May in review

Today is the last day of May. May and June are my favourite months of the year, the light is just so good, it doesn’t get too hot usually in the UK, more flowers start appearing, the countryside is so green, and it’s my birthday in May. 

It was Daphne du Maurier reading week earlier this month and I want to say another thank you to those of you who joined in, and to Liz who helped by putting together a page of review links on her blog. It was a more reduced celebration this year from me – everything has become more reduced it would seem, but at least it went ahead. 

It’s been a very slow reading month for me, for all the usual reasons – I had hoped to finish my current read today but I didn’t get much read yesterday, after being out all day, so that book will have to go into the June pile.  Just seven books read this month, one of them hidden away on my kindle. 

Having read my first DDM book of the year the previous month, I started May reading Myself When Young:The Shaping of a writer (1977) by Daphne du Maurier In this memoir Daphne du Maurier wrote about the first twenty-five years of her life, when she herself was nearing seventy, using the diaries she had kept between 1920 and 1932. Reliving her childhood, adolescence and early twenties the memoir ends around the time she marries. 

My re-reading of Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier was an absolute joy from start to finish. I was left with a huge book hangover, and no wish to write a blog post about it, as that would somehow have spoiled it. It was my third reading of Rebecca and I was surprised at how much I had forgotten – I can’t really say which bits they were. I think my enjoyment of this novel was in part responsible for how slowly I read my next book. 

A collection of short stories Winter in the Air (1955)  by Sylvia Townsend Warner seemed like a good choice, given the aforementioned book hangover. Sylvia Townsend Warner is a writer I really enjoy, her short stories are always good and so I wasn’t disappointed. In these stories we meet abandoned wives, a young girl eloping, a murderer, we witness a schoolboy’s encounter in a railway carriage and a woman return to a village decades after she left. They were just what I needed.

One of the longlisted novels from this year’s Women’s Prize list had already caught my eye before the list was announced. The Bandit Queens (2023) by Parini Shroff was also selected by my book group as our June title. I absolutely loved it. I read it quite quickly on Kindle – which I always seem to read faster on anyway, and I am really looking forward to that book group discussion now. 

Siblings (1963) by Brigitte Reimann translated from German by Lucy Jones was fascinating. Set in East Germany in 1960, the border between the east and west has closed (the wall went up a year later). For Elisabeth the GDR is a chance for East Germany to create a new socialist, fairer future for all. For her brother however it is all about oppression and strictures he can’t tolerate. It made me wonder about how I might have responded had I been angry, in my early twenties and East German in 1960, I suspect I might have been easily persuaded. I find that slightly uncomfortable now. 

Having so enjoyed The Decagon House Murders in April, I couldn’t leave it too long before reading The Mill House Murders (1988) by Yukito Ayatsuji translated from Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong. I found this every bit as enjoyable as the first in the series, although I was able to work out a lot of the mystery myself – which always makes me feel a bit like Poirot. 

Cork Street, Next to the Hatters (1965) by Pamela Hansford Johnson is the third in her Dorothy Merlin trilogy. A don attends a play with Dorothy’s bookseller husband, after which he decides to write a play so disgusting and obscene no one will put it on anywhere – he wants to make a point. Of course, he’s rather naive as to what the theatrical world will stand. It’s a brilliant satire. I won’t be writing a review of it though, as I realise its appeal is probably limited. However for those who like PHJ in particular and writers like her in general I recommend you seek this trilogy out. The premise of this one, probably doesn’t sound very enthralling and yet it’s a hoot – and I read it pretty quickly and was rather sorry there wasn’t more. 

So that was my May – how was yours?

As for June, I really don’t have any plans at all and I don’t know of any reading challenges – other than 20 books of summer which I don’t do, as I can’t stick to a list, I’m far too fickle.  So the world of my tbr is my oyster – I do have a vague plan to get some of my unread Persephones read soon. As I have already read my June book group choice, I could read our July choice which is Tresspasses by Louise Kennnedy, a novel I have been meaning to read for months and not quite getting to. Other than that, only time and my mood will tell. 

So, what plans do you all have for June? Have I missed any challenges?

Longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize The Bandit Queens was on my radar to read from when I first heard about it. I was delighted therefore when my book group selected it as our June book. I was looking forward to it, so I read it a few weeks earlier than I needed to. I wasn’t disappointed. 

What I was impressed with particularly is how Parini Shroff balances a thoroughly entertaining novel with a clear sighted view of the realities of rural Indian life in general but for women in particular. The narrative zips along, is funny and enormously compelling, yet beneath the surface is a much darker reality. This reality is woven in with a fairly light touch, so nothing is too brutal or upsetting. She doesn’t shy away from showing a world in which young girls and women go to the latrines early in the morning or late in the evening to lessen the risk of getting raped. A world where male violence is almost accepted as part of life, where a double standard of male and female behaviour exists and always has, and where the old caste rules around Dalit people still apply, and dowaries fought over and argued about for years. 

