raises the threat of blackmail for a former lover from the victim’s distant past. As the protagonist – a writer named Charlton – embarks on a journey to recover his old love letters to the murdered woman, Warner gives her story a rather unsettling edge.  

Tossing and swaying, the newly leaved ash trees in the hedgerows looked hysterically green. It seemed a landscape fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils, and, for that matter, murders. (p. 50)

If anything, Under New Management is even more unnerving, a subtle tale of malevolence in a seedy post-war setting. The story revolves around Miss St John, a longstanding resident at the Peacock Hotel. When the establishment changes hands, Miss St John is not entirely happy with certain developments. The new owners, Mr and Mrs Fry, start encroaching on the spinster’s territory, shunting her into a small sitting room to give the seasonal guests the full run of the lounge. Moreover, Miss St John soon finds herself at the mercy of the Frys’ adult son, Dennis, who proceeds to regale her with horrifying accounts of brutal crimes from the newspapers. Nevertheless, Warner’s protagonist is made of stern stuff, a quality that ultimately sees her through. This superb story finishes with a suitably ironic twist while also showcasing the author’s flair for darkly comic character descriptions – Mr and Mrs Fry being a prime case in point!

Mrs Fry was of the type known as bright. She walked briskly, she smiled often, her head was always bound up in a bright-patterned scarf, and from under the scarf jutted two careful tinted curls whose position never varied by a hair’s-breadth from day to day (pp. 93–94)

Striking pen portraits also feature prominently in A Funeral at Clovie, as a man drives his cousin’s widow to her estranged husband’s funeral. The woman in question is Veronica, who is dressed ‘as though for a religious Ascot’, complete with a white cloak and sombrero, all topped off with ‘a sky-blue enamel cross’.   

No wonder she’s dressed up like a bride for her husband’s funeral, thought Archie. The whited sepulchre! Probably the next one will be some Bishop or other, and she’ll marry him in pink. (p. 209)

Other highlights include Shadwell, a brilliant story of a loyal servant who finds an ingenious way to supplement her meagre income, and Absolom My Son, an excellent story of a writer who discovers his work has been plagiarised by another author (now deceased). This is another tale with a surprising twist or two as it moves towards the end.  

So, all in all, this excellent collection of stories ticks several boxes for me, from the evocative mid-20th century settings to Warner’s beautiful, evocative prose. There’s some lovely descriptive writing here, especially in the author’s portrayal of the English landscape, the trees heavy with autumn foliage and inlets of green moss, ‘hot velvet in the sun, cold as ermine in the shade’. Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is Warner’s command of the contrasts in tone, the flashes of malevolence and malice lurking in these tales of seemingly gentile ladies and the respectable middle classes. A terrific collection of pieces with much to recommend it – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

A Touch of Mistletoe by Barbara Comyns

I’ve come to love Barbara Comyns over the past few years, a true English eccentric with a very particular style. Her novels have a strange, slightly off-kilter feel, frequently blending surreal imagery and touches of dark, deadpan humour with the harsh realities of life. There’s often a sadness to them too, a sense of poignancy or melancholy running through the text. First published in 1967, A Touch of Mistletoe is very much in this vein. Like some of Comyns’ earlier fiction, it feels semi-autobiographical in nature, rich in episodes and scenes that seem inspired by real-life experiences.

The novel is narrated by Victoria Green, who we follow from adolescence in the 1920s to middle age in the late ‘50s. In some respects, one could describe it as a sort of coming-of-age story as the narrative subtly explores the choices many single women faced in the mid-20th century. More specifically, Comyns gently probes the question of whether it is better to marry for love or financial security and companionship – not an easy decision for a single woman to have to make, especially when money is tight.

Right from the very start, Comyns draws on a couple of her favourite elements; firstly, by introducing two innocent children caught up in the trials of a dysfunctional family, and secondly by conveying their story in a disarming, matter-of-fact voice.

