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Well, I am horribly behind in my reviewing (and blog reading too, I’m afraid) still clawing my way back to feeling more like normal. I simply wasn’t up to blogging last week at all. With seven books still to write about I am kicking off the catch up with a combination post.  

Both of these were read during July; I had no plan to get ready for #WITmonth it just happened to be what I read.  

Vivian – Christina Hesselholdt (2016) (translated by Paul Russell Garrett)  

A lovely Fitzcarraldo edition that Jacqui kindly sent me for Christmas. Danish writer Christina Hesselholdt examines the life of enigmatic photographer Vivian Maier. This is a wholly fictionalised examination, an imagined life of a woman about who little seems to be known. The real Vivian Maier died in 2009 – after which her work became widely appreciated and left many wondering about the woman herself.  

It’s always challenging to write a fictional account of the life of someone who lived – yet I suppose as so little was known about Vivian it gave Hesselholdt the space to fill in the gaps about this woman who during her lifetime took more than 150,000 photographs, mainly with a Rollieflex camera. Her photographs were extraordinary street scenes of New York and Chicago from across four decades. She hoarded her photographs, negatives and newspapers and it was only shortly before her death that the photographs were discovered in an auction.  

“Viv – Today I photographed a pigeon resting on a cornice, blinking down at the streets. In my version it became heroic. Because it took in the streets with its small gaze.” 

Vivian Maier lived a quiet life – working for many years as a nanny for wealthy families in New York and Chicago. She had been born in New York in the 1920s, the daughter of French and Austrian immigrants, it was a very dysfunctional family, with alcoholism, abuse and mental health issues just part of the landscape Vivian grew up in.  

Hesselholdt’s narrative is told in a chorus of voices – including the questioning, non-objective narrator. We hear from Vivian herself of course, a child she cared for, the parents who employed her, Jeanne Bertrand another photographer who had lived with the Maier family when Vivian was a young girl, and various members of Vivian’s family.  

We see Vivian at different points in her life – the narrative of this very modern novel is not chronological, which I rather liked. Slowly an indistinct picture begins to emerge – a little like a photograph in a tray of chemicals in an old-fashioned dark room. Hesselholdt allows Vivian to remain enigmatic, and we will never know how close to the truth this fictional life might be. It is however a fascinating portrait and a beautifully written novel.  

After Midnight – Irmgard Keun (1937) (translated by Anthea Bell) 

After Midnight is the third novel I have read by Irmgard Keun. Written while Keun was living in exile, having left Nazi Germany, this deceptively straight forward novel is a brilliantly subtle critique of life in Nazi Germany.  

The plot takes place over a couple of days in 1936, at a time when Hitler was paying a visit to Frankfurt. The novel is narrated by Sanna a nineteen-year-old girl who like anyone her age wants a little fun – but Sanna and her friends must do their socialising to a new and frightening back drop – a world full of rules, where saying the wrong thing at the wrong time could be life threatening. Sanna spends her time with her friend Gerti, her stepbrother Algin and his beautiful wife Liska the group often joined by journalist Heini. A group of young people for who the world is not as carefree as it once was. Sanna is naïve, though sharply observant of what is going on around her, she is not at all political, happy to drink and flirt with anyone. The changes that have come to Germany are evident though, journalist Heini has fallen foul of the authorities and Sanna’s writer brother is already on the blacklist.  

Sanna recalls how she left her home to travel to Cologne to stay with her aunt and cousin. The aunt is a suspicious, difficult woman and denounced Sanna to the authorities – after which she hurriedly left for Frankfurt. She had fallen in love with her cousin Franz though, and now as the narrative moves toward its climax, Sanna is determined to find a way for them to escape Germany together.  

“And more and more people keep coming in. This Gestapo room seems to be a positive place of pilgrimage. Mothers are informing on their daughters-in-law, daughters on their fathers-in-law, brothers on their sisters, sisters on their brothers, friends on their friends, drinking companions on their drinking companions, neighbours on their neighbours. And the typewriters go clatter, clatter, clatter, all the statements are taken down, all the informers are treated well and kindly.” 

Keun recreates this world brilliantly, a world where people happily denounce one another, a world in which Sanna despairs that her friend should chose a ‘mixed race’ (a person with a Jewish father) as her lover when there are so many other men around. It is a stark reminder of what ordinary Germans lived with in the years before the war, and how much was known at the time by the populace. Three years before the war would break out and yet everything is here – Sanna’s straight forward narrative highlights the horror that existed alongside ordinary life. 

As Liska throws a lavish all-night party, the mood darkens – and there is a real sense of what is to come, though Keun could not possibly have known just what was ahead.   

Two fantastic novels got my #WITmonth reading off to a great start this year. 

July in review

 

 

A quickish round up of my July reading as I am rather late sitting down to do it. July has been slightly better in terms of number of books read, compared to some months this year, but it should have been even better considering I have had just over a week on holiday from work, plus a couple of sick days before that. Working in a school on a term time only contract means I get six weeks’ holiday – and do I need it. Still recovering from being ill, I can at least not worry about getting back to work for a while.  

I am very much continuing to read according to mood, and my reading mood is ever fickle. It means I may not always be reading in line with particular reading events or challenges. In July I read three books I later realised qualified for Women in Translation month – and as I haven’t had chance to review much of my July reading yet, they can be reviewed in August. A happy accident – I didn’t plan it at all. I also read three books on kindle (and finished one of my others on kindle by buying a second edition – a must when my arthritic hands are really playing up.)  

