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The Young Accomplice by Benjamin Wood   

It was the 1950s setting that first attracted me to Benjamin Wood’s, The Young Accomplice, an immersive, slow-burning tale of opportunity, idealism and the possibility of breaking free from the past. I’m often a little sceptical when contemporary authors try to recreate this era in their work, especially the dialogue and period detail. Luckily, there are no such problems here. The early 1950s brilliantly are evoked – from the stripped-back, smoke-laded pubs to the grubby underworld of petty crime, everything feels authentic and true. The Young Accomplice was my first book by Benjamin Wood, but it impressed me so much that I’ll definitely be checking out his backlist.

The novel is mostly set at Leventree, a Surrey-based farm where the idealistic architects Arthur and Florence Mayhood hope to develop a new practice along the lines of Frank Lloyd Wright’s collaborative programme at Taliesin. Their aim is to train a series of apprentices – disadvantaged youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds – to participate in their altruistic project. Arthur feels a particular kinship with these ideals, having spent time in a borstal as a teenager for unknowingly handling stolen goods; and with no children of their own, the Mayhoods are keen offer wayward youngsters a fresh start.

Enter Joyce and Charlie Savigear – siblings in their late teens – who win the Mayhoods’ drawing competition for borstal kids with an eye for design. 

The Savigears were not the scrawny pair she [Florence] was expecting. Standing half a yard from one another in the fug of their own cigarettes, they had the restful attitude of two navvies on a lunch break. (p. 24)

While Joyce (the elder of the two) is rather sly and outspoken, Charlie is much quieter – a diligent young man who seems eager to learn. He responds well to the expectations set by the Mayhoods, contributing to the farm labour alongside his architectural training. In truth, there is something of the young Arthur in Charlie Savigear, a gentleness combined with curiosity and determination, qualities that Florence detects and hopes to nurture.

But as he [Charlie] stood there by his doorway, thick-browed, restful, waiting for an answer to his invitation, he looked so much like Arthur in his youth that she could feel the strangest dislocation from herself. He had the same involuntary pout, the same relentless motion to his eyes, as though observant of particulars that only he could see. And his carriage: borstal-trained into uprightness, yet so languid and serene. (p. 76)

Right from the start, the novel is imbued with a noticeable sense of unease, a feeling accentuated by the fact that Joyce and Charlie appear to have won their places at Leventree independently and on their own merits, despite hailing from different borstals. While the Mayhoods are too trusting for their own good, Hollis, the seasoned farmhand, soon gets the measure of the two youngsters, Joyce in particular. Hollis swiftly tapes her as crafty operator – smart enough to put on an act in front of her benefactors but quick to slacken off when left unsupervised.

The honest-grafter act was for the Mayhoods’ benefit. But when they weren’t around to watch her, it was whingeing and sarcasm all the way. He knew that it was going to be like this, week after week, one petty incident after the next. It would be her word they favoured over his, whenever there were sulks or quarrels. In their minds, she was still young, a work in progress, someone worth their kindness and investment. (pp. 94–95)

Nevertheless, as the narrative unfolds, a different side to Joyce begins to emerge. Woven through the text are flashbacks to past events as the Savigears’ paths to borstal are carefully revealed. Here we see a sixteen-year-old Joyce being groomed by Mal Duggan, a vicious petty criminal with a line in stolen cars. When Mal offers Joyce an escape from a life of drudgery, serving fussy customers at a dreary Maidstone store, she is quick to jump, lured by the prospect of excitement and a flat to call her own.

They’d met when she was sixteen, on a dreary afternoon in Maidstone, middle of the week. She’d been on lunch break, smoking round the back of E. H. Lacey’s store, and he’d been sitting in a Daimler parked up in the alley, blocking the goods entrance with his bonnet. Her first thought had been: Fancy motor. Must be rich, this fella. She hadn’t given much consideration to the way he looked, all slouched, and rumple-shirted, messing with the dial on the radio. (p. 137)

Naturally, Mal expects payback in return for the girl’s upkeep, forcing Joyce to act as a go-between with his usual fences. It’s a deeply troubling situation, a sexually abusive relationship where Mal holds all the cards.

He’d had her spinning like a pony on a carousel from the beginning, and she hadn’t even heard the music playing. (p. 146)

Charlie, for his sins, also gets embroiled in Mal’s stolen car racket through no fault of his own – a development that ultimately lands both Savigears in borstal.

Back at Leventree, the Savigears’ past begins to catch up with them with the sinister reappearance of Mal, adding to the novel’s underlying air of menace. As Joyce tries desperately to keep Mal’s return a secret – not even Charlie knows that he’s back on the scene – we begin to understand that her bravado is a front. A sort of defence mechanism against the fear of repeating past mistakes. In truth, Joyce is terrified of being sucked back into Mal’s criminal activities, complete with all the attendant risks this presents – not only to herself but to Charlie as well.

As the novel reaches its eventful denouement, we wonder if the Mayhoods’ belief in the Savigears will be rewarded. Charlie clearly has the potential to go far with the right training, but will Joyce’s actions scupper his chances once again? Only time will tell…

Wood has created an excellent novel here, one that hums with a slow-burning tension as the story plays out. The four central characters are brilliantly drawn with a genuine sense of richness, and the architectural practices are also convincingly portrayed. Wood has clearly done his research, covering everything from the preferred cigarettes and toiletries brands of the 1950s to the traditional framing practices of the day. It’s a graceful, slow-burning novel that gradually reveals its hand, rewarding patient readers for their time and investment. Very highly recommended indeed.

The Young Accomplice is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.

Crook O’ Lune by E. C. R. Lorac

In recent years, the British Library has been doing a sterling job with its reissues of various vintage mysteries by the English crime writer Edith Caroline Rivett. While many of these novels were written under Rivett’s main pen name E. C. R. Lorac, others were published in the guise of Carol Carnac – including the excellent Crossed Skis, a fabulous winter holiday read.

Crook O’ Lune (aka Shepherd’s Crook) is another splendid addition to the list, an absorbing slow-burn mystery with an excellent sense of place. The setting is the fictional farming community of High Gimmerdale, which Lorac based on the parish of Roeburndale in the Lancashire fells, an area she knew very well. It also features her regular detective, Chief Inspector Macdonald, who continues to impress with his sharp mind, likeable manner and thorough investigative skills.

With an eye on his future retirement plans, Macdonald is staying with friends in Lancashire’s Lune Valley while he searches for a small dairy farm to buy. During the trip, an investigation with links to the past arises, and Macdonald gets drawn in…

Gilbert Woolfall, a middle-aged businessman from Leeds, has recently inherited Aikengill, a remote farmhouse in the local area. While Gilbert has always been a town man, he finds himself increasingly tempted by the prospect of making Aikengill his home, especially given the beauty of the local area. Moreover, the property has been in the Woolfall family for centuries and was lovingly refurbished by the previous owner, Gilbert’s Uncle Thomas; so, the emotional pull of the property’s heritage is proving difficult for Gilbert to resist.

But with the other half of his mind he [Gilbert] was aware that something deep down inside him responded to the remoteness and serenity of the place, something tugged at him, told him he belonged here, as his forefathers had done and that if he sold that ancient house which Uncle Thomas had left him in his will, he’d know for the rest of his life he’d made a mistake, as well as lost an opportunity. (pp. 18–19)

Nevertheless, before finalising his decision, Gilbert is keen to work through his late uncle’s vast store of papers on the Woolfall family history. Who knows what he might discover as he continues to dig?

