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home fire

I quite literally started reading Kamila Shamsie’s new novel an hour after it came flying through my letterbox. I had pre-ordered it a few weeks ago when the Booker longlist was announced, and had forgotten it was due to arrive. Having previously read all of Kamila Shamsie’s other novels (though not her non-fiction) I was very eager to get started. I flew through it in two days.

Home Fire is quite simply an extraordinary novel, absolutely essential reading for the times in which we are living. It is a novel about love, and the sacrifices we make in the name of that love, and what happens when loyalties and politics come up against each other. It has been described as a modern re-imagining of the 5th century play Antigone. Whether you know anything about Antigone or not probably doesn’t matter – I didn’t really, so looked it up before I started reading, after which I did have some idea of what might happen in Home Fire – so, perhaps I would have been better not doing that. Still none of that spoilt my enjoyment of the novel which could easily make my end of year list. It is a novel about divided loyalties, politics and extremism, beautifully written, poignant and important, it is a novel for the messed-up world in which we currently find ourselves – with a final scene so shockingly memorable it will leave you gasping.

“The interrogation continued for nearly two hours. He wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.”

As the novel opens Isma is undergoing an exhausting interrogation as she leaves the UK for America where she is going to study. It was an interrogation she had expected and prepared for. Several years earlier, Isma had been studying under a Dr Hira Shah, but when her mother died, nineteen-year-old Isma gave up her studies to bring up her twelve-year-old siblings, twins Aneeka and Pervaiz. Now, finally it is Isma’s time, the twins are now nineteen, and Dr Shah has persuaded Isma to take up her studies in Massachusetts where she is now teaching. The interrogation at an end, Isma finally makes her flight – albeit a later one – and arrives in America to be greeted by her old mentor. It’s hard for Isma to shake off the responsibility she has had so long for her siblings, she still has worries, particularly about Pervaiz.

“That had been the only time she had truly, purely missed her brother without adjectives such as ‘ungrateful’ and ‘selfish’ slicing through the feeling of loss. Now she looked at his name on the screen, her mouth forming prayers to keep Aneeka from logging on, the adjectives thick in her mind. Aneeka must learn to think of him as lost for ever. It was possible to do this with someone you loved, Isma had learnt that early on. But you could only learn it if there was a complete vacuum where the other person had been.”

Back in England, Aneeka is cheering her sister on – they talk frequently by skype from Aunty Naseem’s house across the road from the family home which is now rented out. Pervaiz is absent – they don’t talk about him, but Isma watches the skype window anxiously for his name to appear. We soon learn that Pervaiz has gone to Syria – following a dream, to follow in the footsteps of the Jihadist father he never knew – and of whom the family never speak. As the novel progresses we get a sense of how friends and family members both at home and in Pakistan, are terrified to have themselves associated with jihadists, afraid for their families, for their children, their marriage prospects their visa applications. Pervaiz is a young man who we gradually come to see as being terribly lost, a boy obsessed with recording and collecting sounds, he has felt the lack of a father in his life quite acutely, surrounded by women, his mother, grandmother and sisters – and with family life changing yet again, he is ripe for manipulation.

“He had always watched boys and their fathers with an avidity composed primarily of hunger. Whenever any of those fathers had made a certain gesture towards him – a hand placed on the back of his neck, the word ‘son’, an invitation to a football match – he’d retreat, both ashamed and afraid in a jumbled way that only grew more so as the years passed and the world of girls and boys grew more separate, so there were times he was not a twin to a twin but rather the only male in a house that knew all the secrets that women shared with on another but none that fathers taught their son.”

In America Isma takes an apartment, begins her new life in the midst of a bitterly cold winter, she starts to frequent a local coffee shop. Here she sees a familiar face – though it belongs to a young man she has never met. Eamonn Lone, the son of a rising politician, he is from a world of London privilege vastly different to that of Isma and her siblings. Born into a Muslim family, Eamonn’s father Karamat Lone, married to a non-Muslim American designer, has rejected certain aspects of his heritage. Karamat is now frequently outspoken about the integration of British Muslim’s into British life – his son’s name anglicised from Ayman to Eamonn as if to prove how far his family have integrated. Eamonn is a very handsome, charming young man, four years younger than Isma, the two become coffee shop friends, and Isma even feels comfortable enough to tell him about her father.