Following the death of their father, Victoria and her younger sister, Blanche, are educated by a string of hopeless governesses while their elder brother, Edward, attends school. The children’s mother is an alcoholic, alternating between sustained bouts of drinking and feverish spells of cleaning, much to the sisters’ confusion.

‘I’m afraid my daughter-in-law is poorly’ or ‘Your mother isn’t quite herself today, poorly, you know’ were words that frequently crossed his [Victoria’s grandfather’s] lips, and when we children heard the word ‘poorly’ applied to anyone who was ill, perhaps an innocent child suffering with measles, we took it for granted that they had been drinking bottles of port or sherry. (pp. 3–4)

By eighteen, Victoria is ready to flee the nest, keen to travel and pursue her interest in art. Following a traumatic spell working as a dog-handler-cum-skivvy for a dreadful woman in Amsterdam, Victoria finds herself in London, staying at a girls’ hostel near Baker Street; joining her there is Blanche, who is also eager for life to begin. The narrative mostly follows Victoria, although there are glimpses into Blanche’s life too. While Victoria inherits enough money from her grandfather to fund her first term at art school, Blanche hopes to pick up work as a mannequin or an artist’s model – cue various close shaves with seedy, unscrupulous men!

In time, the girls move to a bedsit near Mornington Crescent, where they try to survive on as little as possible. It’s a gloomy, bohemian environment, with meals mostly consisting of stale eggs, bread, cheap cheese, and cocoa without milk. Food must be heated over a candle or eaten cold, particularly if there are no spare shillings for the meter. But as ever with Comyns, these scenes of poverty are touchingly evoked. 

We did our shopping in Camden Town on Saturday afternoons. Although we were not as poor as we were to become later on, we had to shop very carefully. We used to buy grim little oranges for two a penny, which must have been dyed because the inside the peel was almost the same colour as the outside, and there were broken biscuits that only cost 4d. a pound, and cut-price sweetshops and grocer’s shops that had prices chalked all over the windows. (pp. 99–100)

The fortunes of both girls wax and wane over the years as various choices shape their lives, sometimes for the better, other times for the worse. Victoria goes through a string of jobs at small commercial agencies and animation studios, occasionally illustrating children’s books or other projects on the side to gain a little more income. Naturally, there are relationships too, with Blanche initially marrying a Captain for comfort and financial security while her sister is more interested in finding love. Sadly, Victoria’s first husband, Gene (a fellow artist whom she loves dearly), is plagued by significant mental health issues – a combination of schizophrenia and severe depression that blights the couple’s marriage following the birth of their son, Paul. Shortly after being admitted to hospital for treatment, Gene dies, leaving Victoria to grieve his loss.

Meanwhile, Blanche’s marriage is annulled due to non-consummation, leaving her free to marry again, this time more successfully for love and security. Her second husband, John, is a kind, older man with a good career in the forces – enough for them to start a family together.

More relationships also follow for Victoria – perhaps most notably marriage to Tony, a successful writer who falls prey to the ill effects of drink, particularly when he completes a book. Consequently, Victoria’s world is evocatively portrayed, illustrating the highs and lows of married life with a man addicted to drink.

He [Tony] hated these people when he was sober; but, when he had been drinking, he’d bring a taxi-load home and expect me to give them what he called a ‘dormitory feast’, and after the feast, they would spend the rest of the night on the drawing-room floor until Marcella swept them out in the early morning. They left with books under their arms and silver ashtrays in their pockets and the lavatories were often filthy. I thought they were like the mistletoe that Gene had feared so much and hoped it wasn’t starting to grow on me. (p. 243)

Having grown accustomed to her mother’s drinking as a child, Victoria considers her husband’s condition a sadness or illness that descends on some individuals, just as schizophrenia used to land on Gene. In time, however, the couple’s relationship breaks down, leaving Victoria at risk of being preyed on by boring men, ‘the hopeless kind that goggle at you through thick spectacles and talk about sex or their mothers’ all the time.

