Tag Archives: #ReadWomen

Rediscovered literary gems – a few of my favourites from the shelves  

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about A Silence Shared, a lovely rediscovered classic by the Italian writer and artist Lalla Romano (tr. Brian Robert Moore). First published in 1957, this haunting, dreamlike novella was recently reissued by Pushkin Press in a beautiful new edition for a whole new generation of readers to enjoy.

In many ways, that review reminded me of just how much interest there is in these rediscoveries from the past at the moment. Naturally, trailblazing publishers such as Virago Press and Persephone Books have been championing this area for several years; but other, more recent imprints are also contributing to the renaissance, enhancing the current demand for these fascinating rediscoveries. It’s certainly an area that chimes very strongly with my own reading interests, especially women writers from the mid-20th century.  

So, to cut a long intro short, I thought it might be interesting to highlight some of my favourite rediscovered classics from recent years – I’ve deliberately avoided selecting anything from Virago or Persephone as they probably warrant posts of their own at some point!

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. I loved this book for its gorgeous, poetic prose and beautiful use of imagery. A wonderful rediscovery courtesy of Faber Editions, a fascinating imprint dedicated to showcasing radical literary voices from around the world.

(Other Faber Editions to seek out include the captivating Mrs Caliban, a subversive feminist fable by Rachel Ingalls, and the excellent Termush, Sven Holm’s unnerving post-apocalyptic dystopia, still wildly relevant today.)

Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Cespedes (1952, tr. Ann Goldstein 2023)

Recently reissued by Pushkin Press, Alba de Cespedes’ novel Forbidden Notebook is a remarkable rediscovered gem of Italian literature, a candid, exquisitely-written confessional from an evocative feminist voice. The novel is narrated by forty-three-year-old Valeria Cossati, who documents her inner thoughts in a secret notebook with great candour and clarity, laying bare her world with all its demands and preoccupations. For Valeria, the act of writing becomes a confessional of sorts, an outlet for her frustrations with the family – her husband Michele, a somewhat remote but dedicated man, largely wrapped up in his own interests, which Valeria doesn’t share, and their two grown-up children who live at home. As the diary entries build up, we see how Valeria has been defined by the familial roles assigned to her; nevertheless, the very act of keeping the notebook leads to a gradual reawakening of her desires as she finds her voice, challenging the founding principles of her life with Michele.

I adored this illuminating exploration of a woman’s right to her own existence in the face of competing demands. (Fans of this book might also appreciate Anna Maria Ortese’s stories and reportage, Evening Descends Upon the Hills, another superb reissue from Pushkin.)

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker (1991)

First published in 1991 and more recently reissued by Weidenfeld & Nicolson 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 certainly 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 noticeably poignant touch.

Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg (1957, tr. Avril Bardoni 1987)

The publishing arm of Daunt Books has been championing the critically-acclaimed Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg for the past five years, and rightly so – she is a marvel! Last year, I loved All Our Yesterdays, Ginzburg’s rich, multilayered novel following two very different neighbouring Italian families during the Second World War. It’s a truly remarkable book, a story of ordinary people living through extraordinary times.

Luckily for UK-based readers, Daunt has also just reissued two of my favourite Ginzburg novellas, Valentino and Sagittarius, in gorgeous new editions. 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. 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. So, two brilliant novellas here, each representing an excellent introduction to Natalia Ginzburg, a writer whose insights into the minor tragedies in everyday life are remarkably astute.

The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim (1909)

Over the past five years, Handheld Press has been reissuing forgotten gems from a variety of 20th-century writers, including Rose Macaulay, Margaret Kennedy and Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Caravaners is a satire of the highest order, not least because the novel’s narrator – the German baron, Otto von Ottringel – is a colossal ass, a pompous, insufferable individual with absolutely no self-awareness. The novel focuses on a caravanning holiday through the countryside of Kent, ostensibly to mark the von Ottringels’ silver wedding anniversary. What von Arnim does so well here is to let the reader see how Otto is perceived by those around him, even though the novel is narrated entirely from the baron’s own viewpoint. In short, this is a brilliantly-written book, one that casts a sharply satirical eye over such subjects as misogyny, class differences, power dynamics in marriage and Anglo-German relations during the early 20th century – not to mention the delights and follies of caravanning in the inclement British weather!

(Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford’s Business as Usual is another Handheld favourite, also warmly recommended here.)

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi (1946)

In many respects, the NYRB Classics imprint is the quintessential source of rediscovered gems. Their list is chock-full of literary gems from the past, beautifully recovered in their stylish trademark livery.

There are so many options to choose from here, but I’ve plumped for More Was Lost, a remarkable memoir by the American-born writer Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. By turns beautiful, illuminating, elegiac and sad; a rare book that feels both expansive in scope yet intimate in detail.

(Dorothy Baker’s superb novel, Cassandra at the Wedding, and Olivia Manning’s equally brilliant School for Love would also be excellent choice from the NYRB Classics list.)

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (late 1970s, tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind. Originally published as a series of short stories, Tsushima’s novella focuses on a year in the life of a young mother recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting – an apartment located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Reissued by Penguin in 2019 as part of their Modern Classics series, it’s a wonderful rediscovery – strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling.

(Irmgard Keun’s evocative novella Gilgi, One of Us is another favourite PMC, a striking portrayal of a determined young woman set in Weimar-era Cologne.)

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young (1947)

Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton 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 that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous fictional characters I’ve ever encountered: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.

(The Home, Penelope Mortimer’s brilliant but painful exploration of life after a separation, and Tea is So Intoxicating, a delightful social comedy by Mary Essex, are also fully deserving of mentions here.)

So, there we have it – a lovely selection of literary gems for you to peruse!

Do let me know your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books. Or maybe you have a favourite rediscovered classic you’d like to share with others. If so, please feel free to mention it below.

The Home by Penelope Mortimer

It’s widely recognised that the British author, journalist and critic Penelope Mortimer mined her life as a source of inspiration for her books. Her most famous novel, The Pumpkin Eater, which I’ve yet to read, was based on the author’s troubled marriage to the barrister, writer and serial philanderer, John Mortimer, a union that lasted for 22 years.

First published in 1971 and recently reissued as part of the excellent British Library Women Writers series, The Home is something of a spiritual successor to that earlier book, also candid and semi-autobiographical in style. In short, the novel follows an attractive but vulnerable middle-aged woman, Eleanor Strathearn, in the months following the breakdown of her marriage as she attempts to establish some kind of life for herself, while also delving into the meaning of ‘home’ with all its various connotations.

The story opens with Eleanor and her youngest child, fifteen-year-old Philip, moving from their longstanding family home in London to a smaller residence near St John’s Wood. The new house is being paid for by Eleanor’s husband, Graham, a successful but self-absorbed doctor with a well-heeled Wimpole Street practice. In one of this novel’s many ironies, Graham seems to have paid little attention to his wife’s emotional well-being over the past twenty-six years despite his professional specialism being mental health. Instead, he has indulged in multiple indiscreet affairs, culminating in his current liaison with Nell Partwhistle, a twenty-two-year-old girl who remains something of a nebulous presence throughout the book. 

He [Graham] had left her [Eleanor] six weeks ago for some unimaginable life with a twenty-two-year-old person called Nell Partwhistle. Eleanor thought of her as a person because she could not think of her as a girl and did not think of her as a woman; she thought of her as a kind of gap, a nothing. (pp. 4-5)

By naming the girl in this way, Mortimer is emphasising the idea that Graham has simply discarded Eleanor for a younger model, albeit one known by the shortened name of ‘Nell’.

With her other grown-up children – Marcus, Cressida, Daphne and Jessica – having flown the nest, Eleanor approaches her new life with a strange mix of feelings, oscillating wildly between stoic optimism and crushing grief. In her most upbeat moments, she imagines a world of parties and dinners, a woman constantly in demand. Quite how this transformation might be achieved, however, is far from clear, investing this vision with an air of fantasy from the opening scenes.