Eamonn returns to England, and pays a visit to Aneeka and Aunty Naseem, bringing a gift from Isma and is soon drawn further into the family he had heard so much about while in the US. His father has just been made Home Secretary, surrounded by intense security, immediately implementing some controversial policies – it isn’t long before #LoneWolf is trending on Twitter.

To say much more at this point would be to risk spoilers, and I want you all to read this book.

Home Fire, is compelling, intense and fully deserving of its place on the Man Booker longlist.

kamilashamsie

cof

E.H Young is a fabulous Virago author – and Chatterton Square – her final novel proved to be a fantastic pick for my third All Virago/All August read of the month. Although I have still to read a few of her novels – especially those early hard to find ones – I feel confident in saying that Chatterton Square is almost certainly her best novel. It is complex, multi-layered and fantastically readable.

The setting is Upper Radstowe – the setting of the majority of E H Young’s novels, a thinly disguised Clifton – the genteel, prosperous suburb of Bristol where she herself lived for a time. However, the canvas of this novel like many of her others is far smaller than that, almost the entire story taking place at the titular address.

We are in familiar territory with many of the themes of this novel, those of marriage, provincial life and morality. However, the novel also explores pre-war attitudes, it is the late 1930s and the prospect of another war is at the back of everyone’s mind. Naturally, the possibility of war is contemplated with some pain by those who lived through one war and still bear the scars – either physical or mental. Meanwhile the next generation, face the possibility of having the best years of their lives stolen – and well they know it.

Chatterton Square – not really a square is more of an oblong – has seen better days. Still although fashion has deserted this small corner of Upper Radstowe, these are houses with small gardens, basement kitchens and some – like the Frasers – have balconies. The Frasers occupy a corner of Chatterton square – here live – Rosamund Fraser, her childhood friend Agnes Spanner and Rosamund’s five almost adult children. Agnes, we learn lived a sad, small diminished life with her controlling parents. So, with Rosamund’s husband; Fergus, choosing to live abroad, away from his family – Rosamund took the opportunity to save her friend – bringing her in to the warm, lively family she has never had for herself.

Sitting at right angles to the Fraser household, live the Blacketts; Herbert and Bertha – and their three daughters, Flora, Rhoda and Mary. Herbert Blackett is one of the most pompous, self-obsessed, self-deluded men I have come across in fiction, I could cheerfully have throttled him. He is however, a brilliantly complex character deftly explored. It is testament to Young’s extraordinary skill, that towards the end of the novel, when the reader has spent almost 400 pages loathing him, she allows us to see him defeated, and it is a surprisingly poignant moment.

Mr Blackett is proud of his quiet little submissive wife, in his eyes she is perfectly proper, conventional and loyal. He loves to see her blush if he mentions their honeymoon in Florence almost twenty years earlier. Yet, unknown to him, Bertha loathes him, she suffers his embraces, quietly despising him. Her one consolation that he has no idea what goes on in her mind, mocking him silently keeps her sane – but the reader longs for her to tell him exactly what she thinks – as surely must at some point. There is breath-taking complexity in the characters of the Blackett household, Flora so like her father that her mother can criticise him, through her irritation with a daughter she is unable to like. Rhoda so like her mother – more and more so as the novel progresses. Her father simply cannot understand his middle daughter – and she in turn doesn’t like him at all, and doesn’t really try to hide it. There is a wonderful moment when Rhoda catches a cold, angry look on her mother’s face directed at her unseeing husband, and understands all.

“He pitied widows but he distrusted them. They knew too much. As free as unmarried women, they were fully armed; this was an unfair advantage, and when it was combined with beauty, and air of well-being, a gaiety which, in women over forty had an unsuitable hint of mischief in it, he felt that in this easy conquest over, or incapacity for grief, all manhood was insulted, while all manhood, including his own, was probably viewed by that woman as a likely prey.”

