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2016-06-26_21.06.14

The most recent phase of #Woofalong, taking place throughout July and August was the biography section. I am so pleased that at the end of eight months of #Woolfalong, there are still other people joining in. Thank you everyone for your enthusiasm.

Virginia woolf2The choices for readers was quite varied. Two Woolf novels – although called biographies by Woolf are of course Orlando and Flush. I read Orlando last year for a book group I was then attending. It was that book really, which set me off on my quest to know Virginia Woolf better, read much more of her work, and learn to appreciate her brilliance. #Woolfalong has done all of that for me, although I still feel something of a beginner with Woolf – even having read a few more books and with only two phases of #Woolfalong to go. So I opted to read Flush – and it was an absolute joy of a book, which I know I will read again one day. I also read Virginia Woolf; a short biography by Nigel Nicolson, son of Vita Sackville West, and at the time of writing I am reading Winifred Holtby’s critical memoir of Virginia Woolf – which I believe is the only work of biography written during Virginia Woolf’s lifetime. I have two more books which I could have read for phase four but which I haven’t managed to fit in yet; Recollections of Virginia Woolf and A Marriage of True Minds. I would like to think I might read them by the end of the year  – but as I still have one volume of stories left over from phase three – don’t hold your breath.  20160827_211844 (1)

Helen from She reads novels read Flush, a book she had looked forward to reading for a long time, she wasn’t disappointed, calling it a creative combination of fiction and non-fiction. Valarie from The London Particular described reading Flush as an ecstatic reading experience, I definitely agree with that.

Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings re-read Orlando, which she calls a brave book for its time, saying that ‘the vision of an evolving England is a vivid and wonderful one’.
Karen also shared her thoughts on Flush.  which she read at the beginning of 2015. Karen then further delighted me with her review of Recollections of Virginia Woolf – Edited by Joan Russell, a book I have since bought, and may even get time to start this final week of August. Liz from Adventures in reading, writing and working from home, has also been reading Recollections, and I know will be reviewing it soon.

Caroline from Bookword read Orlando, which she admits to not especially enjoying even on a second reading, though Caroline finds a lot to admire in it, including Woolf’s wit and love of words. David from David’s Book World also read Orlando –  Calling it sublime on Twitter. In his review David discusses how Woolf creates a landscape of time.Ladyfancifull first read Orlando when she was in her teens, and enjoyed re-reading it for #Woolfalong.

An alternative biography by Virginia Woolf – and which I had neglected to put on my original list, was that of Roger Fry, which Woolf published in 1940, just a year before her death. I thought I had seen someone talking about reading this for #Woolfalong, but searching on Twitter yielded no results, so perhaps I dreamt it. If it was you, and I have missed you out – shout.

Of course there have been a good number of biographies written about Virginia Woolf, and these were perfect for phase 4 too. Hermione Lee’s biography is generally thought very highly of, but I didn’t have a copy, and not being very good at reading huge books of non-fiction (I begin to crave a novel around 300 pages in) – I opted for Nigel Nicolson’s very slim biography which I had read before, but I found a lot in it that I hadn’t picked out the first time – good and bad. Mary B – (Twitter) also read the Nicolson biography, giving it four stars and she said it made her want to read more for #Woolfalong – which I was delighted to hear.

O from Behold the stars has read the biography of  Virginia Woolf by Quentin Bell, in which O tells us that Bell offers a simple straight narrative to Virginia Woolf’s life – which frankly makes it appeal to me immediately.

Audrey from Booksasfood read a book called Virginia Woolf and the Reverats, edited by William Pryor, which takes readers inside the friendship between Woolf and the Reverat family. This book would also fit into phase 5 – so I especially wanted to tell you all about it.

As ever if your review hasn’t been posted yet or I have missed you – please let me know and I will do my best to edit you in.

It has been great seeing all these thoughts on such a variety of books. Roll on phase 5.  Phase 5 begins on September 1st – the theme non-fiction written by Virginia Woolf. Diaries, letters,  essays – there are plenty to choose from. I have three books already set aside – unsure if I will get to them all. I have actually read A Room of One’s Own last year, but I’m anxious to get to Three Guineas and A Writer’s Diary.

