Tag Archives: UK

Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard  

First published in 1999, when Elizabeth Jane Howard was nearing the twilight of her career, Falling was inspired by real-life events. When Howard was in her seventies, she fell for the charms of a con man – a seemingly attentive man who took advantage of the fact that she was unattached and vulnerable yet receptive to admiration. At first, Howard was flattered by the attention, but the affair proved devastating when her lover’s true intentions became clear. Having been badly bruised by these events, she channelled her experiences into Falling, a fictionalised version of the story that feels horribly real. It’s an excellent book – engrossing, chilling and beautifully written, like a slow-burn thriller in the Patricia Highsmith vein.

In the novel, the narrative is conveyed through alternating chapters, giving readers an insight into both central characters – Henry Kent, a relatively good-looking man in his sixties with a background in gardening, and Daisy Langrish, a successful playwright, also in her sixties. Having separated from his wife, Hazel – a woman who always resented his lack of success – Henry is living from one day to the next, camping out on a dilapidated boat while its owners are abroad. With no money to speak of, Henry is on the lookout for a well-heeled woman, preferably someone middle-aged with no thoughts of having children. Of course, a faded beauty would be ideal, a neglected divorcee or widow just ripe for the picking; but most importantly, she must be comfortably off, wealthy enough to support Henry without his needing to work…

When Daisy Langrish (aka Redfearn) moves into a nearby cottage, she quickly becomes the target of Henry’s attention. With two bruising marriages behind her, Daisy is wary of getting her fingers burnt again. In particular, she was badly hurt by her second husband, Jason, a successful actor who left her for a much younger woman following two years of wedded bliss. Nevertheless, despite a few reservations, she agrees to let Henry sort out the garden for her when he calls to enquire.

The ‘Henry’ sections of the book are written in the first person, giving the reader full access to his thought processes right from the very start. Consequently, we can see how quickly Henry sizes Daisy up, pinpointing her vulnerabilities and planning his strategy accordingly. He knows he needs to win Daisy’s trust, carefully disarming her as gently as possible.

Trust. I could clearly recall that the first time our eyes met hers were full of wary defence; she was not accustomed to trusting people. I must disarm her, but so gradually that she would be hardly aware of it. (p. 70)

Almost immediately after their initial meetings, Daisy has to go the US for a couple of months, much to Henry’s dismay. While abroad, Daisy breaks her shoulder and foot during a trip to Mexico – an accident that leaves her hospitalised in the US for several weeks as she recovers from the injuries. Meanwhile, Henry is eager to discover more about Daisy, viewing this as a way of bolstering his chances. As far as Henry sees it, the more he knows about his target, the deeper the connection he can forge. So, he breaks into the cottage and rifles through Daisy’s belongings, reading her diary and personal letters – all of which give him an insight into her painful break-up with Jason.

Armed with this information and a few sob stories of his own, Henry starts writing to Daisy in hospital, gradually developing their relationship while she is vulnerable and alone. Moreover, when Daisy is finally well enough to return to the UK, Henry makes himself invaluable to her recovery, fetching groceries and keeping an eye on her as she settles back into the cottage.

Slowly but surely, Henry inveigles his way into Daisy’s life, steadily planning his advancement with the ultimate goal of marriage. At first, Daisy remains on her guard, fearful of a degree of intimacy that she certainly doesn’t want. For years now, she has kept herself emotionally closed down, fearful of opening up as a means of self-protection. Nevertheless, she has to acknowledge Henry’s attentiveness – his tenderness, even. It’s almost as if he can anticipate her needs without encroaching too far on her privacy. Maybe, just maybe, he actually loves her? Could this be her last chance of happiness, an opportunity to come first in someone else’s affections? As Henry works his magic, Daisy begins to wonder…

She was touched by his candour and his courage. Here she stopped. Was she not more than touched, more than grateful? For over two weeks now he had tended her with a delicacy and kindness that was surely unusual in any man, only credible, indeed, if some kind of love was involved. Perhaps he did love her, actually love her. The possibility, the faintest chance, that this might be so, might actually be real… (p. 268)

Something that Howard does so well here is to show us the relationship from two different perspectives, illustrating the true intentions behind Henry’s actions – and how Daisy is ultimately taken in by this technique. While the ‘Daisy’ sections are mostly written in the third person, some passages are presented as letters or diary entries, giving us direct access to her thoughts. Her gradual surrender is incredibly painful to observe, especially as we know just how devious and manipulative Henry can be. At first, one might consider him a fantasist, the sort of man who feeds off his own delusions; but as the narrative gradually unfolds, his psychopathic tendencies become increasingly clear…

My abstinence I intended her to interpret as my extreme love for her, and this was entirely successful; indeed, I had every kind of success and it was a sweet triumph to see her at ease, looking up at me with a kind of grateful radiance. I told her that she was beautiful and that I loved her (one cannot do this too often), and she answered that I made her feel beautiful. I knew then that I had accomplished much; was more than halfway to her becoming mine. (p. 307)

Howard also gives the reader just enough information to piece together Henry’s disreputable past as the story goes along. Slowly but surely, we learn of his underlying personality and habits – more specifically his short fuse and tendencies towards violence, his dislike of interference from those he considers outsiders, and his lack of any social contacts or real friends. He really is a very nasty piece of work.

Howard is such an astute observer of human nature, exploring her characters’ motivations with insight and understanding. The supporting players are beautifully drawn too, particularly Daisy’s agent, Anna, who is suspicious of Henry from the start. Even Daisy’s somewhat distanced daughter, Katya, has some nagging doubts about her mother’s lover, exacerbated perhaps by her own marital problems.

In short, this is a thoroughly engrossing novel, a compelling exploration of just how easy it is to be seduced when we are vulnerable and alone. My thanks to Andrew Male, who recommended this book to me as one of Howard’s late masterpieces. He was absolutely right, of course. (How could he not be?) It’s a brilliantly unsettling read – my favourite EJH to date.

Falling is published by Picador; personal copy.

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

First published in 1956, The Fountain Overflows is a novel I’ve been meaning to read for a long time – a wonderfully immersive depiction of childhood, inspired by West’s own family and early life. As Andrea Barrett explains in the introduction to the NYRB edition, West’s father, Charles Fairfield, was a brilliant political journalist, a compulsive gambler who conducted numerous affairs, culminating in his abandonment of the family in 1901. Fairfield’s wife, Isabella, assumed sole responsibility for raising the couple’s three daughters, one of whom was Rebecca or Cicily as she was known back then – her pen name of Rebecca West came later, in honour of a character from one of Ibsen’s plays.

Charles and Isabella are clearly the inspiration for two of the central characters in The Fountain Overflows: Piers Aubrey, the charming but irresponsible political pamphleteer, and his wife, Clare, a gifted pianist whose primary focus is to nurture the musical talents of her daughters – the twins, Rose and Mary, and their elder sister, Cordelia. Just like their mother, Rose and Mary are promising pianists, while Cordelia seems oblivious to the fact that she has no aptitude for the violin whatsoever, unable to distinguish good music from bad.

