Tag Archives: #ReadWomen

Potterism by Rose Macaulay

There has been something of a revival of interest in Rose Macaulay’s work in recent years. Firstly, the Virago reissues of Crewe Train (1926) and The World My Wilderness (1950) in Feb 2018; then, last summer, the British Library’s publication of Dangerous Ages (1921) a novel focusing on women at various stages of the lifecycle; and last but not least, the release of two Macaulay titles by Handheld Press in November 2020.

Potterism (1920) is one of the two Handheld Press reissues, beautifully produced with a stylish cover design – very much in line with the book’s early 20th-century setting. In essence, the novel is a satire, one that allows the author to cast a critical eye over many subjects including socialism, spiritualism, religion, the ethics of war and, perhaps most importantly, the powerful nature of the newspaper industry.

Central to the novel are the Potter family, whose lives and experiences are explored in the years immediately following the First World War. Heading up the household is Percy Potter, the influential newspaper magnate and the chief proponent of ‘Potterism’ – a term coined by its opponents to describe the type of communications or ‘spin’ founded on fear, suspicion and the protection of specific interests. The parallels with our current media culture are both immediate and alarming.

They’re up against what we agreed to call Potterism – the Potterism, that is, of second-rate sentimentalism and cheap short-cuts and mediocrity; they stand for brain and clear thinking against muddle and cant; but they’re fighting it with Potterite weapons – self-interest, following things for what they bring them rather than for the things in themselves. (p. 57)

Percy and his wife Leila – a romantic novelist with an interest in spiritualism – have four children, three of whom play important roles in the novel. The eldest daughter, Clare, is a fairly conventional young woman, sharing something of her mother’s outlook and romanticism. Her affection for Oliver Hobart – who works for one of Percy’s newspapers, the Daily Haste – plays a key role in the novel’s narrative.

The twins, Johnny and Jane Potter, are bright young things – ambitious, greedy and rather competitive, especially with one another. Complete with their Oxford educations and socialist leanings, the twins are heavily involved in the anti-Potterite movement, a faction that aims to fight against the views being touted by the Potter press – and it is through this association that they come into contact with Arthur Gideon, the leader of a rival newspaper, the Weekly Fact.

Macaulay uses a very interesting structure to convey her story to the reader. The novel is bookended by two sections ‘told by RM’, presumably the author herself; while the intervening parts are given over to Gideon, Leila, and a couple of other characters who are able to observe various developments from the sidelines. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gideon is especially insightful on the language politicians and journalists use to encourage particular sentiments amongst their audiences, drawing on feelings on nationalism and patriotism to suit the messages they wish to convey.

What one specially resented was the way the men who had been killed, poor devils, were exploited by the makers of speeches and the writers of articles. First, they’d perhaps be called ‘the fallen’, instead of ‘the killed’ (it’s a queer thing how ‘fallen’ in the masculine means killed in the war, and in the feminine given over to a particular kind of vice), and then the audience, or the readers, would be told that they died for democracy, or a cleaner world, when very likely many of them hated the first and never gave an hour’s thought to the second. (p. 58)

The character of Lelia – Percy Potter’s silly yet influential wife – enables Macaulay to draw attention to the heinous nature of anti-Semitic views, beliefs that were not uncommon in this country at the time. Arthur Gideon is a Jew of Russian descent, his grandparents having perished in the Odessa pogrom some years earlier – and it is in Leila’s views of Mr Gideon and his heritage that these prejudices come out. While not as damaging as Percy and his newspaper empire, Leila has her own sphere of influence through her cheap novels – a situation that has contributed to her inability to distinguish fiction from fact.

As the narrative unfolds, there are some very interesting developments involving Jane, Gideon, Oliver and Clare. A shocking death occurs, the circumstances of which give rise to suspicion, gossip and unhelpful conjecture. For a while, these characters find themselves caught up in a rather sinister mystery – a situation that is only fuelled by the sensationalist Potter press. What Macaulay does so well here is to allow various characters – both reliable and unreliable – to give their individual perspectives on these events, thereby enabling the reader to construct the picture as they go along.

In summary, Potterism is a fascinating piece of writing with much to say on topics that remain all too relevant today. We have seen how certain elements of the popular/tabloid media helped to whip up jingoistic sentiments amongst the British public during the recent Brexit campaign. The damaging nature of fake news and inflammatory political ‘spin’ are all too familiar to us from our current communications culture. In crafting Potterism, Macaulay has written a timely and rather prescient commentary that continues to resonate one hundred years on.

The story goes that when anyone told old Pinkerton [aka Percy Potter] he was wrong about something, he would point to his vast circulation, using it as an argument that he couldn’t be mistaken. If you still pressed and proved your point, he would again refer to his circulation, but using it this time as an indication of how little it mattered whether his facts were right or wrong. Someone once said to him curiously, ‘Don’t you care that you are misleading so many millions?’ To which he replied, in his dry little voice, ‘I don’t lead, or mislead, the millions. They lead me.’ (p. 76)

Potterism is published by Handheld Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

I have written before about my love of Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, the beautifully-observed stories of the minutiae of middle-class life, the loneliness, insecurities and poignancy that often accompanies such an existence, especially for women. The Sleeping Beauty – a loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale – is no exception to this rule. In style, it feels very much in line with much of Taylor’s other work, ensemble pieces like A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, with the focus moving from one individual to another as their lives intertwine.

The setting for this novel is Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s. Vinny – a rather smooth man in his late forties – is visiting an old friend, Isabella, whose husband has just died in a boating accident. At first sight, Vinny might appear to be a kindly, compassionate individual, coming to comfort Isabella in her hour of need. However, Isabella’s adult son, Laurence, has other ideas, viewing Vinny’s apparent sympathy towards his mother with resentment and suspicion.

While staying in Seething, Vinny spots a beautiful woman walking along the beach, and he is instantly captivated by her aura. The woman in question is Emily, the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ of the novel’s title, whose situation, he subsequently discovers, was fundamentally altered by a devastating car accident some years before. Previously outgoing and sociable, Emily now lives a very narrow and secluded life, effectively tied to the guest house owned by her embittered sister, Rose, whose husband died in the incident.

Also living at the guest house is Philly, Rose’s disabled daughter, whom Emily effectively cares for while her sister adopts the role of martyr in charge of the family business. While Emily is still a very beautiful woman, her appearance was fundamentally altered as a consequence of the accident, something she has yet to come to terms with alongside other changes in her life. (The fact that Emily’s former fiancée deserted her while she was recovering in hospital has only added to the air of tragedy.)

