Tag Archives: #ReadWomen

There’s No Story There by Inez Holden

There is a wonderful note of irony in the title of Inez Holden’s 1944 novel, There’s No Story There, recently reissued in a beautiful edition by Handheld Press (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). The book is set in Statevale, an enormous munitions factory situated in the English countryside during WW2. While many writers might have overlooked the lives of ordinary working people when searching for inspiration, Holden took a different view. By drawing on her socialist values and journalistic experience, Holden could see the interesting in the everyday. Consequently, she used the working environment as a suitable canvas for her fiction, illuminating some fascinating stories of day-to-day life.

There’s No Story There is an excellent novel – by turns striking, poignant, funny and insightful. Very highly recommended for anyone interested in this period of British fiction.

Statevale – the fictional munitions factory in Holden’s novel – is a vast operation, ‘seven miles round’ and encompassing 30,000 workers, the majority of whom are divided into three shifts: Red, White and Blue. Many of the conscripted workers – particularly those coming from outside the immediate area – are housed in the Statevale Hostel. This gives the complex something of a community feel, despite the undeniable sense of isolation some workers experience after being separated from their former homes.

The train journey – perhaps the first – the crowded station, the factory town and the great grey hostel buildings, the work itself, carried out in silent isolated groups, never more than twenty workers in one semi-underground shed, never less than two hundred in the canteen at break-time, sometimes six hundred in the hostel at meal-times, and always seven thousand going out or coming in on shift. The journey herd, the hostel herd, the workshop herd – where even the movements of the work were disciplined down to a slow rhythm – all added to the fear and sense of isolation from the home herd. (p. 46)

With the workers at Statevale engaged in the manufacture of artillery shells and bombs via hazardous procedures, the potential for accidental ‘blows’ (i.e. explosions) is ever-present – a fear that rumbles away for some of the employees, particularly those with previous experience of war. Julian feels it very acutely, which becomes increasingly apparent as the novel unfolds. Clearly experiencing PTSD following his discharge from the army, Julian is virtually mute, unable to speak aloud while the words maintain an ongoing commentary in his head.

Julian looked up at the top layer of boxes, and as he did so his death-wish overwhelmed him again.

‘Supposing one of them tipped over and fell to the ground? What would happen – well, you know! A small speck of powder spilled, some sort of friction, what they call a “blow”, and I should disappear instantly. (p. 15)

Through Holden’s immense skill in shifting the viewpoint from one worker to the next, we are able to build up a detailed picture of life inside the munitions base over the course of the book. Workers must dress in asbestos suits, wear rubber-soled shoes on their feet, and cover their faces with special cream and powder to protect themselves while on the job. Procedures are conducted slowly and meticulously to minimise the potential for friction – with so many hazardous explosives around, any sparks or points of ignition must be avoided at all costs, otherwise the consequences could be fatal. As readers, we also gain a real sense of the less obvious sources of danger when working in such an operation – for instance, the insidious threat from boredom, which stems from the monotony of performing highly repetitive tasks.  

‘…It’s not so bad at this time of the day, but towards the end of the shift that awful mood of monotony comes creeping over me as certain sure as slow paralysis. Boredom isn’t a negative thing as people say; it’s an active kind of poison, a malady that drags you down with it and into a deep morass where treacled-up time ticks slowly over you. It’s not carelessness, but monotony that’s the enemy of safety and industry.’ (p. 17)

In addition to offering us this high-level overview of the factory operations, Holden makes terrific use of specific characters to zoom in on some of the personal stories. Individuals such as Inspector Jameson, the pedantic police supervisor with control-freak tendencies; Ysabette Jones, a deluded woman who invents things about her ‘friend’, the Group Captain; and Geoffrey Doran, the Time and Motion man who eavesdrops on everyone, meticulously conducting his own Mass Observation study as a result. There is a particularly amusing moment towards the end of the novel when we discover that Doran has lost his precious notebook, the one containing all his notes of conversations, behaviours and occurrences. Doran himself is the person under observation during his frantic search for the journal, as a ‘mass of workers’ stops to watch him scrabbling away at the snow in sheer desperation.

Inevitably, various tensions emerge between certain groups of workers, perhaps most notably when Inspector Jameson randomly stops one in every 200 employees for further questioning when issuing their new security passes. It’s another pointless activity designed to demonstrate this official’s power over the little people while putting individuals on the back foot. There are rivalries too between the three groups of shift workers, albeit more friendly in nature. By contrast, the ‘Super’ – a very clever chemist, by all accounts – is level-headed and fair, commanding respect and authority when it’s due.

Interestingly, a heavy snowfall heralds the one instance in the narrative when barriers of class and status between various groups seem to disappear. Great swathes of workers are snowed-in for a couple of nights, prompting them to bed down and make the best of it on site. It’s a very touching episode with workers, overseers and managers all mucking in to help with the necessary tasks.

Most of the men and girls said they’d work till the first break. Ambulances came down to the shifting house with blankets. Food vans came up with pies and chips, steamed puddings, and custards. The canteen supervisor said, ‘My, we’re grand to-night, chips and that. The girls will be pleased. Fine feed they’ll have, first break.’ (p. 133)

As a novel, There’s No Story Here feels grounded in authenticity with Holden clearly demonstrating her keen ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for detail. The book is peppered with memorable images, vividly portrayed.

The canteen girls, with their frivolous heads and hard high heels, gave the impression of a group of pretty centaurs handing out suppers in tune to hoof sounds on kitchen tiles. (p. 41)

In some respects, this is a novel of vignettes, little snapshots of life inside the munitions factory complex. Workers come and go; the day-to-day functions continue as scheduled. Nevertheless, every now and again something dramatic happens to disrupt the equilibrium, reminding us that we are only ever a few steps away from potential catastrophe. There are real notes of concern and poignancy here, particularly once we realise that some of these workers would struggle to secure roles elsewhere.

Holden remains mindful of balancing the darker sides of the factory environment with lighter moments, all in a way that feels natural and realistic. The ongoing banter between workers provides significant humour – as does a much-anticipated visit from the King, which doesn’t quite live up to expectations! There is also a brilliant note of ambiguity about the novel’s ending – a very cleverly handled passage relayed through a letter.

In summary, then, this is a fascinating insight into a vital wartime industry, skilfully encompassing the myriad of emotions this world evokes. Holden conveys this story with her characteristic blend of humour, poignancy and compassion, bringing the working environment to life through vivid dialogue and detail. (You can read my thoughts Holden’s earlier novella Nightshift here – also highly recommended.)   

August is #WITMonth – some recommendations of books by women in translation

As you may well know, August is Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. It’s a month-long celebration of translated literature by women writers – you can find out more about it here. I’ve reviewed quite a few books in this category over the past few years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read for WIT Month, here are a few of my recent favourites.

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

The loss of innocence is one of my favourite themes in literature. It’s a thread that runs through many coming-of-age novels, this one included. Matute’s story is set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, fourteen-year-old Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother, Aunt Emilia and duplicitous cousin, Borja – not a situation she relishes. This dark, visceral novel charts Matia’s awakening to the adult world, beautifully executed in the author’s lucid prose. Matute excels at heightening the sense of danger on the island through her vivid descriptions of the elements, e.g., the intense heat of the sun and the turbulent depths of the sea.

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

This 2009 novel by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is quite a difficult one to describe. It is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. It’s also beautifully written, by turns arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic. I loved it.

Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Avril Bardoni)

There has been something of a revival of interest in the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg in recent years, driven by reissues of some of her novels and essays by Daunt Books and NRYB Classics. Valentino and Sagittarius are two separate yet related novellas from the 1950s, reissued together in one stylish edition from NYRB. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships, the tensions that arise when one person behaves selfishly at the expense of those around them. Resentment, delusion, evasion, pride, loyalty and compassion all come together to form these perceptive, richly textured narratives. When viewed together, they highlight how foolhardy we can be, especially when investing all our hopes in a particular individual or venture – the fallout for the surrounding family members is often painful in the extreme.

Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)

First published in 1946, Three Summers is something of a classic of Greek literature, a languid coming-of-age novel featuring three sisters, set over three consecutive summer seasons. At first sight, it might appear as though the book is presenting a simple story, one of three very different young women growing up in the idyllic Greek countryside. However, there are darker, more complex issues bubbling away under the surface as the sisters must learn to navigate the choices that will shape the future directions of their lives. Sexual awakening is a major theme, with the novel’s lush and sensual tone echoing the rhythms of the natural world. Ultimately though it is the portrait of the three sisters that really shines through – the opportunities open to them and the limitations society may wish to dictate. This a novel about working out who you are as a person and finding your place in the world; of being aware of the consequences of certain life choices and everything these decisions entails. (I read this book in the NYRB Classics livery, but Penguin have recently published a beautiful new edition as part of their European Writers series.)

Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese (tr. Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee)

First published in Italian in 1953, this is a brilliant collection of short stories and reportage by the critically acclaimed writer Anna Maria Ortese. As a whole, the book conveys a vivid portrait of post-war Naples in all its vitality, devastation and squalor – a place that remains resilient despite being torn apart by war. Sharp contrasts are everywhere Ortese’s writing, juxtaposing the city’s ugliness with its beauty, the desperation of extreme poverty with the indifference of the bourgeoisie, the reality of the situation with the subjectivity of our imagination. The attention to detail is meticulous – as is the level of emotional insight, particularly about women’s lives and family dynamics.

Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

This novella, which revolves around Kōko, a thirty-six-year-old divorced woman, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayako, shares many similarities with Tsushima’s Territory of Light, a book I really adored. Like Territory, Child of Fortune explores themes of marginalisation, motherhood and the pressure to conform to conventional societal expectations – the setting of 1970s Japan is highly significant here. This is a haunting, beautifully written book – by turns subtle, reflective and deeply melancholic. And yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end, a sense of Kōko finally seizing control, once again ready to forge her own path in life.

(You can find some of my other faves in last year’s WIT Month recommendations post from July 2020, including books by Françoise Sagan, Irmgard Keun, Yuko Tsushima and Tove Ditlevsen. There’s also my list of recommendations for foreign language films directed by women – a Twitter thread I may well repeat next month, with new suggestions of movies to seek out.)

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading one or two of them next month. Perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? Please feel free to mention it below.

The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry

When Julia Parry comes into possession of a box of letters between her maternal grandfather, the author and academic, Humphry House (HH), and the esteemed Anglo-Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen (EB), it sparks an investigation into the correspondence between the two writers. Their relationship, it transpires, was an intimate one, ebbing and flowing over time, waxing and waning in intensity during the 1930s and ‘40s; this much is clear to Parry from her initial glimpses of the letters. She is also fortunate in having access to both sides of the conversation – letters from EB to HH and vice versa – preserved by Humphry’s wife, Madeline, Julia’s maternal grandmother. There are letters from Humphry to Madeline too, adding another dimension to this intriguing dynamic.

What follows is a quest on the part of Parry to piece together the story of Humphry’s relationship with Bowen – much of which is related in this illuminating and engagingly written book. Partly a collection of excerpts from the letters, partly the story of Julia’s travels to places of significance to the lovers, The Shadowy Third is a fascinating read, especially for anyone interested in Bowen’s writing.

The affair between Bowen and Humphry begins in Oxford in the early 1930s when Bowen is already a critically-acclaimed writer with a clutch of novels and short stories to her name. Moreover, she is ten years into her marriage to Alan Cameron, although their relationship, we learn, was never consummated. In effect, Alan has been adopting a kind of ‘parental’ role for Bowen, substituting for the losses she endured as a child, thereby providing security and respectability in the eyes of society.

Humphry, at this point, is also in a relationship, albeit a somewhat less formal one. He has been seeing Madeline Church – the same Madeline he goes on to marry in 1933, one year after his first meeting with Bowen at the Oxford dinner party. Following this initial connection, Bowen and Humphry write to one another regularly, and their letters reveal much about their respective personalities. Bowen – forthright and direct, particularly with emotions; Humphry – naïve, enthusiastic, and somewhat lacking in sensitivity. There are physical meetings between the pair too, and their relationship becomes sexual.

During the early years of the affair, Humphry emerges as rather foolish and insensitive in his treatment of both women: his lover, Bowen, and – more importantly – his wife, the exemplary Madeline. Not long before their wedding, Humphry makes it clear to Madeline that he may well indulge in ‘sensual acts’ with other women during their marriage, a practice that he acknowledges as ‘technically unfaithful’. Madeline is fully aware of Humphry’s feelings for Bowen at this point – this is clear from the letters she receives from HH. Nevertheless, in spite of these declarations, the marriage goes ahead.

Humphry often wandered through the rooms of his heart without shutting doors behind him. He thoughtlessly carried his relationship with one woman into the sphere of the second. He told each about his feelings for the other – unable, or unwilling, to imagine how this might just distress them. […] Humphry’s pattern of behaviour left both women in potentially vulnerable positions. Each was to devise strategies – very different ones – to deal with the man with the open-plan heart. (pp. 66–67)

There is a real lack of self-awareness on the part of Humphry here, compounded by a dismissal of Madeline’s intellectual capabilities. In the early years of the marriage, Madeline – who studied English at Royal Holloway – is never allowed to shine, firmly relegated to the positions of wife, mother and homemaker. Naturally, this is partly a function of societal attitudes at the time, frequently confining women to the domestic arena. Nevertheless, Humphry’s vanities and his lack of consideration of Madeline’s aspirations and feelings are also important factors here. At this stage in his life, Humphry is struggling to establish himself professionally, unable to secure a suitable position in the academic hierarchy, despite his ongoing research into the work of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

This initial, rather clouded view of Madeline – one reading of the ‘Shadowy Third’ of the book’s title – is reinforced by the impression she makes on Bowen. Elizabeth is cutting about Madeline in her letters to the philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin, describing her as perfectly nice, but rather dull and mediocre. A visit by Bowen to the Houses’ marital home in Devon in 1935 strengthens this perception for Bowen – so much so that she sends Madeline a tea service as a ‘thank you’ gift, reinforcing her status as largely domestic.

Contrary to these perceptions, Madeline is very bright, a woman with strong moral and ethical values – her honesty, simplicity and goodness are clearly evident from the start. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that she agreed to marry Humphry in the knowledge of his ongoing infidelities – a reflection of the lack of realistic options for women in the 1930s, I suspect. Thank goodness the situation is very different today. More of Madeline later, but for now, I’d like to return to Bowen, whose energy and artistic temperament pulse through Parry’s book.

In some respects, the affair with Humphry enriches Bowen’s life with new experiences, a new level of emotional depth and intensity that she subsequently draws on for her fiction. (The House in Paris, which I’ve yet to read, seems particularly significant here.) Interestingly, Bowen can compartmentalise her affair with Humphry, keeping it separate from the relative stability of her home life with Alan – who seems, for his part, to be turning a blind eye to Elizabeth’s peccadillos. As such, Bowen expects Humphry to do the same, a demand that creates a notable degree of tension in their relationship.  

