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I began 2020 with a lovely Persephone book – starting the year with a very me kind of book seemed a good beginning to my reading year. Milton Place is novel about a very English house, and a very English family, during a period of time when such families and their way of life were changing.

“The great house hung like a vast garment many times too big for the shrunken stature of its diminished inhabitants…”

 Large houses were falling out of fashion after the two world wars and hideously expensive to run. Many such places were being acquired by institutions or county councils, transformed from exclusive family homes into municipal buildings. All of that is very much in the background of this novel – the novel itself is much more about the relationships between the people who live in Milton Place, or come regularly to visit.

Milton Place is the second novel by Elisabeth de Waal that Persephone have published, a novel which failed to find a publisher when it was written, and it is published for the very first time by Persephone. Written around the 1950s/60s the setting is clearly a few years after the second world war – I assumed the very early 1950s.

Mr Barlow is the owner of Milton Place, an elderly widower with two middle aged daughters, who pay him occasional visits, and disapprove of him hanging on to the old family home. After the war – during which the house was given over to the military – Mr Barlow stubbornly returned to Milton Place the large country home he loves. Here he lives with a couple of old retainers, his eighteen year old grandson Tony visits during his holidays from school, as his relationship with his parents is complex and quite toxic. Mr Barlow’s existence is a quite lonely one, though he perhaps hadn’t realised that.

As the novel opens, Mr Barlow receives a letter from the daughter of an old friend. Anita Seiler is the now middle aged daughter of a woman Mr Barlow fell in love with as a young man in Vienna many years earlier. The two were unable to marry, and Mr Barlow had carried the memory of his lost love ever since. He is delighted to hear from her daughter, the letter bringing back memories of his young love. Anita is Austrian, a widow, with an adult daughter, now she is looking to move to England and asks Mr Barlow to help her find some kind of work as a housekeeper or similar. Mr Barlow invites Anita to Milton Place – with little real idea of helping her find work, he thinks perhaps his daughter might help with that.

Anita arrives and quickly sets about breathing new life into Milton Place. She appears to be just what the old place, and Mr Barlow need, her very presence is a tonic. She and Mr Barlow become great friends – though they never quite leave the formalities of calling one another Mr or Mrs behind – taking long walks together, delighting in the gardens, talking about everything.

“…walking was living with a place and making friends with it, it needed time and patience and the measured rhythm of your own pace to put you in touch with the things that are near, while the distant prospects shift very slowly and you take them in from imperceptibly changing angles.”

Anita delights in the work she finds herself to do at Milton Place, bringing the rooms back to life, polishing silver, caring for Mr Barlow’s beautiful home with cheerfulness and energy. Mr Barlow is in no hurry for Anita to leave, and Anita is happy, the house and Mr Barlow’s friendship doing much to heal the terrible scars that she is carrying from the war. Her story is a heart-breaking one. Then soon after Anita’s arrival Tony, arrives for his summer visit, school has ended and national service beckons, which the young man can’t help but dread. With Tony’s arrival, relationships at Milton Place change in some surprising ways. As the novel progresses, we learn more about the people who inhabit Milton Place, and those who merely sweep in from time to time and upset the equilibrium.

“One cannot do arithmetics with pain – neither add nor multiply nor divide it. It is always one and indivisible, and everyone carries the whole of it.”

Mr Barlow’s daughters are both quite horrible – though in rather different ways. Emily married well, is constantly busy with good works, charities and local committees, she is constantly scheming to sell Milton Place – and move her father somewhere more sensible. She drops by once a week, seeing it as a duty that she does so. She is unsettled and irritated by Anita’s presence – fearing she might have an agenda of her own. Cecilia meanwhile is a very unhappy woman, though no more likeable for that. Married to provincial doctor with a social conscience and a chip on his shoulder, she is a depressed and bullied woman. Her son Tony, goes to a private boarding school, paid for by her father, Tony’s father is so resentful of this fact, that it has destroyed their marriage and the relationship that Tony has with both his parents. He is aware his mother is bullied and unhappy but is incapable of much sympathy.

