Tag Archives: WW2

All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Angus Davidson)

While I’ve enjoyed several reissues of Natalia Ginzburg’s work in recent years, All Our Yesterdays feels like the one I’ve been waiting to read – a rich, multilayered evocation of Italian family life spanning the duration of the Second World War.

Through Sally Rooney’s excellent introduction to the novel, we learn how Natalia and her first husband, the Jewish anti-fascist activist Leone Ginzburg, were sent to Southern Italy during the war as a form of internal exile. In 1944, Leone was imprisoned, tortured and killed by the incumbent regime for his covert work on an anti-fascist newspaper. By the war’s end, Natalia was in her late twenties, a widow with three young children and a debut novella under her belt. As such, she channelled her experiences into her work, publishing All Our Yesterdays in 1952. It’s a brilliant novel, full of warmth, intelligence and humanity, punctuated by wry observations on the tangled business of life.

The book focuses on two Italian families living opposite one another in a small Northern Italian town, with the story opening in the late 1930s during the run-up to war. While one family derives its wealth from the town’s soap factory, the other is middle-class and relatively short of money, contrasting the fortunes of these neighbouring households. As the novel unfolds, Anna – the youngest daughter in the middle-class family – gradually emerges as the main protagonist, an ordinary, impressionable teenager alert to developments around her. With his wife no longer alive, Anna’s father (a former lawyer) devotes his time to writing his memoirs, a long, sprawling series of anti-fascist declarations that will fail to see the light of day.

While Anna’s older sister Concettina – an attractive girl who bemoans her flat chest – works her way through a sequence of fiancés, her brother, Ippolito, helps their father by typing up his memoirs late into the night. Completing the family are younger brother, Giustino, and an eccentric old maid, Signora Maria, a former companion to the children’s deceased grandmother.

With Mussolini in power and fascism on the rise, Ippolito becomes increasingly interested in politics, debating the issues of the day with Emanuele – the eldest son from the wealthy family opposite – and their principled friend, Danilo, one of Concettina’s many fiancés. Full of the exuberance of youth, the trio pore over newspapers and dream of revolution, drawing up plans that Anna begins to glean…

She seemed to understand about the sitting room, and the sentences in German, and Ippolito stroking his face, and his restless eyes that were always looking for something. They were talking politics in the sitting room, they were once again doing a dangerous, secret thing, as the book of memoirs had been. They wanted to overthrow the fascists, to begin a revolution. (p. 47)

Over time, a friendship develops between Anna and Emanuele’s younger brother, Giuma, a rather arrogant, insensitive boy who seems more interested in himself than anyone around him. At sixteen, Anna finds herself pregnant by Giuma, who subsequently abandons her with a 1000-lire note, sufficient money to cover an underground abortion.

She was alone, she was alone and no one said anything to her, she was alone in her room with her grass-stained, crumpled dress and her violently trembling hands. She was alone with Giuma’s face that gave her a stab of pain at her heart, and every day she would be going back with Giuma amongst the bushes on the river bank, every day she would see again that face with the rumpled forelock and the tightly closed eyelids, that face that had lost all trace both of words and of thoughts for her. (pp. 152–153)

As personal relationships in these families are forged and fragmented, the Germans continue their irrepressible march across Europe, advancing into Belgium and Holland – and then France. The boys are particularly aware of these developments, knowing full well that Italy will likely align itself with Nazi Germany. But while Emanuele remains relatively calm in the face of events, Ippolito is deeply unsettled, pacing his room at night and avoiding contact with others. Through their contrasting responses to the encroaching war, Ginzburg is showing us how the political seeps into the personal, highlighting the devastating impact on young, impressionable minds.

Concettina, too, is disturbed by the situation in Europe. Recently married to Emilio, the father of her baby boy, she fears for the family’s safety – consequently, her nights are haunted by dreams of fleeing should the Germans advance further. Ginzburg is particularly adept at highlighting how everyday life appears meaningless and futile in the face of war, especially when external factors feel uncertain and threatening.

But Concettina had not forgotten the war, and she looked incredulously at the cradle and the coverlet with the mushrooms on it that Signora Maria was embroidering, and she wondered how much longer the baby would sleep in that big cradle of blue taffeta, she already saw herself running away with the baby in her arms amongst tanks and the whistling of sirens, and she hated Signora Maria with her mushrooms and her futile chatter. (pp. 160–161)

Meanwhile, as Anna decides to seek an abortion, an unexpected lifeline appears in the shape of Cenzo Rena, a family friend who suddenly proposes marriage while agreeing to take on the baby. At forty-seven, Cenzo Rena seems like an unlikely match for Anna, but he is kind, thoughtful and generous – qualities to be admired irrespective of appearances.

They looked like two people who had been flung against each other by chance in a sinking ship. For them there had been no fanfare of trumpets, he said. And that was a good thing, because when fate announced itself with a loud fanfare of trumpets you always had to be a little on your guard. (p. 210)

Despite her family’s objections, Anna marries Cenzo Rena and moves to his house in the South, a strange collection of large, sparsely-furnished rooms adorned by the myriad of useless objects he has amassed from his travels abroad.

Cenzo Rena is an influential figure in the area, with several contadini calling on him for sound advice. And it’s here in the village of Borgo San Costanzo – an impoverished, insular community with multiple health problems – that the presence of war really makes itself felt. Jews from some Italian Northern cities are sent to the South, shunting them off to villages where they cannot ‘harm the war’. San Costanzo receives four Jewish internees under this initiative – three old women and a Turkish Jew, who ultimately becomes Cenzo Rena’s friend. A Polish Jew named Franz, a friend of Emanuele’s father, also makes his way to San Costanzo, further complicating the situation. In true Italian fashion, Franz is married to Emanuele’s sister, Amalia, having been involved with the siblings’ mother, Mammina, some years before. (The novel’s network of romantic entanglements is suitably complex but relatable – a delight to observe!)