Geeta lives in a rural village in India, five years earlier her husband Ramesh ran off, she has no idea where he is  – but the village gossip has it that she killed him. Now Geeta is seen as a wicked woman, a sort of witch-like figure, people frighten their children with tales of, and the other women are acquaintances rather than friends. One woman in particular hates Geeta – Saloni, who we soon learn used to be Geeta’s best friend. The two had grown up together, gone to school together, Geeta’s family had often fed the young Saloni whose family were very poor. 

“Why aren’t we ever the oppressing assholes? Why is everything a reaction for us?” “Because,” Saloni said. “Women were built to endure the rules men make.” “But don’t we get to make choices, too?”

Having been almost like sisters for years the two fell out spectacularly around the time Geeta married Ramesh – and things have been daggers drawn ever since. Geeta and Saloni are both part of a women’s loan group with several other village women. The loans help Geeta run her jewellery business – everyone buys from her, not wanting to upset a murderer and witch – rumour can sometimes be useful – though she has no idea where her reputation will lead her.

Geeta is inspired in life by the real life bandit queen, Phoolan Devi, a woman who took revenge on her male abusers before becoming a women’s activist and member of Parliament. Yet when Farah, one of just two muslim’s living in the village, comes to Geeta asking her to help her, do to her husband what Geeta did to Ramesh she is definitely not prepared. Farah has ways of getting what she wants and Geeta is soon embroiled in a plan she has no wish to be involved in. Where Farah starts, others follow – she isn’t the only woman who decides they would rather be a widow. 

Geeta’s exploits allow her to get to know Karem, the other muslim in the village, seller of alcohol, a widower with four children.  Sometimes it is surprising where we find friendship – and even possible romance. Karem is a lovely man, kind and intelligent and Geeta enjoys talking to him. 

“Yeah, sure, parental love is primitive, but the love that commits to the sacrifices, that puts their happiness and needs over mine, that does it daily on repeat—that’s a choice.” He squinted in the way Geeta now knew he did while thinking. Words came faster to him when he closed his eyes. “It’s a choice I make. It’s important, for me at least, to recognize that, because when you don’t, resentment creeps in.”

One of Geeta’s biggest problems is that she didn’t actually kill Ramesh, but everyone thinks she did. If the authorities start to look at the recent deaths in her village, then she really needs to be able to prove that he is alive. A thaw between Geeta and Saloni begins and Geeta is reminded of their old friendship – Saloni is one person who she can trust no matter how matters stand with them personally. One of the strongest themes in this novel is that of female solidarity, standing shoulder to shoulder with other women for the good of women. 

This was a perfect read for my book group – I can’t wait to discuss it with them. There are so many things for us to get our teeth into especially given its strong feminist narrative.

It’s been nearly a week since the end of Daphne du Mauier reading week – and I haven’t thanked those of you who joined in, commented on blog posts, etc for your support. It is really appreciated – thank you all. It’s so great to be able to share an enthusiasm with others and to celebrate an author who is loved by many. I definitely discovered I don’t love all her books – after reading I’ll Never Be Young Again (1932) but that’s ok – I suspect I will never read Julius (1933) – after seeing several negative reviews. On the other hand I enjoyed the memoir I read, and absolutely loved my reread of Rebecca (1938) – astounding myself at how much I had forgotten, despite having read it twice before. I was sorry to finish it, and it gave me a massive book hangover, which I rarely  get. 

As many of you will know I have been struggling for the last year to blog in the way that I used to, I am now glad if I manage one post a week – I often don’t manage even that. I excelled myself therefore, with three posts last week. I may have broken myself with the effort though as I have barely been online since. I am gradually catching up with other people’s blogs, getting a few read every day. I’m sorry I can’t manage to comment on all of them. I get very frustrated with myself – I feel my blog probably gets less engagement than it used to, and that’s entirely due to my lack of enthusiasm and erratic posting. All the more annoying as I have blogged for so long – but I had someone check under the sofa for me, and my mojo is still very much MIA. A couple of busier than average weeks have taken their toll – PIP assessment, birthday celebrations and visitors, a hospital appointment –  doesn’t take much to do me in, it seems. 