As the novel opens, Piers has just been appointed as the editor of a suburban newspaper based in London, prompting the family to relocate from Edinburgh, where they have been sub-letting their flat. The new job appears to be the latest in a sequence of false dawns for Piers – an earlier stint in South Africa did not quite work out – and his tendency to gamble away any earnings on foolish investments is widely known. While Rose, the novel’s narrator, is still quite young, she seems fully aware of her father’s shortcomings, having learned to anticipate misfortune and to support her mother accordingly.

Papa was always happy when he was engaged in certain activities. Of these the one which gave him greatest pleasure was his lifelong wrestling match with money. He was infatuated with it though he could not get on good terms with it. He felt towards it as a man of his type might have felt towards a gipsy mistress, he loved it and hated it, he wanted hugely to possess it and then drove it away, so that he nearly perished of his need for it. (p. 61)

Despite the family’s lack of financial resources, Rose enjoys a relatively happy and loving childhood, surrounded as she is by her sisters, her delightful younger brother, Richard Quin, and her cousin / close confidante, Rosamond. Rosamond’s mother, Constance, is married to Clare’s cousin, Jock, another unreliable father with scant regard for his familial duties. Constance and Clare are great friends, their relationship stretching back to childhood, broadly akin to the bond that begins to develop between their daughters, Rosamond and Rose.

While this is not a plot-driven novel as such, we are treated to a glorious sequence of incidents, all of which come together to form a vivid picture of life in the Aubrey household, complete with its various ups and downs. There’s a little bit of everything here: family Christmases brightened by homemade dresses and toys; debt collectors knocking at the front door while Piers slips out the back; and Cordelia hopelessly scraping away at the violin, misguidedly encouraged by one of her teachers, the eccentric Miss Beevor. Unfortunately, Miss Beevor is convinced that Cordelia is a musical genius, a belief that strengthens Cordelia’s determination to perform in public, much to her family’s dismay.

Murder, poltergeists and political lobbying also play their parts in the story, lending the narrative a wonderfully immersive yet unpredictable air. And yet, despite the lack of structure in the girls’ life, there is an overriding sense of optimism that everything will turn out okay in the end, irrespective of the Aubreys’ shortcomings.

I felt sure, of course, that in the end we would be all right. Mary and I never doubted that we would we would be all right. But we would have to have a framework in which to be all right, and about that I was no longer certain. (pp. 166–167)

This is an absorbing, richly rewarding novel, full of jewel-like detail, from the sharply defined portraits of minor characters to the beautifully descriptive images on family life. In this passage, Rose is recounting the children’s efforts in procuring Christmas presents for their parents despite a lack of regular pocket money.

Mary had practised considerable deception over the money given her for milk and buns at eleven, and had gone to a junk shop we passed on our way to school and bought Papa a little eighteenth-century book about the sights of Paris with pretty coloured pictures and Mamma a water-colour of Capri, where she had spent a wonderful holiday when she was young. I had a painted a wooden box to hold big matches for Papa to keep in his study and had made a shopping bag for Mamma out of plaited straw. Richard Quin had given the matches to put in my match-box and to Mamma a bright pink cake of scented soap which he had chosen himself. (p. 82)

What’s also impressive here is the lightness of touch West brings to some of the broader themes in the novel – for example, her views on Europe and the various political developments that occurred during the 20th century. Rather than labouring the point on the foolishness of war, West introduces the topic in a very interesting way. When Piers is asked to write a pamphlet on Britain’s foreign policy and the future of Europe, the parliamentary group who commissioned the piece are extremely reluctant to publish it, viewing it as the ramblings of a madman who has taken leave of his senses. If only the politicians had more foresight and intelligence in these matters…perhaps those warnings on the dangers of a state-controlled society might not seem so crazy after all.

And he goes on to say the most extraordinary things about the wars we are going to have after the criminals have taken over. He says there will have to be wars, because when these criminals have wiped out all the resistance in their own countries they will need some other excuse for killing, and they will get it in war; and they will be pressed by economic need because once they had stolen all the wealth honest men had stored up in their countries, there would be nothing more being accumulated, honest men would be reluctant to go on working just to lay up loot for a criminal government, and they will be forced to make war to get at the wealth of other countries. Really, Mrs Aubrey, did you ever hear anything so extraordinary in your life? (pp. 327–328)

In summary, The Fountain Overflows is a beautifully written novel by one of Britain’s leading critics and writers, a wonderful evocation of family life that captures its inherent tensions with insight and elegance. There is genuine warmth, intelligence and compassion in this book, typified by the characters of Rose and Clare – the latter doing her best to protect the Aubreys from rack and ruin.

While West had originally intended the book to be the opening part of a trilogy, she remained somewhat unsatisfied with the two sequels, The Real Night and Cousin Rosamund, and chose not to publish them in her lifetime. Luckily both are now in print, published posthumously in the mid-1980s, and available for us to read.

Green for Danger by Christianna Brand   

It’s always an unexpected joy when one of these lovely British Library Crime Classics drops through the door, especially if it’s as enticing as this. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

First published in 1944, Green for Danger – the second book in Brand’s Inspector Cockrill series – is set at Heron’s Park, a military hospital in Kent in the midst of WW2. As Martin Edwards notes in his excellent introduction, the novel is an example of a classic ‘closed circle’ mystery in which the culprit is one of a small pack of potential suspects the author shuffles during the story, shifting the focus from one person to another until the perpetrator is revealed.

Brand cleverly introduces her cast of suspects in the opening chapter through their acceptance letters for positions at Heron’s Park. So, we have Gervase Eden, a Harley Street surgeon, the type with a string of women falling at his feet; Jane Woods (Woody), a rather plain woman of forty who has given up a life of gaiety to volunteer as a V.A.D. nurse, mostly to assuage her conscience for past misdemeanours; Esther Sanson, a young woman whose life has been dominated by a needy, hypochondriac mother – if nothing else, nursing will give Esther some sort of training and a life away from home.

Mr Moon, another surgeon, is a kindly, mature man (almost Churchillian in appearance), still mourning his son, who was killed in a road accident. The sensitive anaesthetist Dr (Barney) Barnes remains troubled by the unfortunate death of a patient on the operating table while in his care. Nothing untoward was found in the inquiry, but the patient’s family have their suspicions – hopefully the move to Heron’s Park will offer Barney a fresh start. Finally, we have Frederica Linley (Freddi), a cool, detached young woman who views volunteering as a V.A.D. as a way of escaping her dreadful stepmother; and Sister Marion Bates, who seems to be on the lookout for a husband on the hospital wards.

Once all the main characters have been introduced, we fast forward to a point in time when the team has been working together for a while, steadily dealing with the casualties in its care. The hustle and bustle of hospital life is brilliantly conveyed, oscillating between periods of high activity and quieter moments when the staff get a chance to chat.

One day, a recently admitted patient – Joseph Higgins – dies while undergoing a seemingly routine operation, much to the team’s distress. At first, the outcome is put down to a bad reaction to the anaesthetic; but given Barney’s history of a previous unexplained death, the surgeons decide to call on Detective Inspector Cockrill to give the incident the once over. The hope is that this will nip any potential gossip about foul play in the bud, but when Cockrill takes a look, his suspicions are soon aroused…

Initially, there appears to be no clear motive for the murder of Higgins, a postman who had been working as an air-raid warden during the war. But as the novel unfolds, more details about the hospital staff emerge for the sharp-eyed reader to spot. Brand does a terrific job in raising subtle doubts about each of her key players as the story progresses, shifting our suspicions from one person to the next – and occasionally back again, just to confuse things further. There’s even a second murder to add to the mix when a stabbing in the operating theatre makes for a rather macabre twist!