Once again, the juxtaposition between the micro-level tensions of family life and the broader drama of world events is highly compelling, underscoring the radical sociopolitical changes unfolding across the country.

He [Cenzo Rena] looked out of the window at the refugees from Naples who were now going hither and thither about the lanes of the village, carrying mattresses and babies, he looked and said how sad it was to see all these mattresses carried about here and there all over Italy, Italy was now pouring mattresses out of her ravaged houses. And perhaps they too might soon be forced to run away, with their mattresses and the little girl and La Maschiona and the dog and the deckchairs, to run away to goodness knows where through the burning dust of the roads… (pp. 328–329)

Unsurprisingly, there is an eccentric cook/housekeeper here too, a rather foolish woman referred to as La Maschiona, whose devastating actions drive the novel’s denouement.

As the novel draws to a close, Anna is happy to be reunited with Emanuele and Giustino, reflecting on those who died during the war, a time of immense fear, confusion and uncertainty. However, she also understands that the future comes with its own challenges – a ‘long, difficult life’ full of all the things they don’t know how to do.

Ginzburg has written a truly remarkable novel here, a story of ordinary people living through extraordinary times, beautifully told with a warmth and generosity of spirit that reflects the Italian character. There are some lovely touches of dry humour throughout, as the author maintains a wry sense of detachment from life’s absurdities, despite the gravity of events. It’s also clearly a novel informed by personal experiences and memories, written by a woman who lived through the turmoil of a country at war – a point that adds a genuine sense of poignancy and authenticity to the story as it unfolds.

All Our Yesterdays is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

Green for Danger by Christianna Brand   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks very much,” said Woods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow by Elisabeth Russell Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Ireland – My Favourite Books by Irish Women Writers

As some of you may know, March is Reading Ireland Month (#ReadingIreland22), co-hosted by Cathy at the 746Books blog and Niall/Raging Fluff. It’s a month-long celebration of Irish books and culture from both sides of the border – you can find out more about it here.

Over the past few years, I’ve reviewed quite a few books by Irish writers; and given that 8th March is International Women’s Day, I thought I would share some of my favourites by women. (Hopefully these might give you some ideas on what to read if you’re thinking of participating.)

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

Bowen’s striking debut novel is a story of unsuitable attachments – more specifically, the subtle power dynamics at play among the members of a very privileged set, cast against the backdrop of the Italian Riviera. In many respects, the novel revolves around Sydney Warren, a somewhat remote yet spirited young woman in her early twenties, and the individuals she meets during her break. In some instances, the characters are gravitating towards one another for convenience and perhaps a vague kind of protection or social acceptability, while in others, there are more underhand motives at play.

It all feels incredibly accomplished for a debut, full of little observations on human nature and the social codes that dictate people’s behaviour (there are some wonderful details on hotel etiquette here). If you like Edith Wharton’s ‘society’ novels, The Hotel could well be for you.

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan (from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s)

A stunning collection of stories, all set in the same modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin in the 20th century. The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces that offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time despite the political turbulence of the early 1920s. Then we move on to a sequence of stories featuring Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance. Here we see two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. Lastly, the third and final section explores another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. In contrast to the previous pieces, there is a little more hope here as the Bagots’ relationship is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness.

What sets this collection apart from many others is the cumulative sense of disconnection conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning that gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece.

Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill (1956)

A brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. The novel’s protagonist is Laura Percival – a rather timid spinster in her forties – who we first meet on the afternoon of a family funeral. The deceased is Laura’s elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still looms large over Marathon (the Percivals’ residence), despite her recent death. This is a novel that delves into the past as developments force Laura to confront a period of her life she has long since buried – more specifically, a series of circumstances that led her to stay at Marathon when the possibility of freedom was so tantalisingly within reach.

A powerful, character-driven novel that focuses on the psychology and underlying motives of different individuals tied together by familial or social bonds, however tenuous. Fans of Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen would likely appreciate this.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)

This gorgeous, deeply-affecting novel focuses on the life of Tess Lohan, a girl born and raised on a farm in rural Ireland. The novel opens in the mid-1940s with the death of Tess’ mother – a loss that sets the tone for the decades which follow. Academy Street is a poignant book, the deeply-moving story of a quiet life that plays out firstly in 1950s Ireland and then in 1960s New York. The overall tone is achingly melancholy, but there are moments of intense beauty amidst the solitude and heartache.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the intensity of feeling Costello brings to Tess’ story. The prose is spare and controlled, but the reader feels a sense of closeness to Tess, as if we have near-complete access to her thoughts and emotions. A beautifully written book from one of my favourite contemporary writers.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)

A superb novella set in New Ross, a town in the southeast of Ireland, in the raw-cold days of the run-up to Christmas 1985. Central to the story is Bill Furlong, a hardworking coal and timber merchant who tries to help his clients where he can – dropping off bags of logs to loyal customers, even when they can’t afford to pay. One day, while delivering coal to the local Convent, Furlong sees something genuinely alarming – a sign that proves hard for him to ignore, despite his wife’s reservations about speaking out.

It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking book about the importance of staying true to your values – of doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security and aspirations at risk. Keegan’s prose is simple, pared-back and unadorned, a style that seems fitting given the nature of the story. Nothing feels superfluous here – every word has just the right weight and meaning.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell (2022)

This deeply-moving novel takes as its focal point a series of attacks – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fireside Raids – that took place in Belfast during WW2. Using these devastating real-life events as a springboard, Caldwell has created a really beautiful novel here – an engrossing, evocative portrayal of the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of the Bells, a fictional middle-class family. Caldwell excels in capturing so many aspects of the raids, both physical and emotional. From the fear as people wait for the bombings to start, to the panic of searching for the missing and those who may have perished, to depicting the crushing damage to homes in vivid, unflinching detail. Moreover, she makes us care about her characters, investing in their respective hopes and dreams, concerns and anxieties – and it’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes this portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting.

