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family money

Family Money; Nina Bawden’s 1991 novel is the kind of novel that I think Nina Bawden does particularly well. A novel of family, concerning money, old age and the battle for independence, it’s one which feels very topical still.

London, and a huge spike in property prices means that houses bought many years earlier are now worth a small fortune. As the novel opens, a group of friends gathered together for dinner, discuss the possibilities that the properties owned now by their respective mothers could afford them.

Bawden’s characters do tend to come from the upper middle classes – though like Bawden herself, many of them also have a social conscience or left-wing sensibilities. One of the peripheral characters in Family Money is a labour peer – while another is a working class, daily housekeeper who has always dreamt of owning her own home, coveting the security it would give her, for the first time in her life.

Fanny Pye, Harry and Isobel’s mother – owns a large house backing on to the canal. Bought years earlier when Fanny and her husband returned from ambassadorial duties abroad – it is now a potential goldmine. Now, her husband is dead, and Fanny is living alone quite ably. Still active she thinks nothing of dining alone at her favourite restaurant, where she is well known, and walking home through the dark precinct lost in her own thoughts and memories.

“Lonely suddenly, she turned from the window and marched sturdily through the rest of the precinct towards the road at the end; not a main road, but a wide one that was always lined with parked cars and busy at night, especially around the time the pubs closed. They must be closing now, Fanny thought, hearing car doors slam, voices shouting. She had not thought it was quite so late.”

When Fanny intervenes in a street brawl late one night she is hospitalised and briefly struggles to remember the most basic things. Fanny is horrified when she forgets her daughter-in-law – and feeling suddenly horribly vulnerable she does her best to cover up her memory lapses in front of her family.

“She didn’t feel fine. She felt papery. The word came into her head, unsought for, unbidden. While Ivy settled her in the comfortable Victorian chair in the ground floor room – Daniel’s study, that was her study now – she puzzled over its origin. If her mind was going to play tricks on her, she must learn how to deal with them. If she could trace the source of each random thought, hold tight to the thread that wound through the labyrinth, then she would be in control again, not at the mercy of her own mind bent on mischief. ‘Papery,’ she said aloud, but speaking softly so that Ivy, on her way down to the basement kitchen, would not hear her. The word was flimsy on her dry tongue. Crumpled. Tissue paper. Smooth tissue paper between the folds of silk dresses. Flat. One-dimensional.”

Fanny is allowed home, most of her memory has returned but frighteningly she still can’t remember exactly what happened that evening, when a man died. Her family think she should sell up and move somewhere smaller – but Fanny doesn’t think quite the same as they do about property and inheritance. Some of her ideas shock Harry and Isabel, who worry about showing their concern, should anyone think them mercenary.

Following her return from hospital, Fanny’s niece Rebecca moves in to the top floor. Fanny slowly attempts to return to normal, the shadow of that evening hanging over her. As Fanny stands at her bedroom window she sees a young man standing on one of the houseboats on the canal who always seems to be staring straight at her house. Fanny finds herself becoming oddly drawn to the young man from the houseboats, after running into him at the library, what is it about him that has made her begin to feel so uneasy one minute, while finding him friendly and neighbourly the next.

Nina Bawden combines the tense uncertainty of a thriller with a wonderfully astute novel of family. Fanny might well be my favourite Nina Bawden character to date. As Fanny struggles with feelings of over whelming fear, she has to make decisions about her future – as her family continue to let her know exactly what they think she should do. In the midst of all this Fanny runs into an old friend, who she and her sister used to call Dumbo.

There is also a lovely (slightly ambiguous) twist, right at the end which I thought was rather brilliant. All in all, Family Money is a really excellent Bawden novel.

The Librarything Virago group have chosen to read novels by Nina Bawden during September – I ws pleased by the selection as I already like her writing very much. I was hoping to read another before the end of the month but as September is turning out to be a very slow reading month indeed – I have no idea if I will get another squeezed in.

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I have (new) bookcases!

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Apologies to those of you, who follow me on Twitter, and who have already been subjected to some of these pictures, but I couldn’t resist sharing my new bookcases with you.

bookcase

Now I don’t have a large house – it’s a very modest mid-terrace – but there is only me in it – and I do have more bookcases than many people. I am aware that there are houses that boast no bookcases – I can’t quite understand what that must be like.