She had no clear idea about how she would set about this transformation, since after a life sentence of marriage she was as isolated, as strange to the world as a released prisoner. She had long ago stopped sharing any kind of life with Graham, except for the occasional dull dinner party when she could be used as a wife. Nevertheless, it was a cheerful fantasy… (p. 6)

As readers, we quickly glean that Eleanor’s new life will be characterised not by a whirlwind of social activities but by acute loneliness and grief. Her eldest son, Marcus, who loves his mother, is living in Paris with his partner, Marcel, giving him little opportunity to help. Cressida and Jessica come and stay with Eleanor at various points after the move, but both have significant relationship problems of their own, leaving little time or energy to support their lonely mother. And with Daphne wrapped up in her imminent wedding to Hereward, her attention is directed elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Eleanor tries to make the best of things, recontacting two old lovers, Alex and Ellis, hoping to rekindle former relationships. Alex, however, has moved on, signalling his commitment to girlfriend Georgina by slipping the word ‘we’ into his conversation,a sign that Eleanor swiftly clocks. Further humiliation awaits with Ellis, who seems to be more interested in Cressida, seeing her perhaps as a younger version of Eleanor, fresh with the vitality of youth. Naturally, Eleanor must give way to her daughter without a hint of jealousy or anger, experiencing the pain acutely but lacking an outlet to express it.

It was the hideous situation of finding herself in competition with Cressida – could it really be as crude as that? – that so immensely distressed her. And, worse, the fact that she could never be in competition with Cressida, but must give way gracefully, with love, pretending that nothing was being taken from her. (p. 81)

There’s also a mysterious Irishman in the mix, a chap called Kilcannon, whom Eleanor likes to imagine as her ‘Gaelic Knight’, primed to rescue her from solitude and strife. But when the elusive Kilcannon fails to show, we fear for Eleanor’s well-being as the slide into grief quickens, hinting at the anxiety to come.

She had suffered from loneliness all her life, even when the children were young, and most of all with Graham; now, aimlessly wandering in the warm afternoon, she felt for the first time that it could become a sickness. Kilcannon had failed her and it must, in some obscure way, be her fault. Graham had left her: that must also be her fault. Anger would have been an antidote to this poison, but she could only feel it in brief, spasmodic outbursts; somewhere inside her, anger was being diverted and changed, by abominable alchemy, into grief. (pp. 61–62)

There are times when Eleanor knows she is putting on a brave face for the children, feigning a sense of resilience to prevent them from worrying too much. In truth, though, Eleanor is dying inside, desperately craving someone (even Graham!) to take care of her – to love her and be there for her whenever she needs support. Instead, her life is characterised by a sequence of partings – goodbyes and separations in place of connections and lasting bonds.

Something that Mortimer does so well here is to show us how Graham’s desertion leads to an unravelling of sorts. While Eleanor will not admit to being depressed as such, she does appreciate that she is ill, recognising with a kind of horror the fear growing inside her. Consequently, it’s a painful novel to read, the type of quietly devasting story that deep into the soul.

Reading Mortimer also reminds us just how difficult it must have been for abandoned women to manage financially in the 1960s and early ‘70s following the breakdown of their marriages. While Eleanor’s (ex-)husband, Graham, isn’t mean as such, he does object to having money extorted from him by legal means. In short, he is of the belief that Eleanor should find a job and support herself independently as far as possible. However, like many married women in her position, Eleanor simply doesn’t have the requisite skills or training for several potential roles. After twenty-six years as a wife and mother, she is poorly equipped for self-sufficient living, leaving her reliant on Graham for financial, if not emotional, support. In his afterword and accompanying notes, Simon Thomas outlines key developments in the divorce laws in the early 1970s, which helped to clarify the financial expectations for divorced partners and their children going forward.

As Eleanor is forced to rethink the concept of home and what this means for her and the family, Mortimer shows us how the situation impacts each member of the Strathearn brood, from the various children to their two grandmothers, neither of whom are terribly supportive of Eleanor. In fact, Graham’s mother, Mrs Strathearn, sees nothing wrong in her son abandoning his wife for a twenty-two-year-old plaything. These are ‘the laws of nature’ as Mrs S. understands them. Consequently, Eleanor should take up bridge, get herself a cat and make the best of it. It’s as simple as that.

I won’t reveal how this sad but beautifully-written novel plays out, save to say that the stark ending also comes with a degree of ambiguity. Although Eleanor knows she would be best placed to make a clean break with Graham, a large part of her cannot stop hoping that he will come to the rescue despite his infidelities. Alongside the sadness, this excellent, slightly off-kilter novel has flashes of darkly comic humour throughout. Fans of Muriel Spark would likely enjoy this one, and possibly Elizabeth Taylor, too – it’s a terrific book.

The Home is published by the British Library; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Rose Garden by Maeve Brennan – the Herbert’s Retreat stories

The Irish writer and journalist Maeve Brennan has been enjoying something of a mini-renaissance in recent years with the republication of her brilliant collection of Dublin stories, The Springs of Affection, by Peninsula Press in February and a Backlisted Podcast discussion on the book last November. Many of Brennan’s short stories first appeared in The New Yorker magazine, where she worked as a columnist and reviewer, only to be collected posthumously following her death in 1993. The Rose Garden is the second of these volumes, another excellent collection of pieces originally published in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The Rose Garden comprises twenty stories, divided into four sections, the first (and longest) of which I’ll cover in this review. These seven pieces are all set in Herbert’s Retreat, a private, exclusive community of desirable houses situated on the east bank of the Hudson River, thirty miles from the heart of New York. It’s the kind of place where only ‘the right people’ are permitted to live, ‘solemn, exclusive, and shaped by restrictions that are as steely as they are vague’.

During her time in New York, Brennan lived in the East Hamptons for several years, an experience that almost certainly inspired these stories of bitchy, social-climbing wives, ineffectual, unfaithful husbands and gossipy, put-upon maids.

But in every house the residents have contrived and plotted and schemed and paid to bring the river as intimately as possible into their lives. (p. 3)

While the Herbert’s Retreat pieces are generally thought of as secondary to Brennan’s Irish fiction (her editor, William Maxwell dismissed them as ‘heavy-handed’ and lacking the ‘breath of life’), I thoroughly enjoyed them. These are sharply perceptive stories, beautifully written and observed – think John O’Hara or Richard Yates, maybe with a dash of Mavis Gallant for good measure.

Four of the seven tales revolve around the Harkey household, featuring the impressionable housewife, Leona Harkey, her boring second husband, George, and their cutting Irish maid, Bridie. Also pivotal to these pieces is Leona’s style guru, Charles Runyon, a culturally sophisticated theatre critic who stays with the Harkeys every weekend, travelling there and back from his faded New York hotel.

Brennan wastes little time showing us the lay of the land in the Harkey household, painting Leona as a determined but shallow woman in thrall to Charles, whom she values more highly than George. In fact, the main reason Leona married George in the first place was to gain control of his riverside cottage, which had been blocking her view of the river. Naturally, the offending property was swiftly demolished following the couple’s marriage, much to Leona’s delight.

When Leona first meets Charles, her appearance is somewhat dowdy and old-fashioned. But with his help, she is transformed; out go her country tweeds and simple chignon, swiftly replaced by chic fireside skirts and a stylish hair-do. Compared to Charles, George is dull and embarrassing, making it easy for Leona to ignore him whenever possible.

Naturally, the sharp-eyed Bridie observes all this with self-satisfied pleasure. Moreover, the weekly bus rides to Sunday Mass give her the opportunity to share gossip with the other ‘help’ from Herbert’s Retreat – each maid trading anecdotes about their own employers, all of whom seem just as badly behaved.  