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grand hotel

Translated from the German by Basil Creighton

I would never have heard of, much less read this superb novel had it not been for Jacqui of Jacquiwine’s Journal – whose review sent me scurrying off to buy it. The fact that it has been recently reissued in this gorgeous NYRB edition with this wonderful cover was a bonus.

Grand Hotel is set in the post World-War One world of the Weimar era. Berlin of the 1920’s, and here we meet a host of remarkably well drawn characters, who are explored in astute and searching detail.

Through the revolving doors of the Grand Hotel come all kinds; the war damaged, the dying, beautiful ageing ballerina, businessman, thief. The hotel exists to provide the very best of everything for their guests, and yet there is a feeling that like some of its guests, the hotel’s best days are in the past. The porter on the front desk is a count, putting his ancestry behind him to serve the guests of the Grand Hotel. #witmonth

Doctor Otternshlag, is the first of the hotel residents who we meet, a veteran from the war, half his face destroyed by a shell, he sits in the hotel lounge viewing the same scene as the day before, reading the paper, as does every day. He asks the porter if there are any letters for him, a telegram perhaps or a message, there isn’t – there never is, no matter how many times he asks.

Having just received a fatal medical diagnosis Otto Kringelein has come to the Grand Hotel in order to live – if only for a few days, really live for the first time in his life. An unhappily married bookkeeper from Fredersdorf, Kringelein is about to experience all the good things that have so far passed him by, before it’s too late. Intent on spending his savings, and life insurance, after years of very careful living, Otto has wads of cash in his wallet for the first time. When presenting himself at the hotel on his first day, he looks shabby and ill, and is shown eventually to an inferior room. Quiet, unassuming Otto Kringelein going against the habits of a lifetime, demands a better room, and gets it. A room costing fifty marks a day, with a bathroom he can use whenever he likes.

“Kringelein, obstinate now that he has run amok, insisted that he required a superior and a beautiful and expensive room, at the very least a room like Preysing’s. He seemed to think the name of Preysing was a name to conjure with. He had not yet taken off his overcoat. His trembling hands clutched the old crumbling Fredersdorf sandwiches while he blinked his eyes and demanded an expensive room. He was exhausted and ill and ready to cry. For some weeks past he had begun to cry very easily for physical reasons connected with his health. Suddenly, just as he was about to give in, he won the day. He was given Room No. 70, a first floor suite with a sitting room and bath, fifty marks a day. ‘Good,’ he said, ‘with a bathroom? Does that mean that I can have a bath whenever I like?’ Count Rohna without a tremor said that was so. Kringelein moved in for the second time. “

Kringelein’s boss, company director Herr Preysing comes to the hotel for a vital business meeting, desperate to secure a deal for his family firm which is not doing as well as he pretends. Hoping to secure a merger between his firm and another Berlin firm, the deal hinges on a potential contract with a third Manchester firm. Preysing, who has bullied Kringelein for years doesn’t even recognise his employee at first, so full of his own importance, Kringelein so far outside his radar. Doctor Otternshlag takes pity on Kringelein, briefly extending the hand of friendship, even accompanying him to the ballet, before Kringelein is taken up by a more glamourous seeming figure. Gaigern, handsome, athletic, baron and professional thief, whose accomplice – in the guise of his chauffeur is settled into the servants’ quarters. Gaigern is a man who turns heads, presenting himself as an elegant, wealthy and very correct.

“There was a smell of lavender and expensive cigarettes, immediately followed by a man whose appearance was so striking that many heads turned to look at him. He was unusually tall and extremely well dressed, and his step was as elastic as a cat’s or a tennis champion’s. He wore a dark blue trench coat over his dinner jacket. This was scarcely correct perhaps, but it gave an attractively negligent air to his appearance. He patted pageboy No. 24 on his sleek head, stretched out his arm, without looking, over to the porter’s table for a handful of letters which he put straight into his pocket, taking out at the same time a pair of buckskin gloves.”

grandhotelGrusinskaya is a fragile beauty, a famous ballerina fighting a battle with age. Her performances at the nearby theatre each evening playing to greatly reduced audiences, with no call for an encore. Her best days are behind her – and she knows, she’s is tired, the rigours of her art physically exhaust her. Accompanying her is her maid Suzette, to whom Grusinskaya says ‘Leave me alone’ the line which spoken by Greta Garbo became ‘I want to be alone’ in the film adaptation, and her very valuable pearls. Gaigern and his ‘chauffeur’ have their greedy eyes trained on the idea of those pearls. However, with the plans made, it is inevitable that not everything goes quite to plan. Finding out that Kringelein has money, presents him with a tempting alternative to his original purpose.