The narrative also touches on WW2 with powerful descriptions of the devastation caused by flying bombs, leaving homes and buildings ripped apart, exposing the contents within. Nevertheless, despite the tragedy of the situation, Comyns lightens the tone now and again, casting her eye on the surreal and absurd with those wonderful details she so expertly invokes.

An old woman was fined for feeding ducks on a public pond and a light-hearted girl in the provinces was sent to prison for flashing a torch in boys’ faces. Once I told a man at a party that my grocer occasionally let me have extra butter and he said that I was sinking ships. He was so angry that his eyes became crossed and I hurriedly left. Later I discovered that this man who thought I was sinking ships used to buy black-market petrol from dustmen who siphoned it out from their petrol tanks. Then there were people who loved to queue; they joined any old queue that was going. (p. 260)

As the novel draws to a close, we find the two sisters reunited, reflecting on the cards that life has dealt them. Victoria’s son, Paul, is all grown up, studying art at Camberwell college, newly married with a young baby and promising prospects of his own. Blanche’s children are also ploughing their own furrows while their parents are still together, content with their lives in middle age. Meanwhile, there are new opportunities on the horizon for Victoria as she looks to the future.

In terms of style and subject matter, Mistletoe feels quite similar to Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, another novel that explores the choices open to women at this time. Interestingly, both books draw much of their power from the tone of voice Comyns employs – a childlike, matter-of-fact delivery that really adds to their appeal. Despite Mistletoes dark themes – poverty, alcoholism, mental illness, and abortion – there’s a lightness of touch in Comyns’ writing, the flashes of deadpan humour fitting beautifully within the context of the story. In summary then, a sensitive portrayal of a life touched by mistletoe – another brilliant novel by one of my favourite women writers.

A Touch of Mistletoe is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

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

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

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

Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1969)

Back in October 2021, the Backlisted team covered Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1969 novel Something in Disguise on their Halloween episode of the podcast. It’s a book I had read before, with somewhat mixed feelings. However, Andrew Male and Laura Varnam’s impassioned case for it being a rather sly, perceptive novel about the horrors of domestic life prompted me to revisit it with a fresh pair of eyes. Naturally, they were right! (How could they not be?) On my second reading, I found it much more chilling from the start, partly because I already knew just how painfully the story would play out for some of the key characters involved…The less said about the plot the better; just cut to the book itself.

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

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

The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns (1989)

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

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker (1991)

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

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (1953)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977, at the height of Pym’s well-documented renaissance, Quartet in Autumn is a quietly poignant novel of loneliness, ageing and the passing of time – how sometimes we can feel left behind as the world changes around us. Now that I’ve read it twice, I think it might be my favourite Pym! The story follows four work colleagues in their sixties as they deal with retirement from their roles as clerical workers in a London office. While that might not sound terribly exciting as a premise, Pym brings some lovely touches of gentle humour to this bittersweet gem, showing us that life can still offer new possibilities in the autumn of our years.

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam

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

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

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

Other People’s Worlds by William Trevor

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

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

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

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

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

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

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

Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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

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

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

A Helping Hand by Celia Dale

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

Latecomers by Anita Brookner

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

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

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

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

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

Books of the year 2022, my favourites from a year of reading – recently published books

2022 has been another excellent year of reading for me. I’ve read some superb books over the past twelve months, the best of which feature in my reading highlights.

Just like last year, I’m spreading my books of the year across two posts – ‘recently published’ titles in this first piece, with older books (including reissues) to follow next week. Hopefully, some of you might find this list of contemporary favourites useful for last-minute Christmas gifts.

As many of you know, most of my reading comes from books first published in the mid-20th century. But this year, I’ve tried to read a few more newish books – a mixture of contemporary fiction and one or two memoirs/biographies. So, my books-of-the-year posts will reflect this mix. (I’m still reading more backlisted titles than new ones, but the contemporary books I chose to read this year were very good indeed. I’m also being quite liberal with my definition of ‘recently published’ as a few of my favourites first came out in their original language 10-15 years ago.)