Currently I have two bookcases in my living room, two bookcases in my dining room, and two bookcases in the spare room. I don’t have room for a bookcase in my bedroom, though I do keep a kindle and two or three collections of short stories in the bedside cabinet – just in case.

Except for the tbr shelves on the bookcase in my living room I organise my books mainly by publisher or type. So, I have  all the VMCs together, vintage hardbacks take up a couple of shelves, l have a small collection of clothbound classics, some of those Vintage’s red spine editions and some Agatha Christie first editions, they all have a place somewhere in the house, and I usually know exactly where a book is.

Agatha christie firsts

The two bookcases in the dining room, house my Persephone and old green VMC editions – the ones I’ve read – there are more on the tbr bookcase. I try to be selective I only buy ones I think I want to read, and if there is one I don’t like or can’t finish I am less likely to keep it. The VMC and Persephone books had outgrown their bookcases and I needed ones that my collections could grow into.

So, I asked a handyman who recently did some other work for me to quote me for making two bookcases to fit the alcoves either side of my fireplace in the dining room. He built them in his work shop and brought them over to fit last Saturday, and here they are – with the books back on out of the way.

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They are made from MDF – no doubt proper wood would have been prohibitively expensive – but I think they look great. I shall be getting them stained/painted in the next few weeks – but love the look of them even as they are. The empty spaces are calling to me to fill them – still it is nice to have room on my bookcases again. Perhaps I will move some hardbacks on to one, from the shelves in the living room to fill a gap – I haven’t decided yet.

Whatever I decide – I shall enjoy playing around with my books. You may find it hard to believe but I am trying to get rid of some books (not the special editions) I went through the bookcase upstairs a few days ago and took about twelve books off which will find their way on to the table at this year’s bookcrossing Unconvention.

How do you organise your books? Organised in some special way? or are they gloriously randomised?

quick curtain

For several years I have had the idea that theatres are particularly good settings for murder stories. I suspect that idea was firmly planted in my mind by the Ngaio Marsh novels Opening Night and Enter a Murder. Admittedly Opening Night and Enter a Murderer may be the only murder mysteries set in the theatre that I had previously read, but still the idea persisted. So Quick Curtain has been on my radar for ages, and I was looking forward to it enormously. I was setting myself up for disappointment, really wasn’t I?

Don’t misunderstand me, I did enjoy Quick Curtain, the tone was not what I was expecting (more of that later) and at first, I was concerned that the plot seemed so obvious it is almost by the by (I should have had more faith). Still it was all very enjoyable and there is a lovely little twist (which I did eventually begin to see coming, but is non-the less brilliant). A bright, breezy, slightly tongue in cheek mystery – which I can see many people enjoying. However, if you only read one murder mystery set in a theatre make it Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh (my favourite of those two) once you have done that – if you find yourself in the mood for a second – Quick Curtain will probably do the job. (oh, yes, I know Ngaio Marsh wrote other theatre novels I just haven’t read the others).

Wikipedia describes Alan Melville as follows: an English broadcaster, writer, actor, raconteur, producer, playwright and wit. Certainly, his knowledge of the theatre and his wit is very much in evidence in his novel Quick Curtain, and it makes for a lovely quick piece of escapism. Dorothy L Sayers said of Melville that he ‘Blows the solemn structure of the detective novel sky high…’ He does do that certainly, I really hadn’t expected the light fizzing, satirical tone, but once I got used to that I began to enjoy the book more.

Douglas B Douglas is a leading light in London theatre – and a master at promotion. Such is the buzz created about his latest show, that the extravaganza Blue Music is an assured hit even before it opens. Melville gives a wonderful little glimpse of the theatre star groupies who even in 1934 it seems were apt to queue for days outside the stage door.

