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Agatha Christie is always a safe bet for a quiet weekend, when already feeling over tired or unwell. I have had this book club edition of Destination Unknown among my Christie collection unread for years. I love the 50’s cover. Personally, I wouldn’t mind a cape just like that.

If you open up an Agatha Christie novel looking forward to a nicely arranged corpse in front of a roaring fire, and Hercule Poirot standing over them – then this one might disappoint – though it shouldn’t. There are no corpses – and no Poirot or Marple – not even a brace of Beresfords.

This is one of Christie’s thrillers – and it is excellent in a similar way to the They Came to Baghdad was. Like so many Christie’s novels set in the places she travelled to – there is a great sense of place, and she always portrays that peculiar species – the Brit abroad – so well too. In place of bodies, poison, blackmail and detectives, we have British Intelligence, disappearing scientists, a shadowy organisation proposing a new world order, and a wonderfully plucky woman.

“Why do you decry the world we live in? There are good people in it. Isn’t muddle a better breeding ground for kindliness and individuality than a world order that’s imposed, a world order that may be right today and wrong tomorrow? I would rather have a world of kindly, faulty, human beings, than a world of superior robots who’ve said goodbye to pity and understanding and sympathy.”

A famous British scientist Thomas Betterton has gone missing – and with conflicting reports of sightings, British intelligence are getting twitchy. For Betterton is the inventor of ZE Fusion, and it is well known that there are those who would like to get their hands on it. Other scientists have also disappeared. A man called Jessop invites Betterton’s wife in for a little chat – no one is quite sure if she knows where her husband of six months has gone or not. Olive Betterton is exhausted from the press speculation and worry – and asks permission to go abroad to get away from it all – she was thinking about Morocco.

Permission granted Olive Betterton sets off, a carefully orchestrated tail in close pursuit. However, Olive’s plane to Casablanca crashes, and Olive lies insensible in hospital, one of just a few survivors, the doctors predict she won’t live long.

Meanwhile Hilary Craven has also arrived in Casablanca from England – though luckily for her on the next plane, she was originally booked on the same plane as Mrs Betterton. Hilary is a broken woman, realising her escape from England has really changed nothing, she has decided to end it all in her hotel room. Hilary’s child has died – her husband left her and has married again, what does she have to live for? All Hilary wants is for the misery to end. However, someone has noticed her, noticed how her age, height, red hair makes her vaguely similar in appearance to Olive Betterton. Those vague descriptions once shown inside a passport would be the same for both women. As Hilary sits on her hotel bed with a glass of water and a handful of pills, the locked door opens, and in walks a man she’s never met before – but Olive Betterton would know as Jessop.
Hilary is persuaded to undertake a very dangerous mission – after all if she is so keen on death – there might as well be a purpose to it, and Jessop thinks there is a high chance of death.

“‘Within a day or two Mrs Craven will die in hospital, and Mrs Betterton will be discharged, suffering slightly from concussion, but able to proceed on her tour. The crash was genuine, the concussion is genuine, and concussion makes a very good cover for you. It excuses a lot of things like lapses of memory, and various unpredictable behaviour.’
Hilary said: ‘It would be madness!’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Jessop, ‘it’s madness, all right. It’s a very tough assignment and if our suspicions are realised, you’ll probably cop it. You see, I’m being quite frank, but according to you, you’re prepared and anxious to cop it. As alternative to throwing yourself in front of a train or something like that, I should think you’d find it far more amusing.’
Suddenly and unexpectedly Hilary laughed.
‘I do believe,’ she said, ‘that you’re quite right.’”

We follow Hilary as taking up the challenge issued by Jessop, she travels through Morocco – meeting up with various characters, not all of whom she can be sure are who they say they are. Hilary is bright, unafraid and desperate for something to distract her mind from her hopeless misery. As she journeys toward her unknown destination in the guise of a dead woman, Hilary begins to want to live.