After finishing Rebecca and nursing that book hangover, I decided on a collection of short stories Winter in the Air (1955)  by Sylvia Townsend Warner – it was a very slow reading week too as it happens so short stories were perfect. I think there were only one or two stories I had read before in other collections so that was a bonus – and she is such a good writer, I can recommend all her novels and stories. In this collection we meet abandoned wives, a young girl eloping, a murderer, we witness a schoolboy’s encounter in a railway carriage and a woman return to a village decades after she left. It’s a superb collection recently reissued by Faber & Faber. Reading that reminded me that I had read all but one of her novels – The Flint Anchor (1954) is the one I have left to read – I may have bought a copy a couple of years ago, but I can’t remember for sure, so will have to go in search at some point before buying a copy. I know I’m not the only one who forgets what I have. 

For my birthday I got the two latest Persephone releases – Two Cheers for Democracy by E M Forster (essays dating from 1925 to 1951) and One Afternoon (1975) by Sian James – thank you Liz. I have quite a pile of unread Persephones now, so I really should make an effort. I also received book tokens which go into the pile of book tokens I received for a retirement gift from work (former work). They are burning a hole in my pocket as the saying goes – but I need to read a few more first, and I am being a very slow reader this month. Feel free to recommend me titles – particularly vintage books that have been reissued or women in translation. 

I am currently reading my June book group book The Bandit Queens (2023) by Parini Shroff and enjoying it very much, I may even finish it today. Whatever you’re reading, I hope it’s something marvellous. 

I hope you all have a lovely weekend.

The week has really flown by and suddenly there are only a couple of days left of #DDMreadingweek, don’t worry however if you will be posting reviews after the fact – it really doesn’t matter. I still look forward to seeing what you’ve been reading and what you thought. I’m still catching up with other people’s reviews this week anyway. 

The second book I decided to read for DDM week was Myself When Young: The shaping of a writer. It is a memoir Daphne du Maurier wrote about the first twenty-five years of her life, when she herself was nearing seventy, using the diaries she had kept between 1920 and 1932. According to Helen Taylor in her introduction to this edition, DDM wrote the book with some reluctance as part of the commemoration of her seventieth birthday and out of a depression and writers block. At this time she was going through some personal difficulties – worry over two of her children, and a wrangle with Richard Attenborough over how her late husband was to be portrayed in a film he was making. 

This memoir begins with some of DDM’s earliest recollections. I always really enjoy childhood memoirs of the sort of period DDM was writing about – she was born in 1907. Her memories of this time include stories of the family nurse who took care of the children while they were young, the women who came to the house to teach them, her older sister Angela and her younger sister Jeanne. Her parents are portrayed with less affection than I had expected, though as the book progresses we see something of the difficult relationship she had with them. Other relatives like Aunty Billy and Big Granny crop up in stories of various visits and holidays that took place throughout what was a very privileged upbringing. 

“We are all ghosts of yesterday, and the phantom of tomorrow awaits us alike in sunshine or in shadow, dimly perceived at times, never entirely lost.”

Gerald du Maurier, Daphne’s father, was a famous actor-manager in the London theatre – his world was not one that Daphne particularly enjoyed. The portrait of Gerlad here is fairly benign, though  I have read other things in the past that suggest a much more complex, even disturbing relationship may have existed. Apparently her own biography of her father shows him in quite a different, unflattering light. The young DDM grows up absurdly sheltered, knowing nothing of sex for instance until she is around eighteen. There was also a strange relationship the adolescent Daphne had with an older, married cousin ‘nothing happened’ as the saying goes – and yet, there’s something distinctly inappropriate, and one wonders at Gerald’s anxious watching of them that DDM describes, fatherly concern or jealousy? The older Daphne gets, the more we get the sense that she needs to get away from her family, she certainly had more freedom than many young women of that time, yet she craved ever more. 

“I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that freedom is the only thing that matters to me at all. Also utter irresponsibility! Never to have to obey any laws or rules, only certain standards one sets for oneself. I want to revolt, as an individual, against everything that ‘ties.’ If only one could live one’s life unhampered in any way, not getting in knots and twisting up. There must be a free way, without making a muck of it all.” 

She spends a lot of time in Paris, finishing school first, which she enjoys and later spending time with her friend Fernande – her former teacher. She becomes increasingly fed up with London life, she has no time for the theatre and is fairly horrified when persuaded to do a screen test. She is determined to write from a fairly young age, but struggles with the form, trying poetry and short stories. Then she is allowed to spend time alone at the family’s house in Cornwall and her love affair with the county begins. She wishes she could stay there always, she takes up sailing, she has a boat commissioned for her – she carries on writing. Her efforts are continually frustrated – until someone in publishing tells her to forget the short stories and just write a novel – and she is off. Writing her first novel The Loving Spirit in just ten weeks. 

The book ends at a good, happy period of DDM’s life, a published author of two novels and newly married to her husband Tommy. Luckily for us, there was so much more to come too. 