I began the month reading Women Against Men by Storm Jameson (1982) three novellas published together by Virago originally written in the 1930s. Each story is about a woman and their relationships with men, and other women. Storm Jameson is an excellent writer deserving of more recognition today and these three novellas were brilliantly observed.  

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns (1950) was of course a re-read for me. Imagine my joy when my book group chose to read it, and everyone loved it. A book which needs little introduction to many, it tells the story of a young couple, who marry despite having few resources, Comyns doesn’t waste our time or intelligence with any romantic notions of being poor and in love, this is the grinding reality, told in the only way Comyns could tell it. A simply wonderful novel.  

Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt (2016) translated by Paul Russell Garrett was given to me by Jacqui for Christmas. A lovely stylish Fitzcarraldo volume – they do make very attractive editions. A novel about the (fictional) life of the enigmatic American photographer Vivian Maier. A novel about art, madness and identity.  

Enbury Heath by Stella Gibbons (1935) a recent-ish book voucher purchase was a pleasure to spend time with. This is a rather bittersweet novel; apparently semi-autobiographical, it was inspired by the time the author spent living on Hamstead Heath in a little cottage with her two brothers. I enjoyed very much the relationships between the siblings and the fact there was a little more sharpness to this narrative than some of Gibbons other novels. Halfway through this one, I had to buy a second copy on kindle to finish it.  

Sticking to my kindle, I next read Transcendent Kingdon by Yaa Gyasi (2020) the first of her two novels I have read. I thought it was outstanding – although no one warned me about the vivisection stuff. A deeply layered novel about an American-Ghanaian family in Alabama it is about depression, science, faith, addiction and loss – one I shall find hard to do justice to in review.  

After Midnight by Irmgard Keun (1937) translated by Anthea Bell was the third novel by this author I have read. A brilliantly atmospheric novel which captures the mood of 1930s Nazi Germany, as we follow Sanna, Gerti and their friends who are trying to be young and have fun, but to what a backdrop.  

An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helen Tursten (2018) translated by Marlaine Delargy. This was a slight, fun read. Five stories about Maud – who is 88 years old, lives alone, has no friends or family, travels widely, and has absolutely no problem with a little bit of murder – when its necessary. I have the second book containing seven more stories about Maud past and present to look forward to.  

Green for Danger by Christianna Brand (1944) was my last full read in July, a new Golden age author to me – and a thoroughly enjoyable mystery. Set in a military hospital during WW2 a small circle of potential suspects doesn’t stop this one from being a really compulsive whodunnit.  

So now we are into August – Women in Translation month – and I have those three books still to review – not sure each warrants a post to themselves; I shall have to see. I am hoping to read more books by women in translation as well, but I just need to see where my mood takes me – I do have quite a few to choose from. So, no more reading plans than that, as my book group are reading a book I have already read.  

I have started August reading The Boarding House by William Trevor (1965) less than a hundred pages in and it’s excellent, superb characterisation and observation. I wait to see what else August brings me.  

Please tell me what brilliant things did you read in July? and what are your plans for August? (What WIT books should I be considering?)  

Finally, a book review! Sorry for the slight hiatus – it has been about ten days since I last posted, and I don’t think I have ever had a gap that big before. I haven’t been well at all – and I’m still not great but improving slightly at least. A massive RA flare and a chest infection has pretty much laid me flat – and I have been sleeping like it’s going out of fashion. I have been reading, a bit, not as much as I would like, but that has been the story all this year – my reading rate has dipped horrendously, so all I can do is try to enjoy what I do read.  

Reviewing ever so slightly out of order now, as I have read three books this month that I want to review for Women in Translation month in August, if I can get my blogging mojo back.  

Enbury Heath was one of the books I bought during one of my book voucher spending splurges. Stella Gibbons was certainly prolific, I feel as if there will always be more of her books, I haven’t read than I have.  

This is a rather bittersweet novel; apparently semi-autobiographical, it was inspired by the time the author spent living on Hamstead Heath in a little cottage with her two brothers. The siblings here though are called Sophia, Harry and Francis Garden. They have just lost their father and are not even a little bit sorry about it. Hartley Garden we are told right at the beginning had been a good doctor but a bad man. He drank, made their mother (also now dead) very unhappy and had affairs with the governesses. Despite being young and unmarried Sophie has already been living away from home in a rented room and working for a news agency. Harry has gone into the theatre and happily leads a somewhat rackety life at only twenty, while Francis at sixteen is still at school, though planning to leave at any minute.  

As the novel opens the siblings must get on with all the business of a death in the family, there is a funeral to be endured. Spending time with suffocating relatives who they can hardly stand to be around, and speculation about the will before the will reading a week later brings all the relatives back together again.  

“So many things bewildered Uncle Preston, who suffered from a permanent sense of grievance because events and persons would not fit into the frame through which he looked at life.” 

Hartley Garden’s doctor’s practice will have to be sold, that will bring in some money, though not much as patients are dwindling – whoever gets the money they won’t be rich.  

With the help of her friend Celia, Sophia comes up with a plan for the three Garden siblings to rent a tiny cottage on her beloved Enbury Heath. Sophia loves being close to nature and considers this to be the most perfect place to live. The suffocating relatives are not entirely supportive but grudgingly allow that they may as well make the best of it. The cottage is tiny, with a small sitting room, two bedrooms, a kitchen and downstairs bathroom, no garden. It has however, we are told great charm, and the three siblings happily settle in, looking forward to a period of happiness and peace.  

