Tag Archives: UK

The Home by Penelope Mortimer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They by Kay Dick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tea is So Intoxicating by Mary Essex

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

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

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

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

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam

This is a really lovely book, a thoroughly engaging coming-of-age story in the style of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, maybe with a hint of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle in the mix for good measure. Set in a coastal town in North Yorkshire in the early years of the Second World War, Verona is narrated by Jessica Vye, a precocious schoolgirl with an utterly captivating voice.

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

As the novel unfolds, we follow Jessica as she tries to navigate her way through adolescence, negotiating various formative experiences along the way. What Gardam does so well here is to capture the conflicting emotions of being a teen, from the surety of knowing one’s own mind to the agony of being misunderstood and not fitting in. A wonderful novel with an undercurrent of darkness, especially towards the end.

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977, at the height of Pym’s well-documented renaissance, Quartet in Autumn is a quietly poignant novel of loneliness, ageing and the passing of time – how sometimes we can feel left behind as the world changes around us. (Now that I’ve read it twice, I think it might be my favourite Pym!)

The story follows four work colleagues in their sixties – Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman – as they deal with retirement from their roles as clerical workers in a London office. While that might not sound terribly exciting as a premise, Pym brings some lovely touches of gentle humour to this bittersweet gem, showing us that life can still offer new possibilities in the autumn of our years.

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

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

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

Jill by Philip Larkin

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

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

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

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

Small Worlds by Caleb Azumah Nelson

A couple of years ago, I read and loved Open Water, the debut novel by the British-Ghanaian writer and photographer Caleb Azumah Nelson. It’s a beautiful, lyrical book – at once both a tender love story and a searing insight into what it feels like to be young, black and male in South London. There’s more of that gorgeous, lyrical writing in Small Worlds, a tender, beautifully-crafted story of love, family, music, dance, food, identity, belonging and grief. But perhaps most importantly of all, it’s a book about the small worlds we create for ourselves that help us navigate the larger, more uncertain one around us, the spaces where we can feel beautiful and free.

Second novels can be tricky to pull off, especially when a critically-acclaimed debut sets such a high bar for the books that follow. Nevertheless, fans of Open Water can rest easy at this point. Small Worlds more than lives up to the promise of Azumah Nelson’s debut; if anything, I think it feels more ‘together’ if that makes sense, more accomplished and assured.

The novel follows the narrator, a young British-Ghanaian man named Stephen, over three consecutive summers, each of which feels pivotal to his personal development. At eighteen, Stephen is on the cusp of young adulthood, that time when the world seems full of possibilities, when everything is still ahead of him, and the future seems both exciting and uncertain.

As the first summer unfolds, we see Stephen edging closer to Del, a girl he has been friends with for years, the two teenagers sharing a deep love of music and the communal language it creates. Azumah Nelson perfectly captures the uncertainties of young love, that strange sense of being in limbo when you don’t quite know how the other person feels about you, even though you seem sure of your feelings for them. Nevertheless, as the days and weeks pass, the pair become lovers, only to be separated in the autumn as their paths diverge. While Del stays in London to study music at university, Stephen must settle for a business course in Nottingham when he fails to get the grades to follow Del.

By the second summer, Stephen has dropped out of uni, having struggled with loneliness and depression during the separation from his family and Del, the small worlds where he could express himself and be free. Much to his father’s disappointment, Stephen is working at a local restaurant, learning his craft from the supportive owner, Femi, who takes time to pass on his culinary knowledge and skills.

Having split acrimoniously from Del the previous autumn, Stephen slips into a brief fling with Annie, whose family also hails from Ghana. With Annie, Stephen starts to feel open again, experiencing a kind of freedom he hasn’t felt for nearly a year. But despite their ease with one another, the mutual language and rhythms they share, the relationship ends when Annie leaves to go travelling to explore her family’s roots. Nevertheless, before this second summer is out, there is another surprise in store for Stephen when he bumps into Del, rekindling mutual feelings of love and the heady days of the past.

The third summer sees Stephen trying to rebuild the fractured relationship with his father while also dealing with losing a loved one and the emptiness this creates. In a flashback to the 1980s, we follow Stephen’s parents as they travel to England in search of a better life, only to find that opportunities are few and far between in London, especially for people of colour. It’s probably the most moving section of the book, especially for those of us that have experienced profound loss and grief.

Azumah Nelson has crafted a truly gorgeous novel here, a touching exploration of love in its various forms and manifestations. There’s the love between friends and how these emotions deepen when friends become lovers; the love between parents and children and other family members; and the love we have for the various cultural bonds that unite us – for instance, a mutual love of music, dance or food, each of which creates its own language and shared sense of experience.

