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The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – Book Review, Part 2

Earlier this week, I posted part 1 of my review of Paula Byrne’s marvellous new biography of Barbara Pym. If you missed it, you can catch up with it here as this post carries straight on from the first.

Some of the most interesting aspects of this biography – and there are many things to treasure here – are the connections Byrne makes between Pym’s personal life and the threads in her fiction. Over the course of her career, Pym drew extensively on her own personal experiences, creating an environment populated with excellent, unassuming woman, pompous, unobservant husbands, fusty, isolated academics and precious young curates. Spinsterhood was a recurring theme, from ‘contended spinsters’ such as Belinda Bede from Some Tame Gazelle to exploited spinsters such as Mildred Lathbury from Excellent Women.

It is a world that seems at once both farcical and recognisable, such was Pym’s insight into the foibles of human nature. In effect, the novels became outlets for Pym’s deepest feelings, particularly those of loss, hurt and unrequited love.

In Some Tame Gazelle – which features two sisters, Belinda and Harriet Bede, closely modelled on how Barbara and her younger sibling Hilary might be living when they reach their fifties – Pym channelled former lover Henry Harvey for her portrayal of Archdeacon Hoccleve, a pompous, self-centred man whom Belinda worships from afar.

In Some Tame Gazelle, the Archdeacon loves nothing better than the sound of his own voice, bores his parishioners with his overlong, wordy sermons, and is jealous of his curates. Many of Henry’s traits and peccadilloes are depicted in this handsome, selfish, petulant, lazy, conceited and not terribly bright man of the cloth: his dislike of olives, his delicate constitution, his habit of lying in bed in the morning, his constant complaints. His Viennese red wool socks that Belinda must forever darn. (p. 133)

Hoccleve is a brilliant creation, all the more so when we realise how closely he resembles Henry in both character and behaviour. (You can read more about Pym’s romantic entanglements with Henry Harvey in part 1 of my review.)

Byrne highlights several other examples too. There is more than a hint of Julian Amery – a sophisticated young man who had a fling with Barbara, only to drop her quite casually – in Simon Beddoes, the ambitious young politician who featured in Pym’s marvellous ‘Oxford novel’ Crampton Hodnet.

Another of Pym’s lovers, Gordon Glover, provided the inspiration for Fabian Driver, the handsome yet vain widower from Jane and Prudence. Pym fell hard for Gordon, the estranged husband of her close friend Honor Glover; and while Honor knew about Pym’s relationship with Gordon, the situation was complicated by the fact that the two women were sharing a house (along with Barbara’s sister, Hilary) at the time.

In short, Barbara was mesmerised by Gordon, but their affair ended after just two months when he dumped her rather abruptly shortly after the Christmas break. While Gordon seemed to be treating their relationship as a fling, Barbara was hoping for something more lasting. As a consequence, Pym poured all of her hurt over the rejection by Gordon Glover – and his cowardice in not being straight with her – into another novel, the pitch-perfect Excellent Women. Here we see Pym writing with a whole new level of insight into affairs of the heart, particularly the intense bruising that can come from being sidelined.

Another rejection provided inspiration for the novel The Sweet Dove Died, written around 1970 but only published followed Pym’s renaissance later that decade. At close to fifty, Pym fell in love with another somewhat unsuitable chap, Richard Roberts, aka Skipper. A rugged, ‘virile-looking’ man, Skipper was eighteen years Pym’s junior and a homosexual; and while Pym appeared to be aware of Skipper’s sexual leanings from an early stage, it didn’t stop her from falling hard for him. Skipper had a certain degree of charisma, but there was also a dark side to his personality, an irascible, depressive streak that made him difficult to like. Once again Pym was ‘off-loaded’, an experience that she channelled into her art, penning Dove as a kind of riposte. It is considered one of Pym’s most melancholy novels, a reflection no doubt of her feelings at the time.

To compound matters, Skipper’s rejection coincided with Pym’s well-documented ‘Wilderness Years’, which commenced when Jonathan Cape declined to published her seventh novel, An Unsuitable Attachment. The year was 1963 – which Byrne terms as Pym’s ‘Annus Horribilis’ – when significant social changes were sweeping through Britain. As such, Pym’s rather genteel image seemed oddly out-of-step with modern trends and considerations.

Beatlemania had begun, and with it a cult of youth and working-class rebellion in which Pym’s world suddenly looked unfashionably middle aged and middle class – though she herself liked their records. (p. 486)

It didn’t help that the novel portrayed a cross-class relationship as being ‘unsuitable’, just at a time when class barriers were being demolished.

Pym was deeply hurt by Cape’s actions, particularly the manner of their brush-off, which was communicated to her in a cold letter, without the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting or phone call to soften the blow. Several other publishers subsequently declined An Unsuitable Attachment, and its successor The Sweet Dove Died; however, the respected writer Philip Larkin proved himself Pym’s saviour…

Larkin and Pym had been friends for many years, writing to one another over the course of a couple of decades. The poet was a huge fan of Pym’s novels, diligently re-reading them all every few years. As such, he was a great source of comfort to Barbara during her Wilderness Years, writing to Faber’s editor, Charles Monteith, on her behalf in the hope of securing future publications of her work.

‘In all her writing I find a continual perceptive attentiveness to detail, which is a joy and a steady background of rueful yet courageous acceptance of things which I think more relevant to life as most of us have to live it.’ (Letter from Larkin to Charles Monteith, p. 522)

Pym’s renaissance was finally secured in 1977 when the TLS ran an article asking various writers to name their most underrated authors. Pym was the only writer to receive two nominations, one from Philip Larkin, the other from Lord David Cecil. As a consequence, Pym’s fortunes changed virtually overnight. Various broadsheets wanted to interview her, Roy Plomley secured her for Desert Island Discs, and best of all, Macmillan offered to published her latest novels, Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died. Even Jonathan Cape wanted to be friends with Pym again, once they’d got over the shock of her new-found popularity. The satisfaction of being able to tell them that she’d since signed with Macmillan must have been delightful for Pym! A happy ending for our heroine, very much in keeping with the tone of her early books.

I hope I’ve succeeded in giving you a flavour of this absorbing biography over the past few weeks. (It really is a very comprehensive book.) There were many sides to Pym’s personality, some of them public, others more private. Ultimately, what emerges is an image of a woman who had many fascinating experiences during her lifetime, including several affairs of the heart – a rather surprising number for an English gentlewoman and spinster from the mid-20th-century! (Other than Pym’s relationship with Henry Harvey, I had very little knowledge of this aspect of her life before reading Byrne’s biography.)

While Pym’s canvases were small, the emotions she depicted were significant and universal, highlighting her sensitivity to the foibles of human behaviour. There is a sharpness in her fiction that comes from lived experience, a compassion and sense of humanity, particularly for those who have loved and lost. How I envy those of you who’ve yet to read her for the first time – you have so many treats to forward to!