“In spite of her many responsibilities at this time, Sophia was happy. 
Her situation did not include many of the things which make most human beings happy, for she was poor, she was not in love and had no one in love with her, she was not pretty nor admired, she was usually exhausted from overwork and felt vaguely ill from the pressure of her own nervous energies, lingering grief for her mother, and from the deeply rooted misery which had struck into her nature during her childhood.” 

Peace and happiness are not destined to last forever unfortunately. Things start well, the three siblings love their little home are terribly proud of it, happy to show it off to friends. There are even a couple of lovely doggie visitors.  Francis has now left school and got himself a job, and Harry’s latest play seems to be doing alright too. Sophia is happy bustling around trying to make a lovely little home for the three of them. There are plenty of domestic difficulties, including getting coal delivered when there is someone home. A daily woman is employed – who reports back to Sophia any little slight, and a poor old woman comes each week to clean the step for a few coins and a cup of tea, but who always manages to make the step dirtier than it was before. Friends drop in, Harry brings back people from the theatre, and soon life in the cottage is rather different to the cosy home life that Sophia had envisaged.  

Small divisions open up, Harry and Francis don’t want to be managed by their older sister, they are enjoying this new life they have found. A life of girls, beer and parties. Harry is spending too much money, Sophia thinks. They accuse Sophia of being like the suffocating relatives (all of whom are superbly drawn by Gibbons). Life for the wealthy Argentinean friends who have taken up the Gardens seems to be one long party, and while Sophia wants her brothers to be happy, she begins to see they aren’t really that compatible as house mates.  

This is a novel about the loss of a dream, of that cold reality coming in. However, it is also a novel about the bonds of family and that period when you are just starting out full of ideas and optimism. Gibbons also acknowledges that shared pain of these siblings, the pain of loss and an unhappy childhood. Each of them has come out of that experience rather differently and now they need to find a way to live with that – even if that isn’t in the same house.  

A thoroughly enjoyable Stella Gibbons novel, with a few ‘of its time moments’ – but nonetheless a great read.  

 

   

 

 

 

When my book group chose to read Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – at my suggestion, I was both delighted and nervous. To have an excuse to re-read the novel that first introduced me to Barbara Comyns was wonderful, but of course I worried that everyone would hate one of my favourite writers. I have read everything by Barbara Comyns and couldn’t love her more – her unique voice, that slightly altered way of looking at the world. I had various conversations on Twitter lately about reading Comyns and re-reading …Spoons, and someone said that reading Comyns is an absolute joy – until it isn’t, and that is true, because there are moments when she plunges her readers into very real darkness, but her tone, her wit and her eye for the absurd lift us back out too. 

Of course, Comyns writes in a very matter of fact style, the voice of her narrators naïve and rather childlike at times. However, there is so much going on beneath the surface. In her novels, Comyns tells a truth about poverty, about relationships and about chaotic childhoods that she herself knew from the inside. In Our Spoons Came from Woolworths she tells the story of a young couple, who marry despite having few resources, she doesn’t waste our time or intelligence with any romantic notions of being poor and in love, this is the grinding reality, told in the only way Comyns could tell it. Here though Comyns lets us know right away that here at least there will be a happy ending. 

“I told Helen my story and she went home and cried. In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. I hardly dare admit it, even touching wood, but I’m so happy that when I wake in the morning I can’t believe it’s true. I seldom think of the time when I was called Sophia Fairclough; I try and keep it pushed right at the back of my mind.” 

When Sophia hastily decides to marry artist Charles, she is just twenty-one and he is just a little older. Sophia is a typical Comyns heroine; she carries a newt around in her pocket and is terrifyingly ill-equipped for life. Both Sophia and Charles are optimistic about the future, determined to act against any and all advice of the older generation, who are fairly united in their disapproval of their plans. This is 1930s bohemian London, where there was little help for those who were struggling and quickly it seems as if everything is set to conspire against Sophia who really can’t cope with the realities of poverty and running a home, however humble it is. Charles locked into his own artistic world, barely ever brings home any money, so it’s Sophia’s scant earnings first in an artists’ studio and later as a live model that keep them going. Few people around them realise just how bad things are for the couple, but neither Sophia nor Charles welcome the advice of the older generation – no matter how well meant that advice might be.  

“She cleared her throat once or twice, and said something about poor people should eat a lot of herrings, as they were most nutritious, also she had heard poor people eat heaps of sheeps’ heads and she went on to ask if I ever cooked them. I said I would rather be dead than cook or eat a sheep’s head; I’d seen them in butchers’ shops with awful eyes and bits of wool sticking to their skulls. After that helpful hints for the poor were forgotten.” 

Sophia and Charles seem rather shocked when the inevitable happens, and Sophia finds herself pregnant. In many ways this is a disaster and Charles is furious and wants nothing to do with the pregnancy or the baby when it eventually arrives. Poor Sophia suffers horrible indignities at the hands of the midwives, an experience she was totally unprepared for, she seems to be punished for having had a baby – and her experiences are told by Comyns in a such a way that the reader both laughs and almost cries at the horrors.  

With a baby in tow things are harder than ever, and Charles is little if any help. Sophia goes away to stay with her brother for a while, but very much out stays her welcome as she hasn’t the fare to return to London and can’t bear to admit it. Working as an artists’ model she meets Peregrine a much older art critic and begins an affair. Charles seems less and less important to Sophia and is in fact we can see a big part of the problem. Another pregnancy follows, and this time Charles bullies Sophia into a backstreet abortion, though Comyns spares us any details as poor Sophia can’t bear to talk about it. When things get really bad, Sophia’s baby son, now a toddler is sent away to Charles’ relatives, and it is months before Sophia can get him back – Charles is totally unconcerned by his son’s disappearance, his cold indifference quite upsetting. Soon enough Sophia has cause to regret both her marriage to Charles and her affair with Peregrine.  