Of course, Herbert Blackett does not approve of the Fraser household. Suspicious of Rosamund as she is without a husband, he is appalled when he discovers she is not, as he had assumed a widow, declaring that her husband must have found himself obliged to leave her. Rosamund, manages her family very differently to Mr Blackett, she doesn’t interfere in her children’s lives, they enjoy an enormous amount of freedom, but come to her often nevertheless. Late at night as the household settles down, Miss Spanner or one or other of the children visit Rosamund in her bedroom, where confidences are shared, worries discussed, minds put at rest.

The two households are brought together partly by their proximity to one another and by the friendships which begin to develop between some members of the two houses. Piers Lindsay, disfigured by his injures picked up in the First World War, is Bertha Blackett’s cousin, we sense that there were some tenderer feelings between them once – but Piers returned just too late from the war, which Herbert had not fought in. Now Piers has returned unexpectedly to the area. Herbert Blackett is deeply resentful of Piers and his war wounds he considers an easy way of eliciting sympathy. Rosamund Fraser is drawn to Piers, recognising the goodness in him, his companionship is easy and comforting. Bertha is also fond of Piers, noticing of course, his visits to her neighbour.

“She blushed to remember how once, and for a short time, she had listened for certain tones of Mr Blackett’s voice and watched for certain movements of his long hands and found delight in what was only endurable now because she had learnt to enjoy disliking it. And he did not know, he had not the slightest suspicion, that was the best of it, and suddenly, when she and Piers were sitting in the twilight as Rosamund had pictured them and while Rhoda had left them for a few minutes, Mrs Blackett laughed aloud, a rare occurrence, and it was yet another kind of laughter which Mr Blackett had never heard.”

Alongside the anxieties of a possible war – are the burgeoning friendships and romances between various characters from the two households. However, it is the depiction of the Blackett marriage that will live long in my mind, Rosamund Fraser is a fabulous character, wise, warm unconventional and loving, but for me it is Bertha Blackett (what a name!) who is the real heroine of Chatterton Square.

E H Young

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Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death

August is Women in translation month, and so when not reading books for All Virago/All August or book group reads I like to try and fit two or three #WITmonth books in as well. August is all about juggling books it seems.

witmonth2017My first read for this year’s women in translation month was A World Gone Mad – the diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-1945, which I remember buying in the London review bookshop on my last London shopping expedition in November. Astrid Lindgren, of course the author of the children’s classic Pippi Longstocking books, stories which at the time these diaries were begun has not even been thought of. The title attracted me – how often in the last year or so have people declared ‘dear heavens, the world has gone mad’ – I have certainly said it and the week I picked up this book, there were further world events over which to shake our heads. I was made to think, more than once, how stupid an apparently intelligent species must be – if they fail to learn from their own history.

“Oh! War broke out today. Nobody could believe it.
Yesterday afternoon, Elsa Gullander and I were in Vasa Park with the children running and playing around us and we sat there giving Hitler a nice, cosy telling-off and agreed that there definitely was not going to be a war – and now today!”

Diaries are rather difficult to review, but this a very readable book and its author is very relatable to. Astrid Lindgren stares forlornly from the cover, pulling the reader in and one can’t help but wonder her thoughts. Karin Nyman, Astrid Lindgren’s daughter in her foreword explains how her mother had been determined to document the war from which Sweden remained neutral, but which raged around them on all sides. She remembers seeing her mother scribbling in her notebooks cutting out things from the newspapers, for the five-year-old Karin it was perfectly normal. The diaries were discovered in a wicker laundry basket in the Dalagatan home where Astrid Lindgren had lived from the 1940s until her death in 2002. Her daughter acknowledges how extraordinary it was, for a thirty-two-year-old wife and mother with some secretarial training but no previous experience of political thinking to have produced what she did. For almost six years, recording her thoughts, painstakingly cutting out newspaper articles to stick alongside her entries (these articles are not reproduced in the book).