In summary, this is a beautiful, lyrical novel – a deeply moving tribute to the resilience of the Belfast people who lost and endured so much during the dark days of the Blitz. 

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read any of them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in another couple of titles during March, including one by a woman. And if you have any favourites by Irish women writers, please feel free to mention them alongside other comments below – personal recommendations are always welcome.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell  

While much has been written about the impact of WW2 on mainland Britain (London in particular), the fate of Northern Ireland has probably not received the same level of attention. It’s a topic that Lucy Caldwell explores vividly and movingly in her exquisite new novel, These Days, which takes as its focal point a series of attacks – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fireside Raids – that took place in Belfast from April to May 1941. Nine hundred people died and more than a thousand were injured in the Easter Raid alone, making it the biggest loss of life in any single night-raid outside of the London Blitz.

Using these devastating events as a springboard, Caldwell has created a really beautiful novel here – an engrossing, evocative portrayal of the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of the Bells, a fictional middle-class family.

Philip Bell, a Belfast-based GP, and his wife, Florence, have been fairly happily married for twenty-two years. They have three children, all living at home: twenty-one-year-old Audrey, who is flighty, impulsive and bookish; eighteen-year-old Emma, a kind, diligent but somewhat awkward girl who volunteers at the local First Aid unit; and thirteen-year-old Paul, a lively boy who enjoys adventures and making dens. By following these individuals through April and May ‘41, we see the impact of the war on a personal level – not just for the Bell family but the broader Belfast community too.

Audrey, a junior clerk at the Belfast tax office, has just become engaged to Richard, a respectable but somewhat stiff doctor who views marriage as the logical next step in their relationship. But through her friendship with Doreen Bates, a bright independently-minded colleague from London, Audrey begins to wonder whether marriage to Richard will be the right option for her. At twenty-one, she is still eager to experience life and the possibilities it has to offer – and while Richard represents safety and security, Audrey wonders whether she truly loves him enough to go through with it.

Meanwhile, at the local First Aid post, Emma is experiencing the first flushes of love, having fallen for Sylvia, a relaxed, self-assured young woman who works alongside her at the station. This flourishing relationship opens up a new world of possibilities for Emma, giving her a sense of ease and confidence that she has struggled to achieve in the past.

Sylvia toasted some bread and split an orange for breakfast, and then they washed and dressed – Emma in a blouse and cotton slacks of Sylvia’s, too short for her, as Sylvia was half a head smaller, so they flapped ridiculously somewhere around the ankles. Who cares, she thought. They went out into the day. (p. 77)

Florence – the girls’ mother – is an interesting character too. While not unhappily married to Philip, Florence still privately mourns the loss of her former love, Reynard, who was killed in the First World War. She allows herself to think of Reynard during the regular Sunday church service, reminiscing on the happiness of times past and what might have been, had he survived.

What Caldwell does so well here is to make us care about these characters, investing in their respective hopes and dreams, concerns and anxieties – and it’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes her portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting.

Caldwell excels in capturing so many aspects of the raids, both physical and emotional. From the fear as people wait for the bombings to start, to the panic of searching for the missing and those who may have perished, to depicting the crushing damage to homes in vivid, unflinching detail. In one especially striking scene, she describes a house with the front blown off, exposing the contents within – like a doll’s house, the walls studded with daggers of shattered glass.

The fires, the tramlines ripped from the road and pointing up in helpless angles at the sky. A tram car on its side. With every breath, the thick stench of burning lodged deeper in you. The people you passed in the streets, some walking with purpose, some wandering one way, then turning and walking back the other. Others just standing. (pp. 166-167)

She [Audrey] saw a body in the middle of the road, its limbs splayed at an unusual angle. How are we ever going to recover, she thought, from having seen such things? You can’t think about it – your mind will short-circuit if you do. (p. 170)

Alongside the Bells, Caldwell offers glimpses of other families within their orbit, widening her lens to bring in others from the working classes. There’s six-year-old Maisie Gallagher, whom Audrey helps during the carnage of the Easter Raid, and the teenager, Betty Binks, who works alongside Mrs Price, the Bells’ dutiful charwoman. We see how the bombing raids cut across the social classes, uniting women in their suffering and grief as they come to terms with the horrific impact on families.

In addition to the devastation depicted above, there are some lighter moments too – beautifully painted scenes of dances, children playing together, and couples visiting galleries. Shared moments of intimacy and friendship amidst the ravages of war. Caldwell’s prose is wonderfully vivid and impressionistic, similar to Rosamond Lehmann’s style from Invitation to the Waltz.

The Plaza Ballroom, Chichester Street. Nine o’clock, still just about light outside, that heady moment when the evening tilts to night. A queue of laughing couples, trios of girls arm in arm, all waiting their turn to go through the boxy portico with its neon sign, tickets at the booth, coats bundled over to the cloakroom boy, and hurriedly up the stairs, feeling the floor vibrating under their feet. (p. 83)

There are some brilliant scenes depicted here. Perhaps most notably Audrey’s night at the Floral Hall dance (the evening of the Easter bombing raid), and the Gallaghers’ attempt to smuggle two or three ‘luxuries’ across the Irish border from a day trip to Dublin – a passage that highlights the scarcity of basic items such as decent stockings and children’s shoes.