Vinny is a romantic, with a tendency to live in the past and future as opposed to the present, someone who gives the impression that they are not the marrying type.

Inability to cross the gap from wooing to lovemaking and many unconcluded love affairs, had left him [Vinny] with a large circle of women friends. They bore him no ill-will, valuing his continued attention—presents, compliments; their pique soon vanished. They married, loved, elsewhere. Only very stupid husbands resented Vinny. (pp. 68–69)

Nevertheless, Vinny is so smitten with Emily that he wishes to propose marriage, hopeful of freeing her from the imprisonment imposed by Rose. Isabella, on the other hand, is looking forward to being the beneficiary of Vinny’s affection. Not that she wants to marry him, of course; rather, she is hoping to bask in an ongoing glow of attention – regular lunches in town, a well-chosen gift or two, and the pleasure of demurring to his annual proposals.

The thought of her gay and tender rejection had been her chief comfort in the last few weeks: it had been constantly rehearsed. She [Isabella] had daydreamed of a future secure in his gallantry and affection; with occasional luncheons together; always his wistful teasing; the proposal renewed on every—say—St Valentine’s Day, half as a private joke, but nevertheless with true pleading. He would shore up her pride and look at her through kindly eyes. (p. 79)

As the narrative plays out, we see different sides to these characters as their insecurities and anxieties come to the surface, and their flaws and imperfections are gradually revealed. Rose is fearful of losing Emily to Vinny, thereby disturbing the caretaker role she has carefully cultivated over the years. This desire prompts Rose to disrupt the blossoming of Emily and Vinny’s relationship as far as possible – and yet there are times when the reader might feel a smidgen of sympathy for Rose as certain facts about her deceased husband become clear.

There are secrets too in Vinny’s life which Isabella discovers by accident, circumstances that put a completely different complexion on the acceptability of her friend’s behaviour.

As ever with Taylor, the minor characters are wonderful – fully fleshed-out and lifelike on the page. Vinny’s mother, Mrs Tumulty, is an excellent case in point, a forthright woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly – someone who values briskness over beauty, as evidenced by her responses during a trip to Seething.

She was pleasurably suspicious of Vinny’s seaside weekends and intended to sort things out, especially the women. Isabella she had met once before and thought her a poor, silly creature. Rose had made a better impression; Emily a much worse one. Mrs Tumulty had no especial grudge against beauty, as long as it did not detract from liveliness. Anything passive she abhorred, and Emily’s dead-white skin, her lack of expression, about which Vinny had found no words to forewarn her, no heart to explain or discuss, annoyed and repelled her. (pp. 53–54)

As Vinny’s relationship with Emily develops, Mrs Tumulty realises that she has been used as a patsy, something to justify Vinny’s continued visits to the guest house where she is staying.

Isabella’s son, Laurence, is another interesting character, somewhat directionless in life following the death of his father. There is much sly humour when Laurence receives a visit from his friend, Len – a bit of a ladies’ man who knows just how to play up to Isabella with a combination of showy attentiveness and flattery.

Alongside other entanglements there is Laurence’s burgeoning romance with Betty, a nursemaid who works for one of the families at Rose’s guest house. A tea party hosted by Isabella turns out to be an uncomfortably amusing set-piece as Laurence finds himself the target of his mother’s needling, much to the detriment of Betty. In short, Isabella behaves abominably, like a spoilt child at a party, something that Vinny points out to her once the others have departed.

While many other readers would not name The Sleeping Beauty as one of their favourite Elizabeth Taylor novels, I found it utterly involving. What I love about this author’s work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and validity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication.

As a writer, Taylor implies that she visualises her stories as scenes, writing from the perspective of situation as opposed to narrative or plot. It’s an approach that rings true for this novel along with her other ensemble pieces – the action, such as it is, stemming from the sequencing of these scenarios.

It would be unfair of me to reveal how the relationship between Vinny and Emily progresses, you’ll have to read the novel for yourself to find out. Nevertheless, given that this is also considered to be Taylor’s most romantic novel, I’ll finish with a quote about love, one that highlights the disruption it can trigger, especially within others. It’s a riposte to the idealised vision of this emotion and all its rose-tinted associations.

Love is a disturbing element, as Isabella had said–disruptive, far-reaching. The world cannot assimilate it, or eject it. Its beauty can evoke evil: its radiance corrupts… (p. 149)

The Sleeping Beauty is published by Virago; personal copy.

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

All Among the Barley – the third novel from the writer, critic and columnist, Melissa Harrison – is a beautiful evocation of rural life, rich in the English countryside’s rhythms and traditions during the interwar years. It is also an absorbing coming-of-age story in which the novel’s central protagonist is intrigued by the arrival of a visitor to the community, the spirited Constance (Connie) FitzAllen.

The novel is narrated by Edie Mather, a fourteen-year-old girl who lives at Wych Farm with her parents, George and Ada Mather. Also living at the estate to help with the farm work are Edie’s brother, Frank, their paternal grandfather and two farmhands, John and Doble.

A preoccupied, bookish girl at heart, Edie is something of a loner, one who prefer books to the company of other children. She is also interested in superstitions – witch marks, curses, forms of protection and the like – drawing on an active imagination fuelled by folklore.

Into Edie’s life comes Constance FitzAllen, a forthright, engaging young woman from the city who has come to document the countryside’s age-old traditions to aid with their preservation. At first, Ada Mather is suspicious of this stranger; however, she is soon won over by Constance’s willingness to listen and to modify her behaviour.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Constance’s presence awakens something in Edie – a feeling that she is being seen in a new light. Here is someone who appears to be interested in the impressionable young Edie as a person, viewing her as an individual with her own thoughts and opinions, not just another member of the Mather family.

I smiled back, and realised that I was going to see her. I felt as though she perceived me more clearly than my family did, for they all took me for granted, whereas she seemed curious about who I was and what I thought. Although I did not know her well yet, I felt more real, more interesting even, when I saw myself through Constance’s eyes. (p. 75)

Running through the book is the need for farmers to balance the preservation of traditional methods with the drive for progression and change. As Constance begins to spend more time with the Mathers, her views on certain political and financial principles begin to emerge. While George Mather shares some of Constance’s beliefs on the benefits of protection, John, the experienced farmhand, takes a more open view, sowing the seeds for future tensions to emerge.