Sophia makes a decision and leaves it all behind, taking her son, she finds a new life in the countryside. Life isn’t perfect, she must work hard, but she is on the road to that new greater happiness that is hinted at in those first few sentences.  

Of course, I loved my re-read and I am anxious to know what my fellow book group members thought. At the time of writing, I am just a couple of hours away from finding out.  

Storm Jameson is probably not an author who is as well-known these days as she once was. This was the third book by her that I have read, I say book, because this isn’t a novel, it is three novellas. The themes throughout are broadly similar, each story is about a woman and their relationships with men, and other women. As the title suggests Women Against Men. Curiously though there are no obvious battles between the sexes here, but Jameson explores the love women have for men, and how that love can be used as a weapon as often against themselves as against anyone else. All three stories were published in the 1930s, two stories in 1932 and 1933, but the first story in this collection, not published until 1937 didn’t appear alongside the other two until this VMC edition came out in 1982.  

The first novella is Delicate Monster at around 85 pages it is the shortest of the three too (the subsequent two novellas each around a hundred pages). Through the eyes of her childhood friend Fanny, we are introduced to the beautiful Victoria Form. The two become friends as children despite an inequality in their mothers’ backgrounds. Fanny is a quieter, more awkward child, Victoria is more extravagant in her emotions, she is one never to suffer from awkwardness. She becomes a beautiful, promiscuous woman, who believes women should throw off the Victorian conventions of their parents, and love where they want to. Her promiscuity is totally selfish, she attracts men without trying and enjoys it, her favourite thing is to ensnare men and betray women. Both Fanny and Victoria become writers, though of very different types; Fanny writing more seriously, literary novels that sell in small numbers, Victoria churning out popular bodice rippers. She is of course hugely successful. Victoria thinks nothing of betraying her old friend Fanny with her husband, causing a rift between the two for several years. 

“Laughter of this kind is as strong an acid as thought itself. It dissolves everything – even, finally, its impulse. Once begun, the process cannot be stopped. I would look at Charles lying asleep, his face buried in the pillow, with untidy hair and softened features, and feel a stab of anguish at the thought that Victoria had seen him in the same attitude.” 

However, it seems these two women are more friends than enemies after all and soon back in one another’s orbits, with Victoria’s daughter seeking out the company of Fanny rather than her mother of whom she desperately disapproves.  

The Single Heart concerns Emily Lambton the daughter of Sir John owner of a shipping line. We first meet her when she is just a girl of about twelve, when she accompanies her parents on a trial trip of one of her father’s new ships. On board Emily meets the captain’s son, Evan is two years older than her and at first distant and unfriendly. Emily becomes smitten by the older boy – who is of course not of the same class, and after leaving the ship never forgets him. A few years later they meet again, Evan is now a junior clerk in the shipping company, and Emily is embarrassed when her snobbish brother snubs him very obviously and very rudely. Emily makes a brilliant society marriage to her brother’s friend the young Lord Holt, but fate throws Evan in her way, an angry young man, a socialist clerk with some ambition, who she becomes determined to help get on. Of course, things don’t end there, Emily begins an affair with Evan, and it’s a love that is destined to consume her entire life.  

A Day off was my favourite of the three novellas – all of which are excellent. In this one Storm Jameson gives us an incredible portrait of an unnamed middle-aged woman. She is one of the women who have lived off men all their lives – the man of the moment providing the money she needs to live, in return for a very unequal, unsatisfying relationship. She associates with other women of a similar type – fearful of the day when the man in question stops coming to see her, and very aware of age creeping up on her. Now she lives in a shabby bedsitter, waiting for a letter from George, from whom she hasn’t heard in a couple of weeks, afraid that perhaps this is it – and wondering what she will do.  

“She slumped against the end of the bed, trying to think. Thursday. If George came on Saturday as usual, or sent the usual – if he failed – A curious blankness succeeded this thought. She groped with her hands in the sheet, feeling the bed end cold and slippery against her knees. No use thinking. She let herself down carefully and drew a stocking over her foot. Grit, from the carpet, stuck to it. Fastening her corset she drew the suspenders tight and stood to see the effect. She felt better now that she was held up, Safer.”  

She takes a day off – goes out, rather than sit waiting for the letter that she is certain won’t come. She takes the train to Richmond, goes to the park, has lunch by herself. Throughout the day she looks back on her life, one that started in the north of England, where as a teenager she had gone out in the cold, pitch dark mornings to work at the mill. She went to London with a man, a decision which seemed to set the course of the rest of her life. As the day progresses, we see the mean, embittered side to this woman, who life has certainly never been kind to – but who in her turn shows no sympathy or kindness to others. By the time she leaves Richmond to return home, much of the sympathy the reader may have had for her has dispersed. It’s a simply brilliant character study.  

All in all, this is an excellent collection of three novellas – showing yet again, that Storm Jameson is a writer who deserves to be better known – though I suspect (prove me wrong world) will never be one of those writers from the past to enjoy the kind of renaissance that writers like Rose Macaulay have deservedly had.  