Meanwhile Preysing finds his head being turned by a young secretary generally known as Flämmchen or Falm the second (Flam the first being her elder sister). A beautiful young girl whose desire is only to make it into the movies somehow, longing for, glamour and the chance to travel. While Preysing is dissembling in business, lusting after a girl young enough to be his daughter, Kringelein is starting to live. Spending money on clothes, dancing, gambling attending a boxing match, racing through the streets of Berlin in a car, flying in an aeroplane, he learns about exhilaration. Both he and Herr Preysing will find themselves, and their lives considerably altered by the time they leave the hotel.

The lives and various concerns of these characters are woven together brilliantly by Vicki Baum, exploring their hopes, fears, secrets and regrets. There are shades of light and dark in this novel, moments of black comedy, and others of great poignancy. The life, atmosphere of a German hotel in the late 1920’s is brought to life with breath-taking clarity. Grand Hotel is a wonderful; immersive novel, which I am delighted to have discovered.

vickibaum

thewingedhorse

Pamela Frankau is the author of one of my favourite ever Virago books – The Willow Cabin. I have been meaning to read more of her novels for ages, but only recently managed to acquire a couple. Pamela Frankau was a popular and prolific writer once upon a time, and I find it sad that she is read so much less now, her novels out of print (except for a few POD VMC editions two of which I snapped up the other week). I wasn’t sure which of the two to read first – so I went for the fattest.

The Winged Horse – like The Willow Cabin, takes place in both America and England, it is a brilliantly Compelling novel of power, truth and dishonesty.

It is 1949 and English newspaper tycoon J. G Baron is a tough no nonsense, charismatic businessman with interests on both sides of the Atlantic. His adult children appear to lead charmed lives at the family house in the English countryside. Favoured employees get invited for weekends, and J.G absolutely believes in the perfect world he has created there with his family. However, while his son Tobias is conscious of never quite measuring up, and his youngest daughter Liz is young, unsure and often afraid, it is only Celia his eldest daughter who recognises J.G for what he is. For J.G is something of a tyrant – his hypocrisy and self-deceit know no bounds. His power is not the bellowing, red faced bully-boy type – but of a quieter more insidious kind that casts a long, dark shadow.

“ ‘My daughter, the late Mrs. Valentine West,’ Baron said. Baron’s family jokes did not vary, they were the clichés of a lifetime; they could be distinguished sharply from his public words, his coarse or his agile phrases; they were stock, paterfamilias stuff, oddly out of date. She could remember his using this worn example when her mother was unpunctual.’ “

As the novel opens, Celia is in the process of separating from her American husband, and travelling by ship with J.G and his entourage back to England, with her young son. J.G has just enticed cartoonist Harry Levitt away from his employers, to work for him, and Harry is aboard ship too. Levitt is drawn to Celia, but Harry is a practised dissembler, and despite connecting briefly, Celia recognising him as such is more interested in going home, seeing her brother and sister again. Harry was stationed in England during the war, and carries a dream of a life there with him, his main reason for accepting J. G’s offer.

Back home at Carlington, Celia sets about settling herself and her son into the newly refurbished nursery wing. Levitt is drawn further into the circle which includes family friend and neighbour; Anthony Carey for who Liz harbours deep feelings. Tobias loves to fly, has been hanging around in France with a much older married actress – much to J.G’s disapproval, his happy go lucky attitude hides his sense of never making his father happy. It is Anthony Carey – sometimes called ‘thank God for Anthony’ or ‘that poor Carey’ by Celia, Liz and Tobias – who J.G favours.

“Downstairs in the green library, Tobias glanced at his watch; it was worn on the right wrist, face inwards, so that he could look at it unobserved. Many people, he reflected, wore their watches this way; there was no need to feel that it was a special anti-J.G device.”