Brand – who spent time with V.A.D.s during the Blitz – captures the inner working of a military hospital so well, from the layouts and daily routines of the wards to the anaesthesia procedures in the operating theatre. Right from the very start, there’s a strong sense of authenticity (and a somewhat sinister atmosphere!) to the descriptions of these scenes.

The men slept uneasily on their improvised beds, humped under rough brown army blankets, their arms, outflung in sleep, lying supine across the dusty floor. Here and there a pair of bright eyes gleamed, open and aware; here and there a face was coloured vividly green or purple, where the skin specialists were trying out some new treatment; once she almost collided with a blue-clad figure, its eyes dark hollows in a huge, white-bandaged face. (p. 106)

Some of the most enjoyable aspects of this novel stem from the lively interpersonal dynamics between various characters. There are lots of romantic entanglements here, with people falling in and out of love on a fairly regular basis, possibly as a distraction from the war. While Freddi seems happily engaged to Barney, she cannot help having a little crush on Gervase – a most unlikely Don Juan, especially given his rather dull appearance.

Esther said thoughtfully: “What people can see in Gervase, I never could understand. I mean, he’s nice and he’s funny, but he’s as ugly as anything, so thin and grey and, well, he must be at least forty…”

“Thanks very much,” said Woods.

“Well, I don’t mean that, darling, you know what I mean. He’s not a glamour boy; and he never seems to try to make women like him.”

“Ah, but you’re a lady icicle, Esther.”

“Well, I must be, because I seem to be the only female in the hospital who can see Gervase Eden without swooning at his feet…” (pp. 45-46)

Sister Bates remains madly in love with Gervase following an earlier brief affair. Gervase, on the other hand, is no longer interested in Marion, as his affections ultimately lie elsewhere…

Meanwhile, the war rumbles away in the background, but everyone seems to take things in their stride, particularly the V.A.D.s – Jane, Esther and Freddi – who share a small cottage on the site.

The whole place rocked with the deafening roar of the guns, but the bombs seemed fewer and the flares were dying down. They sat very comfortably with their feet on the fender, drinking cups of cocoa, in defiance of all orders that nobody was to remain in their quarters after black-out, during a raid. (p. 45)

So, in summary, this excellent mystery ticks a lot of boxes for me. The characters are interesting, engaging and really well-drawn. We have an atmospheric WW2 setting with plenty of tension, and there’s just enough detail on the medical front for the drama to feel realistic. Plus, it’s a devilishly clever mystery to boot. The solution, when it comes, is a very ingenious one – not something I would have worked out for myself without or Inspector Cockrill’s explanation, but perfectly possible nonetheless!

The 1946 film adaptation (same title) is excellent too, with Alastair Sim perfectly cast as Inspector Cockrill, a no-nonsense, old-school detective with a cigarette permanently on the go. Trevor Howard also features as Barney, with Judy Campbell (mother of Jane Birkin) as Sister Marion Bates. Very highly recommended indeed – both the book and the film!

The 27th Kingdom by Alice Thomas Ellis

Back in May, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Alice Thomas Ellis’s 1980 novel, The Birds of the Air, a very well-observed tragicomedy featuring a wonderfully dysfunctional family. It was part of a set of four Penguin editions of this author’s early novellas that I’d found in a charity shop, each featuring a charming cover image by the artist Ian Archie Beck.

The 27th Kingdom was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1982, and I do wonder how it would be received by the equivalent panel now. In truth, it’s a rather peculiar book, to the point where my feelings about it oscillated quite markedly throughout. On the upside, there are some wonderfully eccentric characters here – most of them thoroughly unlikeable, which always makes for interesting reading. The setting and premise also promise much in the way of potential drama, although I think Ellis could have gone a little further with her ideas in the end. Most troublesome though is the dialogue, some of which feels clunky and cliched, even considering the period. More on that later as we get into the book…

This story – which takes place in 1954 – revolves around Aunt Irene, a rather eccentric middle-aged émigré who shares a home with and her adult nephew, Kyril. The dwelling in question is Dancing Master House, a small boarding house in London’s Chelsea – an environment that immediately ticks one of my boxes for interesting fiction. Kyril, an art dealer by trade, is a particularly unlikeable character – handsome, sardonic and vindictive, the type who enjoys stirring up trouble just for the thrill of it. Unsurprisingly, his chief target is Mr Sirocco, a timid little man who boards at Irene’s house.

He [Kyril] was fed up with little Mr Sirocco, who had turned out to be resolutely virtuous and very earnest in a dim and blundering fashion, and had quite refused to produce any free samples from the firm of wine shippers where he worked. ‘You must give up taking in deserving cases,’ he said [to Aunt Irene]. ‘They’re boring.’ (p. 13)

Aunt Irene is no paragon of virtue herself, viewing the boarders as an appreciative audience for her artistic talents, ‘raw materials to dispose of and manipulate’ as the fancy takes her. There are hints of dodgy activities too – possible tax evasion and the receipt of black-market goods – things that Irene’s charlady, the sharp-eyed Mrs Mason, has noticed over the years.

Mrs Mason, rolling up the sleeves of her cardigan, thought Aunt Irene looked like one of those backyard hydrangeas. It was significant that she had so many clothes – not all of them pre-war by any means and nothing Utility. Mrs Mason was absolutely convinced that Aunt Irene had traded with Mrs O’Connor in black-market clothing-coupons throughout the Duration. Her face grew lined and set with jealousy and she wished the taxman would come back – she could tell him a few more things. (p. 89)

Mrs Mason is a marvellous character who features prominently in the book’s wittiest passages, showcasing Ellis’s talents for a dry style of humour. The tensions between Mrs Mason and her employer are particularly well-observed.

Neither of these ladies were satisfied with the other, each being aware with a different degree of resentment that Mrs Mason was not designed by nature or nurture to be a char. (p. 16)

In truth, Mrs Mason is somewhat resentful of the need to work as a cleaning lady, a task she mainly undertakes to placate her dreadful husband, Colonel Mason, an abusive alcoholic who spends most of his time down the pub.

Early in the novel, Irene receives a letter from her sister, Berthe, the Reverend Mother of a Convent in Wales. Berthe wants Irene to take in Valentine, a postulant (or apprentice nun) as a sort of test of the girl’s faith. In truth, Berthe is somewhat unsettled by Valentine’s unusual powers, which have proven somewhat difficult to rationalise or pin down – in other words, she may or not be a saint. After a certain amount of hesitation, Irene duly accepts, welcoming Valentine to Dancing Master House, where she is installed in Mr Sirocco’s room. As such, the downtrodden Mr Sirocco is casually ejected, ultimately ending up in a depressingly barren room in the house next door.

Valentine is tall, beautiful and black, a composed young woman whose presence in the house should be rather calming. That said, Kyril is somewhat flummoxed by this new arrival when she fails to rise to his taunts. It’s a response he’s never encountered before, a development that leaves him rather perplexed.