Elif Shafak is an author who has been publishing for years, who I was aware of, even went to an author event where she was speaking – but who I didn’t get around to reading until the end of 2020. I first read The Bastard of Istanbul which I was hugely impressed by and a few months later I read 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World. That novel became one of my favourite reads of last year, the kind of book I still find myself thinking about and have recommended to people lots of times. So, of course I was looking forward to The Island of Missing Trees and delighted when my friend Meg passed her beautiful hardback copy on to me. It didn’t disappoint, I loved it – although it perhaps didn’t quite reach the dizzying heights of absolute perfection that 10 Minutes…. was for me, it didn’t fall far short. 

The book is dedicated:  

“To immigrants and exiles everywhere, the uprooted, the re-rooted, the rootless,  

and to the trees we left behind, rooted in our memories.” 

Divided into three time periods – the late 2010s the early 2000s and 1974 – The Island of Missing Trees tells a story of belonging and identity, a poignant story of love and trauma. It is beautifully written, compelling and thought provoking.  

The novel opens with sixteen-year-old Ada, in her Year 11 history class at her secondary school in north London, shortly before the Christmas holidays begin. Her mother died about a year before and she is struggling – she finds herself standing up in class and screaming, just screaming while everyone around her looks on bemused and disturbed. The video of her screaming goes viral – well of course it does.  

Ada’s father Kostas is a middle-aged botanist a Greek Cypriot who first left the island of his birth during the turmoil that divided it in two. On the day of Ada’s screaming, he is burying his beloved fig tree in the garden – to protect it from the English winter. The fig tree is important, in fact the fig tree narrates parts of the story, becoming a character in itself, and one the reader can’t help but love too. The fig tree that Kostas tends so faithfully is a cutting from a tree that grew in Cyprus, it had grown through the cavity in the roof of a tavern – witness to everything that occurred there.  

In 1974 on the beautiful island of Cyprus two teenagers fell in love. They were from opposite sides of that divided island; Kostas a Christian is Greek, and Defne is Turkish and Muslim. None of that matters to them, they only want to be together but that isn’t very easy at all, there are eyes everywhere.

“Love is the bold affirmation of hope. You don’t embrace hope when death and destruction are in command. You don’t put on your best dress and tuck a flower in your hair when you are surrounded by ruins and shards. You don’t lose your heart at a time when hearts are supposed to remain sealed, especially for those who are not of your religion, not of your language, not of your blood. You don’t fall in love in Cyprus in the summer of 1974. Not here, not now. And yet there they were, the two of them.” 

The two young lovers take to meeting at a tavern where the owners will help keep their secret, a place where they can be private and out of the sight of unwelcome eyes. The tavern is run by Yusuf and Yiorgos, two men living outside the conventions of the times too. The tavern is known for the fig tree growing through the centre of it. The story of Kostas, Defne and all of Cyprus is rooted in that place and the people who met there.  

“Because in real life, unlike in history books, stories come to us not in their entirety but in bits and pieces, broken segments and partial echoes, a full sentence here, a fragment there, a clue hidden in between. in life, unlike in books, we have to weave our stories out of threads as fine as the gossamer veins that run through a butterfly’s wings.”  

When violence and unrest erupt on the island between Greeks and Turks Kostas is forced by his family to go to England where he has an uncle who can give him a start there. He has to leave Defne behind, not knowing when or if he will see her again. She is devastated by his desertion and refuses to write back to him. It is a silence that will last decades. Many years later, Kostas returns to Cyprus for the first time since he left in 1974 – he knows that Defne never married, neither did he. So, although officially he is there to seek out certain plant species, he is really looking for much more than that. Ada is the result of their reconciliation and late marriage. However, the years have taken their toll. The years of trauma, the realities for those who stayed in Cyprus are ever present, the losses that were suffered, the people who went missing and have never been found. Defne is one of those who still searches. Her work has been to reunite people with the bodies of their dead – she carries all of this with her to her new life in England. It is something she will never rid herself of. 

In the late 2010s Ada only knows the outline of her parents’ story. When her father tells her that her mother’s sister Meryem is coming to visit she is unimpressed. She can’t forgive Meryem for never having visited before – not even for her mother’s funeral. Meryem arrives with a bagful of colourful clothes she hasn’t yet found the confidence to wear, and bit by bit she gains her niece’s trust while cooking up a storm of Turkish dishes in the kitchen.  

I really must read more by Elif Shafak – this was another beautiful read.  

One of the things I still like about Facebook (and FB continues to be problematic in many ways) is the myriad groups that exist there. Groups which I continue to use much more than my own news feed. It was through one of the bookish groups that I am a member of that I ‘met’ Betsy Hanson – in fact through a mutual appreciation for Barbara Pym, on a group I first started for Barbara Pym’s centenary. Fast forward several years and Betsy has written and self-published her own novel – Always Gardenia, and very kindly sent me this attractive hardback edition for review.

Always Gardenia is an engaging novel centred around an American university, the University of the Northwest. Here Gardenia Pitkin gets a new job as an administrative assistant in the English department. Gardenia is fifty-six, two years earlier her beloved husband Torre died, and she has had a difficult time adjusting to life as a widow, she is struggling financially but not letting on to anyone, and is lonely. Her son Hans, at twenty four is already married with a baby son, Milo, Milo is the great joy in Gardenia’s life. Her friend Sylvie is nearby, but Sylvie still has her husband and has no idea how Gardenia feels.

At the university Gardenia’s boss is the Chaucer specialist Arnold Wiggins, a slightly eccentric, middle aged man a few years younger than Gardenia, as devoted to his pet dachshund as Gardenia is to her own. He is a kindly, gentle man, with a sparky, elderly mother he sees frequently, who hasn’t quite given up hope that her son will settle down one day.

