Tag Archives: UK

The Love Department by William Trevor

I’ve been on a bit of William Trevor kick over the past few years, starting with his early novels, The Boarding-House (1965) and The Old Boys (1964), both excellent; then moving on to his final novel, Love and Summer (2009), a book I absolutely adored. The Love Department (1966) is another of Trevor’s early works, and while I didn’t find it quite as satisfying as the others, there’s still a great deal to enjoy here.

Like its predecessors, The Love Department is something of an ensemble piece, set in England in the mid-1960s. The central character is Edward Blakeston-Smith, a rather innocent young man who has just left a monastic retreat after a period of recuperation for a nervous condition. In his eagerness to prove he is no longer a child, Edward applies for a job with the ‘love department’, a hugely popular agony aunt service run by a leading newspaper based in London. Heading up the service is Lady Dolores Bourhardie, an eccentric figure who believes in the preservation of love within marriage, largely irrespective of a woman’s dissatisfaction with her husband.

Following a brief yet unsuccessful trial in the love department office, Edward is enlisted to perform a special mission in the field. He is to track down Septimus Tuam, an infamous trickster who has been stirring up trouble in the suburbs of Wimbledon, preying on vulnerable ladies with the ultimate aim of tapping them up for money. In short, Edward must find this enemy of love, follow him as he goes about his business and report back in full to Lady Dolores, preferably with a comprehensive dossier of Tuam’s targets and movements. At first Edward is rather reluctant to take on this mission, preferring the relative safety of the office to life in the wild; however, needs must when the devil drives, so he sets off with the aim of finding his prey.

As the narrative unfolds, we gain an insight into Tuam’s modus operandi, a technique which usually involves the ‘accidental’ laddering of a woman’s stocking with the tip of his umbrella. In this scene, Tuam – a rather attractive young man – is in the midst of setting up a potential victim, a smartly-dressed young woman whom he spots in a café. When Tuam offers to buy the lady a new pair of stockings, his target is rather reluctant to accept…

‘My dear, we cannot say goodbye like this. I have utterly ruined your beautiful stocking. I do insist, I really do, that you step across the road to Ely’s and see what they have for sale. I’m well known in the store.’ Septimus Tuam had taken the liberty of seizing the woman’s elbow, while she, feeling herself propelled from the café and on to the street, was thinking that a hatchet-faced young man whom she had never seen before had paid for her coffee and was now about to buy her stockings.

‘I must ask you to release me,’ she said. ‘Let go my elbow: I do not intend to go with you to Ely’s.’

‘Oh, come now.’

‘Please. You are greatly embarrassing me.’

‘Nonsense, my dear. My name is Septimus Tuam. And may I be so bold –’

‘Excuse me,’ said the woman to two men on the street. ‘I am being annoyed.’

The men turned on Septimus Tuam and spoke roughly, while the woman, glancing haughtily at him, strode away. He felt humbled and depressed and then felt angry. He crept away with the sound of the men’s voices echoing in his ears, hating momentarily the whole of womankind, and reflecting that his failure had cost him two and sevenpence. (pp. 28–29)

Edward’s investigations into Tuam bring him into contact with a wide range of characters, most notably Eve and James Bolsover who have been married for ten years. The Bolsovers’ marriage has eroded over time, something that Eve finds herself reflecting on as she goes about her days. While James is wrapped up in his work and the deteriorating health of his father, Eve is bored and frustrated in her role as a wife, the spark having gone out of their relationship through a gradual process of decay. As ever with Trevor, there are some poignant insights into the small tragedies of life throughout the novel, particularly in relation to the erosion of love.

Eve wondered if these wives loved their husbands now; and what the history of love had been in the marriages. She wondered if Mrs Linderfoot in Purley had woken one morning and seen that there was no love left, and had climbed on to a sofa and stayed there. She wondered if the Clingers ever spoke of love, or how Mrs Poache and the Captain viewed their wedding day. She looked across the room and saw her husband, his head bent to catch what Mrs Poache was saying. He was still a handsome man; the decay was elsewhere. (p.116)

The novel has a similar tone to Trevor’s other early works, one of black comedy – in this instance, a darkly humorous satire pitting the protectors of love within marriage against the threats to its preservation. There is a marvellous set-piece in the middle of the book when the Bolsovers host a dinner party for three of James’ work colleagues and their wives – all the men are members of the board. The Clingers turn up with their pet monkey, which is confined to a separate room. Unfortunately for the hosts, the monkey ends up attacking Mrs Hoop, the Bolsovers’ disgruntled charwoman, who milks the situation for everything she can get. To make matters worse, old Beach – Mrs Hoop’s drinking partner – turns up brandishing a broom, adding considerably to the fuss and mayhem. Even poor Edward is dragged into the fray through a bizarre coincidence, one of several in the book. (If I had a criticism, I would say that some of these seem a bit forced or contrived, more so than in Trevor’s other early novels.)