The first book I read for this year’s #DDMreadingweek was I’ll Never Be Young Again, DDM’s second published novel. Daphne du Mauier fan though I am, I’m not above recognising that not everything she wrote was of the same standard. This early novel is certainly not a favourite, and I think inferior even to her first novel The Loving Spirit. There is still plenty to enjoy in this novel however, and the reader can easily spot that early promise that would be so brilliantly realised in novels like Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. 

The narrative is divided into two main sections, the first in which our narrator Dick develops a friendship with an older man, has some adventures and begins to learn something about himself and the world around him. The second section set mainly in Paris deals with the relationship Dick has with a young woman he meets there.

The world of this novel was a contemporary one to that which DDM was living in, her first novel had been set in the previous century. It is also the first of five novels which would have a male narrator – many of her short stories have male narrators too, something she was able to do very successfully. The writing is good of course, full of atmosphere, rich in description.

“The smell of coffee, white dust, tobacco and burnt bread, flowers with a fragrance of wine, and the crimson fruit, soft and overripe. A girl looking over her bare shoulder, with a flash of a smile, gold ear-rings showing from thick black hair brushed away from her face, long arms, a cigarette between her lips. Night like a great dark blanket, voices murmuring at a street corner, the air warm with tired flowers, and a hum from the sea.” 

 DDM knew the places she wrote about, having herself visited the Norwegian fjords, while Paris was somewhere she knew very well. The problem for many readers may be that Dick is not a sympathetic character – and I suspect he isn’t meant to be. I am happy to read about an unlikeable character – but something about Dick really got under my skin, and I seriously wanted to give him a shake. DDM was still only twenty-three when she wrote I’ll Never Be Young Again, and we can see something of her own challenges in the character of Dick, especially in his relationship with his father. 

As the novel opens and we first meet Dick, he is standing looking out across the London docks, miserable and in despair he is determined to throw himself in. Though only twenty-one he feels life has nothing for him. The son of a famous poet, he feels unloved by his father, who thinks he will never make anything of himself. He is saved at the last moment by a passing stranger, who speaks to him, offering friendship. The stranger is Jake, a man several years older than Dick who has recently been released from prison, thus both men are at a turning point in their lives. The two men form an immediate bond, and decide to set out together, signing on to a rickety old ship they work their passage to Norway.  

In company with Jake, Dick becomes accustomed to hard, physical monotonous work, adventure, travel and a host of experiences. He sees places he had never thought to go to, and as he learns more about Jake, he begins to learn something about the world. There are times though when we see Dick as rather selfish, thoughtless and naive – he has much to learn, something Jake understands but Dick himself doesn’t quite see. 

“Jake, I don’t want ever to be old. I want always to get up in the morning and feel there’s something grand lying just ahead of me, round the corner, over a hill. I want always to feel that if I stand still, only for a minute, I’m missing something a few yards away. I don’t want ever to find myself thinking: “What’s the use of going across that street?” That’s the end of everything, Jake, when looking for things doesn’t count any more. When you sit back happily in a chair, content with what you’ve got – that’s being old.’ ‘There’s no need to get that way. It’s your own thoughts that keep you young, Dick. And age hasn’t anything to do with it. It’s a question of your state of mind.”

He makes rather a fool of himself with an American woman, part of a group of young wealthy tourists they meet. Each place they go, each experience they have Dick embraces it eagerly with the enthusiasm of a spoilt child. His time with Jake doesn’t last and in time he finds himself alone in Paris. 

The old obsession comes upon him, to be a great writer – to show his father that he can write, can be just as successful. He finds a place to live, embracing the bohemian culture of Paris. Here he meets Hesta, a young music student. Poor Hesta really doesn’t deserve Dick, but their relationship lasts for around a year – and the reader senses there will be no happy ending for this pair. Dick throws himself into his writing, after persuading Hesta – against everything she believes in – to live with him – he is quick to take her for granted – to lose sight of what she might want from life, forgetting that she too once had ambitions. 

We see Dick return to England, and as we all must, face up to the reality of life and move forwards. All his errors and stupidities behind him, as if they never were. I wondered if perhaps DDM wasn’t making the point that men do that sometimes, sowing their wild oats, having adventures, behaving rather idiotically with no consequences for them afterwards.  I couldn’t quite forgive him though. Overall though a very interesting novel that I am glad to have read.  

It’s finally come around again, the week when we can celebrate the life and work of Daphne du Maurier – whose birthday (along with mine) falls later this week. 

I’m afraid I might be a bit quieter this week than in previous years, I wasn’t sure at all whether I could even commit to hosting this week. My struggles with blogging continue – fatigue is probably the biggest issue, and I haven’t felt great the last few days (typical!) However, here I am giving it a good go. At the end of this post, I will explain how Liz will be helping to gather all the reviews together in one place. 