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is published by William Collins; my sincere thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – Book Review, Part 1

Last week I posted a little excerpt from Paula Byrne’s comprehensive new biography of Barbara Pym, one of my favourite underappreciated writers from the mid-20th century. Hopefully it will have whetted your appetite for this truly immersive book, which I plan to cover in more detail over the course of the week. (It really is a most fascinating read!)

Byrne digs deep into the detail here, following Pym from her childhood in Shropshire to her twilight years in Oxfordshire, illuminating with great clarity and affection each distinct phase of the author’s life. The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is written in the style of a picaresque narrative, which gives the book a jaunty tone, very much in line with its subject’s world. As such, it is presented as an engaging sequence of vignettes with titles such as ‘Miss Pym’s Summer of Love’, ‘Miss Pym passes her Interview’ and ‘Hullo Skipper’.

Following her birth in Oswestry in 1913, Pym lived through a remarkable period of history, a time that encompassed two World Wars, a royal abdication and sweeping social change; and while it would be impossible for me to cover all aspects of her life in these reviews, I hope to convey something of the flavour of the book.

Pym’s childhood was a happy and loving one. Born into a respectable, middle-class family in 1913, Barbara was well suited to Oswestry’s comfortable routines. Her father, Frederic, was a good-natured solicitor, and her mother, Irena, the epitome of the ‘excellent women’ Pym would go on to portray with great affection in her novels.

Irena – an avid reader and lover of music – had clear ambitions for Barbara and her younger daughter, Hilary, supporting their education in the hope they would progress to Oxford. In 1931, Barbara gladly fulfilled her mother’s wishes, winning a place at St Hilda’s College to read English. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these new surrounding proved stimulating and exhilarating to the young Pym, and she embraced University life with great enthusiasm and relish.

Pym found Oxford ‘intoxicating’. In no small part this was because she suddenly found herself the centre of male attention and, like many girls from single-sex schools, she was ready to enjoy being in the company of young men. As with her heroine, Miss Bates, in her third published novel Jane and Prudence, the male undergraduates beat a path to Pym’s door. It was not only the preponderance of men (the ratio was one woman to ten men) that enhanced her desirability, but also the fact that she was so funny and interesting. She was in particular a magnet for homosexual men, who were drawn to her wit and playfulness. (pp. 26–27)

As a witty, highly original young woman, Pym was not short of male admirers, and Byrne devotes several chapters to the romantic adventures in our heroine’s life, many of which proved hurtful and damaging. Pym tended to rush headlong into love affairs, confessing all her most intimate feelings in the pages of her diaries. Naturally, Byrne draws heavily on these texts in this biography, particularly as they offer such a rich seam of material.

Pym’s first real love was a Classics student named Rupert Gleadow, and while their letters to one another were both affectionate and passionate, Barbara was clearly coming under pressure to take things a step further. When Barbara finally agreed to sleep with Rupert, the incident caused a rupture in their relationship – the relevant pages from Barbara’s diary are missing, presumably ripped out from intense embarrassment and distress. The specifics of what happened that night remain a mystery. Nevertheless, it is clear from the state of Barbara’s diary and her subsequent withdrawal from Rupert that she felt pressurised, ultimately losing her virginity in a most unpleasant way. It must have been an incredibly traumatic thing for any young woman to process at the time, especially someone of Barbara’s sensitivity. The very least she could do was to purge the incident from her diary if not from her memories and mindset.

Other lovers duly followed, perhaps most significantly, Henry Harvey, a handsome student whom Pym ‘stalked’ at the Bodleian Library – his ‘herringbone tweed grey overcoat and brown leather gloves, lined with lambswool’ were duly noted. Unfortunately for Barbara, Henry led her a bit of a merry dance, playing things cool and flirting with other admirers, even though their relationship had become sexual.

In truth, the deeply sensitive Pym was too open with her affections, falling fast and hard for this dashing intellectual with a tendency for cruelty. Henry abused Pym’s affections, but he was also capable of great compassion alongside the callousness, and Pym remained attracted to him for several years. Sadly, Pym’s early experiences with Henry set something of a pattern for her future relationships with men – as Byrne quite correctly notes in the biography, ‘the more badly they treated her, the more deeply in love she felt’.

Alongside Pym’s romantic entanglements, Byrne shines a light on many other aspects of Pym’s life, not least her war work in the Wrens and subsequent role in the African Institute, where she became involved in the field of anthropology. It is perhaps no coincidence that Pym would gravitate to such an area, concerned as it is with the subject of human behaviour.

Also covered within the biography is Pym’s fascination with Germany – its culture, its landscapes and ultimately its men (her rather naïve flirtation with an SS Officer, Friedbert Glück, is explored in some detail). Interestingly, the initial mid-1930s drafts of her early novel, Some Tame Gazelle, contained several references to Germany; however, Pym finally removed them on the advice of her friend, Jock Liddell – a trusted Oxford contemporary who helped Barbara with her early manuscripts.

Like many Britons in the 1930s, Pym was drawn to the allure of developments in Germany, only to subsequently realise the true horror of Hitler’s regime as the war drew closer. Pym remained blinkered to the reality of the situation for some time, refusing to believe that her darling Friedbert could be capable of such atrocities. Nevertheless, his closeness to Hitler made this a distinct possibility. It’s a salutary experience that highlights just how challenging it can be for us to separate the personal from the political, especially when our deepest emotions are involved.

Luckily Pym ultimately saw the light, and by the time of its publication in 1950, Some Tame Gazelle had been stripped of all references to Germany and its countrymen. In hindsight, it is rather lucky that Pym’s initial submission of Gazelle was rejected by Chatto & Windus in the mid ‘30s, otherwise her legacy might have looked somewhat different…

That’s it for today. More in part 2 of this review when I’ll be looking at how Pym mined her own personal experiences as source material for her fiction. It’s one of the most fascinating aspects of this insightful biography, particularly as it sets Pym’s fiction in a more personal context.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is published by William Collins; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Road Through the Wall by Shirley Jackson

I’ve become rather fascinated with Shirley Jackson in recent years – a writer whose work taps into the dark side of American suburban life. The Road Through the Wall was Jackson’s debut novel, a slim yet effective story focusing on the inhabitants of a seemingly ordinary street, the sort of setting that seems fairly innocuous on the surface despite the elements of cruelty lurking beneath. While it’s not my favourite of Jackson’s works, The Road is still very much worth reading, especially as a precursor to the masterpieces that followed – an interesting debut that feels very much of a piece with this author’s subsequent work.

First published in 1948 (shortly before the appearance of The Lottery), the novel is set in Pepper Street, a suburban avenue in the fictional town of Cabrillo, some thirty miles from San Francisco. It’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, especially the women in the neighbourhood.