While the narrative is rather farcical at times, the individual scenes are never less than well observed. The characterisation too is excellent, from the sinister Septimus Tuam, a confidence trickster who shows no remorse at abandoning a woman who proves burdensome, to Mrs Hoop, a woman who despises her employer for her apparent lack of concern.

Trevor has a great affinity for life’s eccentrics, for people on the fringes of society, expertly capturing the pain and loneliness of an existence on the margins. His books are full of insights into the human condition, our hopes and dreams, our failings and foibles. Probably not the best place to start with this author, but a very diverting read nonetheless!

(I read this book for Cathy’s Reading Ireland month which is running throughout March. For another take on this novel, please see Kim’s review.)

The Love Department is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

This is such a charming book, a wonderful novel in which a young woman sets out on her own, hoping to find her way in the world of work before getting married. First published in 1933, the novel is being reissued by Handheld Press (publication date: 23rd March) in a beautiful new edition complete with drawings by Ann Stafford, the illustrator in the writing partnership of Oliver and Stafford.

The novel focuses on twenty-seven-year-old Hilary Fane, who has just become engaged to Basil Rainford, a busy surgeon based in Edinburgh. To support herself in the year before marriage, Hilary sets off to find a temporary job in London, something she hopes will be relatively easy given her degree-level education and experience as a librarian. However, the search for work proves challenging and time-consuming, more so that one might anticipate for someone with Hilary’s qualifications. (Several employers appear to be looking for a ‘Woman of Personality’, although it is never quite clear what this really means in practice!) In time though, persistence pays off, and Hilary is offered the role of a clerk at Everyman’s department store on Oxford Street – something she dare not turn down even if the work itself sounds rather dull and boring.

A clerk: it sounds dreary, but I daren’t refuse. It may lead to something, after all. (I wonder how many people get themselves landed for incredible years by that hope and by being too scared afterwards to throw up one job and look for another?) Anyway, I took it. I may have been a fool. I know there’s precious little prospect of advancement unless one’s head and shoulders better than the other people. But if I am, and if someone who matters notices it in time, I shall have my chance. (p. 23)

The story is told through a series of letters – mostly from Hilary to her parents or Basil – coupled with the occasional interdepartmental memo from the Everyman’s store. In short, the letters chart Hilary’s progress in London, the highs and lows of working life and the practicalities of surviving on a lowly wage. What comes through so strongly here is the narrative voice, revealing Hilary to be bright, realistic, witty and self-deprecating; in other words, she is an absolute joy. While there is clearly a safety net at hand – returning home to Edinburgh is always an option – Hilary is determined to stick it out, if only to prove Basil wrong in his dismissal of her efforts as some kind of misguided folly.

At first, Hilary is tasked with writing address for labels for books to be sent out to the store’s customers, filling in for a girl who is recovering from appendicitis. In a lucky break, Hilary comes into contact with Mr Grant, one of the store’s directors, whom she promptly impresses with her initiative when resolving a customer issue. As a consequence, Mr Grant arranges for Hilary to be transferred to the Book Department where her skills might be better utilised as a member of the sales team. The actual recommending and selling of books comes naturally to Hilary, playing to her strengths of patience, determination and attentiveness. It’s just the mental arithmetic that lets her down –something she finds difficult to do in a hurry, especially when under pressure. Nevertheless, Hilary sticks with it, and a transfer to the Library soon follows.

It is here in the Library that Hilary really begins to come into her own, taking charge of Fiction C, the least important of Everyman’s subscription services in the hierarchy of plans. Through Hilary’s observations on these services, we see the petty snobberies and prejudices inherent in certain parts of society at the time, where an individual’s subscription plan becomes a direct reflection of their class and social status.

The best people don’t have Fiction C subscriptions, because they only cost 10/– a year and provide the copies that other people have spilt tea over or dropped in the bath. The titled or indolent send menials to Miss Rivington for Fiction A or to Miss Landry for A Select. All the A subscribers come under the Rational Reading scheme, but the Fiction C pariahs appear unobtrusively in person and carry their books away in leathercraft satchels or string bags. (p. 103)

It is also here where Hilary must negotiate the thorniest aspects of staff politics through her dealings with Miss Sparling, a woman who resents Hilary’s presence in the Library and the subsequent impact this creates. At the request of Mr Grant, Hilary is to review the library process and systems with a view to making recommendations for improvement, a project she carries out with great efficiency and success. One of her changes results in the introduction of a more democratic system for customers, negating the need for Fiction C subscribers to stand in a separate queue to their Fiction A and B counterparts – thereby making the process feel much more equitable and humane.