While Gilbert is mulling things over, Lorac introduces a few other interested parties – each with an eye on the new owner’s decision, one way or another. First up, there’s Betty Fell, a strapping lass from a family of local farmers. Betty hopes to marry her young man, Jock Shearling, a local farmhand, but the prospect of living with either set of parents is not particularly appealing. So, she asks Gilbert if she and Jock can stay in a wing of the house and look after the place in his absence. In effect, Betty would act as Aikengill’s housekeeper while Jock could look after the land.

Then there’s the Rector, the disagreeable Simon Tupper, who seems to think Gilbert’s uncle should have left the Church some money in his will. Gilbert knows of some suspicions regarding the Church’s misallocation of a previous stipend – a provision for a perpetual curate in the area, originally dating back to the Woolfalls’ ancestors in the 17th century. This ‘hocus-pocus’ about the grant appears to be the reason for the lack of any Church bequest in Uncle Thomas’s will. Finally, there’s Daniel Herdwick, owner of the neighbouring farm. He wishes to buy Aikengill as he already has grazing rights to the estate’s land.

Gilbert is minded to take up Betty Fell’s offer to take care of the place while he decides what to do long term. He knows it might take a year or two to make a final decision, and the house will need looking after in his absence – especially as the current housekeeper, Mrs Ramsden, is moving to Dent to take care of her cousin. However, before any plans can be finalised, a tragedy occurs. A fire breaks out in the Aikengill cellar, destroying the contents of the property’s study and killing Mrs Ramsden – possibly unintentionally, as the house was presumed to have been unoccupied on the night in question.  

Naturally, Chief Inspector Macdonald gets involved in the case – firstly as a consultant to the local police and subsequently on a more formal basis. The ensuing investigations take Macdonald through the hills and dales of the fells, giving Lorac ample opportunities to showcase her skills in capturing the beauty of the local area. What makes this story particularly engaging is how beautifully Lorac portrays the farming community and the local landscape. She writes lovingly about the details of day-to-day rural life, the rhythms of working the land, and the blend of beauty and ruggedness in the terrain.

It was a glorious spring evening, the sun still gilding the crests of the high fells, though the valley was already in shadows. At first, the steep narrow road ran between hedgerows in which the first blackthorn was spreading a mist of white, and the willow catkins were blobs of gold, but after a couple of miles the hedgerows gave way to dry-stone walls, the arable land dropped behind, and the road rose even more steeply to the open fellside. (p. 16)

The narrative is punctuated by some lovely descriptions of the Lancashire landscape, and Lorac’s knowledge of the practicalities of sheep farming also comes through, giving the story a strong sense of authenticity. (The Aikengill mystery is further complicated by the apparent theft of some sheep from Herdwick’s flock – a series of incidents that may or may not be connected to the fire) The post-war atmosphere, complete with shortages and black-market trading, is also nicely evoked.

Another area where Lorac excels is the characterisation. In Macdonald, Lorac has created a character with a deep understanding of country folk, particularly their strong sense of community and suspicion of strangers. The number of key players/suspects is relatively small, and Lorac fleshes them out beautifully through a combination of dialogue, behaviours and descriptive passages. As this mystery is a slow burner, we get to know the characters really well, despite a few obligatory red herrings here and there.

Moreover, the solution is not overly complex or convoluted. Much of it rests on Uncle Thomas’s investigations into the Woolfall family history, some of which seem tantalisingly out of reach for the reader. (If you’re someone who likes to spot the clues and piece everything together yourself before the investigator reveals all, you might be a little frustrated with this one. I’m not sure there’s enough here to actually solve the puzzle in full without a little more info on Uncle Thomas’s papers.) Nevertheless, when the solution is finally laid out, it feels entirely plausible and in keeping with the novel’s tenor – so, no complaints on that front from me.

In summary then, this is a very absorbing mystery with a well-developed set of characters and a marvellous sense of place. Another winner from E. C. R. Lorac, one of the stars of the British Library Crime Classics series – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Winter in the Air by Sylvia Townsend Warner  

It was the evocative title that first drew me to Winter in the Air, a shimmering collection of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories, recently published by Faber & Faber. Many of these pieces first appeared in the New Yorker between the late 1930s and mid-‘50s, and it’s fascinating to read them together here. When viewed as a whole, the collection paints a compelling picture of middle-class life in the mid-20th century, replete with individuals buffeted by the fallout of war with all its attendant losses. Here is a world of abandoned wives and widowed mothers, of bitterness and melancholy, all portrayed in Warner’s wonderfully lucid prose. There’s also something rather subversive about this collection, too – a sinister tone that inhabits some of these pieces, giving these stories a macabre or surreal edge.

As ever with short story collections, I’m not planning to cover every story in detail; instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole. Luckily there are some real standouts here, well worth the entry price alone.

The collection starts strongly with the titular story, in which a woman has returned to London after several years in the country. I love how Warner illustrates the difference between these two environments through her descriptions of charladies, neatly capturing the gossipy nature of village life.

A London charwoman does her work, takes her money and goes away, sterile as the wind of the desert. She does not spongily, greedily, absorb your concerns, study your nose to see if you have been crying again, count the greying hairs of your head, proffer sympathetic sighs and vacuum pauses and then hurry off to wring herself out, spongily, all over the village, with news of what’s going on between those two at Pond House. (pp. 1–2)

As the woman reflects on recent events, it becomes clear that she has been supplanted by her husband’s lover, forcing the move to London, which she handles with equanimity. Just like the furniture she must now fit into her city flat, the woman knows she will soon settle into this new arrangement. The silence of the room will not be intimidating for long…

A broken marriage also plays a central role in Hee-Haw!, another excellent story with a chilly, melancholy air. In this tale, a woman returns to the village where she once lived with her former husband, Ludovick, a successful painter who has since passed away. Their marriage was a turbulent one, ultimately lasting for three tumultuous years.  

In a whisk, in a glancing blow of recognition, she had seen it again, the place where she had lived for three years—in turmoil, in rapture, in drudgery, in fury, in the bitter patience of disillusionment; there, at the close of those three years, she had her last quarrel with Ludovick and walked for the last time down the steep path. (p. 13)

The woman is staying at the village pub where some of Ludovick’s work is on display – and during this visit, a local man starts telling her about the artist, not realising they used to be married to one another. Perhaps unsurprisingly, certain details about Ludovick’s colourful love life are revealed, accentuating the woman’s resentment of her philandering former husband.

In Idenborough – one of my favourite stories in the collection – an impromptu visit to a village near Oxford prompts memories of a long-forgotten love affair, a fleeting relationship that lasted little more than a day. The central protagonist here is Amabel, a middle-aged woman who is now married to her second husband, Winter (her first, Thomas, having died during the war). Again, this is an excellent story, beautifully told.

…and [Amabal] remembered how, earlier in the day, Winter had praised her for her sincerity. But now it was too late. Deceit must accumulate on deceit, and with her second husband she would visit Idenborough, where she had cuckolded her first one. (p. 197)

Other, more surprising relationships also feature here. In Evan – another highlight – Warner gives us a chance encounter on a train, the kind of set-up that feels ripe with possibility. A teenage schoolboy on the cusp of adulthood gets chatting with the only other traveller in his compartment, a woman returning from a spell in the country. Despite their lives being poles apart, an easy conversation quickly develops between the pair as the journey progresses. However, when the woman must change trains to catch her connection, something passes between the two of them – a spark of attraction charged with tension as the time comes to part. It’s a lovely story – surprising, evocative and lightly sketched – tinged with a touch of longing for the relationship to develop.