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

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Like many readers, I’ve been knocked sideways by Claire Keegan this year. She writes beautifully about elements of Ireland’s troubled social history with a rare combination of delicacy and precision; her ability to compress big themes into slim, jewel-like novellas is second to none. Set in small-town Ireland in the run-up to Christmas 1985, Small Things is a deeply moving story about the importance of staying true to your values – of doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security and aspirations at risk. Probably the most exquisite, perfectly-formed novella I read this year – not a word wasted or out of place.

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Another very impactful, remarkably assured novella, especially for a debut. (I’m excited to see what Natasha Brown produces next!) Narrated by an unnamed black British woman working in a London-based financial firm, this striking book has much to say about many vital sociopolitical issues. Toxic masculinity, the shallowness of workplace diversity programmes, the pressure for people of colour to assimilate into a predominantly white society, and the social constructs perpetuating Britain’s damaging colonial history – they’re all explored here. I found it urgent and illuminating – a remarkable insight into how it must feel to be a young black woman in the superficially liberal sectors of society today.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell

Last year, Lucy Caldwell made my 2021 reading highlights with Intimacies, her nuanced collection of stories about motherhood, womanhood and life-changing moments. This year she’s back with These Days, an immersive portrayal of the WW2 bombing raids in the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of a fictional middle-class family. What Caldwell does so well here is to make us care about her characters, ensuring we feel invested in their respective hopes and dreams, their anxieties and concerns. It’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes her portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting to read. A lyrical, exquisitely-written novel from one of my favourite contemporary writers.

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

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, this narrative is wonderfully slippery – cool and clear on the surface, yet harbouring fascinating hidden depths within, a combination that gives the book a spectral, enigmatic quality, cutting deep into the soul. Au excels in conveying the ambiguous 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. A meditative, dreamlike novella from a writer to watch.

Foster by Claire Keegan

I make no apologies for a second mention of Claire Keegan – she really is that good! As Foster opens, a young girl from Clonegal in Ireland’s County Carlow is being driven to Wexford by her father. There she will stay with relatives, an aunt and uncle she doesn’t know, with no mention of a return date or the nature of the arrangement. The girl’s mother is expecting a baby, and with a large family to support, the couple has chosen to take the girl to Wexford to ease the burden at home. Keegan’s sublime novella shows how the girl blossoms under the care of her new family through a story that explores kindness, compassion, nurturing and acceptance from a child’s point of view.

Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

I’ve read a few of Ernaux’s books over the past 18 months, and Happening is probably the pick of the bunch (with Simple Passion a very close second). In essence, it’s an account of Ernaux’s personal experiences of an illegal abortion in the early ‘60s when she was in her early twenties – her quest to secure it, what took place during the procedure and the days that followed, all expressed in the author’s trademark candid style. What makes this account so powerful is the rigorous nature of Ernaux’s approach. There are no moral judgements or pontifications here, just unflinchingly honest reflections on a topic that remains controversial today. A really important book that deserves to be widely read, even though the subject matter is so raw and challenging.

Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

I adored this haunting, beautifully-crafted story of love, trauma, and the creation of art, all set against the backdrop of a deadly global pandemic. Hall’s novel explores some powerful existential themes. How do we live with the knowledge that one day we will die? How do we prepare for the inevitable without allowing it to consume us? And what do we wish to leave behind as a legacy of our existence? Intertwined with these big questions is the role of creativity in a time of crisis – the importance of art in the wake of trauma, both individual and collective. In Burntcoat, Sarah Hall has created something vital and vivid, capturing the fragile relationship between life and death – not a ‘pandemic’ novel as such, but a story where a deadly virus plays its part.

Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin

When we hear the word ‘flâneur’, we probably think of some well-to-do chap nonchalantly wandering the streets of 19th-century Paris, idling away his time in cafés and bars, casually watching the inhabitants of the city at work and play. Irrespective of the specific figure we have in mind, the flâneur is almost certainly a man. In this fascinating bookthe critically-acclaimed writer and translator Lauren Elkin shows us another side of this subject, highlighting the existence of the female equivalent, the eponymous flâneuse. Through a captivating combination of memoir, social history and cultural studies/criticism, Elkin walks us through several examples of notable flâneuses down the years, demonstrating that the joy of traversing the city has been shared by men and women alike. A thoughtful, erudite, fascinating book, written in a style that I found thoroughly engaging.

Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (tr. Natasha Wimmer)

First published in Chile in 2013, this memorable, shapeshifting novella paints a haunting portrait of a generation of children exposed to the horrors of Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1980s – a time of deep oppression and unease. The book focuses on a close-knit group of young adults who were at school together during the ‘80s and are now haunted by a jumble of disturbing dreams interspersed with shards of unsettling memories – suppressed during childhood but crying out to be dealt with now. Collectively, these striking fragments form a kind of literary collage, a powerful collective memory of the group’s absent classmate, Estrella, whose father was a leading figure in the State Police. Fernandez adopts a fascinating combination of form and structure for her book, using the Space Invaders game as both a framework and a metaphor for conveying the story. An impressive achievement by a talented writer – definitely someone to watch.

The Colony by Audrey Magee

Set on a small, unnamed island to the west of Ireland during the Troubles, The Colony focuses on four generations of the same family, highlighting the turmoil caused when two very different outsiders arrive for the summer. Something Magee does so brilliantly here is to move the point-of-view around from one character to another – often within the same paragraph or sentence – showing us the richness of each person’s inner life, despite the limited nature of their existence. In essence, the novel is a thought-provoking exploration of the damaging effects of colonisation – touching on issues including the acquisition of property, the demise of traditional languages and ways of living, cultural appropriation and, perhaps most importantly, who holds the balance of power in this isolated society. I found it timely, thoughtful and utterly compelling – very highly recommended indeed.   

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

Another excellent novel set during the Troubles, Trespasses is a quietly devastating book, steeped in the tensions of a country divided by fierce sectarian loyalties. It’s also quite a difficult one to summarise in a couple of sentences – at once both an achingly tender story of an illicit love affair and a vivid exploration of the complex network of divisions that can emerge in highly-charged communities. The narrative revolves around Cushla, a young primary teacher at a local Catholic school, and her married lover, Michael, a Protestant barrister in his early fifties. Here we see ordinary people living in extraordinary times, buffeted by a history of violence that can erupt at any moment. I loved this beautifully-written, immersive page-turner – it’s probably one of my top three books of the year.

Dandelions by Thea Lenarduzzi

In Dandelions, the Italian-born editor and writer Thea Lenarduzzi has given us a gorgeous, meditative blend of family memoir, political and socioeconomic history, and personal reflections on migration between Italy and the UK. Partly crafted from discussions between Thea and her paternal grandmother, Dirce, the book spans four generations of Lenarduzzi’s family, moving backwards and forwards in time – and between Italy and England – threading together various stories and vignettes that span the 20th century. In doing so, a multilayered portrayal of Thea’s family emerges, placed in the context of Italy’s sociopolitical history and economic challenges. Another book I adored – both for its themes and the sheer beauty of Lenarduzzi’s prose.

So that’s it for my favourite ‘recently published’ titles from a year of reading – I’d love to hear your thoughts below. Do join me again next week when I’ll be sharing the best older books I read this year with plenty of literary treasures still to come!

No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute by Lauren Elkin

Earlier this year, I read and loved Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin’s fascinating exploration of notable flâneuses down the years, a book that celebrates various women walkers in touch with their cities. Elkin’s latest book, No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute, shares something with its predecessor – a curiosity and a sense of engagement with the inhabitants of a metropolis.