In time, Hilary progresses to the role of Assistant Staff Supervisor, a job she relishes for it plays to her excellent organisation skills. In a neat parallel, this rise through the ranks at Everyman’s is mirrored in other areas of life. As her career flourishes, Hilary moves from a basement room in a boarding house to more spacious flat – a place she furnishes with the support of a generous aunt. 

In terms of tone, the novel is shot through with some wonderful comic touches, from the somewhat pretentious interdepartmental memos, to Hilary’s refreshingly witty observations as she documents her experiences at Everyman’s.

Aren’t people odd? What happens to them the instant money leaves their hands? Sell your best friend a packet of biscuits or a toothbrush or a silk handkerchief or a library subscription, and the most angelic personality is immediately submerged by the obsession of Getting one’s Money’s Worth. I didn’t read through many files: it was too indecent. I went to quickly on to my pile of letters from fulminating Colonels in Bedford and Bath and Harrogate who complain that they got nothing but ‘pert novels by pups’, and the women who are ‘quite at a loss to understand…’ (p. 129)

Throughout the book, the story touches on various aspects of working e.g. adapting to change, office politics, managing finances, and supporting colleagues – at one point, Hilary helps a young member of staff who must deal with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy, highlighting once again the societal attitudes of the day.

Alongside Hilary’s adventures, the novel also offers a marvellous insight into the world of retail in the 1930s. The day-to-day workings of a busy department store are lovingly brought to life in a way that feels both charming and authentic.

Overall, this is an absolutely delightful novel, likely to appeal to fans of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Diary of a Provincial Lady and 84 Charing Cross. Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for readers interested in British social history. 

Business as Usual is published by Handheld Press, my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.  

Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

One of my current aims is to read more memoirs, largely prompted by some critically-acclaimed releases such as Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands, a book that made my end-of-year highlights in 2019. Motherwell: A Girlhood is a memoir by the late Deborah Orr, the esteemed Guardian journalist who died from breast cancer last year. Rather than documenting Orr’s career in journalism, Motherwell focuses on the author’s childhood, mostly spanning the period from the mid-1960s through to the 1970s and early ‘80s, a time of significant social change in some regions of the UK. Moreover, the book’s title has a dual meaning, representing both the Scottish town near Glasgow where Orr grew up – Motherwell – and the nature of the relationship between Orr and her mother, Win – the latter prompting the question as to whether Win was able to ‘mother well’ when caring for Deborah and her brother, David.

Ostensibly, this memoir is an exploration of Orr’s fractured relationship with Win, the formidable woman who held the reins of power within the Orr household, much to the frustration of Deborah if not the rest of the family. A series of memories and reflections emerge, several of which are connected to ‘the bureau’ an imposing cabinet housing various objects and documents controlled by Win, a serial hoarder. (It is a highly symbolic object, an heirloom ultimately inherited by Deborah and installed in her London home.)

The bureau, like all three of my childhood homes, was the unchallenged domain of my mother, scrupulously well organised and governed by a surprisingly complex web of boundaries. […]

John [Deborah’s father] never delved behind the flap in the bureau. Win handled all the household’s paperwork, writing in her neat, cursive script or her neat block capitals. He would add his impressive signature where she told him to put it.

The rules were Win’s – and the power – but John tended to be their enforcer. (pp. 4-5, W&N)

As the book unfolds, the subtle nuances of Deborah’s relationship with Win become increasingly apparent. For the most part, Win is tenacious and terrifying, a woman obsessed with the need to keep up appearances; and yet she is also spirited and sociable, hailing from a large, working-class family with traditions of its own.

Having moved to Scotland from Essex at the time of her marriage to John, Win has experienced much suffering during her life, a point that becomes clear as her backstory is revealed. Furthermore, there is the sense that Win is unable to break that pattern of hardship with her own daughter, thereby implying that Deborah must bear a similar burden and conform to the expectations of the local community and society as a whole. The principle of conformity looms large in Motherwell, a town with the power to crush individuality and aspiration, notions it considers to be either shameful or fanciful.

Motherwell was a difference engine with a difference, calculating everything that might make a person unlike the other persons, then roaring into the sacred work of driving that devil out of them. Conformity was absolutely everything. Failure to conform to the fearlessness of the steelworker had torpedoed my dad’s self-esteem. Failure to be Scottish was a problem for my mum in Motherwell, just as failure to be English had been a failure for my dad in Essex. In both places I was a chimerical beast, an oddity. (p.43)

Unsurprisingly, Deborah longs to break free from the restrictions imposed by Win and by the town of Motherwell itself. In truth, Win would like nothing better than to keep Deborah with her in Motherwell, almost as an extension of herself – like an extra limb or appendage, the removal of which would lead to major trauma and grief.