I won’t say too much more about the plot – as it would be too spoilery. The plot is fairly improbable to say the least. But if you are huddled under a blanket on a wet Saturday afternoon – do really care if it is improbable? Christie’s storytelling is great, and Destination Unknown is a real page turner. Naturally there is a lovely little twist at the end – and a fairly satisfying ending – the reader needs to suspend disbelieve – but overall this is a great bit of cold war escapism.

 

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I have been following Margaret Atwood reading month with great pleasure – and I hope to be able to post my review of the brilliant Life Before Man by the end of next week. I haven’t had time to join in the postings up to now but have seen people posting about their collection of Margaret Atwood covers and their favourite Margaret Atwood books. So, here’s my twopenneth.

I have probably began reading Margaret Atwood when I was nineteen or twenty – and I began with these volumes from Virago – which have survived three house moves and various book culls (the most serious of which was because I lived in a tiny studio flat). I did have a copy of Cat’s Eye in that edition too – but couldn’t find it just now – I’m sure it’s there somewhere, just too many books to look through quickly. They are definitely my favourite Atwood covers – and the Atwood books I have owned the longest. They are begging to be re-read – with the exception of The Handmaid’s Tale – I re-read that not too long ago.

When I went looking through my shelves, to find books to photograph, I was surprised to see my copies of The Blind Assassin, The Robber Bride and Alias Grace are no longer there – so I must have passed them on – rather regretting that now. I haven’t kept The Penelopiad or The Heart Goes Last either – though it is probably fair to say I was a bit underwhelmed by those. My copies of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood – which I only read recently – are out on loan to my sister. I love those editions with the images of peculiar animals. Two books I had held off reading for years – and so of course completely loved. I really must get a copy of Maddaddam. The only other Atwood I currently have tbr is Hag-seed.

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I don’t have so many Margaret Atwood short story collections, yet. I am happy to say I have more of those to collect and read too, not sure why it took me so long to discover what a fantastic short fiction writer Atwood is. Of course, I read Bluebeard’s Egg back in the day – a collection I have forgotten all about and read at a time when I was less keen on short stories than I am now.

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Margaret Atwood book covers are always striking, you have noticed that I have two copies of The Handmaid’s Tale – well of course I do!

My Favourite Margaret Atwood books?

That’s rather difficult because some of those I read years ago I can’t remember well enough to be sure, however I do remember really enjoying Lady Oracle.

The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely my all time favourite – I loved it both times I read it, I know I will read it again, and I was blown away by both series of the TV adaptation. The story is so important, a novel  that seems to speak to subsequent generations in a way that feels like a warning.

“We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were happy?”

More warnings abound in the  Maddaddam trilogy of which I have only read the first two so far.

The Year of the Flood is another recent favourite – I hadn’t realised how much I would love these novels, and the third instalment is high on my wishlist.

I think I have learned to love short stories more and more as I get older, I particularly appreciate linked short stories.

The Stone Mattress collection of stories blew me away, I found all the stories compelling and memorable. The first three stories, that are loosely but cleverly connected were utterly captivating, bringing to life a small group of characters in just a few pages.

Alias Grace (read pre-blog) – despite my not still having a copy, is a book which has stayed with me for years. I enjoyed the TV adaptation on Netflix – and it really made me want to re-read it. Of course, the problem is I have so many books that re-reading is a huge luxury I don’t always feel I can afford.

Have you been joining in with #MARM?

I finished reading Life Before Man on Wednesday night, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. A fairly unlikable bunch of characters, in thrall to their various love affairs. Unlikable characters don’t usually worry me, and these are fully fascinating. Beautifully written, and sharply observed. Full review to come.

Would love to know what your favourite Margaret Atwood book is.

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There are those books that somehow you miss along the way and people assume you have read. For me those books were the Mapp and Lucia series by E F Benson. I first came to them a few years ago – very late to the party indeed. I bought all six for my kindle and there they sat. I have spaced them out rather more than I had intended, in fact it is four years since I read book four – not quite sure how that happened. It is probably the invisibility of my kindle books that make them languish unread so long – they don’t call to me in the same way the books on my shelves do.