“Tuesday, June 18th, you will have noticed, was the great day. On Sunday, June 16th, when most of the Blue Music company were still in Manchester and finding out the truth of all those jests about the provincial Sabbath, seven grim females parked seven rickety camp stools outside the gallery entrance of the Grosvenor Theatre.
They were joined a little later in the evening by four more female and a lone male. They unpacked sandwiches and munched. They uncorked thermos flasks and drank hot coffee out of the aluminium tops of the flasks. They discussed with one another Mr. Douglas, Miss Astle, Mr. Baker, Mr. Douglas’s past successes, Miss Astle’s last divorce, Mr. Baker’s profile – both the port and the starboard view. They half slept. They suffered endless agonies on their stupid unreliable campstools; they each contracted stiff necks and shooting pains in the lower reaches of the spine; they were photographed for their pains by a man in a dirty waterproof and appeared on the back page of the Daily Post under the title ‘Gallery Enthusiasts’ three day wait for New Douglas Show’. They were still there on Tuesday morning, proudly in the van of a fair sized queue.”

The show gets under way with its two big stars Brandon Baker and Gwen Astle, and the audience are lapping it up, when Act two delivers something very unexpected. During a key moment of the action the star Brandon Baker is shot in front of a bemused audience who don’t at first realise that anything is wrong. In the audience is Inspector Wilson of Scotland Yard, and his journalist son Derek. Inspector Wilson takes charge, and during the next frantic minutes of upset and confusion another member of the cast is found dead. It seems to be a tragic case of murder followed by suicide. Though is it? It soon transpires that the gun used in the show was replaced at the last minute, and Inspector Wilson makes an interesting discovery in the proscenium.

Derek offers his services as assistant to his father – in return for the exclusive story – and so it is, that the two begin their unconventional investigations. There is a light, bantering tone between father and son, hiding a deep affection for one another, at times it is a little reminiscent of Wodehouse.

“ ‘Toss,’ said Derek. ‘It’s the only satisfactory way of settling anything in this house. Got half a crown on you?’
‘Why half a crown?’ asked Mr Wilson, producing the coin named.
‘It’s much the best coin for tossing,’ said Derek. ‘Now, listen. Heads you go to the funeral, tails I do. Heads you give me a two-column report of the farewell performance for the Gazette. Tails you give me a half page verbatim account of what happened at the inquest. Heads I tell you anything that I heard at the inquest that might be in your line. Tails I tell you if I’ve seen anyone behaving suspicious-like at the graveside. Understand?’
‘Not a word of it,’ said Mr Wilson. ‘But never mind. Toss.’

Father and son compete rather, to see who can uncover the truth. How likely it is, that a Scotland Yard Inspector would allow his journalist son to trail around after him, attending the inquest and generally snooping around, doesn’t really matter, as a duo Wilson Jnr and Snr are highly entertaining. Derek is written with a touch of real comedy. His attempts at going under cover, sending cryptic telegrams back to his father, is really very funny. I really can’t say much more about the plot without giving too much away – but the ending is very satisfactorily unexpected – though as I said I did guess part of it.

These British Library Crime Classics continue to provide wonderful Golden age escapism. I can’t help but love a world where a hapless investigator sends telegrams rather than text messages.

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Bookish Miscellany

Things have been pretty busy for me this week what with work and two evenings out – so I haven’t had chance to get any more book reviews written. It happens like that sometimes.

jane eyre

One of those evenings – just last night actually was a theatre production of Jane Eyre at Birmingham Rep. theatre. Many of you may know how much I love Jane Eyre, I have read it four times, the first when I was just eleven, (I wonder now what I got from it then) most recently in 2013. Jane has always had a very special place in my heart – so of course I was a little worried about how the book I loved would adapt to the stage. I looked around the packed theatre and saw dozens of secondary school kids all in uniform, I wondered how many would bypass the book entirely and just use the play for their studies – the idea saddened me a bit (but perhaps I am being cynical).

To be honest the first five minutes I was a little unsure – but then I was drawn in beautifully, hooked by the story I know so well.

The staging was unusual. A stark wooden stage with several walkways and levels, ladders leading from one section to the next, all set against a monochrome background. It actually works wonderfully well, there is a fantastic energy to the whole production. The actor playing Jane is superb – a strong Yorkshire accent which I loved (so much more authentic than some TV/film adaptations) the production focuses on Jane’s development into a feisty, spirited young woman with a brain and deeply held convictions. Many of Charlotte Bronte’s words are used, Jane’s best speeches remain almost intact – I bet I wasn’t alone in wanting to stand up and cheer when Jane makes her automaton speech. Throughout the play the actors are accompanied by a small group of musicians at key points in the drama, particularly noteworthy is a fabulous bluesy singer who I could have listened to on her own all night. Her presence no way intrudes – it might sound odd – yet she beautifully compliments the action.