Nestling among these quietly compelling stories are sharper, more sinister pieces, shot through with an air of menace or a whiff of eccentricity. In A Priestess of Delphi, the brutal murder of a woman raises the threat of blackmail for a former lover from the victim’s distant past. As the protagonist – a writer named Charlton – embarks on a journey to recover his old love letters to the murdered woman, Warner gives her story a rather unsettling edge.  

Tossing and swaying, the newly leaved ash trees in the hedgerows looked hysterically green. It seemed a landscape fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils, and, for that matter, murders. (p. 50)

If anything, Under New Management is even more unnerving, a subtle tale of malevolence in a seedy post-war setting. The story revolves around Miss St John, a longstanding resident at the Peacock Hotel. When the establishment changes hands, Miss St John is not entirely happy with certain developments. The new owners, Mr and Mrs Fry, start encroaching on the spinster’s territory, shunting her into a small sitting room to give the seasonal guests the full run of the lounge. Moreover, Miss St John soon finds herself at the mercy of the Frys’ adult son, Dennis, who proceeds to regale her with horrifying accounts of brutal crimes from the newspapers. Nevertheless, Warner’s protagonist is made of stern stuff, a quality that ultimately sees her through. This superb story finishes with a suitably ironic twist while also showcasing the author’s flair for darkly comic character descriptions – Mr and Mrs Fry being a prime case in point!

Mrs Fry was of the type known as bright. She walked briskly, she smiled often, her head was always bound up in a bright-patterned scarf, and from under the scarf jutted two careful tinted curls whose position never varied by a hair’s-breadth from day to day (pp. 93–94)

Striking pen portraits also feature prominently in A Funeral at Clovie, as a man drives his cousin’s widow to her estranged husband’s funeral. The woman in question is Veronica, who is dressed ‘as though for a religious Ascot’, complete with a white cloak and sombrero, all topped off with ‘a sky-blue enamel cross’.   

No wonder she’s dressed up like a bride for her husband’s funeral, thought Archie. The whited sepulchre! Probably the next one will be some Bishop or other, and she’ll marry him in pink. (p. 209)

Other highlights include Shadwell, a brilliant story of a loyal servant who finds an ingenious way to supplement her meagre income, and Absolom My Son, an excellent story of a writer who discovers his work has been plagiarised by another author (now deceased). This is another tale with a surprising twist or two as it moves towards the end.  

So, all in all, this excellent collection of stories ticks several boxes for me, from the evocative mid-20th century settings to Warner’s beautiful, evocative prose. There’s some lovely descriptive writing here, especially in the author’s portrayal of the English landscape, the trees heavy with autumn foliage and inlets of green moss, ‘hot velvet in the sun, cold as ermine in the shade’. Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is Warner’s command of the contrasts in tone, the flashes of malevolence and malice lurking in these tales of seemingly gentile ladies and the respectable middle classes. A terrific collection of pieces with much to recommend it – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

A Touch of Mistletoe by Barbara Comyns

I’ve come to love Barbara Comyns over the past few years, a true English eccentric with a very particular style. Her novels have a strange, slightly off-kilter feel, frequently blending surreal imagery and touches of dark, deadpan humour with the harsh realities of life. There’s often a sadness to them too, a sense of poignancy or melancholy running through the text. First published in 1967, A Touch of Mistletoe is very much in this vein. Like some of Comyns’ earlier fiction, it feels semi-autobiographical in nature, rich in episodes and scenes that seem inspired by real-life experiences.

The novel is narrated by Victoria Green, who we follow from adolescence in the 1920s to middle age in the late ‘50s. In some respects, one could describe it as a sort of coming-of-age story as the narrative subtly explores the choices many single women faced in the mid-20th century. More specifically, Comyns gently probes the question of whether it is better to marry for love or financial security and companionship – not an easy decision for a single woman to have to make, especially when money is tight.

Right from the very start, Comyns draws on a couple of her favourite elements; firstly, by introducing two innocent children caught up in the trials of a dysfunctional family, and secondly by conveying their story in a disarming, matter-of-fact voice.

Following the death of their father, Victoria and her younger sister, Blanche, are educated by a string of hopeless governesses while their elder brother, Edward, attends school. The children’s mother is an alcoholic, alternating between sustained bouts of drinking and feverish spells of cleaning, much to the sisters’ confusion.

‘I’m afraid my daughter-in-law is poorly’ or ‘Your mother isn’t quite herself today, poorly, you know’ were words that frequently crossed his [Victoria’s grandfather’s] lips, and when we children heard the word ‘poorly’ applied to anyone who was ill, perhaps an innocent child suffering with measles, we took it for granted that they had been drinking bottles of port or sherry. (pp. 3–4)

By eighteen, Victoria is ready to flee the nest, keen to travel and pursue her interest in art. Following a traumatic spell working as a dog-handler-cum-skivvy for a dreadful woman in Amsterdam, Victoria finds herself in London, staying at a girls’ hostel near Baker Street; joining her there is Blanche, who is also eager for life to begin. The narrative mostly follows Victoria, although there are glimpses into Blanche’s life too. While Victoria inherits enough money from her grandfather to fund her first term at art school, Blanche hopes to pick up work as a mannequin or an artist’s model – cue various close shaves with seedy, unscrupulous men!

In time, the girls move to a bedsit near Mornington Crescent, where they try to survive on as little as possible. It’s a gloomy, bohemian environment, with meals mostly consisting of stale eggs, bread, cheap cheese, and cocoa without milk. Food must be heated over a candle or eaten cold, particularly if there are no spare shillings for the meter. But as ever with Comyns, these scenes of poverty are touchingly evoked. 

We did our shopping in Camden Town on Saturday afternoons. Although we were not as poor as we were to become later on, we had to shop very carefully. We used to buy grim little oranges for two a penny, which must have been dyed because the inside the peel was almost the same colour as the outside, and there were broken biscuits that only cost 4d. a pound, and cut-price sweetshops and grocer’s shops that had prices chalked all over the windows. (pp. 99–100)

The fortunes of both girls wax and wane over the years as various choices shape their lives, sometimes for the better, other times for the worse. Victoria goes through a string of jobs at small commercial agencies and animation studios, occasionally illustrating children’s books or other projects on the side to gain a little more income. Naturally, there are relationships too, with Blanche initially marrying a Captain for comfort and financial security while her sister is more interested in finding love. Sadly, Victoria’s first husband, Gene (a fellow artist whom she loves dearly), is plagued by significant mental health issues – a combination of schizophrenia and severe depression that blights the couple’s marriage following the birth of their son, Paul. Shortly after being admitted to hospital for treatment, Gene dies, leaving Victoria to grieve his loss.

Meanwhile, Blanche’s marriage is annulled due to non-consummation, leaving her free to marry again, this time more successfully for love and security. Her second husband, John, is a kind, older man with a good career in the forces – enough for them to start a family together.

More relationships also follow for Victoria – perhaps most notably marriage to Tony, a successful writer who falls prey to the ill effects of drink, particularly when he completes a book. Consequently, Victoria’s world is evocatively portrayed, illustrating the highs and lows of married life with a man addicted to drink.

He [Tony] hated these people when he was sober; but, when he had been drinking, he’d bring a taxi-load home and expect me to give them what he called a ‘dormitory feast’, and after the feast, they would spend the rest of the night on the drawing-room floor until Marcella swept them out in the early morning. They left with books under their arms and silver ashtrays in their pockets and the lavatories were often filthy. I thought they were like the mistletoe that Gene had feared so much and hoped it wasn’t starting to grow on me. (p. 243)

Having grown accustomed to her mother’s drinking as a child, Victoria considers her husband’s condition a sadness or illness that descends on some individuals, just as schizophrenia used to land on Gene. In time, however, the couple’s relationship breaks down, leaving Victoria at risk of being preyed on by boring men, ‘the hopeless kind that goggle at you through thick spectacles and talk about sex or their mothers’ all the time.