From September 2014 to May 2015, while teaching at a Paris university, Elkin jotted down various notes during her twice-weekly bus journeys to and from work (the numbers 91 and 92 refer to the bus routes she used). These diary-style entries are presented in No. 91/92 with very few edits, preserving the spontaneous, unfiltered feel of Elkin’s impressions. The initial aim was for Elkin to observe her surroundings from the position of a commuter, using her phone to note these thoughts and observations; however, as the project progressed, a more personal record emerged – something I’ll return to later in this review.

Elkin openly acknowledges a debt to Georges Perec here. His book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (a collection of observations which Perec wrote as he sat in a café in Saint-Sulpice Square for three days in 1974), is clearly a touchtone for Elkin, as is the work of Annie Ernaux. Like Perec, Elkin is interested in capturing the regular rhythms of everyday life – not the big dramatic events or occurrences, but the small micro-observations that might otherwise go unnoticed.

The individual entries vary in length from just a few sentences (often unpunctuated) to a couple of paragraphs – few vignettes extend over a page. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Elkin’s fellow commuters feature heavily in these notes, highlighting a sense of curiosity about other people’s lives and the stories we imagine from the clues and hints we can see.

I clamber into a seat and move aside the coat of the man sitting next to me to keep from sitting on it. Excusez-moi I say politely. I have a headache. He is wearing too much cologne. When this man gets off the bus I notice his head is completely bald under his blue woolen beanie. Not the kind of bald that comes naturally for some men with age. I don’t know how I know he’s been sick, it’s just something I feel I know. (p. 17)

Some passages are playful, almost like flash non-fiction or poetry, often demonstrating a sharp sense of wit.

Blue tutu Chanel bag fake lashes girl you look amazing. (p. 35)

Your glittery sandals are awful but the rest of your outfit is good. (p. 27)

Occasional flashes of anger and frustration burst through, especially in Elkin’s observations of other commuters’ treatment of their fellow passengers, particularly women. Bus etiquette and common codes of courtesy feature regularly in these notes. For instance, the reluctance of some passengers to slide over to an adjacent window seat when another person wishes to sit, forcing the latter to clamber over them to reach the unoccupied space.

When Elkin falls pregnant, she starts noticing different things on her journeys, such as the practicalities of getting on and off the bus with toddlers in strollers, what children do on the bus, and how pregnant women are treated – sometimes very poorly.

A pregnant woman tries to get on but another woman nearly throws her off the step in her hurry to get on the bus first. She finally makes it on but the only open seat is inhabited by a woman’s bag. The pregnant woman is able to make her move it but only with effort. The woman thinks her bag needs her seat more than a woman with a soccer ball for a stomach. (p. 82)

It’s a revealing picture, highlighting how, in our rush to save time, we often lose sight of general pleasantries towards others, especially those who may be more vulnerable or fragile than ourselves.

As the diary progresses, the tone changes somewhat as we realise both Elkin and the city of Paris are dealing with the fallout from loss. For Elkin, it is the loss of an unborn child due to an ectopic pregnancy, an experience that leaves her feeling shattered – both physically and emotionally.

The days have come apart. I don’t leave the bed. Don’t use my phone except to write this. Check email on my laptop. I can’t answer any messages though people send nice ones.

I watch television, I lose myself in other people’s plot lines, I watch people who exist pretend to be people who don’t exist. (p. 101)

For Paris, it’s the 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices which prompts the city’s inhabitants to reflect – an incident that ultimately leads to twelve deaths and the injury of several others. As Parisians try to process the impact of the attack, a delicate balance emerges. While most people feel anxious, as if their world has shifted in some terrible, uncontrollable way, this is balanced by a sense of defiance, a necessity to carry on as normal to get through the days.