Lucia’s Progress is the fifth of E F Benson’s famous series, opening about a year after the previous story ended. Lucia is contemplating her upcoming fiftieth birthday with steely resignation. Now living in Grebe cottage, which isn’t really grand enough for Lucia, she is only looking for a chance to get her hands on Mallards again. Elizabeth Mapp is back at Mallards, though not alone. She is now married – to Major Benjy – and has hyphenated her name to Mapp-Flint. The whole of Tilling is completely fascinated by this marriage – who exactly is it that wears the trousers there? Major Benjy has been seen drinking tea, and he isn’t playing as much golf as he used to either.

“Elizabeth Mapp-Flint had schemes for her husband and meant to realize them. As a bachelor, with an inclination to booze and a very limited income, inhabiting that small house next to Mallards, it was up to him, if he chose, to spend the still robust energies of his fifty-five years in playing golf all day and getting slightly squiffy in the evening. But his marriage had given him a new status: he was master, though certainly not mistress, of the best house in Tilling…”

lucia's progressGeorgie has had shingles on his face – and unable to shave a fearful white beard is now covering half his face. Poor Georgie is mortified and hasn’t been seen outside the house in a fortnight. As Tilling begin to gossip about his whereabouts – and try all ways to gain access to his house to find out – Georgie moves in with Lucia to hide from them. The two of them get along famously, they enjoy the companionship and being together all the time sows a little seed in both their minds. However, when Lucia suggests dyeing his beard to match his hair Georgie is delighted with the results and is soon seen strutting around Tilling again and joining in the exhausting society of the town.

Rumour and speculation are always on the agenda with the residents of Tilling – Quaint Irene and Diva are two of the worst culprits. A certain rumour begins to circulate about Elizabeth – when someone notices she has altered her green skirt – well she is only forty-three! Lucia is the most sceptical – and Elizabeth is doing nothing to quash the rumours. Competition has always been at the heart of Lucia and Elizabeth’s relationship – and this only increases when Lucia starts to play the stock market – giving out tips to anyone who’ll listen. Elizabeth of course swears she will do the exact opposite of whatever Lucia says.

“‘Ah, my Financial Post,’ she said. “I thought it would be amusing, dear, just to see what was happening to Lucia’s gold mine. I take such an interest in it for her sake.” She turned over the unfamiliar pages, and clapped her hands in sympathetic delight. “Oh, Benjy-boy, isn’t that nice for her?” she cried. “Siriami has gone up another three shillings. Quite a fortune!” Benjy was just as pleased as Elizabeth, though he marvelled at the joy that Lucia’s enrichment had given her.”

When a vacancy on the town council opens up – Lucia and Elizabeth go into full competitive overdrive. Lucia lobbying to raise taxes to help the poor – and Elizabeth promising to lower them – the unemployed needing to be encouraged to work. It all gets just a little mean spirited – with both candidates sure they will be victorious.

When later, Lucia believes she has discovered the remains of a Roman villa in the asparagus patch, her excitement knows no bounds. Georgie is roped in, but everyone else is barred entry – so as to heighten their curiosity and excitement. Of course, anything that excites Lucia utterly infuriates Elizabeth – and so the forced smiles and thinly disguised sniping continues – as Lucia and Georgie make a life changing decision.

It’s all great fun, sharply observed and deliciously tart. I really should try to read the final Mapp and Lucia book in something rather less than four years! I also have another E F Benson book As We Were tbr – which I feel sure I read a review of somewhere not that long ago.

 

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In Margaret Laurence’s final novel most of her characters are searching; searchers for home, family or creativity, water or scavenging in town dumps. The Diviners; the final novel in Laurence’s Manawaka sequence (though I still have to read number three and the collection of stories) is though a novel of outsiders.

