Tag Archives: #ReviewWomen2015

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Earlier this year, I read Joan Didion’s debut novel Run River. I loved the characters, the melancholy tone of this novel, its sense of place…I didn’t want it to end. All this left me keen to read more of Didion’s work, both her fiction and non-fiction. First published in 1970, Play It As It Lays was Didion’s second novel. It’s very accomplished, but it’s also very intense – a searing novel with a harrowing story at its heart.


Play opens with a short chapter narrated by Maria. If we stick to the facts, Maria is a thirty-one-year-old model-turned-actress with a young daughter named Kate. Maria’s ex-husband, a film director by the name of Carter, put her in a couple of little movies, but she hasn’t worked for a few years. She’s in a psychiatric institution now, and the only thing that keeps her going is Kate. (Kate is mentally challenged and stuck in a potentially regressive treatment facility – we’re in the late ‘60s here.)

Maria tries to play along with the psychiatrists, to be ‘an agreeable player of the game,’ even though she knows they will misinterpret the facts. They wish to formulate reasons for her behaviour, make connections where none exist – that’s their job. The people at the institution are interested in her past, but Maria has trouble with her life ‘as it was’. She knows it doesn’t lead anywhere.

The majority of the remainder of the novel takes the form of a sequence of short, sharp chapters on the ‘as it was’. These are mostly written in the third person, which gives the story a sense of veracity and detachment as if we are observing snapshots of a selection of scenes from Maria’s past. The supposed reason for Maria’s confinement is revealed in the second chapter, a brief statement from one of Maria’s friends, Helene. But that’s not the most important thing about Maria’s story; at least I don’t think it is.

Maria’s world is diffuse and disordered; it’s populated by shallow friends, people like BZ, the film producer and his wife, Helene. Didion perfectly captures the mood of the period. It’s there in the description of the crowd Maria encounters at BZ and Helene’s parties: the ‘sulky young men’ BZ has met on his travels to Tangier and Acapulco; Helene’s friends complete with their Pucci silk shirts, ‘periodically tightened eye lines’ and ‘husbands on perpetual location’.

Carter (Maria’s ex) is portrayed as a cold, mean and ruthless man, ‘a dropper of friends and names and obligations’. Short staccato scenes from Maria and Carter’s relationship are threaded through the novel. These episodes are shot through with a strong sense of emotional distance, the feeling that Maria doesn’t know what to do or how to reach Carter. The following picture typifies the state of their contact – the couple have had one of their many arguments:

Always when he came back he would sleep in their room, shutting the door against her. Rigid with self-pity she would lie in another room, wishing for the will to leave. Each believed the other a murderer of time, a destroyer of life itself. She did not know what she was doing in Baker. However it began it ended like that.

“Listen,” she would say.

“Don’t touch me,” he would say. (pg. 32)

Maria is plagued by fear, an unspeakable sense of peril in the everyday. She is haunted by the emotional fallout from a deeply traumatic event in her life, one she is struggling to come to terms with in her mind. (This episode is described in the novel in all its horrific detail.) She relies on drugs and alcohol to smother her dreams, to stop the nightmares from cutting through. There is a strong feeling of dislocation here as if Maria’s mind is disconnected from her body, both operating independently of another and with no clear direction. The following quote captures what I mean by this feeling of dislocation. Maria is calling a close friend, Les Goodwin, from a phone booth near a drive-in restaurant – as you may have guessed by now, there are other men in Maria’s life:

“Where’ve you been,” he said.

“Nowhere.” When she heard his voice she felt a rush of well-being. “I didn’t want to call you because –”

“I can’t hear you, Maria, where are you?”

“In a phone booth. I just wanted –”

“You all right?”

“No. I mean yes” A bus was shifting gears on Sunset and she raised her voice. “Listen. Call me.”

She walked back to the car and sat for a long while in the parking lot, idling the engine and watching a woman in a muumuu walk out of the Carolina Pines Motel and cross the street to a supermarket. The woman walked in small mincing steps and kept raising her hand to shield her eyes from the vacant sunlight. As if in a trance Maria watched the woman, for it seemed to her then that she was watching the dead still center of the world, the quintessential intersection of nothing. She did not know why she had told Les Goodwin to call her. (pg. 66-67)

Following her split from Carter, Maria spends her days driving the California freeway. She has to be on the system by ten o’clock otherwise the day’s rhythm is all out of whack. She drives anywhere and everywhere; it creates an impression of momentum. Sometimes the freeway simply runs out leaving Maria in ‘a scrap metal yard in San Pedro’ or out in the middle of nowhere where the scorching roadway just stops. It’s an image that highlights the emptiness of Maria’s days at the wheel. Like Run River, I can’t imagine Play being set anywhere other than California. Didion gives the reader a vivid feel for the landscape: the images of distant mountains; the arid heat of the freeways; the diners and thrift marts dotted along the way.

In the aftermath of the wind the air was dry, burning, so clear that she could see the ploughed furrows of firebreaks on distant mountains. Not even the highest palms moved. The stillness and clarity of the air seemed to rob everything of its perspective, seemed to alter all perception of depth, and Maria drove as carefully as if she were reconnoitering an atmosphere without gravity. Taco Bells jumped out at her. Oli rockers creaked ominously. For miles before she reached the Thriftimart she could see the big red T, a forty-foot cutout letter which seemed peculiarly illuminated against the harsh unclouded light of the afternoon sky. (pg. 76-77)

At the end of the day, Maria doesn’t know how to function, how to play the game of life:

I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?’ (pg. 10)

There comes a time when Maria imagines the life she might have had with Carter and Kate, something resembling the image of a normal family. It’s a heart-rending passage:

…but sometimes later, after he had left, the spectre of his joyless face would reach her, talk about heart’s needle, would flash across her hapless consciousness all the images of the family they might have been: Carter throwing a clear plastic ball filled with confetti, Kate missing the ball. Kate crying. Carter swinging Kate by her wrists. […] The images would flash at Maria like slides in a dark room. On film they might have seemed like a family. (pg. 137-138)

Play It As It Lays is a hard novel to describe, but it’s good; it’s blisteringly good. At times the prose and imagery are so intense they pierce the consciousness like a needle. Didion seems to have an innate ability to get inside the minds of women on the edge, women who are isolated and distanced from those around them. She writes about fragile, disconnected lives in a way that seems so raw yet strangely polished at the same time. At one point in Play, there’s a scene where Kate (Maria’s daughter) smashes a china doll against a large mirror – the floor is covered with pieces of ‘broken mirror and flesh-coloured ceramic’. It’s a metaphor for Maria’s existence, for the novel itself: a life fractured into a multitude of tiny jagged shards.

I’ve been reading this novel with Emma at Book Around the Corner – Emma’s review is here. It was Max’s review that prompted us to read Play.

I ought to finish now, so I’ll leave the final words on this brilliant yet brittle novel to Maria:

…I never in my life had any plans, none of it makes any sense, none of it adds up. (pg. 7)

Play It As It Lays is published in the UK by Fourth Estate. Source: personal copy.

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector (review)

I’ve been meaning to read Clarice Lispector ever since the new translations of her work appeared in 2012. With this in mind, what better place to start than her debut novel, Near to the Wild Heart, first published in 1943 when Lispector was just twenty-three years old? The book’s title and epigraph come from James Joyce’s novel, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, but Lispector only discovered Joyce once she had finished writing Near. Nevertheless, the book’s epigraph and style led certain critics to compare Lispector’s work to that of Joyce, Virginia Woolf and other modernist writers.