In summary, this is a beautiful, lyrical novel – a deeply moving tribute to the resilience of the Belfast people who lost and endured so much during the dark days of the Blitz. There’s a very heartfelt passage towards the end, recounting with weight and poignancy the roll call of losses across the city. A poetic elegy of great power and sensitivity – just like Caldwell’s novel as a whole, which I truly adored.

These Days is published by Faber & Faber (another for #ReadIndies); my thanks to the Independent Alliance and the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

My favourite books from a year of reading, 2021 – part two, older books

This year, I’m spreading my highlights from a year of reading across two posts. The first piece focused on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, while this second one puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books from my 2021 reading, most of which were written in the 20th century.

These are the backlisted 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 (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, this unsettling collection of Wharton’s Ghost Stories is a veritable treat. Characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety, Wharton’s narratives are rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors. The fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul are all in evidence here. As one would expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn, with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing. A wonderfully chilling collection of tales, tapping into the dark side of American history and human relationships.

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

A thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten, whom she names Gattino. Not long after Mary and her husband move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, thereby reawakening various emotions, previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of Gaitskill’s father. In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. While the Daunt Books edition came out in 2020, this powerful extended essay first appeared in the Granta literary journal in 2009.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

This loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale is another of Taylor’s marvellous ensemble pieces, very much in line novels such as A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, where the focus moves from one individual to another as their lives intertwine. The novel is set in Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s, and as ever with this author, the characters are brilliantly observed. What I love about this her work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and veracity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication. Possibly underrated in the Taylor oeuvre, but for me it’s a gem.

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

This is a glorious book – an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and, perhaps most significantly of all, repressed female desire. A small group of Anglican nuns set out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains, a place steeped in beauty and mystery. As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under the setting’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. Tensions – both sexual and otherwise – abound in this sensual novel, stepped in lush visual imagery. In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, even for devoted fans of the Powell and Pressburger film, such as myself!

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with his others from the 1970s, and is something of a bridge between The Boarding-House and The Children of Dynmouth, both of which I loved. The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families – one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous characters I’ve encountered this year: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.

The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a darkly evocative coming-of-age narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Matute excels in her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting, drawing on striking descriptions of natural world to reinforce the impression of danger. It’s a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions. As this visceral novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her. A unsettling summer read.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. While this premise seems simple on the surface, the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magical charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for, a throwback perhaps to simpler, more modest times.

Passing by Nella Larsen

Larsen’s 1928 novella Quicksand – 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. Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry – both of whom are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances. 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. A superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. I loved Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation too, currently steaming on Netflix.

Finally, a few books that almost made the cut – all very highly recommended indeed.

  • Meeting in Positano – Goliarda Sapienza’s gorgeous novel of female friendship, set in the glamorous world of 1950s Italy.  
  • The Visitor – Maeve Brennan’s piercing novella of resentment, bitterness and the loneliness of isolation.
  • Family Happiness – Laurie Colwin’s beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to be loved.   
  • Tea is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex’s delightfully amusing comedy on the pettiness of village life and the failure to recognise our own limitations.
  • The Feast – Margaret Kennedy’s joyous novel, set in post-war Cornwall. Part morality tale and part family saga/social comedy, it’s an escapist delight!

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead. Let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than the last two have been…

Blitz Spirit: Voices of Britain Living Through Crisis, 1939-1945 by Becky Brown  

In this fascinating book, the anthologist, editor and literary agent Becky Brown presents various extracts from the diaries submitted as part of the British Mass-Observation study during the Second World War. Founded in 1937, Mass-Observation was an anthropological study, documenting the everyday lives of ordinary British people from all walks of life. The initiative aimed ‘to tell a truer, fuller version’ of life in Britain than was available in the newspapers or recorded in history books. As part of the project, a volunteer group of 500 people across the UK – from factory workers to shop assistants, from writers to teachers, from housewives to office clerks – submitted their personal diaries on a monthly basis from August 1939 onwards. It’s a remarkable resource, full of striking insights into the diarists’ day-to-day lives during this extraordinary time.

The diary extracts are presented chronologically, offering readers the opportunity to follow the war as it unfolds from the end of August 1939 to August 1945. Each chapter covers a period of six months and is prefaced by a brief summary of the key developments – both historical and emotional, using the diary entries as a ‘temperature gauge’ or touchstone resource.

Interestingly, the book does much to debunk the nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the British public during the war, a nation all pulling together in one united effort. As the diary entries clearly demonstrate, people experienced a wide variety of human emotions, from the novelty and excitement of facing something new, to the fear and anxiety fuelled by uncertainty and potential loss, to instances of selfishness and bickering, particularly as restrictions kicked in. Moreover, Brown has clearly taken a lot of care to select a wide variety of extracts, offering us entries that range from the mundane and virtuous (e.g. digging up the garden to grow vegetables, as in the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign) to the dramatic and terrifying (e.g. scrambling to hide in a cupboard during an unexpected bombing raid).

While many of the entries are sobering and poignant, there are some lighter moments too, especially in the early stages before the actual conflict begins.

To Rectory afternoon for bandaging practice. The Rector’s wife amuses me rather. She speaks as if the village were going to be strewn with casualties in the near future. (p. 22, Oct. 1939)

Another diarist notes the popularity of war-like flourishes in women’s fashions, with long military-style coats and jackets featuring brass buttons and shoulder straps appearing in the local town. Others, however, are more unsettled by the sense of uncertainty, their emotions changing from one week to the next as the situation in Europe worsens…

The war was, for a few days, terrible and exciting. Then it was only fitfully so. Now, after being merely a bore for a while, it grows more fearsome. It becomes personal and menacing. (p. 37, Jan 1940)

One of the most striking things about these diaries is just how much they resonate with the way many of us were feeling (and behaving) during the first year of the recent pandemic. Pre-emptive stockpiling in the early stages of the war drives a degree of panic buying, just as we saw with flour, dried pasta and loo rolls at the start of COVID. By December 1939, shop assistants are already bearing the brunt of customers’ anger at shortages in the shops, frequently resulting in outbursts as they try to deal with the situation.