I have already read two books in preparation, books I hadn’t read before. First was I’ll Never be Young Again – DDM’s second novel first published in 1932. I then read Myself When Young: the Shaping of a Writer (1977) a very readable memoir based upon the diaries that DDM kept between 1920 and 1932. I will do my very best to review these this week – but I will be honest – it may not happen. I am now re-reading Rebecca (1938), my third reading of it – I decided to read it again, just for the sheer pleasure of it. If there was ever a novel designed to make a reader want to curl up with a hot drink and a blanket then this is it. I am loving it all over again, but I don’t think I will feel the need to write about it.

It’s always great seeing what everyone else decides to read – whether it be novels, short stories, biography or nonfiction. DDM was certainly prolific, and has left us with quite a variety to choose from – there’s pretty much something to suit every mood, I would think. I always rather envy those discovering Rebecca or Jamaica Inn for the first time, though there will be other readers like me, who return happily to an old favourite.  

Whatever you’re reading by or about DDM this week, please let me know, you don’t need to be a blogger to join in, a Tweet using the hashtag #DDMreadingweek is just as good, especially when it comes with a photograph of the edition or reading divice you are curled up with. I’m afraid I have rather given up on Instagram – feel free to post things there, of course, I just won’t see them. 

When it comes to gathering all the reviews that come in during #DDMreadingweek, together, I usually have a dedicated page here on my blog, which I edit throughout the week and the days following, as reviews get put up. Finding them can be an issue so using that hashtag on Twitter really helps. However, this year, I can’t manage that as well, so my lovely friend Liz has stepped in to help. She has created a page on her blog where she will gather all the reviews from blogs and perhaps Goodreads as they come in. You can find the page here but to ensure your post doesn’t get missed, you could pop a link to it in the comments section of the page on Liz’s blog yourself. 

Happy DDMreadingweek everyone who is joining in – whether you’re reading along with us, or cheering from the sidelines, hoping to be inspired for next time. 

April in review

Another month in the year is over already, and I haven’t managed to review as much as I had hoped – again! Never mind, I have set aside this afternoon to catching up a little, so I shall be tackling those unread blog posts of everyone I follow later. 

Eight books were read during April – six real books, two kindle reads – I visited Japan twice and read two of my book group’s choices. 

I started the month reading Manifesto (2021) by Bernardine Evaristo, a brilliantly honest memoir on never giving up. In 2019 Bernardine Evaristo became the first black woman to win the Booker Prize, her journey to get there had been a long one, and this is the story of those years. 

The English Air (1940) by D E Stevenson was a delightful read for the 1940 club – a novel which surprised me in some ways (pleasantly). The inclusion of letters between DES and her publisher in this edition, certainly make for interesting reading. The English Air is a novel with a lot going on, and DES balances those different themes perfectly, giving us humour, romance, and tension in wartime Europe. 

My second read for the 1940 club was The Stone of Chastity (1940) by Margery Sharp, unfortunately I didn’t get around to writing about it. It’s a very funny, slightly ridiculous perhaps but a really fun read. When a professor hell bent on some scientific research into an ancient legend, lands in the sleepy village of Gillenham – he has no idea the trouble he is about to unleash. 

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) by Hilary Mantel was my book group’s April read, and it had a mixed reaction from the group. I really enjoyed it.  A novel about expat life in Saudi Arabia, Frances and her husband arrive on Ghazzah Street and must adapt to a very different life. Frances then becomes convinced there is something odd about the empty flat upstairs.  

A Single Rose (2022) by Muriel Barbary translated from the French by Alison Anderson. This was a beautiful little novel – one I had been looking forward to. This is the story of a woman’s journey to get to know her deceased father. Rose is forty, and grew up in France with her mother and grandmother, she never knew her Japanese father. Having received a call from her father’s lawyer, following his death, she travels to Kyoto for the reading of his will. She is greeted by Paul, his assistant – who has an itinerary  put together by her father, which she is persuaded to undertake first. 

I had to get my DDM reading week reading started early, so that I had time to get reviewing later. I chose, I’ll Never be Young Again (1932) by Daphne du Maurier, only her second novel, and one of five that has a male narrator. I shall save my thoughts for next week. 

Love Marriage (2022) by Monica Ali is the novel my book group is reading for May – but it suited me to read it a little early. Most people seem to love this book (I know one person who hated it) and while I didn’t hate it, I certainly didn’t love it – I found it a bit fluffy, some bits unlikely (at best) and several characters are caricatures of a type. All of which irritated me. It will give us plenty to talk about though, and I predict everyone else will love it, because it is very readable and quite the page turner – which is good because I also think it’s a tad too long at something close to 500 pages. 