The focus of Near to the Wild Heart is Joana, a young woman who finds herself in a loveless marriage with her husband, Otávio. The novel is divided into two parts: the first section delves into key moments from Joana’s childhood while the second considers the nature of her marriage. That said, reflections on Joana and Otávio’s relationship are threaded through the novel thereby acting as a kind of spine to the story. We are introduced to Otávio in the second chapter. As soon as he leaves the house for the day, Joana is transformed; she focuses on herself and returns to the thread of her early years.

Joana’s childhood is a difficult one, and when her parents die she is sent to live with her aunt and uncle. From a young age, Joana demonstrates a capacity for free thinking and for dazzling those who come into contact with her. Joana’s aunt, however, remains fearful of the young girl whom she likens to a ‘little demon.’

“…She’s a viper. She’s a cold viper, Alberto, there’s no love or gratitude in her. There’s no point liking her, no point doing the right thing by her…” (pg. 43)

Otávio also recognises the steeliness in Joana’s character. But there is something magnetic about her too, something he finds attractive even if he can’t figure out why:

There was a hard, crystalline quality in her that attracted and repulsed him at the same time, he noticed. […] She wasn’t pretty, too thin. Even her sensuality must have been different to his, excessively luminous. (pg. 82)

Otávio doesn’t seem particularly interested in building a life with Joana. In a way Otávio sees a union with her as a means of living above himself and his past, he hopes she will teach him not to be afraid.

From an early stage in the narrative, it is clear that Joana is isolated in her marriage to Otávio (perhaps even isolated from life in general). She struggles to establish a connection with her husband:

Though Otávio wasn’t particularly stimulating. With him the next best thing was to connect with what had already happened. Even so, under his “spare me, spare me” gaze, she would open her hand from time to time and let a little bird dart out. Sometimes, however, perhaps due to the nature of what she said, no bridge was created between them, and on the contrary an interval was born. (pg. 25)

Ultimately, his presence, even the knowledge of his existence feels like a barrier to her freedom.

While Near does touch on key events in Joana’s life, it is not a plot-driven novel. Instead, the focus is on introspection; Joana’s inner feelings are brought to the surface. She seems to experience life with a rare intensity of emotion – there are times when her mood switches from a deep sense of happiness to one of pain and suffering. Also, there is a sense that she is trying to look within to find some meaning in her life – perhaps she hopes it will help her understand the essence of life itself:

I try to push away everything that is a life form. I try to isolate myself in order to find life in itself. […] The minute I close the door behind me, I let go of things instantly. Everything that was distances itself from me, diving deafly into my faraway waters. I hear it, the fall. Happy and flat I wait for myself, I wait for myself to slowly rise up and truly appear before my eyes. Instead of obtaining myself by fleeing, I find myself forsaken, alone, tossed into a dimensionless cubicle, where light and shadows are quiet ghosts. In my interior I find the silence I seek. But in it I become so lost from any memory of a human being and of myself, that I make this impression into the certainty of physical solitude. (pg. 61)

The novel’s style is impressionistic and Lispector uses a combination of descriptive passages and stream-of-consciousness to convey a feel for Joanna’s existence. The last quote should give you a feel for the ‘stream’ style – ‘stream’ is not usually my favourite style, but it works very well here. This next one is a snippet from one of the descriptive sections – Joana recalls the time immediately following the death of her father:

She lay belly-down in the sand, hand covering her face, leaving only a tiny crack for air. It grew dark dark and circles and red blotches, full, tremulous spots slowly began to appear, growing and shrinking. The grains of sand nipped her skin, buried themselves in it. Even with her eyes closed she felt that on the beach the waves were sucked back by the sea quickly quickly, also with closed eyelids. Then they meekly returned, palms splayed body loose. It was good to hear their sound. (pg. 32)

The novel also contains a number of philosophical passages: Joana’s meditations on the nature of eternity, a sense of immortality vs. the certainty of knowing that you will die.

All in all, I found Near to the Wild Heart an intriguing but challenging novel. The writing is excellent – dazzling and poetic at times. It’s a book that demands concentration, possibly one to reread at some point as I’m sure I missed so much on my first reading. A novel I admired rather than enjoyed.

Even though I spent the best part of 200 pages in Joana’s company, I found it hard to get a grip on her (which is probably why this post reads like a series of fragments). Joana can appear cold, confident and autonomous, but I’m not convinced this is the full picture. She is misunderstood by others and unfairly judged to a certain extent.

Ultimately, I was left with an image of a life lived in intense fragments, each section disconnected from the next. A woman struggling to form connections in her life:

Her life was made up of complete little lives, of whole, closed circles, which isolated themselves from one another. (pg 91)

I carry on always ingratiating myself, opening and closing circles of life, tossing them aside, withered, full of past. Why so independent, why don’t they merge into just one block, providing me with ballast? Fact was they were too whole. Moments so intense, red, condensed in themselves that they didn’t need past or future in order to exist. (pg. 92)

Several other bloggers have reviewed this book: Grant at 1streading, Stu at Winstonsdad’s, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger.

Near to the Wild Heart (tr. Alison Entrekin) is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 20/20 in my #TBR20.

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

First published in 1930, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie was Jean Rhys’ second novel. Set in Paris in the late 1920s, it features a woman in her thirties, Julia Martin. For the past six months, Julia has been surviving on an allowance of 300 francs per week which she receives from her ex-lover, Mr Mackenzie.


When we first meet Julia, she is living in a room in a tawdry hotel in Paris – the sort of place where the staircase smells of the landlady’s cats. She is down on her luck, tired of life, and her looks have started to fade. Here’s a brief but telling description of Julia:

Her eyes gave her away. By her eyes and the deep circles under them you saw that she was a dreamer, that she was vulnerable – too vulnerable ever to make a success of a career of chance.

She made herself up elaborately and carefully; yet it was clear that what she was doing had long ceased to be a labour of love and had become partly a mechanical process, partly a substitute for the mask she would have liked to wear. (pg 11)

As the story unfolds, we gather that Julia’s affair with Mr Mackenzie ended rather unpleasantly. He has distanced himself from Julia, and all transactions take place by way of his solicitor, Henri Legros. One Tuesday, Julia receives a letter from Legros informing her that the weekly allowance will be discontinued – enclosed is a final payment of 1,500 francs. Even though she had always expected this would happen one day, Julia feels bruised and discarded. There is no place for her in their world:

When she thought of the combination of Mr Mackenzie and Maître Legros, all sense of reality deserted her and it seemed to her that there were no limits at all to their joint powers of defeating and hurting her. Together the two perfectly represented organized society, in which she had no place and against which she had not a dog’s chance. (pg. 17)

Consequently, Julia decides to confront Mr Mackenzie, and she follows him to a restaurant with the aim of having it out. At this point in the novel, Rhys does something very interesting – the point of view switches from Julia to Mr Mackenzie, and we get a sense of his perspective. Mackenzie is in his late forties, comfortably off, and rather lacking in compassion or honourable moral values:

He had more than once allowed himself to be drawn into affairs which he had regretted bitterly afterwards, though when it came to getting out of these affairs his business instinct came to his help, and he got out undamaged. (pg. 19)

As Mackenzie waits for his order at the restaurant, a place he had visited with Julia when they were together, his thoughts turn to their affair:

He had lied; he had made her promises which he never intended to keep; and so on, and so on. All part of the insanity, for which he was not responsible.