The narrative also touches on WW2 with powerful descriptions of the devastation caused by flying bombs, leaving homes and buildings ripped apart, exposing the contents within. Nevertheless, despite the tragedy of the situation, Comyns lightens the tone now and again, casting her eye on the surreal and absurd with those wonderful details she so expertly invokes.

An old woman was fined for feeding ducks on a public pond and a light-hearted girl in the provinces was sent to prison for flashing a torch in boys’ faces. Once I told a man at a party that my grocer occasionally let me have extra butter and he said that I was sinking ships. He was so angry that his eyes became crossed and I hurriedly left. Later I discovered that this man who thought I was sinking ships used to buy black-market petrol from dustmen who siphoned it out from their petrol tanks. Then there were people who loved to queue; they joined any old queue that was going. (p. 260)

As the novel draws to a close, we find the two sisters reunited, reflecting on the cards that life has dealt them. Victoria’s son, Paul, is all grown up, studying art at Camberwell college, newly married with a young baby and promising prospects of his own. Blanche’s children are also ploughing their own furrows while their parents are still together, content with their lives in middle age. Meanwhile, there are new opportunities on the horizon for Victoria as she looks to the future.

In terms of style and subject matter, Mistletoe feels quite similar to Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, another novel that explores the choices open to women at this time. Interestingly, both books draw much of their power from the tone of voice Comyns employs – a childlike, matter-of-fact delivery that really adds to their appeal. Despite Mistletoes dark themes – poverty, alcoholism, mental illness, and abortion – there’s a lightness of touch in Comyns’ writing, the flashes of deadpan humour fitting beautifully within the context of the story. In summary then, a sensitive portrayal of a life touched by mistletoe – another brilliant novel by one of my favourite women writers.

A Touch of Mistletoe is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson Carr

I’ve had slightly mixed experiences with Carr’s mysteries in the past, but this is a good one!

First published in Britain in 1942, The Seat of the Scornful combines an intriguing mystery with some different interpretations of what constitutes justice. Central to the story is the formidable judge, Justice Horace Ireton, a man who enjoys playing ‘cat-and-mouse’ with the accused, sometimes allowing a convicted criminal to stew in their own juice before approving a stay of execution. As his colleague Fred Barlow observes:

“…He [Justice Ireton] doesn’t care twopence about the law. What he is interested in is administering absolute, impartial justice as he sees it.” (p. 23)

The judge would like his daughter, twenty-one-year-old Constance, to marry Barlow, an affable barrister with good career prospects. Constance, however, has other ideas. Much to her father’s displeasure, Constance has fallen for Tony Morell, a charismatic entrepreneur with a rather shady past.

He [Morell] was one of those self-consciously virile types which are associated with the Southern European; the sort of man who, as Jane Tennant once put it, always makes a woman feel that he is breathing down the back of her neck. (pp. 19-20)

When the couple announce their intention to marry, Judge Ireton offers Morrell a sizeable amount of money to disappear without a word to Constance about their agreement. At first, Morell appears to accept the offer. But after returning to the judge’s bungalow the following evening to collect his payment, Morrell is found dead in highly suspicious circumstances, a scenario that clearly implicates Justice Ireton as the murderer.

Before long, Dr Gideon Fell, who happens to play chess with Ireton, is called in to assist the police with their investigations – and what appears to be a relatively simple case soon throws up some very interesting complications. As it turns out, several people connected to the judge were in the area at the time of the murder. In fact, the room where Morell’s body was found was easily accessible through some open French windows – the very opposite of a ‘locked room’!

As the mystery unfolds and we learn more about the other potential suspects, the judge’s views on justice and the law become increasingly relevant. Can motivations or extenuating circumstances ever justify such a serious crime? And is circumstantial evidence ever sufficient to establish guilt? These questions and more are explored through Carr’s cleverly constructed mystery.

The characterisation is particularly good here, with Carr’s portrayal of Justice Ireton feeling authentic and believable. Constance Ireton is well-drawn too, a rather headstrong girl with a capacity for flighty emotions. Similarly, Carr does well to create some compelling supporting players, most notably Fred Barlow and Constance’s friend Jane Tennant, who also find themselves drawn into the investigations.

The solution, when it comes, feels a bit convoluted with a couple of last-minute twists that will likely divide opinion. Nevertheless, this thoroughly enjoyable mystery keeps the reader guessing right to the very end!

The Seat of the Scornful is published by the British Library as part of their Crime Classics series; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The London Train by Tessa Hadley

There is a touch of Brief Encounter about The London Train, Tessa Hadley’s 2011 novel featuring two parallel narratives that ultimately come together and connect. In one sense, this wonderfully subtle book can be viewed as an exploration of the fault lines and emotional disconnects in two seemingly stable marriages. Moreover, the story also highlights how these fissures can be exposed by random events, from the sudden disappearance of a daughter to a chance encounter on a train.

Structurally, the book is divided into two sections that initially appear to be separate novellas: The London Train and Only Children. However, by the time the reader reaches the midpoint of the second section, the connection between these beautifully constructed narratives becomes clear.

The first story revolves around Paul, a middle-aged writer and reviewer who lives in Wales with his second wife, Elise, a successful restorer of antiques, and their two young children, Becky and Joni. From an early stage, Hadley hints at an air of restlessness or lack of fulfilment surrounding Paul. Having recently lost his mother, Paul is haunted by dreams of his childhood, gnawing away at the guilt he feels over his infrequent visits before her death. While Elise and the girls provide Paul with a comfortable, loving home environment, he occasionally wishes that his life were more spontaneous and free-spirited – a little like that of his bohemian friend Gerald, a part-time University tutor, who seems to get by on a combination of humous, Scotch eggs and weed. Moreover, an ongoing dispute with his neighbour – the deliberatively obstructive farmer Willis – is a further source of agitation for Paul and Elise.

The story really gets going when Paul’s eldest daughter – nineteen-year-old Pia, from his earlier marriage to Annelies – goes missing from her London home. When Paul tracks Pia down, he discovers she is pregnant and living with the child’s father, a Polish man named Marek, in a squalid flat near King’s Cross. At first, it is unclear whether Marek is a conman, an entrepreneur, or a fantasist, with his dreams of setting up an import-export business for Polish delicatessen goods. Nevertheless, there is something magnetic about this quietly authoritative man and his sister, the equally compelling Anna. Consequently, Paul finds himself getting drawn into their world – to the point where he temporarily leaves Elise after a furious row to camp out with Pia and Marek in their claustrophobic flat.

As soon as Marek and Anna were in the flat, Paul saw that Anna was a force just as her brother was, and that Pia had been drawn to both of them, not just the man. Both moved with quick, contemptuous energy, crowding the place; Paul recognised that they were powerful, even if he wasn’t sure he liked them, and couldn’t understand yet what their link was to his daughter, or whether it was safe for her. (pp. 67–68).

In essence, the combination of tensions Paul is experiencing – his worries over the stability of Pia’s future with Marek; the guilt he feels about neglecting his mother; the ongoing row with Willis; and his underlying sense of restlessness – conspire to expose the fault lines in his relationship with Elise. Several differences between the couple rise to the surface, from the contrasts in their family backgrounds and social class to their current values and attitudes to life, prompting a kind of mid-life crisis for Paul as he starts to feel the pull of Anna.

