Tag Archives: Vintage Books

Recent Reads – Philip Larkin and Richard Yates

As quite a few of you seemed to enjoy my last round-up of ‘recent reads’ back in August, I’ve decided to do another one – this time focusing on novels by Philip Larkin and Richard Yates.

Jill by Philip Larkin (1946)

A couple of years ago, I read and really loved Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter. While Jill – his debut novel – isn’t quite as good as Winter, it still makes for very interesting reading, particularly given its depiction of student life in the early years of WW2.

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

While Jill starts very strongly, it loses a bit of momentum in the middle and then fizzles a little out towards the end leaving one of two questions hanging in the air. Nevertheless, these are relatively minor criticisms in the scheme of things – the novel is beautifully written and very sensitively conveyed. Where it really excels is in the portrayal of a shy, isolated young man who finds himself in a totally unfamiliar environment, one in which all his peers seem so confident, socially comfortable and self-assured.

A dismal melancholy was beginning to expand inside him, a great loneliness. It was the knowledge that he had nowhere to go more friendly, more intimate than this room that depressed him so, and particularly because the room was not his alone. He could not fortify himself inside it against the rest of the strangeness, for at any moment Christopher Warner and Patrick might come in and make coffee in his coffee-pot or break one of his plates through trying some balancing trick. He had hoped that at least there would always be his own room, with a fire and the curtains drawn, where he could arrange his few books neatly, fill a drawer with his notes and essays (in black ink with red corrections, held together by brass pins), and live undisturbed through the autumn into the winter. This was apparently not to be. (p. 17)

There is some excellent characterisation here, particularly in the creation of the rowdy, egotistical Christopher and his snobbish friends. Moreover, the novel is full of marvellous details and observations about the minutiae of student life in Oxford at the time: the inevitable tensions that arise when mismatched boys have to room together; the cribbing and last-minute preparations that ensue when essays are due; and the pilfering of items from other boys’ cupboards, especially when there is cake to be sourced for afternoon tea. (The scene where John arrives at his room in Oxford features a terrific set piece.) While the War remains mostly in the background, there is one major interruption which serves to demonstrate that the horrors of death and destruction are never far away.

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

A Special Providence by Richard Yates (1969)

No other writer captures the pain of loneliness and disillusionment quite like Richard Yates. It seems to me that he understands his characters’ self-delusions, portraying the cruelty of their false hopes and dashed dreams with real insight and humanity.

In this, his second novel, Yates explores the lives of a single mother, Alice Prentice, and her only son, Bobby, as they try to eke out some kind of existence for themselves in 1930-40s America. The book itself is split into three main sections, the middle one focusing on Alice, a rather sad, delusional woman who toils away needlessly at her sculptures in the hope of becoming a famous artist, perpetually just a few months away from having sufficient material for a one-woman show or a something good enough for submission to the Witney. As the years slip by, Alice and Bobby continue to live hopelessly beyond their means, desperately moving from one place to another as the unpaid bills threaten to catch up with them.

Natalie Crawford was her neighbour on Charles Street, a twice-divorced, childless woman who had some sort of job with an advertising agency, who burned incense in her apartment and believed in her Ouija board and liked to use words like “simpatico,” and who habitually found respite from her own state of single blessedness with any man she could get her hands on. Alice didn’t like her very much, or at least didn’t wholly approve of her, but for lack of other friends she had come to rely on her – to spend excessive amounts of time with her and attend her frantic parties, and even to borrow money from her at times when she couldn’t make her income stretch through the month. (pp. 129-130)

Alice’s rather tragic story is bookended by two sections which together give an account of Bobby’s time as a soldier at the end of WW2. As an unworldly, inexperienced eighteen-year-old, Bobby is somewhat lost in the midst of his platoon as he makes his way across the battlefields of Europe, trying as best he can to survive the various challenges of war. However, there are precious few chances for heroics or atonement for Bobby as the campaign plays out somewhat differently to his expectations. Meanwhile, Alice waits patiently in New York, hoping for a fresh start once her beloved son returns home – convinced as she is that ‘a special providence’ will always shine on them.

There are almost certainly autobiographical influences in this beautifully-written novel: the somewhat tragic sculptor mother who relies heavily on drink; the young boy who sees his mother for everything she really is; the absent father who has a strained relationship with his family; and the young man who is thrown into the realities of war.

While A Special Providence isn’t my favourite Yates, it is still very much worth reading, particularly for its portrayal of the complexities of the relationship between mother and son as the balance of reliance between these two individuals begins to shift. Moreover, there is the novel’s quietly devastating ending, a poignant coda which feels like quintessential Yates.

You can read my other posts on Richard Yates’ work here:

The Easter Parade

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness

A Good School

Disturbing the Peace

Liars in Love

Jill is published by Faber & Faber, A Special Providence by Vintage Books; personal copies.

The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith

Regular readers may be aware of my fondness for Patricia Highsmith’s particular brand of domestic noir. Last year I read and loved Deep Water (1957), a novel which plays with readers’ responses towards an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. It remains one of the highlights of my 2017 year in reading.

Highsmith’s interest in decency and morality comes to the fore again The Cry of the Owl (published a few years later in 1962), a book that seems to start off in traditional psychological thriller territory only to shift towards something a little more existential by the end. There is an underlying seam of bleakness here, a real sense of destruction and despair as the story edges closer to its denouement. In some ways, it reminded me a little of some of Georges Simenon’s work – his hard/psychological romains durs as opposed to his Maigret books. Either way, it’s an excellent book.