‘You can’t trust politicians, George. They lie and lie,’ Connie said. She had stayed on to eat with us, although I wasn’t quite sure if she’d been invited or had simply not left. ‘They’ll tell you the sky is green if they think it’ll win them a vote. We should have proper import controls to protect our native English formers – it’s the only way…’ (p. 113)

‘But this country must be able to feed itself without relying on imports,’ Connie said, ‘and that means ensuring decent honest Englishman like you, George, can continue to farm. (p. 114)

As the narrative progresses, we begin to realise – even if Edie remains blind to it – that Constance’s interest in the traditions of English life extends to holding prejudices against outsiders. In short, Miss FitzAllen harbours anti-Semitic views, beliefs that play a key role in the novel’s dramatic denouement.

Where the novel really excels is in its evocation of rural life in the 1930s – the book is set in the fictional Suffolk village of Elmbourne, an environment alive with the beauty of the natural world as the year passes from one season to the next. There is a lyricism in Harrison’s descriptions of the environment which manages to be both detailed and evocative.

In October, Wych Farm’s trees turned quickly and all at once, blazing into oranges and reds and burnished golds; with little wind to strip them the woods and spinneys lay on our land like treasure, the massy hedgerows filigreed with old-man’s-beard and enamelled with rosehips and black sloes. Along the winding course of the River Stroud the alder carrs were studded with earthstars and chanterelles and dense with the rich, autumnal stink of rot; but crossing Long Piece towards the Lottens the sky opened and into austere equinoctial blue, where flocks of peewits wheeled and turned, flashing their broad wings black and white. (pp. 5–6)

The rhythms and rituals of farming are also beautifully portrayed, augmenting the novel’s captivating sense of time and place. Moreover, the novel captures the sense of loss inherent in the community as a consequence of the Great War. Some fifteen years on, the signs remain. From the empty pews at the church to the tools left idle in barns to the poorly stacked ricks due to a lack of skilled men, these silent absences are deeply felt.

All Among the Barley is an evocative hymn to a lost way of life, a slow-burning narrative that will draw patient readers in – particularly those with an interest in nature. It’s an excellent novel that touches on some important aspects of rural life. More specifically, the balance between tradition and progression; the stealthy rise of nationalism in the early ‘30s; the lack of opportunities for women in a male-dominated society; and perhaps most poignantly, societal attitudes towards women who experienced mental health issues at that time.

The novel’s epilogue is very affecting, a section in which seventy-year-old Edie contemplates her current situation – a life marked by events that took place during Constance’s visit. No spoilers, but it casts the remainder of the book in a somewhat different light, illuminating the tragic consequences of the visitor’s beliefs and actions. There are some very interesting points for discussion here – a great choice for book groups and solo readers alike. Plus, if you need any more persuading about the quality of this novel, I can point you in the direction of Max’s reading highlights for 2020 where it features prominently – there’s a link here

All Among the Barley is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website). 

I’m hoping this piece will qualify for Karen and Lizzy’s Reading Independent Publishers Month, which you can read about here.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

I have long wanted to read Marghanita Laski, the British writer and broadcaster who came to prominence in the 1940s and ‘50s. (Five of her novels are currently in print with Persephone Books.) My original intention had been to start with her 1949 novel, Little Boy Lost, which focuses on a man’s search for his lost son in post-WW2 France. But then, back in December, the Backlisted team featured Laski’s 1953 novella, The Victorian Chaise-Longue, on an episode of their podcast, and the decision was made for me.

It’s a difficult book to say very much about without revealing key elements of the premise; so, if you’re thinking of reading it and would prefer to know as little as possible before going in, look away now. What I will say upfront is that the experience of reading this novella feels somewhat akin to being trapped in a terrifying COVID fever dream from times past. Ideal lockdown reading for the more sensitive among you!

The premise of this chilling story is a simple yet highly effective one. In the early 1950s, Melanie, a young mother recovering from tuberculosis, falls asleep, only to wake up in the body of her alter ego, Milly, some ninety years earlier.

As Melanie realises that she is trapped, effectively imprisoned in the body of a dying woman, she begins to doubt various ‘truths’ about her existence – more specifically, her identity, her sanity, and perhaps most troubling of all, her ability to return to the life she once knew.

Given that this is a short book, it would be unfair of me to reveal anything else about the plot – I’ve probably said more than enough already. Instead, I’ll try to convey something of the story’s tone and underlying themes.

A little like the woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Melanie (in the 1950s) finds her freedoms restricted by a patronising doctor and an equally paternalistic husband – both of whom treat her like a child. Nevertheless, after a long period of recuperation in bed, Melanie is to be allowed a slight change of scenery in the afternoons – a move to the drawing-room where she can lie on the chaise-longue, an antique piece from the Victorian era. It is while lying on this couch that Melanie falls asleep, setting the eerie nightmare in motion…

A common voice, a cruel voice, assured and domineering. Not a voice to be conquered with superior strength but the nightmare voice that binds the limbs in dreadful paralysis while the danger creeps and creeps and at last will leap. I am asleep, said Melanie, ordering her wakened brain to admit this and be still, her closed eyes to see not even the ugly green and scarlet and yellow patterns under too tightly pressed eyelids, and then there was a heavy weighted rattle and almost simultaneously another, and consciousness of light shot through the close lids and forced them open. (p. 43)

Milly’s situation in the 1860s is even more restricted than Melanie’s, something that invites comparisons between what is deemed acceptable for a married woman in the 19th century vs the 20th. Laski is very skilled in her use of language, drawing on all the senses to convey the horror of her protagonist’s position – from the ‘bumpy hardness’ of the couch and the harsh woollen blanket covering the woman’s body to the fetid smell enveloping her surroundings.

Melanie folded the bread-and-butter and tried to eat it. The butter was nasty, over-salt and slightly rancid, seeming to have absorbed some of the room’s foul smell of which she was continually aware. But I must eat, she told herself, I must overcome this sick dizziness and feel strong. If this body is dead, I am still, for the moment, imprisoned within it. (pp. 92–93)

There is also the question of what constitutes the ‘present’ vs the past and the future. Is Melanie trapped in a terrifying dream, or has she somehow gone back in time to an earlier incarnation of her life?

I must always have been Milly and Milly me. It is now that is present reality and the future is still to come. But if I have to wait for the future, if it is only in time to come that I shall be Melanie again, then that time must come again too when Sister Smith leaves me to sleep on the chaise-longue, and I wake up in the past. I shall never escape – and the eternal prison she imagined consumed her mind, and she fainted or dozed off into a nightmare of chase and pursuit and loss. (p. 97)

Seeking a potential release from entrapment through prayer, Melanie even wonders whether she has been set some kind of challenge by God, possibly as a penance for past sins. The acceptability of a woman experiencing desire and ecstasy are also questioned as confusion kicks in, with Melanie’s mind going into overdrive.