The Decagon House Murders (1987) by Yukito Ayatsuji translated from the Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong was an impulse buy and a very successful one. I only recently became aware of the sub-genre of novels called Honkaku – I believe they started somewhere in the 1920s and were revived by authors like this one in the 1980s. Pushkin Vertigo have published a few, some of them earlier ones from the 1940s. They are mysteries that pay homage to the golden age of western mystery fiction – they focus on ‘fair-play’ for the reader, so that theoretically the reader can work it out for themselves. There was no way I could do that here. This novel takes Agatha Christie’s And There Were None as its inspiration, it is even referred to by the characters in the novel. A group of students from the K_ university mystery club embark on a week-long trip to a notorious island, where six months earlier four people were murdered. This is the ultimate locked room style mystery – and it is ingenious. I have just ordered the second book by this author that Pushkin has re-issued.

So April was a fairly decent reading month, and I have high hopes for May. Next Monday sees the start of Daphne du Maurier reading week. I started my reading well in advance which I find I need to do as host – but I may re-read Rebecca next week, just for the sheer pleasure of it. I am currently reading my second DDM book, more of that at a later date. It will be a quieter event this year – from me at least. Look out for the welcome post next Monday – in which I will be explaining how Liz will be helping me to collect all the reviews together on her blog. If you’re talking about DDM week on Twitter then please ensure you use the hashtag #DDMreadingweek so that I don’t miss it. The rest of May I will very much suit myself and read whatever takes my fancy. I have already read the May choice for my book group, so there’s nothing that I have to read by a particular time.

There’s been another bit of a hiatus here, I am suddenly really struggling to get anything done on the blog at all. However, I did want to try and tell you about a recent book group read. 

My now totally virtual book group (international members joined during COVID) chose to read Hilary Mantel’s early novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street in April. It was an interesting read – and I also found the reactions of the group interesting when we met to discuss it. Full disclosure – it was my suggestion, I had had the book for ages, languishing on the tbr. Following the death of Hilary Mantel it was suggested by someone in the group that we read something from her back catalogue. So, this was already a book I wanted to read, so I approached it already thinking it was a book I would enjoy. I did, for many reasons.

This is a novel about life in Saudi Arabia – life primarily for an expat – though we are given glimpses of what life might be like for Saudi’s too. The novel centres around Frances Shore, a young woman of around thirty. She and her husband Andrew have been living and working in Africa since they met but now Andrew’s work is bringing them to Saudi Arabia. Frances is an intelligent, capable woman with her own career – a cartographer – however in Saudi Arabia all that will be pushed to one side – she won’t even be able to drive.  

The couple settle down to life in an apartment on the titular Ghazzah Street – a building with numerous gates and locks which must be locked and unlocked on entry and exit for the safety and security of all. Not allowed to work, this flat is pretty much the whole of Frances’s world – she is able to go out shopping occasionally, usually in the company of another expat wife – or visit an expat at their home nearby, but the block of flats becomes Frances’ world. 

Frances soon meets two neighbours from her apartment building. Yasmin and her husband, their young baby and a servant occupy one flat, they are originally from Pakistan. Upstairs, lives Samira and her husband, young child and servant – they are Saudi. The fourth flat is empty. As Frances gets to know her neighbours, particularly Yasmin who she sees more of initially, she also comes to wonder about that fourth flat – as she hears whispers and footsteps coming from there – and a shrouded figure disappearing upstairs. She becomes fixated on a secret that she is sure is connected to that flat. Rumours among the expat community about someone using it as a meeting place for an affair – don’t entirely satisfy her.  As her world narrows, Frances spending time learning about Islam from the Quran, writing her diary, cooking, and speaking to her neighbours, Frances’s sense of unease only grows. 

“Life is not like detective stories. There is a wider scope for interpretation. The answers to all the questions that beset you are not in facts, which are the greatest illusion of all, but in your own heart, in your own habits, in your limitations, in your fear.”

Frances and Andrew spend time with other expats connected to the company Andrew works for, they are a pretty horrible bunch. None of them really want to be where they are – but have become trapped by the lure of good money, which for those with children back at home in boarding school becomes harder to turn down. 

“They always say, we’ll just do another year. It’s called the golden handcuffs.”

Determined to leave the apartment under her own steam (the Shores don’t have their own driver) she quickly finds the streets are not a pleasant place for an unaccompanied woman. Just walking a short distance to the home of one of the other wives, Frances encounters aggressive leers and cat calls from cars that pass her. Rumours circulate throughout the expat community of the terrible things that have befallen other Western women who have gone out inappropriately dressed or been found in the company of a man they weren’t married to.