At about 400 pages, I thought twice about reading this, as I am trying not to pick anything too big as I race toward the end of my A Century of Books. I had wanted to read this so long, I decided it didn’t really matter – I should read what I wanted to. So very glad I did, I loved every bit of this novel, not a fast read, but a thoroughly absorbing one, beautifully written it proved a real treat spending time with this book. An epic novel, which is already considered a classic of Canadian literature. Strangely, the novel has also been banned several times by school boards for blasphemy. I find that absurd.

Manawaka is the fictional prairie town that first appeared in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. The Diviners is the story of Morag Gunn, a fiercely independent writer, her difficult relationships with her Métis lover Jules Tonnerre, and her daughter Pique. As we first meet Morag, she is a forty-seven-year old woman, living near a river. Her eighteen-year-old daughter has gone away for a while and she is worrying about her, watching the river – trying to get her mind back to her work. Here, Morag is alone but has friends close by – neighbours who pop in frequently. Old Royland, the water diviner is one.

“No boats today. Yes, one. Royland was out, fishing for muskie, seventy-four years old this year, Royland. Eyesight terrible, but he was too stubborn to wear glasses. A marvel that he could go on working. Of course, his work did not depend upon eyesight. Some other kind of sight. A water diviner. Morag always felt she was about to learn something of great significance from him, something which would explain everything. But things remained mysterious, his work, her own, the generations, the river.”

The story moves back and forth between Morag’s present – where she struggles with her work and her relationship with her daughter, and the past as she grows up more and more desperate to escape the town of Manawaka.

Morag Gunn wasn’t born in Manawaka – her parents died when she was just five years old – and she goes to live in Manawaka with an army friend of her father’s and his wife – who agree to take the orphaned child in. Christy Logan and his wife Prin (short for Princess) are an odd choice as guardians for such a young child. Morag has never lived in town before – it all seems very strange – and she has never met Christy and Prin before she is taken there by a neighbour. Christy is the town scavenger – he spends his days at the nuisance grounds (the town tip) he gets rid of the things people don’t want – a keeper of secrets, and a finder of things. His wife Prin is an enormously large woman, who stays mainly in the house.

“‘She’ll be alright Christie,’ the Big Fat Woman says. ‘She gotta get used to us. Leave her be, now’
‘I was only trying, for God’s sake, woman,’ sounding mad.
‘You want to see your room, Morag?’ the woman says.
She nods. They mount the stairs, the woman going very slow because fat. The room is hers, this one? A thin bed, a green dresser, a window with a (oh – ripped, shame on them) lace curtain. A little room. You might be safe in a place like that, if it was really yours. If they meant it.”

Christy and Prin are kind people – and though Morag is often slightly ashamed of them – in the way children are when their adults are so obviously different to other children’s – she becomes used to them. Christy is a good teller of tales – stories that Morag carries with her – she is both fascinated and repelled by his life at the nuisance grounds (I shall forever now, think of a rubbish dump as the nuisance grounds). However, as Morag grows up – she becomes more and more dissatisfied with life in Manawaka, knowing that when the time is right, she will break away.

Morag is made tough by this strange life in the prairie town. It is here in Manawaka though as a teenager that Morag first meets Jules Tonnerre, (nickname Skinner), Jules and his family are outsiders, Métis living on the outskirts of town, they are subject to all the usual prejudices. While Jules is away at the war, Morag a junior reporter on the town newspaper is sent to report on the fire at the Tonnerre home, where Jules’ sister and her children are killed. It is a scene that will haunt them both over the coming years.

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Morag does leave Manakawa – she goes to college where she meets new friends and lovers, marries the wrong man and longs for a child. One day, she meets up with Jules again, though their relationship is never destined to be conventional, she takes the chance to break away one more time.

Laurence’s characters are wonderfully memorable – her storytelling is rich and poignantly written. My first novel of the month will be one that is hard to beat. I don’t think it matters that I am reading these books slightly out of order, but I am looking forward to reading The Fire Dwellers even more now.