When a tragedy rips through the family, Harry Levitt is on hand to help, and while J. G’s most audacious self-deceit conceals his pain – other members of the family struggle to cope. Traumatised, Celia decides to take a house in London, and her father goes on a trip. Harry Levitt continues to draw cartoons for J.G’s newspapers, spending more and more time at Carlington, seeing Celia in London rarely, he begins to get closer to Liz.

When Harry is sent back to America by J.G for ‘a couple of months’, he understands that it is the beginning of the end for his association with the Baron organisation. He leaves a much sadder man than he arrived. What he unwittingly leaves behind will inspire a betrayal and lead to the slow destruction of a once happy man. Around the same time Celia gets word that her estranged husband has helped himself to some of her money, and travels back to New York to sort it out. Finally, here, Celia and Harry come together again, Celia makes Harry a better man, but J.G does not approve. Stuck in the States trying to sort out the financial mess her estranged husband has caused her, it is not long before J.G turns up like the bad penny he is, and offers to sort everything, as long as she ditches Harry. Celia is not that kind of girl – and so she and Harry resign themselves to having no money (luckily she does still have a small house on Martha’s Vineyard – like you do).

“Celia carried the toy aeroplane out on to the rough lawn and pointed it into the wind. It was a fragile hollow thing of aluminium, attached to a rod and a reel; now the wings revolved frantically, with a spinning, humming noise; they turned into two blurred lines and she could let it fly. The wind took it; she reeled out the line and let it go.”

The title of the book comes from a song, a song the siblings sang as children and particularly associate with Tobias. It is a song to be bellowed, a song of happiness and that feeling of running down a hill with the wind at your back. It is also the name of a piece of art work, which is inspired by a lie, one lie leading to another as they always do.

I’m conscious, that in trying to avoid spoilers, I’m perhaps not making The Winged Horse sound as good as it is, but it really is excellent. Frankau is superb at building relationships between her characters, her characters are not all perfect, they are real people, living within a recognisable world, even if it is one of sixty pus years ago. There is compassion and understanding in her writing, and even J.G Baron is dealt with, with some sympathy.

So this is the second novel by Pamela Frankau that I have loved, I have a third; A Wreath for the Enemy waiting to read, but Frankau was the author of something like thirty novels. I came across one in a second hand bookshop recently – the third in a series, it was a first edition priced at £25 – I had to sadly walk away.

pamela frankau

 

the door

(Translated from Hungarian by Len Rix)

Only my second read for #WITmonth, but what a fantastic read it was. I had originally planned on reading Iza’s Ballad also by Magda Szabó which I have had in paperback for months, but as I was away from home I read The Door on kindle instead. As far as I am aware (correct me if I am wrong anyone who knows differently) Iza’s Ballad and The Door are the only works by Magda Szabó available in English.

Magda Szabó was born in 1917 in Debrecen, Hungary. She was initially a poet, but was prevented from publishing for political reasons in the 1950s – a fate shared by the narrator#witmonth of The Door. She began writing again, novels this time, and in 1978 was awarded a major literary prize, again something which happens to the narrator of The Door. This novel first published in Hungary in 1987 was an international success, and was made into a film starring Helen Mirren – which I am now anxious to see.

“I know now, what I didn’t then, that affection can’t always be expressed in calm, orderly, articulate ways; and that one cannot prescribe the form it should take for anyone else.”

The novel opens with a powerful dream sequence, the narrator haunted by the recurring dream of a door, a locked door, a door she is unable to open. There is no one to help her, and eventually she is awoken by her own screams.

The narrator of The Door is unnamed – sometimes titled ‘the lady writer’, struggling to cope with both her writing and her domestic tasks she appears to be a thinly veiled portrait of Szabó herself. Having been silenced for years for political reasons, she is now able to write again, and seeks help with running her home from the caretaker of nearby apartments. Set over a period of about twenty years, The Door is the story of the relationship between the writer, and the woman who becomes her housekeeper.

Emerence is an already elderly woman when she arrives with good recommendations to see if she wants to work for the writer and her husband. Emerence explains how she doesn’t wash the dirty linen of just anyone, and seeks reassurance that her prospective employers are not likely to be involved in any drunken brawling. She further explains that once she has seen just how dirty her new employers are – she will inform them what her salary shall be. It is on such unusual terms then, that Emerence begins her long and stormy relationship with the lady writer, and her husband, whom Emerence devotedly calls the master.