Not that many lies had been necessary. After seeing him two or three times she had spent the night with him at a tawdry hotel. Perhaps that was the reason why, when he came to think of it, he had never really liked her. (pg. 19)

Julia’s arrival at the restaurant heralds one of the pivotal scenes in the novel. It’s too intricate, too subtle to describe here, but it’s a great piece of writing. Julia refuses her ex-lover’s payoff and leaves with her dignity reasonably intact; Mackenzie hopes that no one has witnessed their exchange. Luckily for Julia, the encounter is noted by an Englishman named George Horsfield, who is sitting at the next table. When Julia leaves the restaurant, Horsfield follows. Julia has had a difficult life, and it shows – she appears tired and depressed. Horsfield befriends Julia, gives her 1,500 francs and advises her to return to London for a while.

On her arrival in London, Julia takes a room at a shabby hotel in Bloomsbury. What follows is a series of bruising encounters as Julia re-establishes contact with her family, most notably her sister, Norah and her Uncle Griffiths. In direct contrast to Julia, Norah has done the ‘right thing’ by staying at home to care for their invalid mother. Norah and Uncle Griffiths clearly disapprove of Julia’s decision to go her own way in Paris. (Julia had been married but subsequently left her husband. Uncle Griffiths is of the opinion that she ought to have extracted some kind of financial settlement from this man). Griffiths dismisses Julia with a one-pound note – he simply doesn’t care and wants little more to do with her.

Julia’s attempts to gain support from an ex-lover, Neil James, prove equally disheartening. James promises that he will send Julia some money so that she can have a little rest. In the end, he sends £20 and makes it clear that there will be no more handouts. Even Horsfield, now back in London, seems to be withdrawing his support. He seems to find her attractive one minute, unappealing the next. (Rhys also gives us access to Horsfield’s viewpoint from time to time.)

This is my second reading of Mr Mackenzie. It’s quite a difficult novel to describe, but I wanted to try to write about it before going on to read more of Rhys’ work. The writing is superb, the characters are complex and nuanced. Rhys appears to have mined her own past, her own experiences of the harsh reality of life as a lone woman in the city. Julia seems trapped; she is weary of life and drinks as a means of blunting the pain of her situation. Her life reads like a series of fragmented episodes, and there is little hope of a bright outlook. Rhys exposes the hypocrisy and cruelty of society at the time: no one seems to care about Julia; she is shunned by her family and acquaintances. Her predicament reminded me a little of the final stages of Lily Bart’s situation in The House of Mirth, another bruising and unforgettable story.

I have another couple of novels by Rhys: Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight. I’d also like to read her first novel, Quartet.

I’m finding it difficult to describe the impact of reading After Leaving Mr Mackenzie – it’s a brilliant piece of work. I’ll finish with a quote that seems to capture something of Julia’s life, the constant swings from depression to glimmers of hope and back to despair once more:

She was crying now because she remembered that her life had been a long succession of humiliations and mistakes and pains and ridiculous efforts. Everybody’s life was like that. At the same time, in a miraculous manner, some essence of her was shooting upwards like a flame. She was great. She was a defiant flame shooting upwards not to plead but to threaten. Then the flame sank down again, useless, having reached nothing. (pg. 94-95)

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 18/20 in my #TBR20.

A Corsican rosé – a wine match for Transit by Anna Seghers

Last October I read Transit by Anna Seghers, a haunting novel of shifting identities, questions of destiny and the quest to secure safe passage from France during the German occupation in WW2. It’s a remarkable story inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee as she fled from Europe in the early 1940s. (If you’re not familiar with this novel, I’d encourage you to take a peek at my review – it made my end-of-year highlights.)


A sizeable chunk of the novel is set in Marseille where the narrator Siedler (or is it Weidel?) and his companions dine on slices of pizza, all washed down with copious quantities of rosé wine. I had intended to write about rosé at the time, but winter was fast approaching and to my mind this style of wine is best enjoyed in the sunshine. We’ve had some decent weather in the UK over the last week, so I opened my first rosé of the year, a wine from Corsica.

I get a bit annoyed when people dismiss rosé as “girly” or “not a serious wine”. (Even terms like “pink drink” set my teeth on edge a little.) There are some very sleek rosés around these days. My favourites include the pale and delicate rosés from Provence, wines from producers like Domaine Houchart and Domaine Rimauresq.


Earlier this week I tried a different rosé, the latest vintage of a favourite wine from Corsica: The Society’s Corsican Rosé, 2014. This is a delicate and elegant wine, a crushed-berries-and-cream rosé made from Nielluccio (Sangiovese) – there may be a touch of Sciaccarello and Grenache in the blend, too.  It’s dry and refreshing, with a slightly creamy note that balances the acidity of the fruit. A delightful wine, possibly the best vintage yet.

It’s produced by Clos Culombu, and I’ve enjoyed their wines for several years (they also make a delicious, slightly herby white from the Vermentino grape).

Transit gives few details about the wine Siedler/Weidel and his companions drink in the Marseille pizzeria, but I’d like to think that any of the rosés mentioned here would make a fitting match.

Wine stockist: I bought my bottle of The Society’s Corsican Rosé, 2014 from The Wine Society, priced at £8.95 per bottle.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo) is published by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop is set in 1959 in the fictional Suffolk town of Hardborough, where Florence Green, a middle-aged widow of limited means wishes to open a bookshop, something the town has not seen for several years. Florence has decided to buy the Old House, a run-down historic building in the centre of Hardborough, with a view to converting it into a viable business. She trusts her previous experience in the book trade will stand her in good stead.

At an early stage in the story, it becomes clear that Florence is not the only party interested in the Old House. Violet Gamart, one of Hardborough’s most powerful residents, has her eye on it for an arts centre. Hardborough must secure its place on the cultural landscape of Suffolk; it must keep pace with the likes of Aldeburgh.


Undeterred by a thinly-veiled warning from Mrs Gamart, Florence presses ahead. With the aid of a loan from the bank, she acquires the Old House, a modest damp-infested property which comes complete with its own poltergeist (or ‘rapper’ to use the local term). In time she acquires a supply of stock and opens The Old House Bookshop for business.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this novel was Fitzgerald’s descriptions of Hardborough and its inhabitants. Here’s a short but effective description of this rather insular place:

The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold. (pg. 8)

Hardborough is the kind of microcosm where everybody knows everyone else’s business, ‘who was in financial straits, who would need larger family accommodation in nine months, and who was about to die.’ Fitzgerald presents several instances of how things work in Hardborough, but the following example is one of my favourites. Alongside the books for sale, Florence feels obliged to offer her customers a lending library facility, but the open collection system means that each borrower can see everyone else’s reservations. The Life of Queen Mary is much in demand, and several customers would like to borrow it; if only Mrs Thornton would come and collect her reservation. In the meantime, everyone else can see Queen Mary languishing on the shelf – a source of frustration for other borrowers, especially those who are desperate to get their hands on it. And to make matters worse, Mrs Thornton is rumoured to be a slow reader:

In point of time, Mrs Thornton had been the first to put it on her list; and Florence, confident in the justice of her method, placed the Thornton ticket in it. Every subscriber had a pink ticket, and the books were ranged alphabetically, waiting for collection. This was a grave weakness of the system. Everybody knew at a glance what everybody else had got. They should not have been poking about and turning things over in the painfully small space which had been cleared for the library, but they were unused to discipline. (pgs. 56-57)

In its first six months of business the bookshop does a fairly respectable trade; sales are modest, but not spectacular. One day, Florence receives a visit from a local resident, the rather slippery Milo North, who suggests that she order several copies of a recently-published novel, a book with the potential to sell like hot cakes. Florence is keen to ensure it is a good novel, one that is suitable to offer for sale to the inhabitants of Hardborough. With this in mind, she orders an inspection copy and asks her ally, the book-loving Mr Brundish, to give an opinion on its merits. On reading the novel, Brundish offers Florence the following view:

It is a good book, and therefore you should try to sell it to the inhabitants of Hardborough. They won’t understand it, but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy. (pg 101)

Florence forges ahead and orders 250 copies, she is pleased to make it available to her customers – the novel in question is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

As you can probably guess, the arrival of Lolita prompts a bit of a furore in Hardborough. Florence’s window display alone draws quite a crowd, enough to create a temporary obstruction on the highway. Violet Gamart lodges an objection, and a series of rather pointed letters pass between Florence and her solicitor. The other High Street traders are upset; Florence, however, is quietly determined to carry on:

Not one of the throng in the High Street had come into the dressmaker’s, still less bought a watercolour. Nor had they looked at the wet fish offered by Mr Deben. All the tradespeople were now either slightly or emphatically hostile to the Old House Bookshop. It was decided not to ask her to join the Inner Wheel of the Hardborough and District Rotary Club. (pg. 109)

It is fairly clear from an early stage in this novel that Florence is going to be up against it at every turn as she tries to make a success of the Old Bookshop. I don’t want to say too much about the closing stages of the book, but the final paragraph will leave you with an unforgettable image of Florence. My sympathies were with her right to the bitter end.

The Bookshop is a brilliant book, so finely observed and incisive. Fitzgerald’s prose is precise and economical, her sentences perfectly balanced – her style reminds me a little of Elizabeth Taylor’s (of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont fame). Like Taylor, Fitzgerald has a wonderful way of describing characters. Here’s an early description of Florence:

She was in appearance small, wispy and wiry, somewhat insignificant from the front view, and totally so from the back. She was not much talked about, not even in Hardborough, where everyone could be seen coming over the wide distances and everything seen was discussed. (pg. 2)

Perhaps the most telling insight into Florence’s character comes on the opening page:

She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation. (pg. 1)

Milo North, on the other hand, ‘was tall, and went through life with singularly little effort.’ ‘His fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage.’ (pg. 22)

Hierarchies and class systems play an important role in the novel. The future of Christine Gipping, Florence’s young assistant, rests on the outcome of her Eleven Plus. A pass would secure her entry to Grammar school and, in time, the possibility of marriage to ‘a white collar chap’ – a bright future for Christine. Failure would see her consigned to the Technical – if this were the case she wouldn’t ever be able to look above ‘a labouring chap or even an unemployed chap’.

Even the books for Florence’s lending library come with their own pecking order:

The books available on loan were divided into classes A, B, and C. A were very much in demand, B acceptable, and C frankly old and unwanted. For every A she borrowed, she must take three Bs and a large number of Cs for her subscribers. If she paid more, she could get more As, but also, a mounting pile of Bs and the repellent Cs, and nothing new would be sent until the last consignment was returned. (pg. 55)

Fitzgerald writes with great insight about life’s failings and disappointments, but she is a humorous writer too. I’ll draw to a close with a favourite quote, one that illustrates one of the challenges of life as a provincial bookseller – how to deal tactfully with requests from local authors. Their books came with titles such ‘On Foot Across the Marshes’ or ‘Awheel Across East Anglia’ for what else is there to do with flatlands but to cross them?

She vividly imagined their disillusionment, wedged behind the table with books and a pen in front of them, while the hours emptied away and no one came. ‘Tuesday is always a very quiet day in Hardborough, Mr ––, particularly if it is fine. I didn’t suggest Monday, because that would have been quieter still. Wednesdays are quiet too, except for the market, and Thursday is early closing. The customers will come in and ask for your book soon – of course they will, they have heard of you, you are a local author. Of course they will want your signature, they will come across the marshes, afoot and awheel.’ The thought of so much suffering and embarrassment was hard to bear, but at least she was in a position to see that it never took place. (pg. 69)

This is the second Penelope Fitzgerald I’ve reviewed, both are gems. The Bookshop is the more direct of the two, The Beginning of Spring the more mysterious. I can wholeheartedly recommend both.

The Bookshop is published in the UK by Fourth Estate. Source: personal copy. Book 15/20 in my #TBR20.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Last year, I read so many good books that I struggled to find space for them all on my end-of-year round-up. When the time comes to compile my 2015 list, I shall have to find a place for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as it’s a brilliant novel, heart-rending, touching and so sharply observed – full of insights on the idiosyncrasies of life.

First published in 1971, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont features a recently widowed elderly lady, Laura Palfrey. In need of somewhere to live, Mrs Palfrey moves into the Claremont Hotel, a respectable establishment on the Cromwell Road, South Kensington, where she is likely to remain until a move to a nursing home or hospital can no longer be avoided. On her arrival at the Claremont, Mrs Palfrey joins a small group of elderly women and one lone man who have also moved to the hotel out of necessity. All are no longer able to manage on their own.

While the Claremont is reasonably clean, it is somewhat lacking in atmosphere. At first, Mrs Palfrey wonders if she has made a terrible mistake in moving there, a feeling only reinforced by her initial impressions at dinner:

At other tables sat a few other elderly ladies looking, to Mr Palfrey, as if they had been sitting there for years. They were waiting patiently for the celery soup, hands folded in laps and eyes dreamy. (pg. 5)

Nevertheless, Mrs Palfrey knows that she must soldier on, and having made it through her first night, she decides to make the best of her new life. Over the course of the first few days, she is able to pinpoint the long-term residents, and a picture of each one soon emerges.

Taylor is very adept at describing people; she seems to have an innate ability to convey the sense of a character in just a few sentences. In this passage she is describing three of the Claremont’s permanent residents: the blustering Mr Osmond, the lively Mrs Burton and the rather brittle Mrs Arbuthnot:

Mr Osmond drank wine. He sat very still with the glass beside him as if it were keeping him company. He waited for the manager, who occasionally looked in. He could not hide his annoyance when Mrs Burton came down to his part of the lounge and kept pressing the bell for whiskies. She spent a great deal of money on whisky, which was a marvel to the other ladies – throwing money down her throat, Mrs Post said. She had other extravagances, such as mauve-rinsed hair, and what Mrs Arbuthnot always referred to as chain-smoking, although it was not. Mrs Arbuthnot, perhaps because of her arthritis, found it in her nature to be disparaging. (pgs. 11-12)

Each one of these characters has their own idiosyncrasies, their own habits and mannerisms, and Taylor captures them perfectly. What they all share is a feeling of loneliness and boredom, a need to adapt to constraints of old age, a reliance on others to brighten their days. All remember happier times: the lives they shared with their spouses; the ability to entertain family and friends; and the comfort of the own homes.

Time drags at the Claremont; the days are long and drawn out, punctuated by mealtimes, walks and the occasional visiting relative. One day, on her return from the library, Mrs Palfrey slips on the pavement and falls. Luckily for Mrs Palfrey, a considerate young man named Ludo emerges from his basement flat and comes to her aid. As a thank you for this kindness, Mrs Palfrey invites Ludo to dinner at the Claremont the following Saturday, a day when ‘there is usually a rather better menu’ at the hotel. Ludo, an impoverished aspiring writer, is also rather lonely and willingly accepts her offer of a decent meal. Moreover, Mrs Palfrey sees an opportunity for Ludo to help her out of a tight spot with the other residents. In order to save face, she persuades him to stand in as her grandson, Desmond, who has resolutely failed to visit her since her move to the Claremont. Thinking it will be a lark, Ludo graciously agrees.