Nevertheless, for all her pride, prejudices and other faults, Win is capable of occasional moments tenderness where a more loving relationship emerges between mother and daughter. There are recollections of shared experiences, instances of Win and Deborah lying in bed together, just like the members of any ‘normal’ family might do.

John, too, is anything but black and white. Initially seen as the more playful and supportive of the two parents (the young Deborah idolises him), John has his own demons in the form of drink, gambling and a capacity for occasional violence – factors that prompt a reassessment of his personality over time. As with other sections of the book, there is a striking sense of honesty in the way Orr writes about these aspects of family life, the gradual process of realisation that someone close to you may not be quite so perfect after all.

Alongside the author’s reflections on the nature of motherhood and family, there is another, equally compelling side to Motherwell, one of broader significance. In writing this remarkable book, Orr has given us a searing insight into a key period of Scotland’s social history, successfully conveying the devastating impact of the decimation of the steel industry – particularly on Motherwell and the surrounding community. At its peak, the steelworks employed more than half of Motherwell’s adults, many of them stationed at Ravenscraig, the beating heart of the local manufacturing trade. After years of financial starvation, Ravenscraig closed in 1992, with the demolition of its the iconic cooling towers following in 1996 – an eerie event witnessed by Deborah and her immediate family.  

Motherwell is the town I was born and bred in, a coal and steel town on the lip of the Clyde Valley. By the time I was thirty years old, it wasn’t a coal and steel town any more. Motherwell lost its identity in the industrial restructuring of the 1980s, along with wave after wave of redundant workers. Personal identities were shattered. But group identity was shattered too. The people of Motherwell were used to being part of something much, much bigger than themselves. When it went, so quickly, Motherwell became a town without a purpose. I couldn’t stand the place, even when it was still in its pomp. But I loved it too. Still do. (pp. 1-2)

Also running through the book is the theme of narcissism, acting as a kind of lens or filter through which several elements are viewed. The spectre of narcissism is present in many aspects of Deborah’s life, from the relationship with ex-husband, Will Self, to the politics within the Orr household during childhood, to some of the ongoing failings of wider society itself.

Because here’s the thing. Once you know how to spot it, narcissism is everywhere. Narcissism explains many aspects of human society. It is, I believe, the psychological motor behind patriarchy, behind racism and behind most, if not all, prejudice. The need to feel better than others, or that others are no better than you, whether in a family, a group or in the whole wide world, is a need that many people feel, especially in this age of individualism. (p. 208)

In short, Motherwell is a staggeringly good memoir – poignant, beautiful and ultimately heartbreaking. (I couldn’t help but feel some element of compassion for Win despite her terrible failings.) Orr weaves together all the different strands so brilliantly, moving seamlessly from memories of her upbringing to expressions of anger about the devastation of the steel industry to pertinent asides on the toxic nature of narcissism and its power to destroy. She is so candid in her analysis of a difficult childhood, unsparing in the visceral act of self-exploration. This is a powerful, humane and beautifully-written book of how our early experiences and the communities we live in can shape us, possibly prompting us to strive for something better in the years that follow.

Motherwell is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.

The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald

This collection of eight short stories by Penelope Fitzgerald – one of my all-time favourite writers – was first published in 2000, the year of her death. Interestingly, the settings range from the historical (19th century Brittany and 17th century Australia) to the more contemporary (Britain in the 1950s/’60s and Scotland at the end of the 20th century). In this respect, the book could be viewed as a kind of bridge between Fitzgerald’s early novels and her later, historical works.

As with other story collections I’ve reviewed, I won’t cover all of the individual pieces; instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole.

In The Axe – one of the standout stories in this collection – a middle manager is tasked with the job of making a number of his staff redundant to reduce resources. While some employees seem happy to move on or take early retirement, others may prove more reluctant to leave, especially if they have worked for the company for several years. The manager is particularly worried about his clerical assistant, Mr Singlebury, a rather apologetic, fastidious individual who appears to have no real life outside of work.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he [Mr Singlebury] wore a blue suit and a green knitted garment with a front zip. On Tuesdays and Thursdays he wore a pair of grey trousers of man-made material which he called ‘my flannels’, and a fawn cardigan. The cardigan was omitted in summer. He had, however, one distinguishing feature, very light blue eyes, with a defensive expression, as though apologizing for something which he felt guilty about, but could not put right. The fact is that he was getting old. Getting old is, of course, a crime of which we grow more guilty every day. (p. 26)

The Axe is conveyed in the form of a written report from the manager to his superiors, recounting his experiences with the redundancies and Mr Singlebury in particular. At first, Singlebury seems to take the news reasonably quietly, much to the manager’s relief. Nevertheless, just before his departure, Singlebury invites the manager to dinner at his home – a suitably sad and depressing room in a boarding house – where he confesses his concerns as what will happen once the job ends. Consequently, the manager is left dreading the prospect of Singlebury’s return, fearing his assistant may take it upon himself to turn up to work as if nothing has happened.