Owl centres on Robert Forester, a twenty-nine-year-old man who has recently moved to a small town in Pennsylvania to escape the clutches of his venomous former partner, Nickie, a woman who continues to harangue him on the phone out of sheer malice. In spite of finding a decent job in the local aeronautics business, Robert has been battling loneliness and depression for some months – to the extent that he has slipped into the rather odd habit of watching an unknown young woman as she goes about her business at home.

As the book opens, we find Robert observing the girl, Jenny, through her kitchen window as she lays the table and prepares an evening meal for two. While at first sight this situation may appear very creepy, Robert is not a stereotypical Peeping Tom. There is nothing sexual about his attraction to the girl; instead, he is merely seeking solace and comfort by watching her running through her domestic routine. It’s as if this picture of normality is giving Robert some kind of hope, a sense of grounding and purpose that he longs to recapture for himself.

Even if nobody ever understood that watching a girl go calmly about her household routine made him feel calm also, made him see that life for some people could have a purpose and a joy, and made him almost believe he might recover that purpose and joy himself. The girl was helping him. (p.7)

Even though Robert knows he is playing a potentially dangerous game here – Jenny clearly has a boyfriend who visits regularly – he finds it difficult to refrain from watching the girl at night. All too swiftly, of course, Jenny discovers Robert; but instead of feeling fearful for her safety, Jenny invites Robert into her home as she finds herself drawn to him in some strange and inexplicable way.

Robert, for his part, feels somewhat embarrassed at being caught snooping around. Furthermore, there is a sense that getting to know the real Jenny would diminish in some way what her image has come to represent for him – a sense of calm and contentment and the absence of any kind of stress. Nevertheless, he continues to see Jenny, primarily at her rather insistent request.

With each subsequent meeting, Jenny’s attachment to Robert seems to intensify. (In an almost reciprocal act to Robert’s earlier snooping, Jenny actually follows Robert to his new home – thereby the watcher effectively becomes the watched, if only momentarily.) As it turns out, Jenny is having significant doubts about the suitability of her fiancé, Greg, whom she does not love enough to marry. Consequently, she breaks off her engagement to Greg and continues to see Robert, who appears to be drifting into a relationship with her in spite of his better judgement.

Meanwhile, the uber-possessive Greg is determined to track Robert down and warn him off Jenny, firm in the belief that he still has a chance to win her back. As he spies on Jenny and Robert at night, Greg’s temper and imagination start to run riot.

Jenny’s car was there, and so was Robert’s. She was blatantly spending nights there. This might be the seventh, the tenth, for all he knew. Lights were blazing in the house now. He imagined them laughing and talking and fixing dinner, Jenny making one of her big salads, and then – Greg couldn’t bear to imagine any more. (p. 78)

Driven by the toxic Nickie, whose malicious opinions on Robert’s unhinged state of mind add fuel to the fire, Greg launches an attack on Robert near the local river, an incident which leads to a violent struggle between the two men. In the end, Robert has to drag Greg out of the water onto the river bank where he leaves him to recover. Unfortunately for our protagonist, Greg goes missing immediately after the fight, and suspicion naturally falls on Robert – seemingly the last person to have seen Greg alive.

What follows is a veritable nightmare for Robert as his relatively ordered world comes crashing down around him. A sequence of increasingly twisted events ensues, acts which involve Robert, Jenny, Greg and Nickie – all of which leave the reader reeling from the catastrophic fallout.

At first, it is natural to think that Robert is the odd character here; after all, his fondness for spying on Jenny is a little creepy. However, it soon becomes apparent that he might be the least imbalanced character in the book. Having lost her brother at a very young age, Jenny is rather preoccupied with the idea of death, a factor that plays a significant role in her response to the terrible events that unfold for Robert.

Nickie is a very spiteful individual, prone to vindictive acts and outbursts, a characteristic typified by Robert’s recollections of the litany of complaints she unleashed on the night of their second anniversary. Her subsequent character assignations of Robert play a significant role in his downfall.

Robert remembered that he had made himself a second drink during her harangue, a good stiff one, since the wisest thing to show under the circumstances was patience, and the liquor acted as a sedative. His patience that evening had so infuriated her, in fact, that she later lurched against him, bumped herself into him in the bedroom when he was undressing for the night, saying, ‘Don’t you want to hit me, darling? Come on, hit me, Bobbie!’ Curiously, that was one of the times he’d felt least like hitting her, so he’d been able to give a quiet ‘No’ in answer. Then she called him abnormal. ‘You’ll do something violent one day. Mark my words.’ (pp. 49-50)

Then there is Greg, a man who seems hell-bent on removing Robert from the equation – not just figuratively but literally too.

In telling this story, Highsmith excels at capturing the rumours and gossip that circulate in a small-town community – the fears and suspicions that can surface as individuals who know some of those involved begin to put their own spin on events. Women like Mrs Van Vleet, Greg’s landlady and firm supporter.