Taylor, an acute observer of social situations, is very aware of the little condescending remarks people make with the aim of needling others. Sometimes it’s not just what they say, but the tone of voice they use (somehow or other, Taylor’s prose manages to convey a real sense of this – quite an accomplishment on the page). It’s a little difficult to appreciate the full effect here, but when Mrs Arbuthnot overhears Mrs Palfrey informing the waiter that a guest will be joining her for dinner, she cannot resist the following slight:

‘So your grandson is coming to see you at last,’ Mrs Arbuthnot had said on her slow way past Mrs Palfrey’s table and, for some reason searched for later, Mrs Palfrey let her go without a word. (pg. 32)

On the evening itself, Ludo manages to stand up to the scrutiny of Mrs Arbuthnot. The dinner is a success, and Mrs Palfrey regains a sense of dignity. Ludo gains something from the evening too, not just a hot meal but an opportunity to do some research for his novel ‘They Weren’t Allowed to Die There’, a title inspired by Mrs Palfrey herself.

He drank his soup, ate his veal with a kind of hungry concentration, which was a great pleasure to Mrs Palfrey. She was doing something for him, as he was doing something for her, and when he lifted his glass to her, she felt – for the first time since she came to the Claremont – that she was envied and respected, knowing herself watched form the other tables. (pg. 39)

As the weeks go by, an unlikely and touching friendship develops between these two individuals, tinged with a few notes of uncertainty. For the most part Mrs P and Ludo get along very well with one another; nevertheless, there are a couple of occasions when they are a little unsure of what to say or how to react out of shyness or embarrassment. The scenes of the two of them together are utterly charming, and it’s clear that Mrs Palfrey would love to have someone like Ludo as her real grandson, if only she had the chance. Ludo also encourages her to do one or two things she would never have contemplated doing in the past. For instance, in one of my favourite passages from the novel, Ludo invites Mrs Palfrey to share a simple dinner in his threadbare flat, an outing that brightens her evening considerably.

Mrs Palfrey is a melancholy story, and Taylor describes the loneliness and vulnerability of old age so well. In this scene, Mrs Palfrey decides to visit Ludo with the aim of delivering a jumper she has knitted for him. The fall, however, has left her feeling increasingly frail:

She realised that she never walked now without knowing what she was doing and concentrating upon it; once, walking had been like breathing, something unheeded. The disaster of being old was in not feeling safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of reach.

Her fall had deepened her uncertainty. And there was no husband to take her arm across a road, or protect her from indignity when she failed. I can have a little rest when I get there, she promised herself. And perhaps he will offer me a cup of tea. (pg. 73)

I find that quote very poignant, especially Mrs Palfrey’s wish for a little rest and a cup of tea when she arrives at Ludo’s flat. She longs for a few moments of relief and hospitality to break up her day.

By now, you’re probably thinking that Mrs Palfrey sounds like a rather sad book, which it is, certainly at times. Nevertheless, the book is also peppered with moments of humour – lighter notes that help to counterbalance the sadness. Taylor has a great ear for dialogue, and there are some priceless exchanges between various residents at the Claremont, especially after dinner. The novel also contains a marvellous set piece, a cocktail party given by a former guest at the hotel, Mrs de Salis, following her move to a new flat. The following passage captures Claremont resident Mrs Post’s memories of the party – Willie is Mrs de Salis’s much-trumpeted son, who ultimately fails to live up to his billing:

Mrs Post had lain quietly down and switched off the bedside lamp. Her head was like a magic-lantern into which slides were thrust noisily, one after the other. Mrs Darling of Peter Pan, opened and shut her mouth, but nothing came out of it – a pity, for Mrs Post had hoped to remember some of this conversation for her cousin; there had been sausages, she thought, certainly peanuts; Mrs Burton had sung loudly, rather disgracing them, but that was earlier on; Willie had rather disappointed.

‘I’m glad I went,’ she thought defiantly, ‘but I shouldn’t like to have to go again tomorrow.’ (pg. 162)

I don’t want to reveal anything else about the story, save to say that we follow Mrs Palfrey for the best part of a year. It’s a poignant, thought-provoking novel that prompts the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of old age. More specifically, the need to participate in life, the importance of small acts of kindness and the desire we all have to feel valued.

Taylor’s characters are nuanced and so finely observed that she makes us care about these people as if they were our relatives or friends. Our feelings for Mrs Palfrey are a given, and the seemingly insufferable Mr Osmond has a softer, more compassionate side too. Even Mrs Arbuthnot elicits some sympathy as her flashes of cruelty seem born out of frustration.

This is my first Elizabeth Taylor novel, and I definitely want to read more in the future (I’ve dabbled with her short stories, but it’s been a while). Her prose style is very precise and economical, she makes every word count. The writing is superb.


Finally, a few words about my edition, which comes with a rather staid and cosy cover. Please don’t let it put you off this book as the writing is certainly not sentimental or cosy, by any stretch of the imagination. This is a sharp and perceptive novel about a woman in the twilight of her life. Very highly recommended indeed.

Caroline (at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat), Ali (at Heavenali), Karen (at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Caroline (at book word) have also reviewed Mrs Palfrey.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 11/20 in my #TBR20.

Run River by Joan Didion (review)

Joan Didion was born and raised in Sacramento, a place that provides the setting for her debut novel Run River published in 1963.

The novel opens in the blistering heat of the summer of 1959. Shortly after midnight, Lily McClellan hears a gunshot outside her home, the ranch she shares with her husband, Everett, and two teenage children. At first she remains untroubled as if there was a sense of inevitability about the shooting. When she searches for her husband’s gun in the drawer of the bedside table, she finds it is missing; somehow she knew it wouldn’t be there.

Fifteen minutes later Lily finds Everett down by the river that runs past the McClellan ranch where he has shot and killed her lover, Ryder Channing. Everett had known that Lily was due to meet Channing by the dock that evening, but he got there before her.


Even in these early scenes there’s a sense of detachment, a feeling that captures something of the tone of Lily and Everett’s marriage. It’s almost as though they are observing rather than participating in their own lives:

Now that it was done, now that Channing lay dead between the river and where they stood, it seemed to Everett that none of them, least of all Lily, could have been involved: that all of them, he, Lily, and Channing, had simply been spectators at something that happened a long time ago to several other people. (pg. 19)

This could have been a book about the aftermath of the shooting. Instead though we move back in time, and the majority of the novel focuses on the story of Lily and Everett’s relationship from 1938 to 1959. Lily has been studying at Berkeley for a year when Everett shows an interest in her. A shy and uncertain seventeen-year-old, Lily has struggled to form any meaningful relationships at college and seems reluctant to return. She falls in with Everett as it seems like the easy thing to do. Their families come from similar stock: both own and run agricultural ranches in Sacramento; both are descended from pioneers who made their way to California in the 19th century.