While various peculiar things happen in the book – Irene hosts a party, someone dies, and a strange man is seen watching the house – this is not a plot-driven novel as such. Instead, the primary focus seems to be on the characters as they dance around one another, exposing their flaws and failings as various tensions ensue. In addition to the main characters already mentioned, there are some interesting supporting players here – perhaps most notably Focus, Irene’s wonderfully fluffy cat.

Focus found the atmosphere lowering and asked to be let out of the front door.

‘Well, be careful,’ warned Aunt Irene. ‘Some awful person might make you into a muff. Don’t leave the garden.’

Normally Focus wouldn’t have dreamed of leaving the garden. He would sit under the magnolia daring its blossom to compete with his beauty, and watching the birds, but he was no different from anyone else when it came to being ordered about. He didn’t like it. (p. 123)

Where the book falls down (for me at least) is in its depiction of the O’Connor family, a bawdy band of tricksters who specialise in house clearances and black-market goods. It’s here that the characterisation feels thin and cliched – especially in the cockney dialogue, which quickly begins to grate.     

‘Valentine, nip roun’ Peabody Buildin’s and look for a pram, ‘n’ when you’ve foun’ one fin’ out ‘oose it is and make ‘er give you the baby’s orange juice. Tell ‘er it’s a matter of life ‘n’ deaf. ‘S the only fing,’… (p. 96)

Sadly, there are some rather unfortunate examples of casual racism here too, such as the use of ‘half-caste’ and ‘piccaninnies’ by one of the characters to describe Valentine and her family. While Aunt Irene clearly disapproves of this behaviour, it doesn’t make these passages any easier to read.

So, in summary, there’s quite a lot to enjoy in this novel, even if the cliched dialogue and casual prejudices take the shine off it somewhat. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Valentine’s tragic past, an event that ties her to one of the secondary characters in the story. At one point, I wondered whether the book was heading down a Lolly Willowes-ish route, with its flashes of tragedy, spiritualism, absurdity and levitation, but it doesn’t entirely take off in that fashion. Something of a missed opportunity, perhaps, at least in part…

Nevertheless, I’ll finish with a final passage that points to Ellis’s flair for a wicked touch. There are some wonderfully mordant images here, hinting at the small savageries of family life.

On the table were some warlike scarlet tulips in a Chinese bowl writhing with dragons. It was a room for the night time and looked at once wicked and pitiful in the dawn light… (p. 25)

Personal Pleasures by Rose Macaulay

This is a lovely book to dip into, a compendium of short essays and sketches on the things that gave Rose Macaulay pleasure during her life, covering a wide variety of subjects such as Bathing, Candlemas, Chasing fireflies and Driving a car. There are around sixty pieces here (mostly two or three pages in length), arranged alphabetically with a handy index at the front. Originally published in 1935 to sparkling reviews, Personal Pleasures has recently been reissued by Handheld Press (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy).

Although Macaulay was in her mid-fifties when the book was first published, some of the most vivid entries reflect her childhood in Italy in the late 19th century. Chasing fireflies, for instance, recounts a midsummer eve tradition in the Macaulay family, high up in the Italian hills, the violet sky glittering with golden stars. Here we learn of summer nights, the air fragrant with the scent of citrus, with fireflies dancing around like ‘leaping gems’, flying amidst the myrtle shrubs and juniper by the light of a golden moon. These reflections on childhood pleasures are especially enjoyable, capturing a time of happiness in the sizeable Macaulay family.

Macaulay’s style is evocative and erudite – quite ornate at times, but always resplendent. In this passage, she is writing about beauty of seeing a flower shop at night, softly lit yet empty of customers, glowing mysteriously like a magical fairyland.

Golden baskets are piled high with pink roses; crimson roses riot in curious jars; hydrangeas make massed rainbows beneath many-coloured lights; tall lilies form a frieze behind, like liveried, guarding angels. […]

It is a scene so exquisite and so strange that it might be a mirage, to melt away before the wondering gaze. We will leave it, while it is still clear and brilliant; turn away and walk down the cold, empty, and echoing street, looking not back lest that bright garden be darkened and fled like a dream before dawn. (Flower shop in the night)

Even relatively simple pleasures, such as soaking in hot bath in winter, are elevated to the status of exalted rituals through Macaulay’s expressive prose – enhanced in this instance by the aroma of pine-scented bath salts.

Soaked in green light, with two small red ducks bobbing about me, I lie at ease, frayed nerves relaxed, numbed blood running round again on its appointed, circular mortal race, frozen brain melting, thawing, expanding into a strange exotic effervescence in this warm pine forest. Bare winter suddenly is changed to spring, (Hot bath)

While many of the essays revolve around familiar pleasures (experiences that will resonate with many of us), others are more unusual or specific to the author, perhaps. Few of us could argue with the joy of things such as Walking, Reading, Meals out and Christmas morning, however, certain entries are more individual. In Taking umbrage for instance, Macaulay waxes lyrical about the experience of being ignored by shop assistants while other shoppers are given precedence, even when it’s not their rightful turn in the queue. For Macaulay, there is something pleasurable about rehearsing a cutting retort in her mind, ready for when the shop assistant finally approaches. Whether or not she ultimately decides to use it is another matter altogether! Other eclectic essays focus on Bulls, Disbelieving, Fire engines and Cows.

Several of the pieces demonstrate Macaulay’s sense of humour, reflecting a wry, witty approach to various aspects of life. In Shopping abroad, she muses on the peculiar lure of searching for tat that many of us succumb to when visiting other countries, falling for various trinkets we would swiftly ignore at home.

How strange it is, this passion that assaults the breast when the foot treads foreign earth; this lust to acquire, to carry away, to convey home in suitcases wretched pelting trifles which in our native land we should be the first (or so we hope) to disdain! (Shopping abroad)

Perhaps it’s the thrill of bartering with the stallholder, the illusion of securing a bargain, that drives us forward in this quest for ‘alien trifles’. All of which have to be transported home, of course, often at the expense of purchasing extra suitcases – ‘cheap exotic suitcases, more, and more and more…’

Ignorance is another very amusing piece, covering various subjects including neighbours, gossip, wickedness and current literature. I couldn’t help but laugh at Macaulay’s dismissal of the latest books, a view that will likely resonate with those wary of the media hype surrounding certain new releases.

 No, I am afraid I have not read that either. It is good, you say? I am sure you are right. But I have no time for all these novels and things. I cannot imagine how you make time for them. You find they are worth it? They do not look good. Not that I see them; but they do not sound good, from the advertisements and reviews. Not that I read advertisements and reviews. I like to keep myself clear from all this second-rate stuff. (Ignorance – 2. Of current literature)

As an aside, lovers of literature are well served with this collection, with entries on Reading, Writing, Finishing a book, and Booksellers’ catalogues, to name but a few. Oh, the joy of booksellers’ pamphlets flopping through the letter-box, ‘alighting like leaves on the passage floor’!