Women have so insulted shop assistants that the rule – that assistance may not be rude to customers or ‘answer back’ – has been relaxed, by the manager of a big store here. The girls are often in tears, & the men greatly upset, by selfish customers who blame assistants when they can’t get what butter or sugar they think they want. (p. 30, Dec. 1939)

Some diarists quote examples of neighbours or acquaintances who flout the rules, obtaining food or petrol illegally on the black market or indulging in unnecessary travel when they should be keeping journeys to a minimum. Others report shopkeepers (or those in positions of authority) profiting from the shortages, hiking up prices to benefit from the increased demand. If anything, class divisions exacerbate the situation, undermining the sense of everyone being equal or ‘in it together’.

Interestingly, anti-maskers are not simply a 21st-century phenomenon, as this 1941 entry from a Belfast-based diarist neatly demonstrates!

All the propaganda recently about gas & gas masks doesn’t seem to have had much effect. I was down-town for an hour this morning, & during that time saw one woman carrying a mask; & she was obviously English. Schoolchildren carry them when going to school, (because compulsory) but not at other times. (p. 100, Apr. 1941)

Naturally, there are also touching acts of kindness, examples of friends and neighbours looking out for one another, sharing essentials and provisions or ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort – e.g. taking in evacuees, knitting garments for soldiers or driving ambulances during the Blitz.

Frustration with the government’s handling of the situation is detectable in several of the dairies – people want to hear the truth, not some jingoistic propaganda being peddled by the media. They also want to be treated as grown-ups – trusted partners in the war effort, not subordinates who must simply do as they’re told with no explanations. 

Even at quite an early stage in the war, people are becoming desensitised to the constant stream of bad news, as one tragedy follows another with little pause for thought about the impact of lives lost. In some respects, this chimes with the current situation in the UK where our negligent government seems to regard the loss of 1,000+ lives per week to COVID as an ‘acceptable’ cost of the pandemic.

This war feels more and more like a continuation of the last one. I think we felt more grief then at the loss of life. The modern world does not seem to care about lives being lost (3000 lost on the roads in two months). (p. 24, Nov. 1939)

It’s astonishing too how one takes the most astounding piece of news in one’s stride now, as it were, as much that would in normal times have supplied us with a year’s sensations, we swallow in a week without great comment. I suppose our minds have reached saturation point. All we hear and read now has little further effect. (p. 78, Oct. 1940)

As the war rumbles on, the later years usher in increasingly high levels of fatigue, scepticism, flagging morale and uncertainty about the future, even when the prospect of victory seems to be in sight. While the war has thrown up new opportunities for some – particularly women who have been able to work in new areas – others are less positive about their prospects. Meanwhile, some appear to expect an immediate return to ‘normal’ life, possibly with certain advances, while in reality any changes are likely to be gradual. As one diarist reflects:

It will not be something definite and spectacular like Lights Up, Bananas for all, unlimited fully fashioned real silk stockings at 2/6d a pair and everyone with a job they like and able to afford their own plot and bungalow. (p. 272, Oct. 1944)

The detrimental impact of the war on children is uppermost in some diarists’ minds, with the loss of normal childhood experiences being a particular concern – another issue that will resonate with many of us as we emerge from COVID restrictions.

What a reflection on our present mode of life it is that children have hardly known what it is to be able to spend their few pennies on ices and sweets. They can only remember queues and crowds, sirens and shelters, and have never eaten a toffee-apple! These children have lost five years of their life, and we must try to make it up to them. (p. 264, Aug. 1944)

In summary, then, Blitz Spirit is a fascinating insight into the day-to-day lives of ordinary people living through extraordinary times. There is real stoicism and resilience here, alongside the less desirable aspects of human behaviour, much of which will resonate with our recent experiences of the pandemic. I found it a thoroughly illuminating read, an excellent addition to the accounts of Home Front life during WW2.

Blitz Spirit is published by Hodder & Stoughton; personal copy.

There’s No Story There by Inez Holden

There is a wonderful note of irony in the title of Inez Holden’s 1944 novel, There’s No Story There, recently reissued in a beautiful edition by Handheld Press (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). The book is set in Statevale, an enormous munitions factory situated in the English countryside during WW2. While many writers might have overlooked the lives of ordinary working people when searching for inspiration, Holden took a different view. By drawing on her socialist values and journalistic experience, Holden could see the interesting in the everyday. Consequently, she used the working environment as a suitable canvas for her fiction, illuminating some fascinating stories of day-to-day life.

There’s No Story There is an excellent novel – by turns striking, poignant, funny and insightful. Very highly recommended for anyone interested in this period of British fiction.

Statevale – the fictional munitions factory in Holden’s novel – is a vast operation, ‘seven miles round’ and encompassing 30,000 workers, the majority of whom are divided into three shifts: Red, White and Blue. Many of the conscripted workers – particularly those coming from outside the immediate area – are housed in the Statevale Hostel. This gives the complex something of a community feel, despite the undeniable sense of isolation some workers experience after being separated from their former homes.