“Today’s huge sensation – Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, flew to the British Isles in a Messerschmitt plane and parachuted safely to the ground, where a Scottish farm-worker looked after him and took him to hospital in Glasgow. Now we’ve seen everything.”

Throughout the war, Astrid Lindgren documented the war as she saw it, felt about it and feared it, as well as what she read about it in the newspapers. Sweden had elected to remain neutral from the war – and given their precarious geographical position that probably saved a great many Swedes. However, their neutral position was one Astrid sometimes felt uncomfortable about – as she read about devastating occupations, war crimes and food shortages. As she continues to document the war, the shifting political alliances and how they impacted upon the war, she often considers the nature of evil, and the individual’s responsibility at such times to stand against it.

All around Sweden, other nations were suffering terribly, Norway and Denmark occupied by the Germans, Finland by the Russians, resulting in them losing a sizable amount of their territory in uneasy peace negotiations. Sweden was in a vulnerable position, and there were times when Astrid was practically holding her breath, anxious lest her country find themselves invaded, drawn into hostilities against their will.

“It was Karin’s seventh birthday yesterday. I wrote in my diary on this day last year ‘God grant that the world will look different by Karin’s next birthday!’ And it certainly does look different, but there’s no sign of any changes for the better. Possibly Sweden and the other Nordic countries are in slightly less danger, the main focus now seems to be on the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Yesterday the Germans launched an air invasion on Crete, or was it the day before? What’s left of Greek resistance is concentrated there, with British assistance.”

Alongside her entries which document the war so well, we get frequent glimpses of ordinary family life. The children’s birthdays, the gifts they received the food that was cooked and eaten in celebration. We also get some moving descriptions of her marriage – hints of some difficulties in the last year of the war, which she doesn’t dwell on or go into any detail about, in what for her was obviously meant as a chronicle of war. As a mother to a teenage boy as well as a young daughter – Astrid felt especially for the mothers of soldiers killed and maimed, realising, as she considered her own dear son, that the pain of just imagining him in their place was more than she could bear.

As the war years advanced Astrid began working as a censor in the postal control division, the letters that passed through her hands, providing Astrid with another more personal perspective on the war that was destroying Europe. An aspiring writer, Astrid won a competition in 1944 with a story about Britt-Marie, the Pippi Longstocking stories were originally invented to entertain her daughter while she was ill.

These diaries were a great way for to celebrate Women in Translation month. I found I really liked Astrid, and on finishing the book looked up her Wikipedia page – she really was a fascinating woman who was obviously very well loved by the people of Sweden.

astrid lindgren

the orchid house

I like to try and read a variety of VMC books during the annual Librarything All Virago/All August. The Orchid House is a novel quite different in tone to my last Virago read – This Real Night. Slightly reminiscent of The Wide Sargasso Sea, (although that novel is vastly superior) The Orchid House is set on the island of Dominica (although the exact location is only really implied). The novel is far more character than plot driven, written with a strong sense of place, and told with great subtlety. The novel was made into a TV series for channel 4 here in the UK, as can be seen by my TV tie-in cover – I will be going in search of the series now.

Phyllis Shand Allfey was born on the island of Domenica and this novel is said to have been based on her own early life. Born into an elite white family she nevertheless saw herself as a West Indian, and was a socialist activist, journalist and Dominican politician. She also wrote several collections of poetry and a collection of short stories.

The story is largely narrated by Lally, the ageing Dominican nurse who supervised the growing up of three white, Creole sisters at Maison Rose with their mother and war damaged father, in the years following the First World War. Maison Rose is a house is full of characters, Christophine the cook, her son Baptiste, her daughter Olivet and Buffon the boatman – who have all been around the family for years. The house is steeped in memories for Lally, memories of when Miss Stella, Miss Joan and Miss Natalie were children, waiting their father’s return from the war, playing with their childhood friend Andrew. Now Lally’s working days should be at an end, but she can’t resist one last return to Maison Rose when she hears the young ladies she cared for in their infancy are returning.