In summary, this is a very unnerving story, one that relies on our fears of entrapment – a feeling augmented by the loss of personal agency and any grip on reality. It captures the terror of feeling helpless and imprisoned, when everything we previously believed about our existence is destabilised and undermined. In short, a psychologically disturbing read for a dark winter’s night.

My copy of The Victorian Chaise-Longue was published by The Cresset Press, but the book is currently available from Persephone Books.

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

First published as an essay in Granta’s Summer 2009 issue, Lost Cat is a thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. Mary Gaitskill – an American writer whose work has recently been experiencing something of a revival – is perhaps best known for her short stories; but this slim memoir is wonderfully affecting. (Spoiler alert: I really adored it.)

While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten whom she names Gattino. The kitten is the runt of the litter – thin, one-eyed and desperately in need of attention. Nevertheless, under Mary’s supervision, Gattino grows stronger and more affectionate, seemingly returning his carer’s love and nurturing gestures.

In time, Mary and her husband, Peter, return to their home in New York, with Gattino in tow. At first, Gattino seems settled, continuing the progress that was made back in Italy. However, not long after Mary and Peter move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, prompting a tireless search for the cat in the immediate area. Over the next several months, Mary puts out food, lays traps, distributes flyers and stakes out car parks, all in an effort to find the elusive Gattino. Various potential sightings are reported, but none of these instances turn out to be genuine.

In her desperation to find the lost cat, Mary consults psychics and mystics, while continuing to worry away at various omens and superstitions – anything that might have some significance to Gattino’s whereabouts and situation.

Running through this profoundly moving memoir are various other strands that cut deep into Mary’s life. The loss of Gattino reawakens various emotions within Mary, releasing previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of her father. What emerges is a picture of Mary’s father, a ‘difficult’, truculent man who had suffered great pain from an early age, his own father and mother having died when he was a young boy. Moreover, Mary’s father endured a slow and painful death, a function of his terminal cancer and refusal to accept treatment. While Mary and her father were not particularly close, she and her sisters tended to him in his final months – albeit too late and somewhat inadequately.

Consequently, there is a sense that the loss of Gattino allows Mary to experience (and ultimately, to come to terms with) the pain of losing her own father. Not only the physical loss of a parent but a yearning for the life they might have had together too. In effect, Mary’s concern that she has failed to ‘protect’ Gattino opens the gateway of emotions related to other, potentially more painful regrets.

Human love is grossly flawed, and even when it isn’t, people routinely misunderstand it, reject it, use it or manipulate it. It is hard to protect a person you love from pain, because people often choose pain; I am a person who often chooses pain. An animal will never choose pain; an animal can receive love far more easily than even a very young human. And so I thought it should be possible to shelter a kitten with love. (p. 15)

Also of significance here are Mary’s feelings for two disadvantaged children, Caesar and Natalia, whom she and Peter met through a kind of fostering programme several years earlier. The children’s home life in the city is tough, with a mother who beats and belittles them routinely and no sign of a father on the scene. Perhaps unsurprisingly given this background, the siblings prove somewhat challenging to reach; nevertheless, Mary perseveres, recognising Caesar’s neediness and aggression to be a function of his situation.

I took Caesar’s aggression seriously – but for a long time I forgave it. I forgave because for me the aggression and need translated almost on contact as longing for the pure affection he had been denied by circumstance, and outrage at the denial. (pp. 40–41)

Holidays with Mary and her husband prove to be a release for the children, initially at least. Mary spends considerable time and energy supporting the pair, giving them pleasurable experiences to remember, helping Natalia with her homework, and paying for both children to attend a good school. Nevertheless, as the siblings grow older, disaffection sets in, and Mary’s efforts to nurture Natalia’s abilities fail to have the desired impact.

In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. Through her reflections on these issues, Gaitskill comes across as a very open person, someone with a desire to analyse and reflect on her experiences, laying bare her various anxieties along the way.

I can’t say offhand how many times, during the decades before I got married, I asked for or demanded some sort of relationship with someone who shut the door in my face, then opened it again and peeked out. I would – metaphorically – pound on the door and follow the person through endless rooms. Sometimes the door opened and I fell in love – before losing interest completely. I thought then that my feelings were false and had been all along, but the pain that came from rejecting someone or being rejected was real and deep. (p. 82)

There are points where Mary doubts or examines her reasons for intervening in these situations, particularly as far as Caesar and Natalia are concerned. Nevertheless, there is a sense that she was right to offer her love to Gattino – perhaps accompanied by the hope that one day he might return…

Lost Cat is published by Daunt Books. My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

The novels of Patricia Highsmith, with their focus on the darker side of the human psyche, continue to be a source of fascination for me. First published in 1965, A Suspension of Mercy is another of this author’s domestic noirs – probably not quite in the same league as the marvellous Deep Water or The Cry of the Owl, but still very enjoyable nonetheless.

The novel revolves around Sydney Smith Bartleby, an American writer of crime fiction, and his wife, Alicia, who dabbles in painting. The couple have been married for around eighteen months and live in a quiet neighbourhood near Framlingham in Suffolk – the idea being that a remote countryside cottage would prove a suitable environment for them to engage in their creative pursuits.

While the Bartlebys’ lifestyle may on the surface sound very appealing, it soon becomes clear that the marriage itself is far from ideal. Following a series of rejections from publishers, Sydney is struggling to finalise his latest novel; furthermore, the TV scripts he has developed with his writing partner, Alex Polk-Faraday, have also proved difficult to place. Moreover, Alicia has little faith in her husband’s ability to write successful fiction. This, together with the Bartlebys relatively meagre income – mostly the allowance Alicia receives from her devoted parents – means relations between the couple are somewhat strained.

Sydney, however, has a very active imagination, perhaps too active given the nature of his fantasies. He is continually thinking up scenarios for the demise of both Alex and Alicia, the latter proving to be a particularly rich seam of morbid fabrications.

Alex had died five times at least in Sydney’s imagination. Alicia twenty times. She had died in a burning car, in a wrecked car, in the woods throttled by person or persons unknown, died falling down the stairs at home, drowned in her bath, died falling out the upstairs window while trying to rescue a bird in the eaves drain, died from poisoning that would leave no trace. But the best way, for him, was her dying by a blow in the house, and he removed her somewhere in the car, buried her somewhere, then told everyone that she had gone away for a few days, maybe to Brighton, maybe to London. Then Alicia wouldn’t come back. The police wouldn’t be able to find her. (p. 33)

The couple’s problems are evident to those closest to them, their quarrels having being observed by Alex and his wife, Hittie, during their occasional trips to Suffolk – and by Mrs Lilybanks, the gentle old lady who has just moved in next door.