In a book devoted to a surfeit of pleasures, Macaulay remains mindful of the downsides involved in over-indulgence, that a pleasure overdone can tip over into excess – or might be taken for granted if repeated too often. As such, several essays come with a slight sting in the tail, a note of realism to temper the joy. In Hot bath, for instance, the water will cool if one soaks for too long, with fresh water from the taps feeling tepid rather than hot. Similarly, in Abroad, the thrill of travelling overseas is clipped by increasing bureaucracy and suspicion, a fact that will resonate with many current travellers whose journeys are hampered by cancellations or long delays.

In summary, this is an enjoyable, erudite compendium of pleasures, best experienced in small doses, maybe two or three essays at a time. Collected together like this, these articles give readers a fascinating insight into cultural life in the early 20th century, together with snapshots of various aspects of Macaulay’s life. As ever with Handheld Press, the book comes with an excellent introduction by Kate Macdonald, placing the book in a wider context. I’ve barely scratched the surface of it here, but it’s a delightful read for any Rose Macaulay fan – and for lovers of literature from this period in general.

Tomorrow by Elisabeth Russell Taylor

Born in London in 1930, the English writer Elisabeth Russell Taylor – not to be confused with the other Elizabeth Taylor – wrote six novels and three short-story collections during her lifetime. The most prominent of these is perhaps Tomorrow, first published in 1991 and reissued by Daunt Books in 2018. Fans of Anita Brookner’s work will find much to enjoy here. It’s an exquisitely written story of love and loss – a deeply poignant lament to the sweeping away of a glorious existence, a world of innocence and sanctuary in the run-up to WW2.

Tomorrow revolves around Elisabeth Danzinger, a quiet, solitary forty-year-old woman who works as a housekeeper in London. Every summer, Elisabeth returns to The Tamarisks, a beautifully furnished guest house on the Danish island of Møn, a place that holds many memories of a once-idyllic past, particularly the time she spent there with her cousin and lover, Daniel Eberhardt.  

Early in the novel, we learn of Elisabeth’s family background, which is highly significant to the story. During the interwar years, Elisabeth’s father, Jurgen – a man of Aryan stock – taught English at a northern German University. By contrast, her mother, Anna, had a very different upbringing, hailing from a wealthy, cultured German Jewish family in Baden-Baden. Also relevant here are the Danzingers’ close relatives, the Eberhardts, due to the multiple connections between the two families. While Jurgen was teaching English in Germany, Horst Eberhardt – his best friend since their modest shared childhood in Hunsrück – specialised in Italian at the same university. Moreover, Horst’s wife, Charlotte, was in fact Anna’s twin sister – another cultured woman who found herself at risk from the growing prejudices against the Jews.

Thinking back to the Hunsrück the men remembered the extent to which their families were indivisible from their land. But they ignored the fact that German soil was being raked over for an unprecedented crop of anti-semitism; that less accomplished academics than they, jealous of their intellectual prowess and material privilege, revelled in the growing uncertainty that, tainted by association through their wives, the two would someday be checked. (p. 21)

In 1927, the Danzingers and the Eberhardts bought two adjacent holiday homes on Møn, partly as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of university life and partly as an insurance policy in case the situation in Europe escalated (which it subsequently did). The Danzingers’ second home was The Tamarisks, a beautiful house designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the classic Elizabethan fashion. Meanwhile, the Eberhardts took charge of the nearby Tuscan Villa, which they tastefully furnished in the Italian style.   

The bulk of Russell Taylor’s novella takes place over a week in August 1960 as the forty-year-old Elisabeth Danzinger makes her annual trip to Møn. Being a steadfast creature of habit, Elisabeth inhabits the same ‘yellow’ room at The Tamarisks each year; and from there, she makes the same visits to each familiar place on her itinerary, ruminating on deeply ingrained sorrows as she goes about her pilgrimage. 

She was filled with an overwhelming sense of loss as she wondered from tree to tree, recognising many, feeling herself accused: she had overstayed her welcome in the world. Life conducted itself independently of her. The scents from the sodden earth filled with an intolerable weight of memory; not that of individual occasions but of the entire past. (pp. 54–55)

During her time on Møn, Elisabeth revisits various personal landmarks – a tree bearing the initials ‘E’ and ‘D’, and a bench inscribed with ‘à l’amitié pure’ (‘in pure friendship’) from a note they made in adolescence – testaments to her relationship with Daniel that have weathered the test of time. In each instance, Elisabeth runs her hands over the markings, contemplating their endurance in a world where so much has changed. There are other reminders of the cousins’ love for one another too, perhaps most notably a box containing a tiny ammonite and a note of the lovers’ bond with one another, hidden away behind the bath panel in Elisabeth’s room.

As this haunting, achingly sad story unfolds, there are flashbacks to 1939 – memories of an idyllic summer Elisabeth and Daniel spent together on Møn while their parents holidayed in South America. Returning to 1939, we follow the cousins as they work on survey of the island, visiting places of interest to take photographs for their collection. Over the summer, the lovers also deepen their shared love of music, planning a programme for a future recital before their time together runs out. Nevertheless, as the political situation in Europe reaches a crisis point, everything these two families hold dear is about to be shattered, their happiness at risk of being obliterated as the Nazis close in…

We know from the novella’s opening that this is a tragic story, but to reveal anything more at this stage might spoil it for potential readers. Elisabeth has a specific reason for these annual pilgrimages to the island, honouring her past with Daniel every August without fail. Once again, the reason for these visits is best left unsaid, enabling future readers to discover this for themselves.

This really is an exquisitely written book, full of painterly images of the mercurial island of Møn – sometimes quiet and peaceful, other times brooding and menacing as signs of darkness burst through the light. Russell Taylor makes excellent use of the unpredictability of the natural world here, harnessing the fickle nature of the sun, wind and sea, elements that can change in outlook in the blink of an eye.

The clouds parted and through them a beam of light fell on Sandweg church. It penetrated a stained-glass window, spreading lozenge shapes of iridescent purple, yellow, red and blue on the tiled floor. And then the clouds re-formed over the sun and the colours vanished, like spilt blood vanishes in the dark at the scene of a crime (p. 81)

Over a barely discernible grey sheet of water was thrown an equally grey shroud of sky, but the shroud was torn in places to reveal streaks of blood red and aquamarine blue. (p. 51)

Tomorrow shares something in common with Hotel du Lac, especially in style and content (although it’s fair to say that Russell Taylor’s novella is more devastating than the Brookner). The settings in particular feel quite similar. For instance, there’s a sense of quiet efficiency about Fru Møller’s management of The Tamarisks, which is reminiscent of the Lac – an austere formality, perhaps, and an air of mutual respect.

Fru Møller’s expertise was nowhere more striking than in the dining-room. She succeeded an exercising complete control over the smooth running of mealtimes without appearing to be more than a vague presence in the Hall. […] At the end of dinner she gently persuaded her guests into the study, where she presided over the Cona coffee machine and orchestrated conversation between strangers. (p. 33)

And, just like the Hotel du Lac, The Tamarisks is frequented by a small coterie of eccentric regulars, idiosyncratic characters that Russell Taylor portrays with a wickedly comic flair. Most notable are the Colonel and his elderly wife Bo-Bo, a former actress who remains frozen in childhood, fussing over her dolls as if they were children with feelings. Bo-Bo’s world revolves around clothes, food and these toy-like figures, while the Colonel remains largely indifferent. In truth, he would like little more than to settle down to a life of companionship with Miss Danzinger, recognising in Elisabeth a like-minded soul.