“Madam sat down in my one room house and told me why she was happy. ‘Lally, the children are coming home to visit us,’ she said. ‘Imagine, Lally, after all this while we shall see the children again. For many weeks we have been making plans, and letters have been passing between us. And now, it seems to be coming true.’
‘It’s a long while,’ I said.
‘But you know the reasons,’ Madam said. ‘You know the reasons, Lally.’
Madam was right. I knew all the reasons; for she had never kept anything from me. I knew that Miss Stella and Miss Joan had married poor men and had babies, and Miss Natalie had married rich old Sir Godfrey, but before she could even have a baby the awful thing had happened, the car had gone over the cliff and Sir Godfrey had died. ‘And how are you feeling, Lally?’ asked Madam. ‘A little stronger?’
‘I never felt better,’ I told her. For I guessed what she was going to ask of me, and joy took away the ache in my stomach and the stiffness in my legs. I would nurse Madam’s grandchildren before I died. I would see Miss Stella, Miss Joan and Miss Natalie again.”

In the past, Lally watched her precious girls grow up amid the lush vegetation of their island home – running in and out of the Orchid house at their grandfather’s home L’Aromatique nearby. As young women, each of them left for England or America, married men Lally can’t quite envisage, the youngest sister now a widow, bringing much needed money into the family. Now Lally awaits their return, each sister expected on long awaited visits, two of them with young sons in tow – their husbands left behind. Lally is a wise, watchful old woman, not much gets past her – it never did. In the days before Miss Stella arrives – the eldest of the sisters, and also Lally’s favourite – she remembers fondly those far off days when the house rang with the voices of the three young sisters. She remembers the return of the master from the war – damaged, clearly suffering from shell shock, he came to rely heavily upon the wares peddled by the sinister Mr Lilipoulala who arrives from Port au Prince with the mail boat. The master is still in thrall to Mr Lilipoulala – of whom Miss Stella was always so afraid – he too is expected in the coming days.

The sisters each still love the same man, Andrew, the friend of their childhood, who stayed on the island, and now lives at Petit Cul-de-Sac, with Cornélie the sisters’ mixed-race cousin, and their child. Andrew, sick with TB does little but lie around the garden of their tiny home. Once the sisters whispered to Cornélie through the railings of her convent school, now Cornélie regards each of them with some suspicion.

“The house was empty of men. It was a house of women, like Maison Rouge in the old days. Madam had said to me that the girls would bring life to the place. They had brought more than that – they had brought sons and torment and love complications beyond the endurance of an old dark-skinned Methodist like me.”

Stella arrives first with her son Hel – beautiful, romantic and nostalgic for the days of her girlhood, Stella wastes no time in seeking out Andrew. Back in America, her German husband and his family await her return at the farm where she has been living a not very easy life. Now, returning to the place where she could always find solace she reflects on her marriage, and whether she wants to return to the farm. Joan arrives next from England, bringing her young son Ned with her. Ned, wakens something in his war damaged grandfather – making a touching connection which surprises everyone. Joan, brings her political activism with her – desperate to bring unions into the lives of local workers. Natalie arrives last, by sea plane, a very wealthy young widow, she brings Eric – her Canadian pilot lover with her. The island works its magic on each of the sisters in turn, leaving something of themselves behind them.

pshandallfrey

the power

Imagine a world in which women wield all the power, well Naomi Alderman has done just that – and it only went and won her the Bailey’s Prize (AKA the women’s prize). Having now read this extraordinary novel I question how – given the novel’s subject – the judges could possibly have awarded the prize anywhere else.

“One of them says, ‘Why did they do it?’
And the other answers, ‘Because they could.’
That is the only answer there ever is.”

The Power was chosen by my very small book group as our August read, and we met on Wednesday evening to discuss it – it was an unqualified success – everyone loved it – and having all got so much from the book we had lots to talk about.