Now and again, Alicia goes away on her own for a few days, just down to London or Brighton for a breather from Sydney. It is on her return from one of these trips that she wonders if a more extended break might be in order, particularly when she suspects Sydney of deliberately refusing to come to a party just to annoy her.

‘You’d really like to kill me sometimes, wouldn’t you, Syd?’

He stared at her, looking tongue-tied.

She could tell she had touched the truth. ‘You’d like me out of the way sometimes – maybe all the time – just as if I were some character in your plots that you could eliminate.’

He looked at the half-peeled potato in her left hand, the paring knife in her right. ‘Oh, stop being dramatic.’

‘So why don’t we pretend that for a while? I can be gone for weeks. Work as hard as you like—’ Her voice shook a little, to her annoyance. ‘And we’ll see what happens, all right?’

Sydney pressed his lips together, then said, ‘All right.’ (pp. 69–70)

Having floated the plan, Alicia insists that Sydney should not try to contact her while she is away; she will get in touch with him when she wants to, but not before. Somewhat nonchalantly, Sydney agrees.

With Alicia gone, Sydney is free to immerse himself in the mindset of a murderer – possibly for research purposes, possibly for more sinister reasons. Allowing his fantasies to play out to the full, Sydney imagines that he has killed Alicia by pushing her down the stairs on the day of her departure. Moreover, the following morning, Sydney gets up at the crack of dawn, carries a rolled-up carpet (large enough to conceal a body) to his car, drives five miles to a secluded spot of woodland and buries it in a shallow grave. All the while, he behaves as if the carpet contains Alicia’s body, stiff and heavy following a night in the house.

As the weeks go by, many of the couple’s friends begin to express concern at not having heard anything from Alicia – surely she would have called or written to them by now? At first, Sydney implies that his wife has probably gone to stay with her parents, the Sneezums, down in Kent; but it turns out they haven’t heard from her either. (Alicia, as it happens, is holed up near Brighton, happily playing ‘house’ with her new lover, Edward Tilbury, whom she first at met a party some months earlier.)

Mrs Lilybanks too has her doubts, particularly as she was birdwatching from her bedroom window on the morning of the carpet episode, something she hints at when she drops over to see Sydney one evening. In this scene, Mrs L is enquiring about the carpet that used to be in the Bartlebys’ lounge, the very one she’d seen Sydney take to the car the morning after Alicia’s disappearance.

Mrs Lilybanks sat down slowly on the sofa, watching Sydney. ‘I really quite liked the old one you had here. I’d buy that from you,’ she said, forcing a chuckle.

‘But we haven’t got it. I took it–’ he smiled. ‘I took that old carpet out and dumped it. We didn’t want to give it house-room, and I doubt if anyone would’ve given ten shillings for it.’

Mrs Lilybanks heard her heart pounding under her green cardigan. Sydney had turned a little pale, she thought. He looked guilty. He acted guilty. Yet her unwillingness to believe he was guilty was keeping her from labelling him guilty, definitely. Now he was watching her carefully. (p. 116)

Soon the police become involved, and the finger of suspicion falls squarely on Sydney. The Polk-Faradays and Mrs Lilybanks are questioned about the nature of the Bartlebys’ marriage and Alicia’s state of mind at the time of her disappearance. The deeper the police dig, the worse it begins to look for Sydney: reports of the couple’s quarrels emerge, the burial of the carpet – albeit empty – comes to light; and Sydney’s notebook is found, a book which contains all manner of macabre fantasies on how to do away with one’s wife.

That’s probably all I ought to say about the plot; to reveal any more would spoil it, I think…

What I like about this novel and this author’s work in general is the exploration of the characters’ psychology and motives. In her 1954 novel, The Blunderer, Highsmith considers the possibility that any of us might resort to murder if pushed far enough. There is perhaps an element of that here too, although Sydney is not quite the ‘everyman’ we see in The Blunderer. There is something unhinged about Sydney and his overactive imagination, a blurring of the margins between the fantasies of his crime fiction and the mundane realities of everyday life.

While I couldn’t quite rationalise some of Sydney’s behaviour – there are several opportunities when Sydney could put a stop to the game that he and Alicia are playing, and yet he refuses to do so – I ended up going with it, largely under the assumption of there being some troubling mental health issues at play. Alicia ends up getting out of her depth, too. There comes a point when she can no longer face the shame of admitting she has been living in sin for several weeks, knowing that it would ruin her reputation and cost Edward his job.

In summary, this is a very intriguing novel, one that explores the dangers of allowing one’s fantasies to play out in real life. Definitely recommended for fans of this writer’s work.

A Suspension of Mercy is published by Virago; personal copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

Tea is so Intoxicating by Mary Essex

First published in 1950, Tea is so Intoxicating is another recent reissue in the British Library’s excellent Women Writers series, and it’s probably my favourite so far. Ostensibly the story of a couple’s quest to open a tea garden in an insular English village, Essex’s novel touches on various areas of British life in the years immediately following the Second World War. More specifically, it is a book about class, social attitudes, the pettiness of village life, and perhaps most importantly of all, 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 skills or knowledge to put his 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.

While recuperating from a short illness, David develops an obsession with cooking, convincing himself that he can produce dishes of the highest order when in fact his efforts are little short of disastrous. This, coupled with his experience in the accounts department of the Dolly Varden Cosy Tea Shops, Ltd., leads David to the view that he should open a tea garden in the grounds of the couple’s cottage – a rather primitive, poorly-equipped property that the Tompkinses have unwisely purchased at a knockdown price. Germayne, on the other hand, is somewhat dismayed at the prospect, fearful in the belief that poor David is getting carried away with himself…

She [Germayne] was dubious about the success of the proposed tea-house. But, meanwhile, David had launched himself out into the thought of selling lunches packed ready to take on the road with you, teas in the garden, teas in the inglenook, teas you took away with you, or teas you took away inside you. In fact, it was a comprehensive plan, and it covered every line of resistance that man could offer. His flights of fancy took him into realms of the type of lunch that no hiker or biker wants, but that did not worry him in the least. He would educate them. (p. 34)

Naturally, the villagers are opposed to the idea, viewing the Tompkinses as outsiders (or ‘foreigners’) 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, increasing the levels of noise and congestion. Mr Perch at the Dolphin is not happy about the proposal, mostly because his wife serves teas in the pub’s garden. The fact that there’s only enough space for four people in the Perches’ tiny outdoor area is neither here nor there.

