Tag Archives: US

The Trees by Percival Everett

The American writer and academic Percival Everett has written a remarkably clever and provocative novel here. At heart, the book is a blistering expose of the ingrained racism in certain sectors of American society and the country’s devastating history of lynchings, specifically targeting people of colour. However, rather than addressing these issues in a conventional literary novel, Everett plays with the tropes of genre fiction, using elements of satire, humour, horror and surrealism to create a thoroughly engaging page-turner with some vital social critique at its core.

The story opens with two back-to-back murders in Money, Mississippi, an area largely populated by rednecks with scant regard for racial equality. In each case, two bodies are found at the crime scene – a mutilated, castrated white man with barbed wire wrapped around his neck and a badly-beaten black man who appears to be holding the other victim’s testicles in his hands. Stranger still, the black body in each incident is the same one – a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy who was abducted, tortured and lynched in Mississippi in the mid-1950s after a white woman accused him of causing offence. What’s more, the two dead white men, Wheat Bryant and Junior Junior Milam, are closely related to Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who accused Emmett Till back in the ‘50s – an accusation Carolyn (aka Granny C) now regrets.

The local police, led by Sheriff Red Jetty, are baffled by the two cases, but help soon arrives in the shape of two black Special Detectives – Ed and Jim – from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (‘MBI’ for short). While the townsfolk view these super-smart detectives with a degree of suspicion, they soon have the measure of the local police, if not the perpetrator(s) behind the crimes themselves. As the investigations get underway, rumours of strange supernatural forces begin to surface, especially given the black body’s resemblance to Emmett Till…

Everett has a lot of fun with stereotypes and names in this novel, portraying certain influential white residents of Money for what they really are – fervent racists of the most pernicious kind. For instance, the town’s Coroner, Reverend Doctor Fondle, is deeply unnerved by these incidents as he rallies his fellow members of the local Ku Klux Klan.

“We got ourselves a situation, White brothers”, Fondle said. “I’m afraid what we’re lookin’ at is a real nigger uprising. Two of our own brothers lay dead, and a killin’ nigger is on the gawddamn loose. I seen him, seen him close up, scarred up by Satan himself. A nigger that’s as good at fakin’ death as anybody you will ever find. I seen him dead, and then he weren’t.” (p. 108)

During their time in Money, Ed and Jim cross paths with Gertrude (aka Dixie), who works as a waitress in a local diner. Gertrude helps the detectives by introducing them to her super-sharp great-grandmother, Mama Z, who knows pretty much everything about the goings-on in the local area over the past hundred years. As it turns out, Mama Z has compiled records of almost every lynching in the US – police shootings included – since 1913, the year of her father’s death. In part, she does this ‘because somebody has to’ – if Mama Z doesn’t do it, who will? With her knowledge of the local history and gossip, Mama Z suggests a couple of people for the detectives to see. ‘If you want to know a place, you talk to its history.”

As the narrative unfolds, eerily similar murders are reported across the US – firstly in Mississippi, then in other states, including South Carolina and Alabama. Alongside the original killings closely linked to the Emmett Till case, it seems a wave of copycat incidents is sweeping across the nation – culminating in retribution on a large scale, with numerous white victims being found at various sites, all attacked and castrated as before. With this escalation in violence, Ed and Jim are joined by Special Agent Herberta Hind from the FBI, another smart cookie who also happens to be black.

Everett draws brilliantly on his creative skills here, portraying these events with an outrageous seam of dark humour. On the surface, the Whites for Social Justice’s responses to the killings might seem risible, highlighting the absurdities at play as they prepare for the race war long anticipated by the group. However, Everett never lets us forget the seriousness and brutality of the situation he is tackling so smartly in this book.

“What we gonna do?”

“We have to get everybody together,” Morris repeated.

“You make it sound like we got numbers,” Rupter said. “Far as I can see, we got us and two other people. Where’s this war taking place? My boy’s got Little League this week.”

 “Yeah,” Fester said. “We is scattered all over the country. The very thing that makes the FBI afraid of us is our weakness.” (p. 265)

As the narrative progresses, the repeated reports of various killings might feel a little unnecessary, as one could argue that the reader will soon get the idea after the first four or five accounts. However, I think Everett is making a conscious point here. By mentioning several separate incidents and victims, he is highlighting both the importance of each individual case and the cumulative gravity of events as they pile up. Perhaps this an attempt to address the ‘erasure’ of individual victims of racially-motivated lynchings over time – a theme reflected in the actions of Damon Thruff, an influential friend and academic enlisted by Gertrude to review Mama Z’s work. 

He [Damon] found it all depressing, not that lynching could be anything but. However, the crime, the practice, the religion of it, was becoming more pernicious as he realized that the similarity of their deaths had caused these men and women to be at once erased and coalesced like one piece, like one body. They were all number and no number at all, many and one, a symptom, a sign. (p. 189)

As Damon works his way through Mama Z’s records, he notes each victim’s name in pencil, making them feel ‘real again’ rather than just a statistic. Moreover, the act of writing these names in pencil and subsequently erasing them is designed to set the victims free, liberating them from the weight of such a tragic history.

Stylistically, The Trees reads like a detective novel – it’s fast-paced and whip-smart, while the passages of outrageously funny dialogue and slightly surreal interludes add significantly to its appeal.

“What a fuckin’ mess. A goddamn clusterfuck.”

“Chief, is clusterfuck one word or two?” Jethro asked.

“What?”

“Never mind.”

“Get back to the goddamn station.”

“Yessir.” (p. 31)

As the quote on the book’s cover suggests, what Everett does so well here is to navigate these chilling, contemporary issues with satire, surrealism and knockout comedy, pushing his scenario as far as he can take it (certainly within the bounds of a page-turning novel). Moreover, as other readers have already observed, there is the basis of razor-sharp film or TV mini-series here, preferably directed by Spike Lee or Jordan Peele. Both the subject matter and the style feel right up their street.

There’s even a hilarious vignette involving a certain US President – no prizes for guessing which one! – and his response to the crisis. As a polemic, it comes across as barking mad and frighteningly believable all at once, just like so many other actions of this loose cannon himself.

Naturally, I’m not going to reveal how The Trees plays out – you’ll have to read the book itself to discover that! However, let me reassure you that it’s absolutely worth the ride. This is a very clever satire, conveyed in the guise of a propulsive detective novel, raising thought-provoking questions about justice, revenge and deep-rooted racism in the US today – not least the country’s toxic history with lynchings and other racially-motivated violence.

A vital, provocative and hugely enjoyable book that deserves to be widely read. I’m delighted to see it on the Booker shortlist – a terrific choice indeed!

The Trees is published by Influx Press; personal copy.

Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin

When Dorian (at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau) first introduced me to Laurie Colwin’s books, he described them as very New York-y. Wry rather than funny, bittersweet but not sentimental – and Jewish, albeit in a low-key kind of way. A little like Woody Allen’s films, back in the days when they were good. (Annie Hall would be a great reference point.)

First published in 1979, Happy All the Time fits right into that groove. It’s a charming, generous novel about love and friendship – light-heated in style but insightful on the complexities of human nature. More specifically, it explores the challenges of finding happiness in a relationship, especially when each partner has a different outlook on life.

Guido and Vincent have been best friends since boyhood. Both are well educated and comfortable financially – their families are upper-middle class and distantly related. When we first meet them, these men are in their late-twenties – neither is married, but each has a different attitude to romantic entanglements.

Guido – who manages a charitable arts trust on behalf of his family – thinks of himself as a romantic, ‘an old-fashioned man living in modern times’, wedded to the belief that real love affairs usually end in marriage. Consequently, he eschews the idea of casual dalliances in favour of deeper commitment. Vincent, on the other hand, flits from one unsuitable (and often unavailable) woman to another – ‘vague blond girls’ are his usual type, much to Guido’s dismay. Vincent – a garbage specialist at a think-tank for urban planning – is intelligent, optimistic and easy-going, but rather muddled in matters of the heart. Guido, by contrast, is an elegant, sensitive worrier; he agonises over things too much, analysing them to the hilt.

When Guido spots an attractive girl at a museum, it’s love at first sight. Unfortunately, the object of his affection – an elegant, precise, well-ordered young woman named Holly – proves rather challenging for him to woo. Nevertheless, Guido persists in his pursuit, and after two solid months of walks, dinners and visits to galleries, the pair are sleeping together and slipping into a natural routine.

Meanwhile, Vincent experiences his own revelation when he falls for Misty, a linguistics colleague from work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Misty is the exact opposite of Vincent’s previous girlfriends. She is intelligent, prickly and somewhat insecure (an earlier love affair has left her wounded and reluctant to commit). But for Vincent, this is serious, a point that Guido quickly detects.  

He had never seen Vincent so emotional. He could remember Vincent been troubled by women, or bothered by them, or made to feel guilty on their account, but he had never seen Vincent agitated by a girl. The tail of his shirt hung below his jacket. His loosened tie hung to one side. His hair looked as if he had spent the morning running his hands through it. This made Guido feel very old and wise. He felt that Vincent was about to have his heart broken at last and that he would be a bad friend to stop it. Vincent needed to have his heart broken. (p. 44)

Colwin is terrific with dialogue – a skill she uses to great effect here, especially in the early stages of Vincent and Misty’s relationship.

“What I mean to say is, I’m sorry to have kissed you like that yesterday.”

Misty lifted her eyes from the tablecloth. The most remote flicker of a smile crossed her lips.

“Is that really what you mean to say?” she said.

“I thought it was,” said Vincent.

“Think again,” said Misty. The flicker had turned into a real smile, a smile that looked almost warm. That, of course, was an excellent sign. “Did you actually drag me out to dinner to tell me that you didn’t mean to kiss me?” She was still smiling. (p. 46)

In time, Guido and Holly marry, settling into their lives together. While Guido makes a success of his family’s trust, Holly spends her time on various hobbies, ranging from cookery classes, flower arranging, studying the arts and languages. That’s all very well, but what really interests Colwin is some of the bumps along the road in these relationships – the difficulties of finding contentment when our outlooks are not in synch. After three years of seemingly blissful marriage, Holly remains something of a closed book to Guido. She takes care of the house and does various things to enrich their lives, but she rarely emotes – a point that Guido finds baffling and frustrating.

He felt his three years of married life had gone by in a swoon, although the details, like those in great paintings, stood out in high relief. But what Holly thought was still a mystery to him. Although by action she seemed to love him ardently, Holly did not seem to live in the realm of the emotions. She felt, she emoted, and she never gave it a second thought. The complexities of love and marriage were things she lived with and through, and that was that. Guido, to whom thinking and feeling were the same thing, was learning that you might live with someone whose sense of life was not your own. (p. 66)

When Holly announces that she needs some time on her own to appreciate the value of their marriage, Guido doesn’t understand. In short, Guido cannot put himself in Holly’s shoes (or anyone else’s, for that matter). So, despite struggling to appreciate that their lives have become too predictable, Guido reluctantly lets Holly go, fearing what might happen, if and when she returns. Meanwhile, Vincent and Misty are experiencing their own problems, particularly around commitment. Vincent is head over heels in love with Misty – a sensation he has never experienced before. Misty, however, remains cautious – fearful of getting hurt if she allows herself to open up.

“I love you,” said Vincent.

“I don’t believe you,” said Misty. “I think you find me sociologically interesting. You like the novelty but it’ll wear off and then you’ll get bored.”

“Look,” said Vincent, “is it so awful having someone love you?”

“Yes,” said Misty. (p. 90)

As the narrative plays out, we follow each couple’s path to finding happiness and contentment, encompassing their hopes and dreams, insecurities and frustrations. In short, each individual must learn to adapt or become more accommodating in some way as they come to terms with each other’s needs. Alongside the leading players, there are some wonderful supporting characters too. Most notably, a quiet, highly efficient secretary, a trippy, hippy cousin, a colourful uncle and an unbearable outdoorsy type who succeeds in making Misty jealous (thankfully only briefly).

This is a lovely book, the literary equivalent of comfort food – or being wrapped in a heated blanket on a cold winter’s day. A delightful, wise, wryly humorous novel, full of warmth and generosity.

Happy All the Time is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. 

Excellent Women: The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher and I Used to be Charming by Eve Babitz

Two terrific books for you today – by prose stylists of the highest order. Enjoy!

The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher (1943)

This is a book for anyone who enjoys food – not the fancy, pretentious kind of food the word ‘gastronomical’ might suggest, but honest, simple, good quality fare, typically fashioned from flavoursome ingredients.  It is, in essence, a blend of memoir, food writing and travel journal, all woven together in Fisher’s wonderfully engaging style.

Backlisted listeners among you may have encountered Fisher through How to Cook a Wolf (1942), her wartime guide to keeping appetites sated when decent ingredients are in short supply. In The Gastronomical Me, Fisher looks back on some of the most symbolic meals and food-related experiences of her first three decades – the quality of the dishes consumed, the people who shared them and the memories they evoked. She writes lovingly of her early life, the most notable culinary occasions, irrespective of their simplicity, and the way our feelings towards certain foods are often entwined with memories of people, places and key moments in time. There is a sense of meals being part of the fabric of a person’s life here, inextricably linked to love, friendship and family – encompassing both happy times and sad.

Throughout the book, Fisher relates her most memorable food-related experiences, from her first taste of the frothy ‘skin’ on her grandmother’s homemade jam to the trepidation of swallowing a live oyster at the high-school dance. We learn of her travels from California to France, following her marriage to Al Fisher, an academic studying for his doctorate at Dijon. On their arrival in France, the Fishers were eager to experience the European lifestyle, delighting in simple yet flavoursome food, courtesy of their boarding house and the city’s modest restaurants.

The memoir gives us snapshots of Fisher’s life, mostly from the late 1920s (when Fisher would have been around twenty) to the late ‘30s, when Europe was in the grip of a tumultuous war. Various sea crossings are dotted throughout the memoir – as are various friends, family members and other eccentric acquaintances the Fishers meet on their travels. Naturally, there are affairs of the heart too, particularly when M. F. K. falls for the American writer and artist Dillwyn Parrish (or Chexbres as he is affectionately known) in the mid-1930s. In time, he becomes the love of her life; although sadly, their time together is very short, cruelly curtailed by Chexbres’ suicide, prompted by the debilitating impact of Buerger’s Disease.   

Where the book really excels is in Fisher’s ability to convey a genuine love of food. Not in a way that reeks of privilege or pretentiousness; just warmth, passion and enjoyment, laced with an admiration for the people who prepare it. In this scene, Fisher recalls a meal of freshly caught trout, potatoes and hot buttered peas from the garden of a Swiss guesthouse near Lucerne.

It was, of course, the most delicious dish that we had ever eaten. We knew that we were hungry, and that even if it had been bad it would have been good…but we knew, too, that nevertheless it was one of the subtlest, rarest things that had ever come our way. It was incredibly delicate, as fresh as clover.

We talked about it later, and Frau Weber told us of it willingly, but in such a vague way that all I can remember now is hot unsalted butter, herbs left in for a few seconds, cream, a shallot flicked over, the fish laid in, the cover put on. I can almost see it, smell it, taste it; but I know that I could never copy it, nor could anyone alive, probably. (p. 217)

It’s a glorious vignette, beautifully conveyed in Fisher’s elegant, eminently readable style.

I Used to be CharmingThe Rest of Eve Babitz (2019)

I’ve written before about Eve Babitz, the American writer, journalist and album cover designer who died last December. Her 1974 collection, Eve’s Hollywood, could be described as autofiction or maybe a semi-fictionalised memoir. Either way, it’s a luminous book – like a series of shimmering vignettes on bohemian life in LA.

Slow Days, Fast Company followed in 1977, cementing Babitz’s reputation as a leading documenter of the Californian lifestyle/counterculture. Both books are currently in print with NRYB Classics, along with a third volume of Babitz’s work, I Used to be Charming – The Rest of Eve Babitz, compiled in 2019.

Charming comprises some fifty articles/essays, mostly published in magazines between 1975 and 1997. Far from being a collection of odds and ends, Charming contains some of the very best of Babitz’s writing – the titular essay, recounting her recovery from life-threatening third-degree burns, is worth the cover price alone. It’s a searingly honest yet funny piece, conveyed in Babitz’s thoroughly engaging style. Also of particular note is a sixty-page essay on the ethos of Fiorucci, the pioneering Italian fashion brand based. Much to my surprise, I found this absolutely fascinating and immersive!

As in the earlier books, Babitz turns her eye to various topics here – mostly related to California with the occasional sojourn to New York. She writes beautifully about men, relationships, actors, musicians, locations, fashion, body image and various personal experiences. Her style is naturally breezy – conversational, almost – both easy-going and whip-smart. It’s a tricky blend to pull off, but to Babitz it seems intuitive, as in this 1979 piece titled Gotta Dance.  

Once you feel what it’s like to dance with someone who knows how to dance, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. You may even come to realize, as I have, that dancing is better than sex. I mean that, I really do. It’s better because it’s a flirtation that can go on forever and ever without being consummated; because you can do it with strangers and not feel guilty or ashamed; because you can do it outside your marriage and not get in any trouble; and because you can do it in public, with people watching and applauding. And when you’re doing it right, you can’t think about anything else, such as what you forgot at work or that the ceiling needs painting.

Which is why women love to dance. (p. 203)

Babitz can be funny too, as in Tiffany’s Before Breakfast, an article about coping with an impending crisis. Here, she has arranged to meet her friend Tina to make plans to avert a collapse.

So we met at Nickodell’s, a thirties Hollywood restaurant which has stuff like “turkey croquettes” on the menu, it’s so Mildred Pierce. Nickodell’s – it’s sort of the only place in L.A. you can go without accidentally bumping into an alfalfa sprout. It makes you feel grounded. It’s a good place to discuss your nervous breakdown. (p. 136)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Babitz writes evocatively about cities, neighbourhoods and locations – not just her beloved L.A. but also the more friendly San Francisco.

Here, it seemed to me, was the essential San Francisco: a city of lights, a city of radiant beings, a city of taxis and tourists and back alleys, a city of crazily shaped enterprises, of too-high hills and too much romance from long ago, where the past and the present blur into each other… (pp. 315-316)

I’ve merely scratched the surface of this beguiling collection of pieces, which I read over several weeks during the dark days of January. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in California, especially during this era.   

Both of these books qualify for Karen and Lizzy’s Read Indies event in support of Independent Publishers. The Gastronomical Me is published by Daunt Books, I Used to be Charming by NYRB Classics; my thanks to the Independent Alliance/publishers for kindly providing review copies.

Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

In August 2021, Faber and Faber introduced a new publishing list called Faber Editions, dedicated to showcasing radical literary voices from around the world. The first book in the series is Rachel Ingalls’ beguiling 1982 novella, Mrs Caliban (my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy). It’s an utterly captivating book – a subversive feminist fable that neatly combines the everyday and the extraordinary to thrilling effect. I loved it and would thoroughly recommend it to other readers looking for something imaginative and distinctive.     

Central to the novella is Mrs Dorothy Caliban, a middle-aged woman whose marriage is stagnating. Having lost her young son, Scotty, due to complications with routine surgery, Dorothy is still grieving – trying to cope with the impact of bereavement as best she can. Moreover, she has also recently experienced a miscarriage – another painful loss for her to come to terms with, largely on her own.

Now and again, Dorothy thinks she hears voices on the radio – people talking to her directly, offering personal messages of reassurance and support. They might be a sign of trauma, but this is never made entirely clear. Sadly, Dorothy’s husband, Fred, is of little or no help in this regard, the loss of Scotty and the unborn baby having pushed the couple apart.

That was the point where things began to change with Fred. The first blow had stunned them both, but the second had turned them away from each other. Each subtly blamed the other while feeling resentment, fury and guilt at the idea that a similar unjust censure was radiating from the opposite side. (p. 7)

To make matters worse, Dorothy suspects Fred of having an affair with another woman. There have been other dalliances in the past, so this wouldn’t be his first indiscretion, and his frequent absences from the house are a clear sign of trouble.  

One day, while going about her chores at home, Dorothy hears an unusual announcement on the radio. A giant lizard-like creature, capable of living underwater and on dry land, has escaped from the nearby Institute of Oceanographic Research. Having killed two of his keepers, ‘Aquarius the Monsterman’, is considered highly dangerous, and the public are warned that he should not be approached. At first, Dorothy thinks this might be one of her strange messages from the ether, but then she quickly realises that it’s a genuine alert.

Later that night, just as Dorothy is rushing around the house, preparing dinner for Fred and one of his work colleagues, who should manoeuvre his way into her kitchen but the ‘Monsterman’ himself…

She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure that she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face. (p. 20)

After some initial nervousness, Dorothy reaches out to the creature, treating him with care and tenderness. As a consequence, ‘Larry’ – as the amphibian is generally known – is gentle and inquisitive in return, quickly establishing a bond with his new friend and protector. It soon becomes clear to Dorothy that Larry has suffered greatly while being held at the Institute. He has been tortured and sexually abused – experimented on by the scientists who were fascinated by his uniqueness. So, in truth, his attacks on the keepers were a form of self-defence.

To protect Larry from the police, Dorothy hides him in the guest room, which Fred rarely enters. Over the course of the following few weeks, a touching, affectionate relationship develops between the pair as they learn about one another’s worlds. In essence, both Dorothy and Larry are seeking an escape, a release from trauma or torture – Dorothy from the loss of Scotty and the unborn baby, and Larry from being captured and abused. Moreover, both are constrained by the limits imposed on them by society. Consequently, they find solace in one another on an emotional level, a sense of connectedness that feels meaningful and real. There is also a strong sexual dimension to their union, an aspect which offers Dorothy a sense of liberation and fulfilment, freeing her from the isolation of her lonely, loveless marriage.

By day, Larry watches TV, listens to music and helps Dorothy with the housework, an activity he clearly enjoys. I especially like how Ingalls plays with our expectations of masculinity, presenting Larry as a sensitive ‘new man’ – someone who is attentive and helps around the house, unlike most men in the early ‘80s. At night the pair venture out, driving somewhere quiet where Larry can swim or walk among the flowers, carefully hidden from strangers to maintain his cover.

They dried themselves off, drove around for a while, and walked through some of their favourite gardens in bare feet. Dorothy was less nervous than the first time they had gone out, but still felt a sense of possible danger and an edginess, which she was beginning to enjoy. She skipped and danced after Larry, as with his long legs he went loping down the length of the flowerbeds. She giggled with nerves. (p. 63)

One of many things Ingalls does so well here is to inject the narrative with a degree of ambiguity. Larry might be a figment of Dorothy’s imagination, a kind of vision or fantasy on which to project her warmth and affection – and while this is never made explicitly clear, something is said in the final two or three pages that might give the reader a jolt. As Dorothy’s friend Estelle – a divorcee with two suitors on the go – reminds her, a woman’s grief can be misunderstood and mislabelled, possibly leading to wrongful incarceration.

Remember what happened to you. They almost had you in the loony bin. Once you’re helpless, one of those bastards steps forward with a hypodermic and the curtain comes down on your life. You stay there and they give you massive doses of sedatives every day because you’re easier to take care of that way. And then your brain is pretty much slugged into submission. No more chance to find your way out of your troubles, ever. (pp. 100–101)

As this intriguing novella reaches its denouement, the threat to Larry’s safety steps up a notch, forcing the pair to take additional risks in an attempt to evade the authorities.

I loved this tender, slyly subversive story, which Ingalls underscores with a wry seam of humour. A magical, otherworldly read with a sinister, unsettling edge. Very highly recommended indeed, especially for readers who enjoy a degree of ambiguity.

Passing by Nella Larsen

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Quicksand, the 1928 novella by the American writer Nella Larsen, born in Chicago in the 1890s to a white Danish mother and a black West Indian father. The novella – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. It’s a superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance.

Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, who had known one another at school but then lost touch as their lives diverged. Both women are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances – and it is here that the differences between the two women begin to emerge. While Irene lives almost exclusively as a black woman, ‘passing’ only when necessary to gain access to theatres or hotels, Clare seems to have wholly entered white society while concealing her true racial background. Moreover, Clare is playing a particularly high-stakes game, having married an outspoken white supremacist, the banking agent John Bellew, without revealing her ancestry.  

Irene and her black husband – a doctor named Brian Redfield – live in Harlem, New York, with their two sons, Brian Junior and Ted. At first, their marriage appears stable and conventional, but longstanding tensions begin to emerge as the novella unfolds. Earlier in their relationship, Brian wanted to move the family to Brazil, where racial differences were less problematic than in the US. Irene, however, was opposed to this idea, favouring the quality of life available to them in New York instead. Consequently, the couple remained in the US, a decision that Brian clearly regrets, often giving rise to a discernible sense of restlessness on his part.

Clare, on the other hand, spends much of her time travelling between New York and Europe, accompanying her husband, John, while he carries out his work. It’s a glamorous, comfortable life, albeit one tinged with the fear of exposure should her ancestry be discovered.

One day, when Clare unexpectedly spots Irene in a hotel tea room, she cannot resist coming over for a chat, giving us a masterful scene to observe. With her glamorous clothes and chic blond hair, Clare is virtually unrecognisable to Irene, who at first is concerned that she is about to be ejected from the tea room by an indignant white lady, somehow alert to her biracial status. During this chance encounter, Clare shares with Irene the details of her new life, how she is effectively passing as a white woman with all the attendant risks this entails.

By the end of the meeting, Irene vows that she will not see Clare again, despite the latter’s insistence that they must reconnect. In truth, Irene has been reminded of the air of selfishness surrounding Clare, a harshness that remains unsuppressed; and yet, there is warmth and passion in Clare’s character too, an allure that seems hard to resist. Moreover, Irene is curious to learn more about this perilous business of passing, which involves taking one’s chances in another sector of society with all its inherent privileges and risks. Consequently – and somewhat against her better judgement – Irene resumes her friendship with Clare, continuing to meet her when the two women are back in New York.

In some respects, Clare feels constrained by the abhorrent views of her husband and the implicit restrictions he places on her life, despite its financial comforts. As such, Irene represents an opportunity for Clare to gain access to the vibrant black community of Harlem she longs to re-enter. It’s a situation Irene observes for herself when she meets John Bellew in person, hearing his hated for ‘Negroes’ expressed in all its venom. (Bellew, at this point, is entirely unaware of the black heritage of the three women in his company – Clare, Irene, and another of their high-school friends, Gertrude).

It was, Irene, thought, unbelievable and astonishing that four people could sit so unruffled, so ostensibly friendly, while they were in reality seething with anger, mortification, shame. But no, on second thought she was forced to amend her opinion. John Bellew, most certainly, was as undisturbed within as without. So, perhaps, was Gertrude Martin. At least she hadn’t the mortification and shame that Clare Kendry must be feeling, or, in such full measure, the rage and rebellion that she, Irene, was repressing. (p. 174)

As a result of these interactions with Clare, Irene begins to question her loyalty to her own race, finding herself somewhat uncertain and insecure – not just with her racial identity but in other aspects of life too, particularly her marriage to Brian, which Clare also seems intent on infiltrating. 

She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her. Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be crushed. A person or the race. (p. 225)

[…] when she examined her feeling of annoyance, Irene admitted, a shade reluctantly, that it arose from the feeling of being outnumbered, a sense of aloneness, in her adherence to her own class and kind; not merely in this great thing of marriage, but in the whole pattern of her life as well. (p. 166)

What makes this story particularly compelling is the depth and complexity of the characters Larsen has created here, leading to a relationship that is both intricate and layered. While Clare can appear sophisticated and alluring on the surface, she harbours a manipulative streak at heart, a wilful seam of selfishness that drives her desires.

Clare, it seemed, still retained her ability to secure the thing that she wanted in the face of any opposition, and in utter disregard of the convenience and desire of others. About her there was some quality, hard and persistent, with the strength and endurance of rock, that would not be beaten or ignored. She couldn’t, Irene thought, have had an entirely serene life. Not with that dark secret for ever crouching in the background of her consciousness. And yet she hadn’t the air of a woman whose life had been touched by uncertainty or suffering. (p. 201)

Irene, however, appears outwardly caring and respectable, seemingly prioritising the security of her family over other personal aspirations. But Clare’s shameless audacity in passing as white, while also wishing to re-enter black society, reveals Irene’s jealousy and disapproval of Clare. As Irene so neatly puts it here, the ‘trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.’

Consequently, Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. As the novella builds to a dramatic conclusion, the subtlety and precision of Larsen’s writing come to the fore. While at first, there seems to be a degree of ambiguity about the ending, close reading points to a clear interpretation of the crucial final scene, which I won’t go into here for fear of spoilers – save to say, it’s an outcome the reader is unlikely to forget.

As many of you will know, there is a film adaptation of this outstanding novella on the way, due to open in UK cinemas on 27th October with a Netflix streaming release to follow on 10th November. Rather appropriately, the film has been shot in crystalline black and white, with Ruth Negga as Clare and Tessa Thompson as Irene. I, for one, can’t wait to see it…

My edition of Passing is published (together with Quicksand) by Serpent’s Tail; my thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for a reading copy.

Two very good books by Laurie Colwin: Home Cooking + Passion and Affect

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (1988)

I have Dorian (at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau) to thank for introducing me to Laurie Colwin. (You can read more about the background to that intro in my review of Colwin’s 1982 excellent novel, Family Happiness, by clicking on the link.) Alongside fiction, Colwin also wrote about food – specifically, home-cooked food, the kinds of simple yet flavoursome dishes that any good cook needs to have in his or her repertoire.

First published in 1988, and reissued by Fig Tree in this lovely 2012 edition, Home Cooking weaves together Colwin’s recipes, anecdotes and sage words of advice on the joys of cooking and sharing food with friends. In short, it is a delight to read – warm, generous, and completely down-to-earth, just like Colwin herself, I would imagine. In some respects, reading this book feels like having your warmest, smartest, funniest friend over for dinner – someone with a willingness to share their culinary tricks and treats alongside their unmitigated disasters.

There are chapters here on Friday Night Supper, How to Disguise Vegetables and Easy Cooking for Exhausted People. All the recipes seem eminently achievable – tried and trusted versions of Colwin’s family favourites, including Warm Potato Salad with Fried Red Peppers, Orange Ambrosia and Extremely Easy Old-Fashioned Beef Stew (which can be pimped up accordingly once the basics have been mastered). Pot roasts and baked chicken feature heavily, as do eggplants (aubergines) and broccoli, two of Colwin’s favourite vegetables. I will definitely be trying some of her ways with orzo as there’s a packet languishing in my cupboard as we speak.

Orzo with butter and grated cheese is very nice. Orzo with a little ricotta, some chopped parsley and scallion, butter and cheese, is even better. Orzo with chopped broccoli and broccoli di rape is heaven, and it is also a snap. While you cook the orzo, steam the two broccolis—the amounts depend entirely on how many people you are feeding—until tender. Chop and set aside.

Drain the orzo throw in a lump of butter. Stir it in, add the broccoli, some fresh black pepper and some grated cheese, and you have a side dish fit for a visiting dignitary from a country whose politics you admire. (pp. 85-86).

She’s not above sharing some of her kitchen nightmares, either – the culinary disasters that have lingered in her mind. After all, as Colwin generously admits herself, having just served crunchy pasta to her husband’s friends, ‘if all else fails, eat out’.

There’s also a particularly amusing chapter on ‘Repulsive Dinners’ recounting the horrors that Colwin has experienced elsewhere. In this passage, she recalls an invitation to supper in Connecticut where the ‘local markets were full of beautiful produce of all kinds.’ Unfortunately, none of these tempting ingredients found their way into the host’s meal. Instead, ‘an old-fashioned fish bake’ was produced – even those words themselves sounded ominous, as Colwin conveys.

The old-fashioned fish bake was a terrifying production. Someone in the family had gone fishing and had pulled up a number of smallish fish—no one was sure what kind. These were partially cleaned and not thoroughly scaled and then flung into a roasting pan. Perhaps to muffle their last screams, they were smothered in a thick blanket of sour cream and then pelted with raw chopped onion.

As the coup de grâce, they were stuck in a hot oven for a brief period of time until their few juices run out and the sour cream had a chance to become grainy. With this we were served boiled frozen peas and a salad with iceberg lettuce. (p. 153)

What I love most about this book is the way Colwin writes – hopefully you’ll get a flavour of her style from the passage I’ve quoted above.

In summary then, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen is a wonderful collection of essays, recipes and reflections on the joys of simple yet delicious dishes. An ideal present for any food lover, especially the unpretentious ones!

Passion and Affect (1974)

I’ve also been reading some of Colwin’s short stories over the past few weeks, dipping in and out of her bittersweet collection Passion and Affect. Colwin writes beautifully about quiet, unshowy people, many of whom are drifting through life, searching for happiness or fulfilment, even if they can’t quite recognise it when they find it. While not necessarily outsiders, many of Colwin’s characters are somewhat odd or idiosyncratic, written with a kind of humanity that makes them seem entirely recognisable despite their inherent strangeness. Here we have stories of people falling in and out of love, not quite connecting through mismatched expectations, failing to compensate for their respective flaws and imperfections.

As one might expect with any collection of short stories, some pieces will resonate more strongly than others, so I’ll focus on a few of my favourites from the fourteen included here.

In The Water Rats (probably my favourite story), we meet Max Waltzer, a thoughtful, successful man who adores his wife and four children so much that his happiness threatens to overwhelm him. For Max, the fear of potential tragedy manifests itself in the form of water rats, recently sighted on the nearby shoreline.

In the beginning of the spring, geese flew in V formation. Max watched them from the bay window. He looked out over the water and saw the first of the small craft battling its way to an old mooring. On the weekends he liked to sit by the bay window and watch his part of the Sound. It soothed him, and it gave him a sense of propriety to see the latticework gazebo, firm on its slope. A family of barn swallows was building a nest in its thatched roof. (p. 49)

This is a beautifully written story in which a man must come to terms with his fear of loss – a worry that poses a more significant threat to his wellbeing than any hypothetical catastrophe.

In Children, Dogs and Desperate Men, a woman slips into a dalliance with a married man – a cartographer she meets at her cousin’s engagement party – even though she knows it’s unlikely to lead to anything lasting. As with many of Colwin’s characters, Elizabeth is somewhat fragile, viewing herself as ‘shaken and out of place’, still recovering from an earlier unhappy love affair. This touching, wryly humorous story ends on an unresolved note, leaving the reader to wonder what might happen in the future.

This dry (and frequently direct) style of humour runs through several of Colwin’s stories, perhaps most noticeably in The Big Plum, one of the best pieces in the collection. Harry, a supermarket manager, studying for a degree in art history, becomes fixated on Binnie Chester, a checkout girl who reminds him of Vermeer’s famous painting, The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Harry studies Binnie closely, fantasising about her home life in ‘an old house of ruined elegance’ with her vaguely tragic relatives – perhaps a rakish father and a faded, abstracted grandmother. Somewhat inevitably, Harry’s dreams are punctured when he finally plucks up the courage to talk to Binnie out of hours, an exchange laced with humour and poignancy as the normality of her life is ultimately revealed.

I’ll finish with a final quote that gives a hint of Colwin’s skills in conveying character. Her descriptions are often memorable and distinctive, just like the individuals themselves.

Holly was impeccable: she had not opted for neatness, it had been thrust upon her by nature. She had simple, unadorned features, and thick straight hair that fell unalterably to her shoulders. Clothes on her looked somehow cleaner and more starched than they did on other people. (p. 89)

Passion and Affect is published by Harper Perennial; personal copy.

Quicksand by Nella Larsen  

The American writer Nella Larsen was born in Chicago in the 1890s, the daughter of a Danish mother and a West Indian father. Her 1928 novella, Quicksand – inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – features a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world.

As the novella opens, Larsen’s protagonist, Helga Crane, is teaching at Naxos, a boarding school for black girls in the South. Helga has no real family to speak of, her Danish mother having died when she was a teenager, while her West Indian father is no longer on the scene. Right from the very start, it’s clear that Helga feels out of place in her surroundings, ill at ease in her own skin and with her position in society. Part white and part black, Helga is not entirely comfortable in either of these two racial groups, a situation that leaves her feeling stranded in a kind of hinterland or liminal space.

She could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity. (p. 7)

Her engagement to James Vayle, a fellow teacher at Naxos, is also a source of tension, especially for James’ family, who view Helga’s background and uncertain ancestry as undesirable complications.

Early in the book, Helga decides to leave Naxos (and James) because she feels uncomfortable with the institution’s ‘uplift’ philosophy which she views as hypocritical. Essentially the school’s belief that black people should try to fit into society by mirroring their white counterparts imposes limits on diversity and individuality – difficulties that Helga can see even if others around her cannot. As a consequence of her fundamental discomfort at Naxos, Helga quits her job at the school and travels to Chicago, where she hopes to find another role.

In Chicago, a long and fruitless search for a job ensues, hampered by Helga’s lack of references or personal sponsors. Nevertheless, just when things are looking particularly desperate, Helga manages to secure a temporary job as an assistant to a travelling female lecturer. It’s a role that opens doors for Helga, bringing her to New York, where she is introduced to Anne Grey, a well-connected, financially independent black woman who offers her a home.

For a while at least, Helga feels settled in Harlem. Her days are occupied by a secretarial role at an insurance company, while her nights are spent at parties and the theatre, activities that appear to blot out the isolation of her previous existence.

For her this Harlem was enough. Of that white world, so distant, so near, she asked only indifference. No, not at all did she crave, from those pale and powerful people, awareness. Sinister folk, she considered them, who had stolen her birthright. Their past contribution to her life, which had been but shame and grief, she had hidden away from brown folk in a locked closet, “never,” she told herself, “to be reopened.” (p. 45)

Larsen, however, remains alert to the hypocrisies that exist in this sector of society, primarily through the character of Anne Grey. While Anne models her life on the refined culture of white society and campaigns for racial equality, she also believes that integration between the two races is indecent – something to be discouraged for its transgressive associations.

After a year or so in Harlem, the glow begins to fade. Restlessness sets in, leaving Helga feeling isolated and estranged from those around her, particularly Anne with her inherent inconsistencies. As a consequence, Helga decides to travels to Denmark in the hope of reconnecting with her Aunt Katerina, whom she recalls fondly from her childhood.

I found this section of the book particularly distressing to read because of the way Helga is treated by Katerina and her husband, Herr Dahl. While Katerina seems welcoming and well-meaning on the surface, in truth she is intent on parading Helga around as if she is some kind of pet – an exotic curiosity to be stared at and admired for her distinctive appearance and otherness.

Helga herself felt like nothing so much as some new and strange species of pet dog being proudly exhibited. Everyone was very polite and very friendly, but she felt the massed curiosity and interest, so discreetly hidden under the polite greetings. The very atmosphere was tense with it. (p. 70)

She liked the compliments in the men’s eyes as they bent over her hand. She liked the subtle half-understood flattery of her dinner partners. The women too were kind, feeling no need for jealousy. To them this girl, this Helga Crane, this mysterious niece of the Dahls, was not to be reckoned seriously in their scheme of things. True, she was attractive, unusual, in an exotic, almost savage way, but she wasn’t one of them. She didn’t at all count. (p. 70)

This fetishisation of black culture and individuals remains a problem in modern-day society, so it’s fascinating to read a novel from the 1920s that highlights these issues so clearly. Nevertheless, while it’s refreshing to see these subjects being explored by Larsen with insight and humanity, the novel also indicates how little has really changed. (I couldn’t help but be reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s 2013 novel, Americanah, in which a white woman’s well-meaning attempts to establish a connection with a young black woman – a potential employee named Ifemelu – come across as misguided and patronising.)

The Dahls persist in dressing Helga in glamorous, eye-catching clothes, clearly designed to attract attention – a practice that Larsen uses to highlight issues of objectification and the white male gaze. Interestingly (and somewhat disturbingly), the previous quote also makes it clear that Danish women do not consider Helga a personal threat despite her natural beauty. To them, she is an outsider with limited status or agency, easily dismissed as an exotic curio or ‘peacock’ without being allowed to enter their society.  

In the final section of the narrative, Helga changes direction again, which chimes with Larsen’s use of ‘Quicksand’ as the novella’s title. It’s a powerful ending that feels somewhat surprising yet also sadly inevitable in a tragic kind of way.

Larsen manages to pack quite a lot into this slim novella. Alongside the central themes relating to race and segregation in society, the author touches on identity, female desire, religion, poverty, objectification and self-loathing. Ultimately though, there is an air of tragedy surrounding Helga as she struggles to find a sense of belonging in this highly segregated society, where her mixed-race ancestry creates barriers to self-expression and emotional fulfilment. She is a complicated character who frequently adopts a self-sufficient, standoffish manner to repel those around her. In essence, this is a protective mask, something she learned to embrace from a young age as a way of guarding her inherently sensitive nature.

There is a richness to Larsen’s prose at times, drawing on the use of colour and evocative descriptions to help bring Helga’s story to life. As a result, there are some wonderful descriptive passages in this striking, thought-provoking book – a text that remains highly relevant today. (I’ve yet to read Passing, Larsen’s companion novel, but hope to do so before Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation is released.)

Quicksand and Passing are published by Serpent’s Tail; my thanks to the publishers and Independent Alliance for a reading copy.

Cosy and Not-So-Cosy Crime – E. C. R. Lorac and Ross Macdonald

I have two crime fiction novels to share with you today – both of which were written in the late 1950s, albeit in very different tonal registers. E. C. R. Lorac’s Two-Way Murder is a thoroughly entertaining cosy crime novel, ideal escapism from 21st-century Britain; however, I’m going to start with its not-so-cosy counterpart, Ross Macdonald’s compelling California-based mystery, The Galton Case.

The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald (1959)

Regular readers of this blog may know that I’ve been reading Ross Macdonald’s ‘Lew Archer’ novels in order over the past five or six years. (For those of you who are new to Ross Macdonald, he’s in a similar vein to the great hardboiled detective novelists, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – i.e. a writer whose work transcends the traditional crime fiction genre.)

The Galton Case – the eighth book in the series – sees the world-weary private eye being drawn into a cold case investigation which naturally turns out to be far more complex that it appears at first sight. As a novel, it contains many of Macdonald’s hallmarks: a powerful dysfunctional family; various individuals motivated by greed; and current crimes with a hidden connection to the past. While it’s probably not my favourite book in the series, The Galton Case still makes for a highly compelling read. A very solid entry, barring a couple of caveats regarding the ending.

Mrs Galton, a wealthy widow with a significant heart condition, wishes to reconcile with her estranged son, Anthony Galton, before it is too late. Some twenty years earlier, Anthony Galton disappeared from the family home (together with his pregnant wife and a significant amount of money) following a rift with his mother. In short, Mrs Galton hadn’t approved of her son’s marriage, often the cause of tension in a Lew Archer novel.

The old lady’s lawyer, Gordon Sable, hires Archer to find Anthony, even though he has already been declared legally dead. Mrs Galton, however, remains convinced that her son is still alive, possibly making a living from writing as he had hoped to do at the time of his disappearance.

Despite his initial scepticism about the chances of finding Anthony alive, Archer takes the case; however, just as he is about to get started, a murder takes place, the victim being a rather ill-tempered servant by the name of Culligan, whom Archer had met at Sable’s home. Unsurprisingly, these two cases – the disappearance of Anthony Galton and the murder of Peter Culligan – turn out to be connected, signalling another complex tangle of crimes for Archer to unravel.

As ever with Macdonald, the descriptions of the locations are marvellous, from the melting pot of San Francisco to the comfortable enclaves of California.

Arroyo Park was an economic battleground where managers and professional people matched wits and incomes. The people on Mrs Galton’s Street didn’t know there had been a war. Their grandfathers or great-grandfathers had won it for them; death and taxes were all they had to cope with. (p. 11)

However, what’s particularly interesting about this novel is the psychological aspect – the exploration of human behaviour that takes place as Archer digs deeper. There are questions of identity to be resolved, instances of wish fulfilment and delusion alongside the more traditional motives of resentment and greed.

In Archer, Macdonald has created a highly engaging investigator who veers between pragmatism, sarcasm and compassion – a protagonist the reader can invest in for the duration of the series. While the ending feels a bit rushed, leaving a couple of loose ends unresolved, these are relatively minor quibbles in the scheme of things. In summary – a very solid mystery with some interesting insights into human nature.

Two-Way Murder by E. C. R. Lorac (written in the mid-late 1950s, published in 2021)

While Two-Way Murder is a much lighter, less menacing mystery than The Galton Case, the two novels share some similar characteristics – namely, tangled dysfunctional families and current crimes with potential links to suspicious incidents from the past.

Lorac’s novel – which has the air of a classic Golden Age Mystery – is set in the coastal resort of Fordings in the mid-late 1950s. Local innkeeper Nicholas (Nick) Brent – an ex-Navy man in his early thirties – has offered to drive his friend, the lawyer Ian Macbane, to the Hunt Ball, the major event in Fordings’ social calendar. Macbane is down from London for the Ball, where he hopes to get the opportunity to dance with Dilys Maine, the prettiest girl in the locality. Dilys, however, has a fondness for Michael Reeve, a prickly farmer and landowner whose family has something of a chequered history.

The action gets going towards the end of the Ball when Nick drives Dilys home, just before midnight. It’s a pre-arranged departure, conveniently timed to enable Dilys to get back without her absence being detected – by either her puritanical father, Mr Maine, or the family’s housekeeper, Alice. During their journey home, Nick and Dilys come across a dead body lying in the road, at which point Nick suggests that Dilys should walk home across the fields to avoid being dragged into the inevitable investigations. To complicate matters further, Nick is then attacked while phoning the police to report the dead body. There are further suspicious goings-on too, but I’ll leave you to discover those for yourself should you decide to read the book…

Needless to say, the police suspect the man on the road has been murdered, prompting investigations into various persons of interest in the vicinity and their movements on the night in question. There are some very interesting characters in the mix, including Dilys’ father, a tyrannical man obsessed with keeping a watch on Mr Hoyle, a local landlord whom Maine suspects of smuggling; Michael Reeve, of course, whose house Nicholas Brent was phoning from when he was attacked; and Michael’s elder brother, Norman, who may or may not be the dead body.

One of the things I particularly like about this mystery is the contrast between the different policemen investigating the murder. The initial enquiries are conducted by Inspector Turner, a methodical, practical-minded chap whose insensitivity and disregard for local networks tend to put him at a disadvantage. Inspector Waring, however, adopts a more intuitive approach to the case, his lively and imaginative mind remaining alert to the patterns of human nature. Ian Macbane is another interesting addition to the ‘team’, aiding Inspector Waring (who has been brought in from CID) with a spot of amateur detecting of his own.

In summary, Two-Way Murder is an excellent vintage mystery with a rather clever resolution – eminently believable at that, which isn’t always the case in these things. Attention to detail is key here, with elements of timing, the weather and the geographical layout of the area all playing important roles in pinpointing the culprit. There are some wonderful characters here too, from the likeable Inspector Waring to the thoughtful Ian Macbane to the Maine’s astute housekeeper, Alice. As ever, Lorac does a great job in conveying a sense of the local community and the importance of longstanding grudges. I’ll finish with a final quote that gives a feel for the location and Lorac’s flair for descriptions.

The car had topped the last rise of Bramber Head, the great chalk ridge which jutted out into the Channel; below, the ground dropped steeply to the wide basin of Fairbourne Bay, and the lights of Fordings were stretched out like jewelled necklaces, crossing and intertwining, with coloured lights along the seafront and a blur of chromatic brilliance over the cinema on the pier. (p. 18)

Karen has also written about this novel, including more info on Lorac and the discovery of this book – do take a look! My thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy.

June Reading – Funny Weather by Olivia Laing and The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison

I have two books to share with you today – both non-fiction, both highly recommended – the types of books that lend themselves very well to being read in short bursts, especially if time is tight.

Funny Weather by Olivia Laing

I loved this – a fascinating collection of essays, articles and mini-biographies which explore the importance of art in politically unsettled times.

This is the third book I’ve read by Olivia Laing, and it’s just as absorbing as the others despite the brevity of the individual pieces. (If it’s of interest, my mini-review of The Lonely City, Laing’s beautiful meditation on the experience of loneliness in a busy urban environment, is here.) As a writer, she is someone I’m happy to follow, just to see where the path takes me, such is the quality of her writing.

Several of the pieces included in the collection were initially published, often in different forms, in newspapers and journals such as The Guardian, frieze and the New Statesman. There are glimpses into the lives of leading artists – David Hockney, Joseph Cornell and Jean-Michel Basquiat, to name but a few; interviews with four highly talented women – Hilary Mantel, Sarah Lucas, Ali Smith and Chantal Joffe; and columns for frieze, a leading magazine of contemporary art and culture.

The frieze pieces are particularly interesting as they allow Laing free rein to cover a wide variety of subjects relating to art – from political protest (e.g. the practice of lip-sewing amongst migrants and refugees) to literary appreciation, with columns on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels and Anthony Powell’s Dance series. 

One or two of the essays revisit familiar areas of interest for Laing; Drink, drink, drink, for instance, on women writers and alcohol, a mini-sequel of sorts to The Trip to Echo Spring. Marguerite Duras features quite heavily here, as do Patricia Highsmith and Jean Rhys, two of my favourite female authors. Laing is incisive in her analysis of Rhys’ early novellas, viewing them as depictions of loneliness and depression. These stories feature impoverished women on the edge who struggle to get by and are often brushed off by ‘respectable’ society with its class-conscious snobbery.

In the unstable Good Morning, Midnight she makes a case for why such a woman might turn to drink, given limited options for work or love. At the same time, and like her near-contemporary [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, she uses drunkenness as a technique of modernism. The novel is written in a flexible first person, slip-sliding through Sasha’s shifting moods. ‘I’ve had enough of these streets that sweat a cold, yellow slime, of hostile people, of crying myself to sleep every night. I’ve had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whiskey, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine with the bottles labelled “Dum vivimus, vivamus…” Drink, drink, drink… As soon as I sober up I start again…’ (pp. 213–214)

In other pieces, Laing offers her reflections on specific books ranging from Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living and Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I love this observation on the latter, which feels absolutely spot on.


What’s remarkable is the pitch of Rooney’s writing, the way it shimmers and quivers with intelligence. Each sentence is measured and unobtrusive, and yet the cumulative effect is a near-unbearable attentiveness to the emotional dimension of human lives, the quick uneasy weather. (p.289)

Through the myriad of perspectives in this endlessly fascinating book, Laing makes a clear case for the power of art (and its creators) in a dynamic, politically turbulent world. While art can be a source of joy and beauty for many of us, Laing seems more interested in its potential as a form of resistance and stimulus – something with a sense of agency to protest and repair. And yet, despite the clear political overtones in some of these articles, they never feel overly forced or preachy. This is a beautiful collection of pieces characterised by this writer’s thoughtful, erudite style. Very highly recommended indeed.

The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison

This is such a thoughtful, beautifully-written book that it’s going to be hard for me to do it justice in a few short paragraphs. Nevertheless, I shall endeavour to give you a sense of it, albeit in brief.

The Stubborn Light of Things is a collection of Harrison’s monthly columns for The Times ‘Nature Notebook’, which began in the summer of 2014. The articles are presented chronologically, with the first half of the book focusing on London, where Harrison lived until December 2017, and the second half Suffolk, where she resides today. Collectively, they chart the author’s passion for the natural world, the changing of the seasons and a growing sense of engagement with her surroundings – be they urban or rural.

Harrison extols the benefits of reconnecting with nature by overserving and ‘tuning in’ to what is happening in the environment – activities aided by her thoughtfulness and innate sense of curiosity. One of the most striking things about the London-based columns is just how much wildlife there is to observe on our doorsteps, irrespective of our location. In the ‘City’ section of the book, there are sightings of short-eared owls, migrating nightjars and red kites, alongside the more frequently observed squirrels and urban foxes.

There are pockets of South London that seem utterly rural; paths edged with cow parsley and dog roses and overhung by oaks through which the sunlight filters down, green-dappled and shifting. I can walk from one blackcap’s song to another’s, no buildings or roads in sight, breathing in the smell of spring and green growth. At this time of year everything seethes with life: the nettles are thick with aphids, pollen rides the warm June air, the undergrowth is busy with baby birds and cuckoo spit froths overnight. It feels intoxicating. (pp. 44– 45)

There are pieces too about various rewilding and conservation projects, many of which tap into Harrison’s interest in the fragility of the natural world. For instance, she rightly bemoans the trend towards over-tidiness whereby hedges are regularly ‘topped’, effectively rendering them unsuitable as ‘wildlife habitats and corridors’. If only we could tolerate a degree of messiness, then it would help nature to flourish, rewarding us with richer environments in which to live.  

As in Surrey, this mania for tidiness is eradicating wildflowers, butterflies, insect- and seed-eating birds, hedgehogs and a whole host of other creatures we profess to love. So why are we letting it happen? I think it’s crept up us slowly, so that we simply can’t see the harm we’re doing. Just as we believe the number of insects around us is normal, rather than terrifyingly depleted, it looks right to us now for verges to be razed rather than riotous, and for farmland hedges to look ugly and smashed. We’ve also been slow to wake up to how crucial these vestiges of habitat have become for wildlife, as pressures on the wider countryside have invisibly mounted up. To turn things around requires a paradigm shift: can we tolerate an untidier, bushier, scrubbier environment to help bring nature back? (pp. 174–175)

When Harrison moves to Suffolk, her connection with nature deepens, furthering her bond with the rhythms of the seasons – her home is an 18th-century cottage situated in a small village surrounded by arable land. Here, the nightingales come to breed each spring, when linnets and yellowhammers can also be found, singing from the shrubs and hedgerows. It feels like a natural evolution for the author, which mirrors her development as a writer with a growing body of nature writing to complement her novels.

A gorgeous, evocative book, full of level-headed reflections on the natural world.

Funny Weather is published by Picador and The Stubborn Light of Things by Faber; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing reading copies.

Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin

Back in November, I received a lovely handwritten letter from Dorian (at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau) which contained a personalised recommendation for the writer Laurie Colwin. In his letter, Dorian described Colwin’s books as being very New York-y: wry rather than funny, bittersweet but not sentimental, and Jewish, albeit in a low-key kind of way. He made them sound right up my street; a little Woody Allen-ish in style, back in the days when his films were good.

In particular, Dorian mentioned Colwin’s 1982 novel Family Happiness, clearly a favourite; he’d revisited it a few years earlier and it had totally held up. Off I went in search of a copy; the book doesn’t appear to be in print in the UK, but fortunately I was able to find one online. What follows below is my review of this novel – a beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to feel loved and valued, especially by those we’re closest to.

In a nutshell, I *adored* this book and hope to pick up more of Colwin’s work in the future.

Central to the novel is Polly Demarest, the accommodating middle child of Wendy and Henry Solo-Miller, the dual heads of a traditional New York Jewish family. Polly is married to another Henry, Henry Demarest, a successful, well-respected lawyer, who in turn is wedded to his work. The couple have two wonderful children (Pete, aged nine, and Dee-Dee, aged seven), a comfortable home and few if any financial worries.

On the surface, Polly seems to have the perfect life; she works part-time as a research co-ordinator in educational studies, an interesting, fulfilling role that give her two days a week at home to spend time with the children; she is a terrific cook and works hard around the house to make life for her husband as smooth as possible; she is open, straightforward, and an excellent mediator. In short, everything in Polly’s life seems ordered and well-catered for.

She had never given anyone the slightest pause. Her family doted on her, but no one felt it was necessary to pay much attention to someone as study, upright, cheerful, and kind as she. (p. 6)

Nevertheless, there is a downside for Polly in all of this. Her kindness and accepting nature mean that she is sorely taken for granted by her family – not just her husband, Henry, but also the Solo-Millers who all come with their own individual faults and failings.

Most notable in this respect is Polly’s mother, Wendy, who holds her daughter to the highest moral standards, chastising Polly for ‘neglecting’ her children’s welfare in favour of a job that appears unnecessary – clearly of secondary importance to Polly’s familial responsibilities, as far as Wendy is concerned. This, accompanied by Wendy’s adoration of her eldest child, Paul – a sombre lawyer who appears to have little in the way of a personality – is galling to say the least. Colwin’s insights into Wendy and her husband, Henry – another lawyer, this one prone to the occasional ‘flicker of disapproval’ across the breakfast table – are brilliantly done.

There is another brother too, Henry Jnr, whose job as an engineer, Czech wife, and rather casual attitude at the dinner table all prove disappointing to Polly’s mother, a woman who struggles to understand anything that falls outside the traditional Solo-Miller moral codes.

If Polly had told her mother that the family Wendy had gotten was more interesting than the family she had bargained for, Wendy would have told her that an interesting family did not strike her as an attractive idea. Families were not meant to be interesting. Wendy believed that life should be predictable. The unpredictable she considered rather vulgar. (pp. 98–99).

This is all brought into sharp relief for Polly when she meets and falls in love with Lincoln Bennett, a talented painter who values Polly for who she is, not for what she can do for those around her. Although Lincoln is something of a lone wolf, a confirmed bachelor who would never be happy living with a long-term partner, he is just as captivated by Polly as she is by him. With his boyish good looks and relaxed manner, Lincoln is the exact opposite of the world Polly has been constrained by. He knows the Solo-Millers as acquaintances and considers them to be smug, self-contained and resolute in their own superiority, typically to the exclusion of anyone they deem inferior.

What Colwin does so well here is to illustrate how the ongoing affair with Lincoln causes Polly to question various aspects of her life. Her functional marriage to Henry, the lack of appreciation she receives from her family, and her fundamental beliefs about love and happiness – all of these things are swiftly called into question, prompting Polly to feel like a stranger in her own life.

She had chosen him [Henry Demarest]. She had picked someone whose ways she knew: someone generous, kind, intelligent, and good, who loved and honored her for the excellent qualities he had come to expect and take for granted, and whose neglect, whose immersion in work, whose abstraction when engaged in work she was expected, as she had been trained, to accept, accommodate, and lighten when she could. Could it be that she had never been happy doing this? That this role had always been a burden? That she had never felt at ease in her family or cherished by her husband? (p. 107)

Polly realises that she loves Lincoln very deeply, that he is becoming vital to her happiness and her own sense of self. Until now, Polly’s view of happiness has been constructed around family – building a family, keeping it running smoothly, celebrating events and successes, being there to resolve the difficulties. For Polly, married life has been about ‘loyalty, unity and strength’, providing goods and services, to the detriment of any noticeable feelings of warmth and affection.

As Polly wrestles with these issues, she risks being overcome with a combination of guilt, confusion and remorse over her affair with Lincoln. She still loves Henry and knows in her heart of hearts that he is the perfect partner; however, she also feels desperately isolated in her marriage. The maelstrom of emotions Polly experiences is brilliantly captured for the reader.

Ultimately, Colwin manages to bring Polly’s dilemma (and the novel itself) to an elegant resolution, one where Polly begins to challenge her mother’s overly critical views and slyly controlling behaviour. There is a confrontation of sorts between Polly and her husband too, a heart-to-heart where Polly reveals how just how neglected and unloved she has been feeling in the construct of their marriage.

Alongside the perceptive insights into family dynamics, the pin-sharp characterisation and the piercing self-questioning Polly subjects herself to, there are some wonderful touches of humour here – the wry brand of comedy Dorian promised me in his letter. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that highlights this aspect of Colwin’s prose.

In this scene, Paul’s wife, Bente – an annoying Swiss psychiatrist who is obsessed with creating a ‘placid birth environment’ for her children – has just given birth to twins. Unsurprisingly, she is another character who causes Polly significant angst with her fixed views on families and motherhood. 

Meanwhile, Henry Sr., reported, Paul had given specific orders. To ensure continuance of the placid birth environment, Beate would not see visitors at the hospital, nor would she see them for the first two weeks at home.

“According to the Dr. Ping,” said Henry Sr., “the babies must be kept in a softly lit room, with soft music, and wrapped in soft cotton blankets, I think Paul said.”

“Maybe they should keep them in the fridge,” said Henry, Jr. (p. 270)

Family Happiness is published by Harper Perennial; personal copy.