Hadley’s second story focuses on thirty-something Cora, who has recently left her older husband, Robert, a rather stuffy and emotionally detached Civil Servant, high up in the Home Office. Cora is now living in Cardiff, having lovingly renovated her parents’ house following their deaths; and while her new role as a librarian is not particularly demanding, she enjoys the lack of stress after several years as an English teacher.

At heart, Cora keeps her feelings under wraps, finding it hard to confide in her closest friend, Frankie, who also happens to be Robert’s sister. While Robert tries to persuade Cora to return to London, she is content to remain in Wales, enjoying her freedom and a new-found air of self-possession. As far as Cora sees things, Robert appears to view their marriage as a kind of ‘contract or a piece of legislation’, not a living, breathing relationship driven by deep emotions.

Nothing could shake his [Robert’s] hierarchy of importance, where work was a fixed outer form, inside which personal things must find their place. Once, she had gloried in cutting herself to the right shape to fit it. (p. 172).

As you’ve probably guessed by now, these two stories come together when Paul and Cora meet by chance on the Cardiff-to-London train. An attraction gradually develops as they chat during the journey, culminating in an arrangement to meet again the next time Cora is in Cardiff. Before long, the pair are embroiled in a passionate affair, which feels especially liberating for Cora, given the sense of loneliness surrounding her marriage to Robert.  

Their relations were asymmetrical. She was the completed thing he wanted, and had got – he had seen her whole that very first time on the train, her strong particular stamp of personality written for him to read, clear as a hieroglyph; whereas she was absorbed in his life as it streamed forward, lost in him, not able to know everything he was. She couldn’t have imagined, in her old self, the pleasure to be had in such abandonment (p. 264)

I think I’ll leave it there in terms of the plot, save to say that Hadley plays with the timings of various events, moving smoothly from one timeline to another to weave her stories together.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is Hadley’s ability to create a strong connection between the reader and her central characters, especially Cora, whose inner life is portrayed with just the right degree of intimacy. In both stories, we see how seemingly stable marriages can be eroded over the years by small failings and disappointments, highlighting these characters’ relatable flaws and shortcomings.

Hadley also successfully draws out various parallels and connections between the two stories without the underlying themes ever feeling overworked. For instance, both Cora and Paul are separated from their respective partners – possibly temporarily or maybe more permanently. Both are grieving a parent with no siblings to share their grief or sense of loss. Both are at pivotal points in their lives when their choices are likely to have significant ramifications for themselves and others.

Running alongside the central theme of the fragility of marital relationships are various related areas, including coping with a family bereavement, female desire and self-possession, and the balance between freedom and domestic responsibility. There’s also a discernible undercurrent of unease about key social and political issues, ranging from the damaging effects of climate change to the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, especially those earmarked for deportation. In his Home Office role, Robert is under investigation for a major fire at an immigration removal centre, with a formal inquiry due to reach a critical point. Once again, Hadley demonstrates subtlety in her treatment of these topics, conveying her perspective in a thoughtful and compelling way.

Robert’s fire, however, had been at one of the new purpose-built centres: brick buildings on brownfield sites, as blandly featureless from the outside as mail-order depots or units on an industrial estate. […] this modern apparatus for punishment stood lightly and provisionally in the landscape, like so many husks, or ugly litter. The appearance of the buildings, Cora thought, was part of the pretence that what was processed inside them was nothing so awful or contaminating as flesh and blood. The buildings made possible the dry husks of language in the reports that Robert read, and wrote. (p. 191).

In summary then, The London Train is an exquisitely written novel on the messy business of middle-class life and the vulnerability of seemingly stable relationships. Yet, by the end of this richly textured book, there is a sense of optimism for the future, the possibility of reconnections, new beginnings, and a deeper understanding as the dust settles on these characters’ lives. Highly recommended for lovers of character-driven fiction with a focus on interiority.

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

I always enjoy returning to the comforting world of Barbara Pym, populated as it is by ‘excellent’, well-meaning women, idiosyncratic Anglican clergymen and somewhat fusty academics. It’s a place that seems both mildly absurd and oddly believable, full of the sharply-observed details that Pym captures so well. First published in 1958, A Glass of Blessings is another lovely addition to this author’s body of work, a charming novel of mild flirtations and misunderstandings.

Blessings is narrated by Wilmet Forsyth, a well-dressed, attractive woman in her early thirties, comfortably married to the dependable but rather dull Rodney, a civil servant at the Ministry. Having met in Italy during the war when Wilmet was in the Wrens and Rodney in the Army, the couple now live quite amiably with Sybil, Rodney’s amiable mother, in a well-heeled London suburb.

With Rodney out at work all day and Sybil busy with her charitable work, Wilmet is rather at a loss for something to do. Rodney doesn’t want his wife to work as his salary provides more than enough for them to live comfortably at the family home. And in any case, Wilmet doesn’t appear to have trained for any roles – why should she with a solid husband to take care of her? So, instead, Wilmet spins out her days on a combination of bits and pieces, attending evening classes in Portuguese with Sybil, lunching with various friends and spending time with the priests at her local parish.

As is often the case with Pym, there are few, if any, dramatic plot developments here. Instead, Pym focuses on the characters and the interactions they have with one another over the course of the story. For a woman in her early thirties, Wilmet has led a somewhat sheltered existence – there were no lovers before Rodney, she has no children and few close friends to speak of, and her social circle is relatively narrow. So when Piers Longridge – the brother of her closest friend, Rowena – starts paying Wilmet some attention, she looks forward to a little mild flirtation…

I got into the train in a kind of daze. As it lurched on from station to station I gave myself up to a happy dream in which I went to look after Piers when he was ill or depressed or just had a hangover. And yet, had that been what I meant when I had made my offer to him? Not an offer, exactly. But if not an offer, then what? I felt that Piers really needed me as few people did. Certainly not Rodney, I told myself, justifying my foolish indulgence. Piers needed love and understanding, perhaps already he was happier because of knowing me. When I had reached this conclusion I felt contented and peaceful, and leaned back in my seat, smiling to myself. (pp. 174–175)

Wilmet, it seems, is not terribly good at reading other people and picking up on their signals – a failing that leads to disappointment when she finally meets Piers’ flatmate. (I’ll leave you to discover the wonderful irony of that moment for yourself, should you decide to read the book!)

It seemed as if life had been going on around me without my knowing it, in the disconcerting way that it sometimes does, like the traffic swirling past when one is standing on an island in the middle of the road. (p. 248)

Pym is a keen observer of human nature, and the novel is full of the gentle humour that Pym excels in. Mr Bason, the new housekeeper at the local parish, is a great source of amusement, passing judgement on his employers and their tastes in food and furnishings at every given opportunity. Bason is one of those wonderful Pym creations – a slightly camp, gossipy man with a penchant for objects of beauty but little time for those who fail to appreciate either his interests or his culinary talents. In particular, he takes pleasure in ‘borrowing’ Father Thames’ treasured Fabergé egg, much to Wilmet’s horror during a chance encounter at the grocer’s…

Would Mr Bason go on talking about the Fabergé egg? I wondered. And was it my duty to say something to him? Surely not here, among the All-Bran, the Grapenuts, the Puffed Wheat, the Rice Krispies and the Frosted Flakes?

‘Father Bode will have his cornflakes,’ said Mr Bason, seizing a giant packet of Kellogg’s. ‘Of course Father Thames has a continental breakfast, coffee and croissants.’

‘My husband likes Grapenuts,’ I found myself saying feebly. Then, gathering strength, I asked, ‘And what do you have? An egg?’ (p. 193)

There’s also an interesting subplot involving Mary Beamish, a steady young woman who Wilmet initially dismisses as rather dull.