I believe the production finishes in Birmingham tomorrow – but I understand it is on tour – so if you get the chance to see it – do!

Back to actual books – and I will be reviewing again in a day or two I promise.
It almost goes without saying that I have been buying and acquiring books again (sigh) – as always, I do love to share them with you.

Some of these I got a few weeks ago, a few more in the last few days. Here they are in all their glory.

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Three weeks by Elinor Glyn, I found in a charity shop – which when I posted a picture of it on Twitter I was told was pretty terrible, so not sure how long before I get around to reading that.

Madame de Treymes by Edith Wharton, I already have a couple of large Wharton novels tbr – but seeing this book on a book stall in Devon for £1, I couldn’t walk away.

Luminous Isle by Eliot Bliss was sent to me by Karen – thank you again, following my read of Saraband, I am really looking forward to this autobiographical novel.

Scarweather by Anthony Rolls a BLCC edition that I happened upon when I was on holiday.

Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood I ordered after watching the recent Imagine programme on BBC – and  the week after I read Stone Mattress a fantastic collection that I galloped through.

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans sent out to book bloggers who asked and I asked – it looked like something I might be in the mood for this month.

Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar (NYRB edition) – I bought on a whim, I am frequently guilty of idle clicking away – this book had appeared in my Goodreads recommended and I weakly succumbed, never having heard of it before.

Living by Henry Green (NKRB edition) is a novel I have wanted to read for ages. I think I have it in an omnibus edition but I never seem to manage to read novels when they are part of big omnibus editions so I am on a mission to replace my Henry Green omnibus with single volumes. (I have two other NYRB editions on Pre-order- Magda Szabo’s Katlin Street and Elizabeth Hardwick Essays)

Midwinter by Fiona Melrose is a novel I have heard a lot of great things about. I had meant to buy a copy a while ago – but now it’s out in paperback I finally managed it.

A friend from Twitter sent me A Virago Keepsake – which came out sometime ago, but as it contains pieces by many of the writers I love it is right up my street.

Have you read any of these? And have any of you got the new Jane Austen ten pound note yet? I can’t wait to get my first one.

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nights at the circus

I’m sitting here wondering – where on earth do I start. Nights at the Circus is a riotous, exuberant novel. Bawdy, literary and fantastically imagined, it almost defies description. There were moments when I was held utterly enthralled, and others when I thought – “what on earth?” Overall, I loved it, though not quite as much as The Magic Toyshop and Wise Children.

Angela Carter introduces to a colourful, late nineteenth century world that is amazing, implausible and filled with stories.

Sophie Fevvers (generally called just Fevvers) is a larger than life Cockney aerialiste, the star of Colonel Kearney’s circus, her fame has spread across the world. For Fevvers is part woman, – an impressively bosomed blonde, standing over six-foot-high – and part swan with an impressive wing span. It is 1899, and in her dressing room at the Alhambra Music Hall theatre in London, Fevvers entertains Jack Walser; an American journalist, who has arrived in London to interview Fevvers. Is Fevvers really part woman, part swan, or is she a fake? Jack is determined to discover the truth about who Fevvers is.

“At close quarters, it must be said that she looked more like a dray mare than an angel. At six feet two in her stockings, she would have to give Walser a couple of inches in order to match him and, though they she was ‘divinely tall,’ there was, off-stage, not much of the divine about her unless there were gin palaces in heaven where she might preside behind the bar. Her face, broad and oval as a meat dish, had been thrown on a common wheel out of coarse clay; nothing subtle about her appeal, which was just as well if she were to function as the democratically elected divinity of the imminent century of the common man.”

The first part of the novel – definitely my favourite section – is Fevvers long raucous account of her life up to that point. In the midst of chaotically strewn costumes, empty champagne bottles and greasepaint Fevvers delights in holding court. Alongside Fevvers in her dressing room that night is Lizzie, a tiny, rough diamond of a little woman, a former prostitute, who has been with Fevvers since babyhood. Every now and then Lizzie cuts in with a story or two of her own, but in essence this first one hundred pages or so is Fevvers story – and alongside it we have the stories of numerous other colourful fantastic creations. These include Ma Nelson, the madam of a brothel, Madame Schreck the owner of a freak show, Toussint her servant born without a mouth and the various inhabitants of these establishments that include a sleeping beauty.