If you cannot emerge imaginatively from your daily life enough to meet me imaginatively and to keep up this imaginative communication between us, then you and I have no future. But the idea of you letting me go fills me with despair on your behalf as much as on my own. If you did let me go, if later your home life and your marriage ever ceased to satisfy the whole of your nature, then you would have nothing to fall back on but petty muddles and lusts – unless you had found meanwhile, as I should like you to find, another and better Elizabeth. (Letter from EB to HH, Nov 1934, pp. 141–142)

Humphry, it seems, is less able to do this than Elizabeth, and the opportunity of an academic post in India for three years soon takes him overseas, separating him from both Madeline and Elizabeth. It comes at a difficult point in the lovers’ relationship, with Elizabeth taking umbrage over Humphry’s passing attraction to ‘B’, the sister of Elizabeth’s agent, Spencer Curtis Brown. At first, Madeline (pregnant with her second child) stays behind in England, India being no place for a wife or mother. Nevertheless, following the baby’s birth, Madeline leaves the two children with her parents and joins Humphry in India for five months, a trip that results in a rekindling of their relationship. By the time Humphry returns to England in 1938, the affair with Elizabeth is all but over, although their friendship and professional collaboration continue for many years. Madeline too ultimately reconciles her feelings about Humphry’s connection to Bowen, no longer allowing the relationship ‘get’ to her as it did in the past. Consequently, she feels more secure in the marriage, a reflection of her intelligence and an underlying steeliness.

Sadly, Humphry dies suddenly of a heart condition at the age of 46, not long after he has finally gained recognition as a successful writer and an inspirational teacher. (His students in India and elsewhere are full of praise for his lectures, viewing him with a combination of professional respect and immense fondness.)

Somewhat perversely, the loss of Humphry presents Madeline with an opportunity to shine. Her role in cataloguing and editing a definitive collection of Dickens’ letters is widely recognised, bringing the professional appreciation she so richly deserves (ten years after Humphry’s death). It’s a very gratifying picture for Parry to hold on to, one that reflects the steely determination of ‘Linny’, the grandmother she knew and loved.  

Parry has written a beautiful, thoroughly absorbing book here, capturing her travels across the world to reconstruct the emotional landscape of her grandparents’ lives. It’s a journey that takes her to several locations – from the academic circles of Oxford to Bowen’s Court in Ireland to the Presidency College in Calcutta. Bohemian London in the 1930s is vividly evoked, as in the Irish country-house milieu of Bowen’s heritage – not only through the extracts from various letters but via Parry’s elegant commentary too. In summary, this is a fascinating account of a complex tangle of relationships, exquisitely conveyed with intelligence and sensitivity. A truly captivating read for Bowen fans and newbies alike.

The Shadowy Third is published by Duckworth; personal copy.

Cosy and Not-So-Cosy Crime – E. C. R. Lorac and Ross Macdonald

I have two crime fiction novels to share with you today – both of which were written in the late 1950s, albeit in very different tonal registers. E. C. R. Lorac’s Two-Way Murder is a thoroughly entertaining cosy crime novel, ideal escapism from 21st-century Britain; however, I’m going to start with its not-so-cosy counterpart, Ross Macdonald’s compelling California-based mystery, The Galton Case.

The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald (1959)

Regular readers of this blog may know that I’ve been reading Ross Macdonald’s ‘Lew Archer’ novels in order over the past five or six years. (For those of you who are new to Ross Macdonald, he’s in a similar vein to the great hardboiled detective novelists, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – i.e. a writer whose work transcends the traditional crime fiction genre.)

The Galton Case – the eighth book in the series – sees the world-weary private eye being drawn into a cold case investigation which naturally turns out to be far more complex that it appears at first sight. As a novel, it contains many of Macdonald’s hallmarks: a powerful dysfunctional family; various individuals motivated by greed; and current crimes with a hidden connection to the past. While it’s probably not my favourite book in the series, The Galton Case still makes for a highly compelling read. A very solid entry, barring a couple of caveats regarding the ending.

Mrs Galton, a wealthy widow with a significant heart condition, wishes to reconcile with her estranged son, Anthony Galton, before it is too late. Some twenty years earlier, Anthony Galton disappeared from the family home (together with his pregnant wife and a significant amount of money) following a rift with his mother. In short, Mrs Galton hadn’t approved of her son’s marriage, often the cause of tension in a Lew Archer novel.

The old lady’s lawyer, Gordon Sable, hires Archer to find Anthony, even though he has already been declared legally dead. Mrs Galton, however, remains convinced that her son is still alive, possibly making a living from writing as he had hoped to do at the time of his disappearance.

Despite his initial scepticism about the chances of finding Anthony alive, Archer takes the case; however, just as he is about to get started, a murder takes place, the victim being a rather ill-tempered servant by the name of Culligan, whom Archer had met at Sable’s home. Unsurprisingly, these two cases – the disappearance of Anthony Galton and the murder of Peter Culligan – turn out to be connected, signalling another complex tangle of crimes for Archer to unravel.

As ever with Macdonald, the descriptions of the locations are marvellous, from the melting pot of San Francisco to the comfortable enclaves of California.

Arroyo Park was an economic battleground where managers and professional people matched wits and incomes. The people on Mrs Galton’s Street didn’t know there had been a war. Their grandfathers or great-grandfathers had won it for them; death and taxes were all they had to cope with. (p. 11)

However, what’s particularly interesting about this novel is the psychological aspect – the exploration of human behaviour that takes place as Archer digs deeper. There are questions of identity to be resolved, instances of wish fulfilment and delusion alongside the more traditional motives of resentment and greed.

In Archer, Macdonald has created a highly engaging investigator who veers between pragmatism, sarcasm and compassion – a protagonist the reader can invest in for the duration of the series. While the ending feels a bit rushed, leaving a couple of loose ends unresolved, these are relatively minor quibbles in the scheme of things. In summary – a very solid mystery with some interesting insights into human nature.

Two-Way Murder by E. C. R. Lorac (written in the mid-late 1950s, published in 2021)

While Two-Way Murder is a much lighter, less menacing mystery than The Galton Case, the two novels share some similar characteristics – namely, tangled dysfunctional families and current crimes with potential links to suspicious incidents from the past.

Lorac’s novel – which has the air of a classic Golden Age Mystery – is set in the coastal resort of Fordings in the mid-late 1950s. Local innkeeper Nicholas (Nick) Brent – an ex-Navy man in his early thirties – has offered to drive his friend, the lawyer Ian Macbane, to the Hunt Ball, the major event in Fordings’ social calendar. Macbane is down from London for the Ball, where he hopes to get the opportunity to dance with Dilys Maine, the prettiest girl in the locality. Dilys, however, has a fondness for Michael Reeve, a prickly farmer and landowner whose family has something of a chequered history.

The action gets going towards the end of the Ball when Nick drives Dilys home, just before midnight. It’s a pre-arranged departure, conveniently timed to enable Dilys to get back without her absence being detected – by either her puritanical father, Mr Maine, or the family’s housekeeper, Alice. During their journey home, Nick and Dilys come across a dead body lying in the road, at which point Nick suggests that Dilys should walk home across the fields to avoid being dragged into the inevitable investigations. To complicate matters further, Nick is then attacked while phoning the police to report the dead body. There are further suspicious goings-on too, but I’ll leave you to discover those for yourself should you decide to read the book…

Needless to say, the police suspect the man on the road has been murdered, prompting investigations into various persons of interest in the vicinity and their movements on the night in question. There are some very interesting characters in the mix, including Dilys’ father, a tyrannical man obsessed with keeping a watch on Mr Hoyle, a local landlord whom Maine suspects of smuggling; Michael Reeve, of course, whose house Nicholas Brent was phoning from when he was attacked; and Michael’s elder brother, Norman, who may or may not be the dead body.