By writing Tomorrow, Elisabeth Russell Taylor has gifted us a poignant, achingly sad story conveyed with elegance and grace – a haunting elegy to the loss of a generation as the horrors of Elisabeth’s past and present are gradually revealed. I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for more of this author’s fiction with its melancholy, steely edge.

Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr

A very ingenious locked-room mystery with a tantalising premise, I enjoyed this one a lot, particularly the initial set-up.  

Till Death Do Us Part was initially published in 1944; but the story, which is set in the close-knit village of Six Ashes, actually takes place some years earlier during the run-up to the Second World War. Dick Markham, a moderately successful playwright specialising in psychological thrillers, has just got engaged to Lesley Grant, a relative newcomer to the area. While Lesley has only been living in Six Ashes for the last six months, she has made quite an impact since her arrival, attracting the interest of several local men.

The action really gets going at the village fete when Lesley appears to receive some bad news during her consultation with a fortune teller, the star attraction at the event. While Lesley makes light of the discussion, Dick is somewhat puzzled, having clearly seen her reaction to the mystic’s predictions from the shadows visible through the tent. Shortly after the encounter, Lesley shoots the fortune teller with a rifle from one of the stalls, claiming the incident to be an accident due to her lack of familiarity with guns. Nevertheless, when the victim reveals himself to be Sir Harvey Gilman, a famous Home Office Pathologist, suspicions are duly aroused…

While recovering from the shooting, Sir Harvey confides in Dick Markham, raising doubts about Lesley and her personal history. Lesley, it seems, has been associated with a series of poisonings in the past; and in each instance, the victim was either her husband or lover, discovered in a locked room with a syringe of prussic acid close to hand. All three deaths were judged to be suicide at the time, and no hard evidence has ever been found to suggest the contrary; nevertheless, Sir Harvey remains convinced of Lesley’s guilt, especially given the similarities in circumstances.

In short, Sir Harvey wants Dick to help him in his investigations by setting a trap for Lesley. If she really is the killer, chances are she will strike again with an attempt to poison Dick. Sir Harvey hopes to catch Lesley in the act by observing her movements, thereby gathering the evidence he needs to pursue a conviction.

‘She’s being a fool, of course. But she must play with this bright shiny wonderful toy called murder by poison. It’s got her. She’s obsessed. That’s why she took the risk of shooting at me, and trusting to innocent eyes and general gullibility to have it called an accident. All her preparations are made for somebody’s death. And she won’t be cheated of the thrill.’ (p. 59)

It’s a very compelling premise, but before the plans can be finalised and put in place, Sir Harvey himself is found dead in precisely the same circumstances as the other incidents under investigation. In short, the victim’s body is discovered in a locked room with a syringe of prussic acid nearby – a death by poisoning made to look like a suicide, just as before.

As Martin Edwards outlines in his excellent introduction to the book, the eminently likeable Dick Markham now faces a terrible dilemma. He is madly in love with Lesley but knows little of her background before the move to Six Ashes – a factor that gnaws away in his mind in light of Sir Harvey’s allegations. So, should he trust Lesley and her claims of innocence or is she in fact a serial poisoner, just as the Pathologist claimed? And if Lesley isn’t the murderer, who the devil is?

To assist in the investigations into Sir Harvey’s death, Dr Gideon Fell – an expert on locked room mysteries – is brought in; and, as is often the case in these things, various red herrings and other distractions must be worked through before the identity of the perpetrator is revealed. For instance, who fired a shot into Sir Harvey’s room on the night of his murder? Was someone else trying to shoot Sir Harvey, and how does this relate to the poisoning (the actual cause of his death)? Why is Lesley so secretive about the existence of a safe in her bedroom? What does this box contain? And why does Lesley hit Cynthia Drew with a hand mirror when she finds her in the bedroom? Or maybe Cynthia is lying when she tells Dick about this incident with Lesley? It’s all rather hard to tell!

The solution to the locked room mystery, when it comes, is a very ingenious one – not something I would have worked out for myself without Gideon Fell’s explanation, but perfectly credible nonetheless. As for the perpetrator and their motive, I’ll leave that suitably ambiguous, just as Carr does himself for the majority of the book – he really does keep the reader guessing on this one.

My only slight niggle relates to Gideon Fell. While there’s no doubting Fell’s skill as detective, I didn’t particularly warm to him as a character due to his slightly haughty demeanour and self-assured air. Also, in terms of style, he’s not the most inclusive of detectives, sharing little of his actual thinking with others as the investigation unfolds – an approach that can leave the reader feeling somewhat detached from the detecting itself.

Nevertheless, the residents of Six Ashes are an interesting bunch and very nicely drawn. Carr does a great job of capturing Dick’s feelings towards Lesley, which are suitably conflicted. Dick desperately wants to believe in his fiancée’s innocence, and yet her alleged association with so many suspicious deaths proves hard for him to square. And to complicate matters further, there’s another potential love interest in the picture – Cynthia Drew, an amiable, level-headed woman who many in the village considered a good match for Dick before Lesley turned his head.

So, in summary, this is a clever locked-room mystery with a highly compelling set-up, albeit with one or two caveats about Fell’s personal style. My thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy of the book – very much appreciated as ever.

Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

Written during the early feverish months of the first wave of COVID-19, Burntcoat is a haunting, beautifully-crafted story of love, trauma and the creation of art, all set against the backdrop of a deadly global pandemic. I’ve long been a fan of Hall’s short stories, ever since The Beautiful Indifference came out ten years or so ago, but this is my first experience of her novels – an overwhelmingly positive one, I should clearly state upfront. 

When we first meet Edith Harkness – the critically acclaimed installation artist who narrates the novel – her life is drawing to a close. At fifty-nine, Edith is living alone at Burntcoat, her warehouse-sized studio-cum-apartment, purchased several years earlier with the proceeds from a prestigious prize. The reason for her impending death is Nova (aka AG3) – a more severe virus than COVID but similar in many ways, primed to unleash the maximum devastation, destroying the body from within. 

It was – it is – perfect. Perfectly composed, star-like, and timed for the greatest chaos, for transmission across borders, replication, creating galaxies of itself. Perfectly operating in each victim – the patient incubation, methodical progression through the body, careful removal of the defensive sheath. It ascends, hellishly, erupting inside its host. A fever that becomes critical, so destructive the body might kill itself. The virus dies with the host or survives, retreating deep into the cells, lying dormant. (p. 126)

Edith caught Nova from her Turkish lover, Halit, several years ago, back when the virus was first circulating, before the availability of vaccines or ground-breaking treatments. Twenty or thirty years on, the world is divided into two groups of people: those who escaped the virus and now have some protection through vaccination; and those who were infected and survived. Unfortunately for the latter group, the virus remains dormant in the body, awaiting the inevitable reactivation that can come at any time. Consequently, the pandemic looms large for Edith in more ways than one. Not only is Edith a carrier, she is also finalising a national memorial for the dead, an installation set to endure long after her death.