“He could be from central casting for English professors, Gardenia thought, with his baggy khakis and rumpled curly hair and soft-soled oxfords. Even the dachshund, trotting along tetherless and veering from the path with his nose to the ground, was an appropriately eccentric accessory.”

Bonded by their love of dachshunds Arnold and Gardenia become good friends, enjoying working together. Into the department comes Dr Laurel DuBarr a new adjunct English professor. Laurel is ambitious, successfully published, while Arnold’s book remains languishing on the desks of publishers that haven’t got back to him yet. Laurel is looking for tenure, so she doesn’t have to continue going from academic institution to academic institution. Arnold becomes infatuated with Laurel almost as soon as she arrives, enormously impressed by her, and wanting to impress her equally.

“Oh please don’t fall for her, Gardenia wanted to whisper to Arnold. She’s hanging out with you because she wants you to put in a good word about the tenure-track job. Yes, she’s got those long legs and that blonde hair and all those publications, but you deserve someone better.

Or maybe you’re better off on your own, so you don’t have to worry about the person you care about sleeping around – like Princess Margaret’s dachshund.

Or my son’s wife.”

Out of the blue, while having a coffee one day, Gardenia meets Lex Ohashi who seems very interested in seeing Gardenia again, and talks about the two of them going dancing. Gardenia doesn’t really know if she is ready for that, but she does love to dance. She still feels she wants to talk about Torre, but it seems as if no one around her will let her, as if she needs protecting from the name of her dead husband.

Meanwhile Gardenia is very concerned about her son’s marriage. Hans has had to give up his music studies, passionate though he was about music, in order to support his wife as she continues to study, and take care of their son. He now works part time at a health food shop. Gardenia is also convinced that her daughter-in-law Caitlin is playing away – Gardenia is asked to babysit a lot, which she loves, but suddenly at the last minute Caitlin has to stay over at her friend’s house. Is Caitlin selfishly making use of her mother in law’s love of Milo? When out for the evening one day, Gardenia sees Caitlin with another man, and they don’t look like study partners. Gardenia has no idea what to do – should she tell Hans what she suspects, and what she saw – or let it work itself out? Will Hans want to hear what she has to say? and then the fall out could affect her access to her beloved grandson.

Gardenia has lots of things to weigh up, including whether she really wants to entertain the idea of a relationship with Lex, charming though he seems. Then there is her growing friendship with Arnold, and his feelings for Laurel – not to mention the pressures that are being put on him from his boss, and the suggestion that his Chaucer classes may just not be attracting enough students to make it viable.

Gardenia is a very sympathetic character, and particularly pleasing to have her reading Pym’s Excellent Women during the course of the book. Her grief is well portrayed, that sense that everyone else moves on far quicker than she is able to, that sense of missing someone very badly, and wanting still to say their name is really poignant. There are some lovely reflections on friendship, and the complex relationships between mothers and their adult sons.

June in review

Is it just me or did June just fly by? No sooner did it begin than it was over, the longest day been and gone and the first day of July today.

During June, as in the past few months I have just been reading fiction – though within that there is a range, with a mix of modern, vintage and translated books. Seven books finished and another started – five physical books, two kindle books.  

I began the month reading O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker (1991) a novel that has been receiving a bit of attention from bloggers and readers of late – and it’s easy to see why. It is a darkly, strange coming of age novel set in a draughty Scottish castle. As others have said previously, this is a novel with shades of Dodie Smith, Barbara Comyns and Shirley Jackson. It is a wonderfully imaginative novel, slightly gothic in tone, it is rich in vivid imagery, and beautifully written. The novel looks back on the sad, lonely life of sixteen year old Janet who as the novel opens lies dead at the bottom of the staircase in the castle where she lived. It’s a fantastic novel – I’ve not heard of anyone who doesn’t love it. Funnily enough my book group has chosen this for our August read and it wasn’t even my suggestion.

The Braid by Laetitia Colombani (2017) translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie was my book group’s selection for this month. The story of three different women, from different countries who each face unique challenges. These women’s lives are destined to be intertwined by a single object. The stories of the three women are told in alternating chapters, taking us from India to Sicily to Canada in the company of three very different but equally determined women.

Apricot Sky by Ruby Ferguson (1952) was a delightful read at the end of my half term holiday. A book that the reader is sad to finish, such is the pleasure of spending time with the characters. Set in the Scottish Highlands three years after the end of the war, featuring a large lovable family, their optimism, love and humour set against the ups and downs of normal (sometimes chaotic) family life is absolutely irresistible. Adventurous children, a little romance visitors, picnics and highland walks are the order of the day here, and though in some ways not a lot happens, it is a joy to read.

The Return of Faraz Ali by Aamina Ahmad (2022) was the second of my two kindle reads. An incredibly impressive debut novel set in Lahore, Dacca and London in the late 1960s and 1970s. Faraz Ali is a police inspector, in late 1960’s Pakistan. In 1968, Faraz has been dispatched to a police station in Lahore’s red light district tasked by his cold, biological father, with whitewashing the murder of a young girl. The child has been killed by a man of great power, though no one seems to know who. Faraz’s return to Lahore’s red light district, to the place where he was taken from his mother as a young child open ups a lot of old wounds for Faraz and impacts the next few years of his life.

His Master’s Voice by Ivy Litvinov (1930) was read for the Librarything monthly themed read – only now I don’t know if it really qualified *sigh* but I tried. My first book by Litvinov, but not my last as I have her collection of short stories tbr. A detective novel set in Moscow, with a beautifully evocative opening, a young ballet dancer from the famous Bolshoi theatre finds herself accused of murder.