The survival or demise of the English country house is a recurring theme in several Persephone novels, and Milton Place fits perfectly into that group. Like de Waal’s novel The Exiles Return, it also concerns itself with the aftermath of war, those scars that people carry with them. Elisabeth de Waal writes lyrically and gloriously about the English garden at Milton Place, the flowers and the pleasure they give those who love them. It’s really quite ridiculous that Elisabeth de Waal was unable to find a publisher for this wonderful novel, so glad Persephone brought it back.

Aiding and Abetting was my final read of 2019, it was a strange, quirky little tale from Muriel Spark. Her inventiveness and altered view of the world are never dull. Spark’s satire is never in short supply in this novel, in which she takes one of Britain’s most notorious murder cases as her inspiration.

“Lucky Lucan believed in destiny. By virtue of destiny he was an earl. His wife had been destined to die, according to his mad calculation. It was the madness of a gambler.”

In 1974, Lord Lucan allegedly murdered his children’s nanny – in mistaken identity for his wife, attacked his wife – and then disappeared into the night. It has since been generally assumed that the 7th Earl of Lucan died by his own hand that same night, though his body was never found. However, there were many who thought he had manged to escape, for decades there were rumoured sightings of him all over the world. Some people always believed that he had been helped by his network of wealthy friends who had provided him with money and opportunities to pass through international borders. These people, his aiders and abetters. The case has fascinated for decades, and Muriel Spark’s unusual take on it, is wickedly subversive.

“‘I have come to consult you,’ he said, ‘because I have no peace of mind. Twenty-five years ago I sold my soul to the Devil.’”

When, more than twenty years after the case hit the headlines, a man walks into psychiatrist Hildegard Wolf’s Parisian office claiming to be Lord Lucan she has one particular reason for doubt. For, Dr Wolf already has another patient claiming to be the missing aristocratic murder suspect, and they clearly can’t both be telling the truth. Perhaps neither of them is. Both men bear a passing resemblance to the missing Earl bearing in mind the passage of time, each of them able to spin a fairly credible tale.

Dr Wolf is something of a strange character herself, for a start her method of therapy is quite unorthodox, she mainly talks about herself. She is also hiding a secret from her past, a secret one of her Lucan claimants knows all about. It is made clear that if she doesn’t keep the Lucan secret, then her secret will also be revealed.

Dr Wolf is not the only one trying to discover the true Lord Lucan. One of Lucan’s old friends, and the daughter of another acquaintance (who wants to write a book) team up in a bid to finally unravel the mystery.

“People who want to write books do so because they feel it to be the easiest thing they can do. They can read and write, they can afford any of the instruments of book writing such as pens, paper, computers, tape recorders, and generally by the time they have reached this decision, they have had a simple education.”

One of the things I really liked about this novel is that Muriel Spark reminds us that at the heart of the mystery is a young woman who was brutally murdered. So often Sandra Rivett is almost an add on to the mystery. If Lucan really did have people helping him escape justice – and despite Lucan being declared dead in 1999 we may never really know this – they did so in the knowledge that he had done a terrible thing. To those aiders and abetters, she really was unimportant.

There is a great little twist at the end of the novel – would you expect anything less? – as Spark explores the nature of the Lucan myth in her own inimitable fashion.

Anyone familiar with Muriel Spark will know she never shied away from difficult or even distasteful themes, and with this novel she certainly treads a fine line between the satirical and the downright unpleasant. She is I think just clever enough to stay on the right side of that line, though some may think the subject matter inappropriate to be satirised in this way. However, what Spark does do well is to remind us that a young woman died horribly, and if Lucan survived that terrible night – he must have had help and plenty of it.

A personal note: I am struggling with the blog at the moment, I haven’t been well for weeks, and despite being off work and able to blog whenever I want to – I find I don’t often want to. Posts have been a bit lacklustre I suspect lately – reflecting my mood, so thank you for sticking with me while I get back to normal.