This is a terrific story with a creeping sense of dread, particularly towards the end. As with the rest of Fitzgerald’s work, the central character of Singlebury is drawn with great insight and sensitivity. Here we have an ‘invisible’ man, beavering away at his role without any real credit or recognition, tossed aside with little thought in the name of economy. It’s a very striking story, brilliantly told.

In Beehernz – one of the contemporary stories set in the wilds of Scotland – an artistic director is dispatched to the remote island of Reilig to persuade a reclusive maestro to come out of retirement.

Iona is three miles long and one mile wide, and Reilig looked considerably smaller. The blue sky, cloudless that day, burned as if it was as salt as the water below them. There was no sand or white shell beach as you approached, and the rocky shoreline was not impressive, just enough to give you a nasty fall. (p. 60)

The director, Hopkins, is hoping Beehernz will agree to conduct a couple of Mahler concerts at a forthcoming festival, something the maestro has shied away from doing over the past 40 years. However, once Hopkins comes face-to-face with his target, any potential sense of influence begins to slip away.

On this island of Reilig he felt authority leaving him, with no prospect of being replaced by anything else. Authority was scarcely needed in a kingdom of potatoes and seabirds. (p. 66)

Beehernz is another beautifully observed story – this one underscored with Fitzgerald’s trademark dry wit.

There is humour too in Not Shown, a story of small-mindedness and petty jealousies. It features Fothergill, ‘the resident administrator, or dogsbody’ at Tailfirst Farm which sits in the grounds of a large country house. While the farm is open to the public during the summer, the house itself is not – the latter being home to Lady P, the somewhat dismissive head of the manor.

Assisting Fothergill at the farm are two local women: Mrs Fearne, formerly of The Old Pottery Shop, and Mrs Twine, who used to be a dinner lady at the village school, both lovingly described in the following passage.

So far there had been worryingly few visitors, but he disposed carefully of his small force. Mrs Twine couldn’t stand for too long, and was best off in the dining-room where there was a solid table to lean against; on the other hand, she was sharper than Mrs Feare, who let people linger in the conservatory and nick the tomatoes.

Mrs Feare was more at home in the shop with the fudge and postcards, and her ten-year-old son biked up after school to work out the day’s VAT on his calculator. Mrs Twine also fancied herself in the shop, but had no son to offer. (pp. 101–102)

This peaceful unit is soon disturbed by the arrival of Mrs Horrabin, who takes it upon herself to replace Mrs Feare and Mrs Twine, claiming ‘these two old boilers standing in the corners of the room’ will scare off the visitors. After all, members of the public just want to have a good nose around; ‘they want to see the bedroom and the john’, not all the other padding. As it turns out, Mrs Horrabin has designs on other aspects of Tailfirst, not least Mr Fothergill himself. Like many of the stories in this collection, Not Shown has an ending that leaves much to the reader’s imagination, opening up several possibilities of what might happen to these characters in the days and weeks that follow.

Overall, I found Fitzgerald’s contemporary/20th-century stories more satisfying than her historical ones, possibly because they chime more strongly with my general reading preferences per se. Nevertheless, one or two of the historical pieces certainly warrant a mention here.

The titular story, The Means of Escape, is perhaps one of the most striking pieces in the book – the tale of a Rector’s daughter who develops feelings for an escaped convict she finds hiding in her father’s church. The sense of time and place – 17th century Tasmania – is brilliantly evoked, from the details of the church and Rectory to the language and dialogue at play. This is a very memorable story with a surprising twist at the end. Definitely a highlight of the collection.

Other historical stories feature a group of artists on a painting trip to Brittany, and a couple who must rely on two homing pigeons for communication at a vital time (their home being on a remote farm in Auckland, miles from the nearest town). Irrespective of the period and setting, Fitzgerald is able to create characters and worlds that feel entirely credible and believable, such is her perception and attention to detail.