Always Gardenia by Betsy Hanson (2018) the author kindly sent me this attractive hardback copy of her self-published novel set in an American university. An enjoyable, wryly humorous novel about academic colleagues, the trivialities in everyday life, coping with the challenges of widowhood and the complex relationships between mothers and sons. There are also a couple of lovely little dachshunds.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (2021) only my third novel by this writer but she is clearly an exceptional writer. While this didn’t quite reach the heights of utter perfection that 10 minutes, 38 seconds in this Strange World did, it didn’t fall far short. Moving between 1970s Cyprus and modern day England, this novel explores the terrible realities of the conflict that divided the island in two. Part of the novel is narrated by a fig tree – I came to love that tree – I have always had a thing about trees, and I knew I was right, they are pretty special. Still thinking about this one.

As July begins I am reading the book I began on June 28th – it will go into July’s final total. It is an old original green vmc Women Against Men by Storm Jameson first published in 1933. It is three novellas in one volume telling the stories of three women and their relationships with men. I have started the second novella now and again I’m enjoying Jameson’s writing very much.

In July my book group will be reading Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns, one of my favourite writers, it was of course my suggestion. This is both exciting and nerve wracking, but gives me the excuse to re-read the novel which first introduced me to Comyns in 2012. That will doubtless be my next read. The Librarything virago group are reading Irish writers of VMCs – and I have a few Kate O’Brien and a Mary Lavin at least – but I will see what my mood dictates and act accordingly. So it could end up being a fairly VMC inspired month of reading, except I am reading quite fickly these days.

What brilliant things did you read in June and what’s on your tbr for July? I always like to know 😊

This plain little red hardback volume has been sat on my tbr pretty much forgotten for a few years now. His Master’s Voice by Ivy Litvinov a detective novel set in Moscow. It was the Librarything monthly themed read that made me take it off the shelves. I have been pretty useless with this challenge this year, only having joined in with January and February’s challenges so far. I was initially keen to join in most months but this has been my worst reading year ever, so it’s probably not surprising I’ve failed here too. For June’s challenge we had to read a book by a VMC author but that hadn’t been published as a VMC. I knew Ivy Litvinov’s collection of stories She Knew She was Right was an original VMC green spine – it’s one I have tbr – but was pretty sure this novel was never published as a VMC, so hopefully it does qualify.

I really enjoyed my first experience of Ivy Litvinov, I happened to start reading this on a very slow reading week (I think they are all pretty slow though at the moment) so it felt like a bit of a slow burn at the start, but once I got going with it I liked it a lot. The thing that pulled me in immediately was the stunning prose with which this novel opens – Litvinov introduces us to Moscow, on a bitterly cold night in February – and the sense of place is just incredible. It was enough for me to say, yes I really want to read this.

“The town seemed not so much asleep as strangled, locked in frost. The Kremlin palace and its numerous churches and spires looked down over toothed walls on silent squares, empty bridges, and abandoned streets. On summer evenings it looks down on its own reflection in the water, regally quiescent; on this bitter night in February,1926, when the frozen river refused to mirror its crude walls and fantastic buildings, it was more like a picture in a book for children than anything that had ever answered to the requirements of human beings.”

The novel doesn’t continue in quite such descriptive terms as the business of the story takes over, but Litvinov is a gifted writer, nevertheless. On this cold night a man is murdered. The dead man a resident of one of the countless yards in Moscow – the night watchman witness to the comings and goings, before in the early hours he too goes inside to his family to sleep.  It is the night watchman’s wife who discovers the dead man, early next morning, when taking him his breakfast. Arkady Petrovich Pavlov sat at his table, with a dagger sticking out of his neck, his head dropped forward on to his gramophone.

It falls to District Procurator Nikulin to investigate the crime – called to the telephone on a Sunday morning when he had been hoping for a lie in and time with the papers. He is aided by Detective Yanovitsky. Several items are recovered from the scene, including the dagger, a couple of gilded coins of tinfoil as if off some sort of garment or costume, a programme for the Bolshoi theatre dated the day of the murder, and a note signed with a letter s.

Investigations soon take the Procurator to the Bolshoi theatre and suspicion quickly falls on one of the ballerinas Tamara Geyorgyevna Dolidzey, who had been with the dead man on the evening he died, and whose dagger was found sticking out of his neck. 

“‘Well now Tamara, I have something to say to you. This morning Pavlov was found dead with this dagger – your dagger, Tamara – in his neck. Nobody is known to have come to him but yourself and nobody was there but yourself, Tamara. Nobody played your accompaniments on a piano because there was no piano in the room. There were no other guests. You were alone with Pavlov between twelve and one, and between twelve and three Pavlov was killed – with your dagger Tamara’

The girl listened to him with distended eyes and rapidly paling cheeks. She became so ashen white that the procurator looked around for a glass of water…”

The young dancer is locked up while investigations continue – protesting her innocence, horrified at what has befallen her. The reader is sure of course that Tamara is innocent – and soon enough the Procurator begins to have some doubts himself. Everything points to Tamara and yet there is the possibility that she is innocent. The Procurator begins getting manicures from a woman who did Pavlov’s nails, in a bid to know his victim a little better but more and more all roads seem to lead to the theatre.