She had asked if Robert was still working at Langley Aeronautics, and when he said yes, she had said, ‘It’s a wonder to me you’ve still got a job. It’s a wonder to me you can hold your head up in the community, it is indeed…. A fine young man like Greg…trifling with his girl…a fine young girl. I hear you don’t even want to marry her. I should hope not! You’re a killer – or the next thing to it! And Robert had stood there answering, ‘Yes…No,’ politely, trying to smile at it and failing, failing to get more than four consecutive words out before he was interrupted. What was the use? But he knew it took only a noisy minority like Mrs Van Vleet in a community to hang a man, literally or figuratively. (p. 124)

Ultimately though, what really makes this novel such a compelling read is the seemingly unstoppable chain of events that Robert’s relatively innocent search for solace kicks off.  We are left with the sense of how powerless a man can feel when he his actions are judged and misinterpreted by the so-called upstanding citizens around him, especially when fate intervenes and plays her part to the full.

Highly recommended for lovers of dark and twisted fiction.

The Cry of the Owl is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

First published in 1934, Appointment in Samarra was the debut novel of the American writer, John O’Hara. In short, it charts the rapid downfall and self-destruction of thirty-year-old Julian English, a successful businessman who lives in the fictionalised town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. As a commentary on the shallowness of a particular stratum of American society, it is very strong, particularly in its depiction of the rather skewed values that drive the main protagonist’s actions and behaviours.

On the surface of things, Julian English appears to have everything going for him. He runs a well-established Cadillac dealership in Gibbsville, has plenty of contacts with the town’s movers and shakers, and is married to a beautiful wife who remains faithful to him. Julian and Caroline English are part of the prestigious Lantenengo Street set who hang out at the local Country Club, a place where the preeminent social milieu is clearly evident.

The smoking room crowd always started out with a small number, always the same people. The Whit Hofmans, the Julian Englishes, the Froggy Ogdens and so on. They were the spenders and drinkers and socially secure, who could thumb their noses and not have to answer to anyone except their own families. There were about twenty persons in this group, and your standing in the younger set of Gibbsville could be judged by the assurance with which you joined the nucleus of the smoking room crowd. By three o’clock everyone who wanted to had been in the smoking room; the figurative bars were let down at about one-thirty, which time coincided with the time at which the Hofmans and Englishes and so on had got drunk enough to welcome anyone, the less eligible the better. (p. 9)

However, underneath that outwardly respectable exterior, Julian harbours a self-destructive streak, something that possibly stems from the nature of his family background – particularly the expectations placed on him by his father during the preceding years. Personality-wise, Julian is impetuous, disillusioned and abrupt.

Over the course of three days at Christmas, the novel follows Julian as he drinks too much, picks arguments with the wrong people and generally makes a complete fool of himself. It all starts when Julian throws a drink in the face of Harry Reilly, a man he has never really liked in spite of his standing in Gibbsville.

By Christmas morning, news of the incident is all around the town – a situation made all the more notorious by the fact that Harry appears to have sustained a black eye, presumably from the ice cubes that were present in the drink when it was thrown. As far as Julian sees it, the whole thing is a storm in a teacup. Surely there have been other, more outrageous ‘crimes’ in the past, episodes with more serious consequences than something like this? And anyway, Harry Reilly had it coming to him.

What the hell had he done? he wondered. He had thrown a drink in a man’s face. An especially terrible guy who should have had a drink thrown in his face a long while ago. It wasn’t as if Harry Reilly were a popularity contest winner or something. If most people told the truth they would agree that Reilly was a terrible person, a climber, a noveau riche even in Gibbsville where fifty thousand dollars was a sizeable fortune. Julian thought back over some other terrible things, really terrible things, that people had done in the club without being made to feel they had committed sacrilege. (p. 90)

The trouble is, with Harry Reilly’s influence spreading far and wide, it doesn’t do well to have him as an enemy. Several of Julian’s friends and business associates already owe Harry money, a fact that seems likely to influence their reactions towards Julian in the days that follow. Moreover, the fact that Harry is Catholic puts him in a strong position to call upon the support of the church and other prominent worshippers in the area. As Julian soon discovers, a lucrative business deal with the local undertaker – currently in the market for a prestige hearse – is already at risk of being scuppered, almost certainly as a consequence of his rash actions.

This seemingly small incident represents the beginning of a chain of events which constitute Julian’s fall from grace. Somewhat ironically, the damage caused by each individual misstep could be contained on its own – in other words, if it were a single violation as opposed to one element of a broader pattern of behaviour. Instead, it is the cumulative effect of the fallout that causes the real damage here.

O’Hara does something very interesting in the way he presents the Harry Reilly incident to the reader. Rather than describing what actually happens when Julian throws the drink at Harry, O’Hara shows Julian thinking about throwing it – not with any serious intentions of doing so, just daydreaming about it at this point. In fact, it is only through the responses of other people after the event that we get to hear about the incident itself. As a consequence, the very act of Julian throwing the drink seems to be magnified, which only adds to its impact and notoriety.

Something similar happens with the second of Julian’s missteps when, once again, the fine details of the episode occur off-camera, a technique that lends a degree of ambiguity to Julian’s actions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, interested observers assume the worst, a situation which leaves Julian feeling the heat from multiple angles – mainly from his wife, Caroline, and the powerful mobster, Ed Charney, whose louche mistress was the target of Julian’s attention that night.

As everything starts to unravel for Julian, we learn more about the early years in his life, particularly the relationship with his father, William Dilworth, a doctor and upstanding member of the Gibbsville community. As he came to young Julian’s rescue after the latter had been caught shoplifting, William English wondered whether the sins of his own father had come home to roost with the old man’s grandson.