David went to elaborate efforts to hide his true intentions. He explained that there was no question of competition at all, because he was catering only for the better-class tea-seeker; his Cherry Tree Cot would appeal only to the more sensitive with its fine china, delicate sandwiches, and home-made cakes. Naturally this did not mollify Mr Perch, who knew privately that his wife’s teas were shockers, and that any kind of competition would be too much for him. (pp. 52–53)

David doesn’t exactly endear himself to the locals when explaining to Mr Perch how their respective tea gardens are aiming for very different sectors of the market, his snobbishness and lack of self-awareness coming firmly to the fore. To compound matters, there is also the question of the Tompkinses’ relationship, a source of significant scandal and gossip amongst the villagers.

As it turns out, David and Germayne were not married to one another on their arrival at Wellhurst, Germayne having left her first husband, the dull but dependable Digby, for the more entrepreneurial David. In time, a divorce was secured, allowing David and Germayne to get married on the quiet, away from prying eyes. Nevertheless, somehow or other, these developments have become common knowledge, giving the residents of Wellhurst something else to disapprove of alongside the tea garden itself.

As the novel plays out, we see just how much of a mess David gets himself into as preparations for the Cherry Tree Cot lurch from one catastrophe to another. His lack of common sense and inability to get to grips with the practicalities come together to form the perfect storm – almost literally. Meanwhile, Germayne is at the end of her tether, run ragged by David’s ineptitude and blinkered vision. Add to the mix a flirtatious baker from Vienna (Mimi) and Germayne’s precocious daughter, Ducks, from her marriage to Digby, and the stage is set for all manner of chaos.

Alongside the high jinks of the tea shop, Essex also has time to touch on the social changes sweeping through Britain at the time, largely accelerated by the Second World War. Mrs Arbroath at the Manor – another vociferous opponent of David’s tea garden – bemoans the progressive nature of developments under the Labour government, desperately hoping to cling to the world of the past. Albeit rather lonely and tragic at heart, Mrs A is another blinkered individual whose snobbish attitudes reveal themselves all too clearly…

Mrs Arbroath steeled herself against what was coming to the world, and she clung on to her previous glory with two clutching hands. […] Her income had started to drop, which was the fault of that miserable surtax, which she had always thought was thieving, and she had had to sell a few fields. Instantly there had sprung up a pale mushroom growth of awful little houses, with asbestos roofs, which made her groan. She could do nothing about it, though she tried… (p. 87)

The story of Germayne’s earlier marriage to Digby is also nicely woven into the fabric of the book, granting Essex the opportunity to reflect on the relative merits of Germayne’s matrimonial matches. There is a message here about the value of dull yet dependable individuals over more exciting, erratic ones, something that prompts Germayne to reflect on the life she gave up with Digby. In all reality, perhaps the grass isn’t greener on the other side after all…

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 relationship and women’s lives – especially when the women in question are long-suffering individuals, frequently taken for granted by others. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is another touchstone, particularly in its portrayal of the villagers’ territorial attitudes and resistance to outsiders heralding change.

It’s such a joy to see this delightful novel back in print as part of the British Library’s Women Writers series, and I hope to see more of Mary Essex’s work coming through in the future. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

Barbara Pym – Unfinished Novels and Short Stories

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Civil to Strangers, an early novel by Barbara Pym – written in 1936 but published posthumously in 1987. My copy of the book also contains three novellas/unfinished novels (edited down by Pym’s biographer, Hazel Holt) and four short stories.

In this post, my aim is to give you a flavour of the unfinished novels and stories – the former run to around 40-50pp each while the stories clock in at 10-15pp per piece. Even though some of these pieces are minor works, everything is beautifully observed in typical Pym fashion; she has a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy here and there, qualities which give the reader much to enjoy.

Unfinished Novels/Novellas

My favourite of these pieces is Home Front Novel, a story set in a small-town community at the beginning of WW2. This is textbook Pym, a delightfully comic sketch of individuals adjusting to the arrival of a group of evacuees for the duration of the war. As is often the case with Pym, the vicarage is the centre of the community, with the ladies diligently practising their Red Cross demonstrations.

Spinster cousins Agnes and Connie share a house together and will be taking in four evacuees. While Connie is meek and subservient, Agnes is bossy and controlling, traits that soon become apparent as the cousins consider the practicalities of the situation.

“It will mean a lot of extra work, having evacuees here,” said Agnes. I think I’ll tell Dawks tomorrow to dig up the front lawn.”

“Whatever for?” asked Connie.

“To plant vegetables, of course. Now, let me see. The vicarage has a very big lawn and there is that herbaceous border at the Wyatts’.”

By the time they had finished their work in the kitchen, Agnes had already, in imagination, commandeered all the gardens in the village and planted them with vegetables. “Oh God,” prayed Connie that night, “don’t let there be a war.” But at the back of her mind was the thought that a war might be rather exciting. It would certainly make a difference to the days that were so monotonously the same. (pp. 225–226)

What a pity Pym didn’t develop this novel further as the opening is full of potential. There are hints of love blossoming between the charming spinster, Beatrice Wyatt, and the local curate, Michael Randolph. Moreover, the cast of idiosyncratic supporting characters points to some trouble ahead.

So Very Sweet sees Pym dipping her toes into spy story territory, as Cassandra Swan – an excellent woman in typical Pym fashion – follows a trail of clues left by her friend, Harriet, a brilliant individual who works for the Foreign Office. The plot is quite absurd, but no less enjoyable for that – a little bit like the Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes (1938), with upstanding ladies practising their bandaging skills for good measure.

Perhaps the slightest of these unfinished works is Gervase and Flora, a story of unrequited love set in Finland amongst the British ex-pat community. There are hints of something autobiographical in this story of Flora Palfrey, a young woman who has been love with Gervase Harringay, an English lecturer from Oxford, for the past few years.

Flora often wondered what would become of her. She had been in love with Gervase for so long that she could not imagine a life in which he had no part. Nor, on the other hand, could she imagine a life in which he returned her love. That would somehow spoil the picture she had made of herself. It was an interesting picture, very dear to her, and she could not bear the idea of it being spoilt. Noble, faithful, long-suffering, although not without its funny side, it was like something out of Tchekov, she thought. (p. 192)

Short Stories

I’ve already written about Goodbye Balkan Capital as featured in Wave Me Goodbye – a marvellous anthology of short stories about WW2, all by women writers. However, this is such a great piece that it warrants another mention here. It’s quintessential Pym, a beautifully observed tale of two spinster sisters sharing a house together, the protagonists reminiscent of the Bede sisters from Some Tame Gazelle, another early work.