Tales from the tbr

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As the year starts drawing towards Christmas, I have to stop buying books – it is obviously not easy for me. However, buying books for other people does help to scratch the itch. The Librarything Virago group have a lovely Christmas gift exchange – which naturally involves books. I am currently enjoying selecting and buying books for the person whose name I drew. It’s one of the gifts I enjoy buying most each year.

So, the latest books to come into my house (that are for me) could be seen as my last hurrah for the year.

Some second-hand book shopping while I was away in Devon at half term yielded these lovely books.

Blind Messenger by Joanna Cannan (1941)– a bit of a rare find I thought, so I sort of took a chance on it. I loved Princes of the Land published by Persephone, and I have High Table by her tbr – Liz read it and liked but didn’t love it I seem to remember. I could really do with the print being larger – but beggars can’t be choosers – I will need to turn on all the lights when I finally read it.

Mrs Reinhardt and other stories by Edna O’Brien (1978)– I have often thought I haven’t read enough Edna O’Brien – and I do love short stories. I actually have another Edna O’Brien book tbr that I shall most likely be reading soon for my ACOB.

Mary O’Grady by Mary Lavin (1950) – a green virago I didn’t have – the story of a woman’s life, and motherhood in Dublin in the first part of the twentieth century.

The Ante-room by Kate O’Brien (1934) – a modern virago – set in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. I haven’t read Kate O’Brien yet – though I do have another of her novels on my tbr bookcase. I must say this does look very good.

Before going away, I started ruminating on Katherine Mansfield – I saw something on line about her which got me thinking. It ended in predictable fashion – I went looking for books.

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The Aloe – by Katherine Mansfield (1930) her only novel – well novella really – was later reworked to become her famous short story Prelude. She wrote The Aloe to capture her recollection of childhood. I have been wanting to get to know Katherine Mansfield better for a long time, I read The Montana Stories earlier this year – ever since when, I have had this yearning for more. Well I haven’t been able to fit more in to my A Century of Books – but I am planning on reading this very soon after I complete the challenge.

You may remember me posting about the lovely Second Shelf books – well despite their website not being completely up and running yet (you can’t shop from it just yet) I managed to order myself two reasonably priced Katherine Mansfield first editions. The arrived wrapped up like little presents (they were presents to myself!) and I was delighted with the look and feel of these books by an author I first read a few years ago but fell properly in love with earlier this year. So, I bought The Collected Stories (1945) and The Doves Nest (1923) I have already read a lot of the stories in these two books, but I will want to read them again one day, whether I should read first editions I never really know, probably collectors would say not to (I do sometimes read my first editions – though I don’t have many – books are for reading – aren’t they?)

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I have now ordered a surprise first edition from them – which I think get sent out in a couple of weeks. I have seen so many people tweeting their delight with their surprise first editions – that I caved in – surprises are exciting. I am really going to have to rein in the book spending next year – I have gone a bit mad lately – but the joy of books coming through the post is irresistible. I will no doubt let you know what I get when it arrives (I’m calling it my early Christmas present to myself).

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Something else I discovered because of Twitter – was book buddle – I bought one with pretty poppies on, but they come with lots of designs. A good potential Christmas gift too – a padded sleeve to protect your book when you are carrying it around in your bag. I love mine and it has already accompanied me around the city on various buses as well as on my holiday to Devon. A simple but useful idea. How did I manage without one so long?

So, how is your shopping bag for books? Bought anything good recently?

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“Think about waking up one morning and finding you don’t have a voice in anything.”

Vox was chosen by my very small book group as our November read, we don’t actually meet until next Wednesday to discuss it. It will give us, I think, plenty to talk about. Touted as a feminist, dystopian novel for the #Metoo generation – it seemed a pretty good fit for a feminist book group.