“No formal agreement dictated the number of hours Emerence spent in our house, or the precise times of her arrival. We might conceivably see nothing of her all day. Then, at eleven at night, she would appear, not in the inner rooms, but in the kitchen or the pantry, which she would scrub until dawn. It might happen that for a day and a half we would be unable to use the bathroom because she had rugs soaking in the tub. Her capricious working hours were combined with awe-inspiring accomplishments. The old woman worked like a robot. She lifted unliftable furniture without the slightest regard for herself. There was something superhuman, almost alarming, in her physical strength and her capacity for work, all the more so because in fact she had no need to take so much on. Emerence obviously revelled in her work. She loved it.”

Emerence lives in an apartment within sight of the writer’s own house, she entertains her nephew, the Lieutenant colonel of police, and her neighbours on her porch, where later the writer herself will be entertained, she never lets anyone inside her home. Guarding her privacy jealously, she comes and goes as she pleases from the writer’s home. When the writer finds a stray puppy and decides to take it on, it is Emerence who the dog slavishly follows and obeys, pledging his own unspoken canine allegiance, with which the writer is never able to compete. Emerence works all the time, when the snows come to Budapest, she abandons the writer for days at a time to clear the snow from the outside of other homes. She takes her caretaking responsibilities seriously, and she never seems to slow down.

“She was like someone standing in strong sunlight on a mountain top, looking back down the valley from which she had emerged and trembling with the memory still in her bones of the length and nature of the road she had travelled, the glaciers and forded rivers, the weariness and danger, and conscious of how far she still had to go. There was also compassion in that face, a feeling of pity for all the poor people below, who knew only that the peaks were rosy in the twilight, but not the real meaning of the road itself.”

Emerence is secretive about her past, stubborn and frequently difficult, she is generous, but refuses gifts from her employer. As time passes, the writer gradually begins to learn something about Emerence’s past, the sadness at the center of her life, the love she lost. Although dismissive of writing as work, she insists on having copies of her employer’s books, which she has no time to read. The present of a small plaster dog that Emerence gives the writer and her husband is the unexpected cause of a big falling out. Emerence stops working for the writer, and everyone predicts she’ll never go back. It is the persistence and diplomacy of the writer herself that persuades Emerence to return.

Over the years that follow, a relationship develops between the two women, which begins to look like friendship. However, friends can sometimes let each other down. The two have each been dependent on the other for years, when Emerence falls ill, and the writer finds herself suddenly in demand by media and foreign delegations.

I absolutely loved this book, Emerence is a wonderfully memorable character, the ambiguity of the relationship between these women is fascinating. I was drawn quickly into the small world of this neighbourhood, over which Emerence reigns. Szabó is a writer I very much want to read more by. I am very much looking forward to Iza’s Ballad, and am currently undecided whether to squeeze it into this #WITmonth or leave it for a rainy day.

(FILES) A picture taken 27 October 2003

desperatecharacters

Desperate Characters was the book with which I completed my #20booksofsummer. A book I would never have heard of had it not been for the enthusiastic reviews of other bloggers.

It is a beautifully written novel it explores with some dark humour, and compelling drama the changing society of the 1960s.

Sophie and Otto Bentwood are a privileged couple living in a beautifully elegant apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Their lives are ordered and filled with lovely things, they drive a Mercedes, have a holiday home on Long Island, they have successfully insulated themselves from a very different society that exists close by. A world of slum housing, sickness and poverty.

“The Bentwoods had a high income. They had no children and, since they were both just over forty (Sophie was two months older than Otto), they didn’t anticipate any. They could purchase pretty much what they wanted. They had a Mercedes-Benz sedan and a house on Long Island with a long-term mortgage, which was hardly a burden any more.”

Sophie and Otto are terribly smug, comfortably secure in their world of privilege. Within sight of their New York home, lies this other world. When Sophie is bitten a cat which comes from that other world, it is the first unsettling incident in a series, which together shake the security and complacency of the world the Bentwoods rely on. It is early evening, and the Bentwoods are having dinner, Sophie has been feeding the stray cat that has been appearing regularly, against her husband’s advice.