Lily agrees to marry Everett, but she seems reluctant to announce their engagement. In the end, Everett drives her to Reno and they marry in secret, another scene that hints at Lily’s sense of detachment from what is happening in her life:

The ceremony was witnessed by the wife and son of the justice: the son pulled on blue jeans, the fly open, over his maroon-striped pajamas; the wife, roused unwillingly but dutiful, smiled drowsily and patted Lily’s hair. Not quite eighteen, Lily had the distinct impression throughout the ceremony that her lie about her age would render the marriage invalid, nullify the entire affair, no tears, nothing irrevocable, only a polite misunderstanding among good acquaintances. (pg. 66)

The couple return to the McClellan ranch in Sacramento to live with Everett’s father, but despite the arrival of two children, Lily feels isolated in her marriage. She has no real friends to speak of, only Everett’s somewhat flighty sister, Martha, and her attempts to host luncheons and social gatherings seem to lack any sparkle. There is something very fragile about Lily, almost as if she might snap in two at the slightest touch. I felt sad for her, especially when I read the following passage:

Well, she had at least given Everett what he wanted. Even Martha could scarcely have given him two children. But she could not escape the uneasy certainty that she had done so herself only by way of some intricate deception, that her entire life with Everett was an improvisation dependent upon cues she might one day fail to hear, characterizations she might at any time forget. (pg. 94)

At this point, I should tell you a little about Everett’s younger sister, Martha. She is very protective of her relationship with Everett, perhaps unhealthily so. It’s as if she believes that no other woman would ever be good enough for Everett, and if she can’t have him then no one else will:

“You’ve got no right to my brother,” Martha whispered, standing up unsteadily. “No right.” (pg. 119)

Martha is somewhat unstable, self-interested and prone to drinking and bouts of depression. (She reminds me a little of Cassandra Edwards from Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding, a novel that made my end-of-year list in 2014.) When Everett enlists in the war, Martha arrives at the train station where she takes centre stage gatecrashing Lily and Everett’s final moments together. Martha appears wearing a dirty raincoat over her nightgown; it’s a scene that captures the nature of her character:

Martha shrugged and got out of the car. “All right, you’re not a bit strong. It’s your act, Lily baby, you play it any way you want. Anyway,” she added, “you’re strong enough to make people take care of you.”

Even if Lily had been able to think what to say it would have been too late: Martha was already running up the walk, her hands over her face, running and stumbling on the lace hem of the pale blue nightgown, last year’s Christmas present from Everett, picked out by Lily, extravagantly expensive, handmade at Maison Mendessolle in the St. Francis Hotel. (pg. 104)

With Everett away, Lily begins an affair with one of her neighbours, Joe Templeton. She doesn’t love him though; it’s a relationship going nowhere, born out of a sense of loneliness in Lily’s marriage and Joe’s need for a break from his alcoholic wife. The affair ends in pain for Lily and Everett, but they remain together despite a lack of understanding of what they really want from each other.

Lily meets Ryder Channing through Martha – she and Channing ride out a turbulent relationship for the best part of five years. Everett dislikes him from the get-go. He sees Channing as a player; someone who could turn any situation to his advantage. Someone who has no business being around Martha. Channing is a figurehead for the new money flooding into California in the form of property investment and development. We know from the novel’s opening chapters that Lily has an affair with Channing, but I’ll leave it there to avoid revealing anything else about the plot.

I loved the melancholy tone of this story. There is a sense of things dying here: Lily and Everett’s relationship; the traditional rancher’s way of life; people die too. I can’t imagine it being set anywhere other than California. In some ways, it’s a lament for a period that has all but disappeared.

This is my first encounter with Didion, and I definitely want to read more of her work. Her prose is lucid and insightful. The book feels mature and assured for a debut novel – as if it’s been written by a more experienced author.

Didion captures Lily’s character perfectly: the feeling of isolation in her relationship with Everett; the sense that he doesn’t know how to connect with her; the feeling she is acting out a part. There is something elusive, possibly unknowable, about Everett’s character…deliberately so, I think.

I didn’t want this book to end; I wanted to stay with these characters and learn more about their lives. I’ll finish with a quote that seems to convey the disintegration that characterises the final stages of Lily and Everett’s relationship – during a brief trip to Salinas they stop at a hotel:

It did not seem to matter any more who had first resented whom, or for what. It did not seem to matter what either of them did any more: it could begin out of nothing. It could begin when they were trying hardest to keep it away, could tear apart all their tacit promises, could invade even the cunningly achieved anonymity of motel rooms with wall-to-wall tweed carpeting, rooms in which they had thought they might begin again; rooms in which she could feel, in the first glow of the first drink, that Everett was someone she did not know at all, someone to whom she might seem the gifted, graced, charmed woman she had wanted to be. (pp. 240-241)

Emma at Book Around the Corner has also reviewed Run River, and it was her excellent billet that prompted me read this book (number 10/20 in my #TBR20).

Run River is published by Vintage International. Source: personal copy.

How to be both by Ali Smith (review)

I bought Ali Smith’s latest novel, How to be both, back at the end of September with a view to reading it at Christmas. Time got the better of me over the holidays, but in a way I’m glad I had it for the dark days in January as it turned out to be a delight from start to finish.

How to be both, is divided into two parts, both titled ‘one’. The overall narrative consists of two interconnected stories: in one, we encounter a sixteen-year-old girl named George whose mother has recently died; in the other, we meet Francescho, a figure based on a real-life 15th-century Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa. The book has been published in such a way that brings an element of chance to the reading experience. Half the copies of How to be both have been printed with George’s section of the narrative first followed by Francescho’s, while in the remaining 50% of copies the order is reversed.


In my version of the novel, the narrative starts with George’s story. We join her on New Year’s Eve a few months after her mother’s sudden death from an acute allergic reaction. George lives with her father and younger brother, Henry, and it’s clear that each member of the family is finding it difficult to come to terms with their loss.

One of the things I like about Ali Smith is her ability to create young characters that are interesting and believable. George is no exception; she is smart, inquisitive, a stickler for grammar and thoroughly likeable with it. Through George, Smith perfectly captures the sense of loss and absence that follows the death of a parent. When a loved one dies they remain alive in our thoughts blurring the boundary between life and death. Consequently, George has to keep reminding herself that her mother is dead: ‘But I’m not, her mother says. Said. That was then. This is now […] Her mother’s now not anything.’

George’s story is full of memories of her mother, and central to this section is the account of a trip the pair take to Italy to see a piece of artwork in its natural state. This visit, prompted by a photo George’s mother has seen in an art magazine, forms the main link with the other section of Smith’s novel as the artwork in question is one of Francescho’s frescos.

Here’s George with her mother as they view the frescos in a Palazzo in Ferrara. The frescos are teeming with life, like ‘a giant comic strip’:

There are unicorns pulling a chariot here and lovers kissing there, and people with musical instruments here, people working up trees and in fields there. There are cherubs and garlands, crowds of people, women working at what looks like a loom up there, and down here there are eyes looking out of a black archway while people talk and do business and don’t notice the looking. (pg. 50, Hamish Hamilton)

That’s just a small extract from the wonderful description of these frescos.

As the weeks pass, George finds some comfort in the form of friendship with Helena, a girl from school who shares her budding interest in art as a form of expression. When tasked with a school assignment on empathy and sympathy, the two girls decide to capture it through the voice of Francesco del Cossa, the painter of the frescos George’s mother loved so much. It is entirely possible that the other section of the book, Francescho’s story, is a figment of George and Helena’s imagination. Nothing is clear though and Smith leaves this open to the interpretation of the reader.

As George’s section draws to a close, there are signs of hope. She begins to imagine a future, a vision of a summer where she finds her father happily going about his business instead of resorting to drink. In addition, there’s an intriguing link to del Cossa which acts as an introduction to the other half of the book.

Francescho’s story comes in the form of a first-person narrative, a voice I found utterly engaging from the start. Early in this section, we learn that Francescho is in fact female. When her father recognises young Francescho’s talent for drawing, he encourages her to adopt a male identity thereby enabling her to fulfil her desire to work as an artist.

During this half of the novel, we follow Francescho’s progress as she develops her trade. In time, she is appointed to paint three sections of fresco in a certain Palazzo, the one visited many years later by George and her mother. There is a playful, subversive note to Francescho’s art as she incorporates the faces of her family members and much-loved friends into these frescos. Furthermore, she cannot resist the occasional spot of political satire, an activity that provides another link to George’s story – before her death, George’s mother was an early pioneer of the Subvert movement, an underground group that used art as a form of political activism.