The train journey – perhaps the first – the crowded station, the factory town and the great grey hostel buildings, the work itself, carried out in silent isolated groups, never more than twenty workers in one semi-underground shed, never less than two hundred in the canteen at break-time, sometimes six hundred in the hostel at meal-times, and always seven thousand going out or coming in on shift. The journey herd, the hostel herd, the workshop herd – where even the movements of the work were disciplined down to a slow rhythm – all added to the fear and sense of isolation from the home herd. (p. 46)

With the workers at Statevale engaged in the manufacture of artillery shells and bombs via hazardous procedures, the potential for accidental ‘blows’ (i.e. explosions) is ever-present – a fear that rumbles away for some of the employees, particularly those with previous experience of war. Julian feels it very acutely, which becomes increasingly apparent as the novel unfolds. Clearly experiencing PTSD following his discharge from the army, Julian is virtually mute, unable to speak aloud while the words maintain an ongoing commentary in his head.

Julian looked up at the top layer of boxes, and as he did so his death-wish overwhelmed him again.

‘Supposing one of them tipped over and fell to the ground? What would happen – well, you know! A small speck of powder spilled, some sort of friction, what they call a “blow”, and I should disappear instantly. (p. 15)

Through Holden’s immense skill in shifting the viewpoint from one worker to the next, we are able to build up a detailed picture of life inside the munitions base over the course of the book. Workers must dress in asbestos suits, wear rubber-soled shoes on their feet, and cover their faces with special cream and powder to protect themselves while on the job. Procedures are conducted slowly and meticulously to minimise the potential for friction – with so many hazardous explosives around, any sparks or points of ignition must be avoided at all costs, otherwise the consequences could be fatal. As readers, we also gain a real sense of the less obvious sources of danger when working in such an operation – for instance, the insidious threat from boredom, which stems from the monotony of performing highly repetitive tasks.  

‘…It’s not so bad at this time of the day, but towards the end of the shift that awful mood of monotony comes creeping over me as certain sure as slow paralysis. Boredom isn’t a negative thing as people say; it’s an active kind of poison, a malady that drags you down with it and into a deep morass where treacled-up time ticks slowly over you. It’s not carelessness, but monotony that’s the enemy of safety and industry.’ (p. 17)

In addition to offering us this high-level overview of the factory operations, Holden makes terrific use of specific characters to zoom in on some of the personal stories. Individuals such as Inspector Jameson, the pedantic police supervisor with control-freak tendencies; Ysabette Jones, a deluded woman who invents things about her ‘friend’, the Group Captain; and Geoffrey Doran, the Time and Motion man who eavesdrops on everyone, meticulously conducting his own Mass Observation study as a result. There is a particularly amusing moment towards the end of the novel when we discover that Doran has lost his precious notebook, the one containing all his notes of conversations, behaviours and occurrences. Doran himself is the person under observation during his frantic search for the journal, as a ‘mass of workers’ stops to watch him scrabbling away at the snow in sheer desperation.

Inevitably, various tensions emerge between certain groups of workers, perhaps most notably when Inspector Jameson randomly stops one in every 200 employees for further questioning when issuing their new security passes. It’s another pointless activity designed to demonstrate this official’s power over the little people while putting individuals on the back foot. There are rivalries too between the three groups of shift workers, albeit more friendly in nature. By contrast, the ‘Super’ – a very clever chemist, by all accounts – is level-headed and fair, commanding respect and authority when it’s due.

Interestingly, a heavy snowfall heralds the one instance in the narrative when barriers of class and status between various groups seem to disappear. Great swathes of workers are snowed-in for a couple of nights, prompting them to bed down and make the best of it on site. It’s a very touching episode with workers, overseers and managers all mucking in to help with the necessary tasks.

Most of the men and girls said they’d work till the first break. Ambulances came down to the shifting house with blankets. Food vans came up with pies and chips, steamed puddings, and custards. The canteen supervisor said, ‘My, we’re grand to-night, chips and that. The girls will be pleased. Fine feed they’ll have, first break.’ (p. 133)

As a novel, There’s No Story Here feels grounded in authenticity with Holden clearly demonstrating her keen ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for detail. The book is peppered with memorable images, vividly portrayed.

The canteen girls, with their frivolous heads and hard high heels, gave the impression of a group of pretty centaurs handing out suppers in tune to hoof sounds on kitchen tiles. (p. 41)

In some respects, this is a novel of vignettes, little snapshots of life inside the munitions factory complex. Workers come and go; the day-to-day functions continue as scheduled. Nevertheless, every now and again something dramatic happens to disrupt the equilibrium, reminding us that we are only ever a few steps away from potential catastrophe. There are real notes of concern and poignancy here, particularly once we realise that some of these workers would struggle to secure roles elsewhere.

Holden remains mindful of balancing the darker sides of the factory environment with lighter moments, all in a way that feels natural and realistic. The ongoing banter between workers provides significant humour – as does a much-anticipated visit from the King, which doesn’t quite live up to expectations! There is also a brilliant note of ambiguity about the novel’s ending – a very cleverly handled passage relayed through a letter.

In summary, then, this is a fascinating insight into a vital wartime industry, skilfully encompassing the myriad of emotions this world evokes. Holden conveys this story with her characteristic blend of humour, poignancy and compassion, bringing the working environment to life through vivid dialogue and detail. (You can read my thoughts Holden’s earlier novella Nightshift here – also highly recommended.)   

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

First published in 1947, E. H. Young’s marvellous novel, Chatterton Square, is another of the titles recently reissued by the British Library as part of their Women Writers series.

Having now read five of these books, I think this is probably the richest, most satisfying in the series so far. It is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. As Simon Thomas points out in his excellent afterword, on the surface, Chatterton Square appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families, one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes for a particularly compelling read – more so than that description suggests.

The two families in question are the Frasers and the Blacketts, whose houses are situated perpendicular to one another in the corner of Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a setting modelled on Clifton in Bristol. The Fraser household is the happy one – a relaxed and loving environment created by Rosamund Fraser for her five children, most of whom are teenagers. Rosamund – whose husband has disappeared off to France to find creative fulfilment – is an attractive, liberated woman, the kind of mother who encourages her children to pursue their own ambitions and preferences in life wherever possible. Also living with the Frasers is Rosamund’s close friend, Miss Spanner, a spinster in her forties, somewhat akin to a maiden aunt. 