As investigations continue there is the suggestion that Pavlov was really someone else, someone who had belonged to a secret political society – who might have an enemy still out there looking for him. Another dancer from the Bolshoi is brought in for questioning, a young man who has been harbouring tender feelings for Tamara and may have acted out of jealousy. As the conflicting evidence and testimonies mount, a journalist Julius Caesarovich Itkin (a somewhat improbable name) begins to interest himself in the case – and he doesn’t believe in Tamara’s guilt at all.

This was a really clever mystery which really did keep me guessing – lots of little twists along the way, meant I couldn’t possibly guess the outcome. I must make time to read that collection of stories by Ivy Litvinov, clearly a sadly neglected writer.

This was a kindle book purchase that I made on a whim, after hearing about the book on the BBC’s Between the Covers programme. I started reading it a day or two later. The Return of Faraz Ali is Aamina Ahmad’s debut novel – and an excellent one at that. There are more layers to this novel than I had initially expected, the premise I saw online making it sound a little like something else. It was such a pleasant surprise that there was so much more to this novel.

Faraz Ali is a police inspector, in late 1960’s Pakistan. In 1968, Faraz has been dispatched to a police station in Lahore’s red light district tasked with whitewashing the murder of a young girl. The child has been killed by a man of great power, though no one seems to know who. Faraz must make it all go away. The man responsible for Faraz’s new assignment is Wajid, Faraz’s biological father.

“He waited for his mother and his sister, who had followed them downstairs, to wave good-bye, but they didn’t. His mother went back inside the kotha and called for Rozina to follow her. She didn’t watch as he disappeared around the corner. He knew then they would not bring him back, just as he knew his amma’s sorrow had not made her powerful. It had not, he realized, made her remarkable in any way at all.”

Unknown to anyone in his life, Faraz was born into the Mahalla, the red light district of Lahore. He began his life growing up alongside his older sister, living with their mother, one of the district’s courtesans within a tradition where a mother would raise her daughters to follow in her footsteps – and her sons would grow up to act as pimps. Wajid had initially left his son to grow up in the Mahalla with the woman who he had had a secret relationship with – only later he stole him back. Ripping the young boy from his mother and sister and everything he knew, and giving him into the care of relatives.

Faraz, has his own family now, married to the woman he chose, a woman who married him because he was the sensible choice, they have a baby daughter. His new status as a family man and father, making him question his past, and wonder about this mother and sister – he has virtually no memory of his early life – a few images remain, haunting him. Now he is back, and he can’t stop himself looking for the family he lost.

“…since the arrival of his daughter, Faraz had thought constantly of going back. Nazia was of him now; who else was? He longed for the family he scarcely remembered, his mother and sister, to know Nazia, who ought to be known, and to understand the legacy—however poor—he’d given her.”

The Mohalla comes to life in Ahmad’s descriptions of it and the lives of the people who live here, she doesn’t sugar coat it – this is very much the short straw of life. This is a period of political upheaval – there is plenty of talk of riots and elections, corruption and power. Yet the lives of the women in Lahore’s red light district continue as they have for generations. Women are exploited and tossed aside here – their lives have little value – except perhaps to one another.

“When they turned into Heera Mandi Bazaar, he scoured the doorways, the open apartment windows above the stores, searching for something—anything—he might recognize, his body stiffening in anticipation. But the bazaar looked familiar only in that it looked like most others in the city. He tried to temper his disappointment; he’d always known he’d need another way to find his people—his memories, which were vague, fragments at best, wouldn’t lead him to them. They passed a line of shops that sold handmade instruments, dholkis, tablas, sitars, and then a stretch of function rooms where audiences came for dance, song, and, Faraz knew, the other things you could buy here.”

Faraz is not happy with his assignment, he doesn’t want the man who killed that young girl to get away with it, he looks into the eyes of the girl’s mother and see her pain. He understands the loss suffered by the girl’s mother and brother; he recognises her as a person. However, he quickly comes to see he is fairly powerless. His actions make some of his new colleagues suspicious, he knows he doesn’t have much time, so quickly begins making rather more enquiries than anyone is expecting him to. A visit to his father Wajid, at his comfortable home, where Wajid’s wife and Faraz’s half siblings live in some luxury underlines further, how little he can actually do. Wajid is not ready for Faraz to disobey orders.

Meanwhile Faraz’s mother Firdous is still in the Mohalla, she is bringing up her grandchild as her own daughter. Faraz’s sister Rozina has made it out of the Mohalla – her beauty and talent allowing her to raise her status to that of a minor celebrity. Her daughter Mina is growing up with Firdous, she only knows Rozina as her sister. Only, age is starting to catch up with Rozina, the married man who pays for her lifestyle, is already looking elsewhere – and Rozina knows it’s only a matter of time until she is back where she started in the Mohalla.

Having seriously angered Wajid, and asked too many of the wrong questions, Faraz is sent to Dacca –in what at this time was still called East Pakistan. The political backdrop to this novel is fascinating, the dictatorship of Ayub, and the rise of Bhutto as well as the start of Bangladesh’s independence all come into play. Ahmad doesn’t over explain things – which I am always glad of – she trusts in her reader’s intelligence (and Google) and so there are no awkward explanations of cultural terms, swear words or political figures shoe-horned in. Throughout the novel are little flashbacks to Eton educated Wajid’s time as a POW during the Second World War in the desert of North Africa – where he talks of his baby son for the first time. Years later, that son will also find himself a POW during the struggle for Bangladesh’s independence.

The Return of Faraz Ali is such a good debut novel – deeply poignant, in its exploration of what family means. It spans several years and takes us from Lahore to Dacca to London and back. A beautiful novel of love, identity and loss – and how we can’t help but carry those things with us.