In an intriguing development to Francescho’s narrative, it would appear that her spirit has been sent to observe George in the present day, and these passages are threaded through the story of Francescho’s own life in 15th-century Italy. This might sound confusing and tricksy, but far from it. It all comes together beautifully.

As one might expect, Francescho finds certain aspects of 21st-century life rather baffling. That said, her observations are rather astute. Can you tell what she’s thinking about here?

…cause this place is full of people who have eyes and choose to see nothing, who all talk into their hands as they peripatate and all carry these votives, some of the size of a hand, some the size of a face or a whole head, dedicated to saints perhaps or holy folk, and they look or talk or pray to these tablets or icons all the while by holding them next to their heads or stroking them with fingers and staring only at them, signifying they must be heavy in their despairs to be so consistently looking away from their world and so devoted to their icons. (pgs. 229-230)

At first Francescho mistakes George for a boy and this play on gender provides another link between the two parts of this novel. Irrespective of her initial mistake, Francescho clearly senses that George is grieving for the loss of a loved one:

This boy I am sent for some reason to shadow knows a door he can’t pass through and what it tells me just to be near him is something akin to when you find the husk of a ladybird that has been trapped, killed and eaten by a spider, and what you thought on first sight was a charming thing, a colourful creature of the world going about its ways, is in reality a husk hollowed out and proof of the brutal leavings of life. (pg. 229)

If it’s not clear by now then I should say that I liked this book very much. Like its protagonists, it’s clever, brimming with ideas and yet it’s easy to engage with too. The writing is wonderful and Smith conveys much warmth and affection for these characters. I thoroughly enjoyed both parts, but I found Francescho’s voice especially captivating – her character comes with a language and syntax all of her own.

With a title like How to be both, it’s probably no surprise that duality is at the heart of this novel, and Smith uses this theme to create multiple connections between the two parts. I’ve already touched on the links between life and death and questions of gender, but there are other examples too. The frescos act as a metaphor for the story we can see on the surface and what might be revealed if we endeavour to dig a little deeper and look underneath. At various points the stories touch on the act of observation and surveillance: the observer and the observed; the act of seeing and being seen.

Finally, Smith’s love of art is plainly evident and the novel has something to say on our responses to art, how the form can evoke certain feelings and enrich our lives in various ways. I’ll finish with a quote on this theme as George considers one of Del Cossa’s paintings in a London art gallery:

Today what she sees is the way the rockscape on one side of the saint is broken, rubbly, as if not yet developed, and on the other side has transformed into buildings that are rather grand and fancy.

It is as if just passing from one side of the saint to the other will result if you go one way in wholeness and if you go the other in brokenness.

Both states are beautiful. (pg. 158)

Several other bloggers have reviewed this book including bookemstevo, Eric at Lonesome ReaderGemma at The Perfectionist Pen and anakatony at Tony’s Book World.

Francesco del Cossa’s frescos can be viewed in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.

How to be both is published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books. Source: personal copy. Book 8/20 in my #TBR20.

Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (book review)

In 1984, Jeanette Winterson wrote Oranges are not the Only Fruit, a semi-autobiographical novel in which she draws on elements from her own life; she was twenty-four at the time. I recall watching the 1990 TV adaptation with my mother – it screened shortly before she died – but it’s taken me far too long to get around to the book.


Oranges is narrated by Jeanette, a young girl living in a working-class family in the North of England. As the novel opens, we begin to get a sense of Jeanette’s world and the dominant role her adoptive mother plays in her life – there is a father, but he’s largely absent from the story. In the eyes of Jeanette’s mother, everything is either black or white, either good or evil. There are no shades of grey:

She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies (pg. 3, Vintage)

Jeanette’s mother is heavily involved, obsessed even, with the local Pentecostal church and is grooming young Jeanette for a future as a church missionary. The novel contains some brilliant observations on the mother’s determination to take every opportunity to do the Lord’s work, converting the heathen in the ‘Great Struggle between good and evil’, and how family life revolves around this quest:

We had a lot of Bible quizzes at church and my mother like me to win. If I knew the answer she asked me another, if I didn’t she got cross, but luckily not for long, because we had to listen to the World Service. It was always the same; we sat down on either side of the radiogram, she with her tea, me with a pad and pencil; in front of us, the Missionary Map. The faraway voice in the middle of the set gave news of activities, converts and problems. At the end there was an appeal for YOUR PRAYERS. I had to write it all down so that my mother could deliver her church report that night. She was the Missionary Secretary. The Missionary Report was a great trial to me because our mid-day meal depended on it. If it went well, no deaths and lots of converts, my mother cooked a joint. If the Godless had proved not only stubborn, but murderous, my mother spent the rest of the morning listening to the Jim Reeves Devotional Selection and we had to have boiled eggs and toast soldiers. (pg. 5)

At the beginning of the novel, Jeanette is aged seven, and not attending school as her mother considers it a ‘Breeding Ground’ – Jeanette doesn’t understand what this means, but she knows it sounds bad.

It’s not long though before the authorities are on to Jeanette’s mother, and our narrator is plunged into an unfamiliar environment, one that exposes the differences between Jeanette’s home life and the lives of her classmates. There’s a particularly painful scene where Jeanette is desperate to impress her teacher and class with her ‘What I Did in my Summer Holidays’ essay. The other kids’ essays are all the same – full of fishing trips, swimming and picnics – so Jeanette’s story of the church camp trip to Colwyn Bay cannot fail to impress, surely? But as Jeanette reads her essay aloud, her tale of preaching on the beach and the ‘Healing of the Sick crusade’ is greeted with silence, then giggles and a swift curtailment of events by her teacher. The young girl is puzzled; she knows something is going on, but doesn’t understand the reason for her classmates’ and teacher’s reactions.

A few weeks slip by, events at school continue in a similar vein. When the children are asked to design samplers in sewing class, most opt for birthday motifs or dedications to their mother: ‘TO MOTHER WITH LOVE.’ Jeanette, on the other hand, wants her design to reflect the prophets, something from Jeremiah: ‘THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED.’ And in black thread to boot.

Jeanette’s behaviour begins to affect her classmates, and a couple of the other mothers descend upon the school:

I did upset the children. Not intentionally, but effectively. Mrs Sparrow and Mrs Spencer came to school one day all fluffed up with rage; they came at playtime. I saw them with their handbags and hats, revolving up the concrete, lips pursed. Mrs Spencer had her gloves on. (pg. 39)

I love that quote, and it shows how effectively Winterson captures an image and mood in just a few lines. It’s all handbags-at-dawn, and small details such as Mrs Spencers’ gloves really add something to the scene.

Mrs Vole, the headmistress, tackles Jeanette about her preoccupation with God, accusing her of ‘talking about Hell to young minds.’

It was true. I couldn’t deny it. I had told all the others about the horrors of the demon and the fate of the damned. I had illustrated it by almost strangling Susan Hunt, but that was an accident, and I gave her all my cough sweets afterwards. (pg. 42)

But when Mrs Vole writes to Jeanette’s mother asking her to moderate the young girl, the mother is not in the least concerned. If anything, mother considers it a victory:

Mrs Vole kept her promise. She wrote to my mother, explaining my religious leanings, and asking my mother if she would moderate me. My mother hooted and took me to the cinema as a treat. They were showing The Ten Commandments […]

After that day, everyone at school avoided me. If it had not been for the conviction that I was right, I might have been very sad. As it was I just forgot about it, did my lessons as best I could, which wasn’t that well, and thought about our church. I told my mother how things were once.