“She sleeps. And now she wakes each day a little less. And, each day, takes less and less nourishment, as if grudging the least moment of wakefulness, for, from the movement under her eyelids, and the somnolent gestures of her hands and feet, it seems as if her dreams grow more urgent and intense, as if the life she lives in the closed world of dreams is now about to possess her utterly, as if her small, increasingly reluctant wakenings were an interpretation of some more vital existence, so she is loath to spend even those necessary moments of wakefulness with us, wakings strange as her sleepings. Her marvellous fate – a sleep more lifelike than the living, a dream which consumes the world.
‘And, sir,’ concluded Fevvers, in a voice that now took on the sombre, majestic tones of a great organ, ‘we do believe . . . her dream will be the coming century.
‘And, oh, God . . . how frequently she weeps!”

nights at the circus2Fevvers shows him (and us) her incredible wings – recounts the story of their emergence and how she learned how to use them, it is a story of extraordinary aerodynamics touched with just a little magic. Big Ben strikes, and time seems to stand still, as Jack is drawn deeper into the stories of Fevvers – who never shies away from discussing, quite frankly, the seedier side of life. Belching, farting and directing Jack to just use the chamber pot behind the screen in her room, she is utterly irrepressible – and Jack is completely floored by her.

As the long night of revelations and fabulous stories end, Jack follows Fevvers and Lizzie out into the London streets, and as Jack walks back to his lodgings he knows he can’t just leave it there. So, Jack arranges to run away with the Circus and follows Fevvers, Lizzie and the rest of Colonel Kearney’s fantastic troupe to St. Petersburg – and then, on to Siberia.

Now, we get to meet the rest of the circus, and what a fantastic bunch they are! There is sibyl – Colonel Kearney’s pet pig, intelligent clairvoyant, the Colonel often asks her for advice. A troupe of chimpanzees headed up by The Professor – who make a bid for freedom. Tiger tamer, Princess of Abyssinia, the strong man, an abusive monkey trainer – whose cowed wife Mignon frees herself from him, transformed in time into a beautiful singer and who falls in love with the Princess. Buffo, the leader of the clowns – who Jack joins in his bid to follow Fevvers wherever she may go. From St Petersburg the Circus travels toward Japan via Siberia, where in the frozen, snowy wastes the Colonel’s circus encounter adventure, abductors, female murderers and Russian fur traders.

It is testament to Angela Carter’s skill as a storyteller that all these characters work so well. Not everything is quite as it seems, neither us nor Jack is ever really sure what is real and what mere illusion. Fevvers, real or fake – is an extraordinary lovable survivor – and the reader just wills her to be happy.

 “We must all make do with the rags of love we find flapping on the scarecrow of humanity.”

I read Nights at the Circus quite quickly speeding through it in three or four days, it is hard to put down, though for me the middle section sagged a bit – and I longed to be back in Fevvers’ dressing room. Though the story picks up pace again as we find ourselves in Siberia. Nights at the Circus might not work so well had it been written by a lesser writer, but in Angela Carter’s hands it is an exuberant, romp of memorable characters and impossible things.

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It seems I am a little behind, the 10th of September and I am only just reviewing my final book of August.

The Vet’s Daughter is only the second book by Barbara Comyns that I’ve read, the other being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, which is a wonderfully quirky, slightly sad little book. Comyns is an interesting writer, her prose is very readable, deceptively simple, yet her stories are visionary and unusual, combining realism and a little surrealism. As a reader one detects a sparkling, lively imagination. Having read the author’s own introduction this Virago edition, I think I can see where this strange slightly out of kilter world comes from.

“I was born in Warwickshire in a house on the banks of the Avon and was one of six children. Our father was a semi-retired managing director of a midland chemical firm. He was an impatient, violent man, alternately spoiling and frightening us. Our mother was many years younger and lived the life of an invalid most of the time. I remember her best lying in a shaded hammock on the lawns, reading and eating cherries, which she was inordinately fond of, or in the winter sitting by the morning-room fire and opening and shutting her hands before the blaze as if to store the heat. Her pet monkey sitting on the fender would be doing the same.”
(Barbara Comyns in her introduction to The Vet’s Daughter 1980)

I loved the opening of the novel, which serves to pull the reader immediately into the world of Alice Rowlands, our unforgettable narrator.