William Dilworth English was thinking of his own life, the scrupulous, notebook honesty; the penny-watching, bill-paying, self-sacrificing honesty that had been his religion after his own father’s suicide. And that was his reward: a son who turned out to be like his grandfather, a thief. (p. 164) 

While Julian never stole anything again, he was left feeling a constant disappointment to his father especially as far as his career and the management of money were concerned. There was a time when Dr English wanted his son to join (and ultimately take over) his own prestigious medical practice – but Julian had other ideas back then, preferring instead to take advantage of the boom years of the 1920s.

Appointment in Samarra is an interesting look at the social elite of Pennsylvania in the early 1930s, the sort of people who had become accustomed to a certain standard of living, viewing it as a kind of entitlement as opposed to something that needed to be earned. The novel is full of little observations on the social codes of the Lantenengo Street milieu. While the town’s manual workers are still feeling the pinch from the decline in demand for coal (the local anthracite mining industry has struggled to recover from two lengthy strikes in the ‘20s), there is still plenty of money in evidence amongst the Gibbsville Country Club set.

Tonight’s dinner, as almost every guest was able to tell at a glance, was the club’s two-fifty dinner. This was a club dinner dance, and all members were invited. At a dinner such as the Ammermanns’, the hostess could arrange with the steward for the dollar-fifty (roast chicken), the two-dollar (roast turkey), or the two-fifty (filet mignon), and this had been the filet mignon dinner. The Ammermanns had just that much money, and their position in Gibbsville was just that certain and insecure, that they had to give the best of everything. (pp. 82-83)

The book is full of observations like this, fine details which add a sense of authenticity to the world O’Hara is portraying here.

The novel’s title comes from a brief parable by W. Somerset Maugham, a sort of retelling of an ancient cautionary tale. Maugham’s piece forms the novel’s epigraph – and with the benefit of hindsight, it seems a very fitting scene-setter for the book.

Appointment in Samarra is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

Liars in Love by Richard Yates

I’ve been on a bit of Richard Yates kick lately. First with A Good School (1978), his loosely autobiographical novel of life as a teenage boy at a single-sex boarding school, and now with Liars in Love (1981), his second collection of short stories. While Liars isn’t quite as strong as his earlier collection, the superb Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962), it’s still very much worth reading, especially if you’re a fan of this author’s work or short stories in general – Yates is widely acknowledged as a true master of the form.

Once again, Yates demonstrates a deep understanding of the frailties of human nature here. More specifically, he explores the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the feelings of worthlessness that can stem from small failures, and the lack of connection as promising relationships break down and individuals drift apart. Here we have failing marriages, disparate households, and children who seem detached and isolated from their parents. It’s vintage Yates territory, as intuitively observed as one might expect.

The collection comprises seven stories each ranging from around 30 to 60 pages in length. As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to cover each story in turn. Instead, my aim is to pick out a few favourites to give a flavour of the volume as a whole.

The opening story, Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired, is narrated by a young boy living in Greenwich Village with his sister and mother who is trying her hand – quite poorly as it turns out – at producing sculptures. The mother is a classic Yates character; having separated from her husband some three years earlier, she is now a somewhat tragic and deluded woman whose best years are almost certainly behind her.

She was forty-one, an age when even romantics must admit that youth is gone, and she had nothing to show for the years but a studio crowded with green plaster statues that nobody would buy. She believed in the aristocracy, but there was no reason to suppose the aristocracy would ever believe in her. (p. 30)

This is a thoughtful story laced with moments of pathos and sadness, a strong start to the collection.

Children feature again in one of my favourites pieces, Trying Out for the Race. In this story, two mothers with kids agree to share a house together in Scarsdale as a means of combining their respective resources. However, in spite of the fact that the two women, Elizabeth Hogan Baker and Lucy Towers, have been friends for years, they turn out to be somewhat mismatched as living companions. Here’s a brief flavour of the myriad of tensions that ensue – Nancy is Elizabeth’s young daughter.

The Towers family shied away from Elizabeth most of the time, and so did Nancy; it was like having a stranger in the house. Coming heavily downstairs in her spike heels, standing at the front windows to stare out at the Post Road as if in deep thought, picking at whatever food was set before her and drinking a lot after dinner as she paged impatiently through many magazines. Elizabeth didn’t even seem to notice how uncomfortable she made everyone feel. (p. 84)

This is a story full of acute observations on the sheer awkwardness and frustrations of living in close quarters with people other than family – a situation familiar to most of us at some point in our lives.

Another of my favourite stories, A Natural Girl, touches on the strained relationship between a father and his much-loved daughter, a young woman named Susan. Yates is typically strong on openings, but this one in particular drew me in from the very first line. Here’s how it begins.

In the spring of her sophomore year, when she was twenty, Susan Andrews told her father very calmly that she didn’t love him anymore. She regretted it, or at least the tone of it, almost at once, but it was too late: he sat looking stunned for a few seconds and then began to cry, all hunched over to hide his face from her, trying with one unsteady hand to get a handkerchief out of his dark suit. He was one of the five or six most respected hematologists in the United States, and nothing like this had happened to him for a great many years. (p. 37)

While the father struggles to understand why his daughter feels this way, there is in fact no particular reason behind it. As Susan says at one point: “There’s no more why to not loving than there is to loving. I think most intelligent people understand that.”