By contrast, the Blackett household is much more subdued than its lively next-door neighbour. Headed by Herbert Blackett – a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to the Frasers – the Blackett family have three children, Flora, Rhoda and Mary, all similar in age to some of the Frasers. Mr Blackett’s wife, Bertha, has lived a narrow, restricted life, effectively penned in by her husband’s self-satisfied, high-minded behaviour, a damaging culture that permeates the Blackett household. 

In reality however, Bertha – who is constantly referred to as Mrs Blackett in the novel – is far smarter than her husband suspects. While at first glance, Bertha seems willing to defer to Mr Blackett’s better judgement on family matters, under the surface there is a steeliness to her personality, one that reacts to her husband’s arrogance with a mix of frustration and amusement. In short, it is a kind of coping mechanism for Bertha, her way of making the best of a bad situation. It is also something that Rhoda, Bertha’s favourite daughter, notices at an early point in the novel when her father makes one of his many disparaging remarks.

Without turning her head, Rhoda turned the eyes which had been watching her father towards her mother and intercepted the glance Mr. Blackett did not see and in the very short time it lasted, Rhoda saw in it a concentration of emotions which she could not analyse and which half frightened her. There was a cold anger in it, but she thought there was a kind of pleasure in it too. (p. 27)

One of the things Young excels at in this novel is to portray the complex network of relationships that develop between various members of these two families – connections which frequently reveal different aspects of their personalities. At first, Flora Blackett – who takes after her father in outlook and temperament – is attracted to James Fraser, an aspiring farmer. When James ultimately shows more interest in Rhoda Blackett – who is much kinder and generous than her sister, very much in the mould of her mother, Bertha – Flora’s nose is put out of joint. Even though she has lost interest in James by this point, Flora cannot help but feel envious of her sister’s connection with him due to their mutual love of the outdoors. It’s just one of the ways in which Young demonstrates her acute understanding of the human psyche.

Rhoda Blackett also develops a gentle friendship with Agnes Spanner, another woman rarely referred to by her first name, seemingly defined instead by her status as a spinster. Agnes is another woman who has lived a largely unfulfilling life, recently rescued by Rosamund following the death of Miss Spanner’s puritanical parents. When Rosamund receives a letter from her husband, Fergus, requesting his release from their marriage, Agnes fears for her own happiness. Having joined the Frasers in Chatterton Square, she is loath to relinquish her right to this newfound happiness if Rosamund decides to remarry. There will be no shortage of suitors for Rosamund to choose from should Fergus divorce her – not least Piers Lindsay, Mrs Blackett’s kindly cousin, who has recently moved to the area. In truth, Rosamund feels deeply for this somewhat wounded soul with his noticeable limp and scarred face – both of which were sustained in the First World War.

Perhaps the most fascinating interplay between the two houses is the one involving Mr Blackett and Rosamund herself. Given his priggish nature and fixation with respectability, it is perhaps no surprise that Mr B disapproves of Rosamund and her liberated attitudes to life and parenting. And yet, he remains strangely intrigued by this woman, sometimes going out of his way to observe her, if only to fuel his disapproval. Any signs of the furthering of connections between the two households are also gravely frowned upon.

As the narrative progresses, Mr Blackett becomes increasingly baffled by Bertha’s behaviour, particularly her responses to his pronouncements. Like the hapless Baron from Elizabeth von Armin’s novel, The Caravaners, Herbert Blackett – with his pompous nature and lack of self-awareness – has completely underestimated his wife’s intelligence, something that is all too apparent to the reader. When it is proposed that Mr Blackett should take Flora on holiday to Europe, Bertha is all for it, knowing full well that she and Rhoda would be happier as a result.

“I think you might feel quite different when you came back. Your mind would be refreshed. You would have other things to think about.”

“But I don’t want to feel different!” Mr. Blackett exclaimed irritably. “And as for my mind, I wasn’t aware that it showed signs of flagging.”

“Oh no,” Mrs. Blackett said pleasantly, “it’s too active,” and she gave him one of her rare, full looks. “Like a squirrel in a cage,” she added and carried away the tray before he could reply. (pp. 143–144)

Once Mr Blackett and his darling Flora are out of the way, Bertha visibly relaxes, as if a burdensome weight has been lifted from her shoulders. Consequently, Bertha, Rhoda and Mary are free to come and go as they please, to enjoy picnics with Cousin Piers, and to cement their connections with the Frasers, whose spirit and vitality prove a breath of fresh air.

As the novel draws to a close, the political developments in Europe become an increasingly dominant factor. The book is set in the lead-up to the Munich Agreement in 1938 when Chamberlain was advocating for appeasement. While many Britons – Mr Blackett included – consider the avoidance of war as a victory, others – including the Frasers, Piers and Miss Spanner – see Chamberlain’s actions as treacherous. There is a clear political dynamic running through the novel – not least the impact of developments on Rosamond’s eldest sons, Felix and James, both of whom would be called up in the event of another war.

In many respects, it’s an important component of the various uncertainties we are left with at the end of the novel. Rosamund’s marital status, and hence her freedom to marry Piers Lindsay, remains somewhat open – as does the nature of the Blackett’s marriage when Bertha finally bows to the pressure inflicted by her husband.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures something of the sadness of this couple’s situation. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Derdons from Maeve Brennan’s brilliant Springs of Affection collection. While the Derdons are very different individuals to the Blacketts, there is a similarity in their marriage – a kind of stasis and lack of communication that has prevented them from reaching out to one another to address their situation.