Mary Beamish was the kind of person who always made me feel particularly useless – she was so very much immersed in good works, so splendid, everyone said. She was about my own age, but smaller and rather dowdily dressed, presumably because she had neither the wish nor the ability to make the most of herself. (p. 17)

Nevertheless, as Wilmet learns more about the needs and lives of those around her, she becomes more sympathetic to Mary’s situation, showing a different side to her character than we see at first. Moreover, there’s a lovely hint of irony to their friendship, so while Wilmer is busy dreaming of a flirtation with Piers (and possibly the attractive Assistant Priest, Father Ransome, too), Mary is quietly getting on with a little romance of her own!

As ever with Pym, the dialogue is witty and charming, highlighting each character’s foibles and quirks – her talent for gentle social comedy is second to none. Interestingly, there are hints of a more bohemian world opening up than in earlier Pym novels as we begin to see the transition from a traditional, conservative world to a more liberal society. Piers and his circle of friends are the main embodiment of modernity here, but there are other little touches too, especially in Sybil’s relationship with Professor Root, a frequent caller at the Forsyth house.

Finally, for fans of Pym’s earlier novels, there are various cameo appearances and mentions of characters from these books, including Prudence Bates (from Jane and Prudence), Archdeacon Hoccleve (from Some Tame Gazelle) and the dashing Rocky Napier from Excellent Women). I couldn’t help but laugh at the idea that both Wilmet and Rowena had crushes on Rocky Napier – presumably from their days as Wrens when they encountered Rocky in Italy. 

‘Oh this weather,’ Rowena sighed, pulling off her pale yellow gloves. ‘It makes one so unsettled. One ought to be in Venice with a lover!’

‘Of course,’ I agreed. ‘Whom would you choose?’

There was a pause, then we both burst out simultaneously, ‘Rocky Napier!’ and dissolved into helpless giggles. (p. 159)

In summary, then, A Glass of Blessings is another delightful novel by the inimitable Barbara Pym. As the story draws to a close, Wilmet’s husband, Rodney, also confesses to a harmless flirtation of his own. Nevertheless, the book ends on a contented note with few worries about the couple’s future together. Wilmet, in particular, has a better understanding of those around her, enriching the various relationships she has formed in her affable social circle.     

A Glass of Blessings is published by Virago Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. Max has also written about this one, and you can read his thoughtful review here.

Post After Post-Mortem by E. C. R. Lorac

Over the past few years, the British Library has been doing a splendid job in reissuing various vintage mysteries by the English writer Edith Caroline Rivett – mostly under her main pen name E. C. R. Lorac, but also the excellent Crossed Skis, which Rivett wrote as Carol Carnac. First published in 1936, Post After Post-Mortem is another very enjoyable addition to the list – an intriguing, complex mystery with a psychological edge.

Central to this novel are the Surrays, a highly successful family of intellectuals from Oxfordshire. Each of the five Surray children is a high achiever in their chosen field, from the eldest, Richard, the brilliant psychiatrist, to the youngest, Naomi, who has just been awarded a First in Classics. The middle daughter, Ruth – a critically-acclaimed writer – is as prolific as the other Surrays, with several books under her belt. Having just completed her latest manuscript, Ruth is thinking of taking a little break from the stresses and strains of a literary life. So, when a family birthday prompts the Surray clan to gather at their Oxfordshire home of Upwood, Ruth decides to stay with her parents once the gathering is over.

Richard, however, is a little worried about Ruth’s mental well-being, having spotted the signs of potential trouble ahead. As such, he is hoping that Ruth will accompany their mother, Mrs Surray, on a walking holiday in Europe. However, before their plans can be finalised, there is a literary gathering at Upwood – an event that turns to tragedy when Ruth is found dead in her bed the following morning.

At first, the cause of death appears to be a clear case of suicide. A box of sleeping tablets is found on Ruth’s bedside table, along with a suicide note and a newly altered will (signed but not witnessed). It seems that Ruth had been under significant strain before her death, and Richard is especially keen to avoid any additional distress for the family through undue speculation about the circumstances. After all, what’s the point in delving into Ruth’s past history or her state of mind in the weeks leading up to the tragedy when the cause of death seems so unequivocal?

Richard Surray’s one desire at that moment was the instinct of a physician to prevent the spread of a deadly disease. He feared desperately that other lives might be involved in this web of emotional confusion, as he foresaw fresh misery—for his mother and father and sister—if certain possibilities were made public, were dragged into the searchlight of popular curiosity… (p. 58)

With no other pertinent information emerging at the Inquest, the Coroner concludes that Ruth died from an overdose of barbiturates, noting a verdict of suicide in the records. Case closed, or so it seems. However, when Richard returns to his rooms in Bloomsbury, he finds a letter from Ruth, posted on the night of her death, in which she appears quite jolly and upbeat, full of grand plans for the week ahead. Hardly the kind of note that someone would have written had they been on the verge of taking their own life.

After some soul searching and wrestling with his conscience, Richard decides to show the letter to a trusted acquaintance, Chief Inspector Macdonald, a familiar figure to regular readers of Lorac’s mysteries. Naturally, when Macdonald sees the letter, his suspicions are aroused, and in time he is officially appointed as lead detective in the case…

“…You [Richard] argue—quite rightly, to my thinking—that something happened to her [Ruth] after she had written that letter to you. It might have been something which altered her whole outlook, and caused her to commit suicide. It might be something totally different which alters the entire case, so that the verdict of suicide is no longer tenable. One thing is certain—the evidence produced [at the Inquest] was incomplete and consequently misleading. It has to be reconsidered.”  (p. 80)

The deeper Macdonald delves into Ruth’s life and movements before her death, the more he feels that vital information is being withheld, most notably by various members of the Surray family. On the one hand, it could be argued that Richard is trying to protect his mother, Mrs Surray, from further distress; but on the other, he (or another member of the family) might be concealing something for more sinister reasons.

She [Mrs Surray] had resented the Chief Inspector’s presence and the reiteration of those questions which she had answered already, and she resented the implication of his presence that there was more to be told than had been told. Trying to keep a firm hand on nerves that were beginning to torture her, she admitted that Macdonald was considerate and courteous and capable—and in spite of it she hated him, and unfortunately she had let him see it. (p. 122)

As Macdonald’s investigations proceed, it becomes clear that Ruth had fallen for the rather unsuitable Keith Brandon in the months before her death. Brandon – an explorer and serial womaniser at heart – had subsequently turned his attention to Ruth’s younger sister, Naomi, now conveniently out of the picture in the Hebrides. Did this spurning of affection for Brandon prompt Ruth to commit suicide, or was she killed deliberately – either by Brandon or by another player in the mix?

Suspicion also falls on the attendees at the literary party at Upwood on the night of the tragedy. Ruth’s publisher, Vernon Montague, stood to gain from her death, having been named as her literary executor in the freshly-altered will. Also in attendance at the event were Geoffrey Stanwood, a humble novelist whose work Ruth had been championing after a chance discovery, and Charlton Fellowes, a young essayist whom she had not previously met. Interestingly, Naomi was also staying at Upwood over the weekend in question, although not present at the literary gathering itself.

As this slow-burning mystery unfolds, further sinister events occur, including a fire, two poisonings and an ‘accident’ involving two of the potential suspects, giving Macdonald plenty to get his teeth into. As ever with Lorac’s Macdonald mysteries, we see plenty of dogged policework in the investigations; and while the Chief Inspector shows as much understanding and compassion towards the Surray family as possible, he never allows these considerations to distract from uncovering the truth.