As ever, Fitzgerald displays great sympathy towards her characters, particularly when they are at their most vulnerable or damaged. These stories offer glimpses into strange, mysterious worlds, conveyed with sensitivity, credibility and intuition. All in all, a very worthwhile read.

The Means of Escape is published by 4th Estate; personal copy.

Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill

While Diana Athill was perhaps best known for her work as a literary editor and memoirist, she also produced a small number of works of fiction, particularly towards the beginning of her career. One of these books – a 1967 novel entitled Don’t Look at Me Like That – has just been reissued by Granta in a stylish new edition (very 1960s in terms of artwork). It is, in some respects, a coming-of-age story, imbued with the pleasure and pain of illicit love, all set within the bohemian milieu of Oxford and London in the 1950s.

The novel focuses on Meg Bailey, a socially awkward young woman with a talent for art. Home life for Meg has been frugal and conservative, the daughter of Church of England parson and a buttoned-up mother, reflective of the traditional attitudes of the era.

At school, Meg has only one friend, Roxane Weaver, whom she stays with from time to time during the holidays. Roxane’s family are the opposites of Meg’s: relaxed, sophisticated and socially adventurous at heart. It is during one of these visits that Meg meets Dick, a charming young man who encourages her to come out of her shell and dance. Dick also indulges Roxane’s mother, Mrs Weaver, playing up to her as a precocious nephew might do to a favourite aunt. Before long, Meg is holding Dick’s hand in the back of a car, Roxane and her companion in front oblivious to the developments going on behind them. For Meg it is a big moment, her first real experience of boys and everything this represents.

I wanted to rush on into unknown territory forever, safe in the warm intimacy of the car, the blanket rough against my chin, the men singing and joking, Roxane reaching into the back from time to time to feed me a chocolate, and neither of the two in front knowing that my hand was fast in Dick’s. I was eighteen and no one had ever held my hand before. Wilfred had always been too shy to attempt physical contact beyond bumping into me occasionally. This was a new move in the game, and a big one. (p. 45)

In her desire to escape the restrictions at home, Meg enrols in art school in Oxford where she stays with Roxane’s family, enjoying the buzz and activity of the Weavers’ household. By now, Meg is able to see Mrs Weaver for what she really is – a somewhat comic figure holding court over her gatherings or ‘salons’. It is during this period that Meg realises Mrs Weaver’s intentions towards Dick, as a future husband for Roxane – a match that seems natural and socially acceptable. Nevertheless, Meg has allowed herself to get emotionally involved with Dick, fantasising a little about his charm and easy-going manner.

A year or two later, Meg lands a job based in London, working as an illustrator of children’s books by an up-and-coming author, while Roxane and Dick begin their married life back at home. In the course of his work, Dick must travel to London on a fortnightly basis, bringing him into contact with Meg for various dinners and trips to the cinema. It is at this point that the situation between the two friends becomes more complex, rapidly developing into a passionate affair that extends over a number of years.

I don’t want to say too much about how the relationship between Meg and Dick plays out. That’s something for you to discover yourself should you decide to read the book. Instead, I’d like to mention something about the settings which are beautifully evoked. Athill captures the transient nature of a young woman’s life in London to great effect – from the poky, down-at-heel bedsits presided over by fearsome landladies to the friendly yet disorganised atmosphere of a house share, everything is conveyed in vivid detail.

It was one thing to make resolutions about my sex life and another to carry them out. I didn’t know how to escape from Miss Shaw’s bed-sitter. London never seemed to me hostile, but its size and complexity daunted me so that every day my morning decision to start looking for another room would give way by lunchtime to the argument that any place cheap enough for me would be as depressing as this one. Once again I would group my reproductions and Roxane’s mug full of flowers where they caught the light and made a little island of colour and ownership, and would get into bed and hide in a book. (p 71)

It’s a testament to Athill’s skills as a writer that she encourages the reader to feel some sympathy for Meg in spite of the latter’s recklessness with the affair and her apparent lack of concern for Roxane. The accompanying notes on the inside cover suggest Athill drew on her own experiences of London in the 1950s as inspiration for the novel, a point that seems entirely believable given the tone and ‘feel’ of the book.

My only reservation relates to a minor thread depicting Meg’s relationship with Jamil, a fellow lodger in the bohemian house share that becomes her home. Ultimately, this element feels a little superfluous and tagged on, to the point where I’m left wondering whether Athill wrestled somewhat with the novel’s ending, unsure of how best to draw Meg’s story to a close. Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble in the scheme of things, especially as there is much to admire in this unsentimental portrait of a young girl’s life. This is a book I would definitely recommend to lovers of British fiction, particularly from the mid-20th-century.