As Laura listens to news of the war on the radio, she is reminded of a night spent in the company of Crispin, a dashing young man who captivated her heart at a ball back in her youth. While Laura has not seen Crispin since that event, she has followed his successful career in the Diplomatic Service over the years, his most recent role having taken him to the Balkans.

As reports of the Germans’ advance across Europe come in, Laura envisages Crispin fleeing his office at the British Legation, possibly travelling to Russia and beyond via the Trans-Siberian Express. The excitement Laura experiences vicariously by way of these imaginings contrasts sharply with the mundane realities of her life in the village. Nevertheless, her role as a volunteer in the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) unit makes Laura feel useful and valued and – much to the annoyance of her sister, Janet, always the more formidable of the two. In fact, the sight of Laura in her new tin hat proves almost too much for Janet to bear…

Janet seemed rather annoyed when she saw it. It made Laura look quite important and professional. “I should think it must be very heavy,” she said grudgingly. “I’ll leave the thermos of tea for you, though I suppose you’ll get some there.”

“Well, expect me when you see me, dear,” said Laura, her voice trembling a little with excitement. Going out like this and not knowing when she would return always made her feel rather grand, almost noble, as if she were setting out on a secret and dangerous mission. The tin hat made a difference, too. One felt much more splendid in a tin hat. It was almost a uniform. (p. 349)

There are some lovely scenes of ordinary folk pulling together here – disparate individuals brought together by the camaraderie of ARP duty, sharing tins of biscuits and slabs of chocolate with their night-time cups of tea.

So, Some Tempestuous Morn is another favourite, a charming story of matchmaking and romantic introductions featuring three characters from Pym’s late ‘30s novel, Crampton Hodnet. The individuals in question are the formidable Miss Doggett, her paid companion, Jessie Morrow, and her nineteen-year-old niece, Anthea. Miss Doggett is on the lookout for a suitable young man for Anthea, however previous candidates have fallen somewhat short of the mark.

Anthea would marry, naturally, but it must be a suitable marriage. There had already been one or two disappointments, not only in Anthea’s failure to impress the young men, but in the young men themselves. Canon Bogle’s son had turned out to be a grubby young man in corduroy trousers; Lady Dancy’s nephew was too small and apparently interested in nothing but archaeology. That had been a great disappointment; even Miss Doggett could see that there was little future in dry bones and fragments of pottery. (p. 334)

In The Christmas Visit, two friends who were at Oxford together meet up again after thirty years, having taken radically different career paths in the interim. It is a story of uneasy reunions, the awkwardness of people with little in common coming together to spend Christmas under the same roof.

The collection is rounded off with Finding a Voice, a transcript of a radio talk given by Pym in 1978, in which she reflects on the development of her literary style. It’s a fitting end to a delightful collection of works.

My hardback copy of Civil to Strangers was published by Macmillan, but the book is currently in print with Virago. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald

A few weeks ago, I posted a piece about Natalia Ginzburg’s Happiness, As Such, a novella about love, happiness and the messy business of family relationships in 20th-century Italy. Innocence – the sixth novel by the British writer Penelope Fitzgerald – taps into similar themes, set as it is in Florence in the mid-1950s. It’s a captivating book – exquisitely written, as one might expect from this most graceful of writers.

Central to the novel is Chiara, the eighteen-year-old daughter of Giancarlo, the head of the once-wealthy Ridolfi family. However, before we dive too far into Chiara’s story, Fitzgerald takes us back in time to the middle of the sixteenth century when all the Ridolfis were midgets as a consequence of a particular genetic condition. At the time, the family go to great lengths to protect their youngest daughter from the knowledge that she might be ‘different’ from other girls by surrounding her with other, similarly-sized individuals. They hire a companion for the girl – a dwarf named Gemma. But when Gemma experiences a sudden spurt of growth, the Ridolfi daughter pities her, viewing her size as a freakish abnormality. As a consequence, she devises a well-intentioned plan to ‘correct’ her companion’s size, one that results in grisly consequences for young Gemma herself…

The moral of this fable is concerned with the inadvertent consequences of our actions – the fact that sometimes, despite our best intentions, we actually end up hurting someone when we had intended to do good.

Moving forward to 1955, the Ridolfis are no longer midgets, the genetic condition having dissipated over the years; however, they do retain a degree of eccentricity, a quality that sometimes manifests itself as naivete, hence the nod to the opening parable.

18yo Chiara has fallen for Salvatore, a Neurologist who hails from a poor family in the south. At thirtyish, Salvatore is considerably older than Chiara, and also quite different in terms of social class and personality. While Salvatore is somewhat prickly and intemperate, Chiara is changeable and alert, demonstrating an intriguing mix of eagerness and diffidence. It’s a somewhat misguided match, something that Salvatore reflects on when he recalls their initial encounter at a concert.

Salvatore, who was not a temperate person, intensely regretted having gone to this particular concert. What irritated him as much as anything else was that his mother had repeatedly predicted that if he went north to practise in Milan or Florence he would be got hold of by some wealthy, fair-haired girl who would fasten on him and marry him before he knew what he was doing. Now, in point of fact this girl was badly dressed and not fair-haired, or anyway only in certain lights, for example in the artificial light of the auditorium and the rainy twilight outside would anyone have called her a blonde. His mind chased itself in a manner utterly forbidden to it, round thoughts as arid as a cinder track. (p. 45)

As the novel unfolds, we follow the couple’s courtship leading up to their marriage – an event that takes place at the vineyard belonging to Chiara’s cousin, Cesare. The relationship between the young lovers seems driven by a series of misalignments – vigorous quarrels ensue, many of which are predicated on false impressions and misjudgements. And yet, despite knowing very little about one another before tying the knot, Chiara and Salvatore clearly love one another – even if they harbour rather different understandings of what constitutes love and happiness.

When Salvatore’s temper rose Chiara became not frightened but reckless, as when driving through the city’s traffic. They knew each other, to be honest, so little, and had so few memories in common (the concert, the limonaia, the wedding) that they had to use them both for attack and defence. They loved each other to the point of pain and could hardly bear to separate each morning. (p. 253)

Alongside Chiara and Salvatore, there are some marvellous secondary characters – most notably, Barney, Chiara’s forthright schoolfriend who hails from England. When called upon by her friend, Barney travels to Florence, subsequently aiding and abetting Chiara in her relationship with Salvatore.