One of the things I particularly like about this mystery is the contrast between the different policemen investigating the murder. The initial enquiries are conducted by Inspector Turner, a methodical, practical-minded chap whose insensitivity and disregard for local networks tend to put him at a disadvantage. Inspector Waring, however, adopts a more intuitive approach to the case, his lively and imaginative mind remaining alert to the patterns of human nature. Ian Macbane is another interesting addition to the ‘team’, aiding Inspector Waring (who has been brought in from CID) with a spot of amateur detecting of his own.

In summary, Two-Way Murder is an excellent vintage mystery with a rather clever resolution – eminently believable at that, which isn’t always the case in these things. Attention to detail is key here, with elements of timing, the weather and the geographical layout of the area all playing important roles in pinpointing the culprit. There are some wonderful characters here too, from the likeable Inspector Waring to the thoughtful Ian Macbane to the Maine’s astute housekeeper, Alice. As ever, Lorac does a great job in conveying a sense of the local community and the importance of longstanding grudges. I’ll finish with a final quote that gives a feel for the location and Lorac’s flair for descriptions.

The car had topped the last rise of Bramber Head, the great chalk ridge which jutted out into the Channel; below, the ground dropped steeply to the wide basin of Fairbourne Bay, and the lights of Fordings were stretched out like jewelled necklaces, crossing and intertwining, with coloured lights along the seafront and a blur of chromatic brilliance over the cinema on the pier. (p. 18)

Karen has also written about this novel, including more info on Lorac and the discovery of this book – do take a look! My thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy.

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

The loss of innocence is one of my favourite themes in literature. It’s a thread that runs through many coming-of-age novels, including Agostino by Alberto Moravia, Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig and The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley. Ana María Matute’s 1959 novella The Island – recently translated by Laura Lonsdale – is an excellent addition to the list, a darkly evocative narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. I loved it.

The story is set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Also living in the house are the family’s housekeeper, Antonia, and her son, Lauro, who acts as the children’s teacher and companion. At fifteen, Borja is a duplicitous boy, smart enough to behave sweetly in the company of his grandmother but sufficiently malevolent to show his true colours when her back is turned.

He affected innocence and purity, gallantry and poise in the presence of our grandmother, when in reality […] he was weak, cruel and proud, just a good-for-nothing boy on the way to being a man. (p.5)

Borja is particularly cruel to Lauro, whom he calls ‘Chinky’, confident in the belief that he can leverage a shameful secret the tutor is harbouring. Matia, on the other hand, has been expelled from her former convent school for kicking the Prioress. Consequently, the children’s grandmother – a tyrannical old crone who keeps watch over the neighbouring tenants through her opera glasses – considers Matia to be disobedient and in need of taming. In truth, however, Matia is simply confused and lonely, the product of a disruptive childhood short on parental love and affection – now firmly in adolescence, a time of turbulent emotions for any young girl.

One of the things Matute excels at in this novel is her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting. While we might consider the Mediterranean islands to be idyllic, Matute’s Mallorca has a radically different atmosphere. In reality, it is a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions.

Throughout the novella, the author makes excellent use of the natural world to reinforce this impression of danger. For example, the sun is frequently portrayed as intense, blistering and ferocious, mirroring the island’s capacity to breed violence and inflict damage on its inhabitants.

A cruel sense of violence, an irritated fire burned above, and everything was filled, saturated, with its black light. (p. 53)

The sea, too, can seem threatening, a volatile force with the potential to unnerve.

From high up in the square, where the Jews had been burned alive, the sea was like a deep, blue threat, terrifying and unsteady, mixing with the wind and sky. And it seemed that shining worlds could disappear there, and rootless echoes wander and be lost. Looking down, it seemed that everything must roll down to meet it. And life seemed both terrible and remote. (p. 80)

Menacing associations are everywhere on this island from the damaged agaves, their ‘edges withering like scar tissue’ to the stony soil, ‘an accretion of the dead upon the dead’. The torrid atmosphere is further augmented by the sickly aromas in the abuela’s house, a heady blend of jasmine, leather and cedar, plus the smoke from Aunt Emilia’s Turkish cigarettes.

Matute is particularly adept at setting her narrator’s internal anxieties against the island’s broader political and racial conflicts. Consequently, as the novella unfolds, Matia becomes increasingly aware of the violence and injustice that surround her. At first, Matia falls in line with Borja, the two children playing chess with one another by day and holding whispered conversations together at night. Nevertheless, there are certain developments that Matia doesn’t fully understand, things that she hears or observes that seem confusing, particularly when taken at face value. Unsurprisingly, this strengthens her impressions of the adult world as a mysterious, potentially dangerous place.

But there was something about life, it seemed to me, that was all too real. I knew, because they never stopped reminding me, that the world was wicked and wide. And it frightened me to think it could be even more terrifying than I imagined. I looked at the earth, and I remembered that we lived upon the dead. (p. 76)

In her desire for a bit of warmth and friendship, Matia begins to gravitate towards Manuel Taronji, the son of a neighbouring family persecuted by the locals for their political allegiances and Jewish heritage. In effect, Matia sees Manuel as a kindred spirit, someone she can talk to openly despite his outsider status as a ‘Chueta’. Borja, however, takes a vehement dislike to Manuel, particularly when it emerges that he might be the illegitimate son of Jorge, the powerful islander whom Borja clearly worships.

During the novella, we learn that Manuel’s stepfather, José, was murdered by the local fascists – the jack-booted Taronji brothers – for his Republican leanings. The fact that José was killed by members of his own extended family illustrates the strength of feeling surrounding the Nationalist movement, with supporters being prepared to kill their own flesh and blood to further the cause. Moreover, it gives a sense of the complex network of connections between the island’s inhabitants, encompassing familial, racial and political dimensions.

While Borja and his teenage contemporaries fight one another with butcher’s hooks, these various episodes of violence are punctuated by reports of the broader conflict in mainland Spain, typically relayed through hearsay and secondhand information.

(‘They say they’re killing whole families over there, shooting priests and putting out their eyes…throwing people into vats of boiling oil…May God have mercy on their souls!’) My grandmother would look shocked, but her eyes would shift a little closer together, like siblings whispering dark secrets to one another, as she listened to these morbid tales. (p. 3)

Alongside these depictions of brutality at the time of the Civil War, Matute remains alert to the atrocities of the past, reminding us that the island has long harboured prejudices against the Jewish community. For example, there are mentions of ‘the square, where the Jews had been burned alive’ – a direct reference to a case in which three Jews – including one named Taronji – were burned alive for refusing to denounce their faith. These echoes between past and present acts of barbarism add another dimension to the narrative, reminding us that prejudices can run deep if they remain unchecked.  

As the novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her.

In summary, then, The Island, is a dark and visceral novella, beautifully executed through Matute’s lucid prose. This combination of a highly evocative first-person narrative and the oppressive atmosphere is somewhat reminiscent of Carmen Laforet’s Nada, another excellent Spanish novel set around the time of the Civil War.  

The Island is published by Penguin; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. I read this book for Stu’s Spanish Lit Month – more details here.

June Reading – Funny Weather by Olivia Laing and The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison

I have two books to share with you today – both non-fiction, both highly recommended – the types of books that lend themselves very well to being read in short bursts, especially if time is tight.

Funny Weather by Olivia Laing

I loved this – a fascinating collection of essays, articles and mini-biographies which explore the importance of art in politically unsettled times.

This is the third book I’ve read by Olivia Laing, and it’s just as absorbing as the others despite the brevity of the individual pieces. (If it’s of interest, my mini-review of The Lonely City, Laing’s beautiful meditation on the experience of loneliness in a busy urban environment, is here.) As a writer, she is someone I’m happy to follow, just to see where the path takes me, such is the quality of her writing.