The Desmonds are Pepper Street ‘aristocracy’, a respectable, upwardly mobile family who seem destined to move a more desirable area in the future.

Beyond the hedge the Desmonds lived in a rambling modern-style house, richly jeweled with glass brick. They were the aristocracy of the neighbourhood, and their house was the largest; their adopted son Johnny, who was fifteen years old, associated with boys whose families did not live on Pepper Street, but in neighborhoods where the Desmonds expected to live someday. (p. 2)

Various other families are introduced in the novel’s prologue – some on their way up in life, others on their way down.

The year is 1936, and it’s the start of the summer holidays, a time when the children can roam the streets – playing games and forming cliques as youngsters are apt to do. What Jackson does so well in this novel is to show how the prejudices and petty jealousies of the adults filter down to the mindsets and behaviours of their children, ultimately creating friction between the various families in the street. In short, the children’s actions are shaped almost entirely by their parents’ snobberies and preconceptions.

The Perlmans are shunned by the other residents of Pepper Street, largely because of their Jewish heritage which marks them out as being ‘different’ from the norm. When Harriet Merriam’s mother realises that her daughter is friendly with Marilyn Perlman, she forces young Harriet to stop seeing the girl. Clearly, there are ‘standards’ to be maintained, however interesting our new friends may seem to be…

“We must expect to set a standard. Actually, however much we may want to find new friends whom we may value, people who are exciting to us because of new ideas, or because they are different, we have to do what is expected of us.”

“What is expected of me?” Harriet said suddenly, without intention.

“To do what you’re told,” her mother said sharply.

“But what am I supposed to do?”

“You may,” her mother said, “in fact I insist,” she added with relish, “that you see her once more, in order to tell her exactly why you are not to be friends any longer. After all,” Mrs Merriam went on dreamily, “she ought to know why she can’t hope to be your friend any longer.” (pp. 148–149)

Mrs Merriam also punishes her daughter for writing harmless love letters and keeping secret journals, things than many children do as natural ways of expressing themselves, especially during adolescence. Mrs Merriam, however, is disgusted by her daughter’s behaviour, viewing her writing as shameful and repugnant. (There is a sense that Jackson may be drawing on some of her own childhood experiences here, particularly as Geraldine Jackson – Shirley’s mother – was driven by a strong desire for conformity.)

Also excluded from various social gathering are the Martins, a simpleminded family who remain rather passive in relation to their neighbours. Mrs Merriam would prefer it if fourteen-year-old Harriet could distance herself from the two Martin children, George (also 14) and Hallie (9). However, the fact that the two families live next door to one another makes any segregation virtually impossible, especially as the children tend to play communally.

In this novel, Jackson shows herself to be adept at exposing the flaws in the veneer of normality. Behind the seemingly respectable facades, there are instances of emotional bullying, longstanding resentments and thinly-veiled prejudices. Snobbishness and casual racism are widespread, particularly amongst the women. Those who consider themselves above the fray are especially guilty of hypocrisy – seizing the moral high ground with one breath while sneering and spreading malicious gossip with the next.

As the novel draws to its dramatic conclusion, Jackson takes it up a notch, accentuating the sense of foreboding that runs through the whole narrative. When a mysterious disappearance occurs during a garden party, the finger of suspicion falls on Tod Donald, rather odd, awkward boy who is considered to be something of a misfit. The fact that he has already crept into the Desmonds’ house and rummaged through Mrs D’s dress closet only adds to reader’s suspicions.

Jackson is careful to leave a degree of ambiguity in the novel’s ending, raising questions about the exact nature of the incidents towards the end. What is clear though is her understanding of humanity, the capacity for cruelty and violence that can lie therein. A taut, unsettling novel from this uncompromising writer – well worth seeking out, especially for Jackson devotees.

The Road Through the Wall is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.  

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – in which Marks and Spencer take umbrage at Pym’s Jane and Prudence

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for the novels of Barbara Pym, with their acute observations of the minutiae and minor dramas of day-to-day English life. It will therefore come as no surprise to many of you that I was eager to read The Adventures of Miss Barbra Pym – a brand new biography by the respected biographer and novelist Paula Byrne. It’s a wonderfully immersive book, one that manages to be both illuminating and affectionate in relatively equally measure.

A more detailed review will follow in due course, but as a taster I wanted to share the following vignette from the biography – an incident which is so quintessentially Pym-like in style that it could have come straight out of one of her novels. Byrne makes this very point in her biography, and she is spot on. There is a comic absurdity to it, much like the little slights that Pym portrayed in her early novels, Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle.

It concerns a certain retailer’s reaction to Pym’s third published novel, Jane and Prudence, in which Jane, a rather frumpy clergyman’s wife, is playing matchmaker for her friend, Prudence, an elegant, independent young woman. While critical reviews of the novel were polite and reserved, Pym’s friends were more encouraging with some even preferring it to much loved Excellent Women. In certain respects, the characters seemed more ‘real’ – Prudence in particular.

A blow was suddenly struck, however, when a letter arrived from the legal department of Marks and Spencer. The store had taken umbrage at Jane Cleveland’s comment about their clothes: ‘When we become distressed we shall be glad of an old dress from Marks and Spencer as we’ve never been used to anything better.’ (p. 435)

Pym – a fan of M&S and their clothes – had intended the line to be an affectionate remark, capturing the gentle comfort one can gain from something familiar and reliable. (It’s worth remembering that J&P was published in 1953, not long after the end of clothes rationing in 1949.) Marks and Spencer, however, were upset by the suggestion that their clothes were considered substandard, commenting as follows in their rather wounded and pompous riposte:

‘This reference is clearly derogatory of the Company as both in terms and by implication it suggests that dresses worn by this Company are of inferior quality and unfit for wear by persons of the class who buy their hats from Marshall’s or Debenham’s.’ (p. 435)

As far as M&S were concerned, the fact that Pym had previously been described as the author of books ‘worthy of Jane Austen’ only added insult to injury. Jonathan Cape – Pym’s publishers at the time – responded to confirm that no harm had been intended and ‘Pym wrote dutifully that as a regular customer she had the greatest respect for the store’.

Just like the world Pym created in her novels, this incident is at once both entirely ridiculous and strangely believable – an anecdote that seems entirely in keeping with Pym’s tonal register!  

If this has whetted your appetite for the book, you might want to grab yourself a ticket for the forthcoming livestream event being co-hosted by the Chorleywood Bookshop, Village Books and the Seven Oaks Bookshop. Tickets start at £6 for the event, which is accessible worldwide. There’s a link here if you’re interested. (I should declare a link with the Chiltern Bookshops as I’m currently managing their Personalised Book Subscription services.)