As her relapse progresses, Edith reflects on different aspects of her life, memories spanning her childhood on the margins, the route to becoming an artist, and her relationship with Halit – an experience she describes with an electrifying sense of intimacy. The novel is presented in sections, almost like a series of extended vignettes, a structure that gives it a wonderful sense of fluidity as we move backwards and forwards in time, alighting on various elements of Edith’s richly-textured life.

Hall writes movingly of Edith’s childhood, an upbringing undoubtedly shaped by severe illness and trauma. When Edith was aged eight, her mother, Naomi, suffered a brain haemorrhage – an incident Edith witnessed during an outing with her parents. Somehow Naomi survived the bleed, ultimately recovering physically by learning how to function again, slowly and steadily with the help of her family. Nevertheless, something inherent to Naomi was displaced during the stroke, rupturing her sense of self and deep-rooted psyche.

Against all odds, the rupture hadn’t killed her. Naomi would recover, slowly, anatomically, but something fundamental was disrupted by the process of repair – the complex library of thought, memory, emotion, personality. They saved her life; they could not save her self. (p. 13)

When her parents’ marriage deteriorates in the year following her haemorrhage, Edith is left alone to care for Naomi in the absence of her father.

We also learn of Edith’s training as an artist, a process which takes her to Japan to learn the highly skilled process of ‘shou sugi ban’, a technique for charring cedar, rendering it waterproof. While it might sound counterintuitive at first, burning the wood in this way actually strengthens its structure, ‘preserving its integrity while enhancing its beauty’ – a phrase that could apply to Hall’s creative work itself.

Also of broader significance is Edith’s most famous installation, ‘The Witch at Scotch Corner’, an enormous Angel-of-the-North type structure, also known as ‘Hecky’. It’s a nod to the days of major investment in the arts – the commissioning of ‘a statement piece by a radical new artist’, supported by a wealthy patron with the requisite political clout. Edith delivers on the brief with an impressive combination of vision and ambition. As a result, her radical artwork – a gigantic squatting woman – duly takes up its position by the Scotch Corner junction, the gateway to the North East.

She is the masterwork. A half-burnt assemblage lofting high as a church tower, containing all the unrealistic belligerence and boldness of early ambition. The upper planks of beech were steamed pink, bent and hooped to extraordinary angles, the lower trellis strengthened by charring. She rises above the yellow furze as if from a pyre, hair streaming on the updraft, her back arcing. Welcome North. (p. 79)

It’s a wildly controversial piece, simultaneously attracting fulsome praise and reactionary outrage – a point that Hall, to her credit, never labours or overplays.

The most powerful sections of the novel are those featuring Halit, whom Edith starts seeing in the months leading up to lockdown. There’s a breathtaking feeling of intimacy to these passages, which Hall expresses in the second person – a viewpoint that enhances the sense of closeness between the couple, both physically and sexually.

The stove in the bedroom kept us warm. We sat or lay, you unwinding from work, taking off layer after layer, and our forms melted together in the red underworld light. We slept as the flames settled and died, tucked together like pigeons in a loft, the sleet creeping over the roof, the country waiting. February, with its bare, larval branches. March. Other nations were closing borders, quarantining. (p. 57)

Hall is well known for writing about sex in a way that feels both poetic and visceral, capturing the physicality of the act without losing the emotional depth. These passages are sensual and intense without ever feeling gratuitous – a testament to Hall’s finely-turned judgement as an artist and a writer. The prose is utterly sublime throughout – graceful and elegant in tone, almost meditative at times, especially when conveying the intimacy between the two lovers. The portrayal of their relationship is beautifully judged.

In Burntcoat, Sarah Hall has created something vital and vivid, capturing the fragile relationship between life and death. There is a deep sense of poignancy to the novel, a quality that stems from our understanding that Edith is facing her own mortality – she knows the resurgence will prove fatal this time as others have already succumbed. (At nearly sixty, Edith is old for a carrier, and her time is almost up.) As such, the novel explores some weighty existential themes. Namely, how do we live with the knowledge that one day we will die? How do we prepare for the inevitable without allowing it to consume us? And what do we wish to leave behind as a legacy of our existence? Intertwined with these big questions is the role of creativity in a time crisis – the importance of art in the wake of trauma, both individual and collective.

In short, this is a multi-layered novel with so much to offer – a moving elegy to love, life, loss and creativity that acts as a testament to humanity’s resilience in the face of deep uncertainty. Definitely one of the best and most thought-provoking novels I’ve read this year.

Burntcoat is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

The Birds of the Air by Alice Thomas Ellis

While Christmas is often trumpeted as the season to be jolly, it can be an incredibly stressful time for many, throwing us together with relatives we rarely see and may well dislike, encouraging us to stuff ourselves with food and drink, and generally disturbing our usual routines. It’s a set-up that Alice Thomas Ellis cleverly explores in her excellent novel, The Birds in the Air, set in the fictional suburb of Innstead, a British hinterland between town and country.

As the book opens, the widowed Mrs Marsh is preparing for the forthcoming arrival of her extended family, trying to get things ready for the busy festive season. Her eldest daughter, Mary, is mourning the loss of her son, Robin, whose death hangs over the novel, intermittently alluded to but never fully explained. Mrs Marsh, on the other hand, is a stoical woman, very much of the ‘life must go on’ way of thinking, an approach that clashes directly with Mary’s lack of interest in day-to-day life. In truth, Mary wants to be left alone to nurse her grief, avoiding interactions with others, especially over Christmas. 

She wished she could lie in the garden and come up later with the crocuses. What a rest that would be. She had lost interest in the world. A world in which Robin could die was a foolish, trivial place where nothing made sense and she had no desire to linger. (p. 102)

Meanwhile, Mrs Marsh’s other daughter, the dutiful Barbara, is embroiled in her own problems, prompted by the realisation that her husband – the loathsome Sebastian – is having an affair. As Barbara observes the various guests at their pre-Christmas drinks party, she spies Sebastian flirting with the wife of one of his colleagues, thereby confirming what her son, Sam, has already discovered.

Barbara was trying to be brave. She was cold, and her hands shook. Her face was dry and wore a cutout smile, as stiff and unnatural as a cardboard party mask, and she hardly knew what she was saying to the mobile faces around her as they opened and shut to speak or eat. She had told herself repeatedly that everyone else in this room had had extra-marital affairs and no one had died of it. No one minded any more – it was acceptable, it was smart, it was only human, it was ‘sophisticated’. At the old-fashioned word she felt tears in her eyes. She had never even learned to be sophisticated and now that everything had passed beyond the very concept she was lost – a stranger among her friends. (p. 34)

Sam is the eldest of Sebastian and Barbara’s two children – a rebellious teenager ardently railing against any form of conformity and control. Quite a contrast then to his younger sister, Kate, a highly precocious little girl with a tendency to boast, much to Sam’s annoyance.

Ellis is particularly adept at capturing the various tensions as the family gathers together in the confines of Mrs Marsh’s house, a claustrophobic environment that adds to the pressure within. More friends and neighbours subsequently arrive, most notably Sebastian’s publisher, Hunter, whom Barbara covertly desires. In the wake of her discovery about Sebastian, Barbara works herself up into a feverish state, entertaining the fantasy that Hunter is planning to seduce her – a misapprehension that can only end badly. Meanwhile, Mary continues to isolate herself from the rest of the party as far as possible, while Mrs Marsh is rushed of her feet, silently cursing the numerous fallings of her family.