I am a little behind in my reviewing as I have mentioned before – in fact I realise that I started reading The Paying Guests on Christmas Eve. That feels longer ago now that it actually is – but not so long that I can’t remember what a compelling immersive novel it was. This was only the third Sarah Waters book I’ve read – and if nothing else she is a fabulous storyteller – though her writing and characterisation are equally as good too. Despite being very nearly 600 pages, I found myself flying through The Paying Guests.

It is 1922, everywhere are echoes of the war that so blighted Europe, young men jobless and full of grievance lurk on street corners and in families like the Wrays there is a gaping hole. Frances Wray and her mother live in a large house in Camberwell. Once the house would have been cared for by servants, now Frances does all the cooking and housework, while her mother continues to live as genteelly as she can. Frances’ father is dead, and both her brothers were killed in the war. Financially things have got harder, and the two women are forced to reorganise the house – freeing up three rooms on the first floor to let out to paying guests. Having strangers in the house is a difficult thing to reconcile themselves to – Frances’ mother finds it particularly hard. The large silent house is silent no longer and Frances and her mother have to get used to new sounds and unfamiliar presences. However, they can have no idea how devasting and far reaching these new disturbances will become.

The couple who move in are rather different to Frances and her mother, Lillian and Leonard Barber, a modern, young couple of what is known as the ‘clerk class.’ Leonard is a friendly, chatty young man full of confidence for his future. Lillian is a fashionable young woman, a little enigmatic and I didn’t feel I got to know her as well as Frances – in fact as things progress Lillian becomes rather needy and unlikeable. Frances is clearly drawn to something in Lillian early on – which for a time she has to hide.

“There came the splash of water and the rub of heels as Mrs Barber stepped into the tub. After that there was a silence, broken only by the occasional echoey plink of drips from the tap…

‘Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms – as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, was what it really meant to have paying guests: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door. An image sprang into her head: that round flesh, crimsoning in the heat.”

Frances and Lillian become lovers, finding time to be together when Mrs Wray and Leonard are out of the house. Frances gets drawn further into Lillian’s life – meeting her mother and sisters, attending a party at Lillian’s mother’s house. However, things are destined to become shockingly dramatic, and Frances finds herself in the middle of a terryifying criminal investigation, when an act of violence results in a death. It is at this point the novel really gets going and becomes increasingly hard to put down. Waters also recreates the tension that comes with a high profile court case which attracts crowds of people to queue for a place in the public gallery.

I can’t say very much more about the plot of this novel for obvious reasons, so I am keeping this review deliberately short.

“With the world in the state it is, it’s such a small, small thing. But I think the sad fact is that I’m about as happy in my life as you are in yours. I do my best for my mother—or, I tell myself that I do. Sometimes I seem to do nothing but scold her; we cross each other like a pair of scissors. She isn’t happy, either. How could she be? I think she’s simply marking time. Well, perhaps we all are.”

Another thing Sarah Waters does do particularly well is to recreate the atmosphere of the house, a house unused to drama and having policemen call. Frances’ mother is a proper lady, the world has become such a different place already – and now her home is the focus of the kind of attention she never dreamed of. The terror of being mixed up in potentially life changing events are well explored – the fear, that keeps you awake at night, the guilt that comes with lying and the impact it has on people unused to deceit.  The Paying Guests was a great, holiday read, perfect for days when you’re able to just read almost  whenever you want.

Several weeks ago, I read I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam, a novel I loved from page one and which ended up on my books of the year list. While reading that novel I idly went in search of others – as we book addicts do, and while several were unobtainable or absurdly priced, I found a cheap copy of So Sweet a Changeling on ebay. I knew nothing about the novel – but decided it was worth giving it a try.  

So Sweet a Changeling is a later novel than I’m Not Complaining, the word changeling in the title dating it rather I thought. It’s a novel that is a little more emotionally dramatic than I’m Not Complaining. Adam’s interest in social issues is definitely still in evidence here as she considers the plight of those who long for children and haven’t been able to have them, and those who carelessly produce them and struggle to do right by them.