Interestingly, there’s quite a strong focus on characterisation in this one. We learn more about Ruth as the mystery unfolds – a reticent, highly-strung woman who had hidden quite a lot of herself from the world, despite her career as a prolific writer. Richard, too, comes in for quite a lot of scrutiny, especially as his motives for the suppression of key information are explored. He seems to think that brilliant, intellectual women are more fragile and prone to living on their nerves than their male counterparts – a view that tips into sexism at times. 

There are also some interesting asides about the ethics of the posthumous publication of a writer’s unfinished works, to the point where I began wonder if Lorac was conveying some of her own views on the subject through Ruth’s thoughts and actions.

All in all, then, a very solid, leisurely mystery with some interesting characters and motivations at its heart. The solution, when it comes, is quite an intriguing one, albeit a little obscure – not something I would have worked out for myself without Macdonald’s explanation, but technically possible nonetheless!

Post After Post-Mortem is published by the British Library; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Dandelions by Thea Lenarduzzi

In 2020, the Italian-born editor and writer Thea Lenarduzzi won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize with her proposal for Dandelions, a gorgeous, meditative blend of family memoir, political and socioeconomic history, and personal reflections on migration between Italy and the UK. The book has now been published in full, and it’s a thoroughly captivating read. Elegant, thoughtful and exquisitely written, Dandelions spans four generations of Lenarduzzi’s family, partly crafted from discussions between Thea and her paternal grandmother, Dirce (aka ‘Nonna’). This beautiful meditation touches on so many of my favourite themes – family stories, memory, identity, belonging, migration, displacement, loss, grief, language and regional culture – all set against the fascinating backdrop of a time of great sociopolitical change.

The book begins with one of Thea’s prevailing images of Nonna, picking dandelions to accompany the family’s dinner – bobbing and weaving “between the flowers’ perky heads, dotted like asterisks on a densely annotated page.” The setting is 1950s Manchester – home to Dirce, her husband Leo, their two children, Manlio and John, and Dirce’s mother, Novella. From this springboard, the book moves backwards and forwards in time – and between Italy and England – threading together various stories and vignettes that span the 20th century. In doing so, a multilayered portrayal of Thea’s family emerges, placed in the context of Italy’s sociopolitical history and economic challenges.

The dandelion motif, which we see in these opening passages, recurs throughout the book as a metaphor for several aspects of the family’s story – from the way the seeds travel from one place to another, aided by the wind, to the plant’s ability to take root and grow pretty much anywhere, irrespective of circumstances. There’s also a sense of time passing through the generations, with each seed being a descendent of the ‘parent’ flower and the beginnings of the one to come. (The prose is superb throughout.)

Each seed, white and wandering, is a ghost of the flower that once was, and an apparition of the flower to come, looking for a place of rest. (p. 15)

The dandelion’s tenacious nature and its role in healing and medicine are significant too, adding further layers to the plant’s relevance as a title for the book.

Natalia Ginzburg’s novel-cum-memoir Family Lexicon is clearly a touchstone for Thea – a text in which well-worn tales and phrases become triggers for specific memories, passed through the generations entwined with identity.

Experience becomes language becomes story becomes identity… (p. 13)

Central to Dandelions are the various stories of migration (some successful, others less so) – many featuring Dirce, now ninety-five and living in Campagna, Italy. So, it’s rather appropriate that the name ‘Dirce’ has two roots: ‘cleft’ and ‘dual’, especially for a woman who feels she has lived two lives – one in Italy, the other in England.

We hear of Leo’s persistent and touching courtship of young Dirce, initially frowned upon by Novella, and the couple’s marriage and move from Italy to England in the early 1950s, mostly for its opportunities. Then there are Dirce’s jobs as a seamstress, which Thea captures as a series of trends, from ‘the quick-fire cushion-cover years’ to ‘the little-goes-a-long way hot pants years’.

Hardship is a vital part of the narrative, too – money is scarce, and Dirce’s health suffers due to overwork, poor diet and stress. A breakdown prompts a three-month recovery in Italy, but Dirce returns a new woman, ready to face the challenges ahead.

During their time in England, the family experiences the same things again and again: love, gaiety, acts of kindness, trust, superstition, hope, disappointment, homesickness, loss, hardship, prejudice, anxiety and fear. While the context and magnitude vary, the underlying emotions remain the same. And as Thea sets these stories alongside one another, we begin to see how they link together, forming a richly-textured portrait of family life.

In 1971, Leo, Dirce and their adopted daughter, Lucia, move back to Italy, prompted by Leo’s desire to build a house in his homeland in Campagna, much to Dirce’s initial reluctance. Nevertheless, there’s a lovely vignette here, a story of Leo returning to Dirce’s old house in Maniago to take cuttings from her father’s old grapevines – now wild but still strong. An intermingling of the families and generations duly results.

He [Leo] will plant these old vines among the new ones, alongside the roses and the dandelions, and, in time, create a blend that belongs to this family alone – the taste of two families, in fact, with all their stories combined – nurtured by the soil and the air he knows they have always belonged in, really. (p. 166)

Significant time is also devoted to Dirce’s parents, Angelo and Novella, and their move from the family’s home in Maniago Libero in Friuli, north-eastern Italy, to Manchester and Sheffield when Friuli’s steel industry died away. One of the things Dandelions captures so well is how the process of delving into her family’s past raises further crucial questions for Thea to consider.

When he [Angelo] took his young family to England in 1935, did he feel like things were opening up, getting better, or did he feel cornered, as if the choice to go were only an illusion? Did he tell his wife Novella that everything was going to be fine – you’ll see – and did he believe it himself? […] Did he feel in control of his own situation? (p. 81)

Moreover, given the political situation in Italy and the need for people to toe the line, Thea wonders whether Angelo harboured any fascist sympathies. There is no direct evidence to indicate so, and Dirce is careful to brush any suggestions aside. But if this were the case, would Thea still wish to tell his story and associate it so closely with her own? 

The book also touches on Dirce’s grief for the loss of her father, who died shortly after the move to England, prompting Novella’s return to Friuli with the remaining family. Dirce was nine when her father, Angelo, passed away in 1935 – a life-changing event that led to subsequent losses as her childhood and the chance of a proper education slipped away.

The one person Dirce is reluctant to discuss is her mother, Novella, whose legacy still casts a discernible shadow some forty years after her death.

In the story Nonna tells about her own life, Novella is less a person than the aftermath of a person, more atmosphere than flesh and blood. She is absence accumulated to form a presence. (p. 183)

Through little glimpses here and there, Novella emerges a woman who bore grievances and misfortunes very heavily, primed to see the worst in people and situations in place of virtues and light.

She wore calamities like rosettes and regularly presented them to her daughter one by one, each narrated with vivid feeling as though the events had just occurred. (pp. 191-192)

The story of Thea’s parents, and their move from England to Italy in the early ‘80s, is beautifully told. By comparison to those of the previous two generations, it’s a journey of relative ease, excitement and contentment – more optimistic and brighter in tone.

Thea also writes movingly of her own fractured sense of belonging, her dual citizenship and ‘hyphenated identity’ – not quite English enough to call herself English but not Italian enough for the opposite to apply either. Consequently, she ‘feels’ different in each country, which manifests itself in her everyday behaviour.