[Bridie:] “That crowd takes care of their own drinks. Out of shame, if nothing else, so we won’t see how much they put down. As if I didn’t have to carry the empty bottles out. It’s a scandal. He [Charles] makes the drinks. He stands up in front of the bar in there like a priest saying Mass, God forgive me, and mixes a martini for himself, and one for her [Leona], and maybe an odd one for the husband [George]…” (p. 8)

What Brennan does so well here is to lay bare these residents’ motivations for everyone to observe: the social climbers’ desire for approval; the value they put on appearance over ideals and principles; the importance they place on social standing at the expense of grace and sincerity. In short, we see these characters as they really are – the dissemblers behind the curtains, complete with all their imperfections and fears.

She [Leona] was afraid of offending or disappointing him [Charles], having many times been obliterated by his scathing and horribly accurate tongue. She was also afraid of losing his favor, because his presence in the house every weekend gave her an unquestioned position among the women who lived at the Retreat, and their admiration, or envy, was the foundation on which Leona built up her importance. (p. 73)

The caustic power dynamics also extend to other members of these status-driven families, typically the householders’ mothers and ex-wives. In The Anachronism, we meet Liza and Tom Frye, who share their home with Liza’s mother, Mrs Conroy. Mother and daughter clearly loathe one another, with Liza bullying Mrs Conroy at every opportunity, denying her the small courtesies and pleasures her position should afford.

Liza and Mrs. Conroy detested each other, but it suited them to live together—Liza because she enjoyed showing her power, and Mrs. Conroy because she was waiting for her day of vengeance. They were alike in their admiration for Tom’s money, but Mrs. Conroy felt she should have more say in the spending of it. (p. 18)

Also on display here is Brennan’s keen ear for dialogue, particularly the barbed conversations between neighbours as they vie for social status – superficially polite on the surface but dripping with malice underneath.

Liza made a strong impression. Right off, her modern furniture outraged all the other women, who had been concentrating on Early American. Liza called the furniture at the Retreat “country.” “Country furniture is sweet,” she said, “but it’s so sheeplike.” In the same way, she refused to share the other women’s enthusiasm for gardening (p. 17)

Several of the stories, The Anachronism included, end with a kind of twist or unexpected outcome as the social climbers are unmasked or outmanoeuvred by those around them. For instance, when Liza plots to get the better of Clara, the Retreat’s resident Queen Bee, her plan backfires, strengthening Mrs Conroy’s position in the process. There is some wonderfully wicked humour threaded through these stories, largely powered by Brennan’s scathing portrayals of the vagaries of human nature.

As in The Springs of Affection, Brennan writes beautifully about interiors, conjuring up her settings in simple, quietly evocative prose. In The Joker, thirty-something Isobel Bailey, who likes to think of herself as a generous, charitable woman, invites a small group of life’s outsiders (or ‘waifs’ as she likes to call them) to lunch on Christmas Day. The Baileys’ dining room is gorgeously evoked, rich with the pleasures of a luxurious Christmas for all her guests to acknowledge.

The warm pink dining room smelled of spice, of roasting turkey, and of roses. The tablecloth was of stiff, icy white damask, and the centrepiece—of holly and ivy and full-blown blood red roses—bloomed and flamed and cast a hundred small shadows trembling among the crystal and the silver. In the fireplace a great log, not so exuberant as the one in the living room, glowed a powerful dark red. (p. 60)

Nevertheless, Isobel’s hopes of the perfect day are dashed when a beggar comes to the back door looking for a dollar. Instead of offering money, Isobel insists that the man is given a full Christmas dinner in the servants’ kitchen, a gesture she comes to regret as the afternoon plays out…

In several instances, the stories pivot on a significant household object: a precious stone hotel water bottle lent to a prestigious guest; a concealed fireplace that exposures the fault lines in a marriage; two matching pink-and-white striped shirts designed to symbolise friendship but trigger a chain of calamities instead. It’s a feature that chimes with many of Brennan’s Irish stories from Springs with their focus on domestic interiors, painting the house as a battleground ahead of a breeding ground for love. 

These are biting stories of flawed individuals and their quests for social advancement – beautifully crafted and observed. I’m planning to read the rest of these stories quite slowly, hopefully with another post to follow later this year.

The Rose Garden is published by Counterpoint; personal copy.

They by Kay Dick

Having enjoyed Sven Holm’s Termush so much, I thought I would read another book from the Faber Editions list, a series dedicated to reviving radical literary voices from across the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the one that called out to me was Kay Dick’s 1977 novella, They, another classic piece of dystopian fiction in the speculative / slipstream vein. Think Anna Kavan’s brilliant novel Ice (a tense, nightmarish pursuit across a post-apocalyptic landscape), punctuated by moments of genuine beauty, largely stemming from Dick’s evocative descriptions of the natural world.

Like Termush, They is another fascinating, enigmatic rediscovery by Faber – a chilling vision of a society in the grip of a sinister force that seems all too relevant today. In some respects, it feels as if these two novellas are in conversation with one another, sending out distress signals in the faint hope of being rescued…

They depicts a world in which artistic expression, creative freedom and non-conformity are all under attack. The novella’s setting is deliberately sketchy, with the narrative unfolding through a series of short stories or vignettes which take place in unnamed locations (almost certainly in Britain) at unspecified times. Dick thrusts the reader into this world with the first vignette, Some Danger Ahead, which sets the novella’s alarming tone right from the very start. In some respects, this opening story could be viewed as the novella in miniature, with Dick setting out her stall for the horrors to come.

From sculptors and painters to writers and composers, Britain’s creative artists are being threatened by shadowy, malign forces – the ‘They’ of the book’s title. Through a sequence of rapid, ruthless actions, They roam the landscape in packs, destroying art, confiscating books, burning poetry – basically suffocating and snuffing out all forms of creativity in their sight. At first, They focus on cities, effectively pushing artists towards more rural and coastal areas where they gather in small groups or retreats.

Moreover, They mostly operate through stealth, targeting properties when residents are out or asleep at night, avoiding conflict where possible to conserve their resources. By stealing books, clearing galleries and destroying manuscripts, They aim to force artists into abandoning their creative pursuits, effectively outlawing any forms of artistic expression. Consequently, people must rely on their memories of various art forms once the originals have been destroyed.

They never came when one was in the house. In their view, confrontation was an unnecessary waste of energy, a luxury they withheld. Silent stealth was a greater pain to bear; it was their form of punishment. They only took sharper measures if one went beyond the accepted limit. (p. 9)

More draconian measures are reserved for rebels (at least at first), with the mob only turning on individuals if they decide to resist. Nevertheless, as the novella unfolds, violence against artists increases in frequency and intensity, particularly when those targeted refuse to comply. In some instances, offenders are imprisoned, tortured or maimed. Painters are blinded; writers have their hands amputated; poets have their arms burned. In short, They will do whatever it takes to stamp out creativity, cutting off its lifeblood at the source. As a result, it’s not uncommon for people to be desensitised or rendered ineffective, emptying them of their memories and the desire to create.

Infiltration and surveillance techniques are also rife, with undercover agents posing as members of artistic groups or staff, ultimately acting as spies to facilitate the raids. Surveys are another common tactic, with inspections frequently attracting sightseers; consequently, these onlookers feed on the horrific spectacle, carrying out acts of violence which add to the sense of destruction.