The novel opens in a nursing home, where Alma Morris has lost her child and is forced to recover in a room adorned with pretty baby pictures on the walls. Meanwhile a few rooms away Cherry awaits the birth of her first child. She is young, unmarried, a nurse herself her friendship with one of the members of staff secured her a place in the home. Cherry always has her nose in a glamour magazine, she seems more interested in her appearance and her boyfriend than in her child that will arrive any moment. In fact, her child has been promised to a wealthy local woman Mrs Cave; whose longing for a child has reached the point of obsession. The unorthodox adoption has been organised by the matron at the home and is strictly against the rules – but Cherry is rather enjoying the attention and the power the final decision gives her.

Cherry gives birth to a daughter – and with relations with Mrs Cave having broken down she recklessly thrusts her daughter into Alma’s arms as she leaves the hospital, asking her to care for her until she is set up properly in London. Alma’s husband Bernard is the cautious type who likes things done officially, yet he can’t bear to say no to Alma and the couple take the baby home – for how long they don’t know.

“There opened a period of such golden happiness that Alma almost wished some little thing would go wrong, just to give her a breathing-space and let her get her feet back on solid earth for a moment. She sometimes thought she was obeying a mysterious law of compensation. When her own baby had drawn its first and final breath, and made a lifetime of a few minutes by the clock, she had embarked on such a period of sorrow as she had never known before. She had perceived, as she endured its unbelievable pain, that her previous life had run in lukewarm and pleasant channels.”

Thus, begins a period of about eighteen months of emotional turmoil for the Morrises, which sees them part with the baby they call Vicky once – only to have her back when Cherry can’t cope.

While Ruth Adam also examines the plight of the young, working mother in this novel, the difficulties faced by mothers like Cherry – Cherry herself is portrayed as being an unsuitable parent. Certainly, although Cherry is sometimes silly and selfish, she cares for her daughter enough to want the best for her. I wondered if there isn’t a degree of 1950s moralising here. Living with her boyfriend who can’t marry her until he has completed his medical training, Cherry takes a job at a clinic.  Childcare is the biggest issue – there isn’t a lot of money and she has to rely on her landlady whose patience with the situation soon begins to wane. Cherry working all day, coming home foot sore and exhausted to a demanding baby struggles to cope – some evenings her boyfriend wants them to go out. It isn’t long before she is asking Alma to take Julia (as she calls the baby) back again.

“The idea of anything happening to Julia gave her a fearful pang. But on second thoughts, when she pictured her life without Julia in it, she had a rush of nostalgia for the freedom she used to have before Julia claimed her as a slave – a slave with no rightful hours of freedom.”

Bernard wants everything official; Alma just wants Vicky with them. Months pass – sometimes Cherry phones out of the blue – asking to visit – the household is on the knife edge of Cherry’s whims. Official wheels are put in motion, but things take time, and anything can happen before a judge has made a ruling. Meanwhile Mrs Cave appears again, still smarting over her disappointment, clearly unwell – and prepared to do what she can to get her own way. Cherry holds all the cards and is easily persuadable.

Soon Alma and Bernard find themselves on the run with Vicky, hiding from police and press – desperate to keep hold of the little girl who has come to mean so much to them.

So Sweet a Changeling is a real emotional page turner – that I enjoyed a lot. It isn’t quite in the same league as I’m Not Complaining, but it’s well worth reading.

The Sum of Things is the third book in Olivia Manning’s Levant trilogy – therefore it is the sixth and final volume in the epic Fortunes of War series. I have read most of the series on my kindle as I find it easier to handle than the large unwieldy omnibus volumes that seem more available these days than the original single volumes.