“A man with small eyes and ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need of me to say and I saw he was a poor broken down creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee caps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, ‘You must excuse me.’ And left this poor man among the privet hedges.”

Alice is of course the vet’s daughter of the title, and her home life is dominated by her father, a cruel bullying man subject to sudden rages of temper. Alice by comparison to her father is a gentle innocent, her mother cowed by her marriage is very sick, and we know immediately she won’t last long, and Alice will be left alone with her unpredictable father. The house has a dark, sinister atmosphere – and when (on page 6) her father sells a sack of furry creatures – brought to him to be destroyed – to a vivisectionist, the reader can be in no doubt about what kind of man Alice’s father is. Alice’s life is lonely, restrictively dull and uneducated. She longs for romance – for a different life away from her father.

“Some day I’ll have a baby with frilly pillows and men much grander than my father will open shop doors to me – both doors at once. Perhaps…”

The only kind person in the vet’s house following Alice’s mother’s death is Mrs Churchill, who works as cook, and with whom Alice spends more and more time. While Alice’s father is away for a few weeks the business of the vet’s surgery is taken care of by Henry Peebles, the first ever man to treat Alice with kindness and consideration. Alice calls him Blinkers to herself, and starts to meet him in secret after her father’s return.

Her father arrived home with a young blonde woman in tow; Rose Fisher – a barmaid from The Trumpet – Mrs Churchill is scandalised by the appearance of a woman she renames ‘the strumpet from the Trumpet.’ Rose claims she will be Mr Rowland’s housekeeper but it seems no one believes that little bit of deception for a second. Rose is an over confident, blowsy young woman, who soon at home at the vet’s house, seeks to re-make young Alice in her own image.

Alice is briefly rescued from her life with her father – by going to live as companion to Henry Peebles’ mother in the countryside. Mrs Peebles is marooned in her own home – terrified of the two servants who run her house to suit their own needs. Alice and Mrs Peebles become friends and Alice is determined to get Henry to dispense with the services of the sinister couple.

“In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor. I could feel nothing below me – and nothing above until I came near the ceiling and it was hard to breathe there. I thought “I mustn’t break the gas glove”. I felt it carefully with my hands, and something very light fell in them, and it was the broken mantle. I kept very still up there because I was afraid of breaking other things in that small crowded room; but quite soon, it seemed, I was gently coming down again. I folded my hands over my chest and kept very straight, and floated down to the couch where I’d been lying. I was not afraid, but very calm and peaceful. In the morning I knew it wasn’t a dream because the blankets were still on the floor and I saw the gas mantle was broken and the chalky powder was still on my hands.”

Alice’s world has been one of constant shocks, and during this turmoil Alice has discovered she a has strange ability – levitation – which over the coming months she practises with. It isn’t long before more change comes – this time to Mrs Peebles’ house, and Alice is obliged to return home to her father. When Mr Rowlands and Rose learn about Alice’s strange ability they seek to exploit it. Alice’s destiny leading to an extraordinary, and probably inevitable moment on Clapham Common.

I really loved this novel, and I am certainly determined to read more – I have a copy of Who was Changed and Who was Dead tbr.

barbara comyns

an unrestored woman

So just days after reviewing Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood – I have another collection of short stories to tell you about. An Unrestored Woman a very powerful collection, first published last year in the USA, this new paperback edition apparently timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Partition of the India into what is became the separate nations of India and Pakistan – perhaps that is a coincidence though I suspect not.

“We leave. We leave the places we’re born, the places we’re meant to die, and we wander into the world as defenceless as children. Against such wilderness, such desert.”

For all the stories in this collection take the ramifications of Partition as their theme. However, not all the stories take place in 1947 – in fact Shobha Rao’s stories show how the effects of Partition continued to be felt many, many years after the events surrounding Partition itself.