I also love how Azumah Nelson uses repetition throughout the novel, circling back to specific concepts, phrases or gestures which act as emotional touchstones as Stephen’s story unfolds. In some instances, certain words or actions are repeated (e.g. a hand brushing against a partner’s hand or the way light falls on someone’s neck); while in others, there’s a variation in emphasis, like a riff on a familiar theme. It’s a technique that ties in so well with the novel’s sense of poetry and musicality, creating echoes and reverberations that deepen the emotional resonances for the reader.

A great example of this is the relationship between remembering and forgetting. At times, we want to forget things because they feel painful (e.g. ‘Right now, I don’t want to remember. I only want to forget’), while at other times, the emphasis shifts to remembering because we want something to endure (e.g. ‘Sure you’ll remember me?’ […] ‘How could I forget’). Other themes that Azumah Nelson continues to revisit include: the link between solitude and loneliness, which ultimately feeds depression; the sense of feeling trapped between a desire to cry and the inability to do so; and the need to ‘lean into’ life’s uncertainties, especially to access new possibilities.

Azumah Nelson also excels at portraying the most fleeting of moments with genuine tenderness and grace – a palm resting on a lover’s chest or a hand grazing another hand as two people edge closer to one another.

Moreover, the novel is shot through with a deep love of music, dance and food. In many respects, Stephen only knows himself through music – both his connection with the trumpet, which he plays, sometimes jamming with friends, and his love of various performers from John Coltrane and Miles Davis to Jay-Z and The Delfonics. For Stephen and his friends, dancing can be a route to solving problems, even if it only provides a temporary release, a brief escape from the pressures of life.

Azumah Nelson writes so beautifully about music, the rhythms it creates and the emotions it evokes. Similarly, with food, he illustrates how cooking (and eating) a familiar dish can provide comfort, tapping into memories of loved ones, special moments and thoughts of home. The novel’s vivid sense of place also comes through very strongly, imbued as it is with the sights and sounds of Peckham – fans of the recent films Rye Lane (by Raine Allen Miller) and Lovers Rock (by Steve McQueen) will find much that resonates here.

In summary, then, Small Worlds is a tender, heartfelt novel exploring the bonds that unite us and the barriers that can push us apart. At heart though, the story highlights the small worlds we create for ourselves, the shared intimacies and friendships that help us to traverse the larger world around us, the spaces where we can breathe and feel free. It’s a gorgeous, sensual novel, like a balm for the soul.

Small Worlds is published by Viking on 11th May; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing an early proof copy.

Lewis Percy by Anita Brookner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lowlife by Alexander Baron  

Longstanding readers of this blog will be aware of my love of the great British boarding house, a setting that provides writers with all manner of possibilities for interesting fiction in a seedy, down-at-heel environment. Each boarder typically comes with their own backstory, habits and peculiarities, throwing up the potential for drama, romance or tension as different individuals interact in the communal areas of the house. Alexander Baron’s 1963 novella The Lowlife is a splendid addition to this genre – an entertaining, picaresque story of a likeable Jewish charmer with a penchant for Emile Zola and a somewhat tortuous past. (My thanks to the Backlisted team for covering this gem on their podcast – spot on with their recommendations again!)

The anti-hero in question is forty-five-year-old Harryboy Boas, a lovable rogue with a conscience who feeds his gambling addiction with occasional stints as a Hofmann presser in the East End rag trade.

You must understand from the start, although I am a cadger where necessary, you will never find me with the unshaven face, the dirty collar or frayed cuffs of a schnorrer. One thing about me, I always dress smartly. A good suit, midnight blue mohair, this year’s cut. Dazzling white shirt, quiet tie of silk, rust-colour. Buy your clothes good if you have to starve afterwards. (p. 4)

Harryboy likes nothing more than a bit of peace and quiet, allowing him to read Zola novels all day in his room at Mr Siskin’s Hackney boarding house, preferably untroubled by the need to work. At night, Harry is usually at the local dog tracks, gambling away what little money he has. Occasionally he heads over to Finchley to see his older sister, Debbie – now respectably married to a wealthy bookmaker, Gus. Debbie, who still feels very protective over her younger brother, would love to see Harryboy settling down with a steady job and a nice, respectable woman to keep him on the straight and narrow. Harryboy, however, is too independent to succumb to this vision, preferring his solitary, easy-going bachelor lifestyle despite its lack of security.