20/01/15

Tuesday morning

We’re all thinking the same thing, it’s the first day back to work since it all happened and it feels like we swallowed something down the wrong pipe and we’re just starting to be able to take regular breaths again we came out of our houses ok I came out of my house and we marched in defiance but the defiance has taken a backseat to our commute as we try to get on with things even though there are seventeen fewer Parisians than there were this time last week. (p. 50)

What works so well here is Elkin’s ability to capture the sense of togetherness that stems from the regular commute, especially in a time of crisis. While each individual traveller is alone with their own thoughts and preoccupations, they are also united with several others through a shared activity and spirit.

The penultimate entry in the book is one of the most thoughtful and reflective. Writing in November 2015, a day or two after the Bataclan attacks, when the mundanity of everyday life was so cruelly interrupted, Elkin begins to see things in a slightly different light, one that emphasises the fragile nature of our existence and how our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments. A train caught or missed; a decision to go out or stay in; the choice of one concert over another. These reflections and more highlight the importance of appreciating our surroundings, the sense of wonder to be found in the ordinary and everyday.

In summary then, a really interesting book that may well inspire readers to look at their immediate world with a fresh perspective, ready to jot down whatever catches their eye.

No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute is published by Les Fugitives; personal copy.

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

The Hungarian writer Magda Szabó is perhaps best known for her 1987 novel The Door, a poignant story of the relationship between two women – a writer and her housekeeper. (It’s been on my radar for a while, although I’ve yet to read it.)  Iza’s Ballad (an earlier novel) also features a complex relationship between two women at its heart – in this instance, the frustrations and heartbreak of a distant mother-daughter relationship. More specifically, the book digs deep into the damage we inflict on those closest to us – often unintentionally but inhumanely nonetheless. It is a story of many contrasts; the differences between the generations; the traditional vs the new; the rural vs the urban; and the generous vs the self-centred.

Seventy-five-year-old Ettie and her husband Vince have lived a traditional life in the Hungarian countryside since their marriage some fifty years before. They have one daughter, the progressive, idealistic Iza, a brilliant doctor who now works in Pest (eastern Budapest), where she is well respected and successful. While Iza is a dutiful daughter, paying monthly visits to her elderly parents, she rarely shows any emotion, devoting herself instead to a demanding job in rheumatology.

Everything changes for both women when Vince dies of cancer. At first, Ettie fears being left alone in the old house, the long empty days stretching out ahead of her with no husband to talk to or care for. But Iza – a direct, controlling person at heart – decides that Ettie must come and live with her in the apartment in Pest as it’s clearly the right thing to do. There is no consultation with Ettie at this point, simply a unilateral decision that Iza makes with no attempt to establish Ettie’s wishes. Nevertheless, in her relief at not being abandoned, Ettie defers to Iza’s better judgement – clearly her capable daughter knows best – and she goes along with the plan.

Straight after Vince’s funeral, Iza bundles Ettie off for a week at a sanatorium, effectively as a way of getting ‘the old woman’ out of the way while she arranges the move. The former family home is sold to Iza’s ex-husband, Antal, a kind, considerate man who retains a fondness for Ettie despite his broken relationship with her daughter. Meanwhile, Ettie must contend with a maelstrom of emotions on her own – grief at the loss of her beloved husband, relief at the prospect of a new life with Iza, and concern over the packing up of the house. Her major consolation is the prospect of being surrounded by Vince’s possessions once she arrives in Pest.

It was an enormous relief to her [Ettie] that she wouldn’t have to live by herself in a house bereft of Vince, but it was terrifying not be present while Iza packed up ready for the removal men. ‘You’d only torture yourself,’ retorted Iza, ‘you have spent enough time crying. I know my flat, know where I am taking you, I know where things will fit and what will look best. I want you to be happy from now on.’ (p. 56)

What follows when Iza brings her mother to the city is truly heartbreaking to observe. Very few of the couple’s treasured possessions have survived the move, and those that have are barely recognisable from their former selves. Vince’s favourite chair has been reupholstered, transforming it from a comfortable, careworn reminder to an alien object, erasing its emotional value for Ettie as a result. Naturally, Ettie is devastated by this casting aside of her former life. Virtually everything familiar has been discarded or left behind, accentuating Ettie’s crushing sense of loss.