I couldn’t help but think what a labour of love these books must have been for Olivia Manning to write. Based on some of the experiences of Olivia Manning and her husband during the Second World War. The first volume of The Balkan Trilogy; The Great Fortune was first published in 1960, this final volume published twenty years later. In Harriet and Guy Pringle – the characters at the heart of this series – we can’t help but see a young Olivia Manning, and her husband to whom she was married for many years.

“In an imperfect world, marriage was a matter of making do with what one had chosen. As this thought came into her head, she pressed Guy’s knee and he patted her hand again.”

It is always difficult to review a book that is part of a series – there is a danger of spoilers when talking about the previous books, and I do try my best not to include spoilers, however there will be slight spoilers for book five below.

This novel opens where the last novel left off. We have followed Guy and Harriet Pringle throughout their marriage and the war from their days in Romania to Greece and on to Egypt. It is still only 1942, the Pringles both still in their twenties – yet so much has happened. We have watched as Guy Pringle – a lecturer for an educational organisation, throws himself into one enthusiasm after another. Popular and busy, Guy and his activities have left Harriet by herself on numerous occasions, she has frequently felt lonely and frustrated by Guy’s distractions.

At the end of the last book; The Battle Lost and Won, Harriet exhausted and ill from the unrelenting heat, has reluctantly caved into Guy’s badgering and accepted a berth on board a ship headed for England. However, what we know, but Guy and his Cairo friends and acquaintances don’t know is that at the last moment Harriet doesn’t board the ship – but decided to go off by herself to Damascus.

As The Sum of Things opens, Simon Boulderstone a young officer who was befriended by Harriet and Guy Pringle after his brother’s death wakes up in a military hospital with a potentially devastating injury. We last saw Simon engaged in operations out in the desert, having faced dangerous combat situations, a bomb blast and the devastating loss of his older brother, Simon is initially elated to find himself alive. On a ward nicknamed, rather darkly ‘plegics’, Simon is made quite comfortable, and looks forward to re-joining his unit. It is a while before he is able to face up to the real nature of his injury and what it might mean.

“The wonder of his escape kept him, during those first days, in a state of euphoria. He wanted to talk to people, not to be shut away at the end of the ward. He asked for the curtains to be opened and when he looked down the long hutment, its walls bare in the harsh Egyptian sunlight, he was surprised to see men in wheel-chairs propelling themselves up and down the aisle. He pitied them, but for himself – he’d simply suffered a blow in the back.”

Simon is visited by Edwina, one of the residents of Dobson’s embassy flat where Guy and Harriet Pringle live too. Edwina was Simon’s brother’s girlfriend – though she is ambitious in her conquests, used to the approval of men, and getting what she wants. Simon is delighted with her visits and starts to imagine she could be a part of his future. Edwina however has other ideas, especially when she hears how bad his injury could be. Edwina enlists Guy’s help – and Guy becomes a frequent visitor – helping Simon on his long road to recovery and distracting himself from his own sadness.

Harriet meanwhile is in Damascus – where she tries hard to survive by herself – meeting colourful characters along the way, even taking on some secretarial work to try and boost her diminishing funds.

“She had left Egypt and was in another country. In Egypt the sun shone every day in a cloudless sky. Here the sky was blotted over with patches of cloud and the wind had an unfamiliar smell, the smell of rain. Because of the rain, grass was coming up, a thin shadow of green over the pinkish hills. In Egypt there had been rain only once during her time there: a freak storm that hit Cairo like a portent and turned the roads to rivers. Winter in Egypt was like a fine English summer but here it was really winter, wet and cold. Revived by the freshness of the air, she stood up, stretched her stiff muscles, then jumped down to the road. She had been ill but now she felt well, and free in a new world.”

Unknown to Harriet though, The Queen of Sparta on which she was booked to sail for England was torpedoed and sunk, with only three survivors. The loss of the vessel was widely reported in the newspapers that are taken by the ex-pats in Cairo. So, Guy and everyone else back in Cairo believes with good reason that Harriet is dead.

While Harriet remains in ignorance of the grief her death has unleashed – slowly recovering her health and having her own peculiar adventures – Guy has come to the wandering attention of Edwina.  