I was not surprised by the influx of sightseers. Like locusts, they migrated in the wake of a survey. They moved sluggishly about an area under surveillance, relieving their apathy, with small acts of vandalism, chucking their litter about the streets, staring at all him. They met with malicious, intent, pushing people out of their way. (…) Physically they presented a uniformity of ugliness, their movements suggested the grotesque. They were on the look-out: sightseers for a gleaning which a survey might always bring about. If nothing happened they became a shade more fractious, and let out their suppressed cruelty in mischievous violence…  (p. 90)

Dick doesn’t tell us whether They are officially sanctioned by the government or whatever authoritarian regime is in place here, but she does allude to the size of the group. At one point, a figure of 1-2 million members is mentioned, highlighting their prevalence across the county and the collective power of this movement.

While the reasons for the mob’s actions are not explicitly spelled out, the reader gains various insights into their motivations, mostly through conversations between the artists as the narrative unfolds. Unsurprisingly, these acts of destruction are largely driven by fear, envy and a general lack of empathy and understanding.

‘…We [artists] represent danger. Non-conformity is an illness. We’re possible sources of contagion. We’re offered opportunities to,’ he gave a slight chuckle, ‘integrate. Refusal as recorded as hostility.’ (p. 53)  

Indeed, creative artists are not the only individuals under attack here. They also target single people living alone, unconventional individuals and anyone who appears to be different from the norm or independently minded in their views. Individuality and non-conformity are considered ‘illnesses’ and potential sources of contamination across society, threatening the movement’s hold on the reins of power.

Moreover, any expressions of deeply-felt emotions must also be extinguished, from joyous declarations of love to the profound sadness of grief. In one of the most distressing vignettes in the book, we learn of mourners who are taken away to grief towers where they are stripped of their emotions, only to return like zombies devoid of any memories – ‘They emptied him, she whispered…Not a memory left.’

‘The grief towers for those who refuse to deny. Love is unsocial, inadmissible, contagious.’ He grinned. ‘It admits communication. Grief for lost love is the worse offence, indictable. It suggests love has value, understanding, generosity, happiness. Tessa is an extreme case. She flaunted her grief with pride.’ (p. 100)

We learn few details about the novella’s narrator as she (or possibly he?) moves from one artistic group to another in each subsequent vignette. In fact, at one point, I wondered whether the same person narrates each story or whether they change from one vignette to the next – any thoughts on that would be very interesting to hear in the comments. Occasionally, the narrator’s emotions break through, adding another, more psychological, dimension to the story.

I allowed myself the luxury of going utterly to pieces for forty-eight hours, moving like one demented through the hours, flooding my mind with old memories, metaphorically wailing at the wall of my loss. (…) Through such excess did I propel myself back to an appearance of remoteness. It was a form of subdued hysteria. (p. 104)

It’s an eerily chilling world the author conveys here – a timely reminder of the horrific dangers of censorship and restrictions on artistic expression. The book also highlights the importance of individual acts of resistance, often at enormous risks to freedom fighters themselves. While some readers might find the book’s minimalist approach a little too mysterious for their tastes, I loved the sense of ambiguity and space this creates, encouraging the reader to draw on their imagination to flesh out the gaps.

In her introduction to the novella, Carmen Maria Machado warns us against the temptation to view They as simply an allegory for the current political environment. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to draw parallels with the Conservative government’s strategy of stoking the Culture Wars on multiple fronts, including blatant attacks on specific arts organisations and the creative sector in general. Dick’s novella also raises important questions about the value of art, especially if it cannot be shared with others – most notably, its intended audience.

Can we go on creating for ourselves? Without any contact with the outside world?’ (p. 34)

And what remains when a work of art is destroyed? Will it endure in the memory, or might this be extinguished too? There are resonances here with Yoko Ogawa’s excellent novel, The Memory Police – a poignant, dreamlike book in which specific objects (and people’s memories of them) are systematically ‘disappeared’.

I’ll finish on a more hopeful note, a quote from one of the alluring descriptions of nature dotted through the book. There’s some gorgeous descriptive writing here, beautifully captured in Dick’s lucid, crystalline prose.

The January day had the pellucidity of a crystal. Unseasonal sun transformed the landscape. Winter bleakness acquired definition. Following weeks of rain the sharpness was invigorating. Downlands radiated colour. Brownish defoliated areas, glinted purple tones. Leafless bramble and thicket sparkles with renewal of bud. (p. 37)

This is a haunting, enigmatic, thought-provoking book – like a howl from the past and a warning for the future. (My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.)

Novels featuring tea-shops – a few of my favourites from the shelves  

Last year, I put together a couple of themed posts on my favourite novels set in hotels and boarding houses. They were fun to compile, and as several of you seemed to enjoy them, I’ve been meaning to do one on tea shops ever since. Alongside hotels, boarding houses and gossipy charladies, the presence of a tea shop in a novel is another strong selling point for me, especially if it’s a Lyons’ Corner House or a similarly characterful venue.

Just like hotels, boarding houses and trains, tea shops can provide writers with plenty of opportunities for interesting fiction, offering the potential for celebrations, drama, gossip or tension as people come together over tea and buns.

So, to cut to the chase, here are a few of my favourite novels featuring tea-shops (or afternoon tea), mostly from the mid-20th century.

Tea is So Intoxicating by Mary Essex

Ostensibly the story of a couple’s troublesome quest to open a tea garden in an insular English village, this delightful novel touches on various areas of British life in the years immediately following WW2. More specifically, it is a book about class, social attitudes, the pettiness of village life, and perhaps most importantly, the failure to recognise one’s own limitations.

The couple in question are David and Germayne Tompkins, who are relative newcomers to Wellhurst in Kent, the sort of village where everyone knows everyone else’s business. David is one of those men with big ambitions but precious little skill or knowledge to put his grand ideas into practice. He is also something of a self-conscious snob, forever envying other, more successful individuals for their achievements and contentment with life.

Naturally, the tea garden is doomed from the start; the villagers are opposed to the idea, viewing the Tompkinses as outsiders who have no right to be opening a commercial venture in their back garden, especially one with the potential to attract all manner of hikers and bikers to the village. As the novel plays out, we see just how much of a mess David gets himself into as preparations for the ‘Cherry Tree Cot’ tea garden lurch from one catastrophe to another.

In short, I loved this highly amusing novel, complete with its insights into the trials and tribulations of tea gardens and village life. There is more than a hint of Barbara Pym’s social comedies here, with their sharp observations on human relationships and women’s lives. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is another touchstone, particularly for the villagers’ territorial attitudes and resistance to outsiders heralding change.

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.

Jessica has a small coterie of friends, all delightfully sketched by Gardam, who excels in capturing their body language and banter. In a hilarious early scene, Jessica insists that the girls visit the local tea room to mark the end of term. The trouble is, Elsie Meeny’s tea shop is virtually deserted – a sleepy, down-at-heel establishment somewhat diminished by the war. As such, Jessica’s dreams of a proper afternoon tea with fat chocolate biscuits and dainty eclairs are quickly dashed, a situation made worse by comparisons with another customer’s far superior tea!

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. A wonderful novel with an undercurrent of darkness, especially towards the end.

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies. Many of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopelessbefuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. In this instance, the community revolves around the Temple Stage School, managed by the eponymous Freddie, an elderly matriarch and longstanding doyenne of the theatrical world. Once again, Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences to write this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question.

Alongside the ups and downs of stage-school life, the novel features a subplot involving the school’s only proper teachers, Hannah and Pierce – and this is where the tea shop ultimately comes in. While Hannah is attracted to the romance and atmosphere of the theatre, Pierce has no interest whatsoever in dramatic pursuits. Instead, he is simply grateful to have found a half-decent job, knowing his own value (or lack of it) in the wider world.

As the weeks go by, Hannah and Pierce fall into a loose relationship with each other, one that seems doomed from the start. There is an excruciating proposal of marriage, followed by an even more desperate discussion in a Lyons tea shop, complete with waitresses itching to clear up and go home. Pierce is one of Fitzgerald’s classic hopeless men, painfully aware of his own tragedy but clueless about how to negate it.