“The cat’s back rose convulsively to press against her hand. She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck at her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto’s presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat as she jerked her hand back from that circle of barbed wire.”

The cat is definitely a symbol of that other world, the danger which deep down both the Bentwoods feel is close by. This is the world which the couple have so far done a good job of distancing themselves from – they view from a distance, turning away with distaste.

Sophie pretends great unconcern about the bite, which immediately begins to swell, showing signs of infection and causing a lot of pain. Yet, in reality Sophie is deeply wounded, she sees the bite as a personal attack. Sophie is oddly shaken by the cat bite, but she and Otto are to be shaken again and again during that weekend.

Later that same evening Sophie and Otto attend a drinks party at a friend’s house, Otto not wanting to lose his precious parking place, decide they should walk. Sophie hides her feeling of nausea, and on their short walk to an equally smart and privileged home, they can’t help but discuss the neighbourhood, the habits of the ‘they’ who live within sight of their home. At the party the word rabies is first used – there hasn’t been a case for years, Sophie should get a tetanus injection, but really shouldn’t have anything more to worry about. That word in itself, is quite enough to ratchet up the tension, and to increase Sophie’s feeling of deep unease. Sophie is oddly reluctant to seek medical help – she can’t face what might result from seeking help – the rabies injections horrify her as much as the possibility of the disease. Throughout the novel Sophie continues to claim that she is fine, that there’s no need for a doctor, the cat wasn’t sick, her hand is beginning to feel better.

Suddenly a rock is thrown through the window of their friend’s house, another little piece of one world intruding into the polite complacency of another. Back at home, Sophie answers the phone to a hear nothing but heavy breathing. Later a visitor in the early hours of the morning gives Sophie much more to think about. Gradually we begin to see Otto as a weak and rather mean spirited as we find out about the recent falling out with his long-time friend and business partner Charlie Russel.

Sophie and Otto decide to drive to Long Island, to their beloved summer home, there’s a sense that Sophie in particular is seeking sanctuary. Upon arrival they find their Long Island home has been broken into, vandalised, a decomposing bird in the bath, clothes cut up. At the home of the local family who act as caretakers to the summer homes of city people – they find carelessness and disorder which contrasts sharply with their own world. A world they quickly return to, shaken further out of their complacency.

Paula Fox has created fascinating characters in Sophie and Otto, their marriage is shown to be in a fragile state, even their knowledge of each other not as secure as it might at first appear. That cat bite is however the driver in the novel, it is a symbol of the other world which the Bentwoods are an unwilling part of – but it also creates a fantastic feeling of suspense, underpinned with a shuddering horror that the word rabies always produces. Will Sophie have to face a fortnight of rabies injections? Was the cat sick? Will nothing come of it after all?

Not a word is wasted in this little novel, it packs the kind of punch many short novels do, well written and very compelling, it’s great to see this novel back in print.

paula fox

the world my wilderness

I have been juggling various reading challenges this month, completing my #20booksofsummer, and reading things for both All Virago/All August and #WITmonth.

I have had The World my Wilderness on my shelves for years, part of my #20booksofsummer list – which I completed last week, it also fitted beautifully into All Virago/All August.

Rose Macaulay was a hugely prolific and popular writer – and The World my Wilderness was the novel she published in 1950 following a decade of silence. Of Macaulay, Penelope Fitzgerald in her introduction to my VMC edition, says:

“Rose Macaulay was born in 1881, and died in 1958. As a young woman she went bathing with Rupert Brooke, and she lived long enough to protest, as a well-known author and critic, against the invasion of Korea.”
(Penelope Fitzgerald, 1982)

That was enough to make me want to know Rose Macaulay a lot better. The World my Wilderness was my first ever novel by her – one which at the time apparently surprised her fans, more used to social satires.

The World my Wilderness is a wonderful novel, set in the fragile post-war world still reeling from the difficulties and betrayals of the war years, it is a novel which explores beautifully, the damage parents do to their children.
It is 1946 and Barbary Deniston has been living in France with her beautiful, indolent mother Helen throughout the war years. Their home at the Villa Fraises in Collioure, an area occupied by the Germans during the war is a place of relaxed freedom and sunshine. Helen, divorced from Barbary’s father, married a wealthy Frenchman widely seen as a Nazi collaborator.