More on this engaging biography a little later, hopefully in the next few weeks…

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is published by William Collins; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Across the Common by Elizabeth Berridge

First published in 1964, Across the Common is the third book I’ve read by the British writer Elizabeth Berridge, and it’s probably the richest and most complex of the three. There is quite a lot going on under the surface in this novel of family relationships and suburban life – a subversive element that reveals itself as the narrative progresses.

As the novel opens, Louise is in the process of leaving her husband, Max, to return to The Hollies, the house where she was brought up, largely by her aunts. Waiting at the door for Louise on her arrival are Aunt Rosa and Aunt Seraphina, almost as if they were expecting her despite the lack of notice.

Right from the start there is a strange aura surrounding life at The Hollies, situated as it is across from the common in suburban Pagham Green. The house itself was built by Louise’s grandfather, a man whose presence still casts a shadow over the property in spite of (or perhaps because of) his early death. Now the house has become a refuge ‘for that vanishing species, the Great British Aunt’, as Rosa and Seraphina are soon to be joined by their sister, the wheelchair-bound Cissie.

Berridge excels at creating miniature pen-portraits of the three aunts, capturing their personalities and idiosyncrasies in the most visual of ways.

Aunt Cissie sat in her wheelchair, tiny and malevolent. She could not have weighed more than seven stone, and yet she seemed to vibrate with energy and fill the hall. I had forgotten, or perhaps had never noticed, how handsome she was. She had the Braithwaite nose, high and arched, and a look of a Basque woman about her: indomitable, aristocratic, and yet with a peasant’s energy. Beside her, my two aunts looked faded. (p. 103)

With her fur hat and forthright manner, Cissie has the eccentric air of ‘minor royalty’, commanding attention as she makes her big entrance. By contrast, Aunt Rosa – the eldest and most orderly of the three sisters – seems rather reserved in comparison, a standing typified by her grey flannel dress. Ultimately, it is left to Aunt Seraphina – the green-fingered middle sister – to provide some of the novel’s most humorous moments. As Louise is somewhat surprised to observe, Seraphina is a dab hand at pilfering flower cuttings from the local park, expertly trimming geranium shoots with great speed and efficiency, irrespective of the official regulations.

‘Aunt Seraphina, you can’t! You’ll be had up! Suppose everybody just took –’

‘Hush, child. Everybody is not me. I understand flowers. They were simply begging to be propagated. There is no crime in simply taking a few shoots to propagate in one’s own garden. Think of the next frost: it would be too late. I cannot bear waste, and I told an officious keeper, so, once.’

‘You were caught?’

‘Caught? Come, come. I was observed, yes, and given a sharp warning. But I made him understand my views. I explained that it was my money being spent on this park, so I was entitled to a little interest on it. Men are so illogical.’ (p. 43)

Louise may have more than one reason for returning to her childhood home, for stepping into the past and its memories of those early years. Naturally, there is the question of what she ought to do in the future, having left Max to his work as an art teacher (and potentially the company of one of his students, too). At first, the split seems permanent, but as the novel progresses, the finality of this decision appears somewhat less certain.

Intertwined with these considerations are Louise’s reflections on her family history, particularly the apparent differences between the Braithwaite men and the women.

It was strange how this family had shed its men. They lost them by illness and disaster. And, if I faced it, by desertion. For their brothers, except for Bertie, still, one presumed, in Canada or America, were dead. They outlived their husbands, would-be lovers and sons. Men, one felt, were merely milestones. (p. 97)

In short, these unsettling feelings are heightened by a letter from Louise’s father (now deceased) that has recently come to light. The letter – which was written several years earlier and placed in the hands of a solicitor – reveals previously undisclosed information about the death of Louise’s grandfather and its ramifications for the wider family. It’s a revelation that ultimately forces Louise to confront the possibility of darkness and violence in her family’s history, where secrets were concealed to protect the reputations of the innocent.

There is a sense that Louise has also returned ‘home’ to understand her past more clearly, to gain a kind of freedom or independence from the aunts who raised her. It is only by doing this, by uncovering the guilt and shame inherent in The Hollies, that she can hope to move forward.

While there is a narrative of sorts here, Across the Common is a character-driven novel – an insightful and humane look at the complexities of family relationships. Berridge has a wonderful eye for detail, capturing the aunts’ minor jealousies with humour and authenticity. The way they cling to the past, guarding their individual habits and rituals, is really quite endearing, highlighting our need as human beings for some dignity and stability – particularly in old age. Louise too is very well drawn, with an engaging combination of visible sympathy and private humour.

Overall, then, an enjoyable read with some great characterisation. Well worth seeking out if you’re a fan of this type of fiction. The Gerts have also written about this book, and you can find their thoughts here

My copy of Across the Common was published by Abacus; personal copy.

Family & Friends by Anita Brookner

Central to this novel – Brookner’s fifth – are the Dorns, a wealthy Jewish family living in London during the first half of the 20th century. It’s a quiet, character-driven book, rather European in style – an approach that reflects the family’s origins and mitteleuropean traditions. It also represents something a break from Brookner’s previous novels, each of which featured a lonely unmarried woman at its heart. A widening of scope, so to speak, building on some of the supporting themes from the earlier Providence.

Head of the family is Sofka, a stately matriarch beholden to traditional rituals, a practice typified by her celebrated marzipan cake, usually served with coffee on a Sunday afternoon. Sofka’s husband is no longer alive – a flirtatious man who engaged in various dalliances (and possibly some excessive gambling) prior to his early death several years before.

Frederick is the eldest of Sofka’s children – a natural boulevardier who prefers the captivating company of women to the dull environment of business. It’s a temperament that his mother encourages, reminiscent as it is of her late husband’s salacious charm. At sixteen, young Alfred is already destined to spend the best part of his life managing the family firm; his serious, bookish nature marking him out as the dutiful one, despite any other, more personal aspirations he may be harbouring. Aiding Alfred in this respect is Lautner, the faithful right-hand-man and longstanding employee at the factory; his knowledge and experience prove indispensable at first, although Alfred soon supersedes him in standing.

Completing the family are Sofka’s daughters, Mimi and Betty, who couldn’t be more different from one another if they tried. At seventeen, Mimi is the prettier of the two girls, but she is also the more passive in temperament, favouring the piano over more sociable pursuits. Betty, on the other hand, has her sights set on Paris, preferably as a dancer in the Folies Bergère, a role where she can put her high-spirited, flirtatious nature to evident good use.

I find it entirely appropriate and indeed characteristic that Sofka should have named her sons after kings and emperors and her daughters as if they were characters in a musical comedy. Thus were their roles designated for them. The boys were to conquer, and the girls to flirt. (p. 10)

Brookner uses quite an interesting framing device to help present her narrative, bookending the novel with a pair of wedding photographs, separated by a period of some 30 to 40 years. The opening picture captures a moment in time, possibly in the mid-1920s, showing Sofka, the Dorn children plus various family and friends. An unnamed narrator casts their eye over this initial photograph, pausing to speculate whether any signs of the children’s destinies were detectable at this point – particularly to Sofka. As the remainder of the novel unfolds, we gain insights into the Dorns’ lives, their hopes and dreams, their frustrations and disappointments, all captured in Brookner’s supremely elegant prose.