Don’t Look at Me Like That is published by Granta Books, my thanks to the publishers / Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

Recent Reads Lie With Me by Philippe Besson and The Large Door by Jonathan Gibbs

Another round-up post with some brief thoughts on a couple of recent(ish) reads, both recommended.

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (2017, tr. Molly Ringwald, 2019)

Just the kind of short, beautifully-written novella I tend to love, especially in translation.

In brief, the book starts with a prologue in which the narrator – Philippe, a successful yet sensitive writer – catches sight of a young man who reminds him strongly of his first love, an attractive, charismatic young boy named Thomas. This chance encounter prompts Philippe to reflect on his adolescence and the passionate, fleeting relationship he experienced with his more popular classmate, Thomas.

This covert, mind-expanding liaison between the two boys sparks an awakening in Philippe, both sexually and emotionally. A quiet, apprehensive boy at heart, Philippe relaxes into his skin, becoming more at ease with himself and his relationships with others. However, alongside the intimacy and feverish pleasure of first love comes the loneliness and anguish of the virtually inevitable separation.

I discover that absence has a consistency, like the dark water of a river, like oil, some kind of sticky dirty liquid that you can struggle and perhaps drown in. It has a thickness like night, an indefinite space with no landmarks, nothing to bang against, where you search for a light, some small glimmer, something to hang on to and guide you. But absence is, first and foremost, silence. A vast, enveloping silence that weighs you down and puts you in a state where any unforeseeable, unidentifiable sound can make you jump. (p. 37)

Lie With Me is a tender, deeply moving book about the pain and passion of illicit love, the heartbreak that accompanies absence, and the difficulties of coming to terms with who we are. It is imbued with a strong sense of yearning for halcyon times; Besson’s prose is sublime.

The Large Door by Jonathan Gibbs (2019)

A smart, playful novel which explores a number of interesting themes with the lightest of touches.

As the novel opens, Jenny Thursley, a troubled linguistics lecturer in her early forties, is returning to Europe for a conference in Amsterdam, an event dedicated to the life and work of her former mentor, Leonard Peters. During the trip, Jenny must revisit and come to terms with certain events from her past, most notably how best to honour Leonard given their previous history – Leonard once made a clumsy pass at Jenny, an incident that was brushed under the carpet at the time and never spoken of again. Jenny’s task is made all the more challenging by the news that Leonard is dying from cancer – a revelation that everyone else seems to have known about long before Jenny.

The situation is further complicated by the presence of Jenny’s former lover, Frankie, at the conference. If truth be told, Jenny still holds a candle for Frankie, now fifty-three and a successful, sophisticated academic herself.

Frankie Gerrity was her dearest friend, still; her lover and partner for three-and-a-half crucial, bitter years – years that has expanded in the rear-view mirror until they seemed now to hold within them most of her significant life, especially now that they existed on the far side of another all-consuming relationship: the marriage to a man that had seemed to her at the time a definitive turning-over of her life, a gleeful flight across a burning bridge. She didn’t think that now. But equally she didn’t know how to think herself back to the person she had been before. (pp. 42–43)

Gibbs perfectly captures the sense of feeling unmoored, ‘turning hopelessly in the current’ in the hope of finding something stable to hold on to. The novel explores the messy business of relationships, connections and communications in a lively, intelligent way. There is a clever play on the subjunctive as Jenny agonises over her half-written speech for the conference and wonders whether it will ever be completed at all.

The need to face up to our mortality is another theme, as is our relationship with art and creativity. There is a captivating scene in the middle of the book where Jenny is taken to see a Dutch painting, and the realisation she experiences is beautifully observed.

All in all, this is a very erudite novel – smart, witty and elegantly conveyed. I liked it a lot.

Lie With Me is published by Penguin Books, The Large Door by Boiler House Press; my thanks to the publishers/authors for kindly providing review copies.

Recent Reads – Dorothy Whipple and Julian Maclaren-Ross

Brief thoughts on a couple of recent reads, both from the 20th century.

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple (1932)

Sometimes a big fat Persephone just does the trick, and Dorothy Whipple’s Greenbanks proved no exception to the rule. A thoroughly enjoyable family saga with clear feminist overtones, spanning the period from 1910 to the mid-1920s.

The novel focus on the Ashton family – in particular, the grandmother, Louisa (who lives at Greenbanks), and her granddaughter, Rachel. The Ashtons are comfortably off – upper middle class by society’s standards – and traditional in terms of behaviour. In a sense, much of the narrative traces Rachel’s childhood, highlighting her growing independence in light of her father’s archaic views. While Ambrose is willing to send his sons to public school, he sees no reason to honour the same commitment to Rachel, such is the folly of educating women for fear they might prove troublesome.