“Barbary slipped from the room, as quiet as a despondent breath. She and Raoul had acquired movements almost noiseless, the sinking step, the affected, furtive glide, the quick wary glancing right and left, of jungle creatures.”

Barbary and her stepbrother Raoul, have run wild together, associating with the defiant and dangerous local Maquis (Resistance) who defied the Germans and betrayed the collaborators. Here, Barbary learnt about danger, betrayal and death, and in the hands of the Gestapo; sexual assault. A free spirited artist, hedonistic Helen’s attention these days is largely taken up with Roland the young son she had with her second husband, Barbary is often ignored. With her husband recently drowned in highly suspicious circumstances, Helen decides to pack Barbary off to England to her father and stepmother, Barbary’s elder brother who had remained in London after his mother fled to France, arrives to collect his wild and untaught sister. Raoul travels with her, packed off to an uncle, Helen freed at last of two responsibilities.

Barbary is seventeen, though appears much younger – her childlike rebellion, and search for her place of safety making her vulnerable as if her development to adulthood has been arrested by her wartime experiences. There were moments when I found it hard to see Barbary as a seventeen-year-old – although teenagers of 1946 were not the teenagers we know today. A few times, Macaulay uses the word children for Barbary and her (albeit slightly younger) stepbrother – the word jarred a little for me – though why should it? – teenagers are more adult now than then, no doubt the reason for that word seeming inappropriate to a modern reader.

Scruffy, stubborn and untamed Barbary is not ready for the mixture of formal, English politeness and bomb damaged austerity that exists in post-war London. Barrister Sir Gulliver Deniston; Barbary’s father is stiff and starchy, his new wife the always correct, tweedy Pamela is very conventional, about as unlike Helen as it is possible to be. Both are shocked by Barbary’s unconventional wildness, the results of Helen’s rather neglectful parenting. There’s a feeling that Sir Gulliver has not entirely recovered from Helen’s desertion of him before the war, while Pamela resents any reference to the woman she feels unable to compete with.

“Suddenly the bells of St. Paul’s clashed out, drowning them in sweet, hoarse, rocking clamour. Barbary began to dance, her dark hair flapping in the breeze as she spun about. Raoul joined her; they took hands, snapping the fingers of the other hand above their heads; it was a dance of Provence, and they sand a Collioure fisherman’s song in time to it.
The bells stopped. The children stood still, gazing down on a wilderness of little streets, caves and cellars, the foundations of a wrecked merchant city, grown over by green and golden fennel and ragwort, coltsfoot, purple loosestrife, rosebay willow herb, bracken, bramble and tall nettles, among which rabbits burrowed and wild cats crept and hens laid eggs.”

Desperately unhappy; Barbary looks for somewhere she can feel safe, that makes sense to a girl who ran with the Maquis, instructed by them in sabotage and thievery. Craving the world that she has left behind, Barbary finds a wilderness in the wastelands created by the bombs which rained down upon the streets around St. Paul’s. Here Barbary finds similarities to the life she led in France, meeting an odd collection of characters, hiding from policeman, stealing from shops. Invited to a shooting party in the Scottish Highlands, Sir Gulliver and Pamela whisk Barbary off before she has barely got used to being away from France. Barbary raises a few eyebrows with her unconventional behaviour, finally, running off back to London, and the ruined buildings where each day she escapes the claustrophobic atmosphere of her father’s house. Still running around with Raoul, the pair take over the ruins of an abandoned flat, while Barbary paints in the ruins of a church. Their new friends; deserters and thieves, people looking for a place to hide. Getting into rather more trouble than she bargained for, Barbary ensures that her father and stepmother will have to entertain her mother, who finally rushes to be with the daughter she had so brutally thrust from her.

In The World my Wilderness we have guilt and redemption. The hurts created by the ravages of war in people and their places are explored with great compassion and understanding. Macaulay knows what it is to be young, and also what it is to be lost.

rosemacaulay

the green road

This is only the second Anne Enright novel that I have read, The Gathering Enright’s 2007 Booker winning novel is I believe something of a modern classic. With this novel we find ourselves in fairly familiar territory – a family drama, like those we perhaps expect of certain Irish writers. For me that is a big plus point – I love that Irish tradition, and The Green Road is a wonderful novel.