In short, this is an excellent novel, both darkly comic and gently poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature.

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 – Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman – 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.

Alongside its central themes of loneliness and ageing, the novel also illustrates how difficult it can be to adjust to change, especially when we are older and set in our ways. Edwin, for instance, laments the changes that have occurred in a nearby teashop, one of his regular lunchtime haunts.

He had had a light lunch, snack really, in the teashop whose decor had changed distressingly, though the food was the same. Edwin and the other regular patrons felt themselves out of place among so much trendy orange and olive green and imitation stripped pine. There were hanging lights and shades patterned with butterflies and over it all soft ‘muzak’, difficult to hear but insidious. (p. 20)

It’s a lovely scene, full of the subtle observations that Pym conveys so well.

Jill by Philip Larkin

One of only two novels that Larkin wrote in his career, Jill is well worth seeking out. In essence, the novel focuses on John Kemp, a socially awkward young man from a Northern, working-class background who wins a scholarship to study English at Oxford University in 1940. Struggling to fit in with his rather arrogant upper-class roommate, Christopher, and the public school set who surround him, John invents an imaginary sister, Jill, in order to embellish his own life in the face of others. However, things get complicated for John when he meets Gillian, the fifteen-year-old cousin of one of Christopher’s friends, and the boundaries between the imaginary Jill and the real-life Gillian begin to blur…

I’m bending the rules a little with this one as it features afternoon tea in university halls rather than a tea shop, but it’s such a brilliantly observed scene that I couldn’t bear to leave it out! The novel is full of marvellous details and observations about the minutiae of student life in Oxford: the inevitable tensions that arise when mismatched boys have to ‘room’ together; the cribbing and last-minute preparations that ensue when essays are due; and the pilfering of items from other boys’ cupboards, especially when there is cake to be sourced for afternoon tea. (The section where John arrives at his room in Oxford features a terrific set piece!)

Overall, this is a moving, sympathetic portrait of a boy for whom certain aspects of life remain largely out of reach.

Do let me know your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books. Or maybe you have some favourite novels featuring tea shops that you’d like to share with others – I’m sure there are many more I’ve yet to discover, so please feel free to mention them below!

Voyager by Nona Fernández (tr. Natasha Wimmer)

Last year I read and loved Space Invaders, a dazzling, shapeshifting novella by the Chilean writer and actress Nona Fernández. These qualities are also very much in evidence here in the author’s captivating memoir, Voyager, Constellations of Memory, a beguiling meditation on memory, family history, neurology and astronomy. This exquisitely-written book also weaves together elements of the personal with the political, delving into the dark heart of Chilean history – specifically the atrocities perpetuated under General Pinochet’s dictatorship in the early 1970s. It’s a tricky book to describe, partly because it’s so richly textured and imagined, but hopefully I can give you a flavour of it here. (I should also say upfront that I simply adored this book. It’s a luminous one-sitting read, full of fascinating observations, connections and ideas; another dazzling gem from Daunt Books, a publisher that consistently delivers the goods.)

When Fernandez’s mother experiences a series of brief blackouts, Nona takes her to the hospital for various tests, including a visualisation of the brain’s activity. As Fernandez watches the network of neurons lighting up on the screen, she is reminded of a starscape, an imaginary constellation of stars twinkling away in the sky…

I remember the electrical charges I saw in her neurological exam. Those constellations of clustered memories. And I muse, in a rather obvious way, that the parentheses in her brain are like the black holes of the cosmos. Dark, enigmatic spaces packed with hidden information. I have only the most basic understanding of them. (p. 87)

In some respects, these parentheses (i.e. the gaps in memory her mother experiences after she has briefly lost consciousness) can be likened to black holes. However, just because her mother can’t remember the details of these blackouts, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing there.

Moreover, Fernandez also recalls a story from childhood, a conversation she had with her mother about the stars in the sky, their origins and meaning. Irrespective of whether we notice them or not, the stars are always present, reminding us of their existence, transmitting messages and signals night after night after night.

When I was very little and I asked my mother about the stars, she responded with a crazy theory. Up in the night sky, she said, there were little people who were trying to talk to us with mirrors. In a kind of Morse code with flashes of light conveying messages. For a long time I believed her and I assumed that the messages sent by the little people in the sky were to say hello and remind us of their presence despite the distance and the darkness. Hello, here we are, we’re the little people, don’t forget us. (p. 44)

Using these two experiences as a springboard, Fernandez weaves a beautiful, effortlessly fluid meditation, establishing deep and meaningful connections between the constellations in the sky, our constellations of memories – both personal and political – astrology, motherhood, identity and more. Pivotal here are the author’s own personal experiences of stargazing in Chile’s Atacama Desert, one of the world’s leading areas for observing the night sky. It’s a location steeped in Chile’s history, some of it deeply troubling. In October 1973, shortly after Pinochet swept to power, twenty-six people were executed there by the dictator’s ‘Caravan of Death’ squad.

Around the same time as her mother’s neurological investigations, Fernandez is invited to sign an Amnesty International petition calling for twenty-six stars in a particular constellation to be renamed (one for each victim of the 1973 atrocity) as a permanent act of remembrance. Following her support of this endeavour, Fernandez agrees to become a godmother to one of the stars, Star HD89353, in memoriam of Mario Argüelles Toro.

In one of the most moving vignettes in the book, Fernandez visits Mario’s widow, Violeta, at her home in Calama. She hears how Violeta searched the Atacama Desert, day in day out for twenty years following her husband’s death, desperately seeking elements of his remains – a bone, a scrap of clothing, a belonging of any sort – something she could bury as a way of saying goodbye. These visits culminate in Fernandez joining Violeta and the other bereaved families on a pilgrimage to the desert, a deeply affecting act of remembrance that hopefully brings a modicum of solace to all involved.

If I think about the story of Mario Argüelles and his twenty-five fellow victims executed in the desert, if I think about all the people of Calama, their city, who have no information about them, I’m visited again by the image of those menacing black holes. Twenty-six lives and twenty-six deaths and twenty-six bodies hidden in some corner of history, in a blind spot where there’s nothing left to be found anymore. (p. 88)

In some ways, Mario’s story is a powerful reminder of the importance of individual acts of defiance and remembrance – a way of focusing on an individual death within the cumulative horror of Pinochet’s actions. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that each of these losses represents a unique person, an individual robbed of their life – each leaving behind a family destroyed by enduring grief.

Alongside these elements, Fernandez also touches on her own family history – most notably, stories of her mother and grandmother and their shared determination to vote ‘No’ in the 1988 national plebiscite, a crucial referendum on Chile’s political direction. A victory for the ‘Yes’ campaign would have strengthened Pinochet’s control over the country at the time, but thankfully the ‘No’ campaign prevailed by a comfortable margin, ushering in a more democratic future for the country.

Fernandez continues to revisit these themes throughout the book, weaving together a beguiling network of connections, alighting on personal family memories, her mother’s neurological condition, the mysteries hidden in the cosmos and episodes from Chile’s troubled history. By doing so, she seems to be highlighting the importance of the past to our present and future direction. In short, light from the past can illuminate our current situation. Only by remembering and preserving these stories, by learning from our history and previous experiences, can we hope to move forward, shaping the decisions and constellations of the future as positively as possible.

Voyager is published in the UK by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. Interested readers should also check out Patricio Guzmán’s stunning documentary on the Atacama Desert, Nostalgia for the Light, which explores similar themes – the cinematography is dazzling.