The novel begins with a framing story – Neil Adam Armon (spot the anagram) sends his historical novel to Naomi for consideration. The story which follows is supposedly Neil’s novel – after which we have Naomi’s letter of response – with its absolutely cracking final line.

The story of The Power is set in the reasonably near future – when suddenly a few teenage girls begin to discover they are possessed of a strange power – a kind of electrical force which runs through a skein in their bodies – and is capable of inflicting great pain or even death on others. To begin with the new power is only revealed in a few girls, though as news of it begins to spread – more and more girls start to discover this new power within themselves. As the girls’ practise with this disturbing and exciting new power -it becomes evident they can unleash the power which has lain dormant for generations in older women. Soon girls are passing the power along, girl to girl, to mother to aunt etc.

“It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.”

We follow the fortunes of several fascinating characters; Allie, an American teenager in an abusive foster home, Roxy the daughter of a renowned London crime family, Tunde – the one male perspective – an aspiring young journalist from Nigeria, and Margot a US mayor with a teenage daughter Jocelyn. There is also Tatiana Moskalev the wife of the deposed president of Moldova, (who we see through the eyes of others) who forms a new state. The stories of these characters slowly intertwine, compelling and fast moving these stories cross continents giving this novel a truly global feel.

Soon society starts to see things differently – everything is turned on its head. Girls are instructed to try not to use their power, take care not to hurt boys – parents no longer want their teenage boys out alone – fearful of what could happen to them.

“She throws her head back and pushes her chest forward and lets go a huge blast right into the centre of his body. The rivulets and streams of red scarring run across his chest and up around his throat. She’d put her hand on his heart and stopped him dead.”

We see the beginning of the subtle shift in how the sexes are viewed with two mildly annoying morning news anchors. Before, what becomes known as the Day of the Girls, Kristen plays second fiddle to her male colleague – but soon, following her colleagues break down live on air – not only is she now permitted to wear her glasses on screen, but she now takes the lead – her new male colleague is clearly just eye candy.

What is most interesting in this novel is how Naomi Alderman shows us what might happen should the balance of power undergo a seismic shift. Perhaps some of us like to believe that if women really did wield all the power in the world then the world would be a nicer, saner, less violent place. Well as someone who went to an all-girls school and who frequently has to witness what happens when 7/8-year-old girls fall out – I think the author has it spot on. Power corrupts – and there are many women who feel they have a score to settle – and now they can.

“The world is the way it is now because of five thousand years of ingrained structures of power based on darker times when things were much more violent… But we don’t have to act that way now. We can think and imagine ourselves differently once we understand what we’ve based our ideas on.”

Men are suddenly less important – their strength is as nothing compared to this terrifying new power that women have. Men want to find a cure for it – take things back to how it was before – increasingly nervous as they watch their place in the world disappear. There are several very disturbing scenes – and things become increasingly ugly as many women get carried away with what they can do. Men, soon have good reason to be afraid.

This is an extraordinarily thought-provoking novel, which has a lot to say about the power balance between the sexes, addressing quite unflinchingly the worst things that can happen across nations as well as between men and women when there is a transference of power.

naomialderman

this real night

As many of you will know, August is All Virago/All August over on the Librarything Virago group. I can’t manage to commit to just reading Virago all of August but I love the excuse to read some of my Virago volumes.

This Real Night is the second book in Rebecca West’s Aubrey family trilogy; A Saga of the Century (there are editions which publish all three books together). The trilogy begins with The Fountain Overflows . I read that wonderful book back at the end of February while I was on holiday with friends in Iceland, I hadn’t meant to leave it quite so long before catching up with these characters again. This Real Night and Cousin Rosamond were published in the 1980s following Rebecca West’s death, from the manuscripts that she left behind. The third book I know is unfinished – and while part of me does still want to read it – I can’t get excited about an unfinished novel.

This Real Night starts a few years after the events of The Fountain Overflows, we find ourselves in the 1900s, in those days before the First World War so changed the world for a generation of young people. Cornelia, Mary and our narrator Rose are now grown up, they discover a freedom to being grown up, happy to throw of the bonds of childhood.