“Rosaleen was tired of waiting. She had been waiting, all her life, for something that never happened and she could not bear the suspense any longer.”

Like The Gathering, The Green Road centres on a family at a time of crisis. The Madigan family are presided over by Rosaleen, a widow, in a small town in West Clare. When Rosaleen decides it is time to sell the family home, her adult children, each living lives very different to one another, rush back to the family home for one last Christmas. Before the novel reaches this point of potential change, we meet each member of the Madigan family, dropping into their lives in New York, Africa or Dublin. I enjoyed this third person perspective, switching as it does between the five members of the Madigan family over a period of more than twenty years. Each of these narratives are almost like linked short stories – in which we travel to a new place and meet new people, each of them glancing over their shoulder to the Ireland of their childhood. Life takes the Madigan siblings Dan, Emmet, Constance and Hanna to various places, giving them all different challenges, home generally feels like a very long way away. Enright’s sense of place is fabulous, her relationship with the land she writes about is easy to see.

“Far below were the limestone flats they called the Flaggy Shore; grey rocks under a grey sky, and there were days when the sea was a glittering grey and your eyes could not tell if it was dusk or dawn, your eyes were always adjusting. It was like the rocks took the light and hid it away. And that was the thing about Boolavaun, it was a place that made itself hard to see.”

The perspective as the novel opens is that of Hanna, the youngest member of the family, fourteen in 1980. She collects the mysterious medicine for her grandmother, and witnesses the drama that is unleased when Dan announces he is going to be a priest. Rosaleen sobs over the dinner – taking to her bed at the news. So far the story is certainly of that familiar kind, a small community where church and family are everything, where many people stay their whole lives, and others flee as soon as they are able.

The second chapter moves forward eleven years. The gay community of New York city, in the early 1990s, where many young men have already had to watch their friends and lovers die of the AIDS epidemic. Dan (who never did become a priest) is drawn, almost despite himself, into this world. A world of casual sex, fear of dying, hospital rooms a world where you take pleasure where you can, and try not to look too far ahead. Dan is engaged to his teenage sweetheart, not that, that stops him spending more and more time with Billy and his friends while she is away. I found this section of the novel to be utterly brilliant, Enright captures the atmosphere of this community beautifully, the portraits of these young men almost unbearably poignant.

“Billy knew that, even if he did not love Greg, even if he had other guys, and other plans for the long term, he would still do this thing. He would help Greg in his last months, or years. And he might resent it but he would not regret it: because this was the thing that was given him to do.”

Later in the novel we meet Dan again, years later, in Toronto – living with another man, unsure whether he wants to commit, finally to one person.
We then catch up with Emmett, working for a charity in Segou, Mali, living with fellow aid worker, and his current girlfriend Alice. A stray dog unexpectedly puts their relationship under pressure. When we next meet Emmett a few years later, he is living in Dublin, sometimes remembers Alice and when contemplating the coming Christmas feels he can’t ask his lonely housemate to join his family for the season, thinking…

“I am sorry. I can not invite you home for Christmas because I am Irish and my family is mad”

westclareMeanwhile Constance stayed close to home, married, had three children. Overweight and with some health problems, she’s the one who sees Rosaleen the most, sometimes irritated by her, sometimes irritating her. Her husband is a builder and property developer, and now Constance can enjoy driving around in a very nice car.

The youngest sibling, Hanna – as the stories of the Madigan family bring us up to the present – is the one who seems to be most troubled. A new mother, trapped in what seems to be a dysfunctional relationship, she has turned to drink.

Rosaleen; difficult combative and wonderfully drawn by Enright, looks back on her life as a wife and mother, a time when life was busy and she was fulfilled, but now in the long dark evenings of an Irish winter she can’t tell what time it is. The family come together again, and in the midst of a family Christmas there is an unexpected moment of crisis. Enright is brilliant in recreating the politics of family; the misunderstandings, things unsaid, the peculiarly unique relationship that exists between siblings.

I have seen a real mixed bag of reviews of The Green Road, many glowing some rather lukewarm. I absolutely loved it, and I will be reading more Enright, who I have so far, rather shockingly neglected.

anneenright

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