The cover has excerpts of reviews from Elle and Prima – ok you can call me a literary snob if you like – but that worried me a little. I was also worried that there might be a tiny bit of band-wagon jumping going on with the claim of it being a re-imagining of The Handmaid’s Tale. It isn’t. Dystopian fiction has become very popular of late – almost everyone is reading, re-reading or watching The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s Gilead is referenced by someone almost on a daily basis when discussing international outrages or abuses of power. Vox fits perfectly into this atmosphere which also brought us another piece of feminist, speculative fiction; in Naomi Alderman’s The Power. Mentioning this novel even in the same breath as The Handmaid’s Tale is very misleading, there is nothing in this novel that will make it a classic – it has neither the wisdom nor the style of Atwood’s masterpiece, it isn’t even written all that well. I hadn’t wanted this review to become a hatchet job, I didn’t entirely hate it – it has a very interesting premise and the story is compelling enough for the reader to fly through it fairly quickly. I am sure lots of people will enjoy it.

“We’re on a slippery slide to prehistory, girls. Think about it. Think about where you’ll be—where your daughters will be—when the courts turn back the clock. Think about words like ‘spousal permission’ and ‘paternal consent.’ Think about waking up one morning and finding you don’t have a voice in anything.”

In an America of the near future, the bible belt has expanded to engulf practically the whole country. The result is that the teachings of the bible, and old-fashioned family values are back on the agenda in a very big way – with people interpreting the gospels in a way which starts to oppress and silence the population – in particular women. There is a new government, a theocracy that wants to turn the American clock back to what is seen as a better time. Women seem to bear the brunt of the blame, they, apparently the reason America has lost its way. In order to get things back on track, all women and girls have been fitted with a metal bracelet which counts every word they speak. If they go over their daily limit of 100 spoken words it delivers an electric shock, the more words over the limit the worse the shocks become. Women have been banned from reading and writing, no longer allowed to work they are confined mainly to their homes. Sign language is banned and with cameras everywhere – even on the eternal doors of private homes – designed to enforce the law. Those caught breaking these laws simply disappear.

It’s not subtle – a bit sledgehammer to crack a nut, I thought. The central character bemoaning her carefree student days when she didn’t vote, didn’t march with her friends – blaming her former apathy for the current regime. For me this is all very over blown – and not entirely convincing.

Jean, a former scientist has spent years researching aphasia, she has now been forced to give up her career and her research. Married to a doctor who advises the government, she has four children, the youngest a six-year-old girl, who has been fitted with the bracelet too. Her eldest son has been horribly influenced by the new regime, and Jean is struggling with who he is starting to become. Home is becoming more and more tense, and Jean is worried about her frightened, silent daughter. Then sinister government men in sleek black cars turn up at her door with an offer which will mean the temporary removal of her bracelet and the chance to carry on her research. Jean finds she will do almost anything to help her daughter.

“Whoever came up with the idea of labelling classified documents with larger-than-life red stencilling that advertises—or at least hints at—the contents was a schmuck, I think. You might as well put a tag that says OPEN ME! on it. If it were up to me, I’d hide all secrets in back copies of Reader’s Digest.”

From here things descend into the region of predictable thriller – (those of you who know me will know how much I dislike modern thrillers) – guns, threats, a bit of extra-marital sex – some clever science (the author has a doctorate in theoretical linguistics) a friend from the past turning up just when we knew she would, and a neatly tidied up ending that is perhaps just a little bit too convenient.

Vox is certainly readable – and I got through it pretty quickly – I wanted to find out what happened – although on that point there is a massive spoiler in the first line of the book. So, while we sort of know where everything is going, we need to wait and find out how we get there. Dalcher’s prose is straightforward – I didn’t find it particularly well written, in fact there is a slight young adult feel to it. I can imagine readers of YA might quite like this one. I think it should really have been much better than it was.

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Read for phase 5 of #ReadingMuriel2018 Symposium is a short, engaging novel with a fairly large cast of characters.

This is a very clever novel, beautifully textured, I loved the way the narrative moves back and forth in time, gradually revealing a little bit more about a group of wealthy, privileged people. It is a novel about what happens when these types of people come together, about the thin veneer of respectability that might exist in such circles. We are though in typical Sparkian territory, and there is also robbery and murder on the agenda and more than a few surprises.