Emigration splits the individual, too. I am a different version of myself in Italy to the one I am in England. I’m not sure how discernible it is to others, but I feel it in my bones, in my skin, in the way I hold myself and speak to people. In Italy, I am quieter, more timid and awkward. (p. 94)

As Dandelions draws to a close, Thea comes to a realisation about her family and their stories – and perhaps, her reasons for embarking on this quest. It feels like a fitting place for me to finish my account of a book I absolutely adored. A beguiling combination of the personal and sociopolitical – and the stories we tell to live.

I thought, in short, that my dead needed me to remember them and tell their stories, to try to work out who they were and what challenges they faced. Really, it is I who needs them. (p. 281)

Dandelions is published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

Latecomers by Anita Brookner

The English writer and art historian Anita Brookner is well known for her exquisitely-crafted novels of loneliness and isolation, typically featuring unmarried women living quiet, unfulfilling lives while waiting for their married lovers to make fleeting appearances. Latecomers – Brookner’s eighth – is somewhat different from the norm as it features two male protagonists, Hartmann and Fibich, who come to England as Jewish refugees via the Kindertransport evacuation in WW2. It’s a remarkably moving book, right up there with Brooker’s best, and a certainty for my 2022 highlights.

Having met at a Surrey boarding school where they bonded through a shared history, Hartmann and Fibich enjoy a close friendship that lasts for life. In a sense, they are like brothers, sharing an adolescence, a successful business relationship and many aspects of their adult lives – even their flats are situated together in the same apartment block.

Although the two friends rarely think alike on any subject, their personalities complement one another perfectly – a genuine case of how opposites can attract. While Hartman is optimistic, content, and at ease with his life, Fibich is anxious, melancholy and self-effacing, a demeanour that prevents him from enjoying the fruits of their success. As such, Fibich’s life is marked by deep-rooted anxiety, a detachment or isolation from those around him. (Interestingly, one manifestation of these differences surfaces in the friends’ attitudes to food. Hartman adores fine cuisine, the sensual pleasures of different tastes and experiences, while Fibich finds it different to tolerate anything rich – plain, simple dishes are all he can manage, with the occasional rush of sugar to prevent a collapse.)

Both men are latecomers, having escaped Nazi Germany, an experience that has shaped their lives in remarkably different ways. So, while Hartmann lives in the moment, relishing life’s little pleasures in all their elegance and voluptuousness, Fibich is burdened by the weight of history. In short, Fibich yearns for insights into those early years in Berlin – only then might he be able to establish a true sense of his own identity and hopefully find some kind of peace.

Essentially, the book follows these two men over their adult lives, tracing this unwavering friendship through their business partnership, respective marriages and the growth of their children, all set against the backdrop of the spectre of war. 

The novel’s success rests almost entirely on the strength of its characterisation, an area where Brookner excels. The bond between the protagonists is beautifully portrayed – two very different men who coexist through an unspoken bond of mutual comfort and support, despite their individual habits and schools of thought. 

What sets Brookner apart from many other writers is her depth of characterisation. She invests such care and attention to detail in the creation of these figures, thereby ensuring they appear fully painted on the page. From the details of their present and past lives to their mannerisms, values and idiosyncrasies, everything she imparts adds another facet, building up each character, layer by layer.

Hartmann’s wife, Yvette – whom he first encounters as an ineffective typist in the firm – is particularly interesting in this respect. A glamorous, well-groomed woman with a voluptuous figure, Yvette shares Hartmann’s passion for life – another person who lives in the moment, even if her attitudes are somewhat out of step with the progressive world.

She liked a bustle about her, thought women should be provocative, demanding, narcissistic, as if anything less spelled failure, unpopularity, spinsterishness. She had no time for the new woman, with her bold sexist demands, thinking that such women forfeited too much and made fools of themselves into the bargain. She herself preferred the idea of winning concessions from men, and saw no shame in doing so… (p. 122)

I love the following descriptions of Yvette as a young woman in the first flushes of youth – partly for their vibrancy and chutzpah, and partly for Brookner’s insight into character. No wonder Hartmann is seduced!

When she had first started work, in the far off days when she was in her early twenties, she had always managed to give the impression that she was chairing the committee of a charity ball. She bestowed her activity, rather than letting it be harnessed to anyone else’s needs, or even to the needs of the occasion. (p. 16)

The working day was too short, it seemed to him [Hartmann], to contain the enigma and the fascination of Yvette. After remarkably little hesitation, and with a shrug at his own weakness, he married her. (p. 19)

Fibich, for his part, also finds a likeminded soulmate in the shape of Christine, a quiet, unassuming girl – a niece by marriage to Fibich’s Aunt Marie, whom Fibich stays with on his arrival from Germany. Like Fibich, Christine has been denied a childhood of her own, largely abandoned by an indifferent father to the care of his second wife, the grasping Mrs Hardy. Naturally, Fibich and Christine gravitate towards one another over time, encouraged by Hartmann, who is keen to see his friend settled. Nevertheless, despite Fibich’s luck in finding Christine, the past continues to gnaw away at him, fuelling a sense of guilt and unease – a kind of homesickness for somewhere unknown.

He knew that he could have married no one else. He knew that he loved her. Yet he also knew, in an unrealized way, that his true life lay elsewhere, that it remained undiscovered, that his task was to reclaim it, to repossess it, and that for as long as it remained hidden from him he would be a sleepwalker, doomed to pass through a life designed for him by others, with no place he recognized as home. (p. 128)

The couples’ respective children are fascinating too, not least because one might wonder if they were switched at birth.

Hartmann and Yvette’s daughter, Marianne, is a quiet, well-behaved girl who shares her mother’s beauty and sense of style but not her appetite for life. Personality-wise, she is perfectly suited to Fibich and Christine, who love her like their own. While Hartmann also adores Marianne, Yvette tries to encourage the girl to be more sociable in the hope of attracting a dashing suitor. In the end, Marianne’s marriage to Roger – a dependable but dull man from Hartmann’s firm – proves a disappointment to both parents, sucking all the life out of Marianne through a devotion to motherhood.

Meanwhile, Fibich and Christine must grapple with Toto, their troublesome, unruly son, who seems utterly alien to them – only Yvette can tame him in childhood, mostly through their shared desire to be admired and the centre of attention. In essence, Toto colludes with Yvette’s ‘need for an audience’, spurning Christine’s attempts to control him and Fibich’s unconditional love. By early adulthood, Toto’s personality seems set in stone – a dashing heartbreaker who favours superficial attachments over deeper involvement with a trail of broken hearts in his wake.

At twenty, at twenty-one, Toto saw the world as a vast medley of surfaces on which he might imprint his mark. (p. 92)

In truth, Fibich suspects Toto of despising his (Fibich’s) weaknesses, accentuated by the inherent anxieties that continue to hound him. If only Fibich could summon up a more visceral response, something that Toto could recognise and respond to. 

The best gift that he [Fibich] could have conferred on Toto would have been, oddly enough, an equal form of contempt, masking an amusement or superior experience. In that way respect could have grown. (p. 80)

As the novel nears its denouement, Fibich feels the pull of a return to Berlin, which he hopes will furnish some gaps in his understanding of those early years, helping to assuage a sense of survivor’s guilt. Hartmann, in his wisdom, is against the trip but will support his friend to the hilt in whatever he should discover there.

In summary, Latecomers is a superb novel – a beautiful, profoundly moving exploration of how we live (or try to come to terms) with past traumas. Brookner is adept at illustrating how some of us can successfully break free from the weight of history, choosing to live in the moment while savouring the time we have left. By contrast, the novel highlights just how challenging this can be in practice, especially for someone of Fibich’s demeanour, coloured by a memory that eventually resurfaces. Another triumph from Anita Brookner, whose insights into human nature never fail to impress me.