She felt as if some elemental blow had destroyed everything around her and that only now did she really know what it was to be a widow, someone absolutely abandoned.

She didn’t cry while Iza was in the room, just looked pale and was more quiet than usual, but she tried to say something nice, however awkward, about the practicality of the arrangement and Iza’s helpfulness and kindness. (p. 89)

Everything required for comfort was present and correct but she still felt as though she had been robbed. (p. 92)

As the days and weeks slip by, Ettie continues to struggle with her new life in the city. Every time she tries to do something to please Iza, such as cooking a favourite meal from the girl’s childhood or brewing traditional Turkish coffee, the gesture backfires, aggravating Iza on her return from work. While Ettie has been used to a life of housework and cleaning, Iza’s housekeeper Teréz takes care of everything in Pest – an arrangement that Iza is determined to maintain. Unsurprisingly, this leads to tension between Ettie and Teréz, prompting Iza to intervene…

The old woman listened. She felt silly and unable to mount an argument; she was so cowed by the accusation that she got on Teréz’s nerves that she dared not say a word. Should she say that she’d like to be the one who looked after her [Iza], and that she’d enjoy taking care of things and finding out what she liked? Or that she [Ettie] had worked all her life, that she liked working and would like to find a way of showing how grateful she was for not being left alone? She kept quiet. (p. 98)

One of the great tragedies here – and there are many – is Iza’s lack of appreciation of her mother’s needs and emotions. On her return from work, Iza simply wants some peace and quiet, so she soon becomes irritated by Ettie’s questions and constant presence in the flat.

Her [Ettie’s] constant presence, the way she kept opening doors, always wanting something to happen at precisely the times Iza was exhausted and wanted rest and quiet, a space where nothing happened, saddened her and forced her to spend ever less time at home, only as much as was absolutely necessary. (pp. 131–132)

With Iza out at work all day, there are precious few opportunities for Ettie to spend time with her daughter or to share how she is feeling. Ettie knows she should be grateful to Iza for bringing her to Budapest, but the loneliness she is experiencing is destroying her, and with no one to talk to, these emotions remain locked in. As the novel unfolds, we can almost see Ettie wasting away before our eyes. In effect, she is retreating into herself as much as possible for fear of doing anything that will aggravate either Iza or Teréz. For Ettie, large chunks of the day are spent riding the tram routes across the city to steer clear of Teréz or whittled away alone at the flat.   

While the reader’s sympathies will almost certainly be weighted towards Ettie, Szabó is mindful of portraying each of her characters as complex, rounded individuals, complete with their shortcomings and failings. Like all of us, Ettie has her faults, from her jealousy of Lidia, the gracious nurse who holds Vince’s hand as he is dying, to her resentment of Teréz for robbing her of the chance to cook Iza’s meals. Similarly, while Iza has many faults ranging from selfishness and a lack of emotional intelligence to brusqueness and insensitivity, the situation is not entirely black and white. Her dedicated approach to work is undeniable, an asset widely recognised by colleagues and patients alike. Nevertheless, Iza’s lack of understanding towards her mother is horrifying to observe – while every physical comfort is provided for Ettie, the requisite emotional support is sorely missing from Iza’s approach. (Interestingly, this lack of emotional involvement is mirrored in Iza’s relationships with men – both her ex-husband Antal, who left Iza for fear of being destroyed by her, and Iza’s current lover, Domokos, who suddenly realises he might be destined for a similar fate.)

As this heartbreakingly poignant novel approaches its inexorable conclusion, Ettie returns to her old country home for the instalment of Vince’s headstone – a visit that prompts a reunion with Antal and a touching reminder of her former life. Despite the undeniable sadness in this story, this was a knockout read for me – a richly textured portrait of two very different women, unable to reach out to one another despite their familial bond.

Iza’s Ballad is published by NYRB Classics (US) and Vintage (UK); personal copy.