“A child is an adult temporarily enduring conditions which exclude the possibility of happiness. When one is quite little one labours under just such physical and mental disabilities as might be inflicted by some dreadful accident or disease; but while the maimed and paralysed are pitied because they cannot walk and have to be carried about and cannot explain their needs or think clearly, nobody is sorry for babies, though they are always crying aloud their frustration and hurt pride.”

In the wake of Piers Aubrey’s disappearance, the family fortunes have improved. Clare has a good grip on the purse strings for the first time ever, and the family enjoy the friendship and support of Mr Morpurgo, their father’s friend. The sisters’ beloved younger brother Richard Quin is still at school, he too growing up fast – and considering Oxford in the not too distant future. Cornelia, following the devastation of having to accept that she doesn’t possess the fine musical ability of her mother and two sisters, has become an art dealer’s assistant. Mary and Rose are at music college, desperately trying for artistic perfection.

“Great music is in a sense serene; it is certain of the values it asserts. But it is also in terror, because those values are threatened, and it is not certain whether they will triumph in this world, and of course music is a missionary effort to colonise earth for imperialistic heaven.”

Cordelia marries early – and everyone seems to think it for the best. Cordelia is the odd one out in the family, she is rather spikey and can be difficult, though it is sad that she always seems to fall foul of her mother and sisters. Cousin Rosamond decides to train as a nurse, striding out towards independence she remains close to the Aubreys and is especially adored by everyone’s favourite Richard Quin. Rose and Mary begins to notice a little change in Cordelia after her marriage – although their relationship remains strained.

“Our enemy had gone away, had not just left our house, but had vanished. Someone whom, it often seemed, we did not love enough.”

One of the things the Aubrey siblings still enjoy more than anything is their visits to Aunt Lily, who they first knew as children, when her sister was convicted of the murder of her husband. Lily’s daughter was a school friend of Mary and Rose, and although she now lives with her dead father’s family (who prevent her from seeing Aunt Lily) the Aubrey’s retain their old affection for the unfortunate woman. Lily works in The Dog and Duck a small inn on the Thames, taken in by her old friends Aunt Milly and Uncle Len. It is a rough, colourful environment – quite at odds with their more genteel, artistic upbringing, but Mary and Rose particularly love their visits. Here they are exposed to all kinds of new experiences. I love this collection of characters, who Rebecca West portrays realistically but with affection, resisting I felt, the trap of caricature that some writers of a certain class have been known to fall into.

As the world descends into war, change comes to the Aubrey household, there is probably an inevitability to the ending – and Rebecca West’s depiction is delicately poignant.

If I am honest, I think, that The Fountain Overflows is a rather better novel, although I enjoyed this enormously – a chance to meet again familiar old friends. This Real Night probably could be read as a standalone novel but if you did, you would miss an enormous treat.

rebecca west

thebattleof the villa f

My final read for July, was by Librarything author of the month Rumer Godden; The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, which transported me to Italy while I myself travelled to Paris.

One of the things I have come to appreciate in Rumer Godden’s novels for adults, is the way she writes children and young people. She always seems to fully understand their view of the world, the way they feel the hurts and disappointments that force them to grow up.

In The Battle of the Villa Fiorita we meet Hugh (14) and Caddie (almost 12) – they have an elder sister who they speak about from time to time, but who we never actually meet. As the novel opens, Hugh and Caddie have just arrived in Italy, following a long, arduous journey mainly by train from London. They have run away.

“She and Hugh were both gilded in sun; the things they held, the grips, coats, and net, had edges of light as had Hugh’s bare head, Caddie’s panama. Light bathed their tired dusty faces, their clothes which were crumpled and dishevelled as only clothes that have been slept in all night can be; it lay on their hands and legs, their dusty shoes, a light more warm and gold than anything they had known, but, ‘It’s Italian,’ said Caddie as if suspicious of it.”