This is another beautifully observed story which also explores the landscape of Susan’s marriage to her college lecturer, an older man named David Clark. Towards the end of the narrative, things come full circle in more ways than one as Susan makes a brief return visit to the family home before setting out on her life again. The opening and closing sections are particularly poignant.

Others stories focus on an American soldier who requests compassionate leave to visit his estranged mother and sister, both of whom now live in England; a divorced writer who has a fling with a strikingly attractive girl while working on a screenplay in LA; and a young copywriter/editor named Bill Grove, presumably a grown-up version of the protagonist in A Good School.

While much of the subject matter explored in this collection is rather melancholy, there are touches of real tenderness and compassion here. In some ways, Yates is at his best when capturing these moments as he brings a degree of sensitivity and nuance to such scenes. It can be difficult when a quote is presented out of context, but I hope you can see something of it in this passage from Trying Out for the Race.

And Nancy gave her a brief, shy smile before turning away again. Slowly, Elizabeth removed the driving glove from her right hand. She reached across her daughter’s lap, clasped the outer thigh and brought her sliding over, careful to keep her small knees clear of the shuddering gear shift. She held the child’s thighs pressed fast against her own for a long time; then, in a voice so soft it could scarcely be heard over the sound of the car, she said “Listen, it’ll be alright, sweetheart. It’ll be all right.” (p. 92)

In summary, Liars in Love is another very satisfying collection from Yates. There are even glimmers of hope and optimism in some of these stories, a sense of fresh starts, new beginnings or second chances for some of the characters, which is pleasing to see. In many ways, these stories feel all the better for it.

Liars in Love is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

A Good School by Richard Yates

First published in 1978, A Good School is perhaps the most autobiographical of Richard Yates’ novels. The setting is Dorset Academy, a private, all-male prep school in northern Connecticut – a somewhat odd yet well-intentioned institution which, unbeknownst to the parents who send their boys there, turns out to be on the brink of financial collapse. It soon becomes clear that there is something a little funny about Dorset; while the head likes to think of it as ‘a good school’, there is something decidedly off or second-rate here, a notion that is typified by the following quote.

Dorset Academy had a wide reputation for accepting boys who, for any number of reasons, no other school would touch. (p. 5)

Here we meet William Grove, a hesitant, socially awkward teenager whose experiences at the school are conveyed during the novel, forming a sort of spine or focal point for the vignettes presented throughout.

The kid was a mess. His tweed suit hung greasy with lack of cleaning, his necktie was a twisted rag, his long fingernails were blue, and he needed a haircut. He seemed in danger of stumbling over his own legs as he made his way to a chair, and he sat so awkwardly as to suggest it might be impossible for his body to find composure. What an advertisement for Dorset Academy! (p. 16)

We are quickly introduced to a large cast of additional characters, mostly other boarders at the school and the masters that teach there. (As the Dorset campus is somewhat isolated and enclosed, the various teachers and their families also live within its grounds.) There is Pierre Van Loon, a fellow boarder and social outcast who latches onto Grove as a sort of last resort; Terry Flynn, a popular, good-looking boy with ‘face of an angel and the body of a perfect athlete’; and Steve McKenzie, the second-floor dorm inspector who always seems to be spoiling for a fight. Several other boys feature at various points – too many to cover in detail in this review – but each one feels recognisable and authentic even when relatively briefly sketched.

Yates is particularly good at capturing the many anxieties of a teenage boy, the day-to-day experiences that Grove and others like him must navigate if they are to survive in this difficult environment. Namely, the numerous fights and instances of petty bullying that break out, often over nothing; the inevitable comparisons of body parts in the showers, both overt and covert; and the angst of trying to form and maintain friendships, especially once the boys reach an age when they are allowed to room together in pairs. In this scene, Richard Edward Thomas Lear, an English boy with a somewhat supercilious manner, is itching for a fight. Anyone will do – in other words, whoever happens to get in his way at the appointed time.

Sometimes, though, and particularly at this hour of the day, an unaccountable melancholy settled on him. He wanted to punch and wrestle and shout; those were the only activities that could make him feel fit again. With his shower completed and his clothes changed for dinner, he went out into the hall and found Art Jennings intently flicking specks of lint off his black jacket. Jennings was a hulking, amiable nearsighted boy; he was bigger than Lear, but that would only make it more stimulating. (p. 12)

In his early months at the school, Grove finds himself on the receiving end of a number of unpleasant schoolboy rituals – various fights, a wrestling match and a potentially humiliating incident of an overtly sexual nature. Nevertheless, Grove refuses to let the bullies get the better of him (well, if not physically, then at the very least mentally). He tries to stand his ground, refusing to give them the satisfaction of cowing or crying in their presence.

In time, Grove finds his niche in the production of the fortnightly school newspaper, the well-respected Dorset Chronicle, joining the editorial team as a prize for his essay on America at War. Although he struggles to cut it in Maths, French, and Chemistry, Grove performs well in English, demonstrating a natural talent for writing, a skill he hones and puts to good use during his time on the paper. Eventually the position of editor-in-chief beckons, a role that boosts Grove’s confidence, giving him a new sense of purpose and self-respect at the school.