This was a great conclusion to both trilogies – and I was inevitably left feeling quite bereft, I shall really miss these characters. Olivia Manning writes so well, her characters are brilliantly drawn and her depiction of people living and working under the most extraordinary conditions is both compelling and realistic. Thankfully I do have a couple more Olivia Manning books tbr – I enjoy her writing so much.

December in review

I nearly didn’t bother with this post and am only really doing it to complete the record of my reading year 2019. I have read a little more than most months, mainly because I have been laid up the whole month. Pain is very soporific though, so I haven’t really read that much more. Anyway, all in all a good reading month.

I began December with Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession, a touching debut novel.  It’s a fairly simple story about friendship, about the ordinary uncelebrated people in the world who are capable of changing everything for someone, in small, quiet ways. Leonard and his best friend Hungry Paul see the world a little differently to many of the people around them, united by their own brand of humour, their love of board games and fascinated by facts. 

Mrs Tim Gets a Job by D E Stevenson from the delightful Dean Street Press is the third in the Mrs Tim series. In this novel we see Hester take up employment in a Scottish hotel while her husband remains in Egypt waiting to be de-mobbed and her children are away at school.

Deep Waters; mysteries on the waves edited by Martin Edwards – is a fabulous collection of golden age short stories. Each story has water somewhere at the heart of it, pieces written by a host of famous golden age names, and several that were new to me.

A review copy from Virago that I was very excited to read was The Street by Ann Petry. The Street concerns a beautiful, bright young woman who wants only to make a good and honest home for herself and her eight year-old son Bub. Lutie Johnson has already had a lot to put up with in her life – and she is determined it will be better for her son. Lutie is an extraordinary character, the novel brilliant and devastating.

Another good novel from Dean Street Press was Peace, Perfect Peace by Josephine Kamm, which perfectly demonstrates the domestic and emotional difficulties that came along after the war ended. What Josephine Kamm does well in this novel is to show us how with the coming of peace not everything in the garden was immediately rosy.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume was a Christmas gift last year, it was definitely time I read it. I thought it was a brilliant novel, though it is a little dark in places. It’s poignant exploration of loneliness and loss and the extraordinary restorative nature of friendship. In this case the friendship is between a man and a dog. Two misfits, cast adrift by the world around them, come together, and find companionship and understanding.

Another Christmas gift from last year was Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban, a new author to me. A quirky tale of two lonely people, told in two voices, the novel is ultimately a touching portrayal of how they re-define their lives. Turtle Diary is a novel about freedom – what it means and how it’s achieved. Told in the alternate diary entries of William G and Neaera H, it is the story of an obsession; the release of sea turtles from the zoo into the English Channel.

I read Christmas mystery The Night of Fear by Moray Dalton on my kindle – such a compelling story I flew through it. Scotland Yard detective Hugh Collier is visiting his friend Sergeant Lane when news comes in of a sudden death in a large country house a couple of days before Christmas. Collier accompanies Sergeant Lane to the house where they find a Christmas house party in some disarray. A game of hide a seek in the dark had been in progress – the guests sporting fancy dress, when one guest; Edgar Stallard had been found dead in an upstairs gallery.

With my kindle all primed and ready to go – I then finally read The Sum of Things by Olivia Manning. The third book in the Levant trilogy, and the sixth book overall in the epic Fortunes of War novels, I found it as unputdownable as the previous five volumes.

Having so loved I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam fairly recently, I found a copy of one of her later novels on ebay. So Sweet a Changeling – one of four books from 2019 I still have to review – portrays the emotional ups and downs and official struggle, a couple have to adopt the little girl they have been caring for.

I received The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters as part of my bookcrossing secret Santa parcel and it looked so good, I decided to read it straightaway. Despite being very nearly 600 pages, I found it a very quick read, although not all the characters are that likeable, I found it readable and compelling.