Lewis Percy by Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner is probably best known for novels like Hotel du Lac – those exquisitely-crafted stories of loneliness and isolation, typically featuring unmarried women living quiet, unfulfilled lives while waiting for their unobtainable lovers to make fleeting appearances. However, just like its predecessor, the superb Latecomers, Lewis Percy differs from Brookner’s earlier novels in that it features a male protagonist – in this instance, the eponymous Lewis Percy. Nevertheless, it is another triumph, demonstrating that Brookner is just as adept at mining the inner lives of her male characters as she is at dissecting their female counterparts. I loved this novel’s closeted, claustrophobic mood and hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

The novel follows Lewis from his student days in Paris in 1959 to his late thirties, some sixteen years later, by which point he remains a man out of his times – bookish, old-fashioned and emotionally befuddled.

In Paris, Lewis spends his days at the Bibliothèque Nationale, writing his thesis on the concept of heroism in the 19th-century novel, returning to his lodgings at night, where he enjoys the convivial company of his landlady, Mme Doche, and her coterie of female boarders. Having been raised in England by his widowed mother, Lewis relishes this opportunity to study other women at close quarters, treating them with a blend of curiosity, respect and ‘innocent enquiry’.

Shortly after his return to London, Lewis’ mother dies, leaving him feeling lost and cast adrift. On the advice of his cousin Andrew, Lewis hires a charlady, Mrs Joliffe, to manage the house, relieving him of the domestic duties for which he is so poorly equipped. Nevertheless, it’s a solitary life, and Lewis misses the female companionship of his Paris days, someone to alleviate the loneliness of the long evenings at home.

One day, while Lewis is returning some books to the local library, he encounters Tissy, a shy, timid assistant who remembers his mother. While Lewis is not romantically attracted to the agoraphobic Tissy, he begins to think of her as a potential wife, a suitable companion who might blossom under his protection. If nothing else, it would be nice to have a female presence around his home again – someone to anticipate his return in the evenings and alleviate his loneliness.  

Nevertheless, walking home with the books under his arm, it was Miss Harper, Tissy, whose image stayed in his mind, tiny, chill, eternally distant, like something seen through the wrong end of a telescope. He had thought her quite plain.

She might be somebody he could marry, he thought, quailing at the prospect of his mother’s empty house. The thought, though idle, was sudden yet not surprising. And then he could cure her, and she would be able to go out again. Or else she could stay indoors, waiting for him to come home. It would be nice to be expected again. (p. 53)

Contrary to expectations, Tissy proves herself to be a competent manager of the household, unearthing various treasures that Lewis’ mother had previously packed away. Nevertheless, she remains emotionally distanced from Lewis, despite her quiet sense of authority around the home.

He had acquired, simultaneously, an excellent wife, whose competence he could only value and admire, and a sort of artefact, which, like the automata in The Tales of Hoffmann, came to life when he was not there. For it seemed impossible to believe that he knew all there was to know of her, and that what he did know was enough to last him for the rest of his life. (p. 98)

In short, Lewis and Tissy remain estranged within their marriage – together but alone. From time to time, they come together briefly, only to separate again quickly, ‘like partners at the end of a dance’.

Her earlier timidity had hardened into a kind of refusal to engage which was in fact a sign of strength rather than weakness. Her silences were loaded with criticism, yet they were maintained as silences, and they became more eloquent than the words they suppressed. There was no open disagreement between them. Their routines were so established that they moved with an automatic accord through their daily lives. Sometimes it seems to Lewis that their value to each other was as a foil for what was essentially an individual experience of solitude, which, borne alone, might strike either one of them down with intolerable perplexity: with the other there neither could feel totally abandoned. (p. 109)

At heart, Lewis is not cut out for the complexities of adult life, something that Brookner illustrates with great subtlety and precision. He slips into marriage with Tissy, hoping to find solace in her companionship, but his inability to deal with the emotional aspects of the relationship leaves him isolated and adrift. It’s an inert, airless marriage, characterised by long silences and Tissy’s unspoken disapproval. She finds fault with certain aspects of her husband’s behaviour, especially around the voluptuous Emmy, whom Lewis meets through his friend, Pen.

While very little happens in terms of plot, the breakdown of the Percys’ marriage is beautifully portrayed, with Tissy returning to stay with her mother when she suspects Lewis of having an affair. Ironically though, Lewis is too naïve to embark upon a dalliance with Emmy, even when she presents herself to him on a plate, such is his confusion and inexperience in matters of the heart.

As ever with Brookner, the writing is superb, laying bare her characters’ flaws and foibles in precise, carefully-crafted prose. The secondary characters are excellent too, from the gaunt, weather-beaten charlady, Mrs Joliffe, to Tissy’s vampish, judgemental mother, Thea.

The cleanliness of the beautiful evening died on his skin as he shut the front door behind him and sniffed the familiar aroma of his mother-in-law, the Messalina of the suburbs: cigarettes mingled with the slightly stale Vol de Nuit. (p. 105)

There is a touch of Elizabeth Bowen about this novel, as though the story could be playing out in the 1920s or ‘30s when certain emotions were hidden or repressed. Nevertheless, it rings totally true, a suitable companion piece to Brookner’s earlier studies of quiet, unremarkable women living small, unfulfilling lives marked by disappointments. Unusually for Brookner, the book ends on an optimistic note with the promise of new beginnings for Lewis, a form of release from the constraints of his failed marriage.

This is another excellent novel from one of my favourite authors; her ability to dissect complex, emotionally stilted lives never fails to disappoint.  

This hardback edition of Lewis Percy was published by Jonathan Cape, but the paperback is currently in print with Penguin Books; personal copy.

War in Val d’Orcia by Iris Origo

A few months ago, I wrote about A Chill in the Air, a series of diary entries by the British-born writer and biographer Iris Origo. It’s a truly fascinating book, a remarkable record of developments leading up to Italy’s entry into the Second World War, written from La Foce, the Origos’ Tuscan estate. A Chill covers the period from March 1939 to July 1940, ending with the birth of the couple’s second child, Benedetta. Consequently, Origo was too busy to write for a couple of years; nevertheless, she returned to the task in January 1943, documenting events for a further eighteen months. These are the diary entries I’ll be covering here, published as War in Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943 – 1944.

There is more about Orgio’s background in my earlier review, but suffice it to say that by the outbreak of war, there are fifty-seven farms on La Foce, overseen and supported by Iris and her husband, Antonio, who are generous to a fault.

Italy’s position in the war is complex, to say the least. As Virginia Nicholson notes in her introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, Mussolini’s Fascist government initially aligns itself with Germany; however, by 1943, Fascism in Italy is becoming ‘a spent force’ with Il Duce losing his grip over the nation. The Allies are beginning to drive the Germans out of Italy, moving forward from the south while simultaneously bombing German strongholds, such as Genoa, Bologna and Turin in the north. Consequently, Italy finds itself under attack on multiple fronts, from bombings by the Allies to ravages by the Germans.

Irrespective of the perils and uncertainties of the family’s personal situation, Origo remains remarkably clear-eyed in her analysis of the political climate in Italy, highlighting the terrible dilemma facing the country by the summer of 1943.

Bombing all over Italy: Genoa, Bologna, Naples, Parma, Foggia. Simultaneously a broadcast of Churchill and Roosevelt to the Italian people urges them to overthrow the Fascist regime, and offers them ‘an honourable capitulation’ and ‘a respected place among the free peoples of Europe’. Germany, says the message, has betrayed the Italian people: Mussolini and Fascism have betrayed them. If they do not capitulate, Italy will be destroyed. It is for the Italians to decide whether they will die for Mussolini and Hitler or live for peace and liberty. (p. 65)

We sense the author’s frustration when the King of Italy and his Marshall, Badoglio, fail to seize the opportunity to make peace with the Allies in July ‘43, effectively prolonging the conflict and loss of life as the country tears itself apart.