Everything changes for Harryboy when the Deaners move in, a development that disturbs the relative peace and quiet of his familiar world. Vic and Evelyn Deaner and their young son Gregory have decamped to the Hackney boarding house from the suburbs of Ilford, much to Evelyn’s disgust. Vic, a trainee accountant studying to become a company secretary (a position Evelyn is determined he must get), spends his spare time poring over his books, leaving young Gregory at a loose end. While his parents argue over money and Evelyn’s plans for the family to move elsewhere, Gregory is fascinated by Harryboy, whom he sees as a friendly presence in the house. While Harryboy would much prefer to be on his own, his sympathetic nature (and painful events from his past) cause him to soften towards Gregory, especially given the tensions between Evelyn and Vic. Moreover, Harryboy feels a bit sorry for Vic, who is clearly being driven mad by Evelyn’s demands, so he takes Vic to the dog tracks, keen to paint himself as someone flash with business interests.

Naturally, with Harryboy’s help, Vic has a run of beginner’s luck, winning big on the night, much to his delight. Sadly though, the thrill of the win proves to be Vic’s undoing. All too soon, this under-the-thumb clerk lands himself with gambling debts, stealing money from the accounts at work in a desperate attempt to win it back. Unfortunately, the situation also creates no end of trouble for Harryboy as he tries to find enough money to bail out the hopeless Vic. Before Harryboy knows it, he’s hitting the racetracks and losing big-time, ‘borrowing’ (aka stealing) money from a friend, leaning on Debbie and Gus in desperation for a loan and running for his life from a local gang of thugs.

What Baron does so well here is to paint Harryboy in such a way that elicits the reader’s sympathies despite his obvious flaws and failings. We know that Harryboy is a serial gambler and no good will ever come of his bravura in front of the Deaners, and yet we want him to pull through, eager for him to pull off the impossible to save Vic from being rumbled. It’s a skilful trick to pull off, but Baron nails it, investing his protagonist with a degree of charm and generosity that feels both genuine and unexpected.

Beneath the outward display of easy-going lethargy, there is a more poignant side to Harryboy too, a tender, tragic backstory that adds depth to his character. In truth, Harryboy is haunted by guilt, a hangover from the horrors of the Holocaust and an affair from his past. When Harryboy served in France during WW2, he had a relationship with a French-Jewish girl who ended up pregnant – a revelation that only came to light once his days in France were over. The fates of the girl and the child remain unclear, but Harryboy fears that both perished in the Nazi death camps – a thought he struggles to suppress. Naturally, this terrible sense of guilt goes some way to explaining Harryboy’s feelings of responsibility for Gregory and Vic, despite the mess it creates for himself.

Baron is equally strong on the depiction of gambling addiction, skilfully capturing both the adrenaline rush of the win and the sheer desperation of losing – particularly when the loses pile up.

You reach a point where you have lost so often that it seems impossible you can lose any more. It is sheer, staring, obvious commonsense that you must win next time. And having lost, lost, lost, lost, lost, you wait for the next wage packet so that you can hurry to the track—and by now you are hurrying like a stupid, eager, knownothing punter—to place the bets that must, this time they must, they positively must, win. (p. 129)

The characterisation is universally excellent too, particularly Evelyn Deaner, whom Harryboy has taped from the start.

I could have told you all about Evelyn before she spoke. A suburban. Our street must be like the bottom of a dustbin to her. I could have told you from this flat. In the front bedroom (I had seen before the curtains went up) a full bedroom suite. In this room, a three-piece lounge suite plus dining-room table and sideboard. Not to mention the telly. An Evelyn must have all this even if she’s living in a cupboard. It’s her wedding ring. She will pay for it on the never-never and feed her family on rabbit food. The furniture is her ultimatum to the husband. He was to work like some foredoomed male insect till he can get the house all this is meant for. (p. 23)

Evelyn is pushy, nervy and intolerant, constantly nagging Vic in her efforts to progress. When the de Souzas, a black couple of West Indian heritage, move into the Siskins’ boarding house, Evelyn practically explodes with rage. Even though the de Souzas are polite, reliable and generous, frequently sharing their food with the neighbours, Evelyn despises them, making no attempts to hide her racist prejudices. For someone as small-minded as Evelyn, sharing a house with a black couple is the equivalent of living in a slum – another reason for her to give out to Vic, upping the pressure for him to act.

As the story plays out, Baron brings everything to a satisfying conclusion – there’s even a suitably ironic twist at the end, which I won’t reveal here. So to summarise, this is a marvellous addition to the boarding house genre and a wonderful evocation of post-war London life. It’s also one of the first British novels to feature characters of Caribbean heritage, deftly reflecting the city’s rapidly changing social landscape in the 1960s. Highly recommended for lovers of 20th-century British fiction.

The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly

A year or so ago, I read and loved Due to a Death, a brooding psychological mystery by the English crime writer Mary Kelly. The Spoilt Kill was published a year before Due to a Death, and it shares something of the same mood – a doomed, fatalistic tone that runs through the book. In short, it’s another triumph for this underappreciated writer, a brilliant literary mystery with shades of Dorothy B. Hughes.