“‘Here in Scotland,’ said Magnus. ‘people are more capable of perpetrating good or evil than anywhere else. I don’t know why it is, but so it is. That gives me an advantage.”

Hurley Reed; an American painter and his partner Chris Donovan a wealthy Australian widow are hosting a dinner party. Hurley and Chris’s dinners are legendary, invitations much sought after, those who are invited will spend time anticipating the menu. Four other couples are to attend the dinner party, and at the beginning of the novel Spark introduces us to them in a way which could be confusing, but isn’t, Spark never allows her reader to be anything else than interested in finding out more about these people.

Lord and Lady Suzy – Lady Helen Suzy is just twenty-two, her husband considerably older, they have only been married about a year. The couple have recently been burgled, while they were asleep upstairs – a fact Lord Suzy is simply outraged about.

Ernst and Ella Untzinger, Ernst is a successful man, involved in the world of international finance. His wife Ella has been looking for a job to keep her busy, the couple have been befriended by Luke a PhD student from the states. Luke is currently moonlighting with a domestic service agency – helping out at posh dinner parties and the like.

Margaret and William Damien are newlyweds. They have recently returned from honeymoon and taken up residence in the London apartment that William’s wealthy Australian mother (a friend of Chris Donovan’s) has bought for them. Margaret is the main protagonist of this novel, a young woman who met and married William within four months.

“The Murchies made their living out of quarrying granite and other stone. They had a well organised small business about which Hilda had found out before she left Australia. Dan Murchie of Murchie & sons, Quarriers and Extractors, Mining Equipment Supplied, was about to retire. But the family business was involved in a sub-contractual way with the Channel Tunnel; and Hilda assumed they needed that sort of money which is necessary to make very much more money. If Margaret had not met William casually in the fruit section of Marks & Spencer’s, she would have suspected, and without rancour, that the Murchies might be after William’s, that was to say, her, money. It was a situation that Hilda could not have it in her to be too sure of, too cynical about. People did fall in love, quite simply.”

With her long red hair – Margaret has the strange habit of arranging herself too look like a pre-Raphaelite painting. William’s mother; Hilda who has just arrived in London is expected to arrive at some point during the evening – however she is rather unavoidably detained, as she is being murdered as the dinner party progresses.

Annabel Treece and Roland Sykes; a TV producer and genealogist are cousins, and the characters we probably get to know the least well. The cousins are close, and it is only Roland’s homosexuality that prevents them being sexually attracted. Roland’s expertise as a genealogist will play a part in unravelling a mystery about one of their fellow guests.

Hurley Reed and Chris Donovan have professional domestic help at their home, their butler Charterhouse is assisted on the evening of the dinner party by the aforementioned Luke. The reader soon realises that there is something about these servants that is rather suspicious. Just how is that Luke is able to sport such an expensive watch, for instance?

It is Margaret Damien (nee Murchie) who remains the most interesting character. Gradually we get to know a little more of her backstory – originally from Scotland, she moved to London and met her husband in the fruit and vegetable section of Marks and Spencer marrying him with almost unseemly haste. Margaret does have the misfortune to having been linked to a couple of suspicious deaths before. She has a particularly close relationship with her rather mad uncle – who spends most of his time locked away in a hospital in Scotland though he is allowed out for a family Sunday lunch once a week. In Margaret’s past there is even a community of Marxist nuns, one of them who is surprisingly quite sweary.

“So it happened that shortly after Margaret Murchie had joined the community as a novice the BBC duly arrived: Miss Jones, a team of five and their cameras. The first thing they did was to change the lighting arrangements in the recreation room and refectory, clobbering through the hall with their unnecessarily stout boots. Sister Marrow appeared in the hallway. ‘What the fucking hell do you think you’re doing?’ she enquired of the chief cameraman, who was immediately joined protectively by the other four technicians.”

You never know what you’re going to get from Muriel Spark, and her nuns in Symposium are a comic delight. There are plenty more surprises before everything falls into place. This is a darkly, sophisticated novel, and I completely loved it.