They are on a mission to win back their mother – return her to their father and the family home. Their mother Frances (usually called Fanny) Clavering has recently been divorced by their father, following an affair with a film director, who she met whilst he was filming near to the family home. Now, Fanny has left England with her lover Rob Quillet. They are staying at the Villa Fiorita near Lake Garda, planning to get married in the near future.

The viewpoint is not always that of the children, Fanny is a woman whose life had seemed perfectly happy, married to dull, frequently absent Darrell Clavering. While she hadn’t been able to claim that she was miserable, meeting Rob, awakened something in her, showing her what her life had actually been, and what it could be instead. The narrative takes us back to when Fanny first met famous director Rob Quillet, their attraction to one another – and the tentative beginning of their affair. Fanny was torn, recognising the danger signals she tried to back away, pulled back by her feelings, which were so strong and so unexpected. Despite this, she attempts to carry on with her life, forget about Rob, concentrate on running Stebbings with seamless efficiency, socialising with other local country wives and keeping her mother-in-law Lady Candida happy. However, in time, Fanny begins to realise she can’t exist without Rob, and two of her friends are suspicious after one of them spots her in London with him.

Hugh and Caddie have had their world turned upside down, while they had been away at school the grownups silently got on with managing the scandalous situation. By the time they knew anything, it was practically all over. Stebbings; the loved country home, that is so familiar, has been closed up, a modern flat in London is where they will live with their father and the housekeeper/nanny Gwyneth. The pony, Topaz, which Caddie won in a competition, and is almost her sole reason for living, is stabled in the country, and Caddie doesn’t know when or if she will be able to see him. All they want is for everything to go back to normal, stunned by a kind of grief, they have been unable to see Fanny as being anyone other than their mother – they are only just seeing that she is also a woman in love.

“At the top of the walk Fanny and Rob stopped, dazzled by the sun after the shade. Because of the brilliant light, and because his eyes were so tired, Hugh could not see them clearly; the whole garden and the lake had become a blur, but, standing in the flood of evening light, framed against the green leaves and the spirals of mauve flowers, they looked illuminated, glorified. ‘A couple,’ Hugh thought before he could stifle the thought, not his mother and Rob Quillet but a man and woman close together.”

We can’t help but sympathise with the children, it is bad enough when parents’ divorce, but Hugh and Caddie have been abandoned by their adored mother, everything they took for granted has altered and they don’t quite recognise this new world they are being asked to live in.

villaThere is a selfishness to childhood which we only really recognise when we look back on it. I admit, that while I sympathised with the children, I got very annoyed by their blind selfishness too. Hugh and Caddie want their mother back, and they go all out to get her. Fanny is happier than she has ever been in her life, on some level the children recognise this – but easily discount it. Fanny is already beset with terrible guilt for what she did to her former husband, and especially her children, and having them appear at the villa – just as she and Rob are about to go out to dinner – shakes her resolve. Rob is apparently made of sterner stuff – and starts to arrange for the children to be returned immediately. However, things don’t go quite according to plan, as Hugh is struck down with food poisoning and Rob, allowing Caddie to get under his skin – she reminds him so much of her mother – can’t bring himself to send her off alone. It is arranged that the children will stay for a fortnight – when their father will have returned from a work trip. Once it has been agreed that the children will stay, Rob sends for his own daughter Pia – an impossibly stylish ten-year-old brought up by her grandmother. Pia is immediately dismissive of sad, scruffy Caddie, who can’t help admiring Pia despite her unfriendliness. Hugh, meanwhile who has been stomping around the villa in confused fury for days finds himself rather drawn to the little girl.

With three unhappy children in the villa, banding together, the battle lines are drawn, but will the children realise that their actions have consequences before things go too far?

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is an absorbing novel, I loved the children and their fiendish plotting, and while I felt for them, I also felt for the adults, whose future happiness or unhappiness lies in the hands of their children. I was left with mixed feelings about how Godden ended her novel, and found myself thinking about it for several days after I had finished.

rumer godden