There are twelve stories in An Unrestored Woman, six pairs of linked stories. This pairing of stories is particularly clever, allowing us an alternative viewpoint – the two halves creating a more complex whole across the two stories. Shobhan Rao writes beautifully of displacement, love, ambitious seduction and revenge. Characters commit murder, take on cross gender identities, embark upon perilous journeys and suffer horrible abuses. I found many of the male characters to be either thoroughly unpleasant or cowardly weak. It is probably unsurprising that it is generally women and children who suffer the worst abuses, rape, coercion and abduction feature. I didn’t find Rao’s writing to be in any way gratuitous – there was a sensitive, understanding to her depiction of these terrible events – an honesty.

In these stories; we meet women trapped into early marriages with men who treat them as objects. Those sold into the sex industry, and the unrestored women who having been abducted during the violent upheaval of Partition – are forcibly returned to the homes where they are no longer wanted. We meet a child who makes a miraculous escape when a train is attacked, an elderly man with dementia confusing the past with the present. A woman in 1990s America meets an elderly Englishman who served in India during Partition, and a young man working for the Indian Geographical Society, takes the opportunity to advance his romantic aspirations when he goes to a village to survey the border between India and East Pakistan.

“He returned an hour later and told her he’s secured passage for her on a bus headed for a nearby camp. It was set up by the Indian government, he said.
‘For what?’ she asked
‘For items that are useless.’ He said ‘Like you’”

The collection opens with the title story An Unrestored Woman in which Neela, believing the husband she never cared for is dead, finds herself briefly in a camp for ‘Refugees and Unrestored Women’. Here Neela meets Renu, and for the short time they are together, the two are inseparable. In The Merchant’s Mistress, Renu is an ambitious servant, seducing both her master and mistress, on her way to a better life.

Jenkins working for the Imperial Police in the story of the same name, finds himself falling dangerously in love. Fifty years later we meet Jenkins again working as an apartment building doorman in the US, in Unleashed. A young woman turns to drink when she uncovers a terrible betrayal. In her misery, she recalls her childhood and adolescence in the company of her sister.

Blindfold tells the devastating story of a child stolen for the sex industry and the carefully plotted revenge the girl visits upon the cruel madam who has held her hostage for years. In the The Lost Ribbon, we have a Hindu woman ‘recovered’ from her Pakistani captor, who makes an unbelievably appalling decision.

A young cartographer in The Opposite of Sex, is desperate to marry the daughter of a wealthy local man, he realises that moving the dividing line between what will soon be East Pakistan and India through the village, he can effectively ruin the father of the girl he dreams of marrying, and so improve his own chances of winning her. Many years later, that young man’s boss Alok Debnath is now an elderly man suffering from dementia in Such a mighty river. As Alok goes in search of a local prostitute whose services he has used regularly, his mind keeps returning to the past when he was first married to his beloved late wife. Unknown to him, Alok is vulnerable and in danger.

“My wife comes into the room, shutting out the sun as she closes the door, and lays the wad of bills on the table in front of me. I can’t look at her. I want to feel shame but I only feel a thin pleasure, like a fine layer of skin, puckered and white and soulless, floating on cooling milk. On another shore, perhaps, the desert has an ashen end; and forests are merely silent folded wings. On that shore poverty doesn’t have an animal stink. And when we touch the face of another, we draw onto their skin a moonlit path, and not the metallic rust of our weakness and our fear.”

During the upheaval of Partition, a married couple embark upon a journey to Mirpur Khas in The Road to Mirpur Khas. The impractical, naïve husband frequently annoys his much sharper wife. Having had the meagre store of money stolen on the road the wife is forced to prostitute herself to aid their journey and their very survival. In the The Memsahib, set I think some years before the events of 1947, a young sweeper becomes obsessed with the imperious daughter of the British family in whose home he and his mother serve. When his attentions are shrugged away, he decides upon a peculiar and terrible revenge.

In Kavitha and Mustafa, a train packed with refugees is attacked, the passengers robbed and beaten, a Hindu woman and a Muslim boy manage to escape by helping one another is a desperate bid to survive. In Curfew, the granddaughter of that boy – now grown up, and living in Britain – goes on holiday with her husband. The couple are still struggling with a terrible grief, their marriage itself at risk.

There is a relentlessness to these stories, but there is also a lot that is beautifully observed and compellingly told. Rao is never sentimental, there is an honesty to her stories which goes some way to telling the rich, complex story of two historically and geographically linked countries.

shobha rao