Most of the time he moved around the campus with a new sense of freedom – and even, occasionally, with a sense of his own importance. There was only one school newspaper, after all, and he was its editor-in-chief. Little kids shyly asked him questions, and boys of his own age and older seemed never to find him ridiculous. (p. 81)

The Chronicle also presents an opportunity for friendships to be forged and developed. When new boy Bucky Ward shows an interest in the paper, Grove gives him a chance, and the two boys soon become good friends. In time, Grove also wins the respect and comradeship of Hugh Britt, a talented but somewhat distant intellectual and former editor of the Chronicle who still plays a key role in the editorial team. But the pleasures of friendship do not come without their own complications, a point that Grove discovers in due course…

Alongside the boys’ experiences and exploits, we are also privy to the trials and tribulations of the teaching staff and their families. There are the headmaster’s desperate attempts to get the masters to accept a pay cut following strained discussions with the Trustees; the fading stages of an affair between Jean-Paul La Prade, the French master, and Alice Draper, the wife of the polio-stricken Chemistry master, Jack Draper; not to mention the crushing atmosphere in the Drapers’ household once La Prade leaves the school for a commission in the Army. In this scene – one that feels so characteristic of Yates’ signature theme of the sham-like nature of marriage – Jack Draper is reflecting on his situation with Alice. The gulf that hangs between them looms large.

“I have to think,” she had explained. “I have to take stock. I have to work a few things out in my mind.”

Well, okay, but what exactly did all that mean? Think about what? Take stock of what? Work what things out in her mind?

And now it was spring. In the evenings, after dinner and before the children’s bedtime, the four of them would sit around the living room in simulation of what real families might be expected to do. He had to admit he was stiff with drink on most of those occasions: he would usually start drinking in the lab in the afternoon and keep it going with heavy shots of bourbon in the kitchen before dinner, and more afterwards. (p. 95)

There is real poignancy and tragedy is Yates’ depiction of the Drapers, a point that is difficult to discuss in more detail without revealing spoilers.

As the book draws to a close and the boys’ thoughts turn to the future, two somewhat connected themes begin to emerge. Firstly, there is the prospect of relationships with girls, something that Grove eagerly anticipates when he hears that the Seniors will be sitting their final exams at Miss Blair’s, the neighbouring girls’ school.

This was a vaguely thrilling prospect. Apart from Gus Gerhardt, who was wholly familiar with the place but wasn’t talking, nobody knew anything about Miss Blair’s except that Edith Stone had graduated from it last year; but didn’t it stand to reason there’d be other girls like her? They’d have long, clean hair and they’d stroll their campus in light flannel skirts and light cardigan sweaters, with their school-books hugged close to their young breasts, and they’d say wonderfully engaging things like “Hi, my name’s Susan”. (p. 139)

Ironically, the boys’ hopes are dashed when they arrive at Miss Blair’s, only to be taunted by the girls’ disparaging chants – rhymes that serve to highlight the external perception of Dorset Academy as a ‘funny school’.

Secondly, there is the shadow of war and its consequences for Grove and his peers. The book is set during the early 1940s, with World War II featuring strongly in the background, a fact that adds a real sense of poignancy and gravity to the narrative, especially towards the end. Immediately following their graduation, the boys will be heading for the forces, uncertain as to what the future will hold for them. All this adds weight to their day-to-day experiences at the school, giving them a sort of grounding for the weeks and months ahead – they can look no further forward than that.

The novel is bookended by a forward and an afterword, both narrated by the adult Grove – a thinly veiled version of Yates himself – which explain how he had come to find himself at Dorset Academy in the first place and what happened to his classmates once they had graduated. The forward in particular is excellent, a deeply personal piece which touches on the younger Grove’s rather distant relationship with his father and the sadness he now feels for him looking back.

This is a book that touches on many themes: the angst of a boy’s teenage years and the pain of growing up; the gulf and disconnect between fathers and sons; the inevitable loss of innocence that will come with the war. There are many more.

From a technical perspective, A Good School may not be Yates’ most accomplished or dramatic book, but it’s still a terrific read. You can read Max’s excellent review of this novel here.

A Good School is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

My books of the year, 2017 – favourites from a year of reading

As I’ve been off the grid for most of last few months, I didn’t get a chance to post a list of my favourite books from 2017. So, in the spirit of better late than never, here it is. Enjoy!

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Like its predecessor, 2017 turned out to be another strong reading year for me. I read fewer books than usual this time (around 70 books, mostly older/blacklisted titles) but the majority were very good. Once again, it proved very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, so I’ve gone overboard with a top fifteen – that’s two more than the baker’s dozen I usually aim for. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

It’s getting to the point where I need to reserve a permanent spot for Barbara Pym, such is the quality of her writing. This year’s slot goes to Crampton Hodnet, a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s (Some Tame Gazelle came a very close second). What a joy it was to return to this author’s territory, a familiar world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

A series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by Isherwood’s time in the city during the early 1930s. I really loved this book with its striking cast of characters and wealth of engaging vignettes. As one might expect, the author’s portrayal of a Berlin in flux is truly wonderful, capturing the atmosphere of everything from the seedy underground bars and nightlife to the magnificence and glory of the glamorous side of the city. A most evocative read.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

Here’s another author worthy of a permanent place my end-of-year lists, Elizabeth Taylor – I just can’t seem to get enough of her work. The storyline in this book revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her best intentions often causing more harm than good. A novel full of little insights into various aspects of human behaviour – lovers of character-driven novels should enjoy this one.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