Mantel’s portrait of expat life in Saudi Arabia in the mid 1980s is not a positive one – and the characters are all unlikeable, however I still found a lot to like in this novel. What Mantel does well is to replicate Frances’ sense of unease, I don’t think the reader ever quite relaxes – the society is not one many of us in the west would want to live in. That glimpse of Saudi life I found fascinating, and the expats don’t come out well either – most of them are racist – hard drinking and thoroughly unpleasant.  

All this is perhaps why several members of my book group weren’t very keen on the book.  At least one other member felt as I did, fascinated by the novel, appreciative of the good writing but disliked the characters (I think we were supposed to). Some members felt uncomfortable by the negative view of the country – whereas I felt it was probably realistic, Mantel had spent some time living there herself. Also, with characters so unlikeable, expressing vile views, some readers in the group just became disengaged by them – which I can understand, but I don’t usually have a problem with unlikeable characters. 

All in all, I enjoyed this novel, and it provided an interesting one for our group to discuss. I can see why it is a novel which might divide opinion. 

This week of course is the 1940 club hosted again by Simon and Karen – and I got reading in good time, so that I would be able to review what I read. I had meant to post earlier in the week, but it seems I never can tell how a week will pan out for me – so here I am feverishly typing away on Friday. 

I chose two books from the wonderful Dean Street Press – The English Air by D E Stevenson and The Stone of Chastity by Margery Sharp. DSP can always be relied upon, however I can’t be, so it’s unlikely I’ll get that second book reviewed.

There is a lot that is perhaps surprising in The English Air – more of that later – I have seen it described as one of DES’s best and I can see why. It’s certainly a delightful novel, and the inclusion of letters between DES and her publisher in this edition, certainly make for interesting reading. The English Air is a novel with a lot going on, and DES balances those different themes perfectly, giving us humour, romance, and tension in wartime Europe. 

Opening in the spring of 1938 when tensions across Europe were already heightened, Sophie Braithwaite and her daughter Wynne await the arrival of a cousin from Germany. Franz is the son of Sophie’s favourite cousin Elsie and the German man she met around the time of the First World War. Sophie never saw her cousin again, as she died not long after WW1 and she’s never met Elsie’s now grown up son before. Living with the widowed Sophie and her daughter is Dane, Sophie’s brother-in-law who has rooms in the house, from where he comes and goes with his factotum Hartley. Dane is Major Worthington, but just exactly who or what he is, is left to our imagination, though he clearly ‘knows’ people in some sort of intelligence role. Sophie also has a son, who having joined the navy spends most of the novel on his ship.

Unbeknownst to Sophie and her family, Franz has been sent to his English family by his father, to observe the English and report back on their general attitudes around all that is happening in Germany. Franz’s father is a personal advisor to Hitler but this of course is also unknown to Sophie. When he arrives Franz appears to be a very formal, stiff young man, whose English is just a little too perfect, but he is also perfectly pleasant, polite and interested in everyone around him and Wynne sees he just needs a bit of loosening up. Wynne wastes no time in introducing Franz to her friends and her cousin, involving him in social get togethers and tennis tournaments. Everyone accepts Franz happily, there are no negative attitudes shown toward him, the First World War is a generation ago, and everyone is busy having a good time, certain that nothing like that can really happen again.

 “There were pretty carpets, good china, and an abundance of excellent food; there were magazines and papers and books lying about, and boxes of cigarettes for anyone who wanted them … there was all this, but above all there was peace. Peace, thought Franz, peace and happiness.”

The atmosphere around Franz is one of happy inclusivity and welcome, good food and good company soon work their magic on the lonely young man. Franz more than just unbends though, becoming Frank to everyone, he starts to question everything he’s been told. Clearly someone who isn’t entirely happy with everything that has happened in Germany, Franz starts to see things with a different lens – the leader he has believed in, begins to look less credible. He falls in love with Wynne, but before he can say anything, events in Europe so distress him, he feels he must leave Sophie’s home for London, later returning to Germany. 

It’s the whole tone of the novel (considering when it was written and published) that surprised and pleased me. It’s hardly surprising that there is an overwhelmingly patriotic feeling towards everyone and anything British, but it’s not the gratingly jingoistic tone I have encountered elsewhere – it’s just all very positive, and idealised. Not that surprising, really. Franz is a young man who has had one narrative thrust at him his whole life, now given new experiences he begins to see things differently. What I applaud DES for particularly here though is that she doesn’t just rubbish the whole of the German nation. Later we see Franz return to Germany distressed and disillusioned, he finds his aunt at home, frightened and worn down by recent events, he hears about a terrifying arrest of someone he’s known his whole life. 