One aspect that seems to be of interest to Brookner is the question of familial duty vs personal fulfilment. Who will fare better in life? Will it be Frederick, the rather flamboyant womaniser, or Alfred, the family’s dutiful provider? Betty, the outgoing, incorrigible flirt, or Mimi, the accepting, mild-mannered companion? In certain respects, Alfred and Mimi form a natural pair – both remain relatively close to Sofka, both are accepting of compromises in their lives, in the early years at least.

There are similarities too between Frederick and Betty – both are naturally flamboyant and adventurous, characteristics that contribute to their departure from the nest. When Betty is packed off to a Swiss finishing school, she gives Frederick the slip, choosing to remain in Paris to pursue her artistic dream. In short, Betty has arranged to run away with Frank Cariani, a handsome young dancer whom the girls know from London through the piano lessons his father gives to Mimi. When Betty’s disappearance comes to light, Mimi and Alfred – the sensible ones – are swiftly dispatched to Paris to rescue their sister from her foolish adventure. Nevertheless, it is Mimi whom Frank truly prefers – a belief that Mimi clings to as she waits in her hotel room at night, hoping that he will come to claim her in favour of Betty.

Hastily she [Mimi] removes her dress and pulls down her hair; then, in her plain white nightgown, she resumes her seat by the window. Since she can now see nothing she listens all the more intently. She hears the occasional motor car; she hears footsteps in the corridor and the diminishing sound of voices. She seems to hear a clangourous bell, although there are no churches in this district and the bell is probably in her head. The intense darkness envelops her, envelops also her inviolate dream. At some time in that interminable night she lies down on her bed; on her face the smile is tinged with intimations of the most absolute horror. (p. 71)

It’s a quietly devastating scene, one of the most affecting in the book, as the reader realises its significance in shaping Mimi’s destiny. 

Frederick’s escape comes about as the result of his marriage – an event that yields another wedding photograph to add to the family album. The girl in question is Evie, a natural yet unconventional girl whom Sofka finds rather noisy, especially at first.

Who is this person whom Frederik has bought home for coffee and for marzipan cake? She is certainly not a lady and is rather too old to be a girl: Sofka is almost forced to think of her as a woman. Where did he find her? At what party, in what clubhouse on what golf-course or tennis-court did he manage to acquire this all-round, outdoor, noisy, cheery, healthy-looking, loud-voiced, incessantly laughing, large-boned, carelessly dressed person whose name is Eva and who instantly says, ‘Call me Evie’? Why should Sofka call her Evie, even if the woman has unconsciously conformed to Sofka’s family tradition? Why should she call her anything, thinks Sofka… (p. 72)

Nevertheless, Sofka soon warms to her future daughter-in-law, recognising the suitability of the match for Frederick as the wedding arrangements get underway. Following their marriage, the couple depart for the Italian Riviera, where Frederick is to act as General Manager for one of Evie’s father’s hotels – a natural fit for the happy couple as they settle down to their married life.

Of the four siblings in the novel, Mimi is perhaps the one who undergoes the most interesting transformation, her character developing in the most serendipitous of ways. It would be unfair of me to reveal any more about this, other than to say that Mimi ultimately finds a way to shed some of the more self-effacing aspects of her personality, much to her brother Alfred’s disgust.   

While Family & Friends isn’t my favourite Brookner, there’s certainly more than enough for her fans to enjoy here. The prose is elegant, evocative and precise, very much in the style of this author’s other work. Brookner’s characters are always so well-drawn and fully fleshed-out, and yet I didn’t always feel a strong connection with them here. This might be a function of the use of the unnamed narrator, whose relationship to the family we never discover. Nevertheless, this is a highly accomplished book, an exquisitely-painted family saga that shows how our character traits and personalities can shape our ultimate destinies.  

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

I have long been an admirer of Powell and Pressburger’s film, Black Narcissus, with its sumptuous, vivid colours and moments of heightened drama. The movie, which came out in 1947, was adapted from Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel of the same name (an instant bestseller in its day, it remains Godden’s best-known work). It’s a glorious book, an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and – perhaps most significantly of all – repressed female desire.

As the novel opens, a small group of Anglican nuns are setting out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains – a place steeped in beauty and mystery. Sister Clodagh – newly appointed as the youngest Sister Superior in her Order – will lead the mission, to go forward where others have failed. (A group of Jesuit Brothers has recently returned from the mountains, having abandoned their plans for a school in the very same location.)

Accompanying Sister Clodagh in her quest are four other sisters, each with their own potential role in the new collective: Sister Briony to run the dispensary; Sister Phillipa to establish a garden; Sister Ruth to give the children lessons; and Sister Honey to teach the young women to make lace.

Roles and responsibilities aside, the various dynamics in the group have the potential to hinder progress. Sister Ruth is unpredictable and strong-willed, likely to cause trouble if not carefully managed. There are question marks too over Sister Clodagh’s abilities – not least from Dorothea, the Mother Superior who has already expressed reservations about Clodagh’s readiness for the role, despite the young Sister’s assurances. Right from the start, there is an air of trouble brewing with this mission, a feeling only enhanced by the strangeness of the location itself. Mopu Palace – the building donated to the nuns for their convent – is the former home of the General’s seraglio, effectively a harem or ‘House of Women’.

At first, the nuns are somewhat daunted by the challenge as they struggle to adapt to the high altitude and new living conditions; nevertheless, they soon begin work to establish their community. Assisting the sisters is Ayah, an elderly lady who keeps house at the Palace. Also of note is Mr Dean, the outspoken British man who acts as the General’s Agent in the area.

Mr Dean is quite a character – not one for holding back on his opinions of the sisters’ ambitions, especially when he foresees trouble with the locals. His forthright nature, strong sense of humour and fondness for drink all come as a bit of a shock to the Sisters, who have led quite a sheltered existence to date. The dynamic between Mr Dean and Sister Clodagh is a fascinating one, the kind of sexual tension that can erupt in a passionate disagreement.

‘You’re –’ she said furiously. ‘You’re – you’re unforgivable.’ Then she said vindictively, between her teeth: You’re objectionable when you’re sober, and abominable when you’re drunk.’

‘I quite agree,’ he said, and taking his pony went down the hill. (p. 121)

That said, Mr Dean is a level-headed man at heart, naturally sympathetic to the Sisters’ situation, and he soon proves highly valuable to the mission, assisting with plumbing, construction and all manner of practical jobs – some of which involve careful liaison with the locals.