Several of the pieces included in the collection were initially published, often in different forms, in newspapers and journals such as The Guardian, frieze and the New Statesman. There are glimpses into the lives of leading artists – David Hockney, Joseph Cornell and Jean-Michel Basquiat, to name but a few; interviews with four highly talented women – Hilary Mantel, Sarah Lucas, Ali Smith and Chantal Joffe; and columns for frieze, a leading magazine of contemporary art and culture.

The frieze pieces are particularly interesting as they allow Laing free rein to cover a wide variety of subjects relating to art – from political protest (e.g. the practice of lip-sewing amongst migrants and refugees) to literary appreciation, with columns on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels and Anthony Powell’s Dance series. 

One or two of the essays revisit familiar areas of interest for Laing; Drink, drink, drink, for instance, on women writers and alcohol, a mini-sequel of sorts to The Trip to Echo Spring. Marguerite Duras features quite heavily here, as do Patricia Highsmith and Jean Rhys, two of my favourite female authors. Laing is incisive in her analysis of Rhys’ early novellas, viewing them as depictions of loneliness and depression. These stories feature impoverished women on the edge who struggle to get by and are often brushed off by ‘respectable’ society with its class-conscious snobbery.

In the unstable Good Morning, Midnight she makes a case for why such a woman might turn to drink, given limited options for work or love. At the same time, and like her near-contemporary [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, she uses drunkenness as a technique of modernism. The novel is written in a flexible first person, slip-sliding through Sasha’s shifting moods. ‘I’ve had enough of these streets that sweat a cold, yellow slime, of hostile people, of crying myself to sleep every night. I’ve had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whiskey, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine with the bottles labelled “Dum vivimus, vivamus…” Drink, drink, drink… As soon as I sober up I start again…’ (pp. 213–214)

In other pieces, Laing offers her reflections on specific books ranging from Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living and Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I love this observation on the latter, which feels absolutely spot on.


What’s remarkable is the pitch of Rooney’s writing, the way it shimmers and quivers with intelligence. Each sentence is measured and unobtrusive, and yet the cumulative effect is a near-unbearable attentiveness to the emotional dimension of human lives, the quick uneasy weather. (p.289)

Through the myriad of perspectives in this endlessly fascinating book, Laing makes a clear case for the power of art (and its creators) in a dynamic, politically turbulent world. While art can be a source of joy and beauty for many of us, Laing seems more interested in its potential as a form of resistance and stimulus – something with a sense of agency to protest and repair. And yet, despite the clear political overtones in some of these articles, they never feel overly forced or preachy. This is a beautiful collection of pieces characterised by this writer’s thoughtful, erudite style. Very highly recommended indeed.

The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison

This is such a thoughtful, beautifully-written book that it’s going to be hard for me to do it justice in a few short paragraphs. Nevertheless, I shall endeavour to give you a sense of it, albeit in brief.

The Stubborn Light of Things is a collection of Harrison’s monthly columns for The Times ‘Nature Notebook’, which began in the summer of 2014. The articles are presented chronologically, with the first half of the book focusing on London, where Harrison lived until December 2017, and the second half Suffolk, where she resides today. Collectively, they chart the author’s passion for the natural world, the changing of the seasons and a growing sense of engagement with her surroundings – be they urban or rural.

Harrison extols the benefits of reconnecting with nature by overserving and ‘tuning in’ to what is happening in the environment – activities aided by her thoughtfulness and innate sense of curiosity. One of the most striking things about the London-based columns is just how much wildlife there is to observe on our doorsteps, irrespective of our location. In the ‘City’ section of the book, there are sightings of short-eared owls, migrating nightjars and red kites, alongside the more frequently observed squirrels and urban foxes.

There are pockets of South London that seem utterly rural; paths edged with cow parsley and dog roses and overhung by oaks through which the sunlight filters down, green-dappled and shifting. I can walk from one blackcap’s song to another’s, no buildings or roads in sight, breathing in the smell of spring and green growth. At this time of year everything seethes with life: the nettles are thick with aphids, pollen rides the warm June air, the undergrowth is busy with baby birds and cuckoo spit froths overnight. It feels intoxicating. (pp. 44– 45)

There are pieces too about various rewilding and conservation projects, many of which tap into Harrison’s interest in the fragility of the natural world. For instance, she rightly bemoans the trend towards over-tidiness whereby hedges are regularly ‘topped’, effectively rendering them unsuitable as ‘wildlife habitats and corridors’. If only we could tolerate a degree of messiness, then it would help nature to flourish, rewarding us with richer environments in which to live.  

As in Surrey, this mania for tidiness is eradicating wildflowers, butterflies, insect- and seed-eating birds, hedgehogs and a whole host of other creatures we profess to love. So why are we letting it happen? I think it’s crept up us slowly, so that we simply can’t see the harm we’re doing. Just as we believe the number of insects around us is normal, rather than terrifyingly depleted, it looks right to us now for verges to be razed rather than riotous, and for farmland hedges to look ugly and smashed. We’ve also been slow to wake up to how crucial these vestiges of habitat have become for wildlife, as pressures on the wider countryside have invisibly mounted up. To turn things around requires a paradigm shift: can we tolerate an untidier, bushier, scrubbier environment to help bring nature back? (pp. 174–175)

When Harrison moves to Suffolk, her connection with nature deepens, furthering her bond with the rhythms of the seasons – her home is an 18th-century cottage situated in a small village surrounded by arable land. Here, the nightingales come to breed each spring, when linnets and yellowhammers can also be found, singing from the shrubs and hedgerows. It feels like a natural evolution for the author, which mirrors her development as a writer with a growing body of nature writing to complement her novels.

A gorgeous, evocative book, full of level-headed reflections on the natural world.

Funny Weather is published by Picador and The Stubborn Light of Things by Faber; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing reading copies.

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

First published in 1947, E. H. Young’s marvellous novel, Chatterton Square, is another of the titles recently reissued by the British Library as part of their Women Writers series.

Having now read five of these books, I think this is probably the richest, most satisfying in the series so far. It is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. As Simon Thomas points out in his excellent afterword, on the surface, Chatterton Square appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families, one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes for a particularly compelling read – more so than that description suggests.

The two families in question are the Frasers and the Blacketts, whose houses are situated perpendicular to one another in the corner of Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a setting modelled on Clifton in Bristol. The Fraser household is the happy one – a relaxed and loving environment created by Rosamund Fraser for her five children, most of whom are teenagers. Rosamund – whose husband has disappeared off to France to find creative fulfilment – is an attractive, liberated woman, the kind of mother who encourages her children to pursue their own ambitions and preferences in life wherever possible. Also living with the Frasers is Rosamund’s close friend, Miss Spanner, a spinster in her forties, somewhat akin to a maiden aunt. 

By contrast, the Blackett household is much more subdued than its lively next-door neighbour. Headed by Herbert Blackett – a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to the Frasers – the Blackett family have three children, Flora, Rhoda and Mary, all similar in age to some of the Frasers. Mr Blackett’s wife, Bertha, has lived a narrow, restricted life, effectively penned in by her husband’s self-satisfied, high-minded behaviour, a damaging culture that permeates the Blackett household. 

In reality however, Bertha – who is constantly referred to as Mrs Blackett in the novel – is far smarter than her husband suspects. While at first glance, Bertha seems willing to defer to Mr Blackett’s better judgement on family matters, under the surface there is a steeliness to her personality, one that reacts to her husband’s arrogance with a mix of frustration and amusement. In short, it is a kind of coping mechanism for Bertha, her way of making the best of a bad situation. It is also something that Rhoda, Bertha’s favourite daughter, notices at an early point in the novel when her father makes one of his many disparaging remarks.