Innocence is not a plot-driven novel, and yet it is wonderfully absorbing, immersing the reader in what feels like a pitch-perfect evocation of 1950s Florence. Naturally Fitzgerald’s prose is exquisite, conveying a strong sense of the Italian culture in the first half of the 20th century, including the differences between the north and the south. In particular, the novel is alive with the sights and sounds of the city, qualities that make it such a pleasure to read.

The wash of tourists and visitors was beginning to recede, leaving behind it the rich fertilizing silt of currency. The shops and small businesses which had faintheartedly shut in the August heat now reopened, those which had stayed open closed and the owners left for the country. Dense piles of hazel-nuts, with their leaves, appeared in the Central Market, and large mushrooms covering the counter with their wrinkled yellow dewlaps, just as earlier that morning they had covered the tree-trunks. Festoons of satchels and fountain pens hung in UPIMs windows. At the last possible moment, the names of the books to be studied in the coming academic year were given out, and the parents went humbly to queue in the scholastic bookshops. These could be considered as beginnings of a kind… (p. 93)

Regular readers of Fitzgerald will recognise many of her signature features. Two vivid, deeply-flawed characters that feel credible and believable; an innate understanding of the foibles of human nature; the beautiful descriptive passages, rich in finely-judged detail; and an air of strangeness or eccentricity that adds a touch of mystery. There’s a wonderful playfulness here too, a seam of dry wit running through the novel, adding humour to the blend of beauty and intelligence. Like the masterful The Beginning of Spring (which I read a few years ago), Innocence feels at once both straightforward and elusive, blending the directness of a love story with the slipperiness of a mystery or allegory. Another captivating novel from this highly accomplished writer.

Innocence is published by Fourth Estate, personal copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

Happiness, As Such by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Minna Zallman Proctor)

Last August, for Women in Translation Month, I read Voices in the Evening (1961), an episodic, vignette-style novel by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. It’s one four books by this writer recently reissued by the publishing arm of Daunt Books (you can find more details here). While Happiness, As Such is a later novel than Voices, it explores similar themes – centred as it is on the lives and loves of the members of an Italian family in the mid-20th century. If anything, I think it’s an even stronger (better integrated?) work than Voices. Nevertheless, both books are well worth checking out, especially if you’re interested in the messy business of families and the insights into humanity novels can offer us.

Set in the early 1970s, Happiness, As Such takes the form of a series of letters interspersed with brief passages of exposition written in the third person. Central to the novel is Michele, the grown-up son of an Italian family, his parents having separated some years earlier. Michele – who appears to have been actively involved in politics – has fled to England leaving several loose ends in his wake. His mother, Adriana, writes letters to her son, berating him for various things – not least the fact that his former lover, Mara Martorelli, has turned up with a son who may or may not be his. The default tone of these letters is passive-aggressive, highlighting Adriana’s disenchantment with her former husband as well as her son.

If this Martorelli baby is yours, what will you do, you don’t know how to do anything. You didn’t finish school did you. I don’t think your paintings of owls and falling-down buildings are that good. Your father says they are and that I don’t understand painting. They look to me like the paintings your father did when he was young, but not as good. I don’t know. Please tell me what I should say to this Martorelli and if I need to send her money. She hasn’t asked but I’m sure that’s what she wants. (pp. 8–9)

Mara for her part is a bit of a mess – careless, unreliable and promiscuous, she flits from one place to another, unable to settle or establish any degree of stability.

When Michele needs to call in various favours, he writes to Angelica, his long-suffering sister and closest confidante within the family. At various points in the narrative, there are books to be sent, papers to be procured and guns to be disposed of – the later adding to the possibility that Michele’s disappearance may well have been politically motivated.

Also in the mix is Osvaldo, Michele’s close friend and possibly lover – there several reflections on the ambiguity surrounding Osvaldo’s sexuality throughout the book. Through his relationship with Michele, Osvaldo is drawn into the extended family, supporting Mara by finding her a job and a place to live, neither of which last very long due to Mara’s inherent fickleness and instability. Furthermore, Osvaldo proves himself to be a strange kind of comfort for Adriana when her former husband dies, particularly as Michele fails to return home for his father’s funeral.

Like Voices, Happiness, As Such can be though of as a novel of tensions – in this case between former lovers and the different generations of an extended family. On the surface, Ginzburg’s prose seems unadorned and straightforward, but this apparent simplicity belies the complexity of emotions running underneath. Evasion, resentment, grief, spitefulness, confession and compassion all come together to form a richly textured, multi-faceted narrative. Moreover, the nature of the largely epistolary form means that many of the novel’s key incidents and conversations take place outside of the letters, requiring us to read between the lines of the various missives to piece together a more nuanced picture of the family dynamics.

While Ginzburg’s tone is often very amusing – there is a wonderfully rich vein of wry humour running through the book – the impression we are left with is one of palpable melancholy. There is a sense that we are all fragile and at risk of finding ourselves stuck in a form of stasis, unable to break free without assistance.

[Letter from Angelical to Michele:] Your friend Mara has left Colarosa. She wrote to me from Novi Ligure where she is staying with her cousins’ maid. She’s not doing well, she doesn’t have anywhere to live, and has nothing to call her own, except for a black kimono with sunflower embroidery, a fox-fur coat and a baby. But I feel like all of us are vulnerable to the gentle art of ending up in terrible situations that are unresolvable and impossible to move out of by going either forward or back. (p. 153)

At the heart of the book are various reflections on happiness, particularly the idea that we may not be cognisant of this feeling as and when it is happening to us. Happiness is often fleeting and best appreciated in retrospect when we can look back on events from a distance. In other words, ‘we rarely recognise the happy moments while we’re living them. We usually only recognise them with the distance of time.’

In creating Happiness, As Such, Ginzburg has crafted a beautiful, wryly humorous, deeply melancholy novel of family relationships. Her characters are complex, flawed and nuanced – qualities that make them feel real and humane as they navigate the difficulties of family life. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates something of the book’s biting humour as Adriana passes judgement on her sisters-in-law, Mathilde and Cecilia, following the death of their brother, Michele’s father.

[Letter from Adriana to Michele:] Your father left you a series of paintings, the ones he did between 1945 in 1955, and the Via San Sebastianello house, and the tower. I get the impression your sisters are going to come out of this with much less than you. They’ll get those properties near Spoleto, many of which have been sold off, but there are some left. Matilde and Cecilia are going to get a piece of furniture, that baroque, Piedmontese credenza. Matilde immediately observed that Cecilia gets the better end of that deal because Matilde wouldn’t know what to do with a credenza. Can you just imagine. What joy will half-blind, decrepit Cecilia get from a credenza? (pp. 94–95)

My thanks to the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).