It seemed ages since I had read a Muriel Spark novel, regular readers will know what a fan I have become. Aiding and Abetting one of her later novels is a wonderfully strange take on the Lord Lucan mystery.

So that was December – and I have made absolutely no plans for my January reading at all. I am going with mood. My book group will be reading and discussing Girl, Woman Other by Bernardine Evaristo, which of course I have already read, and which made it onto my books of the year list. I am going to be catching up with reviews over the next week or so I hope, still struggling to get everything done, but I’ll get there. I have begun the new year reading a Persephone book – well I do have several tbr – I’m about 150 pages into Milton Place by Elisabeth De Waal and finding it very good indeed.

Tell me about what you read in December – I always love to know.

Twelve books for 2019

It’s always difficult to come up with a ‘best of’ list, and this year was as difficult as ever. I haven’t read as many books this year as in previous years. Finishing on 108 I’m eleven behind this time last year – and more than twenty behind where I would have been a few years ago. Still, the quality of books has been fairly high, so choosing a final twelve wasn’t easy. I’m not up to going around the house pulling books off the shelves to photograph, so I’m afraid a book collage of covers will have to suffice.

As always, I have chosen books that fully captivated me, in which I became fully involved and have stayed with me since I finished. So here they are, in reverse order.

12 A Touch of Mistletoe by Barbara Comyns (1967) – This was a book that took a bit of tracking down. Comyns is such a unique writer, especially in the way she writes about difficult, dysfunctional childhoods. A Touch of Mistletoe is a coming of age novel which follows the changing fortunes of two sisters from their teenage years to middle age. They grow up in a household similar to those other Comyns households. We follow them through various relationships, jobs and homes – a novel told in Comyns unique voice, which is always thoroughly engaging.

11 The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier (1969) – One of three books I read for #DDMreadingweek in May, The House on the Strand is so compelling, I simply gulped it down, and was sorry when there was no more. Dick Young has been loaned an old house in Cornwall for the summer. Kilmarth belongs to Dick’s friend Professor Magnus Lane. The Professor let’s Dick into a secret – he has been experimenting with a new drug, a drug that will take the user a world away from any problems they may have. Magnus offers Dick the chance to be his guinea-pig – the drug is stored in three bottles in Magnus’s basement laboratory at Kilmarth – Magnus gives Dick his instructions over the phone – and Dick takes his first dose. The drug will take Dick back to the fourteenth century – to the world of Roger Kylmerth steward to Sir Henry Champernoune.

10 Milkman by Anna Burns (2018) A booker prize winning novel that I read with my book group right at the start of the year. It is a quite extraordinary book, a beautiful, complex novel with a strong sense of place in its portrayal of a community under immense pressure. In an unnamed city Middle Sister likes to read nineteenth century classics while walking, she is eighteen, and all her mother can talk about is her getting married. Middle Sister is hiding two secrets, her burgeoning relationship with Maybe-boyfriend from another area, and her recent encounter with Milkman. Milkman is older, married and a known paramilitary leader. There are eyes everywhere, and soon her brother-in-law and other local people spot Middle-Sister in the unwanted company of Milkman, and gossip is rife.

9 A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore (1996) A beautiful, haunting novel I was blown away by Dunmore’s writing. The novel opens in the early twentieth century, some years before the First World War. Narrated by Catherine, the youngest of two siblings. Young siblings Rob and Catherine don’t understand why they have been abandoned by their parents while they are living in their grandfather’s house. Their grandfather; the man from nowhere – is a remote, closed off figure – who won’t have the children’s mother so much as mentioned. All they know is that she left.

8 The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill (1924) First published in 1924 The Call is a novel of women’s suffrage – among other things. It is also about the struggle for a young woman to be taken seriously within the scientific field. The author’s stepmother was the physicist Hertha Ayrton, and many of the struggles described in this novel were endured by Ayrton. The Call is a brilliantly compelling feminist novel thoroughly involving and an enormously important testament of the struggle for women’s suffrage and for a woman to be taken seriously in the world of science.