Without turning her head, Rhoda turned the eyes which had been watching her father towards her mother and intercepted the glance Mr. Blackett did not see and in the very short time it lasted, Rhoda saw in it a concentration of emotions which she could not analyse and which half frightened her. There was a cold anger in it, but she thought there was a kind of pleasure in it too. (p. 27)

One of the things Young excels at in this novel is to portray the complex network of relationships that develop between various members of these two families – connections which frequently reveal different aspects of their personalities. At first, Flora Blackett – who takes after her father in outlook and temperament – is attracted to James Fraser, an aspiring farmer. When James ultimately shows more interest in Rhoda Blackett – who is much kinder and generous than her sister, very much in the mould of her mother, Bertha – Flora’s nose is put out of joint. Even though she has lost interest in James by this point, Flora cannot help but feel envious of her sister’s connection with him due to their mutual love of the outdoors. It’s just one of the ways in which Young demonstrates her acute understanding of the human psyche.

Rhoda Blackett also develops a gentle friendship with Agnes Spanner, another woman rarely referred to by her first name, seemingly defined instead by her status as a spinster. Agnes is another woman who has lived a largely unfulfilling life, recently rescued by Rosamund following the death of Miss Spanner’s puritanical parents. When Rosamund receives a letter from her husband, Fergus, requesting his release from their marriage, Agnes fears for her own happiness. Having joined the Frasers in Chatterton Square, she is loath to relinquish her right to this newfound happiness if Rosamund decides to remarry. There will be no shortage of suitors for Rosamund to choose from should Fergus divorce her – not least Piers Lindsay, Mrs Blackett’s kindly cousin, who has recently moved to the area. In truth, Rosamund feels deeply for this somewhat wounded soul with his noticeable limp and scarred face – both of which were sustained in the First World War.

Perhaps the most fascinating interplay between the two houses is the one involving Mr Blackett and Rosamund herself. Given his priggish nature and fixation with respectability, it is perhaps no surprise that Mr B disapproves of Rosamund and her liberated attitudes to life and parenting. And yet, he remains strangely intrigued by this woman, sometimes going out of his way to observe her, if only to fuel his disapproval. Any signs of the furthering of connections between the two households are also gravely frowned upon.

As the narrative progresses, Mr Blackett becomes increasingly baffled by Bertha’s behaviour, particularly her responses to his pronouncements. Like the hapless Baron from Elizabeth von Armin’s novel, The Caravaners, Herbert Blackett – with his pompous nature and lack of self-awareness – has completely underestimated his wife’s intelligence, something that is all too apparent to the reader. When it is proposed that Mr Blackett should take Flora on holiday to Europe, Bertha is all for it, knowing full well that she and Rhoda would be happier as a result.

“I think you might feel quite different when you came back. Your mind would be refreshed. You would have other things to think about.”

“But I don’t want to feel different!” Mr. Blackett exclaimed irritably. “And as for my mind, I wasn’t aware that it showed signs of flagging.”

“Oh no,” Mrs. Blackett said pleasantly, “it’s too active,” and she gave him one of her rare, full looks. “Like a squirrel in a cage,” she added and carried away the tray before he could reply. (pp. 143–144)

Once Mr Blackett and his darling Flora are out of the way, Bertha visibly relaxes, as if a burdensome weight has been lifted from her shoulders. Consequently, Bertha, Rhoda and Mary are free to come and go as they please, to enjoy picnics with Cousin Piers, and to cement their connections with the Frasers, whose spirit and vitality prove a breath of fresh air.

As the novel draws to a close, the political developments in Europe become an increasingly dominant factor. The book is set in the lead-up to the Munich Agreement in 1938 when Chamberlain was advocating for appeasement. While many Britons – Mr Blackett included – consider the avoidance of war as a victory, others – including the Frasers, Piers and Miss Spanner – see Chamberlain’s actions as treacherous. There is a clear political dynamic running through the novel – not least the impact of developments on Rosamond’s eldest sons, Felix and James, both of whom would be called up in the event of another war.

In many respects, it’s an important component of the various uncertainties we are left with at the end of the novel. Rosamund’s marital status, and hence her freedom to marry Piers Lindsay, remains somewhat open – as does the nature of the Blackett’s marriage when Bertha finally bows to the pressure inflicted by her husband.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures something of the sadness of this couple’s situation. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Derdons from Maeve Brennan’s brilliant Springs of Affection collection. While the Derdons are very different individuals to the Blacketts, there is a similarity in their marriage – a kind of stasis and lack of communication that has prevented them from reaching out to one another to address their situation.

There was no one in the world, except himself, who really cared for him, there were very few who cared for her. They had each lived in a mean little world, his of self-satisfaction, hers of pandering to it for her own amusement and hers, she feared, was the meaner. Twenty years ago they might have helped each other but he did not know he needed help and she was too young, too wretched to give it, too sure he would not understand her if she asked for it, and here they were, looking at each other across the kitchen table, complete strangers bound to each other for life. (pp. 253–254)

In summary, this is a superb addition to the Women Writers series; my thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy.

Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin

Back in November, I received a lovely handwritten letter from Dorian (at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau) which contained a personalised recommendation for the writer Laurie Colwin. In his letter, Dorian described Colwin’s books as being very New York-y: wry rather than funny, bittersweet but not sentimental, and Jewish, albeit in a low-key kind of way. He made them sound right up my street; a little Woody Allen-ish in style, back in the days when his films were good.

In particular, Dorian mentioned Colwin’s 1982 novel Family Happiness, clearly a favourite; he’d revisited it a few years earlier and it had totally held up. Off I went in search of a copy; the book doesn’t appear to be in print in the UK, but fortunately I was able to find one online. What follows below is my review of this novel – a beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to feel loved and valued, especially by those we’re closest to.

In a nutshell, I *adored* this book and hope to pick up more of Colwin’s work in the future.

Central to the novel is Polly Demarest, the accommodating middle child of Wendy and Henry Solo-Miller, the dual heads of a traditional New York Jewish family. Polly is married to another Henry, Henry Demarest, a successful, well-respected lawyer, who in turn is wedded to his work. The couple have two wonderful children (Pete, aged nine, and Dee-Dee, aged seven), a comfortable home and few if any financial worries.

On the surface, Polly seems to have the perfect life; she works part-time as a research co-ordinator in educational studies, an interesting, fulfilling role that give her two days a week at home to spend time with the children; she is a terrific cook and works hard around the house to make life for her husband as smooth as possible; she is open, straightforward, and an excellent mediator. In short, everything in Polly’s life seems ordered and well-catered for.

She had never given anyone the slightest pause. Her family doted on her, but no one felt it was necessary to pay much attention to someone as study, upright, cheerful, and kind as she. (p. 6)

Nevertheless, there is a downside for Polly in all of this. Her kindness and accepting nature mean that she is sorely taken for granted by her family – not just her husband, Henry, but also the Solo-Millers who all come with their own individual faults and failings.

Most notable in this respect is Polly’s mother, Wendy, who holds her daughter to the highest moral standards, chastising Polly for ‘neglecting’ her children’s welfare in favour of a job that appears unnecessary – clearly of secondary importance to Polly’s familial responsibilities, as far as Wendy is concerned. This, accompanied by Wendy’s adoration of her eldest child, Paul – a sombre lawyer who appears to have little in the way of a personality – is galling to say the least. Colwin’s insights into Wendy and her husband, Henry – another lawyer, this one prone to the occasional ‘flicker of disapproval’ across the breakfast table – are brilliantly done.

There is another brother too, Henry Jnr, whose job as an engineer, Czech wife, and rather casual attitude at the dinner table all prove disappointing to Polly’s mother, a woman who struggles to understand anything that falls outside the traditional Solo-Miller moral codes.