Ambrose intended to send his three sons to public schools; but it would be a severe strain on his resources and he was glad to be able to save on Rachel. She need not go away to school; nobody asked where a girl had been educated. And he did not believe in all this education for women; in fact, he considered knowledge definitely unbecoming to them. It destroyed their charm; they did not listen so well if they knew too much. (p. 137)

Most of the men in this novel are horrendous, from the dictatorial Ambrose (Rachel’s father) to the philandering Robert (Louisa’s husband) to the weak-willed Mr Northcote (the local Vicar) – I could go on. By contrast, Whipple’s women are more considered creatures, increasingly aware that they must forge their own paths in life in spite of the men who surround them. There are hints too of the differences between the generations, each demonstrating increasingly progressive attitudes to marriage, class, education and independence than the one before. While Louisa is somewhat ashamed of the breakdown of her daughter Laura’s marriage, Laura herself seems unperturbed, determined as she is to escape a miserable relationship for one based on love.

Louisa winced at the prospect of more talk; she blamed Laura and was angry with her; then she became apprehensive for her because she was leaving the ‘safe’ life; then, watching Laura flying about her packing with a happy face, she marvelled that nothing was ever as you expected it to be. Leaving a husband should surely be a momentous, dramatic affair, yet here was Laura behaving as if she did it every day. (p. 190)

Over the course of the novel, the narrative touches on many issues and developments including bullying, infidelity, authoritarianism and social rejection. Dorothy Whipple may not be the flashiest or most literary of writers, but her insights into women’s lives are always absorbing. Overall, Greenbanks seems a much better novel than The Priory, which I read last year – almost certainly more focused in its storytelling while still conveying more than enough character development to sustain interest. Moreover, Greenbanks doesn’t go for the obvious tidy ending, for one of the main characters at least. Definitely recommended for fans of middlebrow fiction from the early-mid 20th century.

Bitten by the Tarantula and Other Writing by Julian Maclaren-Ross (collection 2005, individual pieces 1938-1964)

I thoroughly enjoyed dipping in and out of this collection of writing by the British author, Julian Maclaren-Ross, the man who served as inspiration for the idiosyncratic X. Trapnel in Anthony Powell’s masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time.

Bitten by the Tarantula comprises six sections spanning the titular novella, short fiction, unfinished long fiction, essays on the cinema, essays on literature/book reviews, and literary parodies. While a little uneven in parts, the volume as a whole demonstrates JMR’s breadth and versatility, skilfully moving from fiction to non-fiction and back again as the sections go by.

There’s plenty of impressive stuff here from the Waugh-like titular novella with its themes of debauchery and self-destruction to the affectionate literary spoofs with their nods to Patrick Hamilton, P.G. Wodehouse and other leading writers of the day.

Much of the short fiction is very interesting too, albeit a little mixed, rooted as it is in London’s Fitzrovia and the corresponding milieu. There are hints here of the greatness to come in JMR’s 1947 novel, Of Love and Hunger, a book I absolutely adore. Other pieces in this section are concerned with the war – minor comic gems on the bureaucratic frustrations of army life in WW2.

With the unfinished long fiction, we see Maclaren-Ross spreading his wings a little, trying out one or two different genres or styles for size. The Dark Diceman has the genesis of a compelling thriller, populated by a web of characters interconnected by the effects of crime. While these pieces are most definitely in their infancy, it’s fascinating to speculate as to how they might have turned out, particularly if given the right development and support.

However, it is the essays on cinema, authors and other literary topics that really shine for me – the author’s critiques on American film noir, British features, and the world of Alfred Hitchcock are probably worth the entry price alone. JMR was a big fan of Otto Preminger’s classic noir Laura (adapted from Vera Caspary’s novel of the same name), favouring it over the Billy Wilder’s much-feted Double Indemnity, another leading film from 1944.

Personally I preferred Laura by far. The dialogue was the most subtle and scintillating I have heard on a soundtrack for years; for once the script-writers had improved considerably on the novelist’s conception; from the first fade-in – the darkened screen and the sad impressive interior monologue – to the last scenes full of terrific suspense – Laura turning out light after light, locking herself in with the murderer when she believes she is alone in the flat; the murderer screwing his face up with a shudder of revulsion as he loads the shotgun […].(p. 248)

I know I’ve only skimmed the surface of this thoroughly absorbing book, but hopefully this given you a brief taster of what it contains. In summary, this is a fascinating selection of writing from a much-underrated author. One for lovers of film noir, British fiction and the seedy London milieu.

Greenbanks is published by Persephone Books, Bitten by the Tarantula by Black Spring Press; personal copies.