7 I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam (1938) A novel I read quite recently, I’m not Complaining is a novel set in a working class area of Nottinghamshire during the depression, portraying the lives of women who work in a primary school. Our narrator; Madge Brigson is a Nottinghamshire primary school teacher in the 1930s, a neighbourhood dominated by large factories and increasingly plagued by high levels of unemployment.

6 Two Days in Aragon by Molly Keane (1941) Molly Keane has featured on my best of lists before. I often think she is very underrated as a writer. Two Days in Aragon is set in the rural Ireland that Molly Keane is known for portraying so beautifully. It is the 1920s, and the Anglo Irish aristocratic Fox family live at Aragon. A Georgian house standing among rhododendrons and azaleas which bears testament to centuries of gracious living. As ever, Keane’s depiction of the landscape she clearly loved is gorgeous, but this novel could also be seen as a memorial for a way of life that was coming to an end. With this, there is also a recognition for the political tensions and deadly allegiances that were gathering against the Anglo Irish landed gentry in Ireland. Beautifully written, and hugely compelling this is Molly Keane at her best.

5 The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West (1935) A collection of four brilliant short novels (or long short stories) set in Europe and the US. These stories straddle the period dominated by the Wall Street crash of 1929. Rebecca West had travelled to America several times, and in these four brilliant pieces – three of which are set in the US – she perfectly recreates an American voice. Through these stories we see something of the America that Rebecca West experienced during the 1920s.

4 Mary O’Grady by Mary Lavin (1950) The story of a woman from soon after her marriage when she moves from the country to Dublin to her old age. The novel opens in around 1900, Mary, a young woman from the country has not long married her Tom, who she met on her one visit to Dublin. She married him shortly after and moved to Dublin, carrying with her the memory of her beloved Tullamore – where she hopes one day to take her sons and daughters. Tom works on the trams, and Mary loves to walk down to the tram sheds to take Tom some hot food every dinner time, walking home past an expanse of vacant ground, covered in long grass – that reminds her of home. Tom and Mary adore one another, but it isn’t long before they have little ones to share their little house. Five children are born; Patrick, Ellie, Angie, Larry and Rosie. Mary is a good, sensible mother. Gradually, Mary’s memories of her country childhood fade – as her life revolves more and more around her own family – providing a warm and stable home for her children.

3 Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (2018) Warlight captivated me from the first page – and never let me go. It’s a gloriously literary novel – but one full of intrigue and captivating characters, exploring tenderly the question of memory. 1945 the war has ended, and the London landscape is changed almost beyond recognition. In Putney fifteen year old Nathanial and his sister Rachel have been abandoned by their parents and left in the family home in the care of a couple of strange guardians. Initially the bemused siblings rather assume their guardians are criminals of some sort – though in time, they worry about this far less than one might imagine.

2 Girl, Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019) The joint winner of this year’s Booker Prize. This is a fabulous novel for the times we are living in. A novel of modern Britain and some of the women who make it – their voices ring out clear and strong from every page. Twelve wonderful humans, mainly women, mainly black, scattered across the UK in town and country, who call this nation home.  The author weaves their stories together in a way that produces a glorious feeling of connectedness, some characters are connected slightly – other connections are more significant. Through these characters, we see everything we are as a country and all that we have been.

1 National Provincial by Lettice Cooper (1938) Ever since I first read South Riding by Winifred Holtby I had been searching for another novel with similar themes. National Provincial ticked all the boxes I wanted it to. A novel of Northern politics, social class and subtle feminism, I loved it. It definitely embraces many of the themes explored two years before by Winifred Holtby and also by Elizabeth Gaskell almost a century earlier. There is a large cast of characters and several story strands – I could probably write far, far too much about them all. Probably the fattest book I read this year – it is hugely immersive providing a fantastic portrait of England in the 1930s.

And that’s it. Lots of Virago and Persephone as ever – well I like what I like. Just time to wish you all a very happy New Year.