If Polly had told her mother that the family Wendy had gotten was more interesting than the family she had bargained for, Wendy would have told her that an interesting family did not strike her as an attractive idea. Families were not meant to be interesting. Wendy believed that life should be predictable. The unpredictable she considered rather vulgar. (pp. 98–99).

This is all brought into sharp relief for Polly when she meets and falls in love with Lincoln Bennett, a talented painter who values Polly for who she is, not for what she can do for those around her. Although Lincoln is something of a lone wolf, a confirmed bachelor who would never be happy living with a long-term partner, he is just as captivated by Polly as she is by him. With his boyish good looks and relaxed manner, Lincoln is the exact opposite of the world Polly has been constrained by. He knows the Solo-Millers as acquaintances and considers them to be smug, self-contained and resolute in their own superiority, typically to the exclusion of anyone they deem inferior.

What Colwin does so well here is to illustrate how the ongoing affair with Lincoln causes Polly to question various aspects of her life. Her functional marriage to Henry, the lack of appreciation she receives from her family, and her fundamental beliefs about love and happiness – all of these things are swiftly called into question, prompting Polly to feel like a stranger in her own life.

She had chosen him [Henry Demarest]. She had picked someone whose ways she knew: someone generous, kind, intelligent, and good, who loved and honored her for the excellent qualities he had come to expect and take for granted, and whose neglect, whose immersion in work, whose abstraction when engaged in work she was expected, as she had been trained, to accept, accommodate, and lighten when she could. Could it be that she had never been happy doing this? That this role had always been a burden? That she had never felt at ease in her family or cherished by her husband? (p. 107)

Polly realises that she loves Lincoln very deeply, that he is becoming vital to her happiness and her own sense of self. Until now, Polly’s view of happiness has been constructed around family – building a family, keeping it running smoothly, celebrating events and successes, being there to resolve the difficulties. For Polly, married life has been about ‘loyalty, unity and strength’, providing goods and services, to the detriment of any noticeable feelings of warmth and affection.

As Polly wrestles with these issues, she risks being overcome with a combination of guilt, confusion and remorse over her affair with Lincoln. She still loves Henry and knows in her heart of hearts that he is the perfect partner; however, she also feels desperately isolated in her marriage. The maelstrom of emotions Polly experiences is brilliantly captured for the reader.

Ultimately, Colwin manages to bring Polly’s dilemma (and the novel itself) to an elegant resolution, one where Polly begins to challenge her mother’s overly critical views and slyly controlling behaviour. There is a confrontation of sorts between Polly and her husband too, a heart-to-heart where Polly reveals how just how neglected and unloved she has been feeling in the construct of their marriage.

Alongside the perceptive insights into family dynamics, the pin-sharp characterisation and the piercing self-questioning Polly subjects herself to, there are some wonderful touches of humour here – the wry brand of comedy Dorian promised me in his letter. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that highlights this aspect of Colwin’s prose.

In this scene, Paul’s wife, Bente – an annoying Swiss psychiatrist who is obsessed with creating a ‘placid birth environment’ for her children – has just given birth to twins. Unsurprisingly, she is another character who causes Polly significant angst with her fixed views on families and motherhood. 

Meanwhile, Henry Sr., reported, Paul had given specific orders. To ensure continuance of the placid birth environment, Beate would not see visitors at the hospital, nor would she see them for the first two weeks at home.

“According to the Dr. Ping,” said Henry Sr., “the babies must be kept in a softly lit room, with soft music, and wrapped in soft cotton blankets, I think Paul said.”

“Maybe they should keep them in the fridge,” said Henry, Jr. (p. 270)

Family Happiness is published by Harper Perennial; personal copy.

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

A couple of years ago I read The Springs of Affection, a beautifully affecting collection of stories by the Irish writer and journalist Maeve Brennan. What struck me most about those stories was the strong sense of emotional dislocation they conveyed, particularly though their focus on lonely, unhappy individuals, often trapped in loveless marriages. The characters seemed caught in a form of stasis, unable to reach out to one another while unspoken bitterness and resentment festered away and remained unchecked.  

There is a similar air of bitterness and resentment in The Visitor, a novella that was published posthumously in 2000 following its discovery in publishing archives that had been acquired by the University of Notre Dame in the 1980s. It is not known when Brennan first started work on The Visitor, but she is thought to have finished it in the mid-1940s. As such, it is one of her earliest works of fiction, all the more astonishing considering its power and precision – it’s remarkably accomplished for such an early piece.

As the novella opens, twenty-two-year-old Anastasia King is returning to her childhood home in Dublin, a house owned by her paternal grandmother, Mrs King. When Anastasia was sixteen, her mother and father split up, the mother fleeing to Paris and subsequently sending for Anastasia to join her there. As a consequence, Anastasia has been living in Paris for six years. Now both of Anastasia’s parents are dead, leaving the girl with no remaining family other than Mrs King – hence Anastasia’s belief that she will be able to live with her grandmother (and the latter’s elderly housekeeper, Katherine) going forward.

Mrs King, however, has a different view of the situation. She still blames Anastasia’s mother for the break-up of her son’s marriage, thereby bringing shame and disgrace on her son and the King family as a whole. Anastasia is also guilty of desertion in her grandmother’s eyes, having followed her mother to Paris to take up residence away from her father. As such, Mrs King is cold and remote in her receipt of Anastasia in the family home, making it clear that she considers the visit a temporary one, not a permanent arrangement.

Mrs K is a brilliant creation – cold, direct, monstrous and self-centred. She shows precious little warmth or compassion towards Anastasia who is recently bereaved. What I find particularly interesting about this elderly lady is how she views Anastasia both as an adult and as a child, choosing whichever of these states suits her best on each particular occasion.

For instance, Mrs King condemns Anastasia for having followed her mother to Paris, thereby deserting her father – Mrs King’s precious son – in the process. As far as Mrs King sees it, Anastasia was an adult at sixteen, someone who knew full well what she was doing in choosing to live with her mother.

Mrs King said in her gentle voice, “You know, Anastasia, you made a serious choice when you decided to stay with your mother in Paris. You were sixteen then, not a child. You knew what she had done. You were aware of the effect it was having on your father.” (p. 16)

And yet, Mrs King repeatedly refers to Anastasia as a child during their blunt conversations following the young woman’s return – “Now, child, get along to your bed. It’s very late. You’ll be dead tired in the morning.”— thereby emphasising her own dominance in the relationship. This vacillation between the positioning of her granddaughter as an adult or a child, depending on whichever of these suits her best at the time, is just one way in which Mrs King seeks to belittle Anastasia, closing off any expectations of comfort or affection.

As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Mrs King played a major part in her daughter-in-law’s defection. When Anastasia’s parents were living together with Mrs King, there was an air of tension in the Dublin house; Anastasia’s mother felt belittled by her mother-in-law’s spiteful actions, a form of passive-aggressive behaviour or ‘campaign of cruelty’ as Clare Boylan neatly terms it in her introduction to the novella.

As in The Springs of Affection, Brennan excels in conveying the sense of isolation or separateness that can arise between family members occupying the same dwelling. Rather than living together and sharing a sense of connectedness, Anastasia and Mrs King remain emotionally distanced from one another in the unwelcoming, lifeless house.

The Christmas season passed. The days came and went, bringing nothing. There was a listlessness about the house but had seemed absent in the days before Christmas. The grandmother sat daily by the fire and Anastasia seldom joined her. With the growing of the year their separate lives seemed to dwindle away in shyness, and the house enclosed them aloofly, like a strange house that had not known them when they were happier. (p. 44)

The concepts of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ are important themes in Brennan’s fiction, and the associations these notions spark can be painful and complex.