‘We are called to be apart,’ she said. (pg 42)

The situation leaves Jeanette feeling exposed and lonely at school, and as the years pass she takes comfort in a couple of friendships. She develops a bond with Elsie Norris, a kind lady and fellow member of the church who keeps an eye out for Jeanette and plays with her when the young girl’s mother is absent or absorbed in the church. And then Jeanette meets Melanie, a girl who works on the local fish stall, and she realises her feelings for Melanie run deep:

She stroked my head for a long time, and then we hugged and it felt like drowning. Then I was frightened but couldn’t stop. There was something crawling in my belly. I had an octopus inside me. (pg. 86)

When Jeanette decides to confide in her mother by revealing her feelings for Melanie, she is surprised by her mother’s initial reaction – the woman nods, appears calm and seems to have understood the situation. But what follows is painful and terrifying for Jeanette as she is exposed to the full wrath of the church, an institution that considers the girls’ relationship an example of ‘unnatual passions.’

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit is a story with a number of themes. In one sense, it’s a coming-of-age novel, the story of a young girl trying to find her place in a world when she seems ‘different’ to many of her peers – different in terms of her religious upbringing and to some extent her sexuality, too. But the novel also explores how difficult it is for Jeanette to live up to the expectations of her mother, especially when these expectations are so extreme. How can she when her mother thinks the following?

It all seemed to hinge around the fact that I loved the wrong sort of people. Right sort of people in every respect except this one; romantic love for another woman was a sin. (pg. 125)

I absolutely loved Oranges; it’s so well written, absorbing and full of slightly wry humour, too. For some reason, I was expecting it to be quite bitter, full of anger and rage, but it isn’t at all. Winterson writes with a great deal compassion and humanity. I hadn’t expected it to be quite so funny, so much so that it had me laughing out loud on a few occasions. I’ll finish with an extract from one those moments, Pastor Finch and his demon bus:

The first time that Melanie came to our church was not a success. I’d forgotten that Pastor Finch was visiting on his regional tour. He arrived in an old Bedford van with the terrified damned painted on one side and the heavenly host printed on the other. On the back doors and front bonnet he’d inscribed in green lettering, HEAVEN OR HELL? IT’S YOUR CHOICE. He was very proud of the bus, and told of the many miracles worked inside and out. Inside had six seats, so that the choir could travel with him, leaving enough room for musical instruments and a large first-aid kit in case the demon combusted somebody.

‘What do you do about the flames?’ we asked.

‘I use an extinguisher,’ he explained.

We were very impressed. (pgs. 81-82)

It was Max’s review that prompted me to read Oranges, book 5/20 in my #TBR20.

Oranges are not the Only Fruit is published in the UK by Vintage. Source: personal copy.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (review)

Helle Helle is one of Denmark’s leading contemporary novelists, and This Should Be Written in the Present Tense (originally published in 2011) is the first of her books to be translated into English. It’s a strange novella. I wasn’t sure whether to review it at first, but in the end, something about it got under my skin.


The story is narrated by twenty-year-old Dorte, a student at Copenhagen University. At least that’s what she tells her family and acquaintances – she doesn’t seem to have many friends. Instead she spends her days drifting around Glumsø, the small town where she lives by the railway, or travelling to Copenhagen to wander the streets and shopping malls. Dorte lives by herself, and her existence is desperately quiet and isolated save for a few random off-beat encounters with the neighbours and passers-by:

I bought a roll and a cup of coffee at the bakery in the arcade. The place was expensive, but you could sit there as long as you liked and they didn’t charge for water. I sat right at the back against the wall. I got my book out and tried to read. After almost an hour I went to Scala. I went round the different floors, looking at jewellery and jeans, I took the escalator up to the cinema, but there was nothing on that I wanted to see. Before I went home I bought a melon in the Irma supermarket. I sat on a train with it in my canvas bag, looking out at the back garden and sheds and little houses. I thought about my own bungalow with the apple tree and no curtains. It was a very sad melon. I put it in the window in the kitchen, it stayed there until well into November. (pg. 44, Harvill Secker)

As the story unravels, we learn more about events in the past two or three years in this young girl’s life. At eighteen, while working as an au pair, Dorte drifts into a relationship with a boy called Per, ‘he didn’t know what to do with himself either.’ She ends up moving in with Per, the young couple sharing a new bedsit on the first floor of the family’s home. This isn’t the first time Dorte has left home though (and possibly not the last either) as Helle slips the following statement into the story:

It was the third time I’d left home. My mum and dad gave us a pewter mug as a moving-in present, but they never got the chance to see the place. (pg. 36)

This short passage is indicative of the author’s approach. This is a book where certain aspects of Dorte’s life are clear from the narrative, but so much of what’s actually happening here is implied or suggested that the reader must endeavour to fill in the gaps. A more distinct picture only comes into focus as we try to look beyond the words on the page, making connections between what Dorte is telling us and what we suspect is happening. For instance, by the time we reach the end of the following passage we have a pretty good sense of what has happened to Dorte. Elsewhere in the narrative, however, the text seems more oblique:

Per went with me to work and back again, he tickled me on the waterbed until I nearly fainted, he took his clothes off and put them back on again several times a day, went with me to the doctor’s when I got pregnant and on the bus to the hospital seven long days later, and on the way back that same afternoon he’s got me a present, a hair slide from a silversmith, made out of a spoon with a proper hallmark. I was so relieved and felt so much better despite the anaesthetic, we couldn’t stop laughing until the driver told us to be quiet. But then in the evening I had to go and lie down before dinner. Per told his parents I was feeling a bit off colour. (pg. 47)

Dorte’s relationship with Per doesn’t last. There’s a sense that she’s simply ‘waiting for it all to fall apart,’ and so she packs her suitcase and leaves – it seems like ‘the only thing to do.’ She slips in and out of relationships with a few other men. None of these attachments seem to be going anywhere. The only constant in Dorte’s life comes from the relationship with her aunt (who also happens to be called Dorte). Aunt Dorte has her own troubles, and when her backstory is revealed it feels like a punch to the guts.

Helle Helle’s prose strips everything back, and her matter-of-fact style matches the sparse nature of Dorte’s life – even her bungalow has little in the way of furniture, the windows lack curtains. There is a focus on the mundane, the directionless feel to Dorte’s life, and this approach may not appeal to every reader. It would be quite easy to give up on this book; I nearly abandoned it after 40 pages, but something about the sadness and isolation in Dorte’s life drew me in. She cries and has difficulty sleeping at night. I wondered if she was suffering from depression.

I read this novella several weeks ago, back in November in fact, and I’m still thinking about it. Gradually we discover that this girl is at a complete loss as to what to do with herself or how to move forward with life. There are moments when Dorte realises that she needs to take positive action, but she seems numbed by the reality of it all. I’ll finish with a quote that captures this feeling:

I painted my nails and decided I needed a new look and a new way of thinking and walking. I even thought I might put a piece together for a newspaper, I just didn’t know what about. There was nothing in particular I was good at, except perhaps writing lyrics for party songs, but I didn’t even do that any more. Instead I wrote a list of things I ought to see and do in Copenhagen. I was full of good ideas. For once, I fell asleep straight away, but then woke up again far too early. The front room looked like an explosion in a second-hand shop, and I’d got nail varnish on the lamp. I tidied up and got dressed. I was ready before six. I caught the five-past-nine. (pgs. 79-80)

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense (tr. by Martin Aitken) is published in the UK by Harvill Secker. Source: library copy.