As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under Mopu’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. For Sister Honey, it is a longing for a baby; for Sister Philippa, the love of her garden; for Ruth, an ongoing obsession with the magnetic Mr Dean; and for Clodagh it is Con, the childhood sweetheart she left behind in Ireland, back in the days of her carefree youth. In short, each woman must wrestle with her own psychological demon.

Sister Honey stopped in her work to listen eagerly to the children saying their lesson in the next room, as if they belonged to her; Sister Philippa straightened her back from her frozen beds and stared across the garden, seeing it in summer, and Sister Ruth watched and waited for Mr Dean. Sister Clodagh’s face was so softened and changed that Mother Dorothea would not have known her. (p. 143)

As the novel moves towards its dramatic climax, tensions between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth intensify, threatening to erupt at any given moment. Sister Ruth becomes increasingly unstable, accusing Sister Clodagh of harbouring feelings for Mr Dean – an accusation driven by jealousy and a kind of descent into madness.

‘All the same, I’ve noticed that you’re very pleased to see him yourself!’ she flung at Sister Clodagh.

Sister Clodagh’s face blazed. She half rose in her chair and then she sank back into it again, holding her desk.

‘You’re trying to tell me I’m not fit to be a nun,’ cried Sister Ruth. ‘Well, let me tell you that no more are you. You should never have entered either, and you know it for all your honours and success. Wonderful Sister Clodagh. Clever Sister Clodagh. Admirable Sister Clodagh,’ she mocked, ‘and all the time you’re worse than I am and that’s why you’re trying to bully me.’ (p. 127)

Another factor in the novel’s undeniable sexual tension is Dilip Rai, the General’s nephew who comes to the Palace for lessons with the Sisters. While there, Dilip falls for Kanchi, a flirtatious girl who has been pestering Mr Dean, much to the latter’s annoyance. Black Narcissus is Sister Ruth’s nickname for Dilip Rai – a rather dismissive term coined from the women’s perfume he likes to wear. However, it also holds a significance for Sister Clodagh, whose relationship with Dilip can be viewed as a kind of metaphor for her repressed desires.

In terms of style, the novel is wonderfully sensual, rich in detail and imagery – aspects that capture the lush appearance of the surrounding natural world.

Just before Easter the knife wind changed to boisterousness, playing round the trees and rattling at the windows, and snatching at skirts and veils; with its roughness it was warm, scented with the orange flowers from the groves in the valley, a languorous scent blown roughly. The snow was melting and the streams were full; their own stream pelted down the hill, swelling up round the bamboos; over the slopes came a green bloom with a blueness in it like a grape and the rhododendrons opened in hundreds, and the magnolia behind the house budded into thick white flowers. (p. 178)

While the novel is rooted in a very specific time and place, there is a strange, dreamlike quality to the narrative – a little like a fairy tale or powerful spell that gradually works its magic on the unsuspecting reader. It all makes for an evocative reading experience, the essence of which is reflected in Powell and Pressburger’s luxuriant film.

In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, irrespective of your familiarity with the story.

Black Narcissus is published by Virago Press, my thanks to the publishers for a reading copy.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton – subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined.

I have long been a fan of Edith Wharton, a fascination that started with Ethan Frome, Wharton’s brilliant yet brutal novella of the fallout from an intense love triangle. The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth are favourites too, along with the New York Stories which I wrote about in 2019.

Wharton’s Ghost Stories – collected together in this beautifully-produced book from Virago’s Designer Collection – are probably closest in style to some of the more unsettling pieces in the New York book, characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety. Here we have narratives rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors – the fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul. As one might expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn – with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing.

The book opens with The Lady’s Maid’s Bell, one of the most unnerving tales in this excellent collection. Narrated by the maid herself, it is a classic ghost story in which the protagonist is haunted by the appearance of a spectre, the identity of which becomes clear as the story unfolds. There are several familiar elements here: a dark gloomy house; a feverish young lady of the manor; servants who refuse to speak of the maid’s predecessor; and a ghostly image that only the protagonist herself is able to detect. However, perhaps the most frightening element of the story is Wharton’s use of sound – the terrifying ring of the maid’s bell after hours, piercing the intense silence of the house as it rests at night.

Silence also plays a key role in All Souls, another highlight and possibly the most terrifying story in the collection. It tells the tale of a widow, Sara Clayborn, who believes she has spent a horrific weekend at her home, Whitegates, a lonely, remote house in the wilds of Connecticut. Having spotted an unknown woman heading towards her house, Sara breaks her ankle and is confined to bed for the night. On waking she discovers that the servants are nowhere to be found. The house appears to be deserted; an eerie silence having replaced the normal bustle of activity during the day. In this story, it is not the unexplained creaks and groans that strikes terror into the heart of the protagonist; rather, it is the ominous lack of any sound at all, especially as the house appears to be completely deserted.

More than once she had explored the ground floor alone in the small hours, in search of unwonted midnight noises; but now it was not the idea of noises that frightened her, but that inexorable and hostile silence, the sense that the house had retained in full daylight its nocturnal mystery, and was watching her as she was watching it; that in entering those empty orderly rooms she might be disturbing some unseen confabulation on which beings of flesh-and-blood had better not intrude. (p. 348)

It’s a tale in which Sara begins to doubt her own sanity and perception of reality, with time appearing to expand and contract before the servants finally reappear.

Afterward is another highlight, a vividly-imagined story that feels all too believable and real. The Boynes, and American couple living in England take a country house in Dorset as their home – a property already known to their friend, Alida Stair. When the Boynes enquire about the possible presence of a ghost, they are told by Alida that there is a ghost, although its appearance does not become clear to the house’s inhabitant until ‘afterward’, whatever that may mean. At first, the Boynes take this conjecture in their stride, laughing it off in a light-hearted manner. It is only once a mysterious figure is seen approaching the house that the supernatural happenings swing into action…

Then of a sudden she was seized by a vague dread of the unknown. She had closed the door behind her on entering, and as she stood alone in the long silent room, her dread seemed to take shape and sound, to be there breathing and lurking among the shadows. Her shortsighted eyes strained through them, half-discerning an actual presence, something aloof, that watched and knew; and in the recoil from that intangible presence she threw herself on the bell rope and gave it a sharp pull. (p. 91)

Once again, the fear of the unknown is crucial here, the abject terror that stems from the zealous nature of our own imaginations. Overall, this is a very nuanced story, one that alludes to a sense of retribution – a kind of reckoning for past misdemeanours and nefarious deeds.

Also very impressive is Pomegranate Seed in which Charlotte Ashby, a newly-married young woman, is haunted by the spectre of her predecessor – her husband having previously been widowed following the death of his first wife. In this piece, the haunting comes as a series of mysterious letters, always enclosed in grey envelopes and addressed in the faintest of hands. As a consequence, Charlotte is left shaken; it would appear that the first Mrs Ashby retains an unhealthy hold over her husband, something that Charlotte is determined to break. There are shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca here, albeit with a more supernatural element. (Interestingly, Wharton’s story actually predated the du Maurier, first appearing in 1931, a good seven years before the publication of Rebecca.)