Home is a place in the mind. When it is empty, it frets. It is fretful with memory, faces and places and times gone by. Beloved images rise up in disobedience and make a mirror for emptiness. […] It is a silly creature that tries to get a smile from even the most familiar and loving shadow. Comical and hopeless, the long gaze back is always turned inward. (p. 8)

The novella’s mood is enhanced by Brennan’s use of imagery and sounds to heighten the unsettling atmosphere, the ghostly silence in the grandmother’s house, broken only by the crackling of the fire or the scrape of a knife across a slice of toast. There is some wonderful descriptive writing here, imagery to send a shiver down the spine.

The trees around Noon Square grew larger, as daylight faded. Darkness stole out of the thickening trees and slurred the thin iron railings around the houses, and spread quickly across the front gardens, making the grass go black and taking the colour from the flowers. The darkness of night fell on the green park in the middle of the square, and rose fast to envelop the tall patient houses all around. The street lamps drew flats circles of light around them and settled down for the night. (p. 13)

As the novella builds towards its unnerving conclusion, we begin to see another side to Anastasia’s personality, one that reveals a degree of selfishness or ambivalence towards the wishes of others. I’ll leave to to discover this for yourself, should you decide to read the book (which I hope you do). Suffice it to say that this plotline involves an old friend of Mrs King’s – an elderly spinster named Miss Kilbride, who appeals to Anastasia for help with an act of compassion. Miss Kilbride has also suffered at the hands of an embittered and jealous family member – in this instance her mother – which adds a resonance with the novella’s main storyline.   

The Visitor is achingly sad yet beautifully written, the kind of story that highlights just how destructive family relationships can be when grievances and feelings of selfishness are allowed to putrefy and fester. Heaven Ali has also written about this book; and as ever, her insightful post is well worth reading. Hopefully my piece will expand the conversation around this lesser-known gem and introduce others to Maeve Brennan, a writer who deserves to be so much better-known.

My copy of The Visitor was published by New Island Books; personal copy.

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

Drive Your Plow… , the 2009 novel by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is quite a difficult one to describe. It is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. I loved it.

Central to the narrative is Janina, a highly intelligent, idiosyncratic woman in her sixties who lives in a remote Polish village near the border with the Czech Republic. Janina – who narrates the novel – is a marvellous creation, the sort of woman who sees the world in a very particular way, standing up for what she believes in without being willing to compromise her intrinsic values. She invents names for everyone around her, eschewing the lacklustre nature of formal names in favour of more appropriate epithets that capture something fundamental about a person – typically a particular aspect of their appearance or personality. Consequently, we have characters named ‘Big Foot’, ‘Good News’ and ‘Black Coat’, to name but a few.

I believe each of us see the other Person in our own way, so we should give them the name we consider suitable and fitting. Thus we are polyonymous. We have as many names of the number of people with whom we interact. My name for Świerszczyński is Oddball, and I think it reflects his Attributes well. (p. 30)

In winter, there are only two other residents besides Janina who remain in this remote, snowbound area – Janina’s neighbour, Oddball, and one of the local hunters, Big Foot, whom Janina despises, the source of her hatred for this man ultimately revealing itself as the story unfolds.

One night, having noticed something strange about Big Foot’s house, Oddball discovers the hunter lying dead on the kitchen floor, so he calls on Janina for help. Even though Janina knows it is wrong to disturb a body before the police appear on the scene, Oddball insists on making it look more respectable, and it is during this process that the presence of a clue emerges. There is a bone lodged in Big Foot’s mouth, ‘long and thin and sharp as a dagger’.

At first, it appears as though Big Foot simply choked on the bone while eating his dinner; however, as Janina examines the contents of Big Foot’s kitchen, another theory begins to seed itself in her mind. On the windowsill she spots a deer’s head and four trotters, presumably the spoils of a kill that Big Foot had carried out before his death. Moreover, other deer are visible in the vicinity that night – Janina and Oddball see them clustered together outside Big Foot’s house on their approach.

What if the herd have taken revenge for the slaughter of their sister? Are animals seeking vengeance on the hunters of the district, striking back against the perpetrators of these inhuman acts? ‘Animals have a very strong sense of justice,’ Janina muses at one point – while humans merely have a view of the world, animals have an innate sense of it.

As other deaths swiftly follow, Janina becomes increasingly convinced that her theory holds water, particularly when deer prints are found near the body of the second victim – another hunter, the Commandant – who is found dead in a shallow well.

One of the many things that Tokarczuk highlights in this endlessly fascinating novel is the invisibility or dismissal of women, especially when they reach middle age. Janina writes impassioned letters to the local police, outlining her theories on the ‘murders’, which she backs up with supporting evidence, such as the deer prints and the alignment of the celestial planets. Astrology is a major area of interest for Janina, and her belief in its influence over our lives is fervent and unwavering.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given society’s attitudes to ladies of a certain age, the police swiftly dismiss Janina as a nut job, a ‘crazy old crone’ with nothing better to do with herself. Would a young man or an attractive woman be treated differently, Janina wonders? Almost certainly, yes.

Once we have reached a certain age, it’s hard to be reconciled to the fact that people are always going to be impatient with us. In the past, I was never aware of the existence and meaning of gestures such as rapidly giving assent, avoiding eye contact, and repeating ‘yes, yes, yes’ like clockwork. Or checking the time, or rubbing one’s nose – these days I fully understand this entire performance for expressing the simple phrase: ‘Give me a break, you old bag’. I have often wondered whether a strapping, handsome young man would be treated like that if he were to say the same things as I do? Or a buxom brunette? (pp. 38-39)

Central to the novel are issues of animal rights. Does man have a greater right to life than an animal? Where do animals sit in the hierarchy of society? Who sets these ‘rules’ and parameters, and are they correct? Who deems whether someone is useless or unimportant, and by what criteria?

Naturally, Janina is a fierce defender of animal rights – the belief that animals are just as important as her fellow humans, if not more so, is fundamental to her actions. As far as Janina is concerned, the way a society treats its animals speaks volumes about its values, potentially undermining any notions of justice or democracy.

‘You have more compassion for animals than for people.’

‘That’s not true. I feel just as sorry for both. But nobody shoots at defenceless people,’ I told the City Guard that same evening. […]

‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘Its attitude towards Animals. If people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’ (p. 109)

As the novel draws to a close, there is a form of resolution to the mysterious deaths which feels satisfying and appropriate, especially given the novel’s inherent themes. Nevertheless, that’s far from being the most interesting thing on offer here. Alongside the moral and ethical issues of animal rights, Tokarczuk casts her eye over a myriad of fascinating subjects from the poetry of William Blake to the challenges of ageing to the frailties of the human body – ‘fancy being given a body and not knowing anything about it. There’s no instruction manual.’

She also manages to fit in some time for a brief digression on one of the major failings of men, how several of them succumb to ‘testosterone autism’ as they age and regress. (For the interested, the major symptoms of this condition include: ‘a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication’, the development of an interest in various tools, machinery, WW2 and ‘the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains’. In parallel, the capacity to read novels almost entirely disappears.)

In summary then, Drive Your Plow… is a wonderful metaphysical noir, one that subverts the traditional expectations of the genre to create something truly thought-provoking and engaging. It’s also beautifully written, by turns arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures something of the novel’s luminous quality and mood.

Outside, in the pool of light falling from the porch lamp, the snow was changing into a slow, sleepy shower. Oddball stood next to me in silence, tall, thin and bony like a figure sketched in a few pencil strokes. Every time he moved, snow fell from him like icing sugar from pastry ribbons. (p. 14)

Drive Your Plow… is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; personal copy.