My favourite of the collections of short stories I read in 2017 (Saki’s Improper Stories came a close second). Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness. Once again, this will appeal to lovers of character-driven fiction. A superb set of stories, quite varied in style in spite of the overriding theme.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Set largely in the seedy bars and boarding houses of London’s Earl’s Court, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square centres on the tortured existence of George Harvey Bone, a thirty-four-year-old man who is obsessed with a beautiful yet vindictive young woman named Netta Longdon. It is an utterly brilliant portrait of a man on the edge, perfectly capturing the sudden changes in mood and mindset of a lonely and tormented soul, driven to distraction by the heartless woman he so deeply desires. This might just be my favourite book of the year.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

A beautiful and compelling portrayal of forbidden love, characterised by Wharton’s trademark ability to expose the underhand workings of a repressive world. Set within the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s, a culture that seems so refined on the surface, and yet so terribly brutal, hypocritical and intolerant underneath once the protective veneer of respectability is stripped away. There is a real sense of depth and subtlety in the characterisation here – classic literature doesn’t get much better than this.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

A highly compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Second World War. It’s a brilliant novel, one that features a most distinctive character quite unlike any other I’ve encountered either in literature or in life itself. In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating individual, one that is sure to generate strong opinions either way. Is she a manipulative hypocrite, determined to seize any opportunity and exploit it for her own personal gain? Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? You’ll have to read the book yourself to take a view.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

One of several reads featuring a highly distinctive female narrator – in this case, Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience. It is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heart-warming.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Enchanted indeed! What a delightful novel this turned out to be – telling, as it does, the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming story has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. A truly magical read, guaranteed to lift the spirits.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

In this beautifully written novel, we follow a day in the life of the Marshalls, an upper-middle-class family struggling to find a new way to live in an England irrevocably altered by the Second World War. Several threads and encounters come together to form a vivid picture of a nation, a country trying to come to terms with new ways of life and the accompanying changes to its social fabric. A little like a cross between Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and an Elizabeth Taylor novel, this was a wonderful discovery for me.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

This novel was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, thereby creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult. A thoroughly delicious read.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I read this in advance of Halloween, and it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite humorous in a darkly comic way. What really sets this book apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of the narrator’s voice, that of young Merricat Blackwood. A novella with much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. The sense of being an outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a prominent theme.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Several of the books in translation I chose to read in 2017 were disappointing, but this one really stood out for the distinctiveness of its central character, Doris. A striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start, particularly in the way it reflected her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin. Another very evocative read for me.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party provides a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. Essentially a tale of ‘upstairs and downstairs’, this is a wonderful ensemble piece with a sting in its tail. Fans of L. P Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy this one.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes made my 2016 highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. And here she is again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse is a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there – only things don’t quite go to plan. It’s probably my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I read last year.

So there we are – a pretty satisfying year of reading all told.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

In this utterly charming, quintessentially English novel, we follow the highs and lows of six months in the life of seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, one of the most delightful narrators you are ever likely to encounter in literature. As an aspiring writer, Cassandra shares her story by way of a series of highly detailed journal entries through which she hopes to figure out and capture her feelings – the strange mix of emotions she finds herself experiencing during this pivotal time in her life. In essence, the novel is a coming-of-age story, complete with plenty of agonising over various romantic entanglements along the way. For some reason, I thought I might struggle to engage with this book and its ‘consciously naïve’ narrator, but nothing could have been further from the truth. This turned out be a great read for me – unashamedly cosy and indulgent with some moments of poignancy along the way to counterbalance the sweetness.

The novel is set in the midst of the Suffolk countryside in the mid-1930s. Cassandra lives with her rather eccentric family in a dilapidated castle which they have leased from their nearby neighbour, the elderly Mr Cotton. The household is notionally headed up by Cassandra’s rather frustrating father, Mortmain, a once-promising writer who hasn’t produced any new work in the past ten years, a point that only serves to exacerbate the family’s woeful financial situation. These days, the reclusive Mortmain spends most of his time camped out in the castle’s gatehouse reading detective novels and trying to solve crossword puzzles. Then there is Cassandra’s ethereal stepmother, Topaz, a former artists’ model with a penchant for nudity and communing with nature. (Cassandra adores Topaz in spite of all her idiosyncrasies.) Finally, completing the family unit, we have Cassandra’s pretty older sister, Rose, her younger brother, Thomas, and their odd-job boy, Stephen, son of the Mortmains’ former maid, back in the days when they could afford one. Stephen is covertly in love with Cassandra – a fact that she is fully conscious of but doesn’t quite know how to handle without hurting his feelings.

In spite of their residing in such formerly grand surroundings, the Mortmains have virtually no money to speak of. For years they have been living off the ever-dwindling royalties from Mortmain’s only book, the proceeds from Topaz’s modelling days (no longer in evidence), and little bits of money they have managed to borrow here and there. The rent on the castle has not be paid for quite some time. Moreover, all the family’s good furniture has been sold and replaced by the bare essentials, mostly cheap items acquired from local thrift shops.