There was no one in the world, except himself, who really cared for him, there were very few who cared for her. They had each lived in a mean little world, his of self-satisfaction, hers of pandering to it for her own amusement and hers, she feared, was the meaner. Twenty years ago they might have helped each other but he did not know he needed help and she was too young, too wretched to give it, too sure he would not understand her if she asked for it, and here they were, looking at each other across the kitchen table, complete strangers bound to each other for life. (pp. 253–254)

In summary, this is a superb addition to the Women Writers series; my thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy.

Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard (aka Pamela Hansford Johnson and Gordon Neil Stewart)

First published in 1943, Murder’s a Swine (US title: The Grinning Pig) was the second of two mystery novels co-written by Pamela Hansford Johnson and her husband, Gordon Neil Stewart, under the pen name ‘Nap Lombard’. This very engaging mystery has recently been reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics series (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). As ever with the BLCCs, there is much to enjoy here, not least the dynamic between Agnes and Andrew Kinghof, the two amateur sleuths who play a crucial role in unmasking the identity of a ruthless killer – a man operating under the rather sinister guise of ‘The Pig-Sticker’. More on him a little later…

The novel opens on a bitterly cold evening in the middle of winter as a young Air Raid Precaution Warden, Clem Poplett, takes refuge from the miserable weather in one of the designated shelters near the Stewarts Court flats. It is here that Poplett and Agnes Kinghof (who also happens to be in the shelter) discover a dead body, partially concealed amongst a pile of sandbags that have started to smell. Agnes and her husband Andrew fancy themselves as amateur sleuths, having aided the police in Lombard’s previous crime novel, Tidy Death. As such, the couple are intrigued by the discovery of the body, all the more so when something rather strange happens at Stewarts Court later the same night…

Mrs Sibley – a somewhat frail, mature lady who lives in the flat directly above the Kinghofs’ – is horrified when a pig’s head appears out of nowhere outside her bedroom window. Once the incident comes to light, Mrs Rowse, the writer who shares the flat with Mrs Sibley, calls on the Kinghofs for assistance, relating the gruesome events that have frightened her friend.

“She says she was lying in bed, with the black-out curtains open—she always opens them before she goes to sleep as she must have fresh airwhen she heard a tap on the window. She looked up, and there it was grinning at her—a pig’s head, all shining and blue, with the snout pressed against the pane…” (p. 28)

Before long, a connection is uncovered between the dead man in the shelter and Mrs Sibley, thereby suggesting a potential link between the two events. The deceased – who appears to have been murdered – was Mrs Sibley’s estranged brother, Reg Coppenstall, last seen nearly thirty years ago. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a family inheritance was the cause of a longstanding rift between the siblings when Reg was largely excluded from his aunt’s will in favour of his sister. Now the past has returned to haunt Mrs Sibley, with Reg’s son, a chap named Maclagan Steer, being the main suspect of interest. The trouble is, no one knows what Maclagan looks like, making him a rather tricky individual to unmask.

Part of the joy of this mystery comes from the relationship between the two Kinghofs, who clearly love one another very much despite the occasional difference of opinion. There is a touch of the screwball comedy about their relationship, the sort of good-natured banter that makes this novel a delight to read, especially for those of us craving a little escapism after a dull and rainy May.   

“…Andrew, there’s one big question in all this. Have you guessed it?”

He took a long drink, stubbed out his cigarette and lit another before he answered her.

“Yes, I have… Agnes, I like you in that suit. Did I pay for it, or did you?”

“You did. The pockets are quite new, aren’t they? It’s a Chaumière model. It may be a mite cold for this sort of weather, but I can’t bear to squash it under a coat. Andy, don’t fool. What’s the question?”

He replied slowly, “Who is Maclagan Steer?” (p.51)

As the novel unfolds, there are more upsetting developments for Mrs Sibley. Threatening letters appear, mysteriously signed ‘The Pig-Sticker’. By now, Inspector Eggshell is on the case, as is Andrew’s cousin, Lord Whitestone, one of the higher-ups in Scotland Yard. Lord Whitestone – who is rather confusingly known as ‘Pig’, even though he has nothing to do with The Pig-Sticker – is not terribly fond of Andrew, though his relationship with Agnes is much more conciliatory. As such, he is not very keen on the Kinghofs’ involvement in the case, which he tries to discourage at every given opportunity.

Agnes, however, remains largely undeterred, relishing the excitement of trying to identify the killer. From an early stage in the mystery, it is pretty clear that the perpetrator is Mrs Sibley’s nephew, Maclagan Steer. However, since Steer is operating under an assumed name (in addition to ‘The Pig-Sticker’) he is effectively incognito.

Murder’s a Swine is a well-paced, highly enjoyable mystery with just enough ambiguity to keep the reader guessing. The authors do a nice job of shifting the suspicion from one potential suspect to another, particularly amongst the other residents of the Stewarts Court flats, all of whom have the necessary access to the block. In some respects, the identity of Maclagan’s alias doesn’t matter too much – it’s the sequence of events and interactions during the investigation that proves most satisfying.

As one might expect of this type of fiction, the social attitudes expressed within the novel are very much a reflection of the time – particularly the descriptions of Agnes’ legs, which are lusted over on several occasions. Lurid glances aside, this is a very entertaining mystery with just the right amount of wartime atmosphere to make it feel authentic.

This night in question, a January night, was bitterly cold, after a long spell of muggy weather, and the streets glistened beneath a coating of that delicate, almost invisible rain that soaks you through to your vest within three minutes. It was half-past eight, and Clem was not expected back to the comfort of the Post, to the fire and the dartboard, the cups of orange-coloured, stewed tea, the cards and the wireless, until nine. (p. 17)

Recommended for lovers of Golden-Age fiction with an escapist edge.