Moreover, she outlines the regional variations in government across the country – broadly speaking, the Germans in the north and the Allies in the south, albeit with various local and regional loyalties complicating the mix. Sympathies are divided across the Italian population, ranging from fervent anti-Fascists looking to join the Allies, to those less willing to support either side (particularly when they feel betrayed by the King and Badoglio’s fecklessness). Even among those who oppose the Fascists, there are differing views on how best to achieve a peaceful resolution, with some advocating decisive action while others favour a more passive form of endurance. In addition, there are great swathes of Italians who are just trying to keep their heads downs in the hope of surviving. These are the ‘tira a campare’ (referred to as the ‘just rubs along’) – weary, suspicious and deeply disillusioned, these individuals are fully aware that more suffering lies ahead, their main aims being self-protection and the preservation of life.

Something that comes through so strongly here is the generosity of the Italian people, the numerous acts of bravery, compassion and selflessness that occur on a daily basis, frequently at great personal risk and expense to the Italians themselves. Numerous humanitarian actions and sacrifices are documented in these diaries – too many to mention here, but they are genuinely humbling to read.

Much has been said in these times (and not least by the Italians themselves) about Italian cowardice and Italian treachery. But here is a man (and there are hundreds of others like him) who has run the risk of being shot, who has shared his family’s food to the last crumb, and who has lodged, clothed and protected four strangers for over three months—and who now proposes continuing to do so, while perfectly aware of all the risks that he is running. What is this, if not courage and loyalty? (p. 196)

The Origos, for their part, set a heroic example in this respect, taking in twenty-three refugee children in early 1943 following the bombings in Genoa and Turin. Food, clothing and other essential supplies are in perilously short supply, but somehow they manage to get by through a combination of grit, resourcefulness and determination. Day after day, the Origos selflessly help a seemingly endless stream of fugitives, partisans, evacuees, Italian soldiers and Allied POWs who call at the estate, providing food, clothes, shelter, medical support and directions, depending on individuals’ needs.

Two other fugitives, Italian airmen from Albania—one suffering from bronchitis—who have already been captured twice by the Germans and have now walked down from Vincenza. They have given up all hope of getting through the lines, and beg to be allowed to stay on here and work, until the Germans retreat. We find a place for them at one of our farms. (p. 158)

In many instances, they help these people to lie low in the nearby woods (by May 1944, there are 200 men hiding out with the Origos’ support!), often at great risk to themselves as the punishments for shielding partisans or Allied POWs become increasingly severe. Meanwhile, reprisals for attacks on German forces continue to erupt across Italy, adding another element of threat to an already volatile situation. 

At Livorno the German O.C. has taken fifty hostages, in reprisal for attacks upon German soldiers, and has issued a proclamation announcing that if there is any further trouble, five of them will immediately be shot and the whole population of the suburbs of Livorno will be evacuated without notice. (p. 122)

Origo is particularly adept at capturing the everyday rhythms of a country at war, the peculiar mix of frustration, confusion, uncertainty, anxiety, boredom, exhaustion, bravery and compassion. Alongside the immediate dangers, Iris and Antonio must also grapple with various long-term worries and uncertainties. What will life be like when the war is over? Will there be enough money to survive? What sort of world will they be raising their children in, and how will they cope? Can peace and harmony ever be restored in a divided country and a fractured Europe?

By June 1944, the Germans have taken over La Foce, forcing the Origos and the children in their care to take shelter in the estate’s cellar. With the Allies on their way but still tantalisingly out of reach, the Origos and their charges (a group of 60 in total) are forced to leave for Montepulciano, making the journey on foot while trying to shelter from the conflict. Thankfully they arrive safely, albeit exhausted from the flight, both physically and mentally.

This remarkable diary ends on a hopeful note with the liberation of La Foce when the Allies finally make it to Tuscany a week or two after the Origos’ departure. Unsurprisingly, there is much rebuilding to be done when the Origos return to their estate, but Iris remains firmly optimistic for the future.

It’s an astonishing end to a frankly astonishing account of the war from one woman’s perspective. There is so much humanity, generosity and compassion within these pages, it’s heartening to see. Like many other accounts of war, Origo’s diaries are a testament to the folly of conflict and the strength of those who resist it. Highly recommended to any reader with an interest in this crucial period of history.

Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel (tr. Rosalind Harvey)

Still Born, the fourth novel by the critically-acclaimed Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel, is an intriguing book. Recently longlisted for the International Booker Prize, the novel explores various aspects of motherhood – specifically, ambivalence towards the prospect of becoming a mother and what can happen when those feelings change – in candid, sensitive ways.

The novel takes as its focus two close friends, Laura (who acts as narrator) and Alina, both in their early to mid-thirties. Having first met in their twenties while studying/working in Paris, the two women now find themselves back in their home country of Mexico for different reasons. Both women had initially resisted motherhood as it would have restricted their career prospects and freedoms, but now the situation has changed. Alina and her husband, Aurelio, have been trying to have a baby for the past year without success and are about to embark on fertility treatment in the hope of a positive result. While at first, Laura is unsettled by the prospect of her friend joining the ranks of ‘zombie-like’ mothers ‘with no life of their own’, she eventually comes around to the idea, especially when Alina finally becomes pregnant.

Nettel touches on the wide range of responses to pregnancy and motherhood here, particularly among women. It’s a remarkably honest and nuanced treatment of the subject, which is refreshing to see.

A pregnancy changes many things indeed, including the connections we have with people: the friends who had decided not to have children now looked at her [Alina] differently, as if she were the carrier of a transmittable disease. The ones who did want them and could see their time running out, meanwhile, displayed towards her an admiration tinged with envy. I have no idea if any of them, aside from me, felt genuinely happy for her. (p. 35)

Initially, everything seems to be progressing well with Alina’s pregnancy; but at seven months, a scan reveals that the unborn baby’s brain is severely undeveloped, and the couple must come to terms with the pronouncement that their child, already named Inés, will die when separated from its mother at birth. In short, Inés’ brain will be incapable of carrying out all the normal autonomous bodily functions required to sustain life; the only thing keeping her alive right now is Alina. Moreover, Alina is strongly advised to carry the baby to term to maximise her chances of a successful pregnancy in the future, despite the unwavering predictions that Inés will die at birth.

There is a word to describe someone who loses their spouse, and a word for children who are left without parents. There is no word, however, for a parent who loses their child. Unlike previous centuries in which child mortality was very high, it’s not normal for this to occur in our time. It is something so feared, so unacceptable, that we have chosen not to name it. (p. 68)

However, when Inés is born, she defies the doctors’ expectations by surviving, albeit with severe brain damage, limiting her future development and ability to live an independent life. The baby’s condition is so rare that no one can predict how long she will live. Consequently, Alina and Aurelio must face the prospect of never knowing whether each day will be their baby’s last. It’s a situation that accentuates just how tenuous and fragile our lives can be, how any of us could die at any moment, in an accident or by a freak of nature. Inevitably, the situation triggers all sorts of emotions in the couple, especially Alina. She feels angry towards the doctors who told her to prepare for her baby’s death – the same doctors who now insist that Inés cannot see or hear anything, even though she seems to respond to various sounds and environments in the couple’s home.

Alongside Alina’s story, the novel also follows Laura as she becomes increasingly involved with her neighbours – a depressed single mother, Doris, and her troublesome son, Nicolás, whose outbursts can be heard through the paper-thin walls. Although Laura has undergone a sterilisation procedure to protect herself from becoming pregnant, she finds herself acting as a kind of substitute mother to Nicolás when his mother is too ill to provide proper care.

There is a lot going on in this novel (possibly too much?), with Nettel adding other reflections on motherhood through the somewhat strained relationship between Laura and her mother.