Shot through with flashes of wry insight and barbed humour, The Birds of the Air highlights the casual savageries and absurdities that often occur in family life. Ellis is an astute observer of the suburban middle-classes, skewering her characters’ foibles with sharpness and precision.

Sebastian’s father, the judge, was a complacent man with a high colour, the set mouth of one who has never been contradicted and a voice which sounded as though he was perpetually swallowing a mouthful of expensive whisky together with a few fox hairs. (p. 54)

While none of these characters are particularly likeable, they do feel very recognisable – a testament to the author’s insight into human behaviour. Ellis also has a keen eye for detail with a mordantly witty edge – a note that adds a slightly menacing touch to this inconspicuous setting.

There had been a moon last night – a bridal moon, veiled and ominous behind the running clouds – but now there were only snow flakes, hurrying down and gathering as mobs gathered to overthrow tyrants. (p. 104)

This is a novella steeped in loss, jealousy and betrayal, but Ellis’s humour prevents it from being maudlin, balancing the darkness with some lovely flashes of absurdity.

My first experience of this author’s fiction, but hopefully not my last. Fans of Elizabeth Berridge, Beryl Bainbridge and Barbara Pym would likely enjoy this very much!

My edition of The Birds of the Air was published by Penguin; personal copy.

In Which Barbara Pym Gets a Glamorous Makeover, Courtesy of Virago Press!

Something a little different from me today, a little celebration of one of my favourite women writers, the inimitable Barbara Pym. I have written before about my love of Pym’s novels with their unassuming women, hapless clergymen and fusty academics, moving in a world that feels both strangely absurd and highly relatable.

In the context of most Barbara Pym novels, the most pressing concerns are what to serve the new vicar when he comes over for tea and how to dress for the forthcoming church fete. (If only real life were like that, everything would be so much simpler!) On the surface, they may appear to be light social comedies, amusing sketches of village life; but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a satisfying amount of depth. Pym wrote insightfully about unrequited love, often based on her own experiences of relationships and middle-class life. Through her engaging fiction, she championed women who were taken for granted by men, those ‘excellent’, capable gentlewomen, always ready to rally the troops with endless cups of tea and consoling words of sympathy.

While many mid-20th century writers have fallen in and out of fashion over the past seventy years, Pym has always enjoyed the ardent support of various literary luminaries, including Philip Larkin, Lord David Cecil, Jilly Cooper, Anne Tyler and Alexander McCall Smith – even during the wilderness years. Moreover, while the social context of the world has changed hugely in that time, Pym’s astute observations on human emotions and behaviours have continued to endure.

Now, as we approach what would have been her 109th birthday (she was born on 2nd June 1913), Pym is set to experience another renaissance, courtesy of a series of nine fabulous reissues in the Virago Modern Classics imprint. They really are beautifully designed, marrying the enduring ‘vintage’ feel of Pym’s fiction with a wonderfully stylish new look.

The Virago team very kindly offered me a couple of review copies, A Glass of Blessings and An Academic Question, both of which I’ve yet to read. But in the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to put together a brief round-up of Pym’s other Virago novels with links to my previous reviews, just to give you a few ideas. Whether you’re a Pym newbie or a more seasoned reader of her work, there’s almost certainly something in the range for you!

Crampton Hodnet

Published posthumously in 1985, Pym actually wrote this delightful comedy of manners in the late 1930s, just after the outbreak of the Second World War. Set in the respectable circles of North Oxford, Crampton Hodnet introduces us to a world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date, a novel that deserves to be much better known.

Some Tame Gazelle

This is vintage Pym, a great introduction to her recurring preoccupations and themes. The central characters – Belinda and Harriet Bede – are loosely based on Barbara and her elder sister, Hilary. In essence, Pym imagines their lives in thirty years’ time, both sisters unmarried and living together in a house in a quiet village in the countryside. In this early novel, she demonstrates such a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy, adding genuine texture and depth.

Excellent Women

One of Pym’s most popular, best-known novels and rightly so. I revisited this at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and it turned out to be the perfect lockdown read – charming, comforting and thoughtful, with enough insight into its protagonist’s world to elevate it into the literary sphere. The novel is narrated by the quintessential Pym heroine, Mildred Lathbury, a sensible, diplomatic and accommodating spinster in her early thirties. Marriage is a central theme in this book, set as it is in a period when society placed a great deal of value on the institution of marriage. The novel explores whether a woman like Mildred can live ‘a full life’ if she remains unmarried, a central concept that makes it a very satisfying read.

Jane and Prudence

Another sparkling addition to Pym’s oeuvre, Jane and Prudence is a charming story of unrequited love, the blossoming of unlikely relationships, and the day-to-day dramas of village life. Once again, Pym shows her keen eye for a humorous scenario and an interesting personality or two. Her trademark descriptions of food and clothing – hats in particular – are also in evidence. As the story plays out, there are some unexpected developments, one or two of which show us that we can find solace and a form of love in the most unlikely of potential partners. Possibly my favourite Pym to date.

Less Than Angels

Pym drew on her own experiences of life at the International African Institute in London for this thoughtful novel set within the world of a group of anthropologists. On the surface, Less Than Angels seems a more serious, more reflective novel than some of Pym’s other early works, certainly judging by those I’ve read to date. There is a poignant note to the central character’s story, which only reveals itself as the book draws to a close. Nevertheless, Pym’s trademark dry humour is never too far away. Probably best suited to seasoned Pym readers rather than newbies, I think.

No Fond Return of Love

This very enjoyable novel features two rather mismatched young women, Dulcie and Viola, who meet at a conference for proofreaders and indexers. While that might sound a little dry as a set-up, in Pym’s capable hands it is anything but! There are some wonderful set-pieces here, all played out in the familiar Pym world of afternoon tea, jumble sales, church gatherings and various learned organisations. As one might expect, each scene is very keenly observed. There’s also some gloriously furtive stalking on the part of Dulcie as she spies on the object of her affection, the editor Dr Aylwin Forbes. Definitely a novel I’d like to re-read.

Civil to Strangers

Published posthumously in 1987, Civil to Strangers comprises the titular novel, three unfinished novels/novellas and four short stories. While the novels and novellas are minor Pyms in the grand scheme of things, there is much for the completist to enjoy in this lovely collection of work. The short story Goodbye Balkan Capital is particularly strong. It’s quintessential Pym, a beautifully observed tale of two spinster sisters sharing a house together, protagonists reminiscent of the Bede sisters from Some Tame Gazelle.

So, there we have it. A whistle-stop tour of my thoughts on these Pym reissues from Virago. I’m sure they’ll be a runaway success, especially given the stunning new designs!

Let me know what you think of these novels in the comments below, especially if you’ve read any of them – and your thoughts on the updated editions, of course. Or maybe you have plans to (re-)read some of them soon? If so, feel free to mention them below.

The new editions will be published in the UK on 2nd June (Pym’s birthday!), and you can pre-order them here from my Bookshop.Org affiliate site. My sincere thanks to Virago Press for kindly providing copies.