“Our nation is being kept in a state of fear. It is drilled into uniformity. If this goes on much longer it will destroy Germany’s soul. A man needs a little piece of personal life … some happiness and security … without this he becomes an animal, a beast of burden, driven here and there at his masters’ whim … and the masters, Franz!” added Herr Oetzen, “The masters, what are they? Small men scrambling for power and preferment and caring little who is trampled underfoot.”

He is a young man who wants to serve his country but doesn’t want to fight against the British, he has begun to see the Nazi regime for what it is – and he is deeply distressed by it. The few German characters we meet aren’t Nazis – and DES clearly makes the distinction between Germans and Nazis. We come to see Franz as a young man who loves his country and wants to help heal it and rebuild it but acknowledges that there are things wrong with it. 

“He began to realise that it was not Hitler but Hitlerism which must be rooted out before Germany could become whole and sane and able to take her rightful place amongst the great nations of the world. “It seems hopeless,” said Franz at last in a sombre tone.”

So, the war gets underway and Wynne, also nursing very tender feelings for Franz, has no idea of where he is, and what might be happening to him. Dane has reason to think that Franz might be putting himself at risk, after hearing a familiar voice on a German radio broadcast. 

A thoroughly enjoyable novel from D E Stevenson, I’m  delighted I was able to read it for the 1940 club. 

With thanks to Holland Park Press for the review edition 

Following a very busy week that turned into a non blogging week, I am finally reviewing a lovely autobiography I had meant to write about at least a week ago. 

The Way to Hornsey Rise is a thoroughly readable, novelised autobiography exploring the formative years of the author Jeremy Worman. The memoir depicts how the author came to reject his private education and comfortable background for the squats of Hornsey Rise in the 1970s. The main focus of the book is Jeremy’s childhood and adolescence, his education, his relationships with his alcoholic, mentally fragile mother and his older, ill father. His parents, especially his mother are key figures and are portrayed faithfully and well, the intensity of his relationship with his mother becomes more and more destructive as Jeremy starts to grow up. 

Born in the 1950s to slightly older parents, Jeremy is an only child in a very comfortable large Surrey home. The memoir opens as Jeremy is leaving his junior school and preparing to start prep school – he starts as a day boy, but starts to board after a year or so. The family live in a very large house, they occupy the upper part of the house, the ground floor has been turned into a flat for ‘Uncle Neville’ a former Indian army officer, who Jeremy adores. Jeremy uses any excuse he can to retreat to the world of Neville, who is always happy to welcome him. Sadly, Neville leaves the house, after which Jeremy loses sight of him, later realising he must have been one of his mother’s lovers. The flat downstairs, though empty, retains something of the spirit of Neville for Jeremy, and over the next several years it will be a place where Jeremy continues to retreat in difficult moments. 

The transition from the familiar world of his junior school to prep school is a difficult one, and at first the young Jeremy is rather unhappy.

“By the time Mummy picked me up. I longed to be back at Virginia Waters Junior School, with all those paintings on the bright classroom walls, and lots of friends. As she drove away up the drive, Mummy said, ‘You’ll never guess who phoned.’

‘Uncle Neville?’

‘No, no Diana Dors. She asked me for lunch next week with Irene Bosanquet, and a few others.’

‘Why did you ever send me to this school? How could you?’

 After a difficult beginning, Jeremy finally settles into school, and when it comes time to become a boarder he finds he enjoys the camaraderie of dormitory life. Early on he rejects the Tory politics of most people around him, standing as the Labour candidate in the mock school election. His socialist views become more entrenched as he gets older. There is another difficult transition on the horizon when it becomes time to leave his prep school for public school. Jeremy doesn’t settle happily at this school, eventually leaving, opting to be privately educated in a small establishment set up by a teacher from his former prep school. It is here that Jeremy first encounters Leila, his first girlfriend, his first heartbreak. 

Throughout these years, Jeremy’s relationship with his mother is difficult and emotional, she drinks heavily, turning into a person he doesn’t like and wants only to escape from. Although this is often only as far as Neville’s empty flat downstairs. His mother’s drunken rages are frightening, sometimes verging on the violent – his father meanwhile, ageing, ill and sadly ineffective, Jeremy has begun to rather despise him. Jeremy needs to get away from home. 

“Although Welby House was an unlikely sanctuary, it became mine. I believed that all kinds of experiments in living could happen here – ecological, philosophical, artistic, sexual – and that people like me could remake our broken lives.”

So, perhaps it’s not that hard to see how the disillusioned Jeremy ends up in his early twenties in a squat in Hornsey Rise. In around 1974 hundreds of squatters moved into three large blocks of empty council flats in Hornsey Rise, North London. For a while Jeremy was one of them. 

A really excellent memoir, from Holland Park Press, I am delighted I got a chance to read it.