Set in the Staffordshire Potteries in the early 1960s, The Spoilt Kill is narrated by Hedley Nicholson, a private investigator in his mid-forties. Someone has been leaking the new designs at Shentall’s, a traditional, family-run pottery manufacturer in the area, resulting in cheap, copycat versions of their ceramics appearing overseas. With the US representing a lucrative market for pottery, the firm’s MD, Luke Shentall, has hired Nicholson to investigate the situation, preferring a more discreet approach than involving the police. In order to carry out his investigations, Nicholson is posing under the guise of a writer, tasked by Luke to capture the firm’s story in an updated promotional brochure – a cover story that enables Nicholson to go poking around the factory asking probing questions without raising too many suspicions.

The stealth, the pains taken, the risks to livelihood that were involved all added up to one word; money. For all Luke’s information about staff and access and cameras, it was money that I had chiefly to look for; money needed or money spent; someone poor, desperately, habitually, or suddenly; or someone merely greedy; or extravagant. That was why I wanted to see the salary sheets. As for wages – time enough to think about them when I’d fruitlessly exhausted the staff. A great thing was to remember that nothing was impossible; nothing, and no one. (p. 47–48)

The nature of the leaks suggests the culprit is someone with early access to the designs, a factor that narrows the suspects down to a handful of individuals – chief amongst them Corinna Wakefield, a talented artist who produces the firm’s new designs. Moreover, Corinna is one of the few ‘outsiders’ at Shentall’s. A former textiles designer from Manchester with no previous links to the pottery business or the local area, she rarely mixes with the others at the factory, setting her apart from those with generations of family loyalty to the firm.

As Nicholson’s investigation gets underway, the situation is further complicated by two significant factors. Firstly, the world-weary Nicholson finds himself developing feelings for Corinna, an attractive thirty-five-year-old widow with a somewhat shady, mysterious past. Consequently, Nicholson feels torn between his duty to Luke Shentall and his growing personal feelings towards a leading suspect in the case. Secondly, during one of the regular guided tours of the factory, a dead body is discovered in one of the vaults for liquid clay, raising the possibility of foul play in an already tense environment…

Kelly has chosen an unusual structure for her mystery, starting with a ‘What Happened’ section describing the discovery of the body – by Corinna, as it happens. Interestingly, Kelly doesn’t reveal the identity or gender of the deceased at this point, leaving the reader in the dark until the middle of the novel. The second section details ‘What Happened Before’ the dead body is discovered, allowing us to get to know various other key players in the mix, most of whom are potential suspects. Finally, we have the ‘What Happened After’ section, outlining the subsequent developments and the solutions to the crimes.

What’s particularly impressive here is the characterisation. Both Nicholson and Corinna are very skilfully drawn, each with their own hopes, disappointments and preoccupations that gradually reveal themselves over time. Moreover, as in Due to a Death, Kelly infuses The Spoilt Kill with a strong sense of despair. There is a doomed, fatalistic feel to Nicholson and Corinna’s relationship throughout, however strongly the reader might hope for a more optimistic outcome. Moreover, the secondary characters are also neatly captured, from the henpecked accountant Colin Dart and his demanding wife, Gillian, to the brusque, insensitive accountant Dudley Bullace.

Gillian! She was an icicle, a narrow brittle icicle wrapped in a tightly belted scarlet raincoat that exactly matched her lipstick and flattered her crisp black hair and blue eyes. She was in her middle twenties, good looking in an orthodox way, though you wouldn’t have turned to look twice at her; a shell on the beach, one of thousands. (p. 49)

Kelly’s prose style is very literary with a distinctly noirish feel, perfectly capturing the stark beauty of the industrial landscape undercut with a seam of darkness, hinting at the sense of menace lurking within.

Then in the floor of the pit, the pure industrial landscape of the iron and steel and the gas works and the ceramic colourists – black chimneys, level crossings without gates, heaps of slag and coke and scrap, a goods train clanking under a bridge, its engine pushing fat rolls of gritty steam into the sulphurous air. And through the middle of everything lay the Trent–Mersey canal, a motionless strip of water, black and glistening like a slug’s back. (p. 104)

The resolutions, when they come, are eminently credible and believable – more so than usual for this type of crime novel when complex, convoluted solutions are frequently deployed. They’re also very much in keeping with the character traits Kelly develops over the course of her narrative, illustrating how any of us could be driven to act rashly or foolishly in the heat of the moment.

So, in summary then, The Spoilt Kill is a top-notch, noirish mystery with an emphasis on characterisation, psychological motivations, atmosphere and mood. Fans of Dorothy B. Hughes and Margaret Millar would likely enjoy this one – a deserving winner of the CWA Gold Dagger on its original release.

The Spoilt Kill 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 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.