We daughters have a tendency to see in our mother’s mistakes the source of all our problems, and our mothers tend to consider our defects as proof of a possible failure. So as to avoid conflict, I have, over the past few years, opted to not completely reveal what I am thinking, to hide my fondnesses and fears, becoming as unreadable as possible to escape the knife-edge of her comments… (p. 150)

Moreover, Alina feels somewhat undermined in her role as Inés’ mother when she hires an uber-efficient nanny, Marlene, who becomes very attached to the little girl, experiencing all the joys of seeing her progress and develop without the burden of having long-term responsibility for her care.

There’s also an interesting parallel between a family of pigeons nesting on the balcony of Laura’s flat and the other aspects of motherhood Nettel explores in the novel. Like Alina and Aurelio, the pigeons must deal with an unexpected tragedy when one of the eggs they have been nurturing disappears from their nest.

They were perched on the nest, cooing at a volume that sounded louder than usual. Were they pining for the presence of the other egg? Did they experience its disappearance as a painful loss? Or was it something for which pigeons and other creatures are prepared, while human beings simply cannot tolerate it? (p. 70)

Once again, Nettel adds another dimension to the narrative here, touching on themes of brood parasitism, a practice whereby birds such as cuckoos pass the responsibility for raising their offspring onto others by laying their eggs in another bird’s nest.

While I really liked the first half of this novel and Nettel’s cool, quietly compelling prose style throughout, the second half seemed somewhat less focused and clear to me. Moreover, Nettel introduces something at the halfway point that appears to be setting up a moral dilemma for Alina, offering her a possible way out if coping with baby Inés proves too much; however, this element remains dormant for the remainder of the book. Still, the author is to be commended for tackling some difficult aspects of motherhood with tenderness, openness and sensitivity. It’s an interesting exploration of how our attitudes to having children can change over time, what happens when a pregnancy throws up unexpected, life-threatening challenges, and how we manage to cope (or not) with the uncertainty this presents.

I’ll finish with a final quote which captures something of the novel’s essence for me.

‘…We have the children that we have, not the ones we imagined we’d have, or the ones we’d have liked, and they’re the ones we end up having to contend with.’ (p. 189)

Still Born is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

Homesick by Jennifer Croft

Jennifer Croft’s autobiographical novella, Homesick, has a fascinating history. The book started life in 2017 as a novel written in Spanish: Serpientes y escaleras, which means ‘Snakes and Ladders’ in English. Then, two years later, a reworked version of the book (written in English and titled ‘Homesick’) appeared in the US as a memoir, complete with photographs to illustrate the writer’s childhood. A third version, also called Homesick, has now been published in the UK by the Edinburgh-based publishers Charco Press; however, in this edition, which is presented as an English-language novella, the photographs have been removed. This is the version I’ll be discussing here – recently longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, along with Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses, a novel I adored.

In essence, Homesick is a haunting, impressionistic novella written in brief, fragmentary vignettes – some comprising two or three lines, others two or three pages. Ostensibly a poignant, deeply moving portrayal of childhood, sisterhood and coming of age, the novella also touches on several related themes, including the emotional rollercoaster of first love, the pain of separation and the need to come to terms with change. Croft uses a relatively open, direct prose style here, leaving plenty of space between the short chapters. It’s a technique that fits neatly with the topics being explored, encouraging the reader to bring their own thoughts and impressions to this intimate story.

Central to the novella are Amy and Zoe, two inseparable sisters living in Oklahoma with their parents in the late 1980s/early ‘90s. Amy, the elder of the two siblings by three years, is naturally gifted, a well-organised perfectionist with a love of photography and languages. However, while Zoe enjoys the protection and stimulation Amy provides, her life is dictated by a frightening sequence of seizures, thought to be caused by a rare but benign brain tumour. Consequently, the girls are home-schooled from a relatively young age, fostering an atmosphere of intense closeness between the sisters and a shared passion for Eastern European figure-skaters and the languages they speak.

This secluded, protective environment cultivates a sense of mutual dependence between the girls, who share childhood secrets and ways of communicating with one another that are hidden from their parents. These feelings are intensified when both girls fall in love with Sasha, the young languages student hired to teach Amy Russian and Zoe Ukrainian, inspired by their devotion to the figure skaters of their dreams.

She [Amy] takes stock of the secrets between them: on her side, the secret stash of photographs that she still keeps; her secrets about Sasha, which now number in the dozens; her secret future; her secret grief. […] Subtract the secret rooms that Amy couldn’t access at the hospital, where things were done to Zoe that Amy cannot ever know. Subtract the lies that Zoe might be telling Amy, too, in the same way that she lied to protect her earlier that night. (p. 100)

One of the most interesting aspects of this novella is Croft’s exploration of the impact of a child’s chronic illness on the other members of their family, particularly a sibling. As Amy tries to come to terms with her sister’s illness, it raises several questions in her mind. She looks for clues about the origin of Zoe’s tumour in the various photographs she has taken, wondering too whether her own brain has been affected.

It seems impossible that Zoe got a tumor while Amy did not. The girls almost always get sick at the same time: chicken pox, strep throat, colds. Then it’s fun because their dad reads them stories like the one about the duck that turns into a swan and their mom brings them glasses of Tang. Unless Amy does have a brain tumor but no one knows yet. In that case her personality might already be changing. In that case she might already be becoming a completely different person, but nobody has noticed, and Amy can’t notice because it’s her brain that’s getting switched. (p. 46)

In the mid-‘90s, when Amy is in her teens, the girls are struck by a series of tragedies, each of which has a profound impact, particularly on Amy. Firstly, the city is rocked by the Oklahoma bombing, a massacre that kills and injuries several hundred; then one of Amy’s beloved figure-skaters dies suddenly of a heart attack at the age of twenty-eight; and finally, the loss of a loved one shatters Amy’s world. Shortly afterwards, Amy leaves home at fifteen to begin her studies at the University of Tulsa, separating her from Zoe and the security of home. It’s a risky move for the teenager, opening up a world of possibilities for her education while also exposing her vulnerabilities at a highly traumatic time.

Without Zoe, Amy is lost; she has little sense of how to ‘be’ with other people and interact. In short, her world feels destabilised and unbalanced, exacerbated by a profound sense of loss. At a certain point in the narrative, the focus begins to shift, and we realise that we are witnessing the fallout from these tragedies. As Amy struggles to deal with grief, severe depression exerts its grip, ushering in a period of experimentation with various coping mechanisms to dull the pain – alcohol, painkillers and self-harming – culminating in a cry for help that lands her in hospital.

Sometimes she [Amy] claws at the concrete. Sometimes all her muscles tense up so tight she gets terrified because what if she can never move again. She listens to the cars go by and tests out her fingers and wraps her hand around her throat. (p. 110)

Meanwhile, Zoe misses her sister terribly. But when she runs away from home to stay with Amy, her seizures soon worsen, prompting a return to home.

While the book mostly focuses on the girls’ childhood and adolescence, it closes with a short section giving brief, intermittent glimpses of Amy from her late teens to mid-thirties. Here we see a more grounded Amy as she pursues her desire to travel, moving through various European cities, reflecting on memories of Zoe and learning languages as she goes. There is some lovely evocative writing here, very much in keeping with Amy’s development and the challenges she has overcome.

2008, summer. Amy’s third trip to Berlin. He is more beautiful than she remembered, leaning in against the bar, his male jaw delicate, resting in his hand. In the light of the light bulbs the tattoo of the flourishing tree on his arm is almost incandescent. Amy goes straight to him, leaning in over the bar to kiss his smooth warm cheek. (p. 201)

While the fragmentary style and choice of a third-person narrative might not be to every reader’s taste (in truth, it’s a book I liked and admired rather than loved due to this slight distancing effect), there’s no denying the moving nature of the sisters’ story. Homesick is a thoughtful, intimate book, a sensitive portrayal of sisterhood, childhood illness and the devastation of personal loss, eloquently expressed in Croft’s simple, direct prose.