Finally, a mention for The Triumph of Night, which shares something with the opening story, The Lady’s Maid’s Bell. This is another story in which a spectral presence makes itself known to one individual in particular – in this instance, Faxon, a man who is offered shelter by a fellow traveller when his carriage fails to show. Over dinner with his benefactor’s family, Faxon realises that the ghostly figure is fixated on the young man, the very one who invited him to stay. As a consequence, Faxon’s hold on reality begins to slip, a development that is brilliantly conveyed in the following passage.

The glass was so full that it required an extraordinary effort to hold it there, brimming and suspended, during the awful interval before he [Faxon] could trust his hand to lower it again, untouched, to the table. It was this merciful preoccupation which saved him, kept him from crying out, from losing his hold, from slipping down into the bottomless blackness that gaped for him. As long as the problem of the glass engaged him he felt able to keep his seat, manage his muscles, fit unnoticeably into the group; but as the glass touched the table his last link with safety snapped. He stood up and dashed out of the room. (p. 162)

This is a very unnerving story, one that explores themes of guilt, manipulation and the preying on others’ weaknesses – a sobering tale with a tragic twist.

Other pieces in the collection feature mysterious individuals who are not quite what they seem; the dead seemingly brought back to life; and an eerie pack of dogs who reputedly appear on a certain day of the year.

These wonderfully chilling stories are subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, tapping into the darker side of American history and human relationships. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Two terrific vintage mysteries by Josephine Bell and John Dickson Carr (British Library Crime Classics)

Some fairly brief thoughts on a couple of very enjoyable mysteries from the British Library Crime Classics series – both set in London, both initially published in the 1930s, but very different from one another in terms of style.

The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell (1938)

A dark and gritty mystery set amidst the London docklands, a location steeped in atmosphere and squalor.

When local resident Harry Reed rescues June Harvey and her young brother, Leslie, in a riverside accident, all three become embroiled in a network of shady events in the heart of the community…

An unemployed former dressmaker, Mary Holland, is found dead in her lodgings, presumably from suicide given the bottle of Lysol found nearby. Nevertheless, when Detective Sergeant Chandler begins to investigate, he quickly establishes that the case might not be quite as simple as it first appeared. A post mortem reveals traces of heroin in Mrs Holland’s body, but no syringes were found in her room, a point that the detective finds puzzling to say the least.

Events take a more sinister turn when Sergeant Chandler himself disappears without a trace, possibly having discovered some vital clues to the case. As a consequence, Inspector Mitchell of Scotland Yard is called in to take over the investigation, including the question of whether these incidents are connected.

What follows is less a whodunnit (the guilty parties are all pretty clear early on), but more an exploration of the criminal network, complete with all its threads and complexities. Murder is not the only crime being committed here. There are instances of blackmail, drug smuggling, shady importation deals and other nefarious activities, with chiffon nighties passing from one part of the dubious chain to another.

Where this mystery really excels is in the portrayal of dockside neighbourhood, the dark, grimy streets, the fog-bound quayside, and the shabby houses due to be demolished once the remaining tenants are evicted.

The light faded rapidly as the Fatima churned upstream. The fog was patchy now, for the wind had risen and cleared those parts of the river where the banks were low and the water exposed. Here the boats could move freely, guided by one another’s lights and the various familiar landmarks on shore. The intervening banks of fog, by contrast, seemed all the thicker and more menacing. (p. 65)

Bell captures the lives of her working-class characters with just the right notes of sympathy and compassion, illustrating their day-to-day troubles and preoccupations in a very believable way. These are ordinary, everyday people living in dismal conditions, often relying on Public Assistance as a vital part of their welfare.

Bell has created some memorable figures amongst her large cast of disparate individuals, whose lives intertwine as the narrative unravels. June Harvey and her younger brother, Leslie, are particularly engaging – the latter drawing on his curiosity and enthusiasm to assist the police with their enquiries. The more upmarket criminals are equally well portrayed, illustrating both their weaknesses and their ruthlessness when faced with adversity. Alongside the darkness of the narrative there are some lighter moments too, touches of humour in the feuds between neighbouring families, and in the views of Sergeant Welsford, Inspector Mitchell’s rather presumptive sidekick.

In summary then, this is a very enjoyable mystery, strong on authenticity and atmosphere. Definitely one I would recommend to other readers with an interest in this period.

The Lost Gallows by John Dickson Carr (1931)

This colourful mystery, written when Carr was just twenty-four-years old, is an altogether more melodramatic affair than Bell’s Port of London. Almost Victorian Gothic in style, The Lost Gallows is a hugely enjoyable revenge story, primarily set in a notorious gentlemen’s club in central London.

When the Parisian detective, Henri Bencolin, meets up with his old friend, Sir John Landervorne, at London’s Brimstone Club, he is quickly drawn into a complex mystery involving another club resident, the Egyptian, Nezam El Moulk. In recent weeks, El Moulk has been spooked by the appearance of a series of macabre items at the club, the latest of which is a tiny model of a gallows, sent directly to the Egyptian by post. It seems the perpetrator is operating under the pseudonym ‘Jack Ketch’, a nickname or common shorthand for the public hangman, but his real identity is a closely guarded secret.

The main mystery that Bencolin must turn his mind to here is to identify Jack Ketch, who seems to be seeking revenge for a crime allegedly committed by El Moulk some ten years earlier. In short, the race is on to find Ketch before he can claim payback, presumably on the 10th anniversary of the original deed.

Also swirling around in the mix are several other gruesome incidents for Bencolin to get his teeth into. The sighting of a shadow showing a man ascending the gallows; the mystery of the infamous ‘Ruination Street’, a location that cannot be found on any London map; the vision of a car being driven by a corpse. These are just some of the ghastly goings-on at play here.

It loomed up out of Jermyn Street soundlessly. Distorted by the muddy fog, it had a devilish life of its own, and its staring lamps bounded towards me as I turned. I heard the officer’s cry and the shrilling of his whistle. Then the great green limousine swept past me into the Haymarket. (p. 34)

This is a complex mystery with a lot going on, particularly in the first half of the book. Nevertheless, these seemingly disparate threads do eventually come together as the narrative approaches its end. As in Bell’s mystery, the London location is vividly portrayed, the city bustling with activity amid the fog-bound streets.

London that night was a wet chaos of fog, screeching with taxis and smeared on the sky with a blur of electric signs round Piccadilly. But as we turned down the Haymarket, there was a sense of intimacy crowded into these dun-coloured walls. The heavy-footed traffic rumbling past, the shine of light on wet pavements—clank, babble, shrill policeman’s whistle, and loom of big arm in water-proof—all carried a suggestion of companionship through mere virtue of the fog. It was not until we entered the theatre, until the house darkened and the curtain rose on that pale mimic world of terror which was Vautrelle’s play, that the afternoon’s devils returned… (p. 31)

There is a real sense of melodrama in Carr’s portrayal of events as the ghoulish atmosphere is dialled up at every given opportunity. And while the characterisation is a little thin and clichéd in places, the actual story itself is never less than entertaining. Great fun for lovers of gothic-style mysteries, as long as they’re prepared to suspend belief!

My thanks to the British Library for kindly providing review copies.

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

First published in Italian in 1953, Evening Descends Upon the Hills is a brilliant collection of short stories and reportage by the critically acclaimed writer Anna Maria Ortese. As a whole, the collection 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. It’s a powerful and evocative read, enhanced considerably by Ortese’s wonderfully expressive style.

Evening begins with three fictional pieces – the first of which is A Pair of Eyeglasses, an excellent story in which a young girl, Eugenia, is eagerly anticipating her first pair of glasses. Eugenia lives with her parents, spinster aunt and two younger siblings in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples. Partly in return for their basement-level accommodation, Eugenia’s parents are at the beck and call of the Marchesa, the rather demanding and thoughtless owner of the dwelling, who thinks nothing of doling out casual put-downs at various opportunities.

Ortese skilfully captures the inherent spirit of the neighbourhood, complete with a multitude of vivid sights and animated sounds.

When the cart was behind her, Eugenia, raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly. Carts, one behind the other, big trucks with Americans dressed in yellow hanging out the windows, bicycles that seemed to be tumbling over. High up, all the balconies were cluttered with flower crates, and over the railings, like flags or saddle blankets, hung yellow and red quilts, ragged blue children’s clothes, sheets, pillows, and mattresses exposed to the air, while at the end of the alley ropes uncoiled, lowering baskets to pick up the pick up the vegetables or fish offered by peddlers. (p. 22)

Nevertheless, it’s an environment that Eugenia is unable to see clearly, particularly as she is virtually blind. Only with the aid of glasses is the true horror of the environment revealed – an experience Eugenia finds utterly overwhelming, shattering her previous perceptions of life in the bustling courtyard.

…the cabbage leaves, the scraps of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses. (p. 33)

The contrast here is particularly striking, pitting Eugenia’s blurred, almost rose-tinted impressions of her surroundings against the brutal reality of the situation. It’s a memorable story, effectively setting the tone for the collection as a whole.

In Family Interior – probably my favourite of the three stories – we meet Anastasia Finizio, a successful shop owner, who has worked tirelessly to support her mother, spinster aunt and younger siblings for several years. At thirty-nine, Anastasia is vaguely aware that her life is slipping by – a realisation brought into sharp relief when she hears news of the return of Antonio, a man from her youth. This development rekindles dormant feelings within Anastasia, prompting her to dream of the kind of life she might have had – and may still to be to have? – with Antonio.

What Ortese does so well here is to convey the power dynamics within the family, particularly in relation to Anastasia’s mother who sees the danger in any disruption to the present equilibrium.

It seemed to Signora Finizio, sometimes that Anastasia wasted time in futile things, but she didn’t dare to protest openly, for it appeared to her that the sort of sleep in which her daughter was sunk, and which allowed them all to live and expand peacefully, might at any moment, for a trifle, break. She had no liking for Anastasia (her beloved was Anna), but she valued her energy and, with It, her docility, that practical spirit joined to such resigned coldness. (p. 48)

In truth, Signora Finizio is a selfish woman, one who takes a perverse satisfaction in hurting Anastasia – effectively humiliating her to keep everything in check. It’s an excellent story, subtle and nuanced in its exploration of Anastasia’s position, highlighting the tension between familial responsibility and personal freedom.

After The Gold of Forcella – a vividly-realised story of a pawnshop in the heart of Naples – the focus shifts to non-fiction pieces, essentially conveyed in a reportage style. The Involuntary City is the most powerful essay in this section – a candid account of Ortese’s visits to Granili III and IV, a sprawling shelter for those made homeless by the devastation of war. Initially intended to be a temporary solution for the displaced and dispossessed, The Granili is ‘home’ to some 3,000 individuals (approximately 570 families), with an average of three families per individual room. The conditions are horrific – damp, cramped and filthy – particularly on the lower floors of the building where the most impoverished residents are housed.

In a few homes someone was cooking: smoke, which had the density of a blue body, escaped from some doors, yellow flames could be glimpsed inside, the black faces of people squatting, holding a bowl on their knees. In other rooms, instead, everything was motionless, as if life had become petrified; men still in bed turned under grey blankets, women were absorbed in combing their hair, in the enchanted slow motion of those who do not know what will be, afterward, the other occupation of their day. The entire ground floor, and the first floor to which we were ascending, were in these conditions of depressed inertia. (pp. 86-87)

There is a sense of desperation about the existence in these squalid, smoke-ridden conditions, almost as if the building’s lower echelons are representative of a race’s demise following the destructive impact of war.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a form of class structure has developed within the Granili, separating the displaced into different social strata, largely according to status. Some of those on the higher floors have jobs – consequently their days are structured, and this sense of order tends to be reflected in the immediate surroundings. In short, these individuals have adapted to reduced circumstances without giving up their sense of decorum. Nevertheless, there is a widespread understanding of the precarious nature of this situation. On occasions a random stroke of bad luck, such as an illness or the loss of a job, will force someone on the third floor to give up their lodgings and descend to a lower one, usually to move in with another family member. For the most part, these people are destined to remain in their relegated positions, despite harbouring hopes of regaining their previous status.

In the final section of the book, Ortese recounts a series of journeys to visit former colleagues from Sud, the avant-garde cultural magazine where she worked in the late ‘40s. There is a melancholy, elegiac tone running through these pieces, a sense of alienation from those who have become indifferent or embittered.

In summary, Evening Descends Upon the Hills is a fascinating collection that blurs the margins between fiction and reportage to paint a striking vision of post-war Naples, vividly capturing the city’s resilience in the face of poverty, suffering and corruption. The attention to detail is meticulous – as is the level of emotional insight, particularly about women’s lives and family dynamics.

The collection comes with an excellent introduction by the translators which outlines the reactions to Ortese’s candid (and sometimes brutal) vision of Naples following the book’s initial publication – the author was subsequently banned from the city for several years. Also included is the preface from the 1994 reissue, in which Ortese reflects on how her disoriented state of mind may have influenced her picture of post-war Naples, as captured in the original book.

In short, this is very highly recommended indeed – particularly for fans of Elena Ferrante, who has cited Ortese as a key influence on her work. My thanks to Pushkin Press and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.