Our room is spacious and remarkably empty. With the exception of the four-poster, which is in very bad condition, all the good furniture has gradually been sold and replaced by minimum requirements bought in junk shops. Thus we have a wardrobe without a door and bamboo dressing-table which I take to be a rare piece. I keep my bedside candlestick on a battered tin trunk that cost one shilling; Rose has hers on a chest of drawers painted to imitate marble, but looking more like bacon. (p. 16)

There is little heating or food to speak of at the castle – on a good day, there might be an egg or two to accompany the usual tea of bread and margarine. As a consequence, the girls, Rose in particular, long for some kind of escape. There is a very amusing scene near the beginning of the book where Rose threatens, albeit somewhat petulantly, to go ‘on the streets’ to earn some money, only to be reminded by Cassandra that it would be impossible for anyone to do so in the depths of Suffolk; it’s simply not that sort of place! In reality, Rose believes her best chance of a brighter future would come from marrying a wealthy man, someone who could sweep her off her feet and take her away from the crumbling castle forever. The trouble is, the chances of meeting any eligible young men, irrespective of their looks and relative standing, are practically non-existent, especially given the castle’s isolated location and the Mortmains’ limited resources. Nevertheless, Rose is determined to find someone, even if it means marrying a man she does not love, just to pull herself out of a life of poverty.

Then, just when the Mortmains appear to be at their lowest ebb, into their lives sweep two dashing young Americans: Simon Cotton, the wealthy new owner of nearby Scoatney Hall, and his younger brother, Neil. (In effect, Simon is the Mortmains’ new landlord, old Mr Cotton having just passed away.) Naturally, all this happens in typical fairy-tale fashion as the Cottons arrive at the castle just in time to see the Mortmain family at their most eccentric: Topaz has already been spotted on the nearby mound communing with nature; young Cassandra is taking a bath in the kitchen surrounded by a makeshift screen of clothes horses; and to top it all off, Rose appears at the top of the stairs dressed in a freshly-dyed tea dress, just as her recently returned stepmother starts playing the lute. It all makes for the most bizarre scene, but luckily the Cottons find the whole thing rather fascinating.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rose immediately sets her cap at Simon, seeing him as a potential future husband – this in spite of his beard which both girls find rather off-putting.

It is a pity that Simon is the heir, because Rose thinks the beard is disgusting; but perhaps we can get it off. Am I really admitting that my sister is determined to marry a man she has only seen once and doesn’t much like the look of? Is it half real and half pretence – and I have an idea that it is a game most girls play when they meet any eligible young men. They just…wonder. And if any family ever had need of wondering, it is ours. But only as regards Rose. I have asked myself if I am doing any personal wondering and in my deepest heart I am not. I would rather die than marry either of those quite nice men. (p. 66)

At first, the brothers consider Rose somewhat too forward and obvious, viewing her manner as more affected than alluring. Nevertheless, both Cassandra and Topaz are determined to aid Rose in her quest to get close to Simon. After one or two false starts, an invitation to dine at Scoatney is finally extended, an opportunity which Rose is determined to seize. In this scene, Cassandra is discussing Rose’s chances with Topaz.

I closed the kitchen door and said: ‘What did you think of her manner today?’

‘At least it was quieter, though she was still making eyes. But, anyway, it doesn’t matter now.’

I looked at her in astonishment and she went on:

‘Simon Cotton’s attracted – really attracted – couldn’t you see? Once that happens, a girl can be as silly as she likes – the man’ll probably think the silliness is fetching.’

‘Is Neil attracted, too?’

‘I doubt it,’ said Topaz. ‘I’ve an idea that Neil sees through her – I saw him give her a very shrewd look. Oh, how are we going to dress her, Cassandra? There’s a chance for her with Simon, really there is – I know the signs.’ (p. 122)

All too quickly Simon finds himself falling in love with Rose, and when he proposes marriage she naturally accepts. Cassandra, Topaz and Mortmain are all delighted at the news; Neil, however, is furious, a fact he reveals only to Cassandra, urging her to keep his outburst private. It would appear that Neil sees Rose as a gold-digger, someone who seems intent on marrying his brother for the money alone, irrespective of any genuine feelings of love.

As preparations for Rose’s wedding get underway – she is promptly whisked off to London by Simon’s erudite mother who insists on buying her a glamorous wardrobe and trousseau – Cassandra continues to chart the various developments in her journal. She is decidedly more grounded, more perceptive than her rather materialistic and foolish sister, a fact that becomes increasingly apparent as the narrative progresses.

Alongside Rose’s romance with Simon, Cassandra’s own feelings have also been thrown up in the air – not only by Stephen, who declares his love for her, but by Neil and Simon too. As far as Cassandra sees things, Neil is the more approachable of the Cotton brothers, more easy-going and open; and yet there is also something very attractive about Simon, especially once he dispenses with his beard. Much to her initial surprise, Cassandra also finds herself falling in love. Once again, the journal entries help Cassandra to make sense of her feelings. In effect, they provide an outlet for the experience of first love, marked as it so often is by that blend of exquisite pleasure and undeniable pain.

After that I talked easily enough, making him laugh quite a bit – I could see he was liking me again. But it wasn’t my present self talking at all; I was giving an imitation of myself as I used to be. I was very ‘consciously naïve’. Never, never was I that with him before; however I may have sounded, I always felt perfectly natural. But I knew, as I sat there amusing him while the band played ‘Lover’, that many things which had felt natural to me before I first heard it would never feel natural again. It wasn’t only the black dress that had made me grow up. (p. 323)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the way in which the story finally plays out, save to say that there are one or two twists along the way (especially toward the end). Dodie Smith wrote the book while she was living in America, homesick as she was for her native England. As a consequence, the story is shot through with a touching sense of nostalgia, a reverence for the eccentricities of the nation she loved.

This is a captivating, slightly bittersweet novel, one that appears frothy on the surface but is actually deeper and more insightful than its initial levity suggests – I have barely scratched